Desktop Madness Vol. 41

The music from “katamari Damacy” is addictive, and so are the desktop wallpapers based on it. LONELY ROLLING STAR!!!

Whenever I see these wallpapers, I just hear the music in my head… “KATAMARI DAMACY!!!!!!!”

Quite possibly the weirdest game I’ve ever played – and at the same time, the most addictive and fun.

Oh, and if you have the chance – get the soundtrack to this game. It’s GREAT. 😉

I Love Katamari

I know I’m a bit late, but I finally picked up Katamari Damacy for the PS2. And I must say – I know now what all the fuss was about when this game originally came out.

It is startlingly addictive – and fun in ways I didn’t think games could be fun anymore.

I’ve written before about why I don’t play games as much as I used to, but Katamari Damacy is the exception to the rule. It is one hella-fun game!

You may not hear from me for a while because of this!

Why I Don’t Play Newer Games (Mostly)

It is a (sad?) fact that I play far, far fewer games than I used to.

Suffice to say, there were thousands upon thousands of games available for my Atari 7800. Ditto for my original Nintendo (NES) and Super Nintendo (SNES). And when I owned those systems, I had pretty large libraries of games – certainly larger than I have now – and there were always more games I wanted (but had to wait for birthdays/Christmas… hey, games were expensive!).

I’m going to come back to the SNES later on, so if you don’t know what it is or what it looked like, go look it up now. It’s OK – I’ll wait.

When I got into college, the gaming scene was filled with things like the original Playstation (PS1) and the Nintendo 64 (N64). This was the beginning of the end for me – which at first glance seems a little backwards. I mean, I was an adult now and had a job and money to buy the games I could never afford on my own as a kid, and I still liked playing games – so what gives?

This is going to start a lot of flame wars I’m sure, but I boil it down to one simple thing: too many buttons.

Look back at the controller for the SNES. A directional pad and 4 primary buttons. (The shoulder buttons were used rarely, by comparison, and Start and Select don’t count.) Simple. Elegant. And, perhaps more importantly, it’s what I grew up on. All button pressing was done with the tips of the thumbs – all of your other fingers were just to hold the controller.

Jump forward to the PS1 and things get a little bit more complex – now there are 2 sets of shoulder buttons, but more or less the layout is the same. I liked the PS1, and still play games from it to this day.

Now look at the N64 (a system I never owned, but played in college). Look at that controller. It’s got: a directional pad, a joystick, 4 “C” buttons, A and B buttons, two shoulder buttons and a trigger button underneath. You can hold it with your hand in 2 different ways – it has those 3 “prongs” so you can hold either the directional pad or the joystick. And since the games that came out for the N64 were all trying to do revolutionary things with 3-D, they all tended to use all of those buttons.

Think about what that means.

Now, sure, you could just say “suck it up and learn the new controls,” but you could also say the same thing about computer user interfaces (a topic which I am very familiar with and very vocal on). Now, has the shape of a mouse changed much in the last 10 years? Or the layout of menus or window controls? Not very much, if at all.

But for game consoles? The PS2 came along and gave us 2 joysticks! Both of which are also buttons! And don’t even get me started on things like the GameCube, the XBox, the XBox360, or the PS3. (The Nintendo Wii is a refreshing breeze amongst all these game systems – a simple controller! But one that has an inherent power and flexibility… more on that later.)

The bottom line is, playing games that use more than a few buttons quickly becomes tedious and difficult for me. I just don’t have the time, patience, or I guess dexterity to learn to use my thumbs, forefingers, and middle fingers (on both hands) at the same time while trying to hold an oddly shaped, vibrating controller in my hands.

The user interface for these games is just too complex/difficult.

Especially now that games are so realistic. It just takes a lot of mental effort to remember that the realistic looking character on the screen will only open a door when you press L2 (with your left middle finger) while steering him with your left thumb. I mean, c’mon!

As games become more and more complex, and more and more immersive, the user interface to these games (the controller) is going to have to evolve – and that doesn’t mean fancy boomerang shapes and more buttons!

In a way, Nintendo’s Wii has sort of figured it out – although I’m not sure the folks at Nintendo quite realize it yet. There’s also a reason that the Wii has sort of a passing resemblance to products of another company that does user interfaces really, really well – and of course I’m talking about Apple.

Still, there’s hope. The other day I started playing a game I got for my birthday – Lego Star Wars. Here’s a game that gets UI right. To play the game, you really only need the 1 joystick and 3 (maybe 4) buttons. (You can use more buttons, but they aren’t strictly necessary to play – and more importantly, to enjoy – the game.)

When Amanda can pick up a game and start kicking-ass at it (she never reads manuals and is horrible at managing more than a few buttons at a time without lots of practice), that’s how I know a game has a good user interface. (Coincidentally, Lego Star Wars also does a lot of other things right – easy pick up & dropping out of a game, good 2 player mode, and basically infinite lives.)

I’ve been thinking about picking up a Wii (or maybe even a Nintendo DS – again, fewer buttons!), but maybe I’ll hold off for one more generation of game consoles, and see whether the other companies “get it,” or whether I’ll have to start learning to operate controllers with my feet as well.

We’ll see.

Remembering Old(er) Games: Final Fantasy Tactics

So, I’ve recently started playing through Final Fantasy Tactics – a game that I’ve only played through to the end just once, although I’ve played the beginning levels innumerable times.

I’d forgotten what a great game this is.

Oh sure, it’s hard as hell. The strategy aspect of this game is simply sublime, but it’ll kill you (and trap you in a 2-part battle sequence where your party is completely useless with no opportunity to back out, level up, or buy supplies) just for looking at it the wrong way. It’s not unusual for a single battle sequence to take the better part of an hour, if you’re not prepared (or if it’s just a hard one). Given how many chapters there are in the game (4, I think), and how many battles that involves (something like a half-dozen or more battles per chapter), you can see that you have to invest a lot of time in this game if you want to get anywhere.

The RPG standby of “leveling up” is required here as well, which means playing “random battles,” which are just as hard as the story-driven battles – sometimes even more so! And no matter how much you level up, it always seems as if the enemies are just as strong as you, so the battles are never as easy as they can be in some other RPGs. (Go back to the mines of Narshe in FFIII/VI before the world changes and see how easy the monsters are there. The same can basically be said for every other RPG ever made.)

And let’s not forget about the job system. Changing a character’s job to another class to get some of its valuable skills can render that character useless for a few battles – a fact which is infuriating the further along in the game you get. Suddenly your power-house Knight is a wimpy white mage who dies after 2 hits from a black chocobo. The element of “strategy” is taken to an extreme – and it takes some getting used to. In fact, I really have to be in the mood for strategy to even think of picking up this game.

Still, it’s a great game – which fantastic music, cute graphics, a great battle system, and a compelling (if horribly translated) story. I’ve just started Chapter 3 (after nearly a month of playing, mind you) and I’m having a lot of fun – although the 2nd to last battle of Chapter 2 nearly wiped me out; and the battle before that I had to replay 8 different times! For your reference, I had to change my characters’ job classes to suit that battle – it was a hard one; different from all the other battles leading up to it.

If you’ve never given FFT a try, I can only recommend it if you really like strategy or micro-management. Otherwise, you might get bored. People who play chess, Stratego, or other strategy-heavy games (like Tactics Ogre, the game which sort of inspired FFT), on the other hand, will probably fall in love with this game. So don’t blame me when you suddenly find it’s 3am and you’ve been playing Tactics since noon. (And you’ll still have only made it through just 1 chapter!)

Remembering Old(er) Games

Today I’m going to spend some time talking about older games. If your only experience with video games started with the Playstation and went forward from there, then you can just leave now, because none of this is going to make any sense to you.

Today I’m going to spend some time talking about older games. If your only experience with video games started with the Playstation and went forward from there, then you can just leave now, because none of this is going to make any sense to you.

A bunch of crazy-yet-amusing people over at 1UP.com do this thing from time to time called Retronauts, where they talk about older games – that is to say, the 8 and 16 bit era games – the games I grew up on, in other words.

I have a lot of fond memories of those days – and since that’s all I need to start rambling, here I go.

I’m going to be up-front and say I never owned a lot of games for my NES console. Oh, we had games – and we played them over, and over, and over again – but we never had a lot of games for the NES. But there were some favorites – and The Legend of Zelda was probably #1.

The Legend of Zelda

My brother and I used to play through that game on weekends, holding our own “Video Game Championships” to see who could beat the game without dying once, or other such things. Eventually we had to restrict ourselves to the 2nd quest, because we both could beat the 1st quest without dying quite easily.

The NES also introduced me to platformers (although they weren’t called that back then) – and I still prefer platformers over 3D games to this day.

One glorious Christmas, my siblings and I opened up a present addressed to all of us, and inside was a brand-new Super Nintendo (SNES). Thus began the golden age of game playing for me.

Although there were dozens of games I played on the SNES, to discuss them all would take forever, so I’ll just limit myself to a few top pics – ones that were inspired by some recent podcasts from those Retronauts people (who inspired me to write this post in the first place).

The first one I’ll mention is a game that I still re-play to this day: Secret of Mana. When I first picked up this game, it was hard. In fact, it’s still a challenge to me, even today.

The Secret of Mana

I remember renting this game at first, and then buying it later. I remember getting stuck very early on – I usually managed to make it to the Upper Land, but then got lost in the forest. In retrospect, it seems so easy – but at the time, I just couldn’t figure it out.

In tribute to the fact that I played this game with my siblings, I used to name the characters (which in the US version came with no default names) after myself, my brother (for the sprite, who I still say seems more male than female), and my sister (for the girl, of course). The multi-player facet of this game was unheard of at the time – and it was incredibly enjoyable. (I wish I had someone to play with today!) The haunting music and title card for this game still gives me goosebumps when I watch it to this day.

The next game I’ll mention came out after Secret of Mana, but I didn’t actually own it until much later. It still stands in my mind as one of the greatest games EVER – even after, what, 12 years now? That game, of course, is Chrono Trigger.

Chrono Trigger

This game really wowed me when I first saw it – even just from the title screen! The intro plays like the opening for a movie, with dramatic music, credits, and a “wooshing” effect that was just… well, it was really cool, at the time. And I still smile when I watch it.

chrono trigger zeal

chrono trigger intro credits

chrono trigger blackbird

I can still remember how I felt the first time I played and I jumped into the time portal and watched those psychedelic colors come flying at me – I just thought “WOW! It’s amazing what they can do with games these days! Just look at these graphics!”

chrono trigger time travel

This game was just so innovative that I couldn’t help but be impressed. Time travel (a favorite subject of mine), the non-random battles (well, sort of), and the well-developed story & characters all just combined to create a game that resonated with me. Not much since then has touched me the way this game did, and that’s the honest truth.

chrono trigger courtroom

Although I never did like the racing mini-game – I sucked at it!

chrono trigger race with THE MAN

Still, I really felt connected to the game, its story, and the characters – and that’s hard to do.

chrono trigger flying epoch

The ending for this game was also a real treat. After the huge emotional investment you make in a game like this, a great ending just makes you feel like it was all worth it. And the New Game+ mode that you unlocked was a boon for replaying the game – I know I didn’t rest until I had seen all the extra endings!

Chrono Trigger ending pic

Needless to say – a great game. It helped define what I expect from a great RPG to this day.

Speaking of RPGs… there was one other game I wanted to mention. It’s kind of been talked to death by other people on the ‘net, but I can’t not mention it. I have too many memories of this game – memories of driving around with my brother, through used game shops, trying to locate a copy of this game so we could buy it for ourselves.

I can also remember watching the intro to this game in the morning, before I went to school. I had a TV up in our play room, and a makeshift stereo system, and I’d just let the intro play with the music turned up.

At times, I’d do the same thing with the ending of this game – I had it timed just right so I could watch the ending (which was very long) and still get to school on time. And this was in the days before “save states,” so every time I wanted to watch the ending, I had to beat the final boss!

In case you hadn’t guessed the game yet, it was Final Fantasy III/VI.

Final Fantasy III/VI Title

I don’t really remember how we found ourselves with this game… but it was a beauty once we had it. Probably the longest game I’d ever played – and re-played – I just could not get enough of it. The story, so epic in scope (yet starting off so seemingly small) just drew me in.

Interestingly, because I had owned/played Secret of Mana prior to this one, I was used to re-naming characters, so my brother and I didn’t use the default names for (almost) anyone. Terra became Rydia (astude Final Fantasy fans will note the homage to the previous title), Locke became Juno, Edgar became Calvin, Sabin became Hobbes (I loved Calvin & Hobbes, what can I say?), Celes became Millie, Cyan became Ryu, Setzer became Jack (a blackjack reference) and Gau became… OJ. (The Oj Simpson trials were going on at the time, I think.) I think all the remaining characters kept their original names (you can’t do better than Shadow for a ninja, after all).

This was (and remains to this day) the only game to actually bring me to tears.

The FFIII Opera Scene

I used to play through the Opera Scene again and again – I mean, you’d just never seen anything like it before, at the time! Who knew that the SNES could do such things?

There were just so many great points in this game that I can’t list them all… but I’ll try! The little in-game bits, like “MMMMM…Magic!” and “son of a submariner!” The dream sequences with Shadow… the dream sequence with Ryu (sorry, Cyan)… the twist where Millie (sorry, Celes) betrays the Empire and is saved by Juno (sorry, Locke)… all the crazy battles with Ultros… the whole Oj/Gau story… Not to mention the fact that the world basically ENDS half way through the game… just when you think you’ve won!! What a heart breaker that was the first time I encountered it!

Ah, the memories. Every so often I’ll work up the urge to play the whole game again – usually over a weekend (or two or three). But is IS a very long game, so I don’t play it often.

During the day, I usually listen to Radio GOSU so I’m often hearing songs from all these games mixed in, and it makes me pine for the “good old days” sometimes. Ah well, I guess you can’t have everything. (Though there have been a few good games for 32-bit consoles… but that’s another post.)

Feel free to share your own thoughts & experiences in the comments.

Images courtesy vgmuseum.com.