Alex Kidd in Sega World

In what spare time I have, I’ve been hacking away at some neglected Master System games on my Power Base Converted model-1 Sega Genesis. A brief, and perhaps obvious series of conclusions:

  • The best Alex Kidd game? Alex Kidd in Shinobi World.
  • The best Shinobi game? Alex Kidd in Shinobi World.
  • The best Master System game? Alex Kidd in Shinobi World.

This game is… not really even a satire; it’s basically an earnest attempt at a cute chibi-style revisitation of the Master System port of the original Shinobi, in the style of Mighty Final Fight or Kid Dracula or the like. It’s from that era, you know.

The game is very pretty — increasingly so as it goes along — and has a great soundtrack, which involves dramatically shifted permutations of pieces from the original Shinobi. You know how R-Type has this one motif that  keeps developing and exploring from different angles, leading to a sense of thematic depth and change as the game goes along? This isn’t like that, but it’s interesting to hear one of the most familiar pieces of jaunty Shinobi music repurposed to accompany a moment of plot-based emotional trauma for our young Mr. Kidd.

The design itself has a surprising depth to it, that slowly peels away. Each level is full of secrets, and ideal ways to tackle the puzzle-like situations that it presents, often involving abilities that you weren’t aware the character had until you were forced to try them out. Furthermore, the challenge sits at just the right level where it’s never so hard that it’s irritating to play yet it’s never so easy that you can tune out completely. It’s harder if you just charge ahead and tackle things head-on, but it becomes rather easy if you take the time to explore, find all the secrets, and come at the tough situations from an ideal position.

There should have been more of these. Cross-overs should have been Alex Kidd’s thing; it’s already right there in all his game titles. He’s already moving from one world to another, each game a different format from the last. We could have seen Alex Kidd in Golden Axe World. Alex Kidd in the OutRun Zone. Alex Kidd in Monsterland. Alex Kidd in Zillion World. Work that licence, and: Alex Kidd ‘n Ghouls ‘n Ghosts (the Western version of Alex Kidd in Demon Village).

Long-time Sega fans often muse about Alex Kidd, and what happened to him. SEGAGAGA, Hitmaker’s nostalgic if-only farewell game to the Sega of old, released more or less as an epitaph to the company’s days as a first party and to their original company culture, makes a point of this question, answering that at some point the character left Sega, feeling sidelined by all of the new characters like Sonic, and now was working in a convenience store, looking a bit sad.

I’m thinking now, now that they have nothing to lose, Sega could easily restart the franchise by doing an Alex Kidd in Sega World, incorporating everything to the present day. One section might be Alex Kidd in the House of the Dead. Another, Alex Kidd in Shenmue Land. Which would be a total piss take. You know how at the end of each level in Super Mario Bros. 2 (US), there’s that slot machine thing? Like that, but all about petting cats and getting capsule toy trinkets that you’d carry with you for the entire game but would do nothing.

Satire would be the route to take: Think of The Typing of the Dead, but an affectionate (if merciless) tour of all Sega’s biggest or most beloved franchises. Maybe Alex Kidd misunderstands their rules; maybe he understands them too well:

  • Alex the Kidd-Hogg would disable all buttons but right, down, and jump, yet keep placing things to the left that catch your attention, that it would be nice to go back and explore. (Capsule toys? Cats to pet?)
  • Alex Kidd in the OutRun Zone, he’d just turn the wheels 90 degrees and drive sideways the whole time, straining his neck and causing crashes and traffic. (This section should also be side-scrolling and should follow the Alex the Kidd-Hogg section so it can be retroactively looped back in for a further gag.)

The game would begin as Alex Kidd in Curse World (compared to the first Alex Kidd game, Alex Kidd in Miracle World), which (beyond a few Q*Bert style expletives) would involve a sort of Faustian bargain to reclaim Alex’s fame and recognition. As it turns out, that bargain forces Alex to live through the roles of all the Sega heroes he’s replaced, racing back and forth to do it all himself. Often ineptly.

Maybe along the way he’d pick up a peeved Opa-Opa (an even earlier Sega mascot; a little sentient space ship from the game Fantasy Zone), who would follow him around like Sonic’s friend Tails or an Option from Gradius, or even at times enlarge to let Alex step on-board.

As he went along, of course, Alex slowly would come to realize things weren’t great for any of the other Sega protagonists either. All of Sega World was, in fact, a bit of a mess, lost to neglect. Heroes like Joe Musashi (from Shinobi) had been missing for years, and nobody even noticed or cared. (Alex might briefly wonder if that was his doing.)

In the end there would be a massive team-up, with everyone — all the Sega heroes Alex tried to replace, and more besides — coming together to fight the curse. Presumably the embodiment or explanation for that curse would have a metaphorical value for Sega’s greater misfortune and the commercial or sociopolitical explanations behind it. They’d start off fighting a bogeyman like the Sony expy villain from SEGAGAGA, then realize things weren’t that easy, and maybe it was just time for everyone to work together and try to build something nice, regardless of any outside pressures or influences.

This is a game I want to play. And on some level, I think it could actually be the thing to elevate Sega back to its heroic status as the scrappy major developer with all the personality.

The Process

Following some earlier points, a forum I frequent saw some discussion on the apparent deification of the Doctor over the last few series of Doctor Who. Someone strongly objected to what he saw as Davies’ “all-powerful, all-knowing, ‘he’s a Time Lord, he can do anything’ approach to the Doctor”. Thing is, that’s not really what’s going on.

Generally Davies tries to undermine that concept, and show that it’s just bravado. Both in and out of the fiction, that myth is just the way that people perceive him, and the image he tries to project.

There’s a long discussion of this on one of the Moffat commentaries, amongst Davies, Tennant, and Moffat himself. They talk about how, for all of the facade he puts on, all the mythology that springs up around him, some of which he encourages, there’s nothing really special about the Doctor. His only real asset is that he can (usually) talk his way into anything.

“He’s almost a charlatan,” Moffat said, “in a good way. He poses as this god-like figure, but he’s just a bloke under there.”

Man and Myth

So much of the new series is about people’s perceptions of the Doctor, counterposed with the reality of the Doctor. This is precisely what “The Girl in the Fireplace” is about. Look at the way Reinette mythologized the Doctor in her own mind, and turned him into this huge figure from her childhood, a man of magic and awe. And there he was, just bumbling around, doing his thing as best as he could. Occasionally showing off. Occasionally acting like a complete ass.

And we, as adult viewers, see both sides. We know that the Doctor is just this guy, doing the best he can, yet we also know him as a figure of myth and legend who brings us monsters and death, because that’s what he chases and that’s what we tune in for — but then he does his best to put it right, and usually succeeds.

It’s not that he’s innately special; he just operates on a different plane from what most people see as normal life. Specifically, he lives the life of the protagonist to a long-running TV fantasy adventure. In that, he sees things that most people don’t see, and does things that most people don’t do. And to be credulous and put ourselves in the weekly companion role, that allows him to introduce us to fear and wonder, and just maybe expand our perspectives, with the assurance that everything will be all right in the end. Roughly. Usually.

So basically the new series is just being postmodern, and aware of itself as a modern myth. And it toys with that. (See “Love & Monsters”, that Clive guy in “Rose”.) Granted, in execution it’s gotten a bit lazy of late… But going by the commentary, everyone still seems to be working on the same wavelength they were in 2005.

Jesus Guises

Of course, “Forest of the Dead” plays a lot with the notion of an all-powerful Doctor, from River Song’s tale of the man Tennant becomes to his apparently new ability to enter the TARDIS by snapping his fingers. As far as River Song is concerned, though, that’s her mythologizing him again. It’s just her own personal impression of the man. Assuming she’s referring to a particular event, and knowing how the Doctor does things, you can imagine the sort of circumstance in which a whole army would run from him. As much as she talks it up, the actual event was probably some bizarre and desperate slight of hand on the Doctor’s part. Yet it sounds impressive if you don’t know the details! As things do.

Everyone believes in the Wizard of Oz, but he’s just a schmuck behind a curtain.

The snap is a little different. I halfway expected that to be revealed as Donna opening the door for him, but no. Then again, you know. TARDIS. It likes him. If anything is truly special, it’s his box. With a little thought, given the Doctor’s bond with the TARDIS, the snapping really isn’t that remarkable. It’s a bit of a parlor trick, really. Consider that Rose flew the thing just by staring into its console and wishing.

Then there’s that ridiculous floaty denoument from last year, which a lot of people point to. That’s not a good example either. It really, really wasn’t executed well, but that’s supposed to be about the power of humanity and hope and faith (to contrast with the Master’s message of despair), with the Doctor as just a focal point of all of those emotions. It’s only in encouraging everyone to believe in him, in becoming a legend, that he gained his power — which is sort of the concept I’ve been talking about, except made clumsily explicit and practical.

Bibliocranium

The encyclopedic knowledge business is getting tiresome, however. “Silence in the Library” is probably the worst offender yet, on this front. As “Midnight” shows, often it’s dramatically better not to have a clue what you’re facing.

The problem, as I see it, in the Doctor already knowing what he’s facing most of the time is that it removes a sense of discovery and danger and wonder from the proceedings, and all the emotions and ideas those might conjure up, and skips right to the business of solving things — a process that the new series (rightly) considers so obligatory as to use all of these shortcuts (sonic, psychic paper) to speed it along.

It’s meaningless to hear someone name something fictional, then watch him fiddle together some random fictional nonsense to defeat it. What really gets the head and heart going is something like The Empty Child, where — although there are hints along the way, and the Doctor may have more or less figured it out by halfway through episode two — the threat largely remains undefined until the end of the story, leaving the protagonists to react the best they can to their immediate circumstances.

Which isn’t to say that every story need be a mystery; it’s just that having bottomless resources is boring, especially when all you’re conjuring up and babbling about is fictional fact. Show, don’t tell! If the Doctor has seen it all before and can defuse any situation by pulling random convenient facts out of his hat, that basically tells us that what is happening right now doesn’t actually matter; that the show is just a sequence of doors and keys, and the Doctor already has most of the keys on file. So why are we watching it?

Keys are for Doors; Heads are for Thinking

You can do a certain amount of this with a smirk and call it postmodern, but you have to be deliberate and do it well — as in “Rose” or “Aliens of London”. “Doomsday” treads a bit close, but gets away with it on the basis of sheer chutzpah. Lately, I think the handwaving has just become a smug excuse.

It’s a similar feeling to what I get with post-NES era Nintendo games — Zelda, Mario, Metroid. It’s all about hunting for the correct key to pass the appropriate tile, and moving on to the next section. Interpretation, picking away at the cracks, the sense of endless possibility you get in something like the original Zelda or Metroid — all gone, in the face of cold, arbitrary mechanics. Which ties into the whole modern fallacy of the Videogame, that assumes that doing things, simply pressing buttons, is and should be rewarding in and of itself.

Mind, this isn’t a crippling problem with the show — yet. As I said, though, it is getting a bit tiresome. And I think this year in particular, it’s starting to undermine the storytelling. As with the dismissal of killer shadows as “Vashta Nerada — the piranhas of the air!” God, what’s more interesting: shadows that can KILL you, or some kind of gestalt entity with a pretentious name, that the Doctor conveniently knows how to detect and whose canned history he can spin off at a drop of his bottomless hat?

Finding and Doing

So basically, yeah. I see the things that people are complaining about. I just think the explanation is a bit off. The Doctor isn’t particularly powerful; he’s just arrogant. The sonic screwdriver and psychic paper and occasional ironic doodad like anti-plastic work in the favor of efficient storytelling. Take away his ability to quickly solve problems and the story will become cluttered with meaningless procedure.

Take away his ability to quickly identify problems, though, and stories may become far richer. Allow him to dismiss any scenario by identifying it off the bat, and unless the writer really knows what he’s doing, the entire story is in danger of collapsing into meaningless procedure.

I’m reminded of an old review of the Dreamcast version of Ecco the Dolphin (narrated by Tom Baker, don’t you know). It’s a beautiful, atmospheric game with a clever story by David Brin. I’ve described it more than once as an underwater Shenmue. The problem is that it’s just about imposible to play. You can know exactly what you have to do (and it’s usually not that tricky to figure out), and still you need to fight with the game for half an hour, trying and dying and trying and dying and waiting for the game to reload each time, to get through a simple hazard.

I think it was an IGN review that praised the game’s difficulty, saying it was the perfect balance — you always know what you need to do, and the challenge just comes in doing it!

… What? Just, what? I mean, granted, IGN. These guys probably give extra points to a game that comes in a bigger box because it looks more impressive on the shelf. But what?!

Meaning comes from extended and nuanced exploration of a topic. Yet you have to balance the reward of any insight against the frustration involved in realizing it. You don’t want to labor too much in the exploration or in the solution; smack your hand too long on anything, and you will lose grip on the threads you’re grasping, along with any sense of perspective you might have been developing. What you want is to cover as much ground and see as many sides of the issue as you can, collecting strands and weaving them together until you’ve completed the picture as well as you may.

In all things, logic should be always a method; not an impediment, not an answer. When process becomes a barrier to development, or is mistaken for development itself, there is an inherent flaw in the system.

Ambition and Compulsory Design in Animal Crossing

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

The thing about portables – and not everybody cottons to this – is that people use them differently from other game systems. You cradle them in your hands, within your personal space. You drag them around with you, pull them out of your pocket like a dime novel, then snap them closed when you step off the bus. Where console and PC games ask you to set aside blocks of your time, portables fill the cracks in your day.

All of these situational dynamics, and the psychology lurking behind them, inform the basic checklist for a portable game.

( Continue reading at Game Career Guide )

Browbeating

Toups: hey I assume you’ve read this.
aderack: Now I have!
aderack: “We don’t have any highbrow games.”
Toups: it’s good, until he actually starts talking about what a highbrow game would be like
aderack: I imagine that will be… problematic.
Toups: and then… he starts talking about will wright
Toups: and the whole time I’m thinking “dude have you even PLAYED shadow of the colossus”
aderack: Myst is kind of highbrow.
aderack: Except a lot of people deride it as not a “real” videogame. Less so than about six-seven years ago.
Toups: maybe that says something doesn’t it!!
aderack: I guess so!
Toups: either a) a “highbrow” videogame can not truly exist (the more highbrow it becomes, the less it is a videogame), or b) people have come to define “videogame” in an inherently lowbrow way, so that when something highbrow comes along they are inclined to call it a “non-game”
aderack: And before yet another idiot pipes up with Standard Asinine Comment #1 (“but FUN is the only thing that matters!”), let me just say: No, it’s not. Shut up and grow up. Our overemphasis on fun—kiddie-style, wheeee-type fun—is part of the reason we’re in this mess in the first place. To merely be fun is to be unimportant, irrelevant, and therefore vulnerable.
aderack: I like that way of defining “fun”.
aderack: “Wheeee-type fun”.
Toups: yeah
aderack: Yeah, the problem is, I think, that we just don’t have the medium down yet. It’s been too caught up in “wheeee”. For the sake of “wheeee” itself, that is.
Toups: shadow of the colossus provides “whoa” type fun?
aderack: And also, it… at least strives to do more than simply entertain.
Toups: though, you know, I think “whee” can be highbrow
Toups: miyazaki’s movies have lots of “whee” in them
Toups: if any of the mario bros. games (save part one maybe) had some class, they could be highbrow
Toups: (class in their visual style, etc)
aderack: Honestly, I think that Tarantino is somewhat highbrow. Or at least could walk around in said company. And there’s “wheeee” all over.
aderack: That’s the benefit of virtuosity. You master a medium, you manufacture your own class.
Toups: I think he’s really just arguing against visceral thrills in games
Toups: which is a good thing, but for the aim of “high brow” is maybe a little misguided
Toups: it’s just sort of reactionary
Toups: can’t really blame him
aderack: I know. It’s… he’s on the right track, so far (page two).
Toups: that part of the article’s fine!
Toups: great, even!
aderack: “The serious games movement will help a little with this problem because serious games aren’t just for fun, but by itself that’s not enough. People write comic books to help teach kids about fire prevention and healthcare, but that doesn’t change the perception that comics are for kids.”

Another good observation.
aderack: In terms of “serious games” being silly things to take so seriously.
Toups: highbrow games would have to teach us things about our souls
aderack: Right. Again, it’s a matter of focus — principlally on the humanity of the art. What it has to tell us about ourselves.
aderack: The problem is in how to achieve that in a way that comes right out of the heart of the medium — and is therefore gripping and entertaining, and not just pasted in. Valve’s on the right track.
Toups: yeah
Toups: I mean
Toups: you can look at a handful of games that, from a design perspective, are on the cutting edge
Toups: really on the right track
Toups: you could say that they are there, if it weren’t for their subject matter
Toups: or, to put it another way
Toups: the games have everything there to make you care
aderack: Yes. It’s… encouraging that the pieces do seem to be out there. It’s just, nobody’s really been combining them into a definitive masterwork that will show everyone how things are done. Hate to say it, a Kane. That analogy needs to be banned, one of these days.
Toups: yeah
aderack: We’re getting there.
Toups: you know
Toups:
Toups: hm
Toups: I don’t know
Toups: I’m tempted to put my faith in Ueda, if for no other reason than he has the right ideas, he just isn’t that great at design
Toups: give him say, valve’s team
Toups: and you’d have… something
aderack: Yeah. I know. He’s not a nuts-and-bolts guy. That’s his only real problem.
aderack: And he pretty much has to do everything himself.
Toups: yeah
Toups: and his designs aren’t even demanding
Toups: they just need a certain elegance that most designers can’t do
aderack: That would be pretty much perfect, you’re right.
aderack: Valve plus Ueda.
Toups: of course, that’s the most frustrating part of this
Toups: I can point to any number of games that have the right parts
Toups: it’s just there isn’t one game that does them all at once
Toups: no one’s really picked up the ball that shenmue dropped, for instance!
aderack: And get the Silent Hill 2 guy in for color.
Toups: yeah
Toups: hell yeah
Toups: get that guy out of EA
Toups: man
aderack: The talent’s buried and scattered.
aderack: And doesn’t communicate.
Toups: see
Toups: if I was really rich
Toups: like
Toups: really
Toups: really rich
Toups: I’d just buy all these motherfuckers
Toups: base the studio in lafayette
Toups: and let the games write themselves
aderack: Feed them gumbo.
Toups: yeah
Toups: man, I had lobster tonight
Toups: for the first time ever
Toups: see the thing is
Toups: we eat lots of crawfish over here
Toups: and a lobster is basically a HUGE crawfish
aderack: It is.
Toups: so seeing one in the flesh (or er, shell), was pretty mindblowing
Toups: what a fucking weird creature, huh?
aderack: Seafood in general, actually, creeps me out. Like fungus. One of those things; hard to get around.
Toups: yeah, seafod is pretty fucking weird though
Toups: seriously though, you eat it here you’ll be converted
aderack: Lobsters — I mean, there’s this huge fucking animal on your plate.
Toups: yeah
aderack: It’s not abstract enough for me.
Toups: yeah!
Toups: it’s raw man
Toups: it’s medieval!
Toups: it’s… primal
aderack: It’s like that scene in Temple of Doom.
Toups: I haven’t seen that in a very long time
aderack: Yeah, I’m into “what would a Merchant Ivory game be?” section. And barf.
aderack: Right.
Toups: yeah
Toups: I mean, in a sense he’s right about the music and the visuals needing to be beautiful
Toups: and yet, way to miss the point
aderack: “In common with literature or poetry, a highbrow video game would include connections to the wider world; it would tell us something about our society and ourselves. Not the cutesy winking references of postmodernism, but real cultural roots.”
aderack: Okay, he’s got that down.
Toups: yeah
Toups: he just misses out on HOW it would do that
Toups: (protip: not with beautiful graphics or art)
Toups: (those games already exist!!!)
aderack: “Above all, a Merchant Ivory video game would be about people and ideas.”
aderack: Right.
aderack: He’s got the right thing going.
Toups: this is a much better question, anyway, then “where is the lester bangs of games journalism”
aderack: It’s a good discussion topic, if you can deflate the idiot arguments right off.
Toups: and, actually, it occurs to me why there can’t be lester bangs for videogames
Toups: because rock and roll was a counterculture… it had that “high brow” to rebel against
Toups: and then it had the means to make its own sort of “high brow”
aderack: Right.
aderack: Videogames… they don’t need a spokesman.
Toups: they need a role model, maybe
aderack: Role model. Yes.
aderack: That’s a good distinction.
Toups: they need a game that people play and say “I want to make games this way”
Toups: or hell, just “I want to make games”
aderack: Role model, not spokesman. If anything, videogames have been tooting their own horn prematurely for way too long.
aderack: Which is part of the perceptual problem.
Toups: yeah
Toups: it’s funny, actually
Toups: reading the history of atari
Toups: way back then, those guys were insisting that game making was an art form
Toups: and, well… look how that turned out
Toups: a lot of this talk is nothing really new. there’s just a lot more money involved now
aderack: Well, they were onto something at the time.
Toups: they were!
Toups: moreso than they were now, at any rate

NextGen’s Top Ten Years In Gaming History

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Originally published in some form by Next Generation. I was asked not to include 1999 or 2000, because the Dreamcast was perceived as a low mark in the industry rather than a high one. I was also asked to include the previous year, to suggest that we were in the middle of an upswing. So… that explains some of the selections.

In videogames, as in life, we tend to get things right about a third of the time. There’s one decent Sonic game for every two disasters; one out of every three consoles can be considered an unqualified success; the Game Boy remake of Mother 1 + 2 was released in one out of three major territories. With the same level of scientific accuracy, one can easily say that, out of the thirty years that videogames have acted as a consumer product, there are maybe ten really excellent milestones, spaced out by your 1984s and your 1994s – years maybe we were all better off doing something out-of-doors.

It kind of makes sense, intuitively: you’ve got the new-hardware years and the innovative-software years, spaced out by years of futzing around with the new hardware introduced a few months back, or copying that amazing new game that was released last summer. We grow enthusiastic, we get bored. Just as we’re about to write off videogames forever, we get slapped in the face with a Wii, or a Sega Genesis – and then the magic starts up all over again, allowing us to coast until the next checkpoint. Continue reading “NextGen’s Top Ten Years In Gaming History”