Flicker flames and haunted faces
Shuffling feet find empty spaces
Moving shadows, someone's hurting
Huddle closer, campfire burning.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

100 Minutes With . . . Super Princess Peach

Ever since stumbling across Super Mario Bros. in an arcade I’ve been terribly interested in the naming conventions of the Mario franchise. Why was it Super Mario Bros.? Did it have any relationship to Bros the boy band? It was a puzzle.

Many years later I still find Nintendo’s stock of prefixes and suffixes intriguing. Like primary colours, they can be mixed together to create more interesting shades; case in point, Super Paper Mario--the name defines the game. With Nintendo so reliant on wringing out their old franchises, it’s easy to imagine a large fruit machine on one floor of their headquarters, with every prefix, suffix and middix Nintendo have ever used on its reels. Iwata steps up, gives the handle a tug and the next year’s releases are designed by rote. Go on, give it a try. Imagine the E3 crowds going crazy for Paper Mario Party, Bowser Sports Resort, or Luigi’s Haunted Kart.

My point is you know what you’re getting when you buy a game from the Mario family. The characters are so clearly defined they tint the games around them. Luigi is timid. Wario is bullish, obnoxious and grasping. Their games perfectly reflect their personalities.

So you have to wonder what was going on in the Nintendo hive the day they played the one-armed-bandit and rushed Super Princess Peach into production.

Peach has never been one of gaming’s feminist icons. I get the impression here, taking centre stage for the first time on a console that--thanks in no small part to Nintendogs--was beloved of little girls around the globe, this was Nintendo’s attempt to snatch the juvenile female market away from Imagine Babiez and Babysitting Mama. Peach is a cipher whose in-game abilities heretofore amount to floating, baking cakes and being kidnapped. As with Yoshi’s Island and Wario Land, in Super Princess Peach Nintendo had the chance to craft an identity for her. They could have made a statement: the sisters are doing it for themselves.

And if you’d only seen the game’s intro--in which Mario, Luigi and Toad are kidnapped and Peach vows to rescue them--you might think that’s exactly what they were trying to do. In Super Princess Peach our heroine isn’t beholden to any man or mushroom; she is a force unto herself, taking on all comers with only a brolly for self defence.

So imagine the titters that arose as developers designed Peach’s arsenal of moves, her--good grief--vibes. Instead of collecting fire flowers and tanooki suits, with the help of her ‘vibe wand’ Peach assaults enemies with her emotional states. She’s a quivering pre-menstrual nightmare, dashing in floods of tears one minute, the next minute setting fire to things in an irritated huff. When she’s happy she floats on a cloud of pure bliss and when she’s merely content, in a yogic trance she heals her physical well-being. You can practically hear the guffaws of Nintendo’s corporate suits: “Women--so emotional!” As a demonstration of nuanced characterisation it makes flatulent fattie Wario look like Sidney Poitier.

Triggered on the touchscreen, each of Peach’s emotions is used to negotiate some obstacle or puzzle, or dispatch the foes in her path. Not that the puzzles are particularly troubling. Super Princess Peach is simple, and only in its final stages does it present even a hint of a challenge. There are no lives to collect and no penalties for dying, and every puzzle is preceded by a hint block which tells you exactly how to overcome it.

With its candy colours and a twee art-style reminiscent of--yet inferior to--Yoshi’s Island it might be the perfect introduction to platform games for young girls. But as a Nintendo platformer it’s deeply unsatisfying. Compared to sister title The Legendary Starfy, Super Princess Peach lacks charm and intelligence. Peach’s world isn’t memorable, it doesn’t contain the tricks and sparks of inspiration we’ve come to associate with this kind of game. Though never less than amiable, it treads a fine line between being enjoyable in a simplistic sort of way and being the kind of bargain bucket dross that overwhelms the DS market, the Nicktoons branded kind best ignored out of hand. Without its pedigree it might have been a diamond in the rough, but with Nintendo’s name on the box I certainly expected more.

My expectations have d coloured my opinion--it’s hard for them not to. After all, Super Princess Peach follows a grand legacy containing some of the best video games of all time. While I was playing Super Princess Peach my wife was playing Super Mario 3D Land beside me. Whenever I looked over her shoulder I’d see some exciting new power up, or some twist on the formula. “Look at this!” she’d say, showing me this or that crazy level: platforms that march in time to the soundtrack, a stage filled with doors that teleport Mario here, there and everywhere.

In return I had nothing to show except Peach’s moods, which--in a lazy move that’s also one of my own personal bugbears--more often than not replace keys as a way of unlocking doors. Melting ice doors, blowing away cloud doors, dousing flame doors--is this really the best the developers could come up with? Even when slightly more exciting gimmicks are introduced--a level where you have to fight gusting winds, or one where buttons tilt platforms ninety degrees, changing the direction of the gravitational pull--they’re used half-heartedly. Most of the time Super Princess Peach feels so hollow because it plays like a proof of concept, a demonstration of features that are repeated and recycled in lieu of new ideas.

Padding out the game are lacklustre power-ups bought with your collected coins (because girls love shopping, don’t they?), a few touch-screen minigames, submarine shoot-em-up segments leftover from the original Super Mario Land, and--the last cry of desperation from any DS game developer--an extensive selection of jigsaw puzzles. Considering its lack of variation, its amazing that the game’s elements manage to feel so disparate.

Sadly, that’s the most interesting thing you can say about Super Princess Peach. It’s a reasonable amount of fun, and the younger you are--and the more you like the colour pink--the more you’ll get from it. But its still a shallow grab bag of half thought out ideas, so padded with dull minigames its few original ideas are smothered beneath them. It’s an experiment in mediocrity foisted upon a public who want and deserve better.

It may have been conceived to capture a certain elusive demographic, but with its contents as randomly assembled as its name, the only demographic the finished game truly appeals to is one Nintendo would be better off without.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Playing a Role

Hello again. It’s been a while.

Some time ago I wrote a piece on why games--specifically board games--were important. I believed they were so important that when I moved to New Jersey all I brought with me were clothes, a clapped-out first generation Game Boy Advance and my entire collection of board games. I paid to bring a second suitcase on the plane, just so I could take them with me. My reasoning was I wouldn’t have to worry about power supplies and international compatibility. Providing I had a large enough and stable enough space I could play The Rivals of Catan and Monopoly Deal no matter where I went . . . so long as I had people to play them with, of course.

And in America--mind-bogglingly huge, ridiculously friendly--I wouldn’t want for people to play games with. They’d be eager to spend time slinging cards with me.

So I thought.

The majority of my Christmas haul was made from cardboard. My wife wanted to make my first Christmas living in a foreign country special; she knew I’d be missing home, where Christmas is the be-all and end-all--the fulcrum, as I’ve said, about which the entire year revolves. I mightn’t have turkey or figgy pudding but I’d still have a Christmas to remember.

Of all the games and expansions I received I’ve only played one: Quarriors--and even that only the once. Our Wednesday night resolution--Game Night, as it is, was, and always shall be--soon fell by the wayside. Other plans were made. Priorities shifted. Now, the game collection that the year before I’d prized above all others might as well be welded to the shelves it sits upon.

I don’t play board games anymore.

Tabletop games only come alive when you have people to play them with; otherwise they remain inert. The cards and dice and little wooden pieces--shrapnel from wars not fought--need hands to move them, and minds behind those hands planning which cards to play and where they should go. They’re special in that way.

Somes don’t even have pieces, just rules, an entire library full of them--and these are perhaps the most special games of all.

I’m talking about role-playing games; not Mass Effect, where your choices are limited, or Final Fantasy where you have no choice at all, but pen and paper RPGs, proper RPGs, where your actions are limited only by your imagination.

I’ve been listening to the Journey to Madness podcast, a series of actual play recordings from one group’s playthrough of the Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play campaign The Enemy Within. It’s pretty wonderful. Like most actual play podcasts it charts the group’s procession through a story of intrigue and adventure; unlike most such podcasts the game is run by a games master whose grasp of this genre is phenomenal. Too often GMs speak like passive observers or deliberate antagonists, pitting their group against strings of attacks with detachment or malicious amusement and letting the whole affair disintegrate into dice rolls and number crunching. Even the most popular podcasts fall into this trap, and turn the unparalleled breadth of tabletop roleplaying into--horror upon horrors--a war game.

Journey to Madness doesn’t do this. Instead, the DM conveys the richness of the Warhammer setting in such a way that it breathes. He describes sights, sounds and smells--incidental details the characters notice as they wander from village to village. Players are given free reign to explore their surroundings; more than once, at the end of a hard day’s adventuring the GM asks the players what they want to do next, letting them play tourist in cities that only exist in their collective imagination. Days pass, the moons of the Old World wax and wane bringing holy days and festivals--there’s a sense of movement, of a world indifferent to the players which turns regardless.

In episode six players visit the Schaffenfest--the Sheep Festival--where they attend a freak show and place bets on a wrestling match. One of the players takes on the ring champion and enters into the swing of things, grappling and pinning, refusing to strike his opponent for damage as “It wouldn’t be sportsmanlike.” In the grand scheme of the story this is nothing but a diversion, yet being able to respond to the barker’s taunts and challenge the champion--or ignore them both and be on your merry way--adds so much to the world and so much to the game.

Thus far, The Enemy Within has a cast of hundreds: major NPCs who help or hinder the party and numerous others who appear only to utter a single line or provide colour. Player characters are bound not just to each other but to the world around them; each has his own motivations and secret quests, each steals off after dark chasing visions at nearby temples or spending gold at high class brothels. The story driving all this lurks inconspicuous below the surface, rising periodically to threaten the group before submerging beneath the hubbub of the Old World. There are no horizons here, only a world stretching infinitely in every direction. The only thing curbing players’ actions is a bad dice roll.

Directing--no, conducting--the game, the GM keeps things running smoothly. He alternately acts out conversations and glosses over details, emphasising important interactions while dismissing others with a wave of his hand. He makes other RPG podcasts with their interminable battle sequences look every bit the embarrassing nerdfests RPGs are often accused of being. It helps that the guy can act and doesn’t pause for thought every three seconds; he thinks on his feet and keeps the game running at an enjoyable pace, both for the gamers playing and for those listening at home.

Without his and his players’ enthusiasm, Journey to Madness would be a very sad thing indeed. I’ve had it with limp settings which have all the depth of flavour of Saturday morning breakfast cereal. I’ve had it with Cheeto-scented gamers who can’t go five minute minutes without bringing up every rancid slice of pop culture they’ve consumed in the last thirty-five years. Infectious in its enthusiasm, Journey to Madness reflects gaming at its best, without the cynicism to which we’ve all become accustomed, which our hobby has come to rely upon.

I wish I could overcome that cynicism, and attack my unplayed games with gusto. Instead I once again find myself in a malcontented malaise, without friends gamess with or incentive to play. I’ve grown so tired of feeling like this, of wallowing in despair. I’m fed up with everything appearing to be meaningless, and life being consumption and accretion in an endless spiralling coil.

After so many months playing board gaming evangelist I feel like a false prophet, that I’ve let everyone down. Even the games I’ve played I’ve played fewer than a handful of times. I have no friends to play them with and I’m never likely to make any. I’m a lost cause who pretended to be something he wasn’t, and now the truth is catching up I can only confess.

We all go through gaming doldrums at some point. Sadly, my issues run deeper and wider. It’s not so much gaming I’ve grown tired with as life itself; my only means of escape is a fantastical world where I’m a voyeur listening in on other lives. In theory I could join them--or others like them--and become someone else, if only for a few hours. But to do that I’d require courage, and that’s something I’ve never had.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Groundhog Day: Punxsutawney Phil's Cut

The other Phil gave him the opportunity of a lifetime. He’d never driven a truck before. His legs didn’t reach the pedals, his forepaws barely held the wheel. Still, he led the police a merry chase.

“Don’t drive angry,” Phil told him. The human who’d liberated him--as he had liberated Phil.

The chase ended in a quarry. Phil had removed him, set him to one side. He revved the engine. “We mustn’t keep our public waiting,” he said, eyes raw, realisation not yet set in. “It’s showtime, Phil.”

He played chicken, swerved off the ledge and into the pit. End over end, the truck dropped.

After nine dozen years of predictions the groundhog’s umpteenth death loomed in shale. Nanoseconds before impact he blinked . . . and shifted. Driving had been an interesting experience but there was so much else to see and do.

Another six weeks of winter, then. Just to see what was out there.

As for the other Phil, here their paths diverged. He’d still not learned life’s lesson but that was okay. He had time.

Straddling realities, hunting new kicks, the groundhog’s day continued.