Saturday, April 23, 2011

The 8 Best Video Games, #1 (MiniBest!)

I don't often post about video games on here, and there's a reason for that: they're for losers.

I'm serious about that, in the same way that I'm serious about thinking that everything I'm no good at is for losers. In my world, things divide up into three categories:

1. Things I Am Good At, And Therefore Like.
2. Things I Am Not Good At, And Therefore Say Is For Losers.
3. The Mysterious Third Category That I Will Explain In The Next Paragraph Or So.

The Mysterious Third Category actually could be titled "Things I Am Not Good At But Still Want To Like And So I Try To Do Them But Am Never Very Good At Them And So I Like Them But In My Mind I Create A Separate Category Of The Thing Which I Then Decide Is For Losers."

But that's a pretty long title, and also, if I'd just come out and said that, there would have been no sense of mystery driving you on to read this post further -- and what kind of writer would I be if I just blurted out a bunch of stuff with no particular meaning and didn't give you a reason to keep on reading?*

*I'd be the Jonathan Franzen kind of writer.

The Mysterious Third Category includes things like golf, which I really really like to play, but which I am horrendous at. I am the world's worst golfer, and I say that with a kind of pride because it's good to excel at something, even if the thing you excel at is not excelling at something.**

**Yeah, try to wrap your head around that.

Because I love golf but am no good at it, I have subdivided golf into categories, which are:

a. Golf when I'm playing, and
b. Golf when anyone else is doing it.

And, as you'd guess, golf when I'm playing is fun and cool even though I'm no good at it, but golf when anyone else is doing it is lame and stupid and for losers, so if you watch golf, play golf, once thought about golf, looked at a golf course as you drove by, or just read this paragraph in which I said golf seven times*** then you are a loser.

***Did you compulsively go back and count them the way I always do whenever someone numbers something? We both need help.

Video games used to fall into category number one. Sort of. I wasn't ever really good at video games, not the way guys in 80s movies were good at video games. Guys in 80s movies were always so good at games that they could play them for hours, or play them while drinking large sodas at the pizza place, or play them in such a way as to get girls, or play them in such a way as to get to be The Last Starfighter.

And I was never anywhere near that good -- but I was able to play them, at least -- able to understand them and work the 1 or 2 controls that were required of video games in the olden days: track balls, a button or two, maybe a joystick.

Video games have advanced way beyond that level, advancing to the point where the average video game controller requires at least three hands to work properly, so that kids someday will Zaphod Beeblebrox themselves, maybe... I don't know how they're doing it now, working all those controls, or working the two different controls required for the Wii that not only require you to press buttons but to move around, too, and that's why I've drifted away from video games over the years.

Well, that, and I grew up.

And that, and the growing up thing, and also, video games got really hard, even without the controller. I can remember playing Super Mario Bros. 2, and exploring around in Mario's world and thinking "This is amazing, it's a video game that also lets me explore," which was kind of an expansion of the old Atari 2600 game Adventure, a game that I always loved but which lacked a certain element of graphics, and also a certain element of game play.

I always liked games that combined challenges with adventures, getting to explore a world and also try to do challenges, at least until I got caught up with modern games, which happened when I played Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. I got the game from a friend, who told me it was great for exploring and game-play.

You know what it was great for? Shooting a (*#)$%& monkey.

That's all I could do. My experience with Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was limited to: start the game. Slide down the hill, avoiding the pit. Go into the tomb. Shoot the monkey before it bit me. Slide across the vine...

... never advance any further.

I was able to play Lara Croft: Tomb Raider for about 5 minutes at a time, and never got further than sliding across that $(#&% river.

Things got worse from there: I couldn't get Spider-Man out of the warehouse, Ratchet & Clank kept sinking in quicksand, I shot one-- ONE-- stormtrooper*** in Star Wars: Battlegrounds or whatever it was.

***Obligatory Star Wars Reference.

And then, the final blow to modern video games: I played The Boy in Madden football, and I lost... 68-3.

And, yeah, I kicked the field goal just to not be shut out.

I had never lost to The boy in Madden football before, in years and years and years, but the new game required use of all the buttons and the controller could be moved to make your guy lean and there were all kinds of new tweaks that made it almost exactly like playing football...

... provided that NFL players were to sit around in a circle and move a small controller.

What's the deal with how complicated these games are? I'm not talking just about figuring out levels and how to win and strategies: I'm talking about games that require practice sessions to learn how to work everything. Because if the idea is to make it seem as realistic as possible, well, MISSION NOT ACCOMPLISHED.

Sitting in a beanbag chair waving a controller around pressing buttons does not make it seem almost exactly as if you're returning a punt or hang-gliding or figuring out whatever "The Cake Is A Lie" means. It just makes it more complicated, and serves as a barrier to people who want to play a game.

Did you ever sit down to play a boardgame with friends and see a packet of instructions as thick as your arm and decide to just do shots, instead? Me, neither; I didn't have those kinds of friends and don't live in a modern sitcom. But that's the point I'm trying to make here: Even the most complicated-seeming board games, like Axis & Allies and Monopoly and such were, at their heart, simple. The strategies could be complicated, but the play was simple.

I think video games got away from that. They got away from making things devilishly hard to figure out how to get past all those flaming barrels the monkey was throwing at you, or how to get past Bowzer, to making it devilishly hard to hit A+B plus RTCTRL plus turn the controller to the left plus wiggle the joystick and so on. They got carried away with the fact that they could pack 16 different controllers onto one thing and decided to make you use them all to play a game, sometimes at once. Videogames became not about reflexes or thinking, but about whether you were capable of using each finger independently of all the others.

Which I can't.

Let me emphasize that the fact that I could not get further than the monkey and the river on Lara Croft wasn't because I couldn't figure out where to go next. I could. I just couldn't get Lara Croft to do it. I couldn't manipulate the then-8 controls well enough to make Lara Croft do what I wanted to do.

The equivalent, in terms of the games I grew up with, would be if in Risk I'd decided to attack the Kamchatka peninsula, but wasn't able to lift the dice to roll. When I lost 68-3 to The Boy in football, I was completely unable to remember to fade back, hit a button to get ready to pass, watch the "Quarterback's Eye," hit another button to throw the pass, keeping it held down longer in order to throw a bullet pass, then hit a different button to switch control to the receiver, at which point I'd hit a combination of buttons to leap, catch the ball, stiff-arm, speed burst, and gain three yards.

I'm confused just typing that.

And maybe kids today can work those controls, but I can't, and kids today are losers.

So I decided, after recently rediscovering Pac Man and remembering that once upon a time I could control my video game avatar and actually play, to celebrate, over the next 8 MiniBests, the 8 Best Video Games, and today's is number one, number one being:
2001 Madden NFL for the PlayStation 2.

I picked this one as the first entry on this list because it was the last "modern" videogame I enjoyed playing and didn't need to practice at to play.

Every boy I know grew up wanting to play football -- harboring dreams that they would someday be in the NFL, playing for a playoff spot and then the Super Bowl. Some of us****

****Specifically, me.

Have still not really given up on that; there's still a part of me that thinks "Well, with a little conditioning, I could probably start at quarterback and go, say, 11-5 with a 92 rating."

(That part of me is the part that doesn't recall that I got really winded the other day playing Chase with Mr Bunches.)

Madden NFL football was the first football game to give us a chance to do that without getting winded or having to go outside: prior football games that I actually owned looked like this:

and then this:

And then this:

But Madden NFL looked like this:

And by 2001, it had pretty much hit perfection: Just the right level of challenge in the game play, just the right level of complexity: It was possible to play it on the old controllers, the ones that didn't have 73 different buttons and a gyroscope in them, the plays were fun, the teams were pretty evenly matched. I loved the 2001 version of this game, the only one I ever personally owned. I set up a season and picked my team, the Buffalo Bills, and got them into the playoffs and everything -- picking apart defenses and going for it on fourth-and-long and otherwise managing to get the feel of what it might be like to play in the NFL the way I wanted it to be and without getting my head torn off.

Of course, no good thing can be left untouched -- EA Sports wants to keep getting new money from players, so they have to offer new things every year, and they tweaked it and made it harder and "more realistic" and... worse. Every new feature made the game a little tougher to play, but in the worst way possible: by making it harder to work the controls. The competition didn't get better -- it just got tougher to actually make the game do what I wanted it to do.

Again, that's like simply making the dice heavier; sure, it makes the game tougher to play, but not in a good way.

I blame, in this case, a complete lack of creativity combined with a complete lack of smarts on the part of Madden NFL lovers. EA Sports couldn't come up with new games that would appeal to football fans, but wanted to keep getting $40-70 per year from them. So they simply recreated the wheel each year, with some new unnecessary feature. And the gamers just went ahead and bought the new version, each year, to get updated stats and new uniforms, at full cost with a few options that they hadn't needed the year before to enjoy the game.

And at some point, EA Sports ran out of useful tweaks and simply added new tweaks like "quarterback eye," a horrible innovation where your QB has to look around the field and you have to wait until he looks at the receiver you want, until you get sacked, and a bunch of other stupid things.

Imagine if the thinking behind EA Sports' yearly Madden updates were applied to, say, books or movies or TV shows. Sure, in other entertainment, they release sequels and imitators, but if the EA Sports Madden Model were applied to books, then John Grisham wouldn't even need to change the names in his assembly-line thrillers. He'd have released The Firm, and a year later we'd get The Firm 1993, this time with some footnotes and an extra chapter that flashed back to Tom Cruise's law school days.

The Firm 1994, 1995, etc. would have kept going until there was no more story to add and instead we got a new way to shuffle the chapters, a cover that was slightly more green but could be changed to blue by sliding it counterclockwise... and so on.

All of it not adding to the story and making it more difficult or annoying to just read the thing.

Sometimes, things are good enough. And any update or change has to actually add something to the experience you're trying to create. Looking at the Madden NFL changes as time went on from 2001, it seems to me that the "experience" Madden NFL was really trying to re-create was the experience of trying to solve a Rubik's cube you're not allowed to look because you're driving a car on the freeway at rush hour at the time. Or at least that's what it felt like to me, losing 68-3. So excuse me if I'm not looking forward to future ideations of that "game" which I'm sure will include such enhancements as "requiring that you hop on one foot in iambic pentameter in order to tackle the runner."

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1 comment:

Rogue Mutt said...

Most video games now days make me feel stupid. Even the Lego ones! I was playing Lego Batman and got stuck on the boss fight against Moth man or whoever the hell he is. So I had to go to one of the websites to look up a walkthrough and found out that in this case I had to hold down the stupid Z button, which I'd never needed to use before, so how would I know to use it now?

I never beat Spider-Man 2 for the PS2. I got up to the final fight with Doc Ock but I couldn't push the right buttons fast enough to beat him. Which I don't care about because it's more fun to just swing around New York and occasionally beat up random criminals. Jumping off the top of the Empire State Building is really fun.

I couldn't even beat "Donkey Kong Country" for the SNES. I got up to this one level near the end and couldn't figure out how to jump over these spiky wheel things. Not even the walkthroughs were helpful. They just say, jump over the wheel things. Gee, thanks.

So yeah I suck at video games. But Wii Sports is fun.