Monday, December 29, 2008

Why I'm glad I bought a Wii

Reading about Steve Yegge's problems with Fable II makes me appreciate my Wii just a bit more. To begin with, having to deal with games that need certain hardware to work was one of the reasons I've given up living on the cutting edge of PC gaming. It seems Microsoft can't make a break with its past when it develops the Xbox consoles. Some of my earliest, and not so happy, memories of computer gaming are scanning the small print on the side of a the game I'd really like to buy only to discover my computer doesn't have enough RAM or the right graphics card.

Now with the additions of the balance board, Wii Motion Plus and a storage solution, I'm sure hardware requirements on the Wii will get trickier in the near future. Nintendo seems to be taking it slow for the very purpose of making the additions smooth for game players rather than forcing changes.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz

Marble gravity puzzles have a long history both in physical and digital forms. In both cases, whether the maze should be manipulated directly or via mind-bending knobs depends on if the designer intended the puzzle or the control to challenge the player. The grandfather of video game marble puzzles, Marble Madness, began life in arcades with an intuitive trackball setup that highlighted the course itself. Later, it was ported to other platforms which tend to use directional controls making the game an exercise in axis shifting.

Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz Various

Super Monkey Ball on the GameCube represented a sort of middle ground between the extremes. I only played it a few times and using an analog stick to maneuver floating platforms in order to propel monkeys who were inexplicable trapped in transparent spheres took some getting used to. But once oriented, the game felt fairly natural, though the levels themselves are very difficult. However, the Wiimote's tilt control and Super Monkey Ball are an even better fit. Tilting the controller forward tilts the world forward and starts your monkey moving ahead. Tilt in the other direction to slow down and to one side to turn. I'd guess the transition from "What's going on here?" to "This is awesome!" is half as long on the Wii compared to the GameCube.

This time around, Sega added the ability to jump, which adds a platforming element to many levels. Personally, I find jumps enjoyable, but aggravating at times. Part of the aggravation comes from the challenge of getting over obstacles or across gaps, but a bit is related to the controls. Jump is mapped to A, which normally makes sense. However, the A button is toward the front of the Wiimote, so pressing it pushes the controller forward a bit, causing your monkey ball to race forward as soon as you land often sending it crashing into some object in your path or zipping off the end of the platform. Knowing the cause of the problem was all I needed to solve it. Jumps can also be accomplished by holding the B button and flicking the Wiimote up. While it seems gimmicky, this method does allow jumps to flow better at the cost of being slightly less responsive.

I've only finished about half the main game, which tells you A) the course difficulty ramps up pretty quickly and B) I have not played it as much as Super Mario Galaxy. The courses I have beat were fun and challenging. But trying and failing the levels can be a chore because of the way the worlds open up. Initially, you start with an island world (Monkey Island, if you believe it). Each level in that world has the same music and graphics style. If you beat that world (most will have no problem up to the final map before the boss fight), you are allowed to move on to the Jungle world. You can play the levels within a world in any order, but you can't move on to another world until you finish off the previous one. So it's not unusual to get stuck on a map and have nothing to do but try over and over to beat it. In Galaxy, you can never get stuck on a level with nothing else to do because there are always a handful of worlds available at any one time. Opening new worlds in Banana Blitz requires falling off the same level over and over until you get it right.

Thankfully, there are reasons to go back to worlds you've already beaten. In order to unlock the 9th and 10th worlds, you'll need to conquer the other 8 worlds without using the continue option. Since only the most obsessive players will make use of the practice option enough to do it the first time through (and they have other problems besides being getting worn out doing something over and over), you'll likely need to retry older worlds in order to get a clean run. In addition, there are high-score, fastest-time, and bananas-collected records that can be pursued. Plus most of the courses are fun to race through and some have crazy shortcuts to attempt. Finally, a look around any cheat site will reveal a hidden goal to pursue. I'd prefer the less-linear Mario-style of progression, however.

Originally, the party games in Super Monkey Ball were a sort of extra that could be unlocked, but in Banana Blitz, they are half of the game's split personality. This time around, there are fifty mini-games and all of them are available from the start. If you've read other reviews, you'll know these are a mixed bag. The most unfortunate are those that match Wii Sports—Monkey Squash, Home Run Derby, Monkey Golf, Monkey Bowling and Monkey Boxing. They are either shells of deeper games or simply don't work (I'm looking at you Monkey Golf!). I feel like these would have been better received if Nintendo hadn't bundled a much better package with the system. Sega could have saved the sports if they had offered traditional controls in addition to motion controls. And since some of these were included in earlier Monkey Ball titles, it should not have been hard to get this right.

Perhaps the biggest complaint about the party games is that the developers seemed to be experimenting with every type of control scheme imaginable and all sorts of crazy game concepts. The result is that each game takes a few plays to understand what's going on, which doesn't work the best in an actual party. The good news is that some of the games do work well and are fun to play. You just have to finish the bad ones quickly and move on.

I am a touch annoyed at the Shepherd game, which is an implementation of an idea I had in the late 80's while playing with my cousin's Arcade Game Construction Kit on the Commodore 64. In fairness, I've had plenty of time to implement my idea and I didn't imagine monkeys playing the role of shepherd!

The games can be divided into tilt-control, IR-pointer, and motion-control listed in order of how well they tend to work. Tilt-control games such as Monkey Snowboard benefit from the developer's experience on the main game and only have issues if theme of the game has issues. Since tilt is even used for navigating the menus, you get the idea that when the developers got down to doing the mini-games, they found tilting the easiest control to work with. All-in-all, I would have thoroughly enjoyed more attention focused on these games and either left the other game out or just directly ported the GameCube versions.

IR suffers throughout. I suspect the Wii's pointer wasn't completely understood at the time. One problem is that the system does not register the motion of pushing the Wiimote toward the screen and Banana Blitz uses this mechanic in many mini-games. Sitting closer to the sensor bar helps as does making more dramatic motions. Another problem stems from a pretty good idea: pointer calibration. Before IR-pointer games the players are asked to land a ladybug on a flower to calibrate their Wiimotes. If you land in the center of the flower, your Wiimote will be directed at the sensor bar, not the TV, so in the game you won't be pointing at the screen. A solution is to aim at the screen and ignore the bug during calibration so it will land at the bottom of the flower if you have your bar mounted above the screen and vice versa. Finally, more rumble feedback would help greatly to know if you are pointing at what you think you are pointing at.

Motion control is temperamental at best in these games. Too often a movement will be ignored only to have the motion of returning the controller to a neutral position be registered. So in Monkey Golf, a back swing won't be detected, but lowering the controller will be detected as a stroke somehow. So your monkey ball will dribble a few feet off the tee rather being hit hard. Putting is even more frustrating since there's no way to gauge how hard the game will interpret your swing. I feel I do the same motion, but one time it barely budges the ball and the next it shoots the ball off the green. Other games are better, but only because constantly shaking the controller is rewarded by lots of action on the screen. The one game that motion control works for is Red Light, Green Light. Shake the Wiimote and Nunchuk like crazy when the light is green and stop all movement when it turns red. Temperamental controls add to rather than subtract from this bazaar activity.

Two factors ought to temper some of my negative comments about Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz. First, it was a launch game and having fun titles to play on a new console, especially a console as revolutionary as the Wii, are critical to the platform's success. Taken on its own, the main game is a worth addition to any Wii library and a showcase of the power of tilt-control. The mini-games should be seen as 50 experiments, many of which succeed. That so many copycats have now tread the same ground on Wii should not be held against this group of party games. The second factor is that nobody will be paying anywhere near full price on this title. In the context of Wiiware, and it can be purchased for Wiiware prices, the main game is a true bargain. The rest of the package can be utterly ignored or counted as the whipped cream and cherry topping.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

MLB Power Pros: Extras

If this were an infomercial, this would be the moment where I'd say "but that's not all!" There is so much content jammed into Power Pros it's not an exaggeration to say there's something for everyone. Take for instance the collector. While you play through full games in Season Mode, finish Success Mode or compete in the Home Run Derby, the game awards you Power Major Points. These can be used to buy a variety of upgrades, stadiums, uniforms, pitching and batting stances, and baseball cards. The cards include basic statistics, pictures and a short description of the player's career as seen from the Japanese perspective. Getting everything is a major challenge and amounts to hundreds of hours of gaming.

MLB Power Pros Various

While you are playing, the game keeps track of every pitch and the stat fiend can have field day with the various reports. I know I like to pitch a breaking ball down for the first pitch. The Profile section of the game has reports that tell me not only the exact percentage of my first pitches that are breaking balls, but what the batter did with those pitches. Every record, including various achievements, are tracked constantly. At the end of every game, you have the option to review each pitch. Can't remember if your game-winning homerun was off a hanging curve or a meaty fastball? Look it up! During season mode, you can see player statistics updated play by play. My only disappointment is there's no way to calculate advanced statistics like WARP and Runs Created. If only I could save the numbers to my computer...

When you are ready to step up your game (by taking control of fielders for instance) Practice Mode puts you through rigorous training. Every aspect of the game can be drilled until you have down. You can take batting practice against real or generic players pitching one or a variety of pitches. There's a pitching drill where you aim for a specific location. Fielding can be either on randomly hit balls or balls on a manually set trajectory. Base running practice covers the basics of moving from one base to another, but is very thin. Then there are general offense and defense sessions where there are no outs and you try to score or prevent runs. Each practice can be set in specific game conditions and use any control setup. It's an ideal way to improve your abilities.

Somewhere, no doubt, there is a group of friends looking for a round robin competition offered in League Mode. Until the game can be played online, those guys will be the only ones using it. They will also be good candidate for the Arrange Team mode, which give players total control over a team to be customized. Besides the obvious ability to add and remove players, players can change the colors of a team's uniforms, alter name and location, pick a home stadium and so on. Custom teams may then be used in other modes.

Fans of particular players have quite a bit of control over how they look and act on the field. Most characteristics may be edited down to the color of a player's bat, glove, and wristband. (The Japanese seem to have an unhealthy obsession with wristbands.) Abilities may be changed as well at the cost of a unique band on the player's nameplate. If you are willing to enter painfully long passwords, it's possible to exchange players with others. But passwords do not transfer from one version of the game to another. One thing that can't really be changed is the pronunciation of a player's name. Or rather the name can be changed, but only to a name that has already been recorded. So Barry Bonds will always be announced as "Great Gonzales".

The only reservation I really have is that the 2008 version is already out and the 2009 version is coming soon. Both games seem even better than the 2007 version and neither will are be overly expensive. Given that the game has been under development since 1994 in Japan it's already pretty well polished, so if you find a copy in the bargain bin it will be well worth your while.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

MLB Power Pros: Season Mode

Season Mode builds on the core of Exhibition Mode by putting you in the shoes of a big league GM. For veterans of baseball games, this will be familiar territory: you can jump into your local team's front office or draft an expansion team from scratch. Beginning with opening day, you've got 10 seasons to work with in order to build a dynasty, which seems a bit short. (To be fair, I haven't finished a term at GM yet, so I can't really complain.) As with Success Mode, there's distinct Japanese feel with anime-style characters and load screens. You've got an assistant who guides you through the basics of the game (including some extreme basics like the number of teams in Major League Baseball), seems to have a crush on your character and cheers on the team at key moments.

MLB Power Pros Various

As you might expect by now, there are tons of options, most of which may be safely ignored. For instance, you can initiate a trade with another team in order to improve your talent pool or get rid of expensive players. Before the trade is confirmed, you get feedback about the odds it will be accepted in the form of a zero to five star rating. A few days later, you find out if the other GM accepted or rejected your offer. All of this is totally optional, though you will be offered trades by other teams from time to time.

Games can be played through from start to finish for a fully immersive experience or you can simulate being a manager with Fast Mode or being a GM by simulating weeks, months or entire seasons at a time. Optionally, you may watch specific players or situations so that you can drop into the game when they come up. One especially good use for this option is to watch Success Mode players that you've signed to continue monitoring their progress. MLB Power Pros keeps track of all sorts of achievements from complete game shutouts to getting a certain number of hits to turning double plays, which score your team Owner Points. As the season continues you stock up points that are used to pay player salaries, buy players from other teams or purchase training equipment. Winning individual awards, getting into the post-season and winning playoff series increases your points scored as well. Essentially, the more exciting the team, the more interest the fans have, and the more money the GM has to play with.

Veterans of games like MVP Baseball might miss the depth of Season Mode initially. You don't set hot dog prices, schedule promotions, buy stadium upgrades and so on. The business side of the game is more abstract and the minor league system is just a holding area for upcoming players. Power Pros' training system more than compensates for these short-comings, however. During the season, you can assign players to practice on skills you'd like to have them improve on. Assigning a veteran and a rookie to a practice group will allow the older player to transfer some skills to the greenhorn. Too much practice will wear out a player, so they will need to be rested. To avoid micromanagement problems, players can be assigned to automatic training in which computerized coaches handle assignments.

For the most part, Season Mode lets you play the game the way you want to play it. You can micromanage every moment of you players' professional lives or sit back and let the Wii simulate entire seasons. And there are several viable strategies, such as gambling on free agents to win post-season points or training lesser players to become stars or signing Success Mode players you've created. Unlike Exhibition Mode, the games have meaning as teams find themselves in tight pennant races and players compete for post-season honors. Just as in real life, individual games are fun, but the real pleasure of baseball is the season-long dramas that play out each summer.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Super Mario Galaxy: Controls

Clearly, the Wii owes a great deal of its success to the Wiimote's innovative control features. And the latest Mario also excels in large part because the controls work so well. So you might expect that Super Mario Galaxy relies on the new controls as well. But you'd (mostly) wrong. In fact, I believe the game would be almost as good with a GameCube controller.

Mario's basic movement is accomplished with the analog stick on the Nunchuk attachment, which is exactly what you want in a 3D platformer. Small movements of the thumb start the little plumber walking and big movements propel him across the world quickly, yet accurately. Like the GameCube analog stick, there are eight notches to push into, which makes running from point A to B easier than if the stick were completely free moving. Mario has a quirk that simultaneously makes him easier and more satisfying to control: he can walk right to the edge of most platforms without falling. If he takes that extra step, he usually can grab the edge before falling thus saving a life for another day. It's rare to walk to your death in this game. (Running and jumping to your death commonly occurs, however.)

The other thing you want Mario to do all the time, of course, is jump and that control is conveniently located under your other thumb—the A button on the Wiimote. Again, this is exactly the way a platformer should be controlled. Pulling off precise jumps is made easier by giving the player the ability to change course midair, which is physically-impossible everywhere but in a video game. Jumping into a wall and jumping again in the opposite direction allows you to get to higher locations than would be ordinarily be possible. Many levels rely on the ability to climb parallel vertical walls and the maneuver is very satisfying to pull off.

A third command, which is commonly needed, duck was mapped to the Z button on the Nunchuk. Again, it would have been easy to put this on a shoulder button of the GameCube controller. Combined with movement, the duck becomes a duck walk and combined with a jump, it becomes an extra high back-flip. Tapping Z and A while running allows for long jumps and tapping Z in the air produces a ground pound needed to stun certain enemies. As you can see, there are a number of combinations that help Mario get from point A to point B. Pretty soon, you'll find yourself back-flipping into a wall jump and finishing off with a ground pound. And none of these controls use features not available on the GameCube.

The main action you need that is mapped to a Wiimote only control is Mario's spin attack. Flicking the Wiimote (or Nunchuk) in a vaguely circular motion causes Mario to violently spin with fists outstretched knocking around enemies. While there's no reason it couldn't be mapped to a button, the physical action of flipping the wrist maps well to the onscreen action of a spin attack. In addition, there's a short recharge period that needs to be observed before using spin attack again, so the relatively slower flick control matches the relatively slow development of the attack. As you might expect, the spin control is pressed into a variety of different uses in different portions of the game. You can get a speed boost underwater, turn giant screws, start skating on ice worlds, gain more jump hang time, spin a Boo out of the way and so on.

Galaxy makes moderate use of the IR controls to collect and fire star bits. Most levels are completely playable without this mechanic, but it does make some of them easier. Firing star bits takes a backseat to collecting them, since it's usually better to save them in order to get a new life. The second player essentially uses the IR controls exclusively. When I've been able to talk my son into playing, it's nice to be able to have one person dedicated to manipulating the star bit inventory. (The second player can also freeze most enemies, which simplifies many puzzles.) Other uses of the pointer include aiming the canon with Mario as ammunition, grabbing pull stars, positioning bubble puffers, etc.

It seems like the development team had some fun with some of the levels. For instance, several levels have stars trapped in transparent balls that Mario jumps on and are controlled by tilting the Wiimote. (Now where have I seen that before?) Another level lets Mario ride a giant swimming manta ray via tilt control. A great many puzzles depend on special costumes that alter the way Mario moves through the world. Fire Mario launches fire balls instead of the spin attack. Bee Mario flies a short distance in lieu of jumping. Boo Mario disappears when you flick the Wiimote. And so on.

Friday, November 21, 2008

MLB Power Pros: Success Mode

The thing is, MLB Power Pros is a product of Japanese imagination. The best evidence (after the character design) would be Success Mode: an RPG-style player creator. When I first heard about it, I figured it was one of those things I'd never understand about Japan. (No doubt, there are things about American culture that Japanese folks don't get.) It seems unbelievably off-the-wall.

MLB Power Pros Various

As it turns out, Success Mode works pretty well. To put things in prospective, the first time I played a baseball game with a player editor (Earl Weaver Baseball: a true classic), I boosted the abilities of my favorite players. "Lou Gehrig was much faster than that. Let's give him 10 speed." Next, I created a new player with perfect stats. Then I made up a team with perfect players. While this can be fun for a while, there's no reason to care about a team of identical supermen. After that, I went through the most recent Bill James Baseball Abstract and created as many real players as I could. This was more fun, but tedious.

By setting up player creation as a Role-Playing Game, Success Mode solves both the hyper-powered and who-cares problems in one shot. You follow the same story each time you play as a Powerful University freshman who wants to make it to the big leagues. Each turn, you have to decide what to focus on for the following week: practice (there are numerous sub-choices), hitting the books, working a student job, going on a date, or just resting. Depending on what you chose, you may get experience points of several flavors (Strength, Mentality, Breaking Ball, and so on), which can be used to buy attributes and abilities such as hitting power, pitch types and Aggressive Runner.

For most of the game, you don't play any baseball at all. At the end of the first year, if you've impressed the coach, you will start the final game of the season for the Powerful Tulips. Your results are determined partially by how you control your player and partially by the abilities you've earned so far in the game. In turn, the results give you more experience points to buy abilities that will help you do better next year. Doing well in games is also how you impress the Major League scout that hangs around the university. And impressing the scout is the key to getting a minor league contract. Players that succeed in Success mode will then be playable in other modes of the game, including Season Mode.

Throughout the game, random scripted events occur that alter your character's stats. And you are confronted with a variety of choices that force you into difficult decisions. So it isn't really possible to create a perfect player without resorting to tedious save game exploits and even then you'll need to make some compromises. It's not an exaggeration to say that everything you do in Success Mode translates in to the final product somehow. For instance, if you routinely strike out or get extra-base hits an area of the strike zone, that area will be a cold or hot zone for the created player. After going on a date with a girl, you might end up with the Barehand Catch or Choke Artist ability. With so many unique attributes, it's hard not to become attached to your Success Mode creations.

This is as good a time as any to gripe about one missing feature: roster updates. When I play the Dodgers, Juan Pierre is awesome and Matt Kemp is so so. Of course I can buy the 2008 edition, but that will still be a year out of date by the time opening day rolls around. Andruw Jones will still be an everyday player. Konami could fix this by distributing (even for a small price) the roster updates directly. Even better, however, would be to allow users to make and distribute roster updates online. MVP Baseball hasn't seen an official update since 2005, but there is a thriving community updating the rosters. Not only would that be more cost-effective for Konami, it likely would result in higher quality rosters. The series has sold well enough to make a 2009 update possible, so we will have a solution to the problem soon.

Surprisingly, Success Mode comes very close to being a complete game all by itself. It's perhaps a bit short and could use more in game action, but other than that I'd be happy with the depth of this one mode. The true payoff, however comes from signing your Success Mode players in Season Mode and following the next 10 years of their career.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

MLB Power Pros: Exhibition Mode

The battle between pitcher and batter lies at the heart of any baseball game and at the center of MLB Power Pros. For quick pickup games with a friend, against the computer, or a CPU vs. CPU demo, the place to go is Exhibition Mode. There you will pick two Major League teams (no Miis outside of Wii Remote mode) and play using traditional console controls. Personally, I find the GameCube controller more natural than the Wiimote/Nunchuk setup because all the throwing and running buttons are always under the thumb.

This is a cursor-control game, which means the pitcher picks a location and the batter tries to guess where the ball will cross the plate. If all goes well (for the batter), the sweet-spot of the bat will smack the ball for a hit. Missing the location will result in a variety of sub-optimal outcomes. For a long time, this was the traditional way to design an arcade baseball game and it has been derided for being unrealistic. More recently, games have used a timing based system that works like the traditional golf power slider control.

MLB Power Pros Various

Some people feel the cursor style puts too much control in the thumbs of the player. No pitcher has the pinpoint control and it's too easy for a player to get a perfect hit every at bat. I have MVP Baseball 2005 on the PC, which used a timing system, and I find MLB Power Pros more realistic. With Expert pitching, you have to time your release correctly in order to hit the catchers glove and turning off automatic lock-on makes batting more difficult. Further, each player has dozens of underlying attributes that alter his ability to respond directly to your controls. So a pitcher that lacks control will miss more often and a batter with poor contact skills will have a smaller sweet-spot.

For example, Johan Santana has a pretty good fastball, so it can be hard to make contact on strike one. If he throws it in the same location on the second pitch, the batter can be dialed in at take a good swing at it. Fortunately, Santana also has an A+ circle change that messes up a batter's timing. More often then not, the batter will have finished swinging before the pitch crosses the plate. A timing-only system would illustrate the value of a changeup too, but Santana also has an excellent slurve. In MLB Power Pros, a hitter who has been setup with a fastball will tend to swing over the top of slurve since the pitch starts off looking a lot like a fastball. A batter with good contact might be able to get enough of the pitch to foul it off, but it won't be automatic. The human player will need to recognize the pitch quickly and drop the bat a bit. There's just a ton of nuance in the cursor system that I never noticed in MVP Baseball.

As a batter, the strategy of "sitting on a fastball" makes sense. With the "Big Swing" option that reduces the sweet spot to circle, you have a good chance to drive a fastball in the strike zone. Once you get to two strikes, you can switch back to contact mode (the sweet spot becomes a teardrop with the point aimed at the handle of the bat) or try to foul off breaking stuff. With a home run hitter like Ryan Howard at the plate, it's easy to see why a hanging curve is such a big mistake—that sucker is gone. The two problems I have with batting are the inability check a swing and the difficulty drawing walks. The first is a minor annoyance, but its not a big deal once you get used to the idea. The second seems to be a function of the level of difficulty. In Normal settings with three balls, the computer pitcher bares down and throws nothing but strikes (which are often homerun balls). The computer gives up more walks with Expert and higher settings since it tends to work off the plate more. I'd welcome an option that makes the umpire's interpretation of the strike zone a little more fuzzy.

Games are played to completion pretty quick. Usually it only takes 20 to 30 minutes depending on how many replays you watch. Pitchers go into the windup almost immediately after the previous pitch is resolved and most of the cut scenes between plays can be skipped. There's no need to warm up relief pitchers, which might be unrealistic, but removes my least favorite aspect of real baseball: in-inning pitching changes. Plays end automatically once all baserunners stop moving and the ball is securely in the defense's grasp. Unlike more graphically intense games, foul balls are not loving tracked into the stands to show off details of the crowd.

Baserunning and fielding can be automatic, manual or semi-automatic. (Semi-automatic means you control lead runners and throwing while the computer manages everything else.) Manual controls are difficult and can be frustrating—nothing is more annoying than getting a made-to-order double-play ball that slips past an infielder and then rolls past an outfielder for a double. I also lose too many baserunners through forgetting they are on base during infield pop-ups. Better players might be able to control those aspects as well as the computer, but I don't think it's possible to do better than the automatic setting. Semi-automatic seems a good compromise.

Speaking of settings, there are far too many to go over in even an extensive review. It can be totally overwhelming, since it's hard to know what one particular tweak might do to the game. On the other hand, there's no real need to adjust the settings unless you want to. When you start up a game, each player can pick from Easy, Normal and Expert. The spread between the settings make games between unequal players (such as my son and I) competitive. Games can be shortened to 1, 3 or 6 innings to save time. Games can be played during the day or at night, fair or rainy weather, in MLB parks or a few imaginary parks, with many or no replays, and so on. Compared to other games, MLB Power Pros features only a limited number of camera angles, but the angles represented are quite pleasant.

Graphically, the game seems simple and cartoony. But there's a lot of attention to detail under the surface. For instance, balls hit out of Wrigley roll onto Waveland Avenue past speeding buses. (I'm pretty sure the street is closed on game days, but I appreciate the hat tip to quirky ballparks.) Afternoon games start out sunny, but the sun sets as the innings go by. First basemen toss underhand to pitchers covering the bag. Many, many players have unique stances and pitching forms. All the strange hairstyles and beards in the Majors are represented. Pitchers take uneasy glances over at runners on first and will pick up the rosin bag to calm themselves down. Balls take realistic trajectories off the bat. Runners from first try to take out the infielder covering second to breakup a double play. Catchers block the plate in a satisfying way. Every animation is smooth as silk. Pretty soon you don't see bobble-heads in the outfield, but baseball players.

I don't think anyone (except Konami) is satisfied with the sound. From the moment you load up the game ("MLB POWER PROS!!!"), you know this game tries to amp up the action with an excited announcer. The effect will be entertaining for a few games, but after a while, it gets old. While the play-by-play commentator (some guy named Jack Merluzzi), has a wide variety of lines, they don't always sync up with the action on the field. It's hard to figure out how these lines could be strung together on a single play: "And he was fooled inside. IT'S A HIT! He pulled it foul." It seems like something was lost in translation. Also both the stadium announcer and Jack screw up the pronunciation of player names, which many people find annoying. Personally, I find these glitches charming, but there's too much repetition in some of the more basic calls. Sports games in general are prone to this issue and it's not an easy problem to solve.

Exhibition Mode lays the foundation for most of the other modes. While it is fun to play a game or two on the side, it's even more fun to play games that matter in Season Mode. The little snippets of college baseball in Success Mode, which use the same basic game play, make for great season finales. When it comes down to the big Eckersley/Gibson situations, you want to know that everything hinges on a 3-2 backdoor slider. All in all, baseball has never felt more enjoyable for me in video game format than MLB Power Pros.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Go, Diego, Go! Safari Rescue

Go, Diego, Go! Safari Rescue was the "one free" my son picked out in a "buy two, get one free" sale, so I didn't have high expectations. Thankfully, the game cleared the admittedly low bar. If you've seen the show aimed at the pre-school and kindergarten set, you have a pretty good idea of how Safari Rescue plays: Animals are in danger, lots of repetitive running around, occasional multiple-choice logic problems, encouragement to move like an animal and a few factoids about the animals as they are rescued. Fans of the show will be right at home.

The controls are basic, but effective. Tilt the Wiimote to the left and Diego runs to the left. Tilt to the right to run right. Either 1 or 2 will cause Diego to jump or manipulate objects in the environment. Along the way, obstacles arises that requires the player to perform some motion: spray water like an elephant, shake a tree, climb a ladder and so on. From time to time, the player is called on to steer some mode of transportation along a fixed pathway. At no point will the game let a player suffer more than a quick stumble, so young players won't be discouraged.

There is a basic cooperative mode, but it could really be fleshed out. Rather than taking control of Baby Jaguar, which would have been easy to implement, the second player spends most of their time watching the progress of the primary player. During certain Wiimote waggle challenges, the second player can perform the motion to slightly speed up the action. Sadly, this won't be much help since the challenges are so short and easy to begin with. At our house, the second player imitates the actions of the primary player even though they don't have any effect in the game itself. The other multi-player mode occurs outside of the main game where players can race the elephants, Jeeps, hang-gliders and so on. This mode is fairly short and uncomplicated, but does add a bit of spice to the overall package.

Now there really isn't much to the game. Playing through everything, including earning all badges, will only take an hour or two. Young children might take a bit longer to explore things since it's possible to loop back and start parts of levels over. Game play is relaxing rather than challenging after learning the basic control. I found the mud board runs entertaining for a while and jumping from one ledge to another using spring platforms was a small thrill. Other activities became repetitive, but not to an extreme. Older children will get bored fairly soon.

But younger players (no older than kindergarten) who like the show will play it over and over. For them, the experience will be much like watching the show itself. That includes good voice acting and a somewhat flimsy story. As a parent, I enjoyed helping my son and watching him get better at moving Diego around. For the right child, there's nothing wrong with picking up a copy in the bargain bin.

It saddens me to read that the sequel, Go, Diego, Go! Great Dinosaur Rescue, is identical to Safari Rescue, but that's more or less par for the course in preschool games. These games have very short shelf life at full price since consumers have come to expect very little of them. It's too bad. There are plenty of game play elements to build a fun series, but instead the publishers and developers have decided to settle on mediocrity. There is a solution: refuse to pay full price unless game makers put in a full effort. Hit 'em where it hurts.

MLB Power Pros: Wii Remote mode

Wii Sports baseball left me underwhelmed with it's lack of depth and repetitive play. Smashing home runs in the home run derby mode and taking batting practice can be relaxing, but the game itself gets old fast. Thankfully, there is an option for baseball fans: MLB Power Pros. I own the 2007 version, which was the first of Japan's long running series to be released in the US and the first available on the Wii.

Like the original Wii baseball game, MLB Power Pros puts the power of the Miimote's motion sensing to good use both on the batting side and (with less success) on the pitching side. The only significant feature missing is that players can't waggle the onscreen bat as the pitcher winds up. But that is mostly a cosmetic (though impressive) feature.

MLB Power Pros Various

On the plus side, players are real Major Leaguers. They are represented by Mii-like dolls that approximate the look and mannerisms of the real-life players. Their actions on the field are influenced by a complex suite of attributes. So you won't find Ichiro hitting many home runs, but he will find a way to beat out more than his share of grounders. The other modes of the game seem to be more heavily influenced by player ability than the arcade-like Wiimote mode, but it's an important touch. When you control a pitcher, you'll have his full repertoire of pitches and have some control on speed and location. As a batter, you can try laying down a bunt with the pitcher or pulling the ball over the Green Monster with Manny Ramirez. Waggling the Wiimote summons more speed from runners and fielders.

There's a full game of baseball available with a huge variety of options. But you can also play home run derby or a quick three-inning affair that matches Wii Sports. Play in real parks with real players or in imaginary parks with teams of your Miis or an variation of the above. If it's been your dream to face Greg Maddox at Wriggly Stadium, this is your chance. And all of this is just one, relatively minor mode in a jam-packed package.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Super Mario Galaxy

The third game that was bundled with the Wii was Super Smash Bros. Brawl, but I never really had an interest in it. So, I traded it for Super Mario Galaxy at Wal-Mart. It was a great choice.

As always with Mario games, you control the portly, but surprisingly athletic plumber in a quest to save Princess Peach from Bowser. But after a few minutes playing, that no longer matters. What does matter is the joy of exploring galaxies (hence the name) in search of Power Stars. Each galaxy consists of several planetoids that house different obstacles to your goal. As you collect more Power Stars, more galaxies and missions open up to you. It's enjoyable to go back and play levels you've already completed, but opening new levels stands as the main draw to keep playing early in the game. In my opinion, the feeling of wanting to play "just one more time" defines good games.

Technically, the galaxies shine. The crystal/glass effects of the Pill Planet made me gasp the first time I landed on it. A few levels feature a giant ball that Mario rolls around on à la Super Monkey Ball. When the ball moves quickly the background music speeds up and comes to a virtual stand still as the ball does. There are a variety of suits that Mario may grab to completely alter his abilities, including becoming Bee Mario. Transforming from one to another occurs seamlessly even though each alters gameplay dramatically. Once the game is started, there are no perceptible load times and at no point do you feel pulled out of the game by technical glitches or hiccups. (Once in a while, however, the automatic camera gets lost and you see the outline of Mario behind a pillar or wall. Just press C to reorient.)

Galaxy's music deserves special mention. The soundtrack is fully orchestrated and sets an ideal tone for your quest. Each level plays to background music that fits the pace and mode of the location. One of the early galaxies features playful and bouncy music that fits with the way Mario leaps around the planets. The Honeybee Kingdom moves along like a busy honeybee finding new flowers to harvest. Beach galaxies dance with tropical calypso beats. When Bowser shows up, the music becomes operatic and brooding. In every case, the music compliments the situation and the situation gives meaning to the music.

With a world just asking to be explored, it might have been easy to just scatter Power Stars around and call it a day. Instead, each level received careful attention to be both challenging and approachable. Part of the secret is that it's fairly easy to acquire extra lives, yet very easy to lose them. Just three hits from enemies and hazards will kill Mario. Most levels also include instant-death hazards, such as black holes that suck you to doom if you fall off the side of some planets. (My son tells me not to fall into the Milky Way.) So you might start a mission with half a dozen Marios, which gives you confidence, but lose them to missteps and tricky enemy attacks. Along the way, you have chances to pick up more lives (especially if you peak around corners or collect lots of star bits). Each time you die, the tension mounts a bit. At the same time, most mistakes are obvious and avoidable, so beating a level is truly a matter of trial and error in the best sense. Thankfully save points have been spread liberally around most missions, so starting over isn't normally tedious. While the penalty for leaving a galaxy early is small, it exists, so there is a motivation to dive ahead one more time. On the other hand, it's hard to get stuck in the overall game since there are always other levels to try out.

Initially, multiplayer seemed unpromising. The second player merely points at the screen and has a limited range of actions: help Mario jump, collect and shoot star bits, and freeze enemies. But the pointer itself turns out to be the best feature of "Co-star mode". When my son is the primary player, I can point out where to go next and what to avoid, while shooting and freezing enemies. When I take the controls (normally for just long enough to get past a tricky obstacle), my son directs me to coins that I missed and collects star bits. Two proficient players wouldn't likely enjoy this mode, but it works well for unequal or casual players.

The scope of the galaxies is truly amazing. Even after you've unlocked all the galaxies, there are added challenges in the form of special comets that show up periodically. One of the comets challenges Mario to a race with Cosmic Mario and another speeds up enemies. While not every galaxy has enhanced challenges, the ones that do become much harder to beat. It would have been interesting to see all levels subject to these influences, but the level designers clearly valued a game that could be completed by most players given enough persistence.

At the end of the day, it is the level design that truly sets Galaxy apart. Classic 2D platforming levels, where the camera is locked facing the side of a wall, tend to be my favorite levels because they are all about the challenge. Every level seems to be built to maximize fun, whether because they are frustratingly difficult or delightfully relaxed.

This game keeps me up too late trying to get just one more star and prevents me from falling asleep thinking about that one missed jump or that one wasted second or that one unbeaten boss. It's a rare game that consumes the player with the simple pleasure of play.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Wii Play

In theory, Wii Play has all the elements that makes Wii Sports an enjoyable and engaging casual game. It is a collection of simple multi-player mini-games that demonstrate the controller it is packed with. This time the IR control on the Wiimote is the focus of most of the nine games (compared to five sports). Costco included the mini-bundle with the Wii bundle we bought, so I didn't really chose to buy this game. If bought separately, the cost works out to about $10 when you net out the price of an unbundled controller.

In practice, I imagine few people will play this collection as much as Wii Sports. The problem is that these games are more like very polished demos than true games. Take the shooting range which is an ideal application of the IR pointer. You aim at targets by simple wrist movements. Playing the game a few times through feels pretty good. But then the repetition becomes overwhelmingly obvious. The target sequence is identical each time through. Dedicated players have taken advantage of this to shoot down every item (including ducks that flash across the screen). While this might be a fun challenge for some, I'd prefer a bit more variety. For instance, it would be fun to have a "training mode" focusing on just skeet or ducks or UFOs or cans rather than playing through all the targets each time. Also, random target placing would have been a nice option.

Oddly Find Mii, a simplistic Where's Waldo type puzzle, works for me. A group of Miis walk by and you need to pick our a specific face in the crowd. When you pick the correct Mii, a new level appears with some new location (street, escalators, nighttime, space, underwater, and so on). Somehow the variation is just enough to keep the game interesting time after time. But it can't sustain the entire package by itself. Pose Mii does not appeal despite a similar concept—it just doesn't have enough variety.

It would seem natural for table tennis to play much like Wii Sports tennis, but instead it plays more like Pong. It isn't even a real game since you play until you break the rally. The CPU player never fails to return the ball. Laser Hockey manages to be an actual game, but doesn't have much depth. Classics like Shufflepuck Café offered a variety of computerized opponents to play through, but Wii Play has one CPU setting and it isn't terribly difficult to beat either. Pool steps up the game with a decent simulation of 9-ball. Unfortunately, the controls are a bit wonky as the pushing the cue is not always recognized. When the controls work, the game is fun and engaging, however. (But it would be nice to have the option of playing cutthroat and 8-ball.)

Lack of variety kill the fishing, cow race and tank games as well. They play alright the first few times through, but there's no real reward for repeated play. I really think the crux of my problem with this package is that the games never seem different when you play them a second or third time. My son and I have played through the games and while I find the games fairly shallow, he has trouble controlling the action. Nether of these issue exist for Wii Sports, so something is definitely off here.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Wii Sports

Since every Wii is packaged with Wii Sports, there isn't a choice—you will get Wii Sports. But will you play it?

For most people, the answer is likely to be "Yes, but only occasionally." All the the sports are extremely simple, but also extremely polished. And they are ideal demonstrations of what the Wiimote accelerometer can do. So I find myself loading the game when I want to spend a few minutes relaxing or to show off the Wii to friends. But none of the games are going to suck you in for hours at a time.


In tennis you always play doubles. You can chose to control any number of players including none (for a demo mode game) and all four. Actually, you don't control the player—just their rackets. The onscreen players rush around on their own to get close to the ball and you swing the Wiimote at just the right moment to swing the onscreen rackets. All the players you control swing at the same time, which is odd, but not really an issue once you get used to it. Virtually any motion that is vaguely like swinging will be detected as a swing, so it's possible to play while sitting on the couch. But I recommend always playing standing, since it feels a lot more like tennis and less like a video game that way. This advice holds for all the other sports as well.

If there were nothing more, I'd probably be done playing Wii Sports tennis permanently. But there are little nuances that encourage you to come back once and a while. There's a power serve if you swing fast enough at just the right moment. Good timing on the return can help you place the ball in a location the other team can never touch. Twisting the Wiimote gives the ball spin and altering the angle of swing produces slices and lobs. With practice, you can become a master of this very basic tennis simulation. It's probably the sport I'm most drawn to in the package.


Baseball is a perfect illustration of the strengths and weaknesses of Wii Sports. For the casual fan, this will eliminate any need to buy a full-fledged baseball game. The pitcher has four pitches to chose from and can throw harder and softer with faster and slower throwing motions. Batting is mostly a matter of timing and swing speed. Once the ball is hit, the Mii players hop around like Larry the cucumber. There are no throws—balls hit in the infield magically produce outs. Human players have no control over base-running or fielding, so the game is purely based on the pitcher/batter match-up. Fun but not deep.

For more serious fans of the game, the shallowness of the experience gets old quickly. Every pitcher has exactly the same abilities and the number nine hitter is just as likely to go deep as the Mii batting cleanup. While the act of pitching and batting with the Wiimote is visceral and natural, almost all pitches are strikes and can be hit deep with a bit of practice. It's fun and cute to play with your family represented by Miis, but you can't set teams or lineups beyond the lead-off hitter (your Mii) and pitcher (you again). Since there is no baseball strategy, I suppose it doesn't matter. For a fan, Wii Sports baseball is a shadow of the true sport.


Clearly the crown jewel of the collection. No doubt there are some affectionados would prefer a simulation that includes differing equipment, PBA tours and championships, sponsors, customizable lanes and oil patterns, online leader boards and so on. But, even true fans would probably want a game built around the simple and effective mechanics of Wii Sports bowling. There's a reason the Wii is sometimes called The Bowling Machine.

It is not possible to play bowling by randomly wiggling the Wiimote, unlike the other games. (This has been scientifically proven by my 5-year-old son shortly before bedtime.) You have to actually press buttons and simulate a bowling motion in order to roll the ball down the lane. Initially, aiming a shot square at the head pin seems the best strategy, but right handers will find the ball naturally curves to the left side of the lane. Lefties will tend to curve to the right. This happens because the motion of bowling usually causes a slight twist of the wrist, which is detected by the Wiimote and translates into ball spin in the game. The problem can be corrected by stepping to one side or by resisting the tendency to induce spin. With practice, it's possible to spin the ball in either direction with varying speed. Release point also matters: release high enough and the spin will not have time to alter the ball's path.

I hate to say it, but Wii Sports bowling has almost all of the good features of a night at the local alley, but none of the bad. For the price of a Wii, you can bowl as many frames from the comfort of your own home as you care to bowl. No smokers, crappy balls, ugly shoes, greasy food, drunks, league nights, pinsetter malfunctions, and so on. My family probably will go out for bowling again at some point, but there's no hurry.


Again, Wii Sports captured the essence of golf without going into great depth. As a non-golfer, I found the swinging and putting controls a reasonable facsimile of how I'd swing a club (if I did). True golf fans will want to get a more extensive game, however. Unfortunately, the rest of us will get bored with this game as well. The courses are gorgeous (easily the most impressive graphics in the package), but they are static. You can't download or design new holes, so the nine that come with the game will be all you will ever get. Even though I have resisted playing golf more than a few times, I'm a bit tired of the courses.

I do like the way the game plays, but since none of my family is excited about it and the holes remain the same, I don't play it much. My guess is that in the future I'll play it in order to get to "Pro Level" in all 5 sports. Ideally, the nine holes will be like old friends that I'm comfortable with because they are old friends. I'll let you know.


The only sport that uses the Nunchuk also is the only sport that isn't completely natural to play. Presumably the idea was to have both controllers behave as if they were fists, but somehow it doesn't always work out. Too often, a punching motion is not recognized by the game and your onscreen fist just floats uselessly. Wild shaking of the controllers seem sufficient against week opponents, but as you climb the skill ladder, you will reach a boxer who will block or avoid your flailing gloves. I'm convinced there is a skill to master, but I don't yet have the knack.

One of the true strengths of the boxing game is that it can be a decent workout if you take it seriously. Unlike real sparing, your partner can't physically damage you. After a few rounds, your arms will be ready for a break. No doubt, this sport was part of the inspiration for the development of Wii Fit (though the later is more comprehensive).

Training and Wii Fitness

Speaking of a workout, each mode has three training mini-games that drill you on various skills needed to be successful in the full games. Also, there is a fitness test that challenges you to three training sessions and rates you. Although the games use the same controls as the full sport, there is something refreshingly different in training. Even golf is more entertaining in this mode. One secret to replay values, as silly as it seems, is the fitness test. Since it only can be done once a day, I find myself tacking it onto the end of a play session, even if I was playing another game. It's surprisingly addictive to see my "Fitness Age" rise and fall as I am challenged with different training modes.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Buying a Wii

Until last Christmas I was a PC gamer (if I had time for games at all). Originally, I figured a console was too expensive—especially since I already owned a PC. Since PC games are usually a few dollars cheaper and there's no additional hardware to buy, the choice was obvious. But over the years, I played fewer and fewer games. Part of the reason was that I got married and had a son. There just hasn't been as much on-my-own time as there was when I was single. But I also discovered the fatal flaws in my cheaper-is-better world view.

First, PC gamers are constantly upgrading. In the early days it was memory. Then CPUs needed to be upgraded as well. Then video cards. Plus you need joysticks and better mice and keyboards. All these things add up over time to match or exceed a console's startup cost. Then there are the wasted hours getting all the drivers and device settings working together.

Second, most games are awful. Saving a few dollars on a good game is fine, but too often I'd buy a game only to get bored with it a few days later. This is not an issue specific to the PC, obviously. Games are hard to perfect on any platform. But the PC has a unique issue that hasn't hit console games for the most part: patches. Theoretically, a game that isn't quite perfect can be released on the PC and a few weeks later, a patch to fix the small issues can be distributed. A surprising number of times, I'd get a game that included the patch on the disk with the rest of the game! (I have no idea why publisher do that. Just send us the patched game.) The result was a culture that viewed polish as less of a goal than publishing. Technically, there's no longer a reason console games wouldn't be patched. But for some reason they aren't.

Third, PC games are either solitary or remote. Sure, we'd organize LAN parties once in a while. But that carried it's own set of problems and frustrations. The computer is ideal for one person, but a console is geared toward people sitting around the TV playing together. A game that's kinda fun can become boring really quickly if there is no one to share it with. Since I want to maximize the time I have with family, I haven't had as much time for solitary games as I once did.

Now a few years ago, I visited one of my brothers who had a GameCube. We played a bit of Wario Ware Inc. and Super Monkey Ball, which are two of the oddest games I'd ever seen. There seemed to be wires everywhere and we had to sit close to the TV. But we had a pretty good time, so I put the idea of buying a used GameCube console in the back of my mind.

Last Christmas, we visited another brother in Hawaii. He has an Xbox 360 and plays Halo online. My son, who was 4 at the time, was interested in the game, but we didn't really want him watching that sort of thing, so we loaded Lego Star Wars. I don't know what it was about that strange combination, but we had a great time. Even watching other people play was a lot of fun somehow. Being able to grab a new controller and drop in or out at any time in coop mode really increased the fun factor as well. It was a revelation.

The Xbox 360 has wireless controllers, so there is no tangle of wires. The games look great and there isn't a huge install process for starting new games (compared to PC games). When my son went to bed, my brother and I played a few games of capture the flag with strangers online and it just worked. On the downside, more casual and family-oriented games are less common then on Nintendo systems. And the Xbox draws a lot of power, so it has an overheating issue. Further, it's really expensive.

Striking a balance between the GameCube and Xbox consoles (plus adding an innovative controller) is the Nintendo Wii. Sure the graphics fail to live up to an Xbox 360 and the price is higher than a used GameCube, but it had all the features I wanted. I was lucky enough to find a bundle at Costco early this summer. In the future, I plan on writing about the games I play on it.