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.