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.