Monthly Archives: November 2012

Wolfenstein 3D (1992)

First, a very unprofessional confession: I did not want to like this game. A dismissive attitude is the worst, ugliest approach to any new experience, and it’s an even bigger no-no if you’re examining something with a critical eye. A half-decent critic should be constructive, embrace his fellow man, and keep the hope alive that every early ’90s Nazi-annihilation simulator can be a life-altering piece of software. But I sit at a computer for several hours a day, and much of that time is spent reading about video games, so I had a fair share of preconceived notions about Wolfenstein 3D before I fired a single bullet at a Gestapo officer. This was obviously one of those brainless, blood-soaked shoot-a-thons that we like to pretend our medium has grown so far beyond, but are still the rule and not the exception. I was certain this review would all but write itself: Rail against Wolfenstein’s idiocy and the heinous precedent its unthinking ultra-violence set for all of game-dom to come, but hesitantly praise its technological innovations and unprecedented ability to insert a player into the first-person perspective. A piece of cake, a short space-filler until I finish something more meaty and we can all sniff cognac and delve into a rousing symposium on the transportive majesty of Another World or Planescape: Torment. Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Wii Sports (2006)

In celebration (or at least dutiful acknowledgement) of the Wii U’s release, a look back at Nintendo’s bland, blindingly obvious killer app you can’t help but love.

Wii Sports is important. You’ve heard it before, and you’re sure to hear it again as people slowly peer into the dual screens of Nintendo’s new Wii U console, incredulously checking if the game masters can bottle such lightning twice in a row. (Early reviews answer with a definitive “maybe.”) Yes, it’s important in the way Angry Birds and The Sims and even that gilded palace of game design sin, Farmville, are important, in that six o’clock news report sense that aunts and little sisters and drab co-workers are finally coming around on this whole “video game” thing. (Despite advertising to the contrary, I still can’t picture little old ladies enjoying a rousing round of virtual boxing. If anyone has video evidence to the contrary, please feel free to share.) But that’s only one story, usually tinged with the resentment of having to let in the “norms” or conversely chanted in a Freaks-like chorus of “one of us” now that “games are for everyone.” Both responses marginalize the medium, bullying it into some weird niche instead of allowing people to decide for themselves what they want out of video games.

Nintendo made it easy to take one sideways glance at Wii Sports and declare, “sell-out.” The game’s aesthetic isn’t just boring; it’s non-existent, perhaps one of the ugliest titles ever put out by a major developer and especially shameful for the powerhouse behind such an astronomical percentage of gaming iconography. Its limp pastels and barely decorated locales don’t even jive with the comforting banality of the Wii’s future-chic menus and general style, where the twinkling ambient soundtrack and too-bright whites convey what I imagine in 2006 felt like taking Oxycontin at an Apple Genius Bar that also serves Pinkberry. Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars (1996)

The “genre mash-up” label is usually not a harbinger of artistic integrity. At their most transparent and desperate (think Cowboys and Aliens or Pride & Prejudice and Zombies), these crossovers reek of the worst commercial instincts, peddling a glib, digestible conceit over story and passion. They’re the sort of high-concept, pitch-friendly ideas that sound clever in passing but less so with every future mention, the shining allure of the “it’s like [blank] meets [blank]!” tagline – of familiar things made semi-new – slowly collapsing in on its own hollowness. In video games, no genre has suffered more indecencies at the hands of this Frankenstein-like graft treatment than the role-playing game. Nearly every other type of game has had the basic hallmarks of the RPG sutured onto it like a disproportionate fifth limb, as if skill leveling and weapon modification alone could transform any kart racer or hallway shoot-’em-up into something complex and heady. A handful of games incorporate these mechanics into their potpourris as easily as Quentin Tarantino can splice together the aesthetics of trash and art cinema, but more often than not, “contains RPG elements” is a kinder shorthand for “features extraneous bells and whistles to make this experience feel more involved than it actually is.” Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Portal 2 (2011)

If you want the clearest summation of how¬†Portal 2 differs from its predecessor, simply look at the cores. Portal 2‘s final battle – almost structurally identical to the original game’s – finds Chell attaching “personality cores” to bumbling companion-turned-adversary Wheatley, attempting to corrupt his programming and return Aperture Science to its rightful (if still slightly skewed) order. “Wacky” doesn’t even begin to sum up these eccentric, chatty spheres, each offering up so many lightning-fast quips that one is tempted to ignore the boss fight’s time limit and simply enjoy these characters’ ramblings until the facility explodes.

If nothing else, the cores are the purest expression of writer Erik Wolpaw’s gift for deadpan insanity since¬†Psychonauts’ “Milkman Conspiracy” level. Yet for all the left-field absurdity of the rough-and-tumble Adventure Core (voiced by Nathan Drake himself) and the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it foreshadowing of Portal 2‘s lunar resolution by the so-called Space Core, the conclusion lacks the thematic and emotional depth of the first game’s encounter with GLaDOS. That confrontation saw Chell disassembling her AI tormentor’s personality cores and stripping her of her most basic emotions. The result was a villain equally harrowing and hilarious, and a final battle that perfectly captured the dichotomous relationship between well-intentioned scientific objectivity and the petty, cold-hearted hubris often lurking behind it that defines the Portal universe. The fight with Wheatley offers no such metaphor, sacrificing it for one-liners and distracting action. I still enjoyed every second of it, but that’s Portal 2 in a nutshell: Bigger and more crammed with (usually wonderful) ideas, more audaciously willing to follow its bliss for laughs and entertainment, but less interested in the thoughtful, dark-edged cohesiveness that rendered the original one of gaming’s most indelible narratives. Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,