Monday, June 30, 2008

Kid-Friendly Games, Parent-Friendly Prices

Thanks to everyone for your prayers during my border awareness mission in Mexico. The experience was intellectually and spiritually edifying, to say the least. Thanks be to God for such a powerful blessing!

Many thanks to my brother Martin, as well, who graciously served as my proxy during last week's interlude. It was also his first real experience in the cyberrealm that is the blogosphere, and he made no secret of the challenge involved. Feel free to browse his comments on the Space Invaders blog from last week.

I had the privilege of seeing WALL-E (the latest film from the acclaimed PIXAR animation studio) yesterday. This review from Catholic Exchange is right on target. It truly is a Catholic masterpiece and appropriate for anybody of any age group. The video game based on the movie is available in stores now for just about any platform you can imagine – but I hesitate to recommend it. For one, I haven’t had the chance to try it yet, but more importantly, I don’t really want to. Video game adaptations of movies rarely turn out well, and even less often do they manage to emulate what made the parent film so great.

That’s not to say that high-quality family-friendly games don’t exist. They do. Take the Xbox 360 game Blue Dragon, for example. Sporting a colorful aesthetic, endearing characters, and a charming sense of adventure, Blue Dragon may just be the video game equivalent of a PIXAR film. It sports a “T for teen” rating, due to some very, very brief instances of foul language, but there really isn’t any morally problematic content beyond that. In fact, it’s one of my favorite games from 2007. Best of all, you can buy the game new at most stores for $30 or less – half the price it was when it first released nearly a year ago.

I’ll try to make “kid-friendly games, parent friendly prices” a regular feature if I can. Let me know what you think of it!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Player Diary: Space Invaders Extreme

After spending a few days with the game, I think I can safely reiterate my initial impressions from Thursday. Feel free to peruse the following entry if you’ve got questions about some of the finer nuances of the game.

The “fastest finger” (shoot-at-the-aliens-before-they shoot-at-you) gameplay still exudes the same tension and sense of urgency that made the original so much fun, and the space invaders themselves even keep their classic 8-bit aesthetic. However, Space Invaders Extreme mixes in a few modern-day trappings that make the experience substantially different from its predecessor.

For starters, the invaders come in different colors, now. It seems like a neglible difference, but it’s really important if you care at all about high scores…which is, of course, presumably why anyone would play this game in the first place. Shoot 4 enemies of the same color in sequence, and you’ll nab a “power-up” – a laserbeam, bombs that can wipe out clusters of aliens at once, a protective shield that repels enemy fire – for a limited time. Which one you get depends, once again, on the color of the space invaders you’ve destroyed. Blue enemies grant laserbeams upon their demise, while destroying red aliens yields cluster bombs.

If you manage to this twice in a row (for example, shooting down 4 red enemies and 4 blue ones in succession) and you’ll be able to interrupt the game for a special “bonus round” – complete whatever challenge the game throws at you here, and you’ll enter a “fever” mode where, for a short period of time, each enemy you shoot down will be worth 10x the normal point value.

You can also multiply your score fairly quickly simply by shooting enemies – whatever their color – in very rapid succession. Eliminating enemies at a rapid rate activates a “chain” – a score multiplier of sorts that increases with each enemy you destroy, and decreases every moment you fail to shoot down one of those pesky space varmints (and the top screen keeps track of all these score modifiers for you, so don’t worry if this sounds a tad overwhelming).

With such drastic changes to the scoring system, the game becomes more than just a simple test of precision and quick reflexes. It adds a bit of pattern-recognition based puzzle-solving to the game (much like that of another classic videogame, Tetris). In fact, I’m more inclined to label Space Invaders Extreme as a “puzzle” game rather than a “shooter.”

The other elements of the game’s presentation also reinforce this classification. Clearly inspired by the efforts of Q Entertainment, who brought us the rhythmically-challenging puzzlers Meteos and Lumines, SIE integrates sound effects with various background music and kaleidoscope-like movies, creating a sensory overload that amounts to nothing less than aural and visual opulence.

Even with these seemingly drastic alterations to the gameplay mechanics, Space Invaders Extreme maintains the same structure as its predecessor: there’s no story to speak of, nor does this game need any; the game still incorporates the arcade-style “branching” levels, (where you can continue playing until you’re out of “lives” – or, in this case, extra ships), and there’s another game mode where you can simply play through an particular level of your choice and try to get a high score. Like the original, the game is also brutally difficult at times, especially on the later stages - it’s still an exercise in futility, and, most importantly, it’s still fun, even 30 years later.

The game boasts a multi-player mode, but the gameplay options here are really limited. My brothers and I tried it, and it’s nothing more than a “compete-to-survive” contest. The depth and breadth of the solo game is not present in the multiplayer modes, and I wouldn’t recommend this game if you’re looking for a fun multiplayer game for the family. I’ve played only the Nintendo DS version of Space Invaders Extreme, but there is also a Sony PSP version for any interested parties. Most critics seem to agree that the DS version is superior, but also agreed that game is an easily defensible purchase regardless of what handheld videogame player you buy it for. I’m inclined to agree with them on the latter point, although I’m not sure if this is a game for everyone. It’s harmless fun, like the games of old, but the “fun factor” will be dependent upon your enthusiasm for earning high scores.

On another note, I’ll be out of the country for the next coming week without any internet access. I hope to back and ready to blog in the first week of July. St. Catherine of Siena and all holy men and women, pray for us!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Reliving Childhood Memories with Space Invaders Extreme

The original Space Invaders was one of the first video games I ever played. Before I ever had the privilege of owning any video games (we’re talking wayyyyyyy back in the day, folks…), my parents would frequently make visits to my grandpa’s house, where he would graciously drag out his trusty Atari 2600 game console (equipped with a very old Texas Instruments Computer), for my perusal. While this naturally facilitated exposure to a smorgasbord of classic video games, no game captivated me more than Taito’s Space Invaders.

My brother and I would spend hours defending earth from those extraterrestrial invaders, and it always seemed to be an exercise in futility: eventually, the invaders would get their way. No matter how many evasive maneuvers we employed to dodge the alien assaults, despite our quick reflexes with our “trigger fingers” (which quickly turned many a spaceship into virtual cannon fodder), we couldn’t keep the hostile hordes at bay for more than 2 levels. We had fun, anyway.

Craving a bit of nostalgia (and hearing some positive buzz from some fellow gaming fans), I ran over to my local Gamestop yesterday in hopes of finding the newly-released, modern-day re-imagining of this iconic franchise, Space Invaders Extreme. I’ve invested some playtime into it, but I won’t elaborate on the finer details now, as I still need to spend some more time with the game before a final verdict. Nonetheless, I think it’s safe to say that this game retains everything that made the original so memorable and influential – with the caveat that some of the additions to both the presentation and the core gameplay itself make SIE a substantially different game than its predecessor.

I’ll probably post a “player diary” of some sort for this game either tomorrow or Saturday. St. Catherine of Siena and all holy men and women, pray for us!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Player Diary: The World Ends With You

I will admit that I purchased the Nintendo DS game The World Ends With You (henceforth referred to as TWEWY for the sake of brevity) with a bit of pretension. $40 is a steep asking price for a handheld video game, and the lackluster previous efforts of Jupiter (the game’s developer) certainly did not inspire any extra confidence in my selection. The game’s widespread critical acclaim and the lavish recommendations of a respected friend of mine certainly helped to assuage my initial hesitations, but I think that the game’s story concept may have been the tipping point in my decision. Ever wanted to know what happens when a self-absorbed, fashion-conscious teenager from Tokyo’s bustling commercial district gets recruited for a 7-day contest with his life on the line as collateral?

It sounds like something straight out of a horror movie (2002’s mystery-thriller The Ring comes to mind, especially with the “7 days” plot device). I realize that such films don’t appeal to everyone and, at times, have a negligible moral and/or spiritual value (if any at all). That being the case, I can understand why someone might not find the game’s story as interesting as I did. But TWEWY is a far cry from Resident Evil. Rather than focusing on sharp, edge-of-your seat graphic images to elicit an emotional thrill from the game player, TWEWY primarily utilizes its characters and setting, emphasizing exploration and character development, to help the player progress through the game’s narrative.

As long as I’m on the subject of narrative, I would like to take the opportunity to mention that this game presents a surprising amount of positive Christian themes throughout the duration of the game. During the story’s exposition, Neku, the game’s protagonist, is the archetype practitioner of what G.K. Chesterton famously called the most hideous of all religions – the worship of the inner god, the self. Without giving away too much, I can say affirmatively that by the story’s conclusion, Neku is no longer a self-centered egotist – his transformation, though not quite complete by the game’s reprisal, reminds us of the Christian call to conversion: the removal of our hardened hearts of stone for hearts of compassion.

It’s also worth noting that the presentation of these positive thematic elements is not limited to exploits of the main character - the supporting characters undergo their own conversion experiences, as well. Shiki, Neku’s female companion in the 7-day contest, learns a powerful lesson about the self-destructive powers of envy. There’s also quite a bit of Christological symbology interspersed throughout the game, as well, though this particular nuance of the game’s story doesn’t always hit the mark. The game borrows quite a bit from Christian and Jewish theology, but it takes cues from Eastern mythology, as well (the Chinese Zodiac, for example, clearly influenced the names of game locations and certain characters). Some Taoist philosophy seems to be shoehorned into the game at various intervals, and at times, the game even seems to relish in a rather relativistic ethic. There was even a point – near the game’s finale, no less – where I feared the game was going to indulge in the Nihilist “kill God” conclusion seen in the His Dark Materials book trilogy (and various video games, such as Final Fantasy XII), I was happily surprised to see that the game does quite the opposite. While the correlation to a Catholic understanding of God’s mercy and love is by no means perfect, the game seems to reaffirm the existence of a loving God rather than deny it.

Despite the fact that the game takes place in Tokyo, Japan, the game’s depiction of Tokyo’s thriving Shibuya commercial district is such that the setting seems authentically Western – in fact, I’d wager that if it weren’t for the fact that TWEWY features prominent Tokyo locals, I’d be hard pressed to distinguish the game’s setting from that of any major downtown city across the North American continent.

The game also benefits from a slavishly transliterated script. This makes the characters seem as authentically "Western" as the game's location, for better of for worse; since features teenagers so prominently, you can probably guess that their language is – well, far from immaculate, to say the least! There’s a fair amount of foul language and a few very mild references to homosexual activity. That being said, I still think that the “T for Teen” ESRB rating is quite appropriate for this game. A teen with a well-formed conscience will, I imagine, have no problems gleaning the many positive fruits of this game’s narrative while leaving the poor ones to rot.

Of course, to focus exclusively on the game’s narrative would be quite silly. What is, exactly, the value of the actual “game” in this “videogame”?

Well, at it’s core, TWEWY is a real-time Japanese role-playing game. The main focus of the game is on combat, where the player controls the game’s characters in some sort of battle scenario. In TWEWY, the player controls the protagonist, Neku, using the touch-screen on the Nintendo DS. Before battle, Neku can equip different “pins” for the fight. These “pins” allow Neku to perform different sorts of attacks. For example, one pin might strike an enemy with lightning, while another will allow Neku to teleport and dodge enemy attacks. More importantly, using the pins is no small order: the aforementioned lightning pin works, for example, by drawing circles on the touch screen, while the teleportation pin is activated by simply poking the screen. Since you can only take a certain number of pins into battle (and you can only use pins a certain number of times in a row), you have to plan carefully before and during each fight.

The game also allows incorporates the fashion motif very well into these battles. The type of clothing Neku wears into battle with effect the way he fights enemies (for example, wearing one shirt will makes his attacks stronger, while another might help to dodge enemy attacks). More importantly, as in reality, clothes all have brandnames. One brand might be more popular in a certain part of Tokyo than another, and the game grants Neku extra attack power if he respects the fashion sensibilities of the area he’s fighting in. It’s a pretty clever mechanic that really added to the authenticity of the game’s setting in addition to making the game more challenging.
As the game player, you’ll not only control Neku, but another character is also at your disposal on the top screen of the Nintendo DS. Here, you’ll once again have the opportunity to equip your character with certain sets of clothing, but you’ll attack and defend against enemy attacks by using the directional pad instead of the touch screen.
The real challenge is trying to control both characters simultaneously! It’s rather difficult at first, but it’s fast, frantic, and fun in a very strategic way. It challenges the player to think critically and quickly - no small feat in the world of video games. And if you don’t want to worry about both screens at once, it’s no problem – the game has adjustable difficulty that allows the game’s CPU to control the top screen for you.

I’ve been playing TWEWY quite a bit since I bought it last month, and, needless to say, I’ve enjoyed what I played. It’s certainly been one of the best $40 I’ve spent in a long while. While by no means is the above description adequate to cover every aspect of the game, I do hope that it sufficiently covers the basics. Feel free to contact/comment if you have any more questions about the game.

Monday, June 16, 2008

So Just What are Video Games Good For?

Despite the massive popularity of the video game medium, society seems far from ready to afford game developers, their products, and even gamers themselves much attention. If anything, video games are the subjects of derision and skepticism in news media; violent video games are often blamed for inspiring the tragic Columbine shootings. The Academy Awards are broadcast to a live television audience of millions of viewers and gain the attention of mainstream news networks everywhere, but gaming awards attract no such attention. It’s not uncommon to meet someone who sees video games as nothing more than a mindless and shallow diversion; others treat it as nothing more than a child’s toy. Some even condemn video games as overly violent, addictive, and even downright evil. Even Catholics fall prey to this line of thinking from time to time, and as much as I disagree with their assessments, their criticisms aren’t without merit.

When video arcades first appeared in America 2 decades ago, Pac-Man, a game starring a yellow amorphous blob with an insatiable appetite for white dots, was the epitome of the video game medium. Game players controlled Pac-Man, directing him (via a trusty joystick) to consume all the white dots onscreen while simultaneously dodging the assaults of multi-colored poltergeists.

It’s certainly quite a, well, um… unique concept on paper; I wouldn’t begrudge anyone who immediately dismissed the game as a silly and nonsensical, if harmless, diversion. Yet arcades, filled with Pac-Man machines, among other things, quickly became an American pastime: more than just a way to spend spare quarters, arcades became hang-outs for people of all ages, and despite the occasionally seedy types that could occasionally be found loitering at these locals, something about these games was clearly drawing people together.

Games continue to have this same effect today. While arcades are now nearly extinct, games live on, and games can be both intellectually and even spiritually enriching activities whether played unaccompanied or with friends and family.

Whether played competitively or cooperatively, many games offer a chance for fellowship in the same way that board games and sports do. My brothers and I have many fond memories of playing games like Tales of Symphonia, where teamwork was an essential ingredient to completing the game’s many challenges. Racing games like Mario Kart and Burnout provided us with endless laughs and nurtured in us a healthy competitive spirit. Classic, family-friendly board games like Monopoly, Risk, and Chess have “virtual” equivalents playable on a PC, a handheld game machine (such as the Nintendo DS), or a “home console” like the Xbox 360. Sports fans can purchase video game versions of nearly every game imaginable, from the ever-popular Madden football series or the more obscure World Championship Poker games.

Critics often level the charge that video games promote laziness and an unhealthy lifestyle, but recent games such as Nintendo’s Wii Fit actually attempt to promote healthy living (a nuance of Catholic teaching often forgotten in contemporary society). While Wii Fit has become a media darling within recent weeks, games designed with fitness in mind are hardly anything new. Konami’s Dance Dance Revolution - a game equipped with a “workout mode” that tracks the amount calories burned as you dance - has been used in physical fitness programs in public schools.

Games often spur rigorous intellectual stimulation, as well: The Civilization games, for example, not only foster an interest in history, but teach players the importance of strategic planning and prioritization of duties. During my younger years, I learned a great deal about the importance of the rainforest and its many natural resources from the Amazon Trail video games for PC. Classical music junkies (or anyone, for that matter) might want to check out the XBOX 360 game Eternal Sonata, which attempts to retrace the steps of Polish composer Frederic Chopin in his last moments on earth (albeit with some “artistic license” thrown into the mix).

Of course, with all the benefits video games can offer, it’s important to remember that, like all media, games can be used for both good and evil. Games like Grand Theft Auto and Scarface allow players to go on virtual killing sprees and generally fail to supply any redemptive narrative to justify the actions taking place. And even the very most enriching video game is potentially addicting – and an addiction is in no way conducive to bringing forth God’s kingdom on earth.
In the end, like all morally neutral activities, the operating principle with video games in conjunction with an authentic Catholic lifestyle is "In Medias Res" – moderation in all things. This explicitly Catholic principle has applications in almost every aspect of daily living, and video games are no exception.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

First Post!

"Among the wonderful technological discoveries which men of talent, especially in the present era, have made with God's help, the Church welcomes and promotes with special interest those which have a most direct relation to men's minds and which have uncovered new avenues of communicating most readily news, views and teachings of every sort. The most important of these inventions are those media which, such as the press, movies, radio, television and the like, can, of their very nature, reach and influence, not only individuals, but the very masses and the whole of human society, and thus can rightly be called the media of social communication."
"The Church recognizes that these media, if properly utilized, can be of great service to mankind, since they greatly contribute to men's entertainment and instruction as well as to the spread and support of the Kingdom of God."
Since the promulgation of Inter Mirifica in 1963, Catholics have witnessed social communication employed in ways entirely compatible with this papal decree. It was only a few decades ago that Hollywood sought to produce movies for a specifically Catholic audience; nowadays, while such explicit catering to a "Catholic" demographic is quite rare, movies produced by Catholics for a specifically Catholic audience, such as The Passion of the Christ and Therese, continue to be produced. Recent decades have brought a Catholic television network, EWTN, to a global audience. The internet contains a plethora of Catholic websites and blogs, and the written word, even when delegated to the pages of a book, continues to offer us an indispensible way to engage in the New Evangelization.
In instances where media that isn't explicitly promoting the story of a Saint or a scripture study, Catholics have still utilized these communications for the promotion of the common good. The USCCB regularly publishes movie reviews, as do websites such as Catholic print publications and online venues carry book and music reviews; some, such as Lifeteen, even cover media for a specific age group.
Yet there remains one communications medium that seems to have received the "cold shoulder" from Catholics: video games. It is for this reason that "Catholic Video Gamers" exists. "Gaming for the greater glory of God" is indeed possible (hat tip to the Jesuits for the blog's "motto"), and here is where the exploits of Catholic gamers will be recorded for all interested parties. Whether it be the discussion of specific games and their merits or commentary on the gaming "culture" at large, Catholic Video Gamers aims to find ways to "spread and promote the kingdom of God" with the video gaming medium.