When the world needs a hero, and there’s no hero anymore

It pains me to say this, but I just don’t feel the drive to keep playing SMT4. I’m only 6 hours in, and already I can’t find it in myself to start the game anymore.

How tastes change. From 2004 to about 2007, I played almost only JRPGs, and the occasional shooter (that much never changed). From Final Fantasy to Shin Megami Tensei, from Grandia to Tales, I’ve run the whole gamut of popular series, and even some not-so-popular ones. The last one I played extensively was Persona 4 and its 80 hours, back for its 2009 launch. After that, it’s been an almost complete void. For a couple years now, they have been boring me to death. I never last more than a few hours.

I still say Knights in the Nightmare is underrated. It's also very unconventional, so perhaps it doesn't really count.
I still say Knights in the Nightmare is underrated. It’s also very unconventional, so perhaps it doesn’t really count.

I could perhaps say that I just don’t like the genre anymore, but just a few months ago I tried Chrono Cross again, and managed to clock 40 hours in two weeks to finish the game. I also finished Child of Light upon release. So there’s still hope, however feeble. Apparently I need to find the right game, though, and who knows which one it is.

The design is so 90's it hurts my (eye)balls. Grandia was awesome. Maybe a new Grandia could be what I need.
The design is so 90’s it hurts my (eye)balls. Grandia was awesome. Maybe a new Grandia could be what I need.

Perhaps I have to go back into the classics? I started my career with FF7 back in 2004, so maybe what I need to do is to play FF7 again. Just some food for thought.

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This is (not) for the fans

Enjoying that snazzy New 3DS with its totally cool faceplates? I bet you are, at least here in Europe. But if you are in the USA, between an Amiibo shortage and another, you are stuck with the XL variation. And no faceplates.

A talking consoles, suggesting you to change its cover plate? Surely it wasn't developed on drugs.
A talking console, suggesting you to change its cover plate? Surely it wasn’t developed on drugs.

Now, an article by Nintendolife has a NOA manager interview, where they mention something about it:

“Look, the face plates are super cool, but we’re a different market. And now we have clear differentiation between those three systems. […] The core audience… we weren’t going to win with them on that decision. But we had to think about expanding the user base, we had to be able to market it and make it easy to pick up for consumers.”

I should mention why I disagree with this. The american market might be different from Japan and Europe, but that’s kinda the point. Nintendo’s own data very recently mentioned that the USA made up for 63% of the total Amiibo shipments. That means they almost doubled the amount of sales in Japan, Europe and Australia combined.

I can see why europeans don’t care. They got the green color, and we know nobody really likes Luigi outside of annoying memes.

That, to me, sounds like the exact definiton of a fan-driven market. And it’s not too unexpected: the USA have always been one of Nintendo’s biggest territories, and it’s there that most of the ardent fans are. By comparison, Europe was quite comfortable with Sega and Commodore back then, and later on, with Sony. Only the Wii and DS really managed to give Nintendo a big presence in Europe (indeed, bigger than in the USA for the DS), but that was arguably due to the blue ocean strategy. Once the Wii U and 3DS arrived, with their new-found fans focus, european sales once again became smaller than USA sales.

So why wouldn’t they want to sell the New 3DS and its faceplates in the USA? If Amiibo sales are any indication, american fans would lap those faceplates up. But then, this is hardly the only strange decision Nintendo has made lately. Sending low stocks of Amiibo figurines, and eventually substituting them with cards? Do fans even care about that? I’m under the impression that most Amiibo buyers are buying them because they are cheap Nintendo figurines of good quality, not their NFC features.

It all points out to a short term strategy, but it’s too bad because it had potential for a long term plan.

Apprentice Hunter Again

That feeling when you start a new Monster Hunter game. Is there anything more exhilarating? I have felt that at least twice now. Not counting when I started Freedom Unite, because I still didn’t have any expectation for the series (little did I know that I would waste 170 hours of my life), I felt it with G for the Wii, and now with 4 Ultimate.

The third generation is the one I could never really get into. And I tried, oh my god, did I try. (image by Nintendo of Europe)
The third generation is the one I could never really get into. And I tried, oh my god, did I try. (image by Nintendo of Europe)

After three times, though, the feeling is somewhat tempered. Part of that may be because the start is pretty much the same in all the games. The monsters might be different, the quest might look different, but in the end you are always crafting the same Bone weapon, then upgrading the starter Iron weapon, and all that jazz. Relatively little changes in the beginning of the game. And later on, the feeling of progression is always the same.

Already I can see that MH4U is trying to bring something new to the table. Even so, it’s not a series that really changes a lot. Considering its success in Japan, that would be like demanding for a new Call of Duty to be radically different from the previous one: it would be too risky a move, and fans might be alienated. Nonetheless, after four entries, one can’t help but feel like they are treading in all-too-familiar paths.

Some monsters remain a pain, no matter how many time you see them. Hello, Gravios.
Some monsters remain a pain, no matter how many time you see them. Hello, Gravios.

Well, that is something to consider for the future. For now, there’s another monster game that needs to be beaten. And in the end, beating the first wyvern of the game is always exhilarating. Always.

Dark Forces 1: Not A Jedi Knight

I just had my first brush with a Dark Trooper. It wasn’t all that difficult, although I hear the game gets progressively harder, so I have to be prepared.

The biggest fault in Dark Forces, until now, seems to be that the game just can’t find its own identity. Without the Force powers and lightsaber that the sequels let you play around with, this first installment feels like little more than a reskinned Doom.

Early Kyle looked a bit like Han Solo. Or maybe Dash Rendar? All of them get to deal with Boba Fett anyway.
Early Kyle looked a bit like Han Solo. Or maybe Dash Rendar? All of them get to deal with Boba Fett anyway.

Even worse, the lack of in-game saving means you have to clear each level on a single sitting. And with such complicated maps, this can prove troublesome at times. You want to play a quick 15 minutes, and they become 60 minutes because you can’t find the key you need. I was never a fan of this kind of design, but at least with save-anywhere, it wouldn’t be that much of a problem.

I’m going to keep playing because I like it overall, but it doesn’t have a patch on the sequel. I will say that improved sequels seemed to be a trend for the old Lucasarts (Monkey Island 2, Day of the Tentacle, TIE Fighter come to mind) so I’m not that surprised.

The Hollywood Effect

Ok, so I finally completed Zork Nemesis. Strangely, it’s the first time I’ve ever reached the end, despite it being one of my favorite adventures. But that’s probably because I choose my favorite adventures on graphical style and design.

The Conservatory and Mausoleum (picture) were hard enough that I had to follow a guide most of the time. Great design though.
The inside of the Monastery has a lot of Zork references, enough to make you nostalgic.

In a way, I wish I hadn’t finished it. The ending kinda ruins the rest of the game.

(spoilers ahead)

Well, nevermind the crappy CG effects of the alchemists’ death, which can be easily forgiven in a 1996 low-budget game. But the ending scene is literally Lucien and Alexandria looking behind them as the temple explodes like the Death Star. Very sudden and without reason. I guess they thought it would be more dramatic. I was expecting them to ride off on a horse toward the sunset.

There must be a rule stating that mid-90s live action videogames have to have crappy endings. Uhm, well, perhaps Realms of the Haunting wasn’t too bad. Just a little weird.

Tomb Raider: 3D patches on test

Having recently acquired a copy of Tomb Raider (the 1996 one), and with all those 3D accelerators gathering dust in my cupboard, I had this idea flash in my mind: why not try and see how the game looks with different cards?

Tomb Raider was one of those mid-90s games which required a different executable for each card it needed to run on. Sounds like a pain, but I guess people back then didn’t really have a choice. Oh, of course, most people could just run the game in software mode, but that wasn’t very good. You needed a very strong CPU to run in high resolution (such CPUs usually weren’t even available yet), while the low resolution mode looked straight out of the Saturn, except without the higher quality cutscenes.

Of course all that changed when the 3D patches were released. But which was the best one? We’ll have to see, though many could take an educated guess and give it to the Voodoo. But who knows. These tests are run on a P3-450mhz with 64MB RAM, Soundblaster 16, and Windows 95. Unfortunately, I can’t take screenshots of DOS games, so you’ll have to bear with some crappy camera photos. I’ve tried to take detailed shots whenever needed.

The good old Matrox Mystique. My 4MB edition allows me to play with an impressive 640x480.
The good old Matrox Mystique. My 4MB edition allows me to play with an impressive 640×480.

So we start with one of Matrox’s most famous cards. Shut up, it was just misunderstood, okay? This is the Matrox Mystique MGA 170, which usually came with 2MB of video memory. Tomb Raider will default to 512×384 on such versions. My own card has 4MB, so I get to play at 640×480. Envy me.

Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider

Not too horrible. The Mystique didn’t support bilinear filtering, as you can probably see from the floor in the first screenshots, but there is proper polygon perspective correction. The framerate is not very good though, acceptable but not quite there.

Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider

Some details. The cages in the first one show the limits of nearest neighboring on textures, while the second one makes the dithered shadow very noticeable. The Matrox was famous for its lack of alpha blending, so this was the best they could do with alpha stippling, short of a simple black circle. It’s already quite enough that they put shadows at all, as we’ll see later. For now let’s move on to something else.

I had promised to myself I would never take the Virge out again... but promises are made to be broken.
I had promised to myself I would never take the Virge out again… but promises are made to be broken.

The infamous Virge. No, this one wasn’t misunderstood, it was just bad. This particular model is a S3 Virge/DX with 2MB of video memory. A very standard graphics decelerator. Let’s see how it compares.

The Matrox version didn't even have a graphics options screen, so this is a step forward. But that 640x480 is a pipe dream.
The Matrox version didn’t even have a graphics options screen, so this is a step forward. But that 640×480 is a pipe dream.

Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider

Welcome to the world of S3. Now, it looks okay, but that’s all it does. Because you won’t really notice that when the game is running under 10fps. On the plus side, it has everything, from bilinear filtering to perspective correction to even high resolution. But the bilinear filtering doesn’t seem to have an appreciable impact on performance (amazingly), so you are stuck with terrible framerates. There is also some strange graphical artefact, and notice the lack of shadow under Lara’s feet. Following, some more images to show how to try and fix the situation.

Tomb Raider
A weird mosaique effect can be seen in the side.
You can disable perspective correction, if you don't mind playing in an Escher painting. You won't gain much though.
You can try disabling perspective correction, if you don’t mind playing in an Escher painting. You won’t gain much though.

The best way to get some more frames out of the old Virge is, as you may have guessed, to lower the resolution. You could also try disabling bilinear filtering or perspective correction, but for some reason they don’t have that much of an impact. Now, as for resolution, the game gives you a choice of 640×480 (ahahah), 512×384, and 320×200.

512x384 is probably your best bet. It gets a little choppy in heavier scenes, but overall it's quite playable and doesn't look bad at all. Also notice Lara has a shadow now. The mosaique pattern is still visible though.
512×384 is probably your best bet. It gets a little choppy in heavier scenes, but overall it’s quite playable and doesn’t look bad at all. Also Lara has a shadow now. The mosaique pattern is still visible though.
320x200 is the smoothest option you have, and boy, it is smooth. It looks very close to the regular software version though, the filtering is not easy to notice.
320×200 is the smoothest option you have, and boy, it is smooth. It looks very close to the regular software version though, the filtering is not easy to notice.

Well, anyone could have expected the Virge to be the worst version. It actually is quite full of features, but with that kind of speed, nobody will want to play this. Not even Turok 2 fans. Maybe we should get something else.

Ati Rage IIc. I don't actually remember where I got it. But it's a very unremarkable card, especially considering its quite impressive 8MB and AGP connection.
Ati Rage IIc. Before Mantle, there was CIF.

Quite interesting to know that Tomb Raider even had an Ati version. Ati had its own API back then, the CIF, which very few games used. In this particular case, Tomb Raider actually becomes a native Windows application when you apply the Ati patch. And you get to use a separate executable, which is handier than renaming Tomb.exe all the time.

Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider

Bilinear filtering, perspective correction, resolution choice up to 800×600, and even a framerate counter. Very impressive despite the lack of shadows. The framerate itself is not so impressive though. 10fps? 13fps? Better than the Virge, but just barely, and considering the card is more recent, quite a poor showing. Of course you can still lower the resolution to get better results. These are my countings, showing the heaviest area (the one with the cages) and one of the lightest areas (the starting room).

800×600: 9-15 fps
640×480: 14-19 fps
512×384: 19-25 fps
320×200: 30 fps

At 320×200 it’s pretty much locked at 30 fps, but so was the Virge. Then again, it’s worth noting that, unlike the Virge, disabling texture filtering will have a strongeffect on the framerate: give or take, you can add 5 more fps to all those results (still, the game will never go above 30 fps). The card seems especially slow with filtering, an effect I had also noticed while testing Forsaken. So if you don’t mind playing with poorer filtering, the Rage IIc will give you a very smooth 512×384 pretty much all the time.

Ati Rage LT Pro. Now we are getting a bit closer to dream material.
Ati Rage LT Pro. Now we are getting a bit closer to dream material.

But the Rage II was quite poor. Surely the CIF supported better cards. Well, not that many actually, and I don’t quite have a 3D Rage Pro yet… but the LT Pro was at least a decent substitute. This card once again has 8MB and AGP, but it’s a lot faster than the IIc.

800x600, all details on, and 30 fps to boot? Hold me.
800×600, all details on, 30 fps, and shadows to boot? Hold me.

Compared to the IIc, it was a bit harder to make the game run at all. I had to revert to an older set of drivers. Once started though, we have some great results. The game is running at 800×600 with all the effects on, and it holds 30fps most of the times, with drops down to 25fps in the cages area. That’s still extremely playable, but if you want that extra smoothness, you can revert to 640×480, or just disable bilinear filtering.

3dfx Voodoo 3. Spoiler: it's pretty fast.
3dfx Voodoo 3. Spoiler: it’s pretty fast.

Most people are probably familiar with the 3dfx edition, but let’s talk about it anyway. This board in particular is a Voodoo 3, so not quite something from the company’s peak days. It’s still a very fast card, and I use it regularly in my Win95 PC due to its Glide support for many old titles. Of course, Tomb Raider is one such game, so let’s take a look.

Well, it doesn't get much better than this, but where's Lara's shadow?
Well, it doesn’t get much better than this, but where’s Lara’s shadow?

Tomb Raider

The only graphics choice in the game is between mipmapping and no mipmapping, which the other cards don’t offer. But unlike on the other cards, you can’t choose to disable perspective correction and filtering. Considering the game is running at 30fps literally all the time, this is hardly a problem. It’s a little weird to notice that Lara doesn’t have a shadow though. This might be an issue with the Voodoo 3 in particular, as the game itself was made to run on the first Voodoo board, and there are other games which show issues with newer cards.

Disabling mipmapping will have some strange effects on the water. I still wouldn't do it, as mipmapping without trilinear will result in those ugly detail jumps, as you can see on the right.
Disabling mipmapping will have some strange effects on the water. And I still wouldn’t enable it, as mipmapping without trilinear will result in those ugly detail jumps, as you can see on the right.

So there we are. For my money, I’m actually surprised to say that the best version is the Ati one: assuming you have a supported card (as there’s probably no wrapper for CIF) and a decent CPU, it gives you the best features of the four, and the highest resolution. I have read that the PowerVR version is even better, but unfortunately I don’t have the means to try it. Maybe one day.

To finish, three actual screenshots. The software and 3dfx ones are taken from the GOG version of the game, while the Ati one was screencapped from my old PC (since the Windows executable allows you to print the screen, unlike all the other DOS-based versions). Click on the screens for their native resolution.

Look at that garish colors palette. It's not even very smooth. But what did you expect from software mode?
Look at that garish colors palette. It’s not even very smooth. But what did you expect from software mode?
The Glide version actually has shadows, unlike on the Voodoo 3. I suppose it means it could be a problem with that particular card indeed.
The Glide version here actually has shadows, unlike on the Voodoo 3. I suppose it means it could be a problem with that particular card indeed.
Ati Rage LT Pro. There are some color banding issues here, but you can't really notice in-game. If I do replay through Tomb Raider, I shall put this card to use.
Ati Rage LT Pro. There are some color banding issues here, but you can’t really notice in-game. If I do replay through Tomb Raider, I shall put this card to use.

Making the difference… or not

There’s a tendency in videogames, but also in pretty much everything, to copy whatever is successful at the moment. Makes sense, of course. Someone might shout at plagiarism or at least lack of innovation, but there’s a feeling of safety in treading a proven path. At times, however, developers will copy a formula while also trying to shake it up a bit. The problem with this approach is that it might be actually more risky than attempting to build something from scratch, as you might take apart something that was the knot to keep all the elements together.

Taking a red Elite head-on with a battle rifle? I hope he's playing on Normal difficulty.
Almost every shooter nowadays – and many other genres as well – owes to Halo’s regenerating shields system, but they forget one thing: enemies had regenerating shields as well, so you had to take a few more risks than in today’s shooters.

In the end, there’s usually a reason if something works so well. Changing stuff around might make things even worse. Of course, that’s not saying you shouldn’t try and shuffle something, since nobody wants to play the same game over and over. But it can be a little hard to discern what should be changed and what shouldn’t.

The importance of Ocarina of Time can't be overstated, especially the introduction of Z-targeting to the world. But it's being used less and less lately.
The importance of Ocarina of Time cannot be overstated, especially the introduction of Z-targeting to the world. It would be the standard in third-person games for many years… but not forever.

Sometimes, changes will happen naturally as technology gets different, more specifically the controls. The Z-targeting system introduced in OoT was a real game-changer, but nowadays, it’s fallen somewhat in disuse. The reason for this can probably be found in the common acceptance of dual stick controls as the default, which gives players more freedom than even the Z system. But perhaps even more so, the success of Batman Arkham Asylum has effectively changed combat in third person games, shifting the combat focus from a single enemy to the player’s entire area.

The combat system in Arkham is the result of, apparently, a very carefully balanced approach. When other games copy it, but change it around, they almost always end up worse. Which brings me to the reason why I’m writing this post at all: the combat in Assassin’s Creed 4 is pretty bad. You can see they tried to copy Arkham, but the lack of smoothness ruins everything and makes it a chore. See, changing just one element – the speed of the combat – has taken all the fun out of the entire combat system.

So, change is a good thing. Imagine if Rocksteady used the Z-targeting in Arkham Asylum. But if you only change a few things, it’s probably better to test it thoroughly, because chances are it won’t work as well as the original.

Writing about whatever comes to mind