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January 8, 2013 / jwaxo

PSTS Let’s Play Luigi’s Mansion: Episode 14 – What a Calamity!

Now that the Giant Boo is… dead? Defeated? Sent away? Luigi can continue his adventures anew! Starting with fixing the sudden blackout that haunts the halls. While Jeff and JD scream at the sudden throngs of ghosts that chase them through every room, you can watch, too, as they hunt for the mythical “mirror room.”

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June 3, 2012 / jwaxo

Tribes (And Tribes Ascend)

You may remember Joel from his last little write-up on his discovery of StarCraft and how it changed his life (or not). I asked him to write up something new for me, and so he hand-delivered this manuscript to me from a camouflaged Jeep before disappearing into the jungle again.

Must go faster.

It wasn’t too long ago that I was introduced to Tribes. I was in high school at the time and every weekend I would join some friends in a garage to play various computer games. Now, meeting a bunch of people in a garage to play video games was, at the time, one of the nerdiest things I could do. Everyone brought their custom built, glow in the dark, liquid cooled tower computers and we drained more power in one night than that entire neighborhood did all week. We had to run extension cords to various circuits in the house and sometimes we even ran extensions to the neighbor’s house when there were enough of us.

One night, though it was a particularly small group, we played Tribes. Not because it was a new game, but because it was old and fun. I had never heard of it, but install it I did. Tribes was so unlike any other game that I had no idea what was going on. The map was huge and there were only a few players. I never even saw my team and no one ever mentioned various game features to me such as a “ski” button. At least until someone took pity on me walking between bases, though the jet packs were a nice touch. That’s when I realized why I never saw my team, because they were flying above me at mach eight. Once I realized I could “ski” around the map, I started to get the idea of the game. Well, at least I thought I did. I saw this rock off in the distance between me and the enemy base and thought “that would make good cover.” I exploded and came to the realization that rock was a tank.

Okay then, Tribes has vehicles. Check.

That was the first and last time I played the game series. The Tribes disk was stacked with other various games in the closet to collect dust, forgotten. Until Tribes: Ascend, which is a newly created free-to-play version of Tribes. As if “free” has anything to do with it. The business model would not be used if there was no profit in it.

That being said, I have found myself spending way too much time gliding through the skies, being shot at because I took someone’s flag. I enjoy playing Tribes, because it allows me to play to my own style. That style being: “tricky bastard”. Remember the scene in Jurassic Park just before the velociraptor attacks Muldoon and he says “clever girl,” which was followed by his immediate death? That’s me, the Infiltrator, the scourge of your generator room.

(screaming)

The downfall of the game is that it is very difficult to work as a team and requires a direct effort, which is hard to come by in the public servers. Especially when the guy you’re going to protect is likely to fly himself into a wall before you can even go to defend him. One does not simply change direction at 200km/h.

The other downfall of the game is simple economics. Because the game is free, expect to see a lot of players who, like I once was, do not know the game features and do not know how to play as a team. Working with the team comes with experience and familiarity with the game, which takes time. Overall though, it is still a lot of fun.

Playing this game, speeding around mountains going as fast as I can, gets my adrenalin going and gives me butterflies in my stomach. When the team does come together, and tensions are high I actually find myself expressing my joy or anger out loud, as if my team could hear me. This always makes me laugh as I flash back, watching my parents watching football and yelling at the TV. I always found that yelling at the TV bizarre behavior, as I had already taken it apart and was quite sure there were no microphones inside.“What’s the purpose?”

May 27, 2012 / jwaxo

Super Smash Bros. Brawl (Project M)

The next title in the series will be named “Kerfuffle.” Possibly “Fracas.”

When I first played Super Smash Bros. Brawl, I was home from college for Spring Break, and my wisdom teeth had been removed the day before. My gums bleeding, my head swimming with pain pills, my face still somewhat recovering from being numbed, I played for probably eight hours straight.

I sometimes wonder if my altered state of mind affected my opinion later of what would soon to be quite the dividing game.

The gap between Super Smash Bros. Melee and Brawl was seven long years. Seven years during which Melee dominated get-togethers, tournaments, and birthday parties. Melee took what was already seen to be super-awesome from the original Smash Bros (which I’ve talked about before) and expanded it exponentially: way more characters, way more stages to play on, way more items, and far bigger single-player modes. It was seen as quite the tight little game, with a rather steep learning curve toward the end of the mastery scheme, many different techniques to master, and a much faster fighting system. While it’s pretty up-in-the-air as to whether Smash Bros counts as a “fighter” in the same terms as Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat, it couldn’t be denied that Melee required quite a bit of skill and precision to play expertly, and its fights were exciting to watch and take part in.

Meanwhile the only thing people can agree with about Brawl is that it is, generally, slower and “more floaty.”

We’re not even clear if “brawl” is an escalation of “melee”.

I must admit that, when I was first playing Brawl, something about it felt “off”. Similar to the same way that, after driving the same car for a decade, suddenly being tasked with driving your friend’s truck to the airport can throw you for quite the loop. Everything is where it should be, but accelerating takes longer, and the steering wheel feels funky. Brawl felt that same way: grabs took forever and were mushy, jumping felt strange, and every move seemed to take forever to recover from.

All of this was quickly attributed to my recovering from surgery, and, by the time I was over it, Brawl felt quite natural to me, and I never looked back. I returned to college, my friends and I put several hundred man-hours into playing Brawl, I entered a tournament or two, and the subject was dead, to my eyes. Brawl was the new standard.

But, out in the internet, there were whispers of dissent from many different corners. The slower pace of the game, for instance, supposedly took away from the required skill to be good at the game. The forced removal of certain techniques from Melee (wave-dashing the most prominent) were seen as direct spitting in the face of more “serious” players. Several balance issues with various characters were mentioned, eventually leading to the outright banning of certain characters from tournament play. And the insertion of randomness was probably the most complained about, the new system that occasionally causes characters to trip the most obvious offender.

Hurrrr!

It is from these complaints that Project M arose. In short it is a fan-made modification of Brawl that makes it play more like Melee, but it also inserts many different changes to the game that are not Melee-inspired, but were instead made for balance reasons. For the past few weeks, my partner-in-crime and cohost of our podcast JD and myself have been playing Project M, and, after this long introduction, here’s my take on it.

The first thing you’ll notice about Project M, assuming you have played vanilla Brawl recently, is that it is much more fast-paced, and character movement feels smoother and more liquid. This is in keeping with the overall idea of Brawl playing like Melee, and it shows that they’ve accomplished this goal. On that same note, lots of old things from Melee return: wave-dashing is back, tripping is gone, old combos with specific characters are back in full force, and many other tiny tweaks. In fact, my review of old characters and moves can pretty much end there: if you go from playing Melee to playing Project M, you should feel right at home. Probably the most welcome of these changes is with Link, who in Brawl was changed from a mid-range, mid-speed character to a slow powerhouse. He’s back on many rosters.

The best parts of Project M are the “Melee-izing” of new Brawl characters, and how they’ve been interpreted by the Project M team. My most prominent example of this is Lucario, who has been completely revamped for combos and move flow, called “magic series”: from light attack to strong attack to special all in one form, finally releasing one of several new “special moves.” Sonic has been revamped to be able to keep up a full-on offensive, while other characters like Wario (my personal favorite) and Pit have had one or two of their specials changed to either be more effective or less: no more motorcycle riding from Wario, and Pit now has a much-less-powerful third jump.

I hate drawing Wario. Hate it hate it hate it. Never again.This sight is sadly missing.

The final main difference with Project M is in the stages. Many Brawl stages are still there, unchanged, along with a lot of the classic throwback stages in the vanilla game. But there are also some that were either completely cut, some that were changed to be less punishing for players, and even a few new stages, made from a whole cloth by the Project M team: one based on Castlevania, taking the place of the Luigi’s Mansion stage, features a simple wide base, rearranging platforms, and a dark and gritty background. The famed Hyrule Temple stage is still there, but it has also been revamped to a Skyward Sword-based stage, complete with Loftwings soaring through the sky. It’s nearly unrecognizable, and it’s pretty impressive that these all-new setpieces and props have been plopped into the game.

I guess that’s my final conclusion about Project M: that it’s impressive. I’ve never agreed with most of the complaints that were leveled at Brawl through the past few years, mostly based on my own observations: the people who were good at Melee eventually were at the top of Brawl‘s leaderboards, my own skills maneuvered back into the “mediocre” standings, and all of us played it happily for quite a long time. I can comprehend the complaints, I suppose, but I have trouble understanding them. And so this throwback doesn’t seem very necessary, or at least the direction the throwback went in: balancing moves and individual characters is understandable, but the switch back to Melee-style doesn’t seem very necessary.

My own experience has taught me that it doesn’t matter the speed of the game and the techniques necessary that tell you the overall skill of the player, merely how well they do when stacked up against other people. And, in that way, any good players of Melee should be able to become just as good at Brawl, or at least at Brawl‘s style of game.

All of this is moot, I suppose, as the creators of Project M have wildly succeeded at their goals. Despite the fact that it’s fan-made, the feeling of the game and its trappings feel professional, as if Melee has been brought to life with a fancier-looking engine and new characters and stages. And since I can’t think of a single player that prefers Brawl over Melee to the point of abstaining the latter, but do know many people who flat-out refuse to touch Brawl, it’s definitely a nice compromise, even for an unfinished project.

And JD and I are all about compromise. But he’s not a crazy Melee-obsessor.

By the way, this post is part of a two-part post about Project M. The second half is where JD talks about his take on the Project, which you can read on Press Start to Start, our blog/podcast/video channel, here.

May 23, 2012 / jwaxo

PSTS Episode 02: Retro’s Rumored Project, Diablo II, and Killer Road Trips

In our groundbreaking second podcast you will hopefully enjoy our new theme tune and listen along as we discuss a bizarre crossover Retro Studios is supposedly making, a revised Wii U controller, the comforting formula of JRPGs, and just how annoying it would be to share a car ride with Wario for eight hours. Also, in case you missed the announcement last week, we are now featured in the iTunes podcast store, so subscribe, if you are the kind who does, or just click below and listen.

PSTS Episode 02

May 20, 2012 / jwaxo

Diablo II (Skill Trees)

Prepare to do some major clicking.

Believe it or not, now that I’m done doing nostalgia-based posts, I’ve had a lot of requests for posts on specific games and my opinions on them. One particularly vocal minority has asked for what I think about Diablo III, but before I do that, we need to talk a bit about Diablo II.

It wasn’t until high school that I ever really played Diablo II. It was at a LAN party, one of many day-long celebrations of the computers we had built and our prowess at beating each other, when someone offered me a CD and told me to install whatever was on it, “the multiplayer install.” I had no idea what it was, but I installed it, anyway, wondering at the splash screen that showed an Amazonian woman approaching some kind of mummy. The name rang a bell, probably from a promo for its predecessor that was in the back page of the original Warcraft‘s manual.

Now, ten years later, I have put hundreds of hours into Diablo II. Every year we would all go through a phase of starting up new characters and running them through the randomly-generated wildernesses and dungeons, killing evil creatures to gain experience points, getting better and better loot, and quickly skipping anything at all related to the story. The game, plus its expansion pack, has a total of seven different character classes to play with, each with their own specialties and skills, and combine that with the random dungeons and randomly-created weapons and armor that popped, like corks, from enemy corpses, and you had a formula for endless replayability.

Of course, I almost exclusively played the Paladin character. But that’s kind of my point: using a single character class, I managed to play this game for ten years and never really get bored of it.

Being a badass is never boring.

Recently there has been some kerfuffle in the action RPG (or ARPG, as games that copy Diablo came to be called) community lately because, after twelve years, the sequel to Diablo II has finally come out. Diablo III hit shelves last Tuesday, a week after an open beta allowed everyone to experience the first couple hours of gameplay. At the same time, another ARPG has entered the beta phase and has also been allowing users to get an early glimpse at it: Torchlight II. The original Torchlight was a very small Diablo-clone that came out a few years ago, but, as it was singleplayer, it didn’t invite too many people’s interests. Now with Torchlight II‘s beta, the accusations and debates have been flying.

Thanks to the power of the internet, I’ve had the ability and opportunity to play not just Diablo III in the beta two weeks ago, and not just Torchlight II in the beta this weekend, but also a chance to go back and give Diablo II a hefty revisit with two friends of mine.

Ignoring the server issues that Diablo III has been suffering from and focusing purely on gameplay comparisons, they are almost all identical games: there’s a top-down, isometric view; you click through randomly-generated environments to go through enemies to objectives; randomly-generated weapons and armor drop in satisfying, fun ways; your characters level up after gaining specific amounts of experience points.

And here’s the big thing.

Wait for it, maestro. Wait for it…

The skill systems.

So, in D2, at every level your character gets a skill point. Armed with this skill point, you would navigate an interface of skill trees and either pick a new skill to learn, assuming you met the prerequisites, or level up an old skill to be more effective. In TL2 you do much the same thing. Skills no longer require specific other skills to be learned beforehand, but you still have to make a choice of what skills you want to learn, and which ones need to improve, etc. Both systems also have a system where the user picks if they want to increase their health points, stamina, magic points, etc, but that’s a completely different boat.

D3, meanwhile, got rid of the entire skill tree system.

In a nutshell, characters automatically unlock skills as they go along. Every other level or so, a new skill is unlock, or a potential improvement for a skill. Rather than picking which skills to improve or which ones to unlock, players are instead tasked with deciding which ones to equip and have at the ready, and how to apply minor to major customization to the skills. All of this can be changed at any time, at no cost to the player, when out of combat.

The main argument for this type of system is streamlining: in the previous system, if you leveled up a skill that turned out to stink, you were trapped with it, having wasted a precious skill point. In this way there are many different “builds” you can have, and if it’s a poor one, you save time by being able to go back to town and change them at whim, instead of having to play through the entire game several times, just to get a character back to the same level. You still only have certain skills at the ready, but you can’t get trapped. It also allows for more experimentation, is less nerve-wracking, and, overall, is less frustrating.

And, well. To put it simply: I don’t find that fun at all.

I know, I’m a killjoy.

I realize that people play for different reasons in order to have fun. My kind of fun is different from your kind of fun. And hey, if you have fun playing Diablo III as it is, jump right back to it (assuming you can connect to the servers). But here’s my explanation for why this system is boring.

I played Diablo II for ten years, off and on. I restarted many different times, developed many different Paladins, and had a heck of a lot of fun. And while I sometimes chose to try out skills that I didn’t like, I never once got to the endgame and went “Man. This character is horrible, and I’ve made horrible decisions. I guess I should scrap him and move on.” This is because for some reason I build up a relationship with the characters I build. Every time, they are unique characters, different from any others. This Paladin is super-fast, able to smash through loads of weak enemies in only a few clicks. This Paladin focused on heavy magic-based attacks. This one is mostly a support one, healing and helping my friends. They evolved, through my permanent skill choices, to be their own characters.

If I had the ability to change who they were, it would cheapen the game. Even having the mechanic there, even if I ignored that ability completely, it shows what direction the game developers were going.

I compare it to a pen-and-paper RPG, the kind with a real skill sheet and dice rolls. Those kinds of characters are even more your own than ones you’ve raised through a video game: you decide their backstory, what they look like, what clothes they wear, and how they respond to everything, along with their skills and attributes. And, after playing this character monthly for three years, you realize that you shouldn’t have taken points in car mechanic. And even though the tools are at your disposal to change this (namely, an eraser and a pencil), you would never do that. It just wouldn’t make sense. What was the point of playing if you don’t live with your choices?

So anyway. There’s that. In the same way that I don’t save-scum anymore, even if it’s perfectly reasonable to do so within a game’s mechanics, ARPGs that don’t feature permanence anywhere in their character progression hold no interest for me.

Plus there’s this problem. Seriously, no offline option whatsoever? I’ll be playing Torchlight.

May 15, 2012 / jwaxo

PSTS Episode 01: Wii U, E3, and Giant Robot Clowns

To coincide with myself moving this blog in a slightly different direction, my friend JD and I are starting a podcast on video games called Press Start to Start. They’ll probably run an hour each and should be great to listen to at work, in the car, or at home, if that’s your kind of thing. We should be discussing news, new games, and really anything that we think will be fun to talk about. So have a listen to the first episode if you’d care to, and keep an eye on iTunes where the podcast will be hosted soon!

PSTS Episode 01: Wii U, E3, and Giant Robot Clowns

May 13, 2012 / jwaxo

Video Games (Goals)

Phew.

A couple of years ago I decided that I was going to get into the Electronic Entertainment Expo. E3, as we call it, is kind of a big deal in the video game and entertainment world. It’s where almost every console release is announced, it’s where you can meet all of your favorite video game celebrities, journalists, and developers. It’s where you can get your hands on some tasty tech demos, see announcements and reveals months before the public does, and pretty much live in gaming Mecca for a few days. It’s officially a media event, and journalists both complain and revel in it every year. Anybody who follows gaming news knows about it and wants to go there.

So I decided we would.

They’ve since lifted the ban on non-media-associated people going to E3, opening it back up to the public again, but at the time of this decision E3 seemed like it was a dying entity, a company running out of money or sponsorship or interest, among a million other problems. It would possibly stop happening soon, so anyone who still wanted to go to it would have to act quickly or never again, and it would be even harder now that they didn’t let laypeople in no matter how much money they had.

So it would be hard to accomplish this goal, you might say.

Well, just over a year ago, I started to try. E3 was open to the public again, but media badges are free while normal-person badges are in the $900 range. Which is kind of a lot of money.

Being a poor programmer, that’s not something to spend on a whim.

I needed some way to be a real, respectable video game journalist, but I wasn’t sure how to go about it. The easiest was to start a blog of some sort, and was also the best way to avoid rejection letters from magazines and other places that wanted things like “a portfolio” or “journalism history.” Blogs require no history or experience, other than writing. And I do love writing.

So what could I write about?

It came to me in a flash, when I was driving home and stuck in traffic. I was only just missed by a car who squeezed in front of me, and I said out loud “phew, just barely missed me,” and my short lesson on the difference between “barely” and “almost” came flooding back. And, well, there it was. I could write about all of the stupid little lessons video games have taught me, starting with that and talking about everything in between, up until about 2001 or so. I could copy the style of some of my favorite blogs and draw little caricatures of myself and my siblings and my friends, and maybe update once or twice a week. E3 was as good as mine.

My goal was to keep it up for a year, apply for E3, and, well, profit. I just needed to keep working for a year. On something that might work out. With no real reward or reason to do it, apart from self-satisfaction.

There aren’t quest-givers in real life.

The whole thing reminded me of a time, when I was a sophomore in high school. It was my responsibility to mow the lawn, which I got paid reasonably well for, but I absolutely hated doing it. It was hot, boring, and just pretty lame. At the same time every week, though, right when I was mowing, I would always see our cool next-door-neighbor outside, carefully edging and clipping his lawn, tending the little garden plots, fertilizing, weeding, and overall loving it.

“Jeff,” he said to me when I complained, “some day you will have your own lawn, and no one will pay you for mowing it, and you’ll still love doing it just for the satisfaction.”

While I never appreciated the satisfaction of mowing the lawn while I was doing it, it was always a nice feeling when it all was done, even before I was paid. I had learned the satisfaction of completing unnecessary goals early in my life, probably one of the first lessons I ever learned.

What is the point of single-player video games if it isn’t for the arbitrary goals within?

Besides the bragging rights.

I mean, I love multiplayer games. I’ve talked about them enough to qualify. But before there were multiple-controller setups in our house, before we had LAN connections or messed around with the hotseat, all we had were simple games with even simpler stories, there purely as goals to attempt over and over again.

Some people play games to get their name on a high score, for the little fame that’s gained there. Some play them for the story, some to have fun for a short time, some to beat their friends. But all of these gain some of their enjoyment from accomplishing a goal, from satisfying that part of your brain that, yes, something is completed and in its place.

(Which, by the way, is part of the reason that games like Farmville are so addictive, even to people who don’t normally play games: it’s the reward-center area of the game being triggered over and over again for very little input)

So, while I didn’t get a media badge for E3 (something about not having 10,000 views per month, which I blame you, my hundred readers, on) there is something very satisfying at looking back over the list of posts that I’ve done in this year and two months. The hundreds of drawings that I’ve thrown together with my tablet, and the little characters that I’ve built up.

I’m still going to blog. There will still be something here twice a week, something to look at. But I think we’re done going over the stupid things video games have taught me, for now. I’m pretty much out of all of those, I think, even though there are still a few un-crossed-out games on my Big Envelope of Ideas (oh geeze don’t click that you’ll see how little my drawing style has evolved in 400 pictures).

But check back here, for sure. Subscribe through my various means. I’m working on a podcast with my friend JD, and about five people have come out of the woodwork in the past month telling me they’d love to write a guest post. There will still be poorly-drawn screenshots, idiotically complicated sentences, and callbacks to events that you neither care nor worried about.

And I’ll still be playing video games.

Wooo, randomly dramatic!

May 9, 2012 / jwaxo

3D Ultra Minigolf (Geometry, Physics, Exploration)

All of that packed into one cheap little game about small colored balls.

I only ever went golfing a single time before I was in high school. That one time was when my grandpa took me out to the course that he and my grandma frequented. It was some occasion where we were hanging out for the afternoon, a rare time alone with my grandpa, and we didn’t have any deep conversations or revelations. At 8 I was much too young for something like that, and also way too young to learn how to use a driver. So instead we went straight to the putting green.

There was I not only amazed at how different the green felt from my familiar astroturf minigolf courses, but also at the crazy people playing there. Young, old, balding, mohawked. Everybody loved golf, and there was some kind of fancy tournament going on that left the putting green open for me and my grandfather (Grandpop to us) to tap some balls around. He taught me a little about reading the lay of the green, about aiming past the hole for follow-through, a little about angles and gravity, and I left that afternoon a much more informed person than before.

I then went home and tried these techniques on my computer and found that they didn’t pay off in the important ways as much as I’d hoped: I was still horrible at Fuji Golf.

I don’t understand, it feels nothing like a mouse!

However, I did eventually find some use for those skills, and no, not in real life. In the virtual. I am talking, of course, about the world-famous game that everyone in the world has played 3D Ultra MiniGolf.

Maybe it wasn’t that popular.

The game was introduced to my family via that magician of a bargain bin, which makes sense, as that’s the only place that I’ve ever seen minigolf games for sale. I loved it because A) it was one of the rare games that my parents would actually play with me, and B) it was freaking minigolf.

I mean, seriously. There’s a reason that kids love minigolf. It takes almost no strength or arm power, meaning even the smallest kid can accomplish amazing things if he concentrates. It’s difficult, so even adults are bad at it. And, finally, it’s just silly. We all know that our favorite holes at the local minigolf courses were the most complicated ones, with moving parts and pipes and hills. And when you’re playing a game that’s completely freed of reality, well, there are more moving parts and pipes and hills than you can imagine.

Ultra MiniGolf offered more that just pipes and hills, though. It had volcanoes. Cave men and dinosaurs. A rocketship, an octopus, and an entire workshop of gadgets and gizmos. All in 18 holes. So, in between learning how to correctly tap the ball with the right amount of strength, and carefully learning how to properly predict what angles my golf ball would bounce off, I was marveling at the sights.

I can careen off of the radioactive bin, round the tentacle, and slide right down the giraffe…

The thing I loved most about Ultra Minigolf, though, was the absolute obsession I had with exploring every corner of every map.

I could link you to previous articles about stupid obsessions I’ve had with games, but you should really know by now that this is just part of my personality. The problem is, every single hole in the game had random ways to get a few strokes cut off. Besides the obvious ones where a lucky putt could get you a hole-in-one. The volcano might toss you right into the hole if you managed to get up its slope in a shot, or the cave man hit you in a different direction depending on how close you stopped to him. Those were the obvious ones, though; there was the subtly-different shading on a wall that revealed a hidden path to the hole, or the spot that, if you stopped on it, got you abducted by a UFO and dropped two inches from the goal.

It became my quest to find these mystery spots, to get a leg-up on competition and impress my friends. I scoured every corner, every spot on every hole. And you know, I found a lot of strange Easter eggs hidden by the developers, as well as some shortcuts. But I also satisfied my curiosity, and learned that exploration can reward you in strange and fun ways.

Of course, I never found real minigolf nearly as fun ever again.

May 7, 2012 / jwaxo

Sorry! (Voice Acting)

Chutes and Ladders with a vengeance.

This blog is slowly winding down in terms of “important lessons learned”-ness. I mean, really, I love video games. They have taught me many important and many unimportant things over the years, affecting my life greatly. But there’s only so much that I can rave about them before just getting into standard reviews with a slight story attached.

But there are a few important things left that need to be covered beforehand.

This important one came from an inconsequential game. One that I received via, in retrospect, suspicious means. So first that story, which I shall recount through my tired haze. I already know this won’t get posted until Monday, because I just got back from Spokane for the annual run there.

The story opens with me, bewildered, at a kind of Easter-themed day camp. Being Catholic, Easter is supposed to be the most important celebration of the year, and we tried to do that every year. Big family get-togethers, attending all 27 church services related to Easter, etc. But this was unusual even for us. I spent all weekend at some big todo at someone else’s church, doing Easter-y things.

I remember specifically that it was not at my church because I felt out-of-place the entire weekend. I mean, heck, I was 8, and I already knew when I didn’t belong somewhere. So, at the end of the weekend, when there was a big presentation of some Easter bunny giving every kid an early Easter present. We were never very big on Easter presents, apart from the odd candy, so I was hopeful I would get something, but realistic in knowing that, as an outsider, there was a slim chance.

Belief in the magic of the Easter Bunny was long dead, by the way.

As you might guess, though, my name was called out, and I went up to receive my Easter present. I was astonished. How did they know? I didn’t belong there.

Mysteriously, my parents weren’t as mystified as me. So you can connect the dots yourself.

As you might guess, the object in the package was the topic of today’s lesson: Sorry!, the board game, for Windows. Everyone’s favorite board game where you can commit horrible, horrible atrocities to your friends and neighbors in a sterile, blame-free environment.

The rules were all identical to the standard board game: four pawns, which you move around the board to send “home”. You can move any one pawn you want on your turn, provided it can move the number of spaces on the card drawn, and, of course, if you land or slide into another pawn, you send that back to start.

I’ve recently played the real Sorry! by the way. It is quite treachorous, strategy-filled, and way, way more complex than we might remember. This is no Candyland, ladies and gentlemen.

Draw a color. Move to it. Exciting.

But the best part of Sorry! was not the fact that you could play the classic boardgame from the comfort of your computer room. After all, if you think about it, it’s kind of less-convenient; everyone has to sit around a computer, the pieces are less fun to move, and it’s not like Sorry! was difficult to set up or keep track of in the first place.

No. The single reason to play the game was the voice acting.

Each color had its own theme and voice associated with it. Red was rambunctious and quick to anger, green was laid-back and had a surfer accent, blue was regal and sounded like she wanted you to come over for tea when you had cleaned up a bit, and, my mom’s favorite, yellow was squeaky and fun-loving.

Each with their own styles, their own little matching animations. And, best of all, interactions.

Every single thing that the pawns could do, every move, every number of spaces, every possible knockback (always accompanied by a loving “Sorry!”) had what seemed like a million different ways of saying it, all of the inflections and timing, to my ear, perfect.

It’s not the best example of voice-acting. It’s not the best example of a boardgame on a computer; not a good story, emotionally or intriguingly; heck, it wasn’t even the first time I had a game that had voices in it. But there was something about the effort put into it, a game that everyone already owned and knew how to play, that struck a chord with me. It was then that I realized there were people doing this, people recording these things for a living, and four of them contributed to making this lame cash-in memorable to me.

Plus I’m a sucker for implied relationships. They’re fun to puzzle out!

May 2, 2012 / jwaxo

Morph (Fibs)

The power of dots and lines.

I just recently finished reading the entirety of my favorite childhood book series, Animorphs. I may have mentioned it a few times, because it was pretty much the one series I could be counted on to constantly be checking for information on. Because of Animorphs, I was involved in my first fandom (albeit very lightly). I met a few good friends purely because of our mutual love of the books. Perhaps in a most important event, I bookmarked my first website because of this dumb series about kids fighting evil, subversive parasites, using only an alien technology that allows them to turn into any animal they can touch.

Awesome escape material. By the way, having finally finished it, I can say it was full of pretty mature stuff for elementary and middle schoolers to read. Like, horribly graphic violence and weirdly gray morals.

But that is beside the point!

The point is that I fantasized about that special ability, featured on the front of every book in amazing, computer-assisted visuals: kids turning into lizards, hawks, rhinos, lions. The pictures seemed crazy real, and, while smoother than described in the books, exactly what I was dreaming about. I loved going over and over those six or seven stages of a morph, looking at each small change across the kid in question, or flipping through the tiny flipbook in the corner of the book.

Then, one fateful Christmas, my brother pointed out a hilarious piece of software for sale at the local computer store: Morph, it was called, and it showed an image of a cat turning into a tiger.

It had to be mine.

If I could morph I would just smash down a wall and take a copy…

Being the excitable young man that I was, I gushed in happiness that such software existed to my friends at school, wishing with longing that I could afford it. After all, such powerful graphics software must be so expensive, far too expensive for a fourth-grader like me to afford. Besides, I had just purchased some pretty expensive stuff on loan from my parents…

“Oh,” my friend said. “We have that.”

“No way,” I said.

“Sure,” she insisted. “It’s kind of hard to use. Lots of little dots and lines and things. It’s not that great.”

But she was lying. I just knew it. See, I had experience with liars.

In my neighborhood we had our share of a variety of kids. There was my brother and me, the goofballs always building things. There were the brothers across the way always getting in trouble. There was the family down the way who seemed far too numerous for their own good, with their eldest sister always seeming to be fibbing about something or another.

But none were as infamous for telling lies as the eldest brother of the kids who lived behind us.

It always started in a way like this. You would bring up something grand that you wanted, and suddenly the claims would be escalating out of control. “My family has that,” “my brother met him,” “my uncle owns that company.” Things that there were no way of disproving. The most hilarious story about the kid who lived behind us was the time he got everyone in the neighborhood digging for the ooze that turned the Ninja Turtles into mutants.

Not that we don’t all laugh at that picture.

After that incident, our parents all had a good laugh, and we all learned a valuable lesson about skepticism.

I was skeptical of my friend for the next three years. After all, she lied to me about owning Morph, what else would she lie to me about?

Finally, it popped up in a Scholastic Book Club catalog. For a measly $7. No way would the software of my dreams be that cheap, I cried. It must be a mistake. A mistake I needed to take advantage of.

Within weeks the program was received and installed on my computer. And it was worth more than $7. And it wasn’t difficult to use, not once you figured out exactly the right way to use it. But you know what? It also used a lot of dots and lines, and it was pretty difficult to master at first.

I don’t know if I ever got a chance to apologize to my friend. Didn’t matter, because she was totally a liar regardless. Claimed for years not to be madly in love with me.

Just like all of them. Pack of liars, of course.