Five Things We Learned From Star Control 2

Tuesday, August 30, 2011 at 11:00 am
Star Control 2 has haunted this author's semi-conscious thoughts since the early 90's.
I'm going to briefly break with the regular editorial "we" voice that this column is usually written in and admit that at one point I owned a 3DO. In my own defense, I didn't spend money on it. I was ten or eleven, and it was given to me and my brother along with a plethora of games by a cool relative. And, since I guess there's no reason to slip into first-person singular if you're not going to be honest, I confess: I loved that big, dumb $700 machine.

Yes, I loved it. I'll still bring up the system when reminiscing about days gone by with my friends (to which they respond, "What is a 3DO?" or, "Shut up.") and I can still feel the nondescript controller in my hand if I think about it for long enough.

But like many things I loved in my youth, I forsook the 3DO. I was tempted to forget it by the lures of the N64 and the PlayStation, and most of the 3DO games I once played for hours on end gathered dust on the shelf.

One game, however, stayed in my memory long after the 3DO had faded into technological obscurity.

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Five Things We Learned From Mario Paint

Tuesday, August 23, 2011 at 12:00 pm


Mario Paint -- saviour of our youth's creative skills.

Since the dawn of video games, detractors have lamented the fact that children mashing buttons in front of their TV are wasting their creative faculties. They envision a generation of performance artists, sculptors, novelists and professional polka dancers lost to the lures of Nintendo and Sega. After all, Mozart composed his first piece while he was having his umbilical cord cut, right? How many potential child prodigies could there have been if only kids had picked up a tuba or a pen instead of that damned controller?

So the argument goes. And though no one, not even devout gamers, will argue that sometimes video games can suck up a lot of time, the idea that they will invariably depress the creativity of children is not exactly a slam dunk.

But do not fear, whimpering advocates of the arts! Video game giant Nintendo has heard your plaintive cries! In fact, they heard your plaintive cries about two decades ago! And they released a game meant to spur the latent artistic abilities of young gamers the world over. Its name is Mario Paint.

What's that? If Mario Paint is so beneficial to its players, what did it teach us?



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Five Things We Learned From Cool Spot

Tuesday, August 16, 2011 at 12:00 pm


Cool Spot -- cooler than your average spot.

In the "Five Things" columns of days past we've sometimes explored instances where marketing sticks its greasy, groping hands into the realm of electronic gaming. Sometimes it's almost unnoticeable: a catchphrase lifted from pop culture to increase the appeal of a character, a spaceship that even in-game looks a little too much like the eventual Toys-R-Us model. Other times it can be more overt, like your favorite characters from George Lucas films for some reason mutated into Lego people on a quest to both fight fascists and build Lego block structures.

But imagine a game that blends entertainment and sales tools so completely that they become one terrible chimera of promotional brainwashing. Imagine a game where every second of play is spent using, considering, or jumping around inside of a bottle of the product in question. Imagine a game where you play as a living, breathing logo so that ideally, when the game is over and its message has entered your mind completely, you not only want the product, you are the product.

Actually, you don't have to imagine. The game described above is called Cool Spot. And despite the Orwellian tone of the preceding paragraph, it's actually pretty fun.

So what do Cool Spot and its hero, the 7 Up logo named "Cool Spot," teach us about life, love and the Uncola?

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Five Things We Learned From Kirby Super Star

Tuesday, August 9, 2011 at 11:00 am
Kirby Super Star: pictured -- the titular Superstar / Eater of Souls
There are various tales of some people in this world who, according to one of several long-held belief systems, think that eating the body of one's enemy will imbue the devouring party with the power of the fallen foe. For more information on this practice, please see the warlord character from the informative film District 9 (if this is the only reason you watch District 9 though, you should be warned that you're going to have to sit through about an hour of a guy yelling "FOOK" before you get to what you're looking for).

The existence of Kirby, a little pink marshmallow whose two defining traits are cuteness and omnivorousness, is an affirmation of these beliefs. In fact, if Kirby wasn't such an adorable little creampuff of a dude, he would probably be pretty terrifying. Guys who can swallow you whole and absorb your skills usually have titles like "the Harvester" or "Soul Reaver."

Kirby is one of Nintendo's major mascots, but he's also a fascinating character study, and the strange world he inhabits is rife with interesting quirks. Kirby Super Star was the SNES game that proved that Kirby was one versatile marshmallow, and in addition to building the prestige of our favorite all-digesting pink doughball it taught us much -- and not just about the upsides of feasting on the flesh of your adversaries!
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Five Things We Learned From Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six

Tuesday, August 2, 2011 at 12:00 pm
Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: a new breed of FPS, where you die much, much more quickly.
A book has to be pretty kick-ass to be adapted straight into a video game.

It's one thing for a movie to be made into a video game. You don't have to be a genius to understand that Luke mowing Stormtroopers down with his lightsaber is going to appeal to video game players, in fact you don't really even need a frontal lobe to figure that one out. A video game coming out also fits neatly into the marketing tornado that occurs whenever a movie is about to premiere, so that by the time you actually see Pirates of the Caribbean V: the Leviathan's Blowhole, you've already played with (and likely disrobed) the action figures, seen Johnny Depp on The View talking about Jack Sparrow's emotional journey, and, of course, played the tepid, formulaic video game.

And it's not uncommon for a book to be made into a movie. Jurassic Park, Adaptation, The Godfather, Schindler's List, Norbit -- all these movies were books first. And praised be whatever God there is up there that the entire Norbit tetralogy of novels has not yet been captured on film and unleashed onto the masses (Norbit IV: Latimore's Revenge would be especially harrowing onscreen).

But for a book to never be made into a movie, but go straight to becoming a video game? There's only one example that comes to mind immediately, and that's Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six.

Rainbow Six left an indelible impression upon the FPS genre, introducing tactics over bravado and professionalism over fury. And after hours of DOOM and Quake, we learned valuable lessons from Rainbow Six.
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Five Things We Learned From Mario Party

Tuesday, July 26, 2011 at 12:00 pm
Mario was prepared to lay down some serious coin to make this party go well. This Mario Party, that is.
On one bright and auspicious day in the Mushroom Kingdom, Mario and Luigi looked around their apartment and decided that they needed to do something important. Sure, they were two guys at the forefront of the adventurer / plumber career field, and they were renowned and loved by law-abiding fungi throughout the land, but they had been working way too hard. Their upstairs neighbors (two elderly toadstools who, let's face it, were sweet but got their panties in a complicated knot whenever the Bros had music playing past 9:30 at night) had just moved out, and so Mario and Luigi decided that they ought to blow off some steam by having a little gathering. Nothing huge. Just a little party.

A Mario Party.

So they sent out a festive email to the hippest humans, mushrooms and friendly dinosaurs around, and started mixing up something Luigi called his "I'm-a Number One Punch." At about nine the guests started arriving, and the Mario Bros. began to anticipate a night of friendly games, light-hearted competition, and all-around fun.

When the two brothers awoke with headaches the next morning, they thought long and hard about what transpired. It was all such a blur! What the hell happened last night? What mistakes did they make? What mini-games did they even play? Neither remembered. But as they started to piece together bits of the night, they learned valuable things about themselves and parties in general.

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Five Things We Didn't Learn From Battletoads

Tuesday, July 19, 2011 at 2:00 pm


Get ready for the TOADS

Several weeks ago we ran an article about all the various things we learned from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles video games, and in the introduction we ruminated on the many nonsensical aspects of Turtles lore. We all love anthropomorphism, but when we're talking about not only turtles with human traits but adolescent turtles with ninja skills spouting late-80's buzzwords and eating pizza, some kind of line has been crossed.

Battletoads, on the other hand, not only crosses that line. Battletoads sprints across the line, punches the line with an enlarged fist, and then defecates on it.

Battletoads is one of the more notoriously difficult NES games, and for that reason alone it's left an imprint on the minds of many young gamers who strived valiantly to save Princess Angelica by subjecting themselves to the horrors of planet Ragnarok. Incidentally, many of these same children formed metal bands in high school to vent all that stored frustration and to use words like "Ragnarok" again.

Maybe it's a function of how hardcore the game is, but it's difficult to identify things that Battletoads actually taught us. It is easier to see things that it absolutely and in no uncertain terms did NOT teach us.  These things include...

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Five Things We Learned From Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island

Tuesday, July 12, 2011 at 11:00 am
Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island -- it's pretty cute.
​Generally the practice of taking beloved characters and making a story featuring them in child form is maligned. As it should be. This type of thing is usually either the death knell of the creative expansion of a fictional world or just a blatant attempt to cash in on existing success and open a franchise up to a new market.


"Hey kids!  Are you too young for your parents to let you watch Bond movies? Don't you wish there was a version of the 007 story without all the sex and violence? Well, how would you like to watch some James Bond, Jr.?" (The correct answer to this is, "No," or, alternatively, "You should be ashamed of yourself.")

But there are exceptions. Sometimes the reversion of popular characters to their youths can be enlightening, even moving. It's a chance to see their personalities take shape, see the essence of their souls before they were changed by age and circumstance. The result is a dreamlike experience, like a slideshow of a close friend's family photos; it's a story that affects other stories and is affected by them, a bittersweet elegy about what used to be and what is now.

We know what you're thinking -- this is a flawless description of Muppet Babies. True. But we were actually thinking of Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island, the wonderful SNES game that taught us about love, friendship, parenting and eggs.

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Five Things We Learned From Resident Evil

Tuesday, July 5, 2011 at 11:00 am

Resident Evil -- an atmospheric horror game with a chilling plotline about a corpo- OH SHIT THE DOGS
There was a time in our collective youth where we didn't think video games or books could scare us. We knew movies could scare us; we had nightmares about that fateful day we walked in on our dad watching Total Recall on TV and saw that bad dude's eyes pop out of his head like prank snakes popping out of a can (also, the three-boobed chick earlier gave many of us a combination of uneasiness and special feelings). But our experience with books was that they were generally too boring to frighten us, and as for video games, the main thing we experienced while on a Nintendo or Genesis was the cyclical frustration / pride progression that occurred while we struggled to achieve a new level, and then a vague sense of longing years later. Fear didn't really factor in.

And then two things happened. First, we read R.L. Stine's chef-d'oeuvre Say Cheese And Die! (the exclamation point is a part of the title)! Stop taking pictures, kids! The camera will kill you all!

And then we played the original Resident Evil.

Through the hours of spookiness that followed, we learned many things about the experience of total horror, the human instinct to survive and the satisfying pop that zombie heads make when shot the right way.

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Five Things We Learned From Tony Hawk's Pro Skater

Tuesday, June 28, 2011 at 11:00 am


Tony Hawk's Pro Skater -- helping kids do shove-its from the comfort of their homes.

Everybody loved Goldeneye. Its terribly entertaining multiplayer (not to mention a badass single-player mode that included dam jumps and 3D renderings of Sean Bean that pushed the limits of existing technology) transported players to another world -- one of intrigue and excitement and high drama.

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater was another wildly popular game released during the same general time period. As we'll explore later on in the article, it was not a strictly realistic game. But it was closer to home certainly than Goldeneye and many of the other hit games of the time. Often the thirteen and fourteen-year-olds who were doing shove-its in abandoned warehouses in Tony Hawk were spending the remainder of their free time doing actual shove-its in actual abandoned warehouses (though likely with more bailing and hopefully with a little less shattering of glass). Seeing their exploits translated into video game form, seeing their chosen pastime, one that many adults were loathe to acknowledge, elevated to the level of an actual sports game was a fulfilling experience.

But Tony Hawk's Pro Skater wasn't just about awesome music and scoring points.  It was about the human ability to dream.  It was about finding the potential in the ordinary.  And it was about shove-its.  Ollie over the jump to find out more!

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