Posts by Robert Boyd

The New Xbox Experience

Posted in News by on Nov 23rd, 2008 11:21 AM

This past week, Microsoft launched the New Xbox Experience (NXE).  The NXE is a major update to the Xbox 360's dashboard that adds several new features and generally improves the user interface.  The new UI is faster, prettier (the boring text-based menus have been replaced with appropriate images), more informative (selecting games now brings up a wealth of screenshots and other details), and generally easier to navigate.

My favorite new feature is definitely the Community Games section, where you can download games made by various hobbyists and indie groups for 200-800 Microsoft points each (that's $2.50-$10 in US dollars).  The system started with a few dozen games; today, there are already about 50.  They range in quality from atrocious (most of the 3D shooters) to must-buys.  Of the games currently available, Weapon of Choice is easily the best — a Metal Slug/Contra-style run-and-gun game with great graphics, multiple paths and playable characters, an intriguing death system (one-hit kills, but when you're about to die, time slows down, giving you a chance to change your fate), and insane weaponry.  A whip with a machine gun on it?  Check.  Flame thrower that doubles as a rocket pack?  Check.  A gun that shoots out more guns?  Check.  At a mere 400 points, I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys action games.

A few of the other community games that are definitely worth checking out include Artoon, a bouncy ball platformer with very stylish graphics; In the Pit, an audio-only game where you're a monster in a dark pit eating people; Biology Battle, a high quality Geometry Wars-style shooter; Blow; a puzzler that has using fans to navigate bubbles through levels; Endless Swarm, akin to Tower Defense crossed with Missile Command; Word Soup, word creation puzzle game; and StarPilot, avariant on the light cycle game from the movie TRON.

My second favorite feature is the addition of Netflix Watch Instantly support, allowing you to watch any of the movies and TVs shows on Netflix's streaming service on your Xbox.   This feature has more requirements than I feel it should: being a Netflix member is a natural prerequisite, but you must also be an Xbox Live Gold member. It could be more convenient by allowing you to adjust your Netflix queue directly from the Xbox. Even with these limitations, my wife and I have been greatly enjoying watching episodes of The Office on the monitor that my 360 is hooked up to, instead of our usual method of streaming to her laptop's small screen.  The picture quality isn't amazing, at least with our DSL connection's speed, but it's adequate and is a great feature that I dare say will sway a few people who were on the fence about a 360 purchase into buying one.

Avatars were probably the addition that Microsoft was advertising the most, and they work.  They're basically the same as the Miis that Nintendo's Wii has, except a bit more realistic though still cartoonish.  Judging from my own avatar as well as my friends', it seems to be much easier to make your avatar look like yourself than it is with Miis.  Avatars are a decent addition that will probably draw more casual gamers; my eight-year-old daughter loves them and spent an hour or two this morning customizing her own.

One last feature that needs to be mentioned is the ability to copy 360 games to the hard drive for quicker load times.  How much it reduces load times varies from game to game (the worse the programming, the bigger the improvement). I installed Earth Defense Force 2017, which took about 5-10 minutes. After installing it, the loads all seemed to go a bit faster, although by exactly how much, I can't say.  More precisely, I did a before-and-after test installing Burnout Revenge and found the load times to be drastically better after installing: level loads went down from around 18 seconds playing from the disk down to around 8 seconds playing from the hard drive. Unfortunately, installation takes up quite a bit of hard drive space since it basically copies the entire game to the hard drive and I only have the 20 GB hard drive.  Oh well, maybe I'll pick up a large hard drive when the prices go down.

All in all, I'm really enjoying the new Xbox 360 dashboard, so much that it almost feels like I just bought a brand new system.  The addition of Community Games alone would have been enough to make me thrilled, but the additions of Netflix support, avatars, hard drive installations, and a vastly better looking interface that offers more information make the new dashboard a fantastic new addition to the Xbox 360 system.

Text Adventures on Xbox Live Community

Posted in News by on Nov 6th, 2008 2:33 PM

How's this for a confluence: I like gamebooks like the Choose Your Own Adventure series and the Lone Wolf books. November is NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month.  Also in November, Microsoft is launching their Xbox Live Community games system, an online distribution system that makes it possible for any gaming hobbyist to sell their Xbox 360 fan-made games.  I like video games and would like to make my own.

Put all these pastimes together, and what do I get? … Molly the Were-Zompire.

I am currently writing Molly, a digital interactive novel in the style of the Choose Your Own Adventure novels.   It will be released on the Xbox Live Community games system with a price tag of 200 MS points ($2.50 in US currency).  Before that happens, I need to get the plotting and first draft done in November, the programming done in December (some of the coding is already done from a previous version of this project), and then do editing and debugging in January, with a public release later that month.

The premise of the story is that Molly is just an ordinary girl with dreams of becoming a heroine.  One day, she finds a magic book with a spell that promises great power to the one who casts it.  She casts the spell, summons the undead, is simultaneously killed by a werewolf, zombie, and a vampire, and then is reborn as Molly the Were-Zompire, potential heroine extraordinaire.  At this point, the game begins proper and the player decides what choices Molly will make.  Depending on the player's choices, the story could end up progressing in very different directions: an ally in one path of the story could be an enemy in another; entire locations and plot points are exclusive to certain plot paths; and so on.

The game was initially envisioned as a cross between interactive novels and traditional console RPGs, but in the end, I decided to just make it a straight interactive novel.  The problem with the previous version was that the two aspects didn't want to play nicely with each other. The RPG aspect kept wanting to interject combat situations and complex leveling up systems into the game. That complexity interfered with keeping the pace of the story moving briskly while exploring interesting non-combat situations.  In the end, the story aspect won out.  (I'll save the complicated formulae for a later RPG.)

Doing this kind of branching story in a digital form should have several advantages: the pacing should be a lot brisker without any of that pesky page flipping in search of a new page number for each choice; players won't accidentally read other storylines when they're searching for the next page; it'll be very easy to program in the ability to backtrack at any point if they reach a premature ending or just want to try a different path; the game can keep track of which endings have been seen and maybe even display a flowchart showing which parts of the branching storyline have been experienced; and perhaps my favorite digital advantage, the novel can be as long as I like without having to worry about page counts and editor concerns.

To be honest, I have no idea if this will be successful.  I believe there's a market for interactive fiction like this, though Molly's almost entirely text-based nature could deter people.  The $2.50 price tag could result in impulse purchases, but some people might see the low price as an indication of lack of quality.  Regardless of whether the game is a commercial success or not, I still think it'll be a success for me.  I've had the unfulfilled goals of writing a novel and making a video game ever since I was a little kid and this is a way that I can accomplish both goals at the same time.  Plus, the experience and self esteem gained from working on this project could pave the way toward future project.

Japanese RPGs: One Week, Three Translation Patches

Posted in News by on Oct 15th, 2008 4:57 PM

Not every great game that is released in Japan is translated into English.  But some of these great games are eventually made available in English, courtesy fan translation patches — game hacks that transform the original Japanese game into a fully playable English version.  Most fan translations never get finished, as it takes a lot of time and skill to completely translate a game. When a quality one is finished, it's cause for great celebration.  This week marks the completion of not one, not two, but three high profile fan translation patches.

The first of these patches is a translation patch for Persona 2: Innocent Sin.  Persona 2's story was divided into two separate games, and the US officially got only the second part, Persona 2: Eternal Punishment.  Although Eternal Punishment summarized most of the essential information about the first part, it should be fun to find out the details.

The second of this week's patches is for Mother 3.  The Mother series may be unfamiliar to most Western gamers by its native title, but the second game was released for the Super Nintendo as Earthbound (whose protagonist, Ness, appears in Super Smash Bros.).  Though the gameplay tends toward typical Dragon Quest-style, the plot and setting are anything but standard.  The games generally take place in the modern world and parody the RPG genre.  Earthbound (Mother 2) is thus far the only one to officially make it Stateside. The original Mother was a Famicom game that Nintendo of America translated, but never released, for the NES. Mother 3, supposedly the best in the series, was also never released in the USA — probably because it was a GBA game released at a time when Nintendo was focusing on the DS in the US.  I'm really looking forward to giving Mother 2 a try, as the world needs more parody RPGs. (Earthbound and Okage: Shadow King aren't enough!)

The last of these patches is a translation patch for the Super Famicom game Lennus II.  Like Mother, we've gotten a previous game in the series in the US here under a different name, that being Paladin's Quest for Super Nintendo.  That title proved something of a misnomer, since the game is completely devoid of any paladins; the hero and heroine are both wizards. I suspect Enix wanted a name that gamers would identify as an RPG.  The first game was known for a very cool magic system: instead of having one overall magic stat, you have one stat for each of several fields of magic, and you increase each field through practice. There were also 30 different playable characters (two main characters and 28 mercenaries you could hire at various parts of the game), bizarre pastel-based graphics, and great level design.  Despite being a SNES RPG published by Enix, it was pretty obscure — sometimes I feel like I'm the only one who has ever played the thing.  I hear the sequel is even better than the first game so I'm really looking forward to playing it in a language I can understand.

These patches are applicable only via emulation, which is a legally gray area. Neither I nor Gamebits nor its affiliated parties offer any endorsements of methods or practices. It's all fun and games until someone loses an eye. Do not taunt Happy Fun Ball.

RPGs and the New Generation

Posted in News by on Jul 8th, 2008 12:44 PM

Last month, Microsoft had an RPG conference in Japan.  The biggest news out of the event was the announcement that Star Ocean 4, previously thought to be a PS3 exclusive, is in fact, an Xbox 360 game and might not show up on the PS3 at all.  Xbox owners can also cheer that The Last Remnant, a multiplatform Square-Enix RPG, is going to be released earlier on the 360 than on the PS3.  Other highlights from the conference include additional media and information on Tales of Vesperia (a 360 exclusive by Namco in the series made famous in the US by Tales of Symphonia for the GameCube) and Infinite Undiscovery (a 360 exclusive by Square-Enix that looks similar to Rogue Galaxy).

I'm reminded of this quote from Vic Ireland, the president of the now-defunct RPG localizing company, Working Designs:

For the future, there are still great opportunities. I have been in touch with a number of other publishers and manufacturers and I will be working with some of the WD staff to do games for other publishers for the time being, but not as Working Designs. One thing that holds a ton of promise is Xbox 360 RPGs, and I've contacted Microsoft about getting what's underway in Japan out in the US and helping to get more done worldwide. We'll see what happens on that front, but please let them know that you want more rpgs here. There's some amazing stuff coming for the '360 in Japan, and I know I want it — I think you will, too.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who read those words from Vic Ireland back in 2005 and laughed in disbelief.  The Xbox 360 being a great RPG machine?  Aside from a couple Bioware games (Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire), the Xbox's library of RPGs was practically non-existent.  Why would the 360 be any different?  And yet, here we are in 2008 and those words of Vic sound more prophetic than crazy.

How did we get to the point where the PS3, aside from Final Fantasy XIII, is sparse in the RPG department, despite the PSOne & PS2's utter dominance in the genre? How did the Xbox 360 come to look so impressive compared to the original Xbox's pathetic showing?  There are a number of factors: Microsoft's courting of Japanese developers and their own investment in Mistwalker Studios (Blue Dragon, Lost Odyssey); the Xbox 360's one-year head start; and the cheaper price tag are all factors. But I believe the biggest contributor is that Microsoft published good RPGs significantly earlier than its competition.  RPGs tend to be games with low replay value; thus, fans of the genre tend to buy more RPGs than fans of other genres with greater longevity might.  The early availability of RPGs on the Xbox 360 combined with RPG fans' tendency to buy many RPGs created a snowball effect: a good RPG comes for the system encourages more fans of RPGs to buy the system, which in turns encourages more companies to make RPGs for the system.  The system has momentum now — Western RPGs like Too Human and the Mass Effect trilogy, Japanese RPGs from companies like Square-Enix & Namco, Strategy/RPGs from Atlus — and I don't see that changing any time soon.

Will the PS3 or the Wii be able to catch up and overtake the 360 in the RPG field?  I don't think so.  Final Fantasy XIII, though a big title, looks like it'll be too little, too late.  And with Square-Enix showing more and more support for the 360 and less support for the PS3, there's always the chance that FFXIII could end up as a multiplatform title.  The Wii has a fair chance of developing a good RPG library simply because the system is selling insanely well and the dominant system inevitably gets strong game developer support, but I don't know.  Whether it's true or not, the Wii is getting a reputation as being the console of choice for casual gamers and so developers may prove hesitant to develop RPGs for the system.  The Wii might end up with a strong lineup of RPGs, but as of now, that's merely a hope; there's nothing particular noteworthy in the genre on the system at the moment.

In the meantime, I plan on enjoying the 360's RPG library while marveling at the strange and bizarre world we live in.

Reading Reviews Between the Lines

Posted in News by on Feb 11th, 2008 8:00 AM

I have a confession to make: I love reading reviews. And not necessarily to better inform myself whether or not I should see/play/read a movie/game/book, but just to see different perspectives. Through reading hundreds, maybe even thousands, of reviews, I've come to a simple conclusion: professional game reviewers are in a poor position to offer advice on what people should play.

Your average professional game reviewer has a constant stream of games that they need to review. They don't purchase their games; they get them for free. Since they have so many games that they need to play, they tend to play games for the bare minimum necessary to write their review unless they really like the game in question.

Contrast that with your average gamer. When they start playing a game, they've already made an investment — anywhere from the $5 for a rental to $60 for a brand new Xbox 360 or PS3 game (and sometimes more with games that comes with accessories like Rock Band) and the time spent researching the game to see if they would like it. They want the game that they're playing to succeed, otherwise they've wasted their money and time, and so they're more likely to be sympathetic to minor flaws or a slow start. Once they've found a game that they really like, they'll spend hour after hour mastering it and learning all the little nuances to the gameplay.

However, the biggest and most unforgivable divide between the average gamer and professional reviewers is this: your average person only plays games that they think they'll like. When I was reviewing games regularly as a hobby, I noticed that I was giving just about everything I reviewed high scores. Why was this? It was because I was only reviewing games that I had purchased myself. By that stage in my life, I had a pretty good idea of what kind of game I would enjoy and only bought those.


An HDTV Christmas

Posted in News by on Jan 6th, 2008 7:29 PM

I hope everyone had a good Christmas.  For my part, I visited with family, ate good food, and played a lot of games.  Good times indeed.

My big present was a high quality 19" widescreen high-definition monitor plus speakers to use with my Xbox 360.  I previously had the system hooked up to a 14" SDTV (standard-definition television), so that's a significant improvement.  I found the monitor at Best Buy on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving, and the biggest day of the year for insane sales).  It was a display model that had been previously been selling for nearly $300, and I picked it up for a mere $100.  Throw in the Xbox 360 VGA cable & a set of cheap but serviceable speakers, and the end result is that I now have HDTV quality visuals for a mere $160 or so, as opposed to the several hundreds of dollars it would have cost for an actual HDTV.

A word on SDTV versus HDTV visuals: Your average SDTV displays at 480i (680 x 480 resolution interlaced scan), whereas your average small- to mid-sized HDTV displays at 720p (1280 x 720 resolution progressive scan).  Although 720 might not sound that much bigger than 480, when you throw in the fact that HDTVs display in widescreen format, you end up getting about 3 times as many pixels, which means substantially sharper images.  Throw in progressive scan instead of interlaced (progressive scan does much better with moving images than interlaced), and the argument in favor of HDTV is even stronger.

On a regular SDTV, Xbox 360 games looked nice but not amazing.  In fact, games like Super Mario Galaxy and Sonic & the Secret Rings, running on the underpowered Nintendo Wii, often looked as good as some lower-end Xbox 360 games, when comparing both systems running on an SDTV.  However, now that I've got my 360 hooked up to an HDTV quality monitor, there's no contest.  The boost in visual quality is similar to that seen in the jump from the PS1 to the PS2.  Tiny visual details that were previously obscured are now crystal clear and previously illegible text is now easy to read.  It's so great of a difference, I almost feel like I just got a brand new system.

Pac-Man: Championship Edition

Posted in News by on Dec 15th, 2007 5:14 PM

I'd previously outlined the many online wares available for the three major consoles. Here, I'd like to review my current favorite: Pac-Man: Championship Edition.

Now, this may be blasphemy around here, but I was never a big fan of the original.  This isn't to say that I disliked it — I liked it just fine — it's just that for me, it was nothing more than an occasional five-minute diversion.  Dodge the ghosts, eat the pellets, eat the power pellets for a bit of revenge, and repeat: quick cheap fun while you're waiting for your food at the local recreation center, and that's about it.

Pac-Man: Championship Edition changes all that.  The game is still simple fun, but by making a few changes, it's also added levels of depth for those who really want to get into it.

What changes are those?

  1. Evolving levels.  Instead of eating all of the pellets to proceed to the next level, the level morphs as you eat pellets.  Levels are split into a left side and a right side.  Clear all the pellets on one side, and a piece of fruit will appear on the opposite side.  Eat the fruit, and the cleared side will refresh with a new layout, more pellets, and maybe some power pellets.  No pesky level transitions to interrupt the action.
  2. Adaptable difficulty.  The longer you stay alive, the faster everything gets; die, and the speed slows down a bit.
  3. New scoring system.  Eat many pellets without dying to increase the points given per pellet.  Chain power pellets together (eat the next power pellet before the first one runs out) to gain more points with each consecutive ghost eaten.  Eat a lot of fruit to unlock higher point fruit.
  4. Time limit.  The goal is no longer to last as long as possible, but to get as many points as possible within the allotted time, thus encouraging more aggressive play and maing the experience that much more exciting.
  5. Five additional modes, each with a different level style and time limit.  The standard Championship Mode has a wide variety of level designs and a five-minute time limit.  There's also a speedway mode (five-minute time limit, long straightways, all sprites are on maximum speed all the time); a dark mode (10 minutes, only the walls immediately around Pac-Man & the ghosts are lit up); feast and famine (the stages go back and forth from having a ton of power pellets to having none); small to big (10 minutes, stages start out confined and steadily become more open); and variety (10 minutes, variety of stage designs).

Throw in some subtly enhanced visuals & audio (improved but with plenty of retro appeal) and online leaderboards to track your scores, and you have a game that appeals to both casual and hardcore gamers.  The casual gamer will enjoy trying out the different modes and just trying to survive for the entire time limit, whle the hardcore gamer will spend hours mastering the different modes, trying out new strategies (do I focus on ghost chains or try to clear the pellets as fast as possible? focus on one side of the screen or both sides equally?), and trying to get the best scores on the worldwide leaderboards.  Pac-Man: Championship Edition is the perfect example of how you successfully update a classic game.  At a mere $10 to download, there's no excuse not to buy it if you own an Xbox 360 and if you don't already own an Xbox 360, it's a good incentive to get one.  It's easily one of my picks for one of the top 10 best games of 2007.

Virtual Console, Xbox Live, and PlayStation Store — So many games, so little time

Posted in News by on Dec 14th, 2007 5:01 PM

The current console generation has brought many additions to the gaming experience — high definition visuals, motion sensing controls, downloadable expansion packs, widespread online gaming — but by far my favorite addition to the console arena this generation has been the addition of cheap downloadable games.  All of the major systems have their own version: Wii has the Virtual Console where for $5-$10, you can download great games from the NES, Genesis, SNES, N64, TurboGraphx-16, Neo Geo, and more. Early next year, the Wii will also have a channel from which original games can be downloaded.  The PS3 has the PlayStation Store, where there are a few good original games (I hear Super Stardust HD and Everyday Shooter are especially good) for around $10, and some original PS1 games for $6-$10.  The especially nice thing is that the PS1 game downloads work on the PSP: I can think of quite a fun old PS1 games that I'd love to have on a portable system at $10 or less a pop.  Finally, the Xbox 360 has the Xbox Live Arcade where original games and ports (often upgraded) generally come out at $5-$10 a piece and the recently added Xbox Originals — older Xbox games for $15 a piece.

I've noticed that these download services have had a drastic impact on the games I play and favor.  Back in the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, I gravitated toward console RPGs almost out of necessity.  As a young child without a lot of disposable income, it just made more sense to spend $60 on a massive epic like Dragon Warrior II or Final Fantasy that would take me weeks to finish, rather than spend it on an action game that I might beat in a couple days.  However, now I'm faced with dozens of high quality games from a variety of genres that only cost $5-$10 to download.  Sure, I might not have gotten as many hours out of, say, Mutant Storm Reloaded (a fast paced shmup played in the Robotron fashion) as I would out of the latest and greatest RPG, but I've definitely gotten my $10 worth.

All of the console download services have good games on them, but the online store that gives me the most fun is Xbox Live Arcade.  Although the first year of the service was a little bumpy with frequently delayed releases and many weeks with nothing new, now it's really gotten going.  Good XBLA games come out faster than I can play them, and I really can't offer better praise than that.  The breadth of the service is really remarkable: you have old Arcade classics (often with update visuals) for $5, high quality ports from the PSP like Lumines, EXIT, Puzzle Quest, and Gripshift (one of today's releases, a weird yet awesome mix of racing, platforming, and puzzles), ports from other systems like the PS1 classic Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, various PC casual games, and of course, original games.  Just recently, Microsoft implemented a new XBLA Greatest Hits line where older XBLA games have their download prices reduced.  Now, besides Geometry Wars (great Robotron-esque game), Space Giraffe (Tempest on acid) and all the old arcade classics, $5 will buy you Zuma (a really fun puzzle game somewhat similar to Bust-A-Move) or Marble Blast Ultra (think Marble Madness in 3D).  And hey, everything on the service has a free demo version so that you can see if you like the game before you buy the full version.

I could talk about many of my favorite XBLA games (and I probably will over time), but first I'll talk about what is probably my favorite: Pac-Man: Championship Edition.  Watch for a full review soon!

The Age of Aquaria

Posted in News by on Dec 10th, 2007 3:36 PM

Hello everyone! The name's Robert Boyd. I did some forum and review work with Ken back in the day. When he told me that he was reviving the Gamebits site with a new look and new content, and I just had to get onboard. I'll be doing a little bit of everything: discussing the latest gaming news, sharing impressions of what I'm currently playing, talking about various aspects of the industry, game reviews, and even going back in the past for a bit of nostalgia. [Just like me! -Ken] Shall we begin?

For today's entry, I'd like to talk about a game called Aquaria. A week ago, I had no clue this game even existed; now I'm thinking it just might be the best surprise of this holiday season. Aquaria is an independent PC game that won the grand prize ($20,000) at this year's Independent Game Festival. It's about the mermaid-esque Najia and her quest to discover herself and explore her underwater world. Gameplay could perhaps best be described as a cross between Ecco the Dolphin and Metroid. The player guides Naijia through a massive and intricate 2D underwater world, finding new powers that allow her to explore areas that were previously unreachable.

Several things stand out about Aquaria. First is the shock that it looks and sounds as good as it does. The underwater environments that Najia explores can only be described as gorgeous. The music is equally impressive with dozens of songs that really make you feel like you're right down with her. If you have a decent video card, you can turn on some special water effects that make the whole thing look even better, but even with that option turned off, this is still one of the better presented 2D games I've seen in a long time. What makes the whole thing downright amazing is that the game looks better than many commercial game releases, despite the whole thing being created by only two people (three if you count the voice actress who does a hauntingly beautiful British voice for the heroine). One guy did the music and programming, while his partner did all the art. Truly outstanding and an inspiration for all would be indie game designers.

The other thing that really impressed me with what I've played of the game is the level of immersion that they've managed to achieve with this game. Several aspects work together to build this effect. There's the aforementioned high presentation values. There's a control system that works wonderfully that allows the player to play the entire game using only the mouse (keyboard & control pad options are also available for those who so desire). And there's the level design. Sure, there are plenty of areas that follow traditional game design rules with puzzles, enemies, bosses, treasures, and the like and these are well done, but then there are also areas where you're just meant to explore for fun and take in the experience that really make the world seem alive. Finally the story of Najia's quest for discovery is expertly told in a minimalistic fashion that leaves plenty of scope for imagination.

I highly recommend you check the game; the company's Web site has a demo that lasts about an hour or two that should give you a good idea of whether or not this game is for you. The full game costs $30, and though I was leery of paying that much for an indie game at first, if the rest of the game is as good as the demo then the game is well worth what they're asking for it. It's currently for PC only, although they are working on a Mac port. I'll be sure to give a full review after I purchase the game (I have some eBay auctions ending soon, plus there's always Christmas) to let you all know if the full version fulfills on the promises made by the demo.