Good clean fun, with lots of blood and dismemberment

I was supposed to spend last weekend working on my entry for the second Experimental Gameplay Competition, but instead I spent almost the entire time addicted to Toribash.

Toribash is a “turn-based fighting game”, which doesn’t make much sense when you think of it from the angle of traditional fighting games like the Street Fighter or Tekken series, but makes perfect sense when you think of it in terms of shootfighting, or Brazillian jiu-jitsu; fighting styles that focus on wrapping yourself around your opponent and breaking him in half. In single player mode, you fight against a dummy, plan out every 10 seconds of moves in advance by tweaking your character’s joints to either contract, expand, relax or stiffen, watch it unfold, then plan out the next 10 seconds. It doesn’t sound all that impressive, and the graphics are super-bare-bones, but once you watch a few replays, and especially after the first time you (probably accidentally) pop the dummy’s torso in half with your legs, you’ll be hooked. In fact, when you’re starting out, the “happy accidents” are the best part of the game; when you try to do a flash kick, miss with it, but end up tumbling through the air and come down hard enough to knock the dummy’s head off.

The community aspect is twofold; first, you can save replays of your most ridiculously impressive moves to share with other people, and second, the game also has a multiplayer mode. Multiplayer works exactly like the single-player except, naturally, you’re fighting against another person instead of the dummy, you have only a few seconds to setup your next move, and on some servers you are immediately disqualified if any part of your body besides your hands or feet touch the ground. This means that, even if your opponent sends your head flying far into the air, as long as the rest of your body can pin him before it lands then it’s all good.

The best part is that the entire game, multiplayer and all, is completely free. What are you waiting for??

Here is my proudest moment, here is something completely ridiculous I did by accident, and here is my head texture, so I will look proper should we ever meet in the field of battle!! (save replays to your “replay” directory and use the replay menu option to view them, and save head textures to your “heads” directory. You can even make your own head!)

The noir-est place on Earth

I just wrote a review of “Dogby Walks Alone” for Amazon, and felt that the story was so good I needed to post the review here, too, even though it’s only barely tangentially related to video games. Long story short, whoever you are, you absolutely MUST read this book, and help spread the word about it as much as humanly possible.

I’m a huge fan of film noir, and “noir” in general. My three favorite movies are BladeRunner, Brick, and The Big Sleep. I’m especially impressed when noir is translated well into non-noir settings (as with BladeRunner and Brick), which is part of why I absolutely love Dogby Walks Alone. A direct sequel to Wes Abbott’s identically-titled short story in The Rising Stars of Manga 2, Dogby Walks Alone tells the story of Dogby, an amusement park mascot, who solves crimes without saying a word and without ever removing the head from his costume (at least not in any way that the “camera” can see). The actual narrative and dialogue of the story comes primarily through “Snack Girl”, Dogby’s “Watson” who also has a huge crush on him. While the original short story’s plot had Dogby deducing who stole all of the park’s hot dogs, this book kicks it up a notch by having Dogby solve a murder, while the rest of the park is on the brink of civil war over the mysterious theft of a week’s ticket sales. And whereas most manga end their volumes with hair-raising cliffhangers to seduce readers back for more, this book wraps up the murder mystery nicely at the end, leaving the reader wanting more simply by virtue of the characters and the writing.

Where Dogby really shines is in its pastiches; there were many times in the story that Abbott made such an obvious homage that I was afraid the story was going to derail into a parody of Star Wars, or Metal Gear Solid, or one of a dozen other things, but instead Abbott glances perfectly off the surface of his reference, working it fluidly into the plot of the story and never for a moment wasting time on fancruft. Every single reference to something else is there not as a distraction, but actually to propel the story along; as soon as a character mentions that one of the sections of the park is called “Chinatoon”, I KNEW that, at some point, someone was going to get killed fleeing Chinatoon in a go-kart, and another character would remark “Forget about it, Dogby, it’s Chinatoon”. Again, I presumed that it would be an indulgent distraction, but when the moment finally did arrive, toward the end of the book, I discovered that it worked perfectly, and created one of the most solemnly dramatic moments of the entire book, while simultaneously making a smirking homage.

Which brings us to the drama. Despite the fact that most of the book is comedy, and none of the characters have real names (the main heroes are “Dogby”, “Snack Girl”, and “New Shift Manager”), there are moments of pure, gripping noir drama, unadulterated by any hint of melodrama or sarcasm. There are even scenes that are both grippingly dramatic AND absolutely hilarious, something I’ve never seen before in ANY writing, much less a graphic novel, and for which Web Abbott wins my deepest respect.

I know that this book won’t sell well; there’s no androgynous bishi boy or giant-breasted teenage girl with guns on the cover, and the hero will probably scare away furry-phobes (it’s certainly not furry, though — the reader is aware at all times that Dogby is a man in a dog suit, not any sort of anthropomorphic dog). This is, quite simply, one of the best single-volume graphic novels I’ve ever read, and one of the best noir works I’ve ever experienced (on par with the movies listed at the beginning of this review). Both the art and the writing are absolutely top-notch. This book deserves the Eisner Award, and you absolutely owe it to yourself to read it.

(Dogby Walks Alone also gets ALL of the bonus points for using a mocked-up Neo-Geo MVS game for a chapter splash page, complete with cartridge, marquee card, and move list.)

It burns when I paradigm shift.

My favorite video game of all time is Rakugaki Showtime, which intentionally looks like the graphics were drawn by a 10-year-old with too much sugar and a box of crayons. Lately I’ve fallen in love with Rhythm Tengoku and many of the games in the bit Generations series, both of which have extremely simple, minimalist graphics. A fan emailed me about my audio-only game In the Pit declaring “well, this certainly settles the whole ‘gameplay versus graphics’ argument” (can you smell the hubris????). And yet still, to this day, the first thing I look for in any new game I hear about is screenshots.

That’s not to say that screenshots haven’t served me well so far; screenshots and gameplay movies sold me on Shadow of the Colossus, God of War, Ninja Gaiden, and Gekisou Tomarunner, all of which are great-looking games that also happen to have excellent gameplay. But screenshots and gameplay movies actually drove me away from Rhythm Tengoku and bit Generations, until tons of positive reviews from friends and on message boards convinced me to check them out. It took me a long time to discover Warioware, DDR, and Cave Story, simply because I couldn’t “get it” from the screenshots and gameplay movies I saw, but now they’re among my favorite games (seriously, would this screenshot convince you that Cave Story is one of the best games ever made for the PC?). And I won’t even begin to list the mountain of games that I bought solely on the screenshots, only to discover that the gameplay was utterly horrible.

What I’m saying here is that it’s time for a paradigm shift. Slowly but surely, I need to hammer into the tiny reptilian part of my brain that responds excitedly to pretty pictures and un-well to simplistic pictures that screenshots are not the final word on a game’s quality. Unfortunately, screenshots are the quickest word on a game’s quality, and I always glance over at a game’s screenshot before reading the text of a review or preview, coloring my judgement before I actually know anything about the game. Gamespot’s video reviews are a good compromise, reporting the text of the review over gameplay videos so I can simultaneously satiate my pretty-colors-hungry reptilian brain and the analytical rest of my brain that actually has to play the game if I get it, but even then if the screenshots didn’t interest me I’m unlikely to check out the video review in the first place, and Gamespot can only afford to do video reviews of so many games anyway.

The first step is going to be forcing myself to check out games that have been recommended to me, or praised by people whose opinions I respect, even if the screenshots look absolutely awful. Granted, I’ve played a lot of ugly games with horrible gameplay, but I’ve played just as many beautiful games with horrible gameplay and know (consciously, at least) that simplistic graphics and awful gameplay don’t necessarily go together. The next step is going to be to do away with screenshots and gameplay movies entirely, or at least sever all of my connections between a gameplay’s screenshots and my expectations of its quality, and play games I’ve never seen before based entirely on what people say about them. I’ll let you know how that works out; in the best possible situation, I’m expecting to find a lot of missed gems (which I’ll subsequently share with you here on Inverted Castle) while also whittling down whose opinions on games I most agree with, and who’s been pumping themselves full of magic monkey juice and taking a trip to space land.

Any other suggestions, either on visually-unimpressive games I need to check out, or ways in which I can break my screenshot-habit (besides gouging out my own eyes, please), are very welcome.

Special thanks to Broco for the awesome animated gif of the “onion plucking” level from Rhythm Tengoku.

A quick update while I’m working on a bigger update

I wanted to quickly post about The Rabbit Snare, a cool new site dedicated to creating English translations of rare and wonderful interviews that only exist in Japanese. I just finished reading their translation of an interview with Satoru Iwata, who is my personal favorite “rags to riches” game industry story; he started out as a dirt-poor programmer, eating nothing but ramen and working 30-hour days to make the first Kirby and Mother games, and now he’s president of Nintendo. If that isn’t a shining inspiration for the rest of us dirt-poor programmers, I don’t know what is.

Meatier post about something else coming soon…

Bully for you, Bully!

About a year ago, Rockstar Games (famous for the Grand Theft Auto series) announced that they were developing a new game called “Bully“, and kept very tight-lipped about it, releasing little more than a promotional image of a Puggsly Addams look-alike standing at the gates of a school. This led to a huge uproar among headline-hungry dipshits who claimed that it would be everything from “Grand Theft Auto’s hooker killing repackaged for children” to a “Columbine Simulator”. Yesterday, Rockstar finally and smugly revealed that the game was completely the opposite; you play a schoolyard hero who fights against the bullies, and has to figure out clever, indirect, and/or non-violent ways to deal with them, since direct violence will result in punishments that are designed to be tedious and reminiscent of real-life school punishments like writing on the blackboard and being scolded by the principal. The game industry and parents let our a collective cheer, and now the dipshits are backpedalling like crazy, promising that there MUST be some sort of objectionable content buried in the game somewhere, and surely one of those evil, hellspawned “video games” couldn’t ACTUALLY be teaching kids non-violent conflict resolution.

And now today the Illinois district court has ruled that Illinois’ recent knee-jerk laws against selling M-rated games to children are unconstitutional and a waste of taxpayer money, and that it is parents’ responsibility to regulate what kinds of “dangerous expressions of free speech” their children are exposed to, not the state’s. Then the court ordered the state to pay the Entertainment Software Association’s legal fees.

(Sorry that link to NYTimes requires registration, but the text following it pretty much sums it up.)

So much for that “every month” thing

Oops. Well, it’s been 3 months since I said I was going to post monthly about any game design competitions I’d heard of. To my credit, though, I haven’t heard of any new game design competitions in those 3 months except for these two:

  • JayIsGames is holding a flash game design competition. The theme is “simple puzzle games”, along the lines of the puzzles in Myst or… uh… one of the 9 billion clones of Myst. It ends on August 25th, and a DS Lite and 2 copies of Flash 8 will be distributed among the winners.
  • The Experimental Gameplay Project is holding a second competition, and to their credit this one sounds a whole lot more experimental than the first one. The theme is to make a game that is not a dancing game but uses a DDR pad. To qualify for the first round, send in your game idea (you don’t have to have anything coded at this point) by August 11th. That’s this Friday, so get a move on!
  • An anonymous commenter also suggests Java Unlimited’s Super Mario Programming Contest, which gives entrants until October 1st to design a Super Mario Bros. fan game in Java. Prizes include copies of Tribal Trouble and Wurm Online, and an exciting green 1-Up hat! Hooray!

Also remember that the Slamdance and Armor Games competitions from my last competition post are still on as well. If you know of a current competition that I have missed please tell me about it in this post’s comments!

Good luck!