Tuesday, March 27, 2012

It's time to talk about Draw Something!

My iPhone emits its customary "googoolee" sound to let me know that I have a notification. Usually, this causes me to groan, because it simply means that someone has said something on Facebook DESPITE me turning those notifications off ages ago. But not any more. Not now.

This is because, lately, a notification may well mean that somebody has sent me a new drawing in Draw Something, that game that is currently THE game that everyone seems to be talking about. Yes, the one that is being mentioned constantly all over your Twitter and Facebook feeds. The one that literally came from nowhere to top the App Store charts. And the one that has made OMGPOP, its creators, rich beyond their wildest dreams when Zynga took notice and bought them out, seemingly purely because of this simple, yet dazzling little toy.

I said that. Toy. Because, that is all it really is. If a game is a progression towards a goal via a set of rules, then Draw Something fails this test. There are rules, but they are sparse in the extreme. Take turns to draw, guess what the other player drew, score a point and some coins if you get it right. If you get it wrong, no coins, and start the count again. But, it doesn't matter how many turns you take, there is no end in sight. My partner and I have been on 99 "scored" for the last few days now.

To further compound this lack of a concrete goal, the coins themselves are only useful to unlock more colours in the game. Each word is assigned a difficulty level of 1, 2, or 3 coins, and you choose which to draw. The option to use a bomb to get new words is present, and new bombs can be bought by ... coins! But, as I have already noted, the coins are only to be used in-game for your own benefit, and do not affect the "score" in any way. So, you may as well just always pick the easiest one you can actually draw.

And, if played like that, this is a game that will last you precisely one night. You will giggle, realise the ultimate futility, and may be tempted to blow some cash on buying green. Especially when there is absolutely nothing stopping you from just writing the word on the screen if that is all you care about.

This would be the wrong way to play. For, the real hook comes once you have a partner that you know really well. In these circumstances, you can utilise your in-jokes to draw something that would be completely meaningless to anybody else looking in, but absolutely nailed-on as a perfect clue for your friend. (Several years back, my friend drew a Dime bar in Yahoo Grafitti, and I knew that this meant Armadillo because of an advert starring Harry Enfield, to the total bewilderment of the Americans also playing it with us.)

The second slice of genius comes from the way that your partners drawings are presented to you. Rather than just slapping the finished article in your face, you are treated to an actual recording of the entire drawing process. (They, in turn, get to see your guessing process.) And this often leads to fascinating and hilarious insights into what makes people tick. Once you know how someone thinks, you don't need to have any artistic ability whatsoever in order to work out what you are looking at. Hence, my stick drawing of a woman holding an umbrella was guessed as 'Rihanna' even before I wrote "Ella ella eh eh" on it, much to my surprise and pleasure.

Hence, I look forward to discovering that David has sent me a new drawing, because his drawings are universally hilarious. Sarah and I tend to indulge in a little pre-drawing conversation. Paul takes a long time to get to the point, drawing everything EXCEPT the bloody word, before finally adding it as a perfect coup de grace. And Jeni can literally read my mind! (Which is how it should be being that we have lived together for over 7 years now.)

This learning process, in which you develop a rapport with somebody, in turn leads to you getting braver with them. My first drawing of 'palmtree' was before I had green and brown available to me. (The game starts you off with black, red, yellow, and blue only.) I drew the sea, the island, and the tree. But now? I have sky, with clouds, and even coconuts on the tree. One or two of them have dropped off onto the island itself, and my next drawing may well have Tom Hanks and Wilson on it. Earlier today, I attempted 'Kanye', and 'Snoop', to success in both. Although I don't think I will ever be brave enough to tackle 'Rza'...

And it even works that, because you know somebody, you will choose easier or harder drawings just so that they can have a go! I turned down the fairly straightforward 'Ladder' so that I could instead go for 'Pitfall' for one of my gaming friends. AND HE BLOODY GOT IT! This friend happens to be American, and so his drawing of 'Parrot' naturally referenced Monty Python.


This is where the magic happens, when no two "games" with people are the same.

Soon, Zynga will come in and instigate changes to this marvel. They will almost certainly add the concept of Energy into it, as this is their chosen method of monetisation. And, hey, it works for them. The evidence suggests that they don't need to touch it, but we have been warned in advance about the "Exciting new features" that will be coming to the title. No doubt they will just be to tempt us into more microtransactions, and may well destroy the spirit of the title. But, until then, grab this slice of gaming Nirvana and milk it for all you can!

Thursday, March 08, 2012

iPad 3 - Not different, but possibly a game changer.

I tried to ignore it. I managed to not bother finding any stream for the presentation itself. I also had Twitter closed for the duration. In fact, for a self-confessed gadget geek like myself, I made a reasonable shot at behaving like the rest of the world does. I, simply, was not getting swept away with the iPad 3 news.

But shortly after the big show? That's a different story. Now, I have seen the specs. Now, I know that it isn't called iPad 3. Or iPad HD. It is just ... iPad.

More of the same old iPad

This is somewhat confusing, of course, since there was already an iPad. Then, we got iPad 2. It was logical for the world to assume there would be a new moniker for the new hardware, but instead we can all now wonder what the old one will be renamed to, or even if it will continue to exist at all? Certainly the original model will now be remarkably cheap, as people who waited for the announcement before splashing the cash will realise that they are getting a better machine for the same price as they were going to pay for the iPad 2. Also, some may now look at the iPad 2 as a viable purchase, being as the price has dropped.

On to the important stuff though. Is this good for us gamers?

Well, basically, nothing has really changed. The machine itself is still beautiful, but nothing that has been added is likely to make anybody who still flies that uneducated "iOS games are just flash games" flag put it down and embrace the medium. Fine, they can be like that, stuck in the past. I'll be too busy enjoying wonderful titles like Beat Sneak Bandit on my "not an actual games platform" to listen to them, lest they make me miss a beat and therefore not get a clock.

I don't own an iPad, and this fact annoys me greatly. I just can't afford one, it's really as simple as that. And, if I am honest, it is not just annoying. It is actually holding me back in terms of my hobby. Right now, someone is making a phenomenally enjoyable game that I won't be able to play, because my iPhone is the old 3G one that nobody bothers optimising for any more. (Example: WHY THE HELL is the EA Sports 'RiderNet' app not available for my phone? It's just text and images!) I do also have access to an iPhone 4, but there are already some iPad-only titles out there. With the new horsepower, this number will only increase.

Look at that display resolution again. 2048 x 1536, also known as more than 3 million pixels. (Also known as more detail than the human eye can actually see.) And you just know that someone is already thinking of games that take full advantage of this. And that quad-core A5x chip? Again, somebody is right now making a game that will ONLY be possible on machines sporting it. Hopefully, most of the good stuff that does come out will be optimised for as many models as possible, but programmers are basically famous for being lazy, and not bothering to streamline unless they are forced to.


It is only to be hoped that this newer and more powerful iPad allows games to start existing that will open the eyes of more gamers to the possibilities inherent in iOS. The biased idiots will continue to bleat on about needing the "AAA experience" of the "bigger games", and sooner or later Epic, who seem to ADORE iOS, will give them something that they just can't say "No" to. And, on that day, things will shift in one of two directions.

Either the "hardcore" will open up and embrace the quirky and innovative titles that are literally spread all over the App Store, or the large publishers will just start making sure that there is an "as close to equal as possible" version of everything they make on every format. Either way, it can only be seen as a win-win scenario.

I still want an iPad. There are fools out there who still refuse to accept iOS as a viable gaming platform. Like I said, nothing has changed. But, with a bit of luck, things might be about to...

Monday, March 05, 2012

Old game is still good! - WarioWare Inc.

The first time I played WarioWare, I actually did it via a downloaded ROM on a GBA emulator. This was not only because it was unavailable in the UK at the time, but also because I had only found a couple of reviews of it, and they suggested that it was not going to be worth my money. However, I have long since learned to trust Nintendo, so I figured it would be best to find out for myself.

I fired it up, watched a fairly amusing intro, and then was thrust into the action. Literally, into the very heart of the action, as the screen just flashed up the command "DODGE!", and I was presented with a Wario sprite stood there. "Dodge what?" I thought. Suddenly, a hot dog on wheels came charging at me. I instinctively pressed the A button, and jumped over it. "Easy. Yeah, this i ... wait, what?"

The command on the screen had changed to "SPOTLIGHT!", and now Wario was tiny in the middle of a bright light on a black background. Before I could even work out what was going on, Wario was moving. I realised, not even to this day could I tell you why or how, that I needed to keep him in the light, and moved the spotlight accordingly. Another success, and again the thought was "Ok, this is going to be simple." Before a whole different command, this time "STOP ME!" was flashed at me, and I was shown a spinning triangle and a pointer. Pressing the button moved the pointer, and this was my first failure. By now, I was thoroughly confused, but more importantly, I was absolutely delighted!

By the time I got to Jimmy T with his sports themed games, I knew that I absolutely had to posess this game. The very next day I went to my local games store, meaning to ask them if they had any plans of importing it, and was lucky enough that they already had done. I bought it immediately, and went home with the kind of excitement brewing in me that 3 year olds normally reserve for bubbles.

(Piracy is killing gaming, people. Importing is also bad. Don't EVER follow my example, whereby the ability to do exactly those two things has led to me buying every single title in the history of this franchise. Not to mention the additional purchases from people to whom I have evangelised these games, and forced to play.)

The genius of WarioWare is quite simple. It strips away any and everything that is NOTGAME from the GAME, and then challenges you to complete the task at hand by relying purely on your own sense of gaming logic. If you have played a lot of games, you will know what to do on more screens than if you have only ever played a few. Each 'microgame', as they are called, lasts for literally three seconds, and wether you fail or succeed it is then whipped away to be replaced by another one with a frequency that leaves you dizzy. Each vignette is introduced with a single simple command, and you then have the briefest slip of time in which to work out what it is you have to do.

Complicated instructions not needed.

There are no tutorials. There are no sections where control is rested from you in order to make sure you face the right direction. Despite the random and chaotic nature of the game, where the controls change on average every 5 seconds, you are left to fend for yourself. Sometimes you need to move, sometimes you need to mash, sometimes you need to time things correctly. But, always, you work it out inside the three seconds you have. Sometimes you are too slow, but even when you are you just realise that you should have gotten it sooner, and you only ever blame yourself for your mistakes.

Games used to do this to us, you know? Let us learn from our mistakes, let us figure shit out for ourselves. They weren't as concerned with piling spectacles on top of fancy set-pieces as they were with just entertaining the hell out of us. They eschewed as much NOTGAME as possible, always preferring to focus on GAME. WarioWare was, and remains, the pinnacle of this school of game design.

It would be unfair to call it a collection of minigames. To do so would to be missing the point by a distance that you would normally travel during your average year. It is the cumulative effect of the non-stop assault on your gaming senses that makes it such a miraculous ride. Plus, getting through each of the individual chapters is not even half of the journey. It is barely a tenth of the full package, as going back into any individual  to play it for a highscore is in itself a revelatory experience, as the speed increases with each success until you find yourself playing at an almost subconscious level, responding in fractions of seconds to ever more ludicrous scenarios.

Once upon a time, games made us laugh and smile at least as often as they made us swear. They didn't want to be compared with cinema and literature, because they offered something that neither of those media were capable of reproducing. No matter how powerful and movingly an actor can portray an emotion, they will never manage to push the feeling of pure triumph inside me in the way that dropping Bowser into his own pool of lava did. I continually fail to understand why games want to escape the very thing that sets them apart and elevates them above the other forms of entertainment, and instead try to become more like them. (Not that visual novels and the likes don't have their place. They do, and that place is FAR AWAY FROM MY CONSOLE.)

WarioWare has been dismissed by many as "Fun while it lasts" and "Throwaway gaming", usually by people who then go on to play a title that drowns them in NOTGAME. Be it unskippable cut-scenes full of exposition that literally drain the will to live as you watch them, tiresome tutorials that assume you are so braindead that you don't know that pressing UP on the stick makes you go forwards, or a pointless item collect-a-thon that reeks of utter desperation as a way to artificially pad the length of the title so that reviewers can't then go on to say "But it's too short" before just giving it a 7 anyway.

What it has seemingly never been, is regarded as a shining example of all that videogames should strive to be. In their purest form, they are sheer escapism of a kind that nothing else can match. It is rare indeed that a book can coax me to read it again if I failed the first time, and even more rare that I feel a sense of achievement having made it to the end of a movie. Games do this all the time, and we should celebrate this fact. Films and books have both moved me, sometimes intensely, but they have never made me punch the air and shout " FUCK YEEEAHH! I FUCKING DID IT!"

Forget all the crap that the so-called AAA blockbusters like to make you think games need to have. Do what it takes to get WarioWare in front of your face, park yourself on your sofa, and prepare to engage with a title that makes you shove a finger up a nose and shake a dog by the paw, and never thinks that any of this needs explanation. Play a game that not only knows it is a game, but also knows that other games have been made as well, and celebrates this fact by referencing vast tracts of our hobby's history. Remind yourself of the child that fell in love with videogames because of the way the coloured dots on the screen made you feel. And then shake your head at all those bastards who insist on telling you that this is just for casuals, and what gamers, by which they mean YOU, need, is for every game to be made in the Unreal engine and to feature ever-increasing counts of grey polygons being shot to pieces by angry men with no hair.

The sequels all missed the point, adding complexities that just weren't needed. (Although the DS DIY title is extremely brilliant, eventually.) WarioWare Inc. has a purity that makes it stand out as one of history's best, and actually potentially most important, games. It may even have been the starter of a paradigm shift for Nintendo themselves, as they seem to want to release more and smaller titles these days, farming all the bigger games out to third parties. (Only keeping Mario and Zelda in-house.)

So, enjoy. Educate yourself. Oh, and try to beat my 57 on "Putt For Dough" in Jimmy T's section, if you can!