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December 2009

Brainy Gamer Podcast - Favorites of '09

Album-platinum-all-time-favorites This edition of the Brainy Gamer Podcast features a holiday extravaganza of Gamers Confab goodness: a 4-volume confection featuring a gaggle of bloggers, journalists, and designers all discussing our favorite games of 2009.

Part 1 includes Steve Gaynor of 2K Marin and the Fullbright blog; Kirk Battle (aka L.B. Jeffries) of Banana Pepper Martinis and PopMatters; and Chris Dahlen of the Onion A.V. Club and Edge Online. (Guests pictured on right)

Segments 2-4 will arrive in the coming days. I hope you enjoy!

  • Download the podcast directly here.
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  • Listen to any episode of the podcast directly from this page by clicking the yellow"Listen Now" button on the right.

Show links:

  • Clicking on the links below will ruin the surprise, but if you feel you must...

Pre-game show

Whenever I write about tabletop sports sims, I envision a mob of potential readers marching toward my house, led by an angry pitchfork-wielding villager shouting "For god's sake, somebody tell him NOBODY CARES about tabletop sports sims!! GAAAAHH!!!"

I get the message. Just bear with me for a few minutes. A video game connection is on the way. Lay down that pitchfork, take a few breaths. ... And hey, maybe if you just tried Strat-O..."GAAAAHH!!" ... Okay, Sorry. Forget I said anything. Moving right along.

I received the new Strat-O-Matic Negro League All-Star cards for Christmas. Ten years of research and stat gathering went into building these cards, which accurately reflect the hitting, fielding, and pitching characteristics of 103 players that Major League Baseball excluded from the 1910s until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947.

As I noted when the set was announced last October, these cards open the door to fans like me, curious about the impact players like Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell might have had on Major League Baseball. Was Johnny Bench a better catcher than Gibson? Sim a few seasons and let's see what we learn.

Joshgibson But these cards possess an even greater value. They afford a father like me the opportunity to teach my son about an illustrious chapter of baseball history (and a shameful part of our nation's past) by engaging him with individual players. Gifted men with names. Forgotten men resurrected through statistics hailing their individual feats. Each card full of numbers tells a story. The trick is deciphering those numbers and coming to understand the full measure of that man as a baseball player.

When you devote yourself to this effort, there's a very good chance you will come to love, in a way, the men behind those numbers. If you're like me, you will hold in your memory every member of the 1978 championship team you assembled from flimsy two-color perforated cards. You learned all their strengths and weaknesses; you protected them from injuries; and you knew Vida Blue would be true when he threw. These were your guys, and they won for you. So you loved them.

Revisiting Strat-O Baseball with my son (we've played the game together for 10 years now) helped rekindle my appreciation for a fundamental aspect of playing other kinds of games, including video games. Much of the fun we derive comes not from playing, but from preparing to play.

The affinity I described above grew mostly from studying, evaluating, assembling and otherwise getting ready to play a simulated version of baseball. The game itself - 9 innings of rolling dice, employing strategies, and determining outcomes - is terrific fun, to be sure. It's the vital test of one's preparation. But, ultimately, the deep fun and real brainpower required to succeed emerge in the moments when you ask yourself, "Should Musial hit 3rd or 4th?" or "How much money should I spend on a 35-year-old pitcher?"

Demons_Souls_Cover Reflecting on it, I realize that similar deliberations have always driven my interest in games, including recent video games like Demon's Souls, Dragon Age, and Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. I loved the incredibly evocative environments and deep combat elements of Demon's Souls, but I also derived fulfillment from deciding which stats to level-up and fiddling with equipment upgrades, souls, and spells. Creating a character in Dragon Age occupied me for an entire evening. Spirit Tracks had me mentally grinding on environmental puzzles in the shower.

Conceptualizing play; weighing alternatives; visualizing possibilities. Getting ready to play is, of course, play itself. But I think the preparations a player makes in advance of formal 'gameplay' can sometimes bind that player to a game more deeply than anything occurring elsewhere 'in the game.' That's certainly the case for me and my son with a tabletop baseball sim, and I suspect it's true for many of us with video games too.

Incidental fun fact #1: 27 million people play fantasy football every week, devoting countless hours to preparing their teams for games over which they have no control or input mechanism. Incidental fun fact #2: Madden '09 sold 4.5 million copies. Apples and oranges? Certainly. But still interesting.

Loading my sleigh with podcasts

Happy holidays, everyone. I'm taking a few days off to rest, spend time with family, eat, and, of course, play games. I wish all of you the happiest of seasons and a bright new year. 

Nest week I'll record my annual 'Gamers Confab Favorites' series of podcasts with a collection of bloggers, journos, and designers all discussing our favorite games of '09. Look for the first of those segments to arrive on Tuesday. I hope you'll enjoy these shows. I always love doing them.

As always, thanks for reading and listening. Happy gaming!

Still got game


Game websites and blogs are awash in end-of-the-year reflection stuff, and I probably shouldn't let myself get dragged into the undertow. But I just can't help it. Something about a pending new year always makes me stop and take a look at where I've been and what it all means. Well, where I've been anyway.

In the spirit of year-end reflection, here's a thought. The platform that produced some of the most solid games in 2009 is the one we often forget to include in our GOTY roundups: The Nintendo DS. Five years and 115 million systems into its lifespan, the dual-screen wonder is showing few signs of slowing down, at least when it comes to delivering new games. Whatever we might say about PS3 momentum or the sustained appeal of the Xbox 360, neither system can match the DS library of high-quality games, many of which appeared this year. Of course, neither can match it for bad games either, but I won't pursue that point. :-)

Looking back over this past year, several DS games impressed me and sustained my interest far longer than most of their PC or console brethren. In fact, if I add up the total number of hours I spent playing games this year, I'm fairly certain I spent more time with my DS than any other system. Portability is a big factor here because I traveled more than usual in '09. My schedule also lends itself to playing games whenever short bursts of time open up, and the DS is uniquely able to deliver that experience. Ironically, the game system that many adults feel self-conscious playing in public is the system best adapted to our active lives. 

I know what you're thinking. What about the iPhone? 15,000 games in the app store - surely some good ones in there, right? Of course, and Spider is one of my favorites of the year. But I have to say I'm still not a true believer in iPhone gaming, for many of the reasons I noted back in March. Ergonomics go a long way with me, and most games on that device still require my index finger as a primary input device, obscuring the screen and forcing me to hold the iPhone in a way that's uncomfortable to me. I know millions of people play games on their iPhones and apparently love it. I prefer the DS.

Sort of got off the subject there, didn't I? Sorry.

Here, in no particular order, are my favorite DS games of '09. The list includes a couple of recent releases I'm playing now, as well as others I've mentioned or written about here previously. They represent an impressive array of genres and gameplay styles, and all are worth a look, especially if your DS has been sitting on a shelf feeling lonely and forgotten lately. 

Gta-chinatown-wars-box GTA: Chinatown Wars - The incongruity of Rockstar software on a Nintendo handheld may have confused consumers, but Chinatown Wars is one of the best GTA games ever made. CW returns the franchise to its core design philosophy: plunging the player into an amped-up world of depravity, mayhem and speed and wringing as much giddy gameplay out of it as possible. I played this GTA through to the end, which is something I hadn't done since Vice City. Hats off to the designers who managed to smartly integrate the stylus and touchscreen into gameplay and avoid gimmicky foolishness.

MIDevilSurvivor_cover Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor - A Dragon Age fan will surely throw a shoe at me for saying so, but Devil Survivor is the most successful RPG released this year - if success is measured by making big promises and delivering on them. Devil Survivor succeeds because it does three things remarkably well: 1) it cannily combines the best features from other genres; 2) it streamlines gameplay without oversimplifying; 3) it presents an adult story in which player choice feels genuinely meaningful. Longtime RPG players will appreciate the way Devil Survivor honors the genre by insisting on a thoughtful and strategic approach to resource management and tactics. But in keeping with Atlus' balanced design, newcomers will find many of the traditional RPG corners rounded, with less grind, micromanagement, and repetition. Devil Survivor also has the best battle system I've ever seen in an RPG...and I've played a few RPGs. 

MMClashOfHeroesBoxshot Clash of Heroes - I never saw this one coming. A ridiculously addictive strategy-puzzle-RPG tucked, for no apparent reason, in a Might & Magic wrapper. Clash of Heroes is a deep, challenging, and enormously rewarding game that will have you tapping away at your DS screen till the wee hours. If you've had your fill of formulaic turn-based combat, or you're simply looking for a game that breathes life into several stale genres at once, you've got to get your hands on Clash of Heroes. Few games these days actively reward patience and imagination from the player. This one does. Clear your calendar.

Retro_Game_Challenge_Coverart Retro Game Challenge - One of the most pleasant surprises of '09 and a wonderful gift to old-school gamers. RGC is an inspired homage/parody of 8-bit and 16-bit classics cleverly tied together by a sublimely wacky story in which you are transported back in time to the 1980s and forced to play video games by the vengeful Game Master Arino. Your only way back to the present is to overcome challenges Arino throws at you from an array of retro games, including 2D shooter, sidescroller, racing, and even a surprisingly deep RPG. The games are terrific (in some cases better than the originals), and RGC's cheeky self-awareness is a big part of its appeal.

Korg3 Korg DS-10 Plus - This one's the wildcard of the bunch. It's not a game, nor has it even been released yet here in the states. Korg DS-10 Plus is a full-fledged powerhouse musical instrument and mixer in the pocket of your jeans. This update to the original Korg DS-10 adds twice as many analog synthesizers (now up to four) and drum synthesizers (now up to eight), plus the ability to lay down twelve tracks with real-time editing and two extra effects layers. If you don't know what you're doing, this astonishingly complex program won't help you release your inner Brian Eno. But if you can harness it, there's no end to the creative possibilities this tiny cartridge can unleash. An truly amazing piece of kit.

RhythmHeaven Rhythm Heaven - Possibly the most underrated and under-appreciated game of year. Yes, Rhythm Heaven is hard. At times, brutally so. It expects perfection, and anything short of that means fail. Yes, Rhythm Heaven is 'just' a collection of mini-games. And yes, it's full of activities that really don't qualify as games at all. This is a game you both play and play with. It's a toy in the richest and most delightful sense of the word. What sets this game apart from others, including the WarioWare games that inspired it, is a beautifully unified sense of design. Despite its disparate elements, everything in Rhythm Heaven fits together and creates an experience that feels organic. Wacky and maddening, but coherent. So many games play it safe. This one doesn't. The haters missed the point.

Big_Bang_Mini_Cover Big Bang Mini - This little gem combines elements of Space Invaders, Meteos, and Geometry Wars to create a terrific genre-combo shoot-em-up game that thoroughly seduced me. You launch fireworks to fend off enemies, all the while dodging debris falling from the upper screen. Each level contains its own art style, music, and special abilities...and, of course, a boss battle that unlocks the next level. The gameplay is frenetic, but fair, and it induces the kind of in-the-zone feel that few games seem to get right anymore. Big Bang Mini got roughed up by some reviewers who criticized its basic gameplay mechanics. Shooting and moving your ship are designed as two separate activities that must be coordinated by the player. Suggesting that the game is flawed because you can't move and shoot at the same time seems wrongheaded to me because it insists on a gameplay design the developers clearly rejected in favor of a different kind of challenge.

Mario_&_Luigi_3_NA_Cover Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Storythe latest Mario & Luigi game suggests its predecessors have essentially been rehearsals for this culminating masterpiece. Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story is the finest and most fully realized Mario RPG ever made, and that's saying something for a highly regarded franchise that includes the original Super Mario RPG, the Paper Mario series, and two previous Mario & Luigi games. Aside from its top-to-bottom graphical polish and colorful interface, (aesthetically, this game sets a new standard for sprite design and animation on the DS), the game distinguishes itself through its sharp canny dialogue and self-aware conceit that establish a playful link between game and player. Plus, it's really fun.

The_Legend_of_Zelda_Spirit_Tracks_box_art Legend of  Zelda: Spirit Tracks - Yes, the Zelda series has grown increasingly conservative over the years, but the magic still works wonders. Spirit Tracks delivers such a blissful combination of whimsy and rock-solid gameplay that once you've crossed the threshold and learned your first song on the Spirit Flute, there's no turning back. This is what a highly refined and expertly-crafted game looks like. I have a strong suspicion that if Spirit Tracks appeared in another skin from a different developer, we'd all be singing the praises of a handheld Zelda that does Zelda one better. But arriving as it does and looking like a Phantom Hourglass carryover...well, ho hum. 

Cover_large Scribblenauts - Mired in pre-release hype and hyperbole courtesy of the E3 games press, Scribblenauts was bound to disappoint, and so it did. Control issues and design dead ends snuffed the excitement out of a title that promised to redefine how we interact with games. But I included Scribblenauts on my list because the marvelous things it did manage to deliver felt so fresh and imaginative. I can't think of a game that so quickly and easily raises the eyebrows of non-gamers who see it for the first time. Imagine a solution, scribble a word, and watch what happens. Maybe Scribblenauts was little more than a proof of concept, but it's a really cool concept that deserves praise.

Happy portable gaming!



In my last post I asked you name your favorite game of '09, and you responded in a big way. I appreciate all your replies, and I'm especially pleased so many of you took the time to explain why your favorite appealed to you this year. You can catch up on that conversation here and contribute to it if you like.

I've gathered all your favorites and listed them below in alphabetical order. Several games were listed by more than one person, and, to maintain consistency, the list doesn't include games not released in '09, even though some of you suggested older games you enjoyed this year.

A few things worth noting emerge from this list. First, it contains 41 different games. I suppose this wide range and variety could be explained by several possibilities: 2009 was a year with no obvious consensus favorite (has there ever actually been such a year?); 2009 was a year with a large assortment of quality games appealing to a wide range of gamers; readers took me up on my suggestion to name overlooked or forgotten games released in '09 - and plenty of other explanations. 

I may flatter myself to assume people who read my blog are discriminating gamers, but it does seem to me your favorites suggest a curiosity and appetite for excellent games, regardless of their genre or pedigree. Many of you championed simple, imaginative games with tiny or non-existant ad budgets, like Blueberry Garden. Others were taken by the narrative and role-playing scope of a game like Dragon Age

Regardless of the reasons or impulses that drove them, your favorites provide plenty of options to anyone looking for a game worth playing. Here they are:

Assassin's Creed 2

Left 4 Dead 2

Batman: Arkham Asylum

Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story

Blueberry Garden

Mirror's Edge


MLB: The Show 09

Brütal Legend

The Path

Critter Crunch

Persona 4


Plants vs Zombies


Red Faction: Guerrilla

Demon's Souls

Retro Game Challenge

Devil Survivor

Rhythm Paradise (Rhythm Heaven in US)

Dragon Age: Origins


Empire: Total War

Street Fighter IV


The Sims 3

Glum Buster


GTA: Chinatown Wars

'Splosion Man

Half-Minute Hero

Tales of Monkey Island

Heroes of Newerth

This Is The Only Level

House of the Dead: Overkill



Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

Knights in the Nightmare

Wizard 101

League of Legends

Your favorite game of '09

Myfavoritemartian I'll soon record my annual Gamers Confab holiday podcast, and I'm looking forward to it. If you happened to catch last year's edition, you know that I ask my guests to name their favorite game of the year and briefly discuss why they chose it. 

Sometimes the game that makes the biggest impact on us isn't necessarily the game we consider "best" of the year, and I enjoy hearing people talk about why certain games appeal to them personally. Last year, for example, I thought Fallout 3 was GOTY, but my favorite games of '08 were Little Big Planet and No More Heroes.

This year, I'd like to add more voices to the mix, so I'm asking you to post a comment and tell me your favorite game of '09. If you can, please offer a few thoughts on why you chose it too. I'll periodically update this post to list the games you cite, so folks can quickly see a compilation of all our favorites. Maybe we'll jog each others' memories of titles we overlooked or identify games that simply didn't receive enough love this year.

I look forward to hearing from you. Thanks for pitching in, and happy gaming!

Update: Many thanks for all your thoughtful responses. I'm startled, in the best possible way, by the wide range of games you've mentioned as your favorites. Rather than update this post with a long list, I'll write a new post this weekend that accounts for all the games recommended in your comments. The variety and general lack of consensus suggests something important about the current state of the games community, broadly defined, that I'd like to explore. 

Thanks again for your comments, and please feel free to keep them coming!

Dear Brutus


Recently, EA CEO John Riccitiello expressed frustration about disappointing sales of EA games for the Wii, and he blamed Nintendo for failing to release enough first-party games to generate momentum for the platform. According to Riccitiello, EA is doing its part: "We are building the products that I think [are] the most highly rated on the platform and at this point in time, generating the most revenue of any third-party platform."[1]

Nowhere in his remarks did Riccitiello contemplate the possibility that EA's doleful situation is the result of a woeful string of games his company released for the Wii this year. Whatever justifiable complaints he may direct at Nintendo's lack of third-party support, Riccitiello would also do well to consider Cassius' famous admonition "The fault dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves."

EA released 26 games for the Wii this year. Only 5 of those games achieved a Metacritic score above 80. 11 averaged scores in the 60s or lower. The two highest-rated games on the console were multi-platform releases Beatles: Rock Band and Tiger Woods '10.

But let's forget about Metacritic. It's a problematic system at best, and I have concerns about the way many of its source sites approach casual or kid-friendly games. EA produces more than its share of such titles, so maybe Metacritic unfairly misrepresents games like SimAnimals: Africa (Metacritic 55) or Hasbro Family Game Night 2 (Metacritic 64). Yes, Metacritic has misjudged these games. Their scores are too high.

I don't receive a flood of games in the mail from publishers. I buy or rent most games myself. But EA occasionally sends me their Wii titles, and I dutifully play them. Some I've enjoyed and written about here, but most of the EA Wii games I've played this year have been sorely disappointing, and in some cases downright awful. SimAnimals: Africa, which plays like a compendium of muddled design choices, is a prime example.

SimanimalsManic waggle issues aside, SimAnimals: Africa had the potential to succeed as a friendly exploration-focused experience for kids. Its playful box art and cartoony style suggest an accessible game about making friends with animals and helping them thrive in their natural environments. Sort of a cross between Nintendogs for the DS and Afrika for the PS3. I entered the savanna with an open mind.

Your main objective in SimAnimals Africa is to befriend and nurture animals. Everything else you do in the game hinges on this primary activity. Here's how you do it (from my own notes):

Aim your Wiimote at an animal to select it. Choose the hand icon to activate petting control. Identify animal's petting spot by looking for red target marker and use the nunchuck stick to move your petting hand to the target. Shake the Wiimote to pet animal. Pet her some more to gain her trust. Use the Wiimote d-pad to rotate to the other side of the animal. Locate another petting spot.  Shake the Wiimote again. Find her Super Itchy Spot for extra points. 

"Hooray! Now that you and Kasi are Best Friends you can control her." Select another icon to make Kasi run. Locate a tree by navigating with your stick and aiming with the Wiimote. Press "A" to make Kasi kick the tree. Press "B" to deactivate control mode. Aim Wiimote at Kasi and press A to select her. Now use the Wiimote stick to select the knife and fork icon and press "A" to select it. A menu screen appears with a food inventory. Point at the fruit with the Wiimote and press "B." Hold the fruit near Kasi's mouth (the Wiimote will rumble when you're in the right spot) and Kasi will eat the fruit. 

And that's how you make friends with animals. You will repeat this task, and others based on the same system, hundreds of times in the game. It's hard for me to imagine how anyone of any age could find such cumbersome gameplay anything resembling fun. 

Sadly, you'll find this kind of inexplicably poor design throughout EA's Wii lineup this year. How can the same developer that produced two terrific Boom Blox games settle for the abysmal version of Jenga included in Hasbro Family Game Night 2? It's the same game! How can a world as rich in possibilities as Harry Potter's be reduced to a lifeless sandbox and three minigames in EA's Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince? Oy, I could go on and on.

Back in October, Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata saw declining software sales for the Wii and assumed full responsibility: "Wii has stalled. We were unable to continually release strong software and we let the nice mood cool,” Iwata said, "We were unable to show a new game to become the next thing. In the game market, once you've lost the momentum, it takes time to recover."[2

Mr. Riccitiello would do well to shift his gaze back to Redwood Shores.

The Zelda liturgy


A Legend of Zelda release is my drop-everything game. I grab it on day one and dive right in, no matter what else I'm playing at the time. Whenever someone asks me to name my favorite game of all time, my brain impulsively rephrases the question as "What's your favorite Zelda game?" (It's Wind Waker, by the way.) Such is my devotion to the series, I even imported and played Tingle's Rosy Rupeeland. God help me.

For a mix of legitimate and admittedly sentimental reasons, I love the Zelda universe and the design formula these games rely on. Despite my awareness that the series has grown increasingly conservative over the years, the magic still works on me. The game design nut in me knows the series must evolve to survive; but the Zelda nut in me delights in receiving the sacraments.

Thenatural For me, it's a bit like watching Roy Hobbs hit that climactic home run at the end of The Natural. I know it's coming, and I know it's formulaic Hollywood melodrama, but I eat it up every time because the setup and delivery are so perfect. You can dismiss such manipulation as tripe or you can give in and let the story wash over you. Call me a sucker, but I choose the latter. Engagement is a choice. If a game/film/novel makes it worth my while, I'm in.

And that's the thing about Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. It makes partaking in the Zelda liturgy feel like a thing worth doing. Despite the familiarity - Edge Magazine aptly describes it as "the narcotic realms of pure ritual" - the game delivers such a blissful combination of whimsy and rock-solid gameplay that once you've crossed the threshold and learned your first song on the Spirit Flute, there's no turning back.

It's final exam week here, so my writing has been limited lately by end of semester work (and I've been playing and judging a pile of IGF games I can't talk about yet). But who says teacher can't fire up the ol' DS while students slave over blue books? Heh heh. 

I have much more to say about Spirit Tracks and several other interesting, lower-profile games I've played recently. I hope you'll stay tuned.

The best Wii game you haven't played


LostWinds: Winter of the Melodias is the best '09 Wii game you haven't played. I make this assertion knowing you sprinted to the store and purchased Little King's Story after I praised it effusively in August. And I'm dead certain you dropped everything to play New Super Mario Bros. Wii after I slobbered all over it two weeks ago.

So, gentle BG reader, I salute your refined taste and superior gaming acumen, but there's a page missing from your "Wii Games I Loved in 2009" scrapbook if you haven't yet played the lovely new game from indie UK studio Frontier Developments. LostWinds: Winter of the Melodias will charm your senses, tease your brain, and restore your faith in the WiiWare Channel...well, two out of three anyway.

Winter of the Melodias is the sequel to last year's terrific LostWinds, and it improves on the original by creating a bigger, more varied and visually polished world. Enhanced textures and particle effects mix with a more imaginative approach to color, proving once again the value of thoughtful iteration. Nearly everything about this game looks like it was given a careful makeover, including the level design, which feels more organic and cohesive than its predecessor.

And, I should mention, it's tougher than the first game, but also more fair. A few areas in last year's game felt a bit forced, as if the designers were intent on demonstrating the value of every skill acquired by the player, regardless of the internal logic of the game. In this year's edition, the challenges emanate naturally from the environments and the player's gesture-based toolset. Controlling the seasons (summer or winter) plays a big role in this too. The addition of a map solves the problem of getting lost...although I have to admit that making my own map for last year's game flashed me back to the good old days of text adventures and graph paper. Those were good old days, right? :-)

LostWinds: Winter of the Melodias is a game of yin and yang. Winter and summer. Fire and ice. Enril is a girl and Toku is a boy. Enril is a wind spirit, and Toku is a human. Elemental powers can help or harm, above the earth's surface or beneath it, and peace can only be a achieved by striking a harmonious balance between the planet and its inhabitants.

The game fully expresses this balance by manifesting it in the controls. Enril is the Wiimote and Toku is the nunchuck. Enril harnesses the wind, while Toku navigates the physical world and its obstacles. Each relies on the other - right hand, left hand - and the player unifies and embodies them both as one. I can't think of another game that so perfectly meshes mechanics with thematic meaning.

Playing a well-designed game like this always make me feel like I'm engaged in a dynamic conversation with its creators. It's as if I'm enjoying the game on two simultaneous levels: the in-game process of exploration and discovery (LostWinds is an adventure-puzzle-platformer), and the extra-game process of observing through my own gameplay a design team working its magic via a progression of clever and occasionally inspired ideas.

Throughout my playthrough, I found myself muttering "Ah! Fantastic!" and "Ooh, I see what you did" (and, at times, "Gaaah! How do I get up there?!") as if the game's designers were sitting right next to me.

Winter of the Melodias isn't a long game (someday I hope we'll stop measuring games in hours), but it is chock-full of playfulness, warmth, and artistry. A lot of love went into this game. You can just tell.



The first 15 minutes of Assassin's Creed II are spent hastily tracking Lucy through several locations and carefully following her instructions. Throughout this sequence the player alternates between full control of Desmond and passive reception of backstory shards and expositional cutscenes.

Sadly, this opening sequence foreshadows what's to come: 3+ hours of hand-holding and game-issued directives the player must endure to progress through the game. If you can persevere, AC2 has some very interesting tricks up its puffy sleeves. But are they worth waiting for?

AC2 is a terrific game in many respects. Its Prince of Persia-esque platforming can be exhilarating - vertically navigating Santa Maria del Fiore makes my stomach queasy (in a good way), and the Leap of Faith takes my breath away every time I execute it. Mushy facial animations aside, it's a gorgeous, deeply atmospheric game that draws you into its story by making you care about its primary thematic concern: family.

But we often measure narrative games by their ability to successfully disguise their mechanics, and this is where AC2 stumbles badly, particularly through its first 4 chapters. NPC-led tutorials arrive hours after the player has already learned to master what's being taught, and fetch quests lead to other fetch quests, which open opportunities for more fetch quests. It's difficult to reconcile the inspired design one finds elsewhere in this game with the muddled mess of its first few hours.

Narrative games rely on assigned quests for 'gameplay,' and we accept this often ridiculous convention because we enjoy completing fun-to-do tasks with useful rewards attached to them. But, decades in, narrative game designers find themselves charged with a nearly impossible task: find new ways to make these hunter-gatherer missions feel like they're vitally integrated into the story. AC2 fails miserably on this score until it finally drops the effort altogether and blossoms into the game it seems to want to be. But, oh those first few hours.

Spoilers ahead.

Consider the game's first memory sequence. Ezio's father Giovanni gives him a letter to deliver. Once delivered, Ezio returns home, unlocking several more Courier fetch/deliver missions. Ezio's sister tells him to beat up her no-good boyfriend, so Ezio locates him, beats him up, and returns home (all missions indicated on the map with markers).

Next, Ezio accompanies his mother to meet Leonardo Da Vinci, who needs Ezio to carry his stuff from point A to point B. Then Ezio's brother wants some feathers; three appear on the map, and Ezio retrieves them and returns home. Next, it's time to deliver some more letters and retrieve one from a chicken coop. Once complete, Ezio returns home. Giovanni has been taken prisoner, so another marker appears and Ezio must go to the prison and speak to his father. Giovanni tells Ezio to return home and fetch secret items from a secret chest behind a secret passage. Then he instructs Ezio to deliver another letter.

This sort of thing continues for the next three chapters.

These missions have an in-game narrative purpose and often serve a tutorial function, but they mostly feel like painting by numbers: go here, do this, talk to this person, find the bad guy, kill him. Mission complete. We've come to expect side missions to function as hunt/collect quests, and AC2 has its share of these in the form of glyphs, codex pages, etc. It's a shame that the game's primary storyline is delivered for so long in just the same way.

The game tells us these early missions matter because they're in service of plot advancement, but that's a tough sell in this case because the designers have done so little to elevate them above a strung-together series of game-directed tasks. They feel like 'gameplay,' and AC2's insistence that they're actually 'story' becomes increasingly absurd as the opening chapters unfold.

Happily, by chapter 5 the game shifts into a different and altogether more inspired and cohesive mode. I'm still playing, and I'm glad I am. But I gotta tell ya, it's hard to overlook those first few hours.

Laying it on thick

I don't typically critique games I haven't finished, but I'm making an exception this time because I want to focus on my first few hours with Assassin's Creed II. A couple of issues are keeping me at arm's length from this game, and I thought it might be useful to explore them. Many of my online friends have encouraged me to persevere, ensuring me that the game comes into its own after 4 hours or so. So I'm not giving up. I've found much to enjoy about the game too, and I hope to explore that in another post.

Edward-robinson2 Playing Assassin's Creed II makes me wincingly recall Edward G. Robinson's infamous "Where's your Messiah neoow?" from Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments. Grossly miscast as a corrupt overseer of the enslaved Hebrews, Robinson brings a discordant 30s-era gangster movie gravitas to the period Biblical epic. I adore Robinson's work in many other films, but his death in The Ten Commandments - swallowed up in a gaping crevice that opens when Moses smashes the commandment tablets in a rage - arrives like an unintentional gift from Mr. DeMille. Finally, mercifully, Robinson stops talking.

The voice acting in AC2 doesn't approach such calamity, but it draws attention to itself in similar dissonant ways. The problem with many of the vocal performances in AC2 is that they come off sounding exactly like what they are: actors doing dialects. Taking nothing away from the talents of the Canadian actors who comprise nearly all the roles, the characters in the game sound like an assemblage of native-English actors practicing a variety of thick, inconsistent Italian accents. As a result, the dialogue feels "performed," as if constructed to reinforce for an English-speaking audience how authentically Italian these characters are.

Sadly, Roger Craig Smith (Ezio, the game's protagonist) has a particular penchant for laying it on thick, and his performance often seems more driven by inflection and dialect delivery than character motivation. When a game asks us to accept familial relationships - a driving force in AC2's story - the actors must make good on those definitions. Smith, Elias Toufexis (Frederico Auditore), Ellen David (Maria Auditore), and Romano Orzari (Giovanni Auditore) play brothers, mother and father, but they sound more like actors who studied with different dialect coaches. I say this not to degrade these actors or their work. I believe they're doing the best they can.

EzioEnglish-speaking writers who set their work in non-English-speaking locales always present a challenge to actors and directors. When Shakespeare says we're in Milan, what does that mean? Are we all, audience included, now Milanese too? In which case we can speak Elizabethan English, but assume it's all really Milanese? Or are we looking in on Milan from our local perspective, magically granted the ability to understand these characters who clearly do not speak English? And if so, should they have dialects?

Actors and directors have faced these questions for many years (although it's worth noting that 'realistic acting' didn't really exist before the 20th century), and now game designers must grapple with them too. From my experience, having seen and practiced a variety of approaches and solutions, the key to success is consistency. Whatever you do must be done well and carefully implemented across the board.

So if the bad guys in Star Wars speak with English accents (except James Earl Jones, who overdubbed an English actor's performance...but that's another story), and the good guys don't (except Alec Guinness), then establish that convention and hire the best actors you can find to bring those characters to life. None of it makes any sense, of course, but no one questions the man with the confident gait who knows where he's going. If the conceit we're asked to accept is a cast of native-Italian characters speaking English with Italian accents, those actors must deliver the goods.

I admire Ubisoft for its obvious commitment to getting AC2's Italian cities right. Florence, a city I know well, is a magnificent achievement in rendering a real-world location as an explorable game environment. Stunning in fact. I'm told Venice is even more impressive. The amount of research and devotion AC2's dev team lavished on this aspect of the design is clearly seen in the final product.

I wish they had devoted even a fraction as much attention to the performances. Ubisoft sent a team of designer/devs to Italy in order to research its environs and develop a genuine feel for the place. I wish they had reached outside the city of Montreal to cast AC2's gallery of Italian characters. If studying photos of Florence wasn't good enough for a Montreal team of designers - if actually being there made such a difference to the visuals - why not make the same commitment to the characters?

I've got another issue with Assassin's Creed II, and it has to do with gameplay. I'll save that one for my next post. And, like I said, I'll keep playing.


Jordanfloats2     Mariopropeller2

I'll tell you a little secret about the Super Mario Bros. games. They're not about the jumping. They're about the floating. It's no great trick to make Mario jump. Just press a button, and he jumps. The trick is managing the float, the drift, the momentum - whatever you like to call it. If you own the space between the jump and the landing, you own the Mario universe.

We love the float. It's the brief sensation of flight. It's the burst of drama after the leap.

Beneath all the genius environments, daft enemies, and secret passages lies an exceedingly simple challenge. Manage the drift and stick the landing. Players who master this skill amidst all the chomping chains, falling thwamps, and whirring levels will find their way to the top of the flagpole.

But along the way they will discover that the float itself...well, it floats too. In other words, the game's primary means of altering your relationship to each level is playing with the float; manipulating it environmentally (e.g. wind, water levels) and offering the player power-ups that subtly or dramatically impact what happens after Mario's feet leave the ground.

We like to say games are about rule systems, and that's certainly true; but much of the joy to be found in Mario games comes from bending the rules or overcoming them with a just-when-I-needed-it power-up. It's like sanctioned cheating. 'I beat a level that killed me 5 times, thanks to this nifty Penguin Suit!' I picture Miyamoto winking at me with a little thumbs-up. I owe you one, Shiggy. ;-)

Here's another secret about the Super Mario Bros. games. They're not intuitive. Hand a controller to someone who's never played a Mario game, if you can find one, and observe what happens. D-pad moves Mario: easy. Button press makes Mario jump: easy. Jump and land on row of bricks above: hard. Why? The float. The newcomer must learn to account for it, and until she does the game feels hard to control, and she will die many times.

Confession time: even after 25 years of side-scrolling with Mario, I usually miss my first jump. Returning to an SMB game after time away requires me to re-master the system. And I contend that is a very good thing.

The precision of movement players ascribe to SMB games, the responsiveness of the controls, are big factors in the long-term success of the series, but they require conditioning. Mastering Mario's peculiar physics feels like an earned achievement because, not in spite of, their peculiarity. That's a big reason why these games deliver such deep satisfaction. Once you've grokked the float, Mario moves like Baryshnikov. You own the joint. You tease the goombas. You grab the big coins. And that's when the Hammer Bros. arrive. And the Lakitus. And the Propeller Suit.

At some point in the development of the new Super Mario Bros. Wii game, somebody probably suggested tying Mario's jump/float to a waggle. Then, some wiser soul stepped in and vetoed that idea. Then some fully enlightened being said, "Let's split the difference. Launch Mario in the Propeller Suit with a gesture, then let the special physics of the suit control his descent. But be sure to let him float for a long time. The player will love that."

Isn't enlightenment a marvelous thing?