Let’s Run

So Awesome Games Done Quick 2013 is done, and with it the SDA marathon events have raised about 3/4 of a million dollars for charity. That’s really amazing, and on one level I’m really proud that I’ve been able to participate, even if it’s on some small, nigh-useless level. I had felt, for many months prior to my trip this year, that general speedrunning communities and activities, and even the charity angle on the whole thing, might not really be enough to make my trip worthwhile. I was really going just to see friends, my family, and Yuzo Koshiro.

None of that’s changed from my trip, really. But it doesn’t have to. Every year I meet more and more people that I’m excited to go see again, so while my sister’s family won’t be in the area next year, and Magfest may not have quite as amazing of a headliner (though I can think of a few I’d like to see at least as much as Koshiro), I’m really hoping that I can make the trip work out again next year, even if it’s not as long.

This was my fourth Magfest, and I’m still astounded by how quickly the event has grown. In 2012 the event moved to the gigantic Gaylord National in National Harbor due to space constraints at the previous venue, and I couldn’t imagine how many people were there. This year didn’t seem that much different, but according to the organizers the jump was from 6000 to at least 9000! By comparison, in 2009…there were apparently only around 1350.

I’m not really much of a convention-goer; I wouldn’t even say I don’t like them, but for the most part I wouldn’t choose them over other things I could be doing with the time and money. Fortunately, Magfest lines up very closely with something else I like to do, and I’ve always had an amazing time, so it’s not usually a hard choice.  Hanging out is fun enough, but I’m amazed by how many people show up to play music and the amount of obscure or largely inaccessible games that people bring out every year. This year I was only exposed to a few games that really caught me off guard or that I just hadn’t gotten to play before, but they sure didn’t disappoint.

 

This is a picture of me, for some reason.

My “favorite” was Pac-Man VR, a hilarious little entry in the Virtual Reality craze of the 90s. You put on the helmet, stand inside a small enclosed ring on a platform so you don’t stumble off and hurt yourself or the precious machine, then get a small 1-handed grip for the controller. You’re Pac-Man, in first person, and the controller has one button, which is used to walk forward since the game would be impossible to control if you were forced to always move like in the original game. Also, since you can’t see ghosts that might be behind you (or outside your general field of vision period) the game doesn’t use a standard life system. Instead, you have a short amount of time to collect 1/4 of the dots on the field, and if you’re successful you get another equal period of time for the next 1/4, and so on. As such, the main challenge of the game after the adjustment period is over is not getting lost trying to make your way to the last few dots. The final one is marked with a nice arrow, but since you can’t see the overall layout it’s not easy to tell what the best way to get there is. I never saw anyone finish the first level so I’m not sure how the later levels change the formula up, but it was great to watch (both the player in the game, and the tv which had a separate line out) and play for a bit.

I also spent my traditional time at the Cave shmup setups, and while, between Magfest, emulation and the fantastic array of console ports, I’ve played nearly all of their games at least a bit, there was still one gap in my experience: Ibara Kuro. The original Ibara is a sequel of sorts to Battle Garegga, which I consider my favorite game of all time, but the “Black” version is essentially a remix by another programmer that changes up a lot of the mechanics. The game is quite a bit easier than the original if you play conservatively,  but trying to take advantage of the scoring mechanics tends to place you in between impenetrable walls of bullets. It’s not a very forgiving game and I didn’t have time to learn anything tricky, but I really enjoyed it nonetheless. I think I embarrassed my friend by singing the soundtrack constantly, but what else was I supposed to do? It was so loud in there you could barely hear it!

I also met some guys out there who play King of Fighters XIII and some other fighting games, and a few hours of KoF even when I hadn’t spent any time practicing recently was really nice. I had really forgotten how much I liked the game, and I’m always surprised by how much better I do against players who aren’t local for the most part. I feel like a lot of the guys in Denver have “figured me out” at this point, and it’s hard to beat them without coming up with new one-time gimmicks, but on the road the fact that I play less common characters and do have a lot of bad tricks can help a lot. In the end I didn’t ever actually play Zerp, who plays two of the same characters that I played for a long time, Elisabeth and Shen. That was kind of a disappointment, but he showed up a couple more times while I was at AGDQ since he also knows Josh and a couple other guys, and ended up introducing me to Chaos Code as well, which is a weird Taiwanese fighting game that mashes up some “anime” mechanics with more KoF-ish type basics. It definitely feels a bit weird and “cheap” (in the production sense) but it’s got some fun backgrounds and a weirdly addictive soundtrack, and I’m pretty excited to share its goofiness with some of the local players in Denver.

Finally, there was the man himself, Yuzo Koshiro. I honestly had no idea what his performance was going to be like, although it was billed as the first of two acts for a “dance party.” Sadly I was correctly left to assume this meant he wouldn’t be pulling out any of his more prog rock/metal/fusion type stuff, but the set certainly didn’t even begin to disappoint. He ended up DJ’ing about an hour of game music from across his career, starting with some Actraiser music before moving into some heavier and more “rave”-y stuff like Streets of Rage and Shinobi. The climax involved many tracks from the Wangan Midnight Maximum Tune arcade games, which I was especially excited about. I’m not at all familiar with the games, but I basically always love singing in game soundtracks and wish there was more.

I ended up having to cut Magfest short on both ends and would’ve really loved to stay even a little longer, but it was still just a great time and I didn’t regret going out to make sure I got a nice Sunday afternoon and evening with my sister’s family. After that, it was time to get to AGDQ.

I feel like a lot of the event actually speaks for itself if you watch the stream, although anyone who’s been to a major fighting game tournament or anything else knows how completely different being there is from being a long-distance spectator. The atmosphere was definitely a lot more subdued overall than a competitive event, but a lot of the same passion was there. Speedrunning may be less of a commitment per game in many cases (although the top players on Super Metroid and similar popular games have certainly poured a lot of their lives into their titles), but I was still struck by the enthusiasm with which players absorbed new tricks and asked for help on a staggering variety of runs and games.

I can’t say I felt that same drive, even in the middle of all this. For me learning about the basic speed tricks or concepts in a game is really fun, but it’s kind of like trying out combos for characters I don’t play in fighting games. It’s not fundamentals, or sometimes even useful, it’s just a fun little unique thing to try out.  I don’t want to rehearse a whole game in most cases, I just want to see something new and fresh. But it all ties into my greater understanding of the “performance” aspect of speedrunning and other superplays. It’s not just about knowing how the game works and playing it a lot; there’s a lot of important “setups” or other combo-esque sequences needed to really excel. The players know exactly what the desired outcome is, and the drama stems from human error and the unpredictability of programmed behavior. This doesn’t change my outlook towards these kinds of plays overall, but it does make the idea of doing them a lot more approachable now that I’ve started to understand the methods and scale of work better.

The other facet of performance is, of course, the player and their personality. For the most part, viewers respond best to people who are fun to watch along with their games. Whether these are people like Mr. K or Cosmo, who bring a warm friendliness to match their esoteric and detailed knowledge, someone like PJ, whose enthusiasm and temper hold steady through even the most stunningly painful games, or the over-the-top personalities like tri-hex and Flicky who often dominate the stream’s attention even if they’re not playing (for better or worse), the players are definitely a big draw not just for me, but the viewers at home. Of course, some carefully cultivated mystique can go a long way too, but it’s usually best for someone like Siglemic who’s got a game that’s sufficiently popular and flashy to entertain the viewers on its own.

I’ve been around the block a few times with these events, and I knew coming in that there wasn’t some kind of life-changing experience coming. But as my interest in fighting games has grown faster than my interest in speedruns, there’s still a lot for me to think about in terms of what this trip and the community is “worth” to me, and there’s not an easy answer to that. I’ll be back in the future, I’m sure, but with my sister moving out and a lot of other stuff unresolved in my life, I’m not quite sure when that future will be.

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Stand Back, Stand Clear

So I was going to write a big post about NEC, but then it just ended coming out on the EFL boards where everyone who I know consistently reads this blog already read it. All there would really be to add are some interstitial diversions and insanely trivial anecdotes, a small rant about Power Instinct 5 (it’s entertaining, especially after my KOF playing times), and then talking about how much better Philadelphia is than Las Vegas. As strongly as I might feel about those topics I don’t actually have that many interesting things to say about them, so maybe another time. But what is there to talk about? Oh, I know! It’s the end of the year, and everybody who writes or talks about games has to make a big list about how they still like obscure game X but AAA title Y doesn’t really hold up. It’s the law.

I haven’t played as many games over the past couple years as I did when I was in late high school/early college, so the idea of making a “top 10” list is absurd in multiple ways, the least of which being that some of the games on the list pretty much have to be ones I didn’t actually like since I don’t think I even played ten games I completely loved. But I find that given some distance I almost always feel differently about games than when I was actually playing them. Often my opinion goes down after the freshness wears off, but sometimes I appreciate elements more.

I don’t know who thought this was a good idea. They were wrong, but I love them.

The first new game I played this year was Final Fantasy XIII-2, and if all you want to see is that I think it’s bad, cool. Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a bad game. We’re done here.

Wait a second…why did I even play this game in the first place? Oh right. It was because I liked the first one. I’m not really much of a fan of FF in the first place, but I got excited as soon as I heard the music in XIII was going to be by SaGa composer Masashi Hamauzu. Hearing that the battle system was much more action- and puzzle-based than in most RPGs had me even more intrigued, and in the end I rented and beat it over spring break. I really enjoyed the bizarre meta combat, in which your characters’ specific actions barely matter, and instead the way they combine is everything. For most of a battle, you had to juggle several factors, building up to hit the enemy’s weakness while keeping yourself alive and preparing for your devastating strike with stat buffs for your party or reductions for the enemy. If you kept everything moving correctly, then you could catch all the balls in one gorgeous moment, and switch from your precarious attack-defense cycles to an all-out ass-kicking to finish things off. The system wasn’t perfect (for one thing, the game doesn’t have a good way to convey the importance of potent offense, leaving many wondering why the game “suddenly” kills them after a long battle), and once the game finally just hands you all the possible options near the end things get a bit repetitive.

Also seems familiar!

My impression, though, and this was backed up by a few interviews I read, was that the team focused almost completely on the mechanics and encounter design, leaving many standard elements of Final Fantasy by the wayside so they could be honed. There are essentially no friendly towns, few open areas to explore, virtually no “sidequests” that don’t involve killing things, no mini-games…it’s certainly very reductionist, but I appreciated the philosophy.

All that said, my absolute favorite part of FF13 is when two of the main characters stumble their way into a Chocobo-themed amusement park. Like everything else, there’s not any “real” reason this happens except that they made the art assets for it, but it’s the one actual respite from constant fighting in the game. And in sharp contrast to the rest of the soundtrack, the song which plays is a tinny, diegetic jingle about how much fun it is to play with Chocobos. It’s clever, hilarious, and almost unbearably vapid at the same time. In other words, genius.

From here I feel like a review of part 2 practically writes itself, especially given how short the title’s development cycle was. The scenarios are all pieced together from art assets that got cut the first time, and the story makes even less sense. The battle system has no real mechanical additions, and the monster system is cute at first but gimmicky and really unwieldy. The boss fights are almost all trivial and half of the “roles” in the game are nearly useless, which makes combat a straightforward and boring slog with depressingly few “oh my god!” moments. Worst of all is just the developers’ attitude and lack of understanding about players’ complaints. As much as I enjoyed FFXIII, there’s simply no way its basic model would’ve held up for another 30+ hours. The structure was workable but due for additions. But 2’s open, frequently-redundant areas and arbitrarily plotted progression don’t feature anything that feels like a carefully laid course, just busywork to fill time while the designers figure out how to actually make a game.

Even though there were definitely alarms sounding all over the place, I had to play it. I just can’t resist a great soundtrack, and after its release, with the music spilling all over the internet, I couldn’t stop myself from getting hyped up. I’m sure most people heard “Crazy Chocobo,” as the backlash exploded almost instantly in many different places that I tend to visit, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. A huge portion of the music features vocals, almost always with cheesy lyrics attempting to match up with what’s going on in the game’s story and settings. Although none of them are indicated to be actually heard “in context” as with Cocoon de Chocobo above, I absolutely love it, and the effect is occasionally like some kind of really anime musical (as in the theater production), which is even better.

After all, JRPGs are no stranger to melodrama, so to me the idea that Serah, Noel, or possibly other entities are essentially “singing” bizarre songs to the audience, about how important it is to stay upbeat and fight together with your friends, or what it’s like having a ridiculously miserable and depressing backstory, is too delightful. And that’s not all! Many of the more conventional tracks are also fantastic, featuring work not just from Hamauzu but one of my personal top favorite game composers, the criminally underappreciated Mitsuto Suzuki. Originally I knew him from his time making weird, beepy techno for Konami’s rhythm games, but since moving to Square he’s gotten a couple of chances to play more of a main composing role. (As far as I know, his official job at both companies has been more in back-end sound production.)

The thing that really catapults this up to the top of my favorite soundtracks though, is something it shares with two of my other favorites, Nier and Resonance of Fate. All three feature on-the-fly, context-based track switching or (mostly in Nier’s case) blending. In FF13-2 this switching occurs when you’re moving around dungeon areas, as random enemies will appear near you and you get the option to try to run away from them or engage head on for advantages. As far as the game goes, it’s a pointless, bad compromise, and therefore clearly stands out as the worst of the three examples here. By contrast, ROF has a similar system, where the music lays low as you wander around and prepare for combat, then suddenly roars to full-on rock once you pull the trigger and start a battle. Nier’s uses are more subtle and varied, but a good example is the game’s starting town, where a woman singing in the middle fades in and out as you get close or move away. Still, even in this game the music’s sudden shift from driving and melodic to low and sinister (and usually, the sudden cutting out of lyrics) is definitely effective.

I have something of a “spoonful of sugar” outlook on a lot of things; they may be bad in obvious ways or have elements that I simply dislike, but one really strong area is enough to prevent me from being too upset with them. This is even more true when, as in FF13-2’s case, it’s the music that really carries it. But even though it’s not an aggravating game, it’s a monotonous one that doesn’t bring anything else that’s interesting to the table. In a sense, I got just what I expected from a rushed, samey cash-in. And that’s the biggest disappointment of all.