Wednesday, March 30, 2011

. . . Pokemon

The 5th Generation

When Pokemon Black and Pokemon White were released on March 6th they ushered in the era of the 5th Generation of the series, the significance of which has more to do with the stories and the world of Pokemon than any real differences in the games. I should explain that before we go any further into this post I suppose...

Most gamers think that the Pokemon series began with the anime TV show Pokemon, but that is not what happened. The question of the chicken and the egg is no question at all in the case of Pokemon -- as the original game that started it all, Pokemon Green, came first -- but Pokemon Green has a unique story to it in that it was only ever released in Japan.

The media empire that Pokemon turned into began with a simple game for the Nintendo Game Boy - the original one mind you, the black and white one not the color Game Boy -- called Poketto Monsutā, or Pocket Monsters.

Pocket Monsters was initially released under that title, but a conflict with another game of the same name made it necessary to rename the game. To avoid any confusion the folks over at Game Freak -- the studio that created the game -- decided to rename it Pokemon, which was a combination of Pocket and Monsters, and so it was released as Pokemon Green.

The original plan for the game was to release two color-coded versions of it, with each of the versions having a slightly different collection of Pocket Monsters -- Pokemon I mean -- in order to encourage gamers to seek out each other in order to trade the ones that were not in their version, thus completing the "Pokedex" that is a foundation element of the games. The Pokedex is a sort of electronic encyclopedia of Pokemon that the player is completing at the request of the Pokemon Professor who plays a central role in the games.

When the games unexpectedly caught on like wildfire, nobody was more shocked and surprised than Nintendo, who really only published the game because Ken Sugimori pushed for it. With the initial sales figures being very modest, the directors of the portable games division at Nintendo thought that they understood the games and their limited potential, but then something unexpected happened -- a Pokemon named Mew.

Pokemon Red and Green

When the games were initially released players were made to believe that there were 150 unique Pokemon in them, though in fact there were 151. The first 150 were standard Pokemon, while the 151st was a Legendary Pokemon. The existence of that 151st Pokemon, whose name is Mew, was held back from the public because originally Game Freak had planned to do a marketing campaign surrounding Mew, but this event never took place for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the lackluster support that Nintendo gave the game with respect to promotion.

At some point after the games were released on February 27th, 1996, a gamer accidentally discovered the existence of Mew. This information spread quickly, and resulted in the magazine CoroCoro announced a "Legendary Pokémon Contest" to distribute Mew to twenty very lucky entrants.

It should be no surprise that the exclusivity of Mew and the very limited quantity were just the push the games needed, and sales went from modest to hotcakes literally overnight.

There were several elements to the game that explain its popularity -- its competitive nature, the collectible aspects, and its use of the game cable that allowed players to connect to each other and play with and against each other all contributed to its popularity -- and then of course there was Mew, so it was not long before gamers outside of Japan learned of the game and wanted to play it.

When it came time to make the game for regions other than Japan the decision was made to create the export versions based off of the the second game -- Pokemon Red, which had slightly improved graphics over Green, so Green was abandoned, and the two new versions that were released worldwide became Pokemon Red and Pokemon Blue.

The Game Evolves into a TV Series

About the time that all of this was happening, the huge popularity of the games in Japan made the creation of an anime-style half-hour children's TV show a natural choice for Game Freak, and it was the combination of that show and the games that solidified the brand as a media empire.

The games evolved with Nintendo's Game Boy, with Red and Blue soon complimented by Yellow, which more closely followed the TV show in that Ash's Pikachu could follow along behind him outside of its Poke Ball. When the Game Boy Color was released, Pokemon Crystal and then Silver and Gold followed, comprising the first two generations of the games.

The events on the TV show closely mirrored those of the games, which made a wonderful media combination in which gamers could watch on their TV screen the same places, characters, and adventures that they were having in their games.

The third generation of games was built for the new Game Boy Advanced console, and began with Pokemon Sapphire and Ruby, establishing the third "bridging" game format that presents the elements of both of the first pair in a series as one collective adventure, which for generation three was Pokemon Emerald.

The change to a new physical format for the cartridges and the lack of connectivity made trading for earlier generation Pokemon impossible in the new games, but the issue was fixed by the release of Pokemon FireRed and LeafGreen, which made the first generation Pokemon available to players.

The fourth generation of games -- Pokemon Pearl and Diamond with the bridging game Platinum -- were made for the new Nintendo DS platform, but unlike the previous console change included connectivity that allowed Trainers to transfer their 3rd generation Pokemon into the DS games.

The series was nearly restored; the release of Pokemon HeartGold and SoulSilver finally provided a complete source for all of the Pokemon in the current National Pokedex, and the adoption of a WiFi-based system for trading and for the distribution of special Pokemon, which nicely leveled the playing field when it came to completing the Pokedex -- and this brings us full circle to the 5th Generation of the games!
Pokemon Black and White

The release of the 5th Gen games came less than a month before the launch of newest Game Boy console version -- the Nintendo 3DS -- though the games were not created specifically for the 3DS platform. That makes a lot of sense, considering that the Nintendo DSi will likely remain the dominant portable console for Nintendo fans, at least for the foreseeable future, due to the high cost of the 3DS.

When Black and White released, the first WiFi-based Wondercard was literally a day-one event, bringing together the last three special events from the 4th Generation and the new 5th Generation, with Trainers able to obtain the Liberty Ticket that gives access to the first Legendary Pokemon within minutes of starting to play.

Pokemon Black and White are a huge leap forward for the games, with a deeper and more complex game world, and an interesting story providing the foundation for what is already being declared the best Pokemon game ever by gamers.

The games fully embrace the Internet in a way that goes way beyond what the 4th Generation managed -- and considering that Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum were about as connected as you could want, that is saying something!

At this point I am most of the way through Black -- and as I am also writing a walkthrough / guide for it, my first play through has been very complete. Black is my XX guide -- I also did walkthrough guides for Pokemon Emerald, FireRed, LeafGreen, and HeartGold -- nicely covering the modern takes on most of the generations of the game!

The newest generation of Pokemon are a unique bunch, though because the games retained the well established 17 major types the differences are mostly appearance and the strength of their abilities, so no real surprises. Having said that though, even if this generation does not contain the cutest Pokemon, or the most ferocious, it still has more than a few stand-0uts that are sure to be fan favorites, though surprisingly these are not the starters!

The trio of monkey Pokemon that match the three starter types -- Fire, Water, and Grass -- are real stand-outs in that respect, but we will have to wait and see whether the starters begin to gain popularity on the same level as those of previous games.

The differences between Black and White are pretty profound, with the games each having a specific are that is unique to them -- that is a departure from the previous traditions, which generally only extended to the Pokemon and not he lands. There is a significant difference in how the world is viewed between the two, and it will be interesting to see how those two facets are addressed in the bridging game that will likely be released next year.

So far the 5th Generation of the Pokemon series is everything that we could have hoped for -- and with the TV series well into adventure now, the overall media experience is there. So send me your Friend Code so we can battle, right?

. . . Unemployment

My best mate in the whole world is unemployed at the moment, and despite the fact that he has this very broad and very deep pool of skills to draw upon, the area of the country that he is in -- Western Oregon -- is not what can be kindly thought of as a job-rich environment at the moment for codeslingers.

The whole idea of being unemployed in this economy scares the hell out of me. Being a writer I know that it is not easy to get work -- not without first putting in a lot of effort and building a contacts list, all the while taking anything you can get to tide you over until you get something regular. That is not to say that it is hard to get work as a writer because it is not -- it is just hard to get a good permanent gig as a writer, freelancing being the obvious path you take until you get something permanent.

Codeslingers don't usually work freelance -- but when they do they call it temping, not freelancing, and when they temp the pay is really bad and the jobs tend to be short. They only keep you long enough to accomplish whatever it was that caused them to look for a temporary codeslinger.

My discomfort with his situation has caused me to start encouraging him to look for work as a freelance writer -- in spite of the fact that he is a codeslinger, his degree is in English and he has solid skills as a writer, even if he has not written anything more complicated than code documentation in the past twenty years. That is not the point. The point is that he could write if he chose to, and there is work out there for writers.

I mentioned this on one of the community boards I am active on for writers. The general reaction was one of disbelief with comments like "you are telling him there are freelance writing gigs? There are not!" and other comments to that effect.

It was at this point that I asked the question their reactions prompted: aren't you guys working?

It turns out that I am one of a handful of writers on that particular board that is constantly busy -- and I just cannot figure that out. In the many conversations that ensued I learned that despite being writers very few of the people on that board know how to find jobs. Query letters? Not so much. It blows my mind that they actually sit around waiting for writing gigs to come to them! That is no way to stay busy, that is all I am saying...

When I get an idea that I think I would like to write about, I put out the effort to find an editor that will pay me for writing that piece, and then I write it. It turns out that a lot of the people on that board do it the other way around, putting out the effort to write the piece and then try to sell it, often failing. To me that makes no sense at all... It is a lot easier to write a good query letter and then the piece then the other way around, and nine times out of ten the editor that buys the piece wants a slightly different piece than the one I proposed, so if I had written it in advance I would have to start over anyway...

You gotta write -- it is what you do -- but writing on spec or worse yet, writing for free? That is no way to make a living.

So how was your week?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

. . . Video Game Retro Uberness

We were at the mall in Hyannis where we were visiting specifically to obtain cloth from the cloth store for Yvonne to make (A) Autumn's costume for Anime Boston in April, and (B) Peter's costume for PAX East (which is next Friday) I wandered into the GameStop both because it was there, and because I do not do craft stores as a general rule, including those that sell cloth, but that is another story for another time.

The point to this is that into GameStop I wandered.

I was not there specifically to pick up a game, because I will not actually need to do that until two days later on Sunday, March 6th, when the new Pokemon games launch. So I was not specifically there to purchase a game, but you know how it is...

While I thumbed through the bargain bin with an eye towards finding a game from the distant past that I had meant to play but, for whatever reason, never did, my thumbs stumbled upon an ancient copy of Hitman: Blood Money for the PS2, which if you are keeping track, was released in 2004...

The PS2 was originally what I played the game on -- and in theory I could have bought that copy and played it on my PS3 since it is rated for PS2 game play -- but the reality is that even though my PS3 is capable of playing PS2 games in native mode, they do not always play as flawlessly as Sony would have you believe.

I sighed and frowned because I would actually have enjoyed playing it again, and was struck by a thought. Once I had the attention of the bloke behind the counter, I inquired as to whether they had a copy for the XBox 360?

They did! One copy. One slightly scratched and beat-up, well-used copy that looked okay. It was by no means pristine, but the scratches did not look to be the sort that would cause the game to not play...

Besides that all GameStop games -- even the used ones -- have a 15 day no questions asked warranty, so I decided what the heck, it is only $19 and if it is bad I can take it to the GameStop in Mashpee and exchange it! Besides that I really wanted that game.

Elite Retro Uber Gaming

If you never had the fun of playing Hitman: Blood Money you are really missing out mate. Yes I am aware that it is a game from 2004 - but bear with me for a moment and I will explain -- It may be a game from 2004 but it was also the game of 2004 -- and if you were playing games back then it was a hard one to have missed!

You have to remember that 2004 was back when they still made games without the Hollywood FX of today. If there was nudity in a game it was generally non-sexual unless the game was explicitly a sex game. This was back when men were men and protagonists were really men!

I am holding Blood Money in my hand with the sure and certain knowledge that I have one day -- one day -- that is totally free and that I can play any game that I want to play without any concern, and that day is Sunday. Why?

Because I will have finished the long-overdue Pokemon Emerald Guide on Saturday evening and will be uploading the last videos for it along with the guide itself on Sunday morning, and I can not start Pokemon Black until Monday afternoon because that is the soonest I can get a copy since Nintendo (unlike pretty much all of the other studies) does not give freebies to any newspaper smaller than the New York Times.

I decided right then that revisiting Blood Money -- after an absence of almost exactly six years -- was not imply a good idea, it was a great one!

Those Hot and Humid Hitman Days

The Summer of 2004 was a hot and humid one, and it was back when my son Peter still thought sitting in the room and watching me play video games was cool. For three weeks that Summer we shared a fascination with Agent 47, and my son watched me play and helped me to develop strategies for obtaining perfect Silent Assassin Ratings in its dozen-odd missions.

We had our cooler full of iced down glass bottles of Coca Cola, bags of Andy Capp Hot Fires and Doritos, and an overpowering urge to figure the game out on our own, without the help of game guides.

At the time Blood Money was cutting edge -- or as near to it as you could get on a PS2... And it was that memory in my mind's eye that held sway as I awoke this morning and without even thinking about it, slotted my new copy of that old game and booted up.

As my 360 hummed to life and the so familiar notes of its start screen music filled the room it was almost like time travel. Almost.

A Little Age on It

As I watched the familiar CS unfolding and took my first steps in over half a decade as Agent 47 the first thought I had was that something was wrong -- though I could not immediately put my finger on what it was.

The games of today -- and sacrificially the FPS titles that are made to feel the same no matter what platform they are played on -- barely put a strain on the modern generation of console hardware that the PS3 and XBox 360 represent.

If we are being completely honest about it, the PS3 and XBox 360 are not exactly "modern" in most senses, as the newer generation of console that will replace both of these aging dynamos are way past the drawing board stage and are already in their respective beta test stage, leaving us to anticipate their release if not any month now than at least within the next 12 months . . .

When I say that modern FPS titles sacrificially exist, what I am referring to is the almost 'McDonalds' like feel to them that -- I am not exaggerating here -- gives them the cohesive sameness that the studios desire so that no matter what platform you are playing on, the experience is much the same.

The reason for that? Because modern games are platform independent when it comes to online play, so it is important for the shared experience of play to be much the same.

It only takes a brief glance at games like Heavy Rain and Alan Wake to get an idea of what the two consoles are genuinely capable of -- but the mainstream FPS titles do not even come close to that level of hardware-straining depth because the idea is to make games that are entertaining and fluid. The jaw-dropping impact of pushing the envelope is not part of that process.

It was not long though before it clicked.

Back to Blood Money . . . The graphics seemed so old and yet. And yet. Not.

Agent 47 moved like his spine was fused, and both the aiming and movement while crouched in sneak-mode felt somehow off. Reconciling the game mechanics I was now seeing with what I am used to seeing today -- comparing it to GTA IV and the leap forward from that to games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age made it seem somehow older than it was.

It took a few minutes for the control scheme to pop back into my head -- but once it did it was like the intervening years had never happened -- I was quickly back in the groove; Agent 47 did my bidding without complaint, and I suddenly was Agent 47 again, just like it was back in that bad old Summer of 2004.

A little more than an hour into the game and that awkward feeling that the stiff movement gave me at first also seemed to melt away, gulped down by a combination of excitement and palm-smacking as the often disastrous results from simple mistakes made themselves known.

Being spotted with a weapon in plain sight transformed the otherwise peaceful infiltration into a running gunfight of epic and bloody proportions, and half-remembered strategies made it almost feel like a new game due to the genuine feelings of not knowing precisely what to do next. All of this helped to reassert that awe and satisfaction of a gamers feeling for a game that is genuinely fun...

. . . to be continued