Sunday, February 28, 2010

Didn't anyone teach Nintendo to share?

When one of my kids was in the hospital for an extended stay last summer, we bought him a Nintendo DSi, and we helped his older brother get one as well. One thing I noticed as they played each other's games was that game saves were stored on the cartridge, not on the DSi's internal memory. The other thing that I noticed was that games limited the number of saves they would support to a very small number. Whether it was by intentional design or merely as a function of the amount of data saved divided into the amount of flash memory that it is cost-effective to install on a cartridge, the result is the same.

The result is, because, for example, the Pokémon games only support saving a single game, and because the game is saved on the cartridge, my kids are not able to share those game cartridges with each other. They can only share cartridges that happen to have more than one save slot in them.

Now, as it happens, the Pokémon games aren't as big of a deal. Each boy having his own game is a benefit, because being able to play at the same time, and trading pokémon with each other, is a key feature of the game.

However, not all games directly benefit from having two copies. One of my boys recently got a copy of Drawn to Life: The Next Chapter, and it was only after he started playing it that we discovered it only has a single save game slot. This is contrary to the first Drawn to Life game, which, because it has more than one save slot, my kids are able to share back and forth and play their own save.

Probably the most annoying part of this whole situation (aside from the fact that there's really no reason for this considering the game console itself has plenty of storage for save data, and it would even be cheaper to make without requiring flash memory on every cartridge) is that there is no way to know the save slot situation ahead of time. Nowhere on the package does it say how many save slots are on the cartridge, nor could I find a convenient website that lists games with the number of save slots they have.

It's rather annoying that such a critical piece of information for building a library that's intended to be shared between two users is effectively completely hidden. It almost makes me wonder if this situation isn't intentional, to prevent people from sharing games, to try and get people to buy more individual copies.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Splosion Man

One of my boys has made up a super hero, "Orange Fire Boy". I'm not exactly sure where he comes from or what his powers are, but I know he somewhat resembles the Human Torch from the Fantastic Four. So when I saw the game Splosion Man — whose starring character is also orange and covered in flames — become a "Deal of the Week" for a measly five bucks, I thought he might get a kick out of it, and so I picked it up.

Splosion Man is pretty easy to learn. You play a science experiment run amok, who is trying to escape the laboratory (and take revenge on the scientists who are responsible for his "condition"). Your only weapon is the ability to explode, which you do by pressing any of the four face buttons. (All four buttons are mapped to "SPLODE", but you can get a quick 10-point achievement for remapping any button to... um, well, "SPLODE" is the only option.) By exploding back and forth off of walls, Splosion Man can "climb" upward into new areas. Exploding next to barrels can give him a boost (sometimes slight, sometimes a high-speed launch). Exploding next to equipment causes lots of satisfying debris, and exploding scientists results in a comical fountain of steaks to erupt from their body (which just falls down, intact — hey, they're not trying to be disgusting or M-rated here).

Some of the levels can be a little challenging. Some don't give you time to stop and rest, you just have to keep running. But there's no limit on the number of times you can die and start over. (If you die a certain number of times, the game does give you the option to skip to the next level, although rumor has it there's a price for this.…)

But unfortunately, Splosion Man's strength is also its weakness. The mechanics are so simple, that there really are a limited number of ways you can use it to get through the lab. There are a lot of levels, around 50 in all, and although each one is different from the others, they all repeat a lot of the same elements over and over such that each new level brings very few surprises.

Depending on your target audience, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. My first-grade son loves it. It's something he can easily figure out and is on his way to mastering — which is saying a lot, because, honestly, he isn't nearly as skilled as his older brother. He also loved the gamer picture and the Avatar T-shirt with the orange fire guy logo. (Splosion Man was the first game to feature an "Avatar Award".) It was, as I hoped, right up his alley. And the spastic title character is something all my boys love watching.

For myself, I don't mind it at all. It's a fun little diversion with some quirky humor, and a decent platformer to boot. The levels aren't overly long, which means playing for short stretches is easy without losing progress. (Indeed, short stretches are almost required to avoid becoming bored with the repetition.) Probably my only major complaint (so far; only completed "World 1") is the boss battle. Whereas the levels leading up to it are replete with checkpoints, the boss battle had none. If you died (and there were plenty of "one-shot kills", to add to the frustration), you had to start the whole boss fight over, rather than starting at the last major "event".

I wouldn't say it's the best five bucks I've ever spent, but I've certainly done a lot worse.

Monday, February 8, 2010

You don't buy DLC, you rent it

It doesn't seem like it was that long ago when I wrote about games disappearing off the Live service. It seemed not to make much of a ripple on the internet, as they were "just" a handful of arcade games that no one seemed to care about. I wondered then what it would take to stir up enough anger that people might actually start to care about digital distribution, how it takes away their rights and privileges, turning "buying" into "leasing" under terms that only the network owner controls and can change at any time "for the good of the service".

On Friday, Xbox Live's Major Nelson dropped a bombshell, announcing on his blog that Microsoft was discontinuing Xbox Live support for all Xbox 1 consoles and games. Officially, it's so they can evolve the Live service without being restricted by features the original games couldn't support. It still seems to me they should've been able to work around this, by versioning the service and system calls. Windows has been doing this for decades, after all, where the same API behaves differently depending on how it's being called. But then, it's been theorized that Windows's instability is partially a result of its attempt to support old software as well as new, so I don't fault them for wanting to shrug off the old to move forward. I still question whether it's entirely necessary. Necessary or not, though, it's the move they're making.

Last month, I wrote about the problem with dedicated servers, and how games that rely on those servers become useless online when (not if) the companies that run them give up support. I mentioned that games that don't do that benefit from the fact that Xbox Live uses peer-to-peer and can continue to be played online indefinitely. Unfortunately, Microsoft just negated that argument. The Xbox Live service was responsible for matching those peers, and now, even without a dedicated server reliance, all games are going to be useless online. Sure, LAN will still work (which means certain LAN-tunneling programs like Xlink Kai or XBConnect can be used to emulate the service), but it's not quite the same.

But wait, there's more — or rather, less! Microsoft, being the forward-thinking company they are, decided to get a head start on the end-of-life process and pulled all the Xbox 1 content from their servers immediately. That means any downloadable content, such as the maps for Halo 2, was no longer available. As you can imagine, this greatly interfered with Bungie's suggestion to play a few rounds of Halo 2 for "old time's sake" before support goes away, as all the matchmaking playlists require all the maps (they're all free at this point, after all). See, users who don't have them available, because they've either deleted them to make room on their hard drives for "current" content, or they've replaced their consoles sometime (the maps are bound to the console when installed and won't play on another console without re-downloading/reinstalling), can't get them. Now, Bungie happens to have enough "pull" with Microsoft that they've talked Microsoft into granting an "exception" and putting Halo 2 maps back online, which is great for them, but not so much for people who might want one last crack at an online romp through, say, Crimson Skies.

Where I hope this makes people very angry, is that the Halo 2 maps were not always free. When they were first released, they were at a price; which means people paid real money for this content. In a couple months, it will no longer be available. (Other games had for-pay content as well, but Halo 2 is the best-known and still the most-played original Xbox game, and the one most likely to stir up a fuss.) So, content that people have paid for, on a game that people still play (either because they haven't upgraded to a 360 — and I do know someone who hasn't — or because they happen to think Halo 2 is a good game, and it happens to be playable on the 360), a game whose name has been practically synonymous with the word "Xbox" since its launch, is going to be taken away.

Is it enough for people to get mad about yet? Will we stop hearing the chant, "The disc is dead! Long live DLC!" Or is it "ok" because Halo 2 is such an old game; that people have "played enough" that they don't "need" that content anymore; that sure, it was a rental, but it was for a "long enough" term that it doesn't matter; and there "aren't enough" people affected to "worry about"? (And did I use enough "scare quotes" to accurately convey my "opinion" on "that"?)