Sunday, 7 August 2011

A Glimpse into Navigator

"So, what is all this Navigator business?"
Navigator is PxC's 1st publically released project, a puzzle game starring the titular Nav, a pioneer in virtual reality. He works alongside Professor Claire Nova, building the first-ever virtual reality survival puzzle game.

"Survival Puzzle game?"
That's right, the nature of Navigator is two-fold. The aim isn't soley just to rack up the highest score by creating clusters and chains of coloured blocks, but to keep Nav alive as the steadily rising tower of blocks threatens to crush him against the ceiling.

"How cruel!"
Isn't it just. But Nav isn't entirely helpless, he can move about the playing field, pushing blocks around and maneuvering over obstacles to get to a safe spot.
He's also backed up by the Block Cannon, loaded with an infinite supply of colourful ammo to beat back the cube conquest. By matching up at least four blocks of the same color, you will create a cluster that explodes after a short period of time, dropping any mass above it down to a lower level, and gaining points.
By creating clusters bigger than 4 blocks, you get bonus points, and by breaking a cluster that drops down and forms a second cluster, you create combos that add multipliers to your score bonus that double for each cluster formed in the same combo!

"And I'm responsible for both Nav and the Cannon? Sounds tricky..."
Don't sweat it. While controlling both tasks is difficult to begin with, it'll be no time at all before you're using the two in tandem. The highest scorers use Nav and the Cannon co-operatively to set up huge combos.
Higher-level players will take advantage of Nav's Block Push ability to create combos as well, since creating a cluster using the Block Push is an instant 1.5x combo multiplier!
You can also use Nav's Power Climb to continue to help him navigate to other areas.
If you're still finding it tricky, you can give up control of one aspect to a friend. Working together is the key!

"So how do I rack up the big scores?"
If you're used to games like Tetris Attack or Puyo Pop, then your skills will come in handy here. It's not just about laying down blocks quickly, being able to read the playing field, and see where the clusters are in advance is the key to making lengthy combos. The target reticule of the Cannon will match the colour of the block to be placed, so you needn't draw your eyes away from the action.
Don't forget about Nav! His ability to push blocks around can save you from a Cannon misfire, or to keep your Combo going just a bit longer. The period where a cluster is frozen and glowing is your chance to set up something big! It's a risky move, but manually raising the stack of blocks is also a possibility. Being able to see more of the field means you can keep combos going for that much longer.

"Working with my friends is one thing, but how about competing with them?"
But of course! For those of you with a bloodthirsty streak, a Vs. mode is in the pipeline. This allows you to directly compete against a second navigator in both score and survival. By creating large clusters and cluster chains, you can attack the opposing player with "garbage blocks" that clog up their field of play. This mode can be played cooperatively as well, meaning 4 players can get in on the action in teams of 2vs2!

"Do I get kickass music to listen to while saving Nav's life?"
A6: Absolutely; Navigator features completely original music for every level, each song fitting the atmosphere of the stage itself. The music is composed by Chris "Søda Meløn" King, also known as "GreenDragonXIII," and all of it is very well done. We believe the music will also be a big part of creating a unique experience with Navigator.

"Awesome. So what modes are on offer?"
A6: Navigator includes a couple of gameplay modes for many types of players; there's the Tutorial Mode, where Professor Nova herself teaches you the rules of the field, the Endless Mode, the basic survival gameplay mode that doesn't end until you lose, the 1v1/1v2/2v2 Competitive Mode, and a 1-2 player Puzzle Mode, where you solve advanced puzzles based on the gameplay mechanics of Navigator, but with unique twists!

"And lots of different stages, right?"
There will be at least six stages to play in. In Endless and Competitive Mode, each stage has its own predetermined block setup on startup, adding enhanced variation to each game, and allowing the more advanced players to set up high-level opening strategies. And if you're not the competitive type, each stage has its own graphical style. Whether you're a fan of the clean circles of Energy Cells, or the gritty industrialism of Field of Cogs, Navigator can scratch that itch.

"Nav is pretty expressive, how long did his design and animation take?"
A6: That's an interesting question. The basic idea for Nav was originally to just be a simple little guy pushing blocks around. His design is fairly simplified as well; a black-haired guy in a navy blue shirt and green pants. As development continued, I wanted to put more life and personality in both Nav and the entire game as well, which lead to the conception of Professor Nova, a cooperative design effort by myself and our digital artist, Joe Ryan. Having two characters in the game like this really allows us to explore different personalities for them and make them expressive, to give the game another layer of depth outside of gameplay, without overcomplicating things.

"What about the two characters? Will we get to see interaction between Nav and Prof. Nova? Any chemistry?"
A6: Workplace romance is strictly forbidden, especially in the lab! However, there will be plenty of conversing and interaction between the two in both the tutorial and puzzle modes. There's a little more interaction with Professor Nova personally, as well, but we'll just keep that a secret for now!

"So when do I get to play this, and on what?"
The 1.1 beta is available for PC right now! You can find it Right Here. The final release won't just be on PC, but also on Windows Phone 7 and potentially even XBOX Live Indie Games. You can fire blocks and detonate clusters both at home and on the go!

Look forward to seeing Navigator during the third quarter of 2011.
 This article can also be found at PixelXCore.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

An Inside Look at Operation Moonfall

In a time where video game companies and the fans of their products can interact through social media - fans are lucky enough to have gotten an increasingly powerful voice in regards to the things they want from their games; and in some cases the companies can definitely benefit from listening.

One such project is Operation Moonfall, a campaign to get Nintendo to re-release the N64 classic The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask for the 3DS (In a similar vein to the recent release of Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D). In my interview with one of the project leaders, Nathanial Rumphol-Janc, we get a better look at the inner workings of Operation Moonfall, and the effects of Fan Participation.

Tell us about yourself.

I'm Nathanial Rumphol-Janc, Co-Owner and Webmaster of Zelda Informer. I have partaken in some college but I haven't graduated, and my main source of income is indeed full time at McDonalds. It's not nearly as bad as most people fear it is.

I've been running websites and been part of the Zelda community for over a decade. First with Zelda Domain (8 years!), and then with Absolute Zelda which eventually melded into Zelda Informer, which at the time (2008) was still a relatively new and unknown face on the internet. Things blossomed from there. I love playing sports (despite being overweight), and of course I love video games. Believe it or not, Zelda is not my favourite series, and Nintendo is not my favourite game company. Of course, they have great respect from me and I do enjoy their products.

What made you decide to start up Operation Moonfall?
To say I started up Operation Moonfall would discredit all the behind the scenes conversations with several parties, including the staff over at Zelda Universe. I did create the petition and the twitter account, while another fan set up the Facebook page and handed me the reigns. Still, creating accounts and petitions is meaningless without support.

The idea for Operation Moonfall really started when we broke an interview a few weeks ago where Eiji Aonuma talked about the potential of making Majora's Mask 3D. He essentially said Ocarina of Time (OoT) 3D happened due to fan demand, and that similar demand would be needed for Majora's Mask. Of course, the issue was that an OoT remake has been in demand for many years; so trying to show Nintendo the demand is there for Majora's Mask is hard, considering that we wish to do it in a smaller time frame with the same impact.

From there, Alex Plant, one of our lead editors at Zelda Informer, and myself pretty much instantly coined the phrase "Operation Moonfall". It's debated still who actually came up with the name - it was just so fitting, and decided by too many people to really give proper credit. Even Zelda Universe was involved with it at some point. After deciding we were going to do this, a centralized support system was needed. We couldn't have several of these projects running around if we wanted to make the impact we hoped to make. Alex, at that point, immediately went to Zelda Universe to see if they would in turn want to jointly make this happen.

As those discussions were on going, fans were really excited - over 10 different fan projects for showing support had shown up. I knew something had to be done to unite the efforts before it got too out of control. Thus, I rushed and got Operation Moonfall kicked off at Zelda Informer as fast as possible. So, after some brief talks with member Super Decimal at Zelda Universe, as well as Cody their former webmaster, we got things all organized properly and made the big push. We still have some ideas in store, but the foundation is definitely present now.

What are Operation Moonfall's aims, and how are they going to be achieved?

The goals in general are to show Nintendo that just as much, if not more, fans are in support of Majora's Mask 3D happening as there was for OoT 3D. To do that, you need to have a movement that is big enough and strong enough to make a serious impact. We want 20,000 Facebook fans, 10,000 Twitter fans, and 50,000 petition signatures before truly taking it to the next level.

We have a lot of work ahead! We have contacts inside Nintendo we would like to submit a case to that go beyond the usual PR stunt. While no direct response is guaranteed, the generic response received has been much more positive compared to other previous fan movements. I'm sure this is something Nintendo already wants to do.

Why Majora's Mask in particular?

Well, for those who aren't aware, Majora's Mask is essentially worshipped as the pinnacle of gaming at Zelda Informer. That being said, this was truly fuelled because Aonuma told us it was possible. At one point it was one of the most under appreciated games in the entire Zelda series. It always played second fiddle to OoT in the N64 era, and at the time some of it's concepts were off-putting to most gamers. Ever heard complaints about the game's '3 day system'? That is the #1 reason Majora's Mask has been ignored for so long, yet it's one of the reasons the game is truly great.

Some would argue a giant movement for things like Operation Rainfall and the Mother series would be more warranted; the difference is we were told a fan movement could make this happen. Every other idea for a project (and I mean no harm to those movements) hasn't had such a direct statement made about it. This makes the project more likely to succeed where others have failed.

What's the initial fan response like so far?

To say it's been universally supported among all Zelda fans would be false. We're aware that there are people that oppose the idea. No one seems to not want it to happen; though people would rather that we get new games instead of remakes. There are arguments on both sides, but in the end the fan support has been mostly positive. At the time of this interview we have 10,000+ fans on Facebook, around 1,000 Twitter followers, and have achieved almost 17,000 signatures. As a comparison, we've already surpassed the overall support Operation Rainfall has gotten in significantly less time. Needless to say, the response has been better than any of us had anticipated.

Are you supporting any other Fan Participation projects?

Presently Operation Moonfall, and any major push to get the Mother series released for Wii Virtual Console and/or 3DS download. I mean, these movements are about providing the United States with some of the best games ever made for a Nintendo platform, so how can you not want to support them?

What do you feel the impact of Fan Participation has on video games, or other types of media?

In terms of convincing companies to release games, I think the impact is mixed at best. A lot of fan projects and fan demands are let down all the time. A recent example would be the cancellation of Mega Man Legends 3. Clearly, it caused a spiral of negative fan responses which hasn't been met with anything positive from Capcom. Operation Rainfall got response from Nintendo, but it was nothing we didn't already know.

Now, I do think fans can influence the creation of games. As an example, Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess was essentially Nintendo's response to all the fans that were hating on Legend of Zelda: the Wind Waker. It was, in essence, what the fans "wanted". So, in the end, I think the impact of fans is a mixed bag and is too unpredictable to really gauge the rate of success. Especially when you consider fans in general are fickle and always seem to like best what they had no idea they wanted.

Clearly, the project name has a relation to Operation Rainfall. How do you feel about their project?

I think what they are doing has to be done, regardless if it is successful in getting localized Nintendo of America (NoA) versions or not. Nintendo has to know that in going forward, especially in setting a new attitude with Wii U and the 3DS, not releasing the best titles available for their systems in the US is no longer acceptable behaviour.

And Nintendo's Response? What is your stance on how they handle Fan Participation?

Nintendo's response, honestly, was a non-response. After hyping it by saying they had something to say, they came back with absolutely nothing. Nintendo of Japan (yes, NoJ controls what gets released in North America, not NoA) simply doesn't want to put false hope out, nor do they want to really put out the flames. At this point, Nintendo can go either direction and no one would be surprised, and I think that is just the way they want it. In terms of how they handle Fan Participation, it's hard to really gauge - it's always been hit and miss.

In what way do you feel Operation Moonfall will succeed where other Fan Participation projects may have failed?

Well, I think it will succeed in that Majora's Mask 3D will happen some day. In fact, it likely has already been under consideration before Aonuma said a word about it. So in that sense, it will be a success in motivating Nintendo to release the game sooner rather than later. In that sense, it would have achieved it's goal, and that is something many Fan Participation projects ultimately end up not doing.

How do you feel about the potential for new Intellectual Properties (IPs) in the 3DS lineup, as opposed to sequels or remakes?

Honestly, the potential for new IPs never truly rests with the hardware, and instead rests with the developer. Sure, a lot of sequels and remakes are happening right now, but the system hasn't been in developers' hands very long. So, at this juncture, people are just trying to make sure there is content available for the system. Lack of software is a killer for any new system.

Still, the potential for new IPs is present; as it is for the Wii and DS, and will be with future formats. Creative ideas are truly a never ending cycle, though there is a lot of risk in making new IPs. It costs several million dollars to create a top notch game these days, so developers are less willing to take risks like they use to. Even Nintendo gets it wrong, as Wii Music was a pure flop that I am sure they spent a decent chunk of change on.

Still, the potential is always there. It's up to the hands that have the power to make the games for the 3DS to give us these new franchises and experiences without relying on previous success stories. I love Zelda, but what's stopping Nintendo from starting a new Adventure game series? They certainly never shied away from Platformers because of Mario. So, why not? We'll see how it goes. Miyamoto has stated a few times in the last 2 years he wants to create a truly new core IP, so we'll see if that ever comes to fruition. Third parties are pretty much in the same boat.

Do you see more Fan Participation events like Operation Moonfall in the future?

If warranted, sure. Fan Participation projects should never exist for the sole purpose of making yourself popular, or just because you want to bitch about something. That is where the line has to be drawn. Still, something has to happen for there to be a reaction. I don't think you can simply spurn a project for everything under the sun, because it makes the efforts more meaningless.

You can follow Operation Moonfall via their Website, Facebook, or Twitter.

This interview can also be found on the Operation Moonfall website and the VG Resource.

Summer Backlog: Kingdom Hearts Re:coded

Sharing a similarity with films, video games that get enough sales in their initial release periods are almost guaranteed to see a sequel. Mainline developers that produce only standalone titles are few and far between. This can be attributed to fan recognition - why make a new platformer mascot or sports game when a Mario sequel or FIFA will bring home the big bucks? When you have those kind of assured sales figures, you can get away with making games that aren't designed for the newcomers. Die-hard fans make for the easiest sales pitches, and no series uses this notion more than the Kingdom Hearts franchise.
Starting out as a strange but relatively innocent action RPG on the PS2, Kingdom Hearts was an unexpected crossover of Final Fantasy and Disney - and even for gamers who aren't particularly fans of either franchise (I know for sure that I keep the amount of Little Mermaid in my life to a minimum), it became a hit due to it's then-uncommon gameplay and well-told story. But the director of the series, Tetsuya Nomura, wanted to make his story more ambitious. Sequels were put into production, and although the games were backed by waves of fan popularity, the stories became an increasingly convoluted mess. Nothing made sense unless you had played the previous games, and even then you might have trouble.

You would think that the games covering side-plots would be easy enough to understand on their own - but not here. At a glance, Kingdom Hearts Re:coded (Called such because it's a remake of a series of mobile phone games – Kingdom Hearts coded. Yes, the name is silly, but they've been sillier) is a DS game that even newcomers to the series can get behind. It's a retelling of the initial Kingdom Hearts, but with an interesting twist - it's only a 'virtual' version of the initial game's locations; and like any computer, the thing's ridden with bugs and glitches.

Having played a fair number of Kingdom Hearts games, though not in the right order (which made things confusing down the line), I found the premise rather charming. It's not often that a series will willingly parody its own plot, and knowing the story well enough so the intentional subversions and differences stand out. As far as game play is concerned, it means the landscape is ridden with 'blox', scattered across the landscape. Somewhere in all the mess is a source of all the glitches, a Backdoor that leads to a series of challenge stages. Defeat 30 enemies. Complete the stage within 2 minutes. Don't use any healing abilities. Finish these arbitrary requests, and you'll fix whatever errors that were barring your progress.

My run through of this game was rather straightforward. Like Call of Duty or Street Fighter, if you've played one instalment of the series the others become a lot easier to adjust to. The game goes to great lengths to ensure it's possible for anyone to finish - the difficulty can be changed at any time; 'Cheats' to mess with enemy health or how much experience you get from fights; and a helpful hint for what to do every time you die against a boss. But what got to me were the frequent changes in genre...

Like a lot of a recent games, it's not enough for Re:coded to stay the Action RPG it advertises itself as on the box. Every so often the game will set aside the rules that you've learned and turn the game into a 2D platformer. Or a Scrolling Shooter. Or in one instance; removal of the ability to defend yourself entirely, and the inclusion of (incredibly dense) AI partners to fight for you instead. These points were novel to start with, but more often than not I found them to entirely mar my gaming experience. It's a reasonable experiment to see if a game engine can handle multiple styles of play, but I can't be alone in thinking that a game that only does a single genre, but executes it in the best possible way is far more preferable. Re:coded has a great pedigree, with the controls refined from the 5 previous outings; but around half the game ignores it or heavily simplifies.

If you've already played a Kingdom Hearts game, you already know whether you want this title for your collection; but for those who've not heard of it, or glossed it over due to the Disney content, I do recommend giving the series a try - but don't start with Re:coded; it's a fan-bait game on all accounts. The original PS2 game is very abundant and can be picked up on the cheap, so have a little gaming history lesson and experience a game that had a hand in shaping the modern Action RPG.

 This article can also be found at The Yorker.

Summer Backlog: Bayonetta

I collect video games as a hobby; in a way, I do this more than actually play them. It's a bad habit, but not one unique to me - you wouldn't have to look far to find someone who hoards DVDs or books or music (I'm guilty of that last one too), but eventually you collect more than you consume, and you create the dreaded BACKLOG. The ever increasing mountain of media that you know you want to work through, but looks increasingly more daunting as you add more to the stack. How on earth will I juggle all these games around work or university? But since my summer holiday has started, I have the free time to work my way through some of my collection.
I started Bayonetta ages ago - last October when I moved in with a house mate who owned a 360. It was a game that I had followed from its announcement to its release - and I finally had the opportunity to take it for a spin. The game had pedigree - its production staff having worked on some of Capcom's greatest action titles of the PS2 era (Viewtiful Joe, Devil May Cry, Okami) - and Bayonetta promised to refine those sensibilities into the purest essence.

Bayonetta's premise is a rather ridiculous one. Bayonetta is an Umbran Witch, a clan of magic users forever waging war against the Lumen Sages for control of Heaven and Hell, all outside the notice of us ordinary humans. It seems Bayonetta is a key piece in the Lumen Sages gaining control; so they send an army of angels after her. The angels are monsters - all white porcelain and gold banding on the surface, but fleshy and hideous underneath their façade, ranging from lowly bird-like minions to two-headed dragons the size of cathedrals. Fortunately, Bayonetta can defend herself using her enchanted hair (which also comprises her clothing - so when the hair attacks her clothing gets skimpier. Oh dear), and pistols attached to her hands and feet. What this results in is some incredibly bizarre but very fluid combat.

Honestly, even though I wasn't very confident with the high-octane, no mercy action of the Devil May Cry series, I was able to take to Bayonetta with great ease - and caught a glimpse of that gameplay perfection they had touted. Bayonetta is a complicated game. Almost every button on the controller is a separate tool of destruction - controlling the titular witch as she caves in the faces of her angelic aggressors; and you're expected to know how to put all of them to best use, or die trying. And I did die - many, many times. I started the game on Normal difficulty, but that still required my full attention, learning both what I could do and how my foes functioned. When I 'got it', the game looked wondrous, my character weaving in and out of her enemies, dealing deadly blows left and right. Though more often than not, I faltered, leading to a pummelling, and a trip to the Game Over screen.

Even though my death count was steadily racking up, the game just kept me coming back for more. Even if the combat wasn't my forte; the game's visual set pieces - from a city in France being destroyed by waves of lava, to running up and down the sides of a moon-lit tower, to being flung through the air, fighting atop a slab of pavement wrenched from the earth. Every location looked and sounded stunning; overriding whatever frustration I had regarding my failures.

That was until the first Difficulty Spike. About halfway through, the game starts throws the meanest enemies in the game at you, Grace and Glory. At that time, I was in no way ready to take these guys on - my tactics were sloppy and my reaction speed just too slow. 15 deaths later and I had resigned. Too headstrong just turn the game down to easy and continue - I left the game in the dust and went to other endeavours.

Fast-forward to this summer, where I'm talking with fellow gamer Aryn, and I find out that he'd long ago beaten Bayonetta - even on Hard! "Show me your ways, oh teacher!" I said, and we sat down to play the game together. The experience drastically improved. Having not played for months my skills were rusty - the stopping point from before was no easier, but with advice and encouragement I got beyond that; and got to see the meat of the game.

While the detailed combat system is the crux of the game, it's broken up by some rather welcome changes in gameplay styles, echoing classic games in Sega's history. Ploughing down an motorway on a motorcycle echoes Super Hang-On, and riding on a commandeered torpedo, shooting down enemies amusingly references Space Harrier (along with some nauseating barrel-rolling that definitely wasn't in the Sega Mega Drive original).

As I neared the end of the game, I did a little research into the production of the game, and found something interesting, but a bit worrying. The game's director, Hideki Kamiya was the man responsible for Bayonetta's 'lethal sexiness' character design. It's presence was original and very well integrated, but at times this decision felt like something far less than feminism. Certain scenes (thankfully never story or gameplay-related) dropped all pretence of capability and class, and went straight for the Male Gaze. It never felt 'sexy', just awkward. If I was living with my parents or had a girl as a house mate, I could see myself as being too embarrassed to play Bayonetta.

It's a damn shame that such a wonderfully crafted game, the try to best example of the Hack 'n' Slash genre, is marred by something so objectifying and honestly rather sad. As I finished off the game's final boss and played through the ending sequence, I was elated to have finished such a difficult game, and wowed by the awesome stylishness of the ending sequence. Even the start of the credits had bonus battles to take on; but then my reward for finishing the game was poledancing. Sigh.

Bayonetta is entirely worth a play for anyone who likes action games, and even those who aren't confident with the genre can burn through the game on Easy – but I can't help but feel bad about promoting something with such rampant sexism in its design.

This article can also be found at The Yorker.