Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Art of Porting and Remaking games: Part 2 - Remakes

*This is Part 2 of a two part series. You can read Part 1 HERE.


A port is basically the same game created for one system but fit onto mulitple systems, while "remakes" involve the developers re-creating the game from the ground up. Remakes are made many years after the original game. One of the main reasons developers remake games is because the advancement of technology allows them to fully realize the experience. For example, an old NES classic game may perform better when remade for newer hardware giving it a cleaner look and tighter gameplay. Remakes can lead to an amazing new experience that enhances the original game. Here are some examples how remakes that were done extremely well and even replaced the original game as the definitive version.

Super Mario All Stars

One of the earlier remakes in console history was done by Nintendo. The SNES was out and a huge success. It was such an improvement over the NES (control, gameplay, graphics, and sound) that it seemed like a smart move to upgrade the original Super Mario Bros games. They packed Super Mario 1, 2, and 3 along with the "Lost Levels" (which was Super Mario 2 in Japan) all onto on SNES cart. The original games already had tight controls so only minimal tweeking was needed in regards to gameplay (they re-did Luigi's controls to make him faster, a higher jumper, and also slightly slippery). The real improvement came with the new graphics, the levels were now more colourful and the characters had much more detail to them. Another huge improvement was the animation, the NES just could not handle certain animations that the SNES could. The new animations gave the game a much more fluid look to it and the characters now moved more realistically. Super Mario All-Stars is now the best way to play the clasic Super Mario games (even the GBA ports used All-Stars with minor tweaks to fit the handheld). For a time Nintendo even bundled All-Stars plus Super Mario World with the SNES.

Resident Evil

The first Resident Evil was a ground breaking title for the Playstation. It brought in the survival horror genre that still thrives to this day. However, the games graphics did not age well with time. As players became used to more realistic graphics the blocky characters in Resident Evil no longer frightened players. Resident Evil also leaned heavily on puzzle solving. These puzzles were fun to figure out, but like most puzzle solving games once the player understands how to solve them the second play through becomes much less rewarding. Finally, the original Resident Evil game suffered from a poorly translated script and cheesy dialogue.
The Gamecube remake of Resident Evil solved the problems the original game faced. The graphics were upgraded to a level that looked as realistic as the Gamecube could pull off (and still looks fairly good today). The mansion you explore was now redone with new rooms and puzzles that challanged even the most advanced Resident Evil players. The script was also rewritten and the revisions made it a lot less chessy and the grammar was more sound (yet it still maintained its B-movie atmosphere). In some ways Resident Evil was ahead of its time and it wasn't until the gamecube remake that people got to see what the game was capable of.


The original NES Punch-Out (titled "Mike Tyson's Punch-Out" before Tyson got into legal troubles) was one of the first games I ever played. The NES game featured larger than life boxers that you had to fight your way through. Each fight was like an epic boss battle, and they got progressively harder. The NES game had near perfect controls that had the player thinking in fractions of a second in order to dodge their oppenents. It was a fast paced game with a lot of character and charm to it. The NES cart had to have a special chip inside of the cart to help render to giant characters.

As I am writting this the main game I am playing is Punch-Out for the Wii and I am completely hooked on it. It has everything that made the original game so great while at the same time improving it in all the right areas. The NES game is a masterpiece and its core gameplay that got so many gamers interested remains. The Wii game took the core gameplay of the NES game and only built on it slightly (adding a duck to the dodges as well has a more robust counter punch system). The giant boxers you faced in the original game are now bigger, more colourful, and have a larger moveset. The boxers also have more personality than before. The NES game had to rely on character design and text between matches to get across their traits (which actually worked very well). This is fleshed out even more as the boxers now have full voice and much more fluid animation. The smartest move that this remake made was to cel-shade all the characters. The boxers personalities and character designs lend themselves to a cartoon world. If it was remade in realistic graphics the game would have looked ugly, and lost a lot of its appeal. Also have the game remain cartoony allows it to be timeless (cel-shaded 3D cartoon models age much slower than realistic graphics). It was a real feat to capture everything that made the NES game so great over 20 years later and still improve on it.

Final Special Mention

The last thing I am going to talk about is somewhat of a hybrid between a port and a remake. During the early console days it was near impossible to port over an arcade game; therefore a new game would have to be made for the console. This usually led to a very different experience on the console. The most notable home of unique arcade port/remakes is the NES.

Bionic Commando

The arcade game was nothing worth remembering. However, the NES Bionic commando was a unique take on the platforming genre that removed the jump ability. In fact a recent remake of Bionic commando decided to base itself on the NES version rather than the original arcade game. Also the music is noticeably better in the NES version, even though the sound capabilities were not as great as the arcade.


I love that I can mention Punch-Out twice in the same post. The original aracade game only featured a few boxers (only Glass Joe made it to the NES game). It is one of the best examples of the NES game being much deeper and fully realizied even though it was on inferior hardware to the arcade. The arcade Punch-Out was a fun game but it just didn't have the same level of charm that the NES game did.

Ninja Gaiden

Ninja Gaiden was originally an arcade brawler. It really did not stand out against the other hundreds of brawlers in the arcades (even though it was a solid game). The NES game ditched the slow brawl for a fast paced action platformer. The NES game was one of the hardest games ever created (while still being playable and fun). It required quick reflexes and mastering the surroundings. Ninja Gaiden on the NES felt a lot more like playing as a ninja than in the arcade

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Art of Porting and Remaking Games: Part 1 - Porting

*This is Part 1 of a two part series dealing with remakes and ports

Video games have been around for over 30 years now, but have only really started evolving at a rapid rate in the last 20 years or so. Along with this growth comes an abundance of hardware, thus game companies do everything in their power to try and get their games in as many homes as possible. Not only is there many home consoles on the market at the same time but every 5 years or so the consoles go through an upgrade in order to update technology and gameplay. With this constantly moving atmosphere, gamers see the same games appear numerous times, either across the platforms or remade years later.


When a developer makes the same game for multiple consoles at the same time these are called ports. Most of the time ports try to be identical to each other. Not only is this much easier on the developer but the public tends to prefer the idea that the game they are getting on their console is just as good as the game on their friend's console. However, no matter how similiar the games are it is impossible to expect that the games will be identical. Every console has different capabilites and hardware and it is impossible to perfectly emulate the experience across a wide range of consoles.

The controller

As I stated in my previous blogs about controllers (part 1, part 2, and part 3) every system has their own unique control scheme and every single one of them can change the way their games are played. Currently the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3 are the closest in graphical capability so many games do cross over. The PS3 controller has motion control built into it, while the 360 does not. This leads to some developers adding some extra gameplay mechanics that use the motion controls of the PS3.

In Dark Sector the lead protagonist has a glave which can be thrown. The PS3 allows you to control your projectile by tilting the controller. It actually worked quite well.

Currently the Nintendo Wii has the most radically different controller out of the three consoles. However, because its hardware is so different it cannot handle ports of PS3 or 360 games. But, still some developers have tried to bring 360 and PS3 games over to the Wii. Since Wii games cannot look as good as its counterparts, developers had to rely on the unique control scheme to sell its games. This has led to many games with unneeded motion controls tacked on confusing the player and making the game more uncomfortable to play, and this always happens when the game was not intended for motion controls. Just look at these reviews for an example of what I am talking about (Marvel Ultimate Alliance Wii 360, The Simpsons Game Wii 360)

One of the unique examples of the Wii game being better than the 360 counterpart was "Ray-Man Raving Rabbits." The game was originally designed for the Wii and had a great deal of motion control used in a fun way. The 360 had no motion controls and most of the fun and charm was lost on the port. The 360 tried some things using its camera but it was mostly an afterthought and not fully realized. Wii reviews, 360 reviews.

In the 90s, when the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis were competing, ports across the platforms found themselves in a unique predicament. The original Genesis controller only had 3 buttons while the SNES had 6. For platformers this was not an issue since most of those games only used 2 or 3 buttons on average. The real problem came with fighting games, most notably the Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat series. Street Fighter had 6 attacks (strong, medium, and weak kick/punch) and so did Mortal Kombat (high, medium, and low kick/punch), both of these control schemes mapped perfectly onto a SNES controller. Players using the Sega Genisis had these games stripped down to just kick and punch (in Street fighter to pull off the extra layers of attacks you had to press the start button along with pressing the others, it wasn't the best control choice). Luckily all of these issues were erased when Sega upgraded the controller to 6 buttons.


No matter what generation of consoles are out each hardware has different capabilites. Developers that are making ports have no choice but to use one console as their lead system and upscale/downscale to the other consoles. Sometimes the graphical changes are barely noticeable while others suffer from not being able to keep up with the lead system.

Star Wars: The Force Unleased is a recent game that came out on all 3 consoles (Wii, 360 and PS3). Therefore it is a good example of how developers are porting to all consoles. The order of the pictures (top to bottom) 360, PS3, Wii. You can see how the PS3 and 360 game looks only slightly different, while the Wii game looks much worse.

Ghostbusters: The Video game was released recently across all 3 main consoles. The developers did a smart thing by changing the Wii port drastically. Rather than struggle with creating the realistic graphics on the Wii, they went with cartoony character models. It is much better to have the game look stylized than outdated. Cartoon models also work perfectly with Ghostbusters since it is a humorous game with strange events. They also changed the level design to better suit the Wii controls.

Overall the Wii suffers the most from ports since both the hardware capabilites and the controller are too radically different from the competition. When developers are creating games for all systems it is impossible to fit the lead system's experience (either the PS3 or the 360) for the Wii. Before this generation the PS2 had games looking slightly less polished than the Xbox and Gamecube ports (but it was still very playable and the difference was very slight). The same could be said for the SNES and the Genisis (the SNES was a more powerful system but Genesis owners weren't losing much with their ports). The Playstation/Nintendo 64 generation had less cross platform ports since the Nintendo 64 and the Playstation were very different. The few ports that did exisit were not drastically different since they were created with both systems in mind.
Check back again Tuesday Part 2 - Vide Game Remakes.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Sonic the Hedgehog

When I wrote about Super Mario Bros I talked about how much of a revolutionary game it was. As a revolutionary new piece of art, Super Mario Bros influenced many games that came out after it. This led to a few memorable games and a lot of mediocre and bad games. A lot of designers just didn't have the talent to build upon the groundwork that Super Mario laid, and created Mario clones that had nothing to say for themselves. Sega was two years into its Genesis console and was still somewhat trying to make a name for itself around the world. Many people still associated games with Nintendo and great platforming with Mario. Sega set out to change this but they couldn't just copy Super Mario. They made a platforming game that was similiar enough to be easily accesible but different enough to feel new and exciting. This is how Sonic the Hedgehog came about and left his mark on the video game industry.

Character Design

Sega had to make a name for itself and it quickly found out that it couldn't just simply copy Nintendo's successes. Nintendo had a certain feel and art style to their games and if Sega tried to emulate it too much it would have been lost in the background. So rather than, playing it safe like Nintendo, they attempted to bring a little attitude and edginess to their console. The new mascot of the company line was Sonic the Hedgehog.

Sonic is a Hedgehog in name only, he bares a very slight resemblence to the real animal. This overly cartooned look has worked great for so many Warner Bros characters (for example the Tazmanian Devil doesn't look to much like the real animal and neither does the road runner), and it was with this school of thought that Sonic was created. They changed the typical colour a hedgehog has from brown to blue (again something Warner Bros does frequently). The colour brown is a fairly earthy looking tone and is used in games in the background and does not stand out (many post apocalytic games use brown to show how degenerated the earth has become) thus it would not be a suitable colour for Sonic. Blue is much like the colour green because it is a softer colour that welcomes the player. Furthermore, when used to colour something that is not typically blue (like a hedgehog) it catches our attention since we know something looks a little odd. Sonic was already a fairly edgy character for its time (something I will get to later) so using a harder colour like red would have overdone it. Blue is the perfect soft colour that balances out the character.

Beyond the gameplay, visual representation of Sonic lays his personality, which was fairly fleshed out for a 2D platformer. Now at this time neither voice nor text was used to have Sonic communicate so his personality had to shine through other aspects. Like a really good silent movie, Sonic showed a lot more about himself through his expressions and movements. Sonic was given slightly downturned eyelids giving him an angrier expression. This is a simple technique any artist can do to change their creations expression (drawn a simple happy face and see how different it looks when you put a pair of down turned eyebrowns over the eyes). Sonic's animation also was laced with his personality. He also moved extremely fast, giving the player the sense that he was controlling something much more powerful than they were used to. His speed was such a part of the character that if you left the controller still for a moment Sonic would turn his head and look at the player, tapping his toe in frustration. Sonic basically called out to the player to be controlled and have fun. Putting both his slightly edgey look together with his speed made Sonic an instant hit with a lot of gamers that were looking for a character that had a unique and fun personality.


Not only did speed have a lot to do with the character design but also the gameplay. When it first came out it was a sight to behold, watching Sonic clear his way through a section of a level in seconds. Speed does not neccesarily equal "fun" though and the game designers knew this. If the levels were too simple and the player could speed through it with ease the game would become extremely boring. Obstacles and sections that forced Sonic to slow down for a bit were put in the game to challange the player as well as change up the gameplay before moving on to speeder sections again. As the player learned how to deal with these slower sections he/she could then play them faster, giving the player a sense of achiement that translated to the screen. At its best Sonic was controlled chaos, moving at high speeds while the player had to make twitch decisions in order to keep up the momentum.

There was also something to be said about the secrets and pathways through the levels. Most levels were linear but usually offered some hard to reach locations for the player to find powerups or extra rings. These sections of slowdown were a reward for players who took a second to think before they sped off (these sections were much more common in Sonic 2). Having these parts as optional also helped create a two-tiered game, one for those who want to explore a little and one for those who enjoy speeding as fast as they can through a game.


The music in Sonic blended perfectly with the gameplay and atmosphere of the game. Like the game the music was fast. Each tune had multiple layers to it adding to the complexity of the score. However, the best aspect of the music was how well it blended with the sound FX. I have talked about this before and Sonic is one of the perfect examples of how developers mixed the sounds of the gameplay with the background music. The springs Sonic bounces on, and the rings he collects both have a musical sound to them that add to the music of the game. Since Sonic only has seven zones I can go into a little more detail into what makes them special.

Green Hill Zone: The music here is fast, while at the same time light and fun. It is a perfect intro song that welcomes the player while at the same time sets the fast paced mood.

Marble Zone: The music here is a bit slower. This level does force sonic to stop and preform some trickier jumps. There is also areas in which Sonic has to stop and wait for pillars to rise.

Spring Yard Zone: The music is again a bit slower. In this level Sonic is a bit more out of control because of the abundance of springs. The slower music matches suggests that the player take some time to think before he/she acts.

Labyrinth Zone: Again the music here a little slower. This zone does involve water which slows Sonic down, thus the music matches the gameplay.

Star Light Zone: A night time level, and the music matches the atmosphere. The music is somewhat relaxed but the beat in the background is a little faster then the previous songs. 

Scrap Brain Zone: The music is picking up speed again in this level. It is also much more complex then the levels before it. This level throws in new platforming mechanics which require fast gameplay. 

Final Zone: The last zone involves almost no running. It is basically a larger boss fight. The music does sound a lot more menacing in this level, which is something that had not been heard in the previous songs. It is a perfect song for a final boss fight.


For better or worse (most likely worse) Sonic inspired game designers just as much as Mario did. And quite like Mario, most games that tried to copy Sonic's success fell flat. Since Sonic was an animal with an attitude and a gimick (speed) every developer tried to get out their own mascot with the same formula. Games came out titled Gex the Gecko, Bubsy (the Squirrel), Aero the AcroBAT, Zero the Kamakazi Squirrel, and countless others. As with any piece of art there are going to be imitators and very few will be worth remembering. Much like how once Walt Disney started making a hit off his creations everyone tried to copy his magic and failed.

It just goes to show how original Sonic was when he came out. Rather than being another Mario clone, the game stood out on its own and gained its fanbase. Sadly Sonic has now become the very thing it once avoided, a hollow mascot. In many ways Sonic is a product of its time. His edginess (in the newer games) now seems cheesy and the games storylines are ridiculous. The bad 90s animal mascots, that Sonic helped influence, have now all died out on other platforms, but are alive and well within Sonics games. But it really doesn't matter how far Sonic has fallen because nothing can take away how great the original games for Genesis are.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Voice in games

It seems like it would be a strange thing to cover but voice in video games has evolved so much and has changed the way we play games. There is so much to cover on the topic I am only going to skim the surface talking about early representations of voice in games, and how it is used today (both the bad and the good). Voice is one of the things that can bring games to a more personal level, because once a game starts talking to you it makes the player sit up and pay attention.

Origins of Voice in Games

Early games (the 70s all the way to the mid 90s) didn't have room for much voice acting. It was a technical limitation more than the designers choice. Early consoles just couldn't handle realistic voices that well. However, this is not to say that many early games did not try. There were two pioneers of voice acting in games: fighting games and sports games. Both of these genres had the upper hand in voice because they only needed a limited amount. It was still impossible to consider voice acting for an entire action or adventure game, but it was possible to give each fighter a little phrase and the announcer to say "FIGHT". In sports games all they needed was a few phrases to encompass the sport (for example, a football game only needed the words; touchdown, incomplete, safety, fumble and some other known football phrases). Because the dialogue was so short and there wasn't that much variety it was much easier to pull off simple voice-overs to give the games an extra layer of realism.

Sometimes early games would also use voice on the title screen, having the game announce itself. An early example of this is the Ghostbusters game for the Commodore 64, NES, and Sega Master System. You can hear how distorted the voice sounds, which was the main reason voice could not be an intergrated part of gaming in those days. This particular clip comes from the commodore 64 version.

Joe Montanna II: Sports Talk Football was one of the earliest sports games with commentary. You can hear how the Genesis could pull off clearer sound than the Ghostbusters clip, but the voice quality still is not good enough to encompass an entire game.

A clip from Mortal Kombat. However, many fighting games at the time used this same technique. Using an annoucer for the fight and giving the characters short catchphrases during special moves gives the game a little more realism.

Street Fighter II also had some classic early voice acting when the fighters yelled out their special moves. These phrases are still used in Street Fighter games today because they became so entranced in the franchise.

CD gaming

What brought voice in games mainstream without a doubt was the CD format. CDs could hold much more information than any cartridge or disk could and also could produce high quality sound. With CD based media, developers no longer had to worry about low quality voices and could now persue making games that had full voice tracks. This is when action, adventure and RPGs started to get full voice casts making them cinematic experiences. Sports games also benefited even more from this, now being able to have full colour commentary during the games.

Metal Gear Solid was one of the most cinematic games of its time. It was all done on 2 CDs on a 2x speed CD drive. However, this was enough to fully voice the entire game, with hours of speech.

Resident Evil was an earlier Playstation game that featured full voice acting. The voice acting is known for being comically cheesy but it added to the B-Movie feel of the game. These are some of the funnier quotes in the series. You can see how the bad translation and voice acting stand out even more with voice.

Nintendo the black sheep

The Nintendo 64 was not a CD based console so it lacked a lot of voice in its games. It was a powerful console so it could pull it off but the cartridge had a fairly limited capacity and one of the easiest things to cut in order to save space was voice. However, even today (with the Wii having a DVD drive) they do not regularly make games with voice acting. Sometimes this is done with a good reason. For example, Mario games have very limited voice acting but the characters voices are so cartoony that it would be annoying to hear them speak at great lengths. However there are many games that could use voice acting that do not have any at all. The Zelda games have a very colourful cast of characters and each one could have a great voice. For some reason the characters remain mute and you have to read the text on the screen. The games still stand as being fun and classics, but I believe some voice acting could really make the games epic.

Here is the voice of Mario. It is fun enough for a platformer game where you only heard Mario at select times. As you can see he also does the voice Wario (and other characters not shown in this clip).

Paper Mario is a Mario RPG, therefore it has a lot of story and text. Many people complain about the amount of dialogue to read, but I would rather read it than to hear the character in Mario's world speak. Many of which have very high pitched voices, or in Mario and Luigi's case Italian stereotyped voices that cannot be taken seriously.

When Voices go Bad

There are many times when voice acting goes completely wrong. With the ability to put voice in the games also comes the responsiblity to ensure that actors will take the role seriously, and game designers will write great dialogue. Voice acting in games is a double edged sword.If you have a great cast the game becomes much more immersive and memorable. If the voice acting is awful it can ruin the experience making the game seem much shallower than it might be.

A classic example or voice acting gone wrong. In the SNES Starfox the characters had little sound effects for their voice. But, when the N64 version came out they decided to upgrade to a full voice cast. The characters went from charming and fun to cheesy and borderline annoying. Thankfully the game was good enough to withstand this. However, later Starfox games suffered more as the voice acting became more and more prevalent.

Castlevania Symphony of the Night is one of the greatest games of all time, but it isn't perfect. The one thing that holds it down is the voice acting which makes the games plot seem much less meaningful and shallow (it is already a fairly simple plot). Luckily the game does not have that many areas that focus on story.

The Good Voice Acting

Not all games are plagued with horrible voice acting, some even really pull out all the stops when it comes to the voices in the game. When game designers take great care and pride in their dialogue and voices it really elevates the game. Great voice acting can enhance the storyline, make the game more realistic, give the player greater reason to have an emotional attachment, and all around make the game more polished. I am going to end off this post on a good note showing you what voice acting can lead to and how it can enhance the video game art form.

Psychonauts is a great game, and not only because of its gameplay. Tim Schafer (the lead designer) has a real knack for comedy and it really comes through in his writing. Even with great dialogue you still need great actors to delever it or it will fall flat.Thankfully, Psychonauts develops on a truely humourous experience thanks to the voice acting.

The Halo series is basically a sci-fi epic action game. Unlike some developers of first person shooters, the developers at Bungie actually cared about their story and wanted to make it something to remember. Now the plot in Halo isn't the greatest thing ever written but it does have more depth to it than a typical action game. The voice actors in the Halo series really know how to pull off a fun sci-fi feel.

Kingdom Hearts is a strange game. It is Disney meets Final Fantasy with the lead character Sora going from world to world meeting all kinds of characters. The people at Square-Enix made sure to capture the voices from the original Disney material. Even though they didn't have the original voice cast they tracked down people who played the parts other times (cartoons, or direct to DVD movies).

Uncharted Drakes Fortune is the closest thing I have ever played to an action movie. It borrows a lot of its themes from the Indiana Jones films and it shows. Part of what made Indiana Jones so great was the top notch acting, and Uncharted captured this with having some really fun characters, all of which had great voices.

Voice in video games is a relatively new aspect of the art form. It is something that can either help elevate a game to a real level of polish or make the game seem amateur. Since video games are only now obtaining mainstream recognition (and even then it is very fleeting) as a real medium it has become easier to find real dedicated actors to fill the voices. Video games voices is something that has gotten better over time and hopefully will only continue to do so.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

It is strange to think that I am going to write about a Star Wars game as a form of art. I was actually putting this post off and doubting myself if it could be classified as art (as if such a classification exsists). Then I thought about what art means to me. Art is something that pulls the observer into its world causing them to think, and also influences the world around it (the world being other video games in the case of games as art). For me that is just part of the overall feeling I have about "art" but it is also part of what makes Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) so great, and a piece of video game art.


I talked about how franchises rarely work out when I covered movie based games. When a game designer is working on a game franchise they have a limited world to work with as well as a fanbase that already expects a certain things. In a way creating a game based off an exsisting franchise is a very daunting process. Many times developers spend too much time worrying about the franchise and not enough time on making a good game. This has especailly been the case with Star Wars games since many publishers think that slapping on the Star Wars logo on a game of any quality will sell (and they are partly right). Bioware, the developers of the game, got around many of these obstacles by setting the game 6000 years before the film, thus breaking any ties to the films continuity, giving the designers more room to develop. By doing this they could take things they liked from the Star Wars universe in order to please fans while at the same time setting the game in a different setting with different character, which welcomed newcomers. Personally I am not what anyone would label as a Star Wars fan, I have seen the movies but would never care to own any of them or check up on its expanded universe. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was a great game first and foremost and a Star Wars game second, which is why I (and so many other people) had such a great time with it.

Storyline (spoilers if you have not played the game)

The storyline starts off as a fairly cliched RPG. You are a hero with an unknown past, and you are setting out to discover the mysteries of your history. This is standard fare for many games and if it was left as such it probably would not have left a mark. What really makes the story shine are the twists and turns throughout the game that really turn the cliche on its head.

As you play through the game you learn that there is a split among the Jedi. Some have left their peaceful ways and become Sith after a war tore them apart. You know that there are two main Sith in the game Darth Malak and Darth Revan. Darth Malak is constantly hunting you and your team down, and Darth Revan is a former ally of Darth Malak who is presumed dead but his influence still echos throughout the game. No matter which way you play the game (more on that aspect later) you constantly feel the presence of these two antagonists. The part of the story line that really grabs the player comes at the last third of the game, as you find out that Darth Revan is not dead and in fact your character is a brainwashed version of him/her. The Jedi basically reprogrammed Revan as a blank slate. The whole plot twist of "you are the villian the whole time" is an old trick, but what really makes it shine is the moral standing of your character. Throughout the game you have a great deal of control over your character and you can decide whether you want to be peaceful or spread fear. If you are the type of player who plays on the dark side this "Darth Revan" revelation is like an awakening learning that your dark past still influences you, and you might feel betrayed by those around you for playing with your mind. If you are playing as a heroic and peaceful figure you might feel a sense of forgiveness and retribution as you try to fix things your character has done wrong. Because, you have so much control over the character and his/her interactions the designers really played with your feelings on how you view the game world and allow for an oppertunity to play with typical plot twists.

Here is the moment in the game where you find out your character's back story.

Light Side / Dark Side

The revolutionary aspect of this game was the ability to play as a hero or as a villian. There have been games that have done this before (notably the Elder Scroll games on the PC) but KOTOR set a new standard. RPGs usually have a main quest along with a large numer of side quests, both of which can be completely altered by the player's decisions. There are times where you might meet a character who has information you need and you can either act kindly to them or pay them for it, or you can torture them having them give up the information violently. This effects how that character will see you from now on (if you are nice they might welcome you every time you visit, if you are violent towards them they might be scared of you or possibly dead by your hands). There is also an instance where your actions can get you kicked off a planet and you can never return again. It would be impossible to outline all of the ways of the game because there are so many actions you can partake in.

The game's 2 endings are drastically different and it depends on if you chose to be good or evil.

This level of gameplay allows for a greater interaction between the game and the player. No longer is the player completely passive bringing their hero from point A to point B. Now the player is forced to think about their actions and how they want to play the game. Allowing the player this much control can give him/her the freedom to experience things that so few games offer. Most games on the shelves feature a hero fighting for justice, but KOTOR allows the player to play as the villian and get behind what motivates evil. KOTOR does a great job at giving the player reasons to play as good and evil and having a storyline that can adapt to both.

Characters (Meat Bags)

The final layer that makes KOTOR more than just another Star Wars game is its cast of characters. Each character is so well rounded and fleshed out that they become just as important to the story as the lead character. However, if you don't wish to interact with a certain character you don't have to take them out with you thus giving the game replayability with different characters each time. Every character has their own stance on most decisions you make which may or may not help you along in your quest.

Bastila Shan: For most the game she is a light-side Jedi. If you make a wrong decision she may be disappointed in your actions. She is the Jedi council's voice throughout the game trying to lead you to a peaceful path. However, this all changes when she is kidnapped and turned to the dark side through brainwashing (much like how you were turned to the light side). When you meet her again you can either try and reform her, kill her, or take her on as your dark side apprentice. She is the character who has the most opportunity for change and can really evolve by the time the game ends.

Bastila can also be the center of a romantic story line in the game. If you chose to be a male character you can flirt with her many times throughout the game. This is completely optional which allows players to play the game how they want.

Carth Onasi: He is the pilot of the Ebon Hawk, your ship, and is a loyal friend. He has a smart attitude and has a lot of snappy one liners in the game. He is more of a heroic and noble figure so if you choose to fall too far into the dark side near the end of the game he will leave you. In many ways he is a stand in for Han-Solo but is not a direct copy of the character.

Carth's attitude comes to the surface many times in the game.

Canderous Ordo: A war vet who has become much more emotionally detached from humanity. He is one of the most wooden characters in the game but it works to the advantage of the game. Having one character that is a bit more straight forward helps the other characters stand out. Also if everyone was colourful the game would start to become a little less grounded. Ordo is more of a dark side character since he has been twisted by the horrors of war.

A quest that features Canderous. You can get a better idea of his personality.

Mission Vao: The first character you meet who is more light hearted. She is young and innocent making her a perfect light side character. She is a much welcome break from the cast of characters who have heavy emotional baggage (she has some too since she grew up in poverty but it doesn't get to her as much). However, her story can make a very drastic dark turn if you decide to stay on the dark side as she dies by Zaalbar's hands.

Zaalbar: Mission's Wookie companion has a much deeper story than most animal characters would have. He was banished from his home world for attacking his brother using his claws. Later it is found out that his brother was part of a slave trading ring on his home planet selling fellow wookies as workers. He is kind and well intentioned and loyal to the end. If you do decided to go on the dark side he dies after killing Mission.

Zaalbar and Mission's end if you chose the dark side

Jolee Bindo: He is another Jedi that can join your party but offers something different than all the other Jedi you have met. Jolee is neither light or dark side. He does not belong to the Jedi Council or wants to destroy it. He is simply a lone man carving his own path in life. He is one of the few characters that constantly sees both sides of every issue and makes a great center for the range of characters.

Juhani: She is one character you may never have in your party. When you meet her she is a dark side jedi who is harming the planet she is on. You can either kill her or try and reform her. Even after being rescued she still leans towards the dark side. But, she does grow out of her violent tendancies towards the end of the game and will even try to stop you (along with Jolee) if you follow the dark side.

Here you can see how Juhani and Jolee's story ends if you chose the dark side.

HK-47: KOTOR is a fairly heavy game with a long plot and many characters, and both of these bring in a lot of dark aspects to the game. HK-47 is also a dark character but rather than adding to the somber tone, he is comedic. In a game like KOTOR a comedic character may seem out of place, but Bioware pulls this off by keeping HK-47 in the realm of dark comedy. He wants nothing more than to kill all living things (and calls them meat bags because that is all they are worth to him). His psychodic tendancies never become disturbing because through his robot voice, and the way his dialogue is written it changes from something that could be frightening into something to laugh at.

Some examples of why HK-47 is such a great character

Star Wars: Kinghts of the Old Republic is a game that should have never entered the realm of art. It is a game that is based off a large movie franchise and could have played it safe. However, Bioware took great care into creating a great game that would make any player take notice whether they like Star Wars or not. Judged on its own and taking in everything that went into creating this memorable experience, there is no doubt that this game has artistic merit.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Controllers - Now

This is the conclusion of a 3 part series. You can read part 1 and part 2 by clicking the links. *NOTE* I am purposely skipping the Dual Shock 2 for the Playstation 2 since it was basically the same controller with added pressure sensitivety, therefore nothing really changed, but it was already a near perfect controller already.

Gamecube Controller

In 2001, the Gamecube hit and it was Nintendo's chance to make up for the mistakes it made with the N64. When you first see the controller you notice that it looks like a fisher price toy. It is very colorful with many buttons in many different sizes. The colours do not really matter though it is the functionality of the controller that does. The Gamecube controller was basically the N64 controller done right. The Z trigger was moved to the top right shoulder. The L and R buttons were now triggers with more depth than any controller on the market. Because the L and R triggers had so much depth to them designers could use their pressure sensitivity so that the deeper the button was pressed it would change the action on the screen (for example some games used the triggers as a zoom lens for a sniper rifle. The more the trigger was pressed, the closer the zoom). The face buttons were strange shapes and sizes but it was an attempt to make them more comfortable and easier to read with just using your fingers. The main action button was bigger making it easier to find. Overall, it ended up being an unneeded change since players were comfortable with the traditional button setup. The best change was the N64 C buttons being turned into a second analog stick which made 3D games even more involving.

Game types - The Gamecube suffered from a lack of support from developers. While the controller probably had nothing to do with it, it was clear that most game genres just played better on the Xbox or the Playstation 2. However when Nintendo made games, they really took advantage of the controller and used its unique design to create really unique games. "Super Smash Bros Melee" was a fighting/party game and it could only be pulled off using the Gamecube controller (even the new wii version is best played by plugging in a gamecube controller).


The Xbox also hit the market in 2001 and with it came a massive controller. The first thing that players noticed was the size of the controller and it was a problem. Even big handed individuals (like myself) found the controller too big to be comfortable. Since players were used to smaller controllers it was too much of a change. It made some right moves by having the 2 analog sticks in staggered locations to make room for comfortably using the face buttons. However, the face buttons had a problem, namely the black and white buttons. The A, B, X, and Y buttons were fine and were in the same positions as gamers were used to. The black and white buttons were placed up high in a hard to get to place while still using the rest of the face buttons. Also the black and White buttons were far too small which stood out on the massive controller. The L and R shoulder buttons were triggers much like the dreamcast controller and they were perfect. The Xbox and the Gamecube together made sure that triggers were standard making the Playstation's shoulder buttons seem a little stiff in comparison. Pictured below are both controllers side by side. You can see how much bigger and boxier the controller on the left is, and how much of an improvement the controller on the right is.

In 2002 the Xbox hit Japan and with it came new controllers. These controllers were smaller in order to fit into Japanese gamers hands. It was quickly found that these smaller controllers were superior to the American controllers and became standard worldwide. The black and white buttons were now in a different position as well and they were still awkward to use.

Game types - The Xbox was made by Microsoft so it was almost like a console/PC hybrid. Because of this it brought the most popular PC genre, the First Person Shooter, home. The N64 might have done it first but the xbox perfected how to put an FPS on a console and its controller was almost perfect for them. The Playstation 2 and the Gamecube just couldn't produce the same quality of FPS and 3rd person shooters as the Xbox could.

Xbox 360

Coming out in 2005 the Xbox 360 was an instant hit, and the controller was part of its success. Many gaming publications and websites mentioned how improved the controller was and it is now one of the best controllers on the market. The changes made from the original Xbox controller were simple but effective. The controller remained small and was much smoother and less boxy, so it was very comfortable to hold. The triggers remained and the black and white buttons became bumpers placed in front of the triggers. It basically made the 360 controller an improved Playstation Dual Shock. One thing that really set it apart from what came before was the big Xbox button in the middle. This button functioned much like a menu button on a DVD remote letting the player switch back to the Xbox 360 Operating system and use its features. For example if the 360 has music already on the harddrive the Xbox button could be used to navigate to a custom soundtrack and have the players own music play over the game. It brought up the customization aspect that is very prevalent in today's games. It is a button that has become standard on all controllers since.

Game types - Much like the xbox, the 360 also has a great deal of first person shooters and 3rd person shooters. However, every genre seems to work great when mapped onto the 360 controller. Recently developers have even tried bringing in complicated RTS games (which many thought impossible without a mouse and keyboard) and successfully mapping the controls to the 360.

Playstation 3

Released in 2006, the Playstation 3 Sixaxis controller copied key features from the 360 and the not yet released (by only a handful of days) Nintendo Wii. It had a Playstation button that functioned the same as the Xbox button. It also had some motion control like the Wii. The Playstation's motion control is limited but it does add a little over the typical controller. By tilting the controller you can control the action on the screen. This Sixaxis controller has been used to do everything from drive cars, to lob grenades. Many players do not like the Sixaxis controls and feel that developers added in the feature as an afterthought. It works best when it is optional or is only used for simple tasks. The other change to the Playstation 3 controller was turning the R2 and L2 buttons into triggers, which was a welcome addition. In 2007, the Dual Shock 3 came out which looks exactly the same as the Sixaxis but had added force feedback (which every other controller had).

Game types - The Playstation 3 controller is similiar enough to the 360 that their game types are very similiar. The only difference is that the Playstation 3 allows for motion controls. This worked great in action games like "Uncharted" allowing for better aiming of grenades. But the game "Lair" which only had motion control was a failure both commercially and critically because it is too hard to control everything by twisting the controller.


The final controller discussed is by far the most different controller and the biggest change to gameplay since the NES. In 2006, Nintendo launched the Wii with an odd looking controller. It focused a lot more on motion controls than action buttons. Alone the controller only has 6 buttons and a d-pad (and only 2-4 buttons can be used at once comfortably), and when attached with the nunchuck it has an extra analog stick and 2 more buttons. The controller can be held either horizontally or vertically depending on the game allowing for many different control sets between games. Alone, looking at just the buttons, it is a pretty awkward and useless controller that is a giant step backward from its predecessors. But, with the motion controls it really is a revolutionary design choice. Games can tell how far the controller is away from the screen as well has how it is positioned. This has led to a wide variety of designers trying to make use of its unique features (and usually failing). Regardless of whether designers are getting it right the Wii has been such a hit based on the motion controls alone. It currently outsells both the 360 and the PS3.

Game types - Because it is such a radically different controller, it has attracted a strange number of new game types. The most common game being the mini-game collection (a series of small activities that use the motion controls). Sometimes the motion controls really pull off unique games, like "Zack and Wiki" and can be precise enough to offer amazing first person controls, like "Metroid Prime 3" or the "medal of Honor" series. Overall the Wii controller is full of potential but it does not seem to be fullfilling it yet.

Monday, June 8, 2009


This game may have come out in 1995 (94 in Japan) but I played through it for the first time just this last month. I had heard how great the game is from many people and decided to try it out for this blog. I am glad I did because even though this game is 15 years old it is just as fresh as any game out today. In fact it has some elements in it that the RPG genre has yet to catch up on. Even though my expectations were high coming into this game they were still blown away. I had more fun playing this game than many games that came out this year. Many games, especially in the RPG genre, are stuck using the same cliches over and over again. Shigesato Itoi, creator of the game, made a point to throw out everything that is typically expected of an RPG only keeping the bare essentials. He made a completely unique game that is without an equal. It is without a doubt a piece of video game art.

The Game World

A typical RPG is either set in a fantasy realm, full of castles and dragons, or a futuristic world, full of cyber-punk imagery and post apocolyptic worlds. Earthbound is set in 90s America and the game world spans across some small towns, a large city, deserts, and forrests. The game also has a psychadelic side to it bringing out a dinosaur land, a world done completely with neon lights on a black background, a Chinese Kingdom, and even alien fortresses. It is a strange mix of locals but it works in the players favour, you are always experiencing something new and the change from one location to another is actually done smoothly.

Onett - The town you start off in. A typical little American town.

Moonside is on the other end of the spectrum. The colour scheme and art direction does a complete 180 from what the player is used to. But it is a welcome surprise and adds to the charm the game has.

Characters and Plot

What brings all the strange places together is the journey of the characters of the game. The game starts off with a meteor crash in which Ness (the lead character) is given the responsibility to defeat an evil being know as Giygas. He has to travel far and wide to find spiritual locations to unite himself with the earth. Ness is not just chosen at random, he has psychic abilities that allow him to manipulate objects around him. But Ness is vunerable in other ways that the typical RPG hero is not. Since the game spans such a great distance from Ness' original starting point, he can get homesick. If you do not call your mother on a regular basis he will become upset and begin to fail in battles. It is touches like this that humanizes the lead hero, and reminds the player that he is just a boy who is taking on something bigger than himself whether he has powers or not. He also relies on his father heavily throughout the game. Much like many children, Ness' father is constantly away at work and the only way to reach him is by phone. The father is soley responsible for saving the game when needed and putting money into Ness' bank account (the only way you get money). This again humanizes the experience since many people do have a parent who is constantly away from home but only does so in order to support the family. Even though the father is never visible, without him you could not beat the game.

The four main characters are in the center of this screenshot. They are Ness (red cap), Jeff (glasses), Paula (the girl), and Poo (Wearing white and stragne hair).

Throughout the game, 3 other characters join you; Paula, Jeff, and Poo. Paula is a lot like Ness in the way that she has the same abilities. You rescue her early in the game and she quickly becomes a valuable member. Jeff is a boy genious who helps along a lot of the Sci-Fi aspects of the game. He has no abilities like Ness, Paula, or Poo but can use a wide array of machines. Because he plays differently than the other team members he brings some welcome change to the gameplay. Poo is a Chinese prince. He has some of the abilities that Paula and Ness do but to a lesser extent. He is out on a spiritual mission as well, and helps ground the game in its psychadelic atmosphere.


The enemies in the game even have a completely different look than most RPGs. You will find yourself fighting everything from wild animals to aliens to zombies to new age retro hippies. Every place has its own unique cast of characters and with it brings new enemies.

Dali's Clock. An obvious nod to Salvador Dali.

A battle against a new age retro hippie. One of the more bizarre enemies in the game.

The typical RPG (back then and even today) involves a lead hero leading a cast of characters on a journey. Throughout the game they encounter many enemies and defeat them to gain money, items, and experience. These battle are usually random encounters (you can't see the enemy on the screen, you are just walking and suddenly sent to battle). Earthbound kept the fun aspect of the RPG genre, collecting items and leveling up your characters, but removed the random encounters. It seems like a no brainer to have the enemies on the screen but Earthbound was one of the first games to do it. This allowed you to see what enemies were coming up and you could avoid them or prepare ahead. It was a simple change like this that made the game much more accessible and less frustrating. Another thing that typical RPGs have is the inability to avoid needless fights. If your character is at a high level but you have to cross a field filled with weak enemies you will be wasting your time fighting them off taking up game time and the player's time. But in Earthbound this is fixed, by simply having the enemies recognize that you are a higher level than them. No longer do they run towards you in battle but run away making them easier to avoid. If you do happen to accidently bump into a weak enemy the battle is completely skipped and a screen flashes telling you you've won. These are very basic changes but it goes to show that the developers didn't just work with big ideas but also took time to think about the little things that make the game experience better.

Power of Prayer

A short but important part of the game and its message is Paula's Pray command. In battle Paula can pray which sometimes leads to your party being healed or some other positive status effect. It could damage your party, or it can have a negative status effect on your enemies. Either way it is a risky move to make and you can safely go through the game without ever praying. It should only be used as a last ditch effort if you are dying and have no items or PP points (what you use to cast healing and other magical attacks). It is an interesting addition to have your party pray for their own success while at the same time the player is praying that it will work, it is an appropriately named command. However if you are well prepared throughout the game you may never need to use it, that is until the last battle. Once you are coming to the end of the battle with the final boss your attacks are meaningless. The only way to defeat him is to pray. While you pray all the people you met throughout the game start to pray with you leading you to an eventual victory. It is not through violence that you beat the game but through the power of prayer. Its a powerful message that has a passive solution to a voilent enemy, it also shows you how much you connected to the characters around you throughout the game.

A sample of the last battle in Earthbound. You can see how prayer works in this battle. Also notice how the boss has some strange dialogue. This text was taken directly from an experience the lead designer had when he accidently saw a rape scene in a movie. It frightened him as a child and decided to use the dialogue to represent the ultimate evil in the game. 

Western Culture

Earthbound can be seen as a giant love letter to western culture. The designers of the game are all Japanese and only have a fleeting interpretation of life in the west the same way most westerners think of life in Japan. It is an interesting look at how they view our pop-culture. Earthbound could have dipped too far into plagerism, but instead they sprinkled references throughout creating a homage and not a copy.

One set of reccuring characters are the Runaway Five (part of the joke is that there are actually six members in the group). The two lead singers are complete homages to the Blues Brothers (Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi). In fact, the characters look so similiar that they had to change their clothes slightly for the American release in order to avoid copy-right infringment. Like the Blues Brothers they are constantly in trouble (in the game they are always in debt that they can't pay off) and Ness has to find a way to help them out in order to move on in the game. You can even watch them perform a bluesy song if you buy a ticket to their concert.

Starman is on the box for the game as well as a regular enemy.

The Diamond Dog is a boss in Earthbound.

There are many references to western music (more will be talked about in the music section) but there are three instances where songs take a phsyical form. One of the references is to the Beatles "Yellow Submarine." In the game you are in need of a submarine for transportation and finally get to a yellow submarine. There is a little joke sign next to it saying "The yellow color is a coincidence." The movie "Yellow Submarine" is a psycadelic journey of the four Beatles, making it a great tool for the psychadelic journey of the four lead characters of Earthbound. The other song titles that comes to life are both David Bowie songs. "Starman" is a famous Bowie song and also a main enemy in the game. "Diamond Dogs" is another David Bowie hit and a boss in the game is called Diamond Dog.

You can see how Aloysius Minch is a sleazy character.

One of the lead antagonists in the game is Pokey; a greedy little kid the same age as Ness. Pokey's father is also an evil character named "Aloysius Minch." This is a play on "Atticus Finch" the father figure in To Kill a Mocking Bird. Aloysius Minch is a twisted evil version of that character.

There are many more references to western culture but one of my personal favourites is the Mr. T character. All the towns in Earthbound are alive with many residents walking about and one of them looks exactly like Mr. T. This cannot be a coincedence


Original Music

The music in the game also is influenced by western music and culture but first I am going to go through what I felt were the best pieces of original music in the game. The music in Earthbound is powerful when it needs to be, fun and light during the city exploration, and psycadelic when the game takes a turn into the odd and bizarre.


Onett is the first town you go to and has one of the most basic scores for the game. Its light, fun, and kind of sounds like something you would hear in a cartoon. It's the perfect music to welcome the player into the game.


My personal favourite song in the entire game. It starts off light and easy but takes a turn into a more heavy and chilling atmosphere. You first hear it when you visit Polestar Pre-School. The light aspect of the song blends with the environment of children at the preschool. However, one of the children has been kidnapped which makes the darker turn of the music make sense. You can feel that this once happy place has had a turn for the worst. Once you rescue Paula (the girl who was kidnapped) the music in this area changes back to a light hearted song permanently.

Coffee Cup

My other favourite song in the game is when you are drinking coffee. You have 2 instances where this can happen in the game. You can take a drink of coffee and reflect on how much you progressed through the game. During the song, text scrolls on the screen against a psycadelic background. It is probably one of the strangest songs in the game but it matches the way the game feels at this point. The first time you drink coffee is in Saturn Village, which is a strange place inhabited by odd looking creatures. The second time you drink coffee is in a cave where you have recently taught the creatures to not be so shy and believe in themselves.

Western Remixes

A good deal of the music is not completely original but remixes of classic western music. I won't put all the references here since it would take too long to go through all of them, but here are some of my favourites.

Belch Factory

Pink Floyd is one of my favourite bands, and it's in Belch Factory they are sampled. The intro to the Belch Factory score mimicks the intro to "Welcome To The Machine" by Pink Floyd.


There are pionts in the game that you are flying in the Skyrunner (an obvious nod to Skywalker from Star Wars). While you are flying, a remix of the intro from " We Won't Get Fooled Again" by The Who.

Naming Screen

One of the most frantic songs in the game is at the naming screen. The song is actually a sample of the Monty Python theme song played at different speeds. Listen closely you might not catch it at first.

Earthbound is a great game with so many layers to it. Not only is the game fun to play but it is obvious that the designers took a lot of time and effort giving the game a unique feel that is completely unmatched in any game. When Earthbound hit North America is was actually a failure since RPGs were not as popular at the time and the direction of the game was so radically different from what people were used to. In many ways it was too far ahead of its time and only now are some developers catching up.