Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Critiques, Reviews, And The Brothers Mario

The difference between critiques and reviews, how the games industry fails at both, and how New Super Mario Brothers 2 just might be the worst best game I've ever played.

  A teacher once asked me what the difference between craft and art was, and at the time I had no reference to consider the answer. To me, they had always been the same. It's called Arts and Crafts, right? The answer was something that stuck with me, and it's where I find the difference between reviews and critiques. And Nintendo's recent return to 2D platforming, New Super Mario Bros. 2, teeters in this nebulous place that makes it hard to determine just how "good" the game is.

  Crafts are something you do as a profession. It is your job to do them. You do them to make money. That's not to say you can't put your heart into a craft, or that your craft can't also be an art. But the idea is that it's something you hone, and something you can do to make an incredible product that others can then take and consume. To me, you review a crafted product. Now certainly, you can critique a craft to an extent, but even then you're doing it from a mechanical perspective. To me that's more of a learning experience than a proper review. To that extent, New Super Mario Bros. 2 is a perfectly crafted game. There is not a single part of that game that was not meticulously looked over to ensure that everything was just right. Each level feels relatively unique, and overall the packaged game was presented in a vibrant way that was easy for anybody to pick up and enjoy.

  Art is something you do for the sake of passing something along. Perhaps it's a message, a feeling, or an emotion, but it's something you do for yourself, and then maybe you share it with others to get that idea out there. In this regard, it's not that New Super Mario Bros. 2 is bad, but it's mostly devoid of anything special and personal. Sure, I still get a chuckle out of the pantomimed opening and closing videos, I still possess a lust for coins and 1-Ups, and I still just love the feeling of finding a hidden place in a level, but these are the result of their finely tuned craft. From an artistic side, and even a critical game design side, there's not much hear that screams "magic." I'm aware that not every Mario game has been in search of that magic, and certainly there's nothing wrong with simply making a finely tuned game; that's how the series started after all. But when you look back at Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, Yoshi's Island, Mario 64, Mario Galaxy, and even Mario Sunshine, there was a clear attempt at passing curiosity in the well-crafted games. They had these unique mechanics designed to help you explore these hand-crafted worlds. Those games are the culmination of brilliant craftsmanship and artistic credibility melding together into unforgettable experiences that are regarded as the best in the industry for a reason. New Super Mario Bros. 2 doesn't have that feeling, and is perhaps the Mario game most devoid of any spark. So how do you convey this, and what's the best method of doing so? Do you review NSMB2 for it's brilliantly executed gameplay, or do you acknowledge that it's a great game and time-passer, but critique it for the lack anything that makes it special beyond that? I think you need to do both, and you need to do them separately.

  The words critique and review are synonymous in most dictionaries and thesauruses, and on the surface level they basically mean the same thing. From a technical standpoint, however, a review is about the "what." What worked, what didn't, what is this game, what does it have, and what does it do. The purpose of a review is to tell people whether or not something is worth their time and money based on what it is. I have always been of the opinion that reviews should be less of an opinionated piece, and more of an objective examination of something. If I wanted a review of a product, I would go to Consumer Reports. They try out a product and tell you what's good, what's bad, and whether you should have one, and it's done from a very tested and mechanical standpoint.

  A great example of how to do a review wrong can be seen on IGN's review of Double Dragon: Neon. In the very first paragraph the reviewer makes a bold, obviously personal claim that the era of beat-'em-up's is dead, and that Double Dragon: Neon is a failure out of the gate for adhering to that. That's not a review, it's not even a critique, it's an opinion piece. And a bad one at that. He's allowed to hate beat-'em-up's as much as I hate real time strategy games (because I suck at them), and you're totally cool to agree with the statement, but saying it like it's the truth is like saying Tomatoes are a dead fruit because you don't like them. They're dead to you, sure, but you are not everyone. This article does absolutely no service to the consumer that is trying to decide if this project is worth their time. The fact is, Double Dragon: Neon does exactly what it sets out to do by paying homage to the arcade games of old, and it does it damn well. That's what a review bi-line should look like for that game, because that really cannot be argued. Now, it can be argued how well it does it and whether it could have been done better or worst, but in the end it was made exactly the way it was meant to be made. The hardest thing to remember is that you disliking a game does not mean it is a bad game. It means you don't like it; nothing more and nothing less. Not realizing that fact is what makes this a bad review.

  Conversely, a critique is about dissecting a game; they're about the How. How well are a games mechanics implemented and operating, and how does the critic feel they could be improved upon or avoided in future productions. How well does the developer pass along the desired emotions or feelings. (Remember: fun is a feeling!) Overall, it's about how the game did at it's mission statement, and how it can be improved. This type of writing is meant more for the developer, as well as other developers looking to improve their own games, than it is the general public. A critique isn't necessarily black and white as far as "well this could have been better with X," but it's based on reasoning and theory, not just mindless assumptions. This is an area that I feel like the industry lacks. There's not enough critiquing of the work of developers designed for developers. Instead, what happens is sites like IGN and Kotaku are trying to critique games to the people who buy them, which creates a mismatched environment. Reviewers put too much of themselves in a review, but they don't put enough thought into how things can be improved either. What you have lies between a critique and a review, and isn't terribly useful to the consumer or the developer. So if it's not for either of them, who is it for?

  The reason I don't tend to read reviews in their current form on major sites is that they don't have any value to me as a consumer, or as a budding developer. Sure, a lot of reviews will tell me if a game is straight broken or not, but for example, I don't care what Jeff Gerstmann thought about Borderlands 2. I appreciate that he has an opinion, and admittedly I always love discussing thoughts on games. However, these are 1-directional monologues with no room for diatribe. Whether or not he's burnt out on the franchise shouldn't matter in a review. Maybe I am, too, or maybe I'm still hungry for more. So knowing that he's full of Borderlands doesn't help me decide whether or not to buy it. Now, saying that Borderlands 2 is "more of the same" is a valid review point, how that affects him is irrelevant because he's not the one purchasing the game. I am. And like anybody else reading that review, there's no reason the way he felt about a game should have any influence over the way I will feel over it. So what is the economical value of him including it in a review?

  Let's go back to New Super Mario Bros. 2.  This game is technically and mechanically flawless on every level. It works beautifully, it runs at a solid 60 frames per second, your objectives are clear and the gameplay is varied. There's nothing wrong with this game, from a strictly technical and gameplay perspective. However, if we want to work at the deeper side of the game, there are questions to be raised. How does the "collect a bajillion coins" mechanic really add to the experience? Making coin-lust the center focus on a Mario game is a great idea, and it's executed fairly well, but there's no end point to it. Also, you still have the life counter, which still grants 1-Ups based on collecting 100 coins at a time. In a game where you are literally getting showered with hundreds of coins per level, that life count makes even less sense than it ever has. Losing all of your lives hasn't been more punishing than it was back in the original Super Mario Bros., and yet the mechanic lumbers forward into the present without purpose. Overall, this is the type of thing where the game could improve upon, but doesn't subtract anything from the otherwise perfect experience either.

  The conundrum here is how do you attach a number value to a game like this? I totally enjoyed my time with it, and it was an excellently crafted product, but I notice that it feels more hollow than previous installments. It doesn't have that spark. How do you decide whether or not this game is 'fun,' and with what confidence do you believe others will feel exactly the way you do? What is the numerical value of fun, and how much fun is too much? How high does the fun score have to be before your own fun is validated? How the fuck do you answer these questions and not sound like a totally crazy person?

  These are questions that I think "games journalists" and "critics" need to stop trying to answer. The only person who can decide how fun a game is or how good a game is, is you. Results may very, but in the end, the quality of the title published shouldn't be viewed terribly differently from person to person f they're looking at it objectively. Until we get to that point, current "games reviews," are no different than reading somebody's forum post; they're just much more competently written. Usually.

  What do you think, reader? Is there a difference between craft and art in video games? Do you think Reviews and Critiques are fine blended together in their current form on most sites? Do you have a better way of the whole system that even I haven't thought of? Please, feel free to discuss in the comments below.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Unplugged - Penny Arcade: The Game: Gamers vs. Evil and Rumble in R'lyeh

A great game that might not be worth the price of entry.

  As a big Penny Arcade fan, it's hard not to jump at the chance for a game made by them. The duo of Gabe and Tycho know games inside and out from both the creative and the player side of things. I know I can expect interesting things from their unique brand of know-how and humor. Penny Arcade: The Game and it's stand-alone sequel/add-on is a distinct opportunity for them to draw from a rich history with their comic to combine fan-service with a unique deck-building game. I just don't know if you really get your money's worth for it.

  Penny Arcade: The Game: Gamers vs. Evil is a fairly simple game. Each player chooses a hero card from an assortment of Penny Arcade characters, including the dysfunctional duo themselves, as well as all your favorites like Carl from "Automata" and Tycho's niece, Anarchy. Everybody then starts off with only a handful of quarters and cardboard tubes that they then must use to buy or defeat enemies, to build up a deck that they can use against the bosses. Each enemy can usually only be bought or defeated with a cardboard tube, so you've got your green and red decks to reflect that. There are bosses that can be defeated, which is the best way to win, but it's not the only way. Most enemies that are fought with cardboard tubes yield Victory Points, so if you focus enough on them, you might be able to win without ever touching a boss. The bosses give loot with a large chunk of Victory Points, but they're harder to defeat. Also, if you overdraw from the enemy decks, the game is immediately over and the player with the most Victory Points wins. This makes a unique strategy that keeps all players balancing the rush to down the bosses, while making sure their enemies aren't just trying to end the game with a lot of little victories.

  It feels like the instructions do a very poor job of explaining this premise to you. They feel like they're explaining the game out of order and from the perspective of somebody who doesn't know how to give very good demonstrations at a convention. It's not until you actually start playing, so you can reference the different sections of the manual out of order, that you get a sense for how to actually play the game step-by-step. And when you're looking at the cards, it's hard to immediately discern what cards do what. The boss loot shares the same picture as the boss cards, but they look like monster cards, and each monster stack has a red-backed version of itself that goes in a completely separate deck for randomizing what monsters you fight that game... It all works when you finally manage to piece it together, but there really feels like a lack of clarity that could have been fixed with some additional card border colors, or clearer markings, and a much more well-thought out instruction manual. Once you're actually into the game, however, it's actually an incredibly easy to play, yet subtly strategic game.

  There's a lot going on in terms of what you can do. Each turn, you draw 6 cards, and by the end of your turn you'll discard them all. This urges players to play fast and hard by spending everything they can on buying and defeating monsters (with coins and cardboard tubes, respectively). By purchasing or defeating your enemies (which is the same thing, really, just with different types of cards), you put them into your own discard pile. This assimilates them into the deck for further use, allowing you to do more complex maneuvers, as each type of monster card has it's own abilities. Some make you add Pax Pox cards to your opponent's deck, which are essentially drawing dead weight cards that have no effect whatsoever, while others allow you to spend more tokens or cardboard tubes than you normally would be able to. Once your deck is exhausted, you shuffle up your discard pile and keep going with all your new gains. It's really quite exhilarating, but also makes for a more fast-paced affair than something like a Catan or a Munchkin.

  Penny Arcade: The Game: Rumble in R'lyeh adds more of everything in the first game, while itself containing enough to be it's own title. More monsters, more hero cards, and more bosses can be mixed in with the original, or played off to the side, but it also comes with a unique Gold Card mechanic. A third row of cards that are almost boss cards themselves, requiring a divide of quarters and tubes to defeat, but also yielding higher rewards. The best thing about it is that it allows you to play with even more variety in your randomly-generated games.

  Overall, I'd say this game is an absolute blast to play (for up to 4 players), but the package falls short when you start talking contents versus price. When you open the box one one of these, there's a great deal of emptiness that gives a knee-jerk "I just paid for this?" reaction. It's easy to see that their goal was to allow expansions to be added in, so they made a bigger box with a lot of free room for exactly that. Throw in the knowledge that the second game would be stand-alone, but could also be mixed in, and it makes sense that they'd come in equally big boxes so you can combine them if you want. But it doesn't defeat the fact that opening that box for the first time is a bit disheartening.

Remember: this is two-games put together.

  At $45 each, what you see above is $90 (plus tax!) worth of goods. Comparatively, it's not up to snuff with the contents of a $25 dollar game of Munchkin, or even a $60 dollar game of Arkham Horror. Arkham may have a high investment capital, but there's a ton of cards, pieces, and a giant board, all intricately designed and all very high quality. It's hardly worth it even compared to the original Penny Arcade: The Card Game that Fantasy Flight published, which itself was just recycled art and mechanics from the Penny Arcade decks from the Vs TCG. 

  I would rank the cards for this game, which mind you are the only things you get other than a d20, are among the cheapest cards I've ever played with in a game. Knowing Cryptozoic, the game's publisher, has done some fine work the World of Warcraft card game, I was let down by the lack of quality out of this package. It's mostly recycled Penny Arcade comic artwork, the 'interface' of the cards feels wholly undeveloped, and there's none of Tycho's distinct writing (outside of any text that may appear from the comic.) Nothing about this game feels like the Penny Arcade team had any work to do for it other than designing the (admittedly awesome) box covers. There's not a lot of "Wow!" in this box beyond "I remember Rex Ready... those were pretty funny comics." So just what am I paying $45 a box for? I hope I'm wrong in thinking that it might be solely for the fact that this has Penny Arcade in the name.

  What you have is a great core game, and some appreciative fanboy happy-sauce, but overall I just can't get over the fact that it feels cheap and unfinished. For $45 I can get Cards Against Humanity and it's two expansions, which at least has the excuse of feeling cheap because it was a Kickstarter project that was made as cheaply as possible so that it could exist at all. I never have a problem paying a lot for a game, but I need to feel like there's a reason I paid that price. As much as I like this game, I just don't get that feeling.