Saturday, May 31, 2008

Review - Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King

Let me start with the conclusion: I don't recommend this game for everyone but if you have any real interest in game design then you should play this game. It's a perfect example of how to take some great concepts and completely break them in game play. This is more than just a weak game, it's a broken one with things that should have never left the design game. It's rare that a title with such an obviously broken design makes it to the public in such a high profile manner and that turns it into a wonderful object lesson in what not to do.

Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King is among the first wave of new games released through Nintendo's WiiWare service which lets users download games. Players take the role of a king with an empty town surrounding his castle. Magic gems let you build new structures instantly and from them you get adventurers and can send them out to clear dungeons around you castle so you can get more gems and repeat. There are structures to support the adventurers and townspeople. Eventually you'll clear enough dungeons that you'll be able to send them out to beat the Dark Lord (that's not me using an euphemism; that's actually the name given to him) and save the kingdom.

It's not the first game to do this but it's the only recent one that comes to mind. I liked earlier kingdom building games so I purchased this and started playing. I was having fun designing my town and slowly filling out the world. Then I hit the wall. The irritations started piling up one after the other, the fun parts slowed down for hours of pointless repetition, and the promise was lost.

The first time you play the game it starts immediately on "normal" difficulty level but normal level lacks large portions of the game. To get them you have to beat it once on normal and then you can start the game on hard with your adventurers retaining the buffs that you gave them in the first play through. Since many of my complaints have to do with the how the game play flowed I played it once on "normal" and once on "hard". The changes were not enough and I actually found new problems when playing on "hard".

Problem one: the resources are not balanced. The heart of game design is the management of resources. You have X of something to complete task Y, how do you expend resource X to maximize your opportunity? There are two key resources that the player has direct control over: crystals which are used in construction and gold which is used in developing abilities. At the beginning it's tight and you have to make choices. By midgame, however your income far outstrips your payments and the income keeps flowing in even after you have nothing you can spend things on. It removes the decisions that should be driving the player's experience.

Problem two: managing adventurers is not interesting. This isn't a big deal at the beginning of the game; you send your few adventurers out to the nearest dungeon and then get to your real work. When that work starts slowing down, though, the other set of decisions that the player has to make are not challenging. There typically is only one or two valid places to send them to so it's an effortless choice. Hard mode does improve this in the midgame by giving the player a range of locations which make the player prioritize their exploration, but then loses it in the last portion by reducing it to one long path again.

The adventurers have moral that must be maintained and again, it's difficult at the beginning and simple enough to be ignored by the midgame. Allow me to present this simple scenario; you obtain the ability to create a structure that will let you pay your adventurers more according to four levels (their pay does not come out of your resources) that you must buy. You make enough income that you can buy out those levels without putting strain on your pocketbook by the time you are one-third of the way through. Do you buy each only when you have to just barely maintaining the morale or do you buy out all four instantly and make morale something you don't have to put any thought into for the rest of the game? The designers of this game thought that the answer was the first one.

And you'll note that theme: by the midgame things are dragging and by the end it's boring as hell. Once the construction is done and the adventurers are sent on their way you can improve your kingdom by building the morale of your citizens. You do this by talking to them for the three to five minutes days. So you finish off the stuff you need to worry about in thirty seconds and then do repetitive actions with no thought involved for three minutes. And you do this two hundred times a game. So across a full game you play for roughly ten hours and eight of those are the equivalent of walking around a town in Final Fantasy and talking to the civilians who do nothing. Eighty percent of this game is not fun to play.

What's more there is no challenge. In a strategy game there must be a give and take, a cost that has meaning. There is no cost to anything. You collect so much in resources that you can't screw it up for long unless you're trying. Your adventurers always bounce back to get send out again. Even the Dark Lord doesn't recover from wounds so once you've encountered him there is no challenge; just throw bodies at him until he dies.

This could have been changed easily. The walk and talk portions of the game should have been completely dropped turning the game into a straight turn based strategy. Resources should have been balanced so that the player would have to worry about them. Costs should have been given meaning. The world should have been framed so that the adventurers had more to do. All of this should have been obvious at the paper stage long before it reached programming. And that's what makes My Life as a King interesting.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Review - Edward Scissorhands

Edward Scissorhands
1991 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation

I can only imagine what the pitch meeting was like for Tim Burton. Sitting across from the studio executive he'd say, "I want to make a movie about a Frankenstein monster with scissors for his hands who goes to the suburbs!" The exec would respond, "That's a great idea for a horror film!" and Burton would reply, "Horror?"

Instead of a bloody horror film Burton took this premise and made a family comedy. An Avon lady finds Edward alone in a dilapidated mansion. An inventor created him to be human but died before finishing leaving him with scissors rather than hands. She takes pity on him and brings Edward to her ideal suburban home. There he slowly begins to grow connected with people and reveal a creative side. Trouble comes as he falls in love with her daughter. The daughter has a thug of a boyfriend who initially takes advantage of Edward and later helps turn people against him.

I'm not as enamored with Burton as I was ten years ago but Edward Scissorhands is a movie that makes it clear why I did like him. The film is dependent on the unique visual style that made him famous. Besides Edward himself there are his creations, vast topiary creatures and odd hairstyles, which are placed in the context of the most pastel, generic suburbia one could imagine. Placing the macabre in the middle of the familiar is Burton's trademark and this movie helped define him.

The story itself is sappy and manipulative. A strange outsider comes to town, slowly wins over the hearts of the townspeople, but then an incident happens and the outsider is forced to flee. That arc has been played out dozens of times and the movie hits all of the emotional notes exactly on cue. Edward's the sensitive artist and pure soul that the audience is to empathize with. And despite the fact that I recognized the pattern and the manipulation instantly it was still effective.

Danny Elfman's score plays a large part in that manipulation and it is essentially the same score that he's written a hundred times before and since. Plenty of bubbly, bouncy tunes in the lighter scenes, the swelling tones in the melodramatic ones. It's fine work but it's also standard Elfman.

I can't say much about the acting because so much of it was completely subdued. Johnny Depp as Edward is supposed to be almost completely inert and emotionless. Most of the other characters are not given much to do other than react to him. Wynonna Rider as his love interest is particularly weak; not bad enough to make me wonder how she got the role but she's unable to make me believe the character arc she goes through.

But I don't think anyone is going to watch Edward Scissorhands for the performances (and watching because of an attraction to one of the actors is not the same thing as watching for the performance). It's the style that makes the movie and carries it. Though it's not my favorite example of Burton's efforts (I like Ed Wood best) I'll take Edward Scissorhands before any of his recent efforts.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

I Had Great Taste for an Elementary School Student

Last night I reread A Wizard of Earthsea so that when I reached Tehanu in my reading list I won't stall on it. The last time I read it I was in the first grade and though I forgot the title and never did look at the sequels (I think they were available at that point but I'm not sure) it had a huge impact on me. Twenty years later when someone mentioned the plot of the book it occurred to me that was what I had read, but by that point I had no tolerance for weak, generic fantasy novels so I didn't bother going back. Besides 95% of what we love as children isn't very good; there's no reason to go back and spoil those memories.

So I didn't have very high expectations when I picked up the book again and I found that I enjoyed it quite a bit. Sure it's been copied more times than I can count at this point and the structure of the novel is more than a little choppy but on the whole it's a strong book. I certainly enjoy the "young man learning to be a wizard" plot more with it than with the Harry Potter series; there was more character growth and world building about magic in three chapters than there was in seven books of Harry Potter.

So obviously I had fine tastes in literature as child. I certainly didn't pick up the book because I had just read The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia and Le Guin's novel had "Wizard" in the title.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Jack Kirby in the 1970's - Part 5 - The End of an Era

There were three more major projects that Kirby undertook at Marvel beside his return to Captain America.

First was an adaptation of the film 2001.

The series continued on past the end of the film and in it Kirby introduced one of his final lasting creations Machine Man.

I'm not certain what it is about this character but for some reason comic book creators are constantly using him. He turns up for a year or two and then vanishes for a short time and then comes right back again with someone else doing a completely different take on the character.

Second was a return to the same type of ground that Kirby covered in Kamandi at DC comics. The new series Devil Dinosaur was a forerunner to modern comics in some ways as it was created specifically to tempt licensors. No one was interested in the property and so it was canceled after nine issues.

While the stories are atrociously bad as Kirby's writing typically got worse and worse as the decade continued, I do have a special place in my heart for this series. It has some wonderful pages of art featuring freakish dinosaurs fighting other freakish dinosaurs. It's a situation where I'm almost tempted to break my book so you could see the crazy double page spreads that peppered the series.

Finally there is The Eternals which Kirby loosely based on the book The Chariots of the Gods which was popular at the time. That book popularized the theory that aliens were behind most of the world's mythologies and assisted in building many of its monuments. This book had the most traditional look of Kirby's last Marvel creations and any of it would fit in fine with his efforts on Thor or the Fantastic Four in the 1960's. It also is the best written of his work since New Gods but that isn't saying much. Kirby's big concepts are on full display in this series that I consider to be a last hurrah for him. It ended after just nineteen issues.

Toward the end of 1977 Jack Kirby left Marvel again this time never to return. It was not the end of his work on Marvel characters, however. He immediately went to work with design on the Fantastic Four cartoon. Yes, H.E.R.B.I.E. the robot replacement for the Human Torch in the late seventies series is a Kirby creation. He would remain working on various animated projects (most notably Thundarr the Barbarian but there were others) until his retirement.

He only did one more thing in comics in the 1970's. Starting in late 1979 Jack Kirby did an adaptation of the Disney film The Black Hole for newspapers:

Kirby would eventually do a handful of comic additional projects in the 1980's and continue to provide an occasional pin-up or cover until his death in 1994 but his career in comic books that started in the late 30's was over.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A Few Words on the Status of the Nebula Reviews

Here I am nearly four weeks after the order and I still do not have copied of Timescape or The Book of the New Sun (since two volumes in that series won major awards I decided on getting an omnibus of the series). It has reached the point that if I have not received them by Friday I am going to order them again and if they do turn up I happen to have a coworker that complained loudly the other day of how the works of Piers Anthony and Terry Brooks have been going down hill.

In total seriousness.

And he's over forty.

I do have enough social awareness left that I somehow managed to keep the response to a simple "Uh-huh." Since these books would have to be terrible on the scale of Hominids before approaching Brooks's and Anthony's average writing he might appreciate them.

But that leaves me without the ability to continue my reading for at a minimum another week. On the other hand once I receive the books I've got the rest of the Nebula winners up to 1994 lined up and ready to go. On the gripping hand I'm taking a vacation at the end of June to go to the Origins gaming convention for a week so that will slow things down again.

To fill my need for literary content I've decided to fill the time with a few notable works and some oddball things I've recently pulled out of storage. Be here for HG Wells's blog posts and a play through of his game (minus the working cannons, unfortunately), a rare NASA publication featuring commentary on their explorations by Carl Sagan and Freeman Dyson, and more.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Jack Kirby in the 1970's - Part 4 - A Return to Marvel

So how do you follow up a run on Captain America that featured President Nixon committing suicide in the Oval Office after his corruption was discovered? Well...

How about an evil roller-derby?

Fan reaction to Kirby's return to his creation was particularly interesting. It started with what were mainly strong compliments on the artistic side while glossing over Kirby's poor writing but it didn't take long for the writing to pull down the book. And there were a few people unhappy with Kirby's minimalist style as well. The following are letter columns written in reaction to Kirby's run. Rather than excerpt single letters I thought it would be better to include all of the context, positive and negative. I have made a point of selecting the columns where most of the feedback is on Jack Kirby himself. You can click on these images for a readable version of the page.

It started with near unanimous praise...

Captain America #196

...with only an occasional sour note...
Captain America #202

...but then the dam breaks...

Captain America #206

...and it descends into a letter column war. (Remember those? That's what comic book nerds used to have before the Internet.)

Captain America #210

Jack Kirby's final run on Captain America ended at #214 less than two years after his return.

As for myself I found Kirby's return to Captain America to be particularly weak. He was no longer interested in doing the kind of stories that Captain America demanded (especially in an immediately post-Watergate, post-Viet Nam America). He did more interesting things with his other titles that he worked on at Marvel in the late 1970's and that's where I'll pick things up next for the conclusion of Jack Kirby in the 1970's.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Review - "Twenty-four Views of Mount Fuji, by Hokusai", "Paladin of the Lost Hour", and "Fermi and Frost"

Michael Whelan
1986 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

Representing Whelan this time is the cover to one of my least favorite books: Robert Heinlein's The Cat Who Walked Through Walls. It's been a while since I've stated this so it bears repeating: if an author makes a sequel to some of their best loved works more than ten years later and attempts to link it to some of their other books it's a very bad sign.

"Twenty-four Views of Mount Fuji, by Hokusai"
by Roger Zelazny
1986 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

This one requires a bit of explanation. The actual name of nineteenth century Japanese artist Hokusai's work is "Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji". There are actually forty-six prints in the set, but Zelazny was familiar with it through a book that had twenty-four of the images. What Zelazny did was craft a story framed by the images in the order they were presented in his book. The novella is divided into chapters, each one set at the location of a corresponding print.

While there's aspects of the Zelazny's standard stories in place this really isn't his standard kind of work. A former spy is sick and has one last thing to do before she dies. Her husband died years before and she has returned to Japan to kill him. She is traveling to see each view of Mount Fuji with her own eyes but is being hunted.

While reading it I had very mixed feelings but on reflections I have to say that I enjoyed the story. It's a very slow paced tale with a pastoral feel despite also being a spy thriller. It was a tough balancing act and I think Zelazny pulled it off. I would recommend reading the story with the Hokusai's images handy since they compliment the work perfectly.

"Paladin of the Lost Hour"
by Harlan Ellison
1986 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

When the shift from the Gregorian to the Julian calendar occurred one hour was left out. This hour was trapped in a silver pocket watch and must be protected. Now an old man with the watch meets a young veteran who has never recovered from Vietnam and a decision must be made.

Sure that set up doesn't make much sense even by fantasy standards (how did they get a silver pocket watch in the sixteenth century?) but the over all concepts are strong enough to build a framework for the story which is really about the emotional problems the two men have and how they connect. Ellison's story is powerful on those grounds and it's enjoyable to read about the bond that forms between them despite the tensions.

One thing that needs to be mentioned is a very odd bit of writing where Ellison specifies that one of the men is black and the other white but doesn't say which is which. It doesn't even matter since the story has nothing to do with racial differences and race is only brought up once at the very beginning in narration and once at the very end. It didn't matter to the story which made this line feel like self-important posturing. In 1965 throwing this into a story might have carried some weight; 1985 its time has passed.

But one bit of pretentious silliness isn't enough to ruin a fine story. I liked it quite a bit despite its quirks.

"Fermi and Frost"
by Frederik Pohl
1986 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

In this tale a nuclear war occurs and as the survivors huddle underground in Iceland they smugly decide that they have an answer to the Fermi paradox, the question of why given the scale of the universe we are unable to detect any sign of intelligent extraterrestrial life. Naturally they haven't since their "answer" would fall apart if just one alien species managed to dodge complete extinction by the nuclear bullet but this clumsy story exists solely to pose that theory.

I feel like I'm starting to pick on Pohl a bit and I'm not trying to. I suspect that this weak story was a tribute Hugo for his nearly fifty years in science fiction at that point rather a selection based on the quality of the work. There's a weak emotional arc involving a child who was snatched away from doom by a scientist who managed to get on a plane away from population centers but it's so poorly developed that there's no emotional connection there. This is one story that is very skippable.