Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Dwarf Fortress for Mac

I'm a couple days behind on this, but a Mac version of Dwarf Fortress is now available.

If your last excuse for not having tried this game is that you own a Mac, you are now out of excuses (unless you still have one with a PPC processor, in which case you are still out of luck).

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Great Game Throw Down: Sports

After the thorough stomping I administered in the Strategy/Sim category, we move on to Sports. With no ado whatsoever:

5 - Mike Tyson's Punch Out!

Which do you think Mike Tyson is better known for? Biting off half of Evander Holyfield's ear or Punch Out! on the 8-bit NES? The way you answer this question can sort of define you as a person.

An altogether great game that just about everybody has played at some point or another. Everybody remembers certain annoying fighters in the game that were their nemesis too. For me, it was Soda Popinski, who kept me from the upper tiers more than most of the other fighters. He had this horribly annoying laugh and was also purple, the color of pure evil.

It's very satisfying to watch this video where the guy houses the purple jerk in 1:08. I wish I knew this trick back in the day.

4 - Excitebike

I'm a sucker for any game that allows a high degree of customization. Excitebike was way ahead of its time because it allowed you to build your own tracks, which was by far the coolest part of the game. The gameplay was ridiculously simple so that anybody could learn it quite quickly, but the real fun was making impossibly hard tracks by stringing gigantic jumps and obstacles together and just trying to figure out how to make it to the finish line.

3 - Football Manager 2007

Known here in the states as "Worldwide Soccer Manager 2007", the story of this franchise is actually pretty interesting.

The company Sports Interactive used to release their soccer sports management game under the title Championship Manager via publisher Eidos. However, for the 2005 edition of the game SI signed on with publisher Sega while Eidos held on to the brand name of "Championship Manager". This led to a lot of consumer confusion, especially when SI's release of the latest version was delayed. Eidos wasted no time releasing Championship Manager 2005 which wasn't put together by the same team.

Since then SI has put out its regular yearly edition of what is now called "Football Manager" (except in the states where "football" isn't played with your feet), and this was the version that got me hooked.

I'm probably behind the curve compared to European players of the game, who have almost certainly jumped to FM 2008 by now. In fact, critical reception of FM 2007 overseas was really not that great. But it was the first version of the game I've ever played and I'm still playing the darn thing.

I've always dug sports management games like this where you don't actually PLAY the games but are in charge of every other aspect of managing a franchise. Baseball Mogul and Out of the Park Baseball are two great examples of these types of games in baseball. But there is something magical about the beautiful game, especially when you see your carefully considered tactics play out on the road to a trophy.

The English football league system is much more complicated than in the US also. In English football, the bottom teams get "relegated" to lower leagues, while lower tier teams that finish on top of their respective leagues get "promoted". This means that if you don't perform, you won't be in the same league next year, which is a pretty serious incentive to do well. Imagine, for example, that this system was in place in American baseball. The Kansas City Royals would be playing in the minors.

So it's particularly fun to try to build a lower tier team into a top tier contender. Playing the game has given me a much greater appreciation for soccer in general, and I watch it avidly on weekends now.

2 - Tecmo Super Bowl

Video game football reached perfection with this game. It's just that simple.

This game is so awesome that people STILL release roster updates for it (check out Tecmo Bowl Repository).

Madden had a few years there back in its early days where it was fun. NFL 2K5 was the last really excellent football game to come out in the past several years. But none of them were ever as fun and entertaining as Tecmo Super Bowl.

You've probably seen this before, but here's a video of Bo Jackson lapping the field a few times.

1 - MLB Power Pros

This is not the best game ever. In fact, I'm going to fully admit that in a few years this choice might end up looking silly.

But I can't stop playing this game, and it's existence has pretty much single handedly kept me from going out and buying a PS3 or Xbox360.

I could pretty easily make a top 10 of just baseball games, I've played so many of them. This game is a combination of everything I love about all of them.

It has the player customization and development of Baseball Stars.

It has the career mode style of MLB The Show.

It has the incredible stat tracking of a baseball management game like Baseball Mogul.

It has all of the pure FUN of playing the game like RBI Baseball.

In a word, it's perfect.

I do question whether we'll ever see an updated version of this game because from what I understand, sales in the US have not been great. And that makes me sad. But if you are a baseball fan and you haven't played this, you are doing yourself a great disservice.

Worst Ever - Madden 2005-Present

Around 2003, EA Sports and the Madden franchise stopped trying very hard. They were content to release small amounts of new content, comfortable with the fact that people would be willing to shell out $50-$60 for a yearly roster update.

Then NFL 2K5 came out for $19.99. And the gameplay was years ahead of Madden.

Rather than deal with a coming franchise war as people figured "Why not?" for the $20 price tag, EA made the most sensible business decision possible.

They went to the NFL and negotiated an exclusive contract to produce video games.

Now, with absolutely zero motivation to make improvements to what was already a stale franchise devoid of any innovation whatsoever, the Madden games really are nothing more than roster updates.

And why should they ever be anything more? Without any competition, people still line up to shell out $60 a year for these sorry excuses for "new games". Madden 2009 will still be Madden 2004 with shinier graphics and a roster update. And that's annoying, especially since there was at least one other franchise out there that would have pushed football video games forward.

Taken individually, none of the last 3 Madden games are BAD. But taken as a collective, taken in the context of what MIGHT HAVE BEEN, these games are an example of why exclusive deals suck for the consumer.

Update - LBAM here. TPoTT here.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Great Game Throw Down: Simulation/Strategy

I'm a bit behind the others on this one, as I just returned from my honeymoon a couple of days ago.

Imagine my surprise that in my absence both The Philosophy of Time Travel AND LastBestAngryMan got their lists so horribly, horribly wrong, particularly their egregious choices for worst game. I'd almost think they were doing it just to spite me, if I didn't respect their integrity so much.

Yeah, probably spite.

5 - The Sims

Anyone who doesn't have this on their list has either never played the game or is lying. It's that simple.

What looks, on the surface, to be the absolute dumbest idea for a video game ever is actually one of the greatest. That's Will Wright for you.

The object of the game... well, okay there is no object really... but you control the lives of some "Sims" through their daily routine... kind of like real life, except not... including making sure they get to work on time, decorating the house, cooking meals, etc.

Yeah, there really is no way to make this game sound particularly fun. You just have to play it. This is the one game that I've ever seen my wife (that felt kind of weird to type) get completely addicted to the way I've gotten hooked on many other games in the past. She got completely caught up in trying to get her Sim all the way down the legal career track that she almost forgot about her real legal career. It was awesome.

While she enjoyed helping her Sims succeed, I mostly enjoyed tormenting them. One of my favorite tactics was to somehow lure a Sim into a room, then pause the game, sell the door, and replace it with a wall so they would be trapped. Sometimes I'd put a picture of a clown in there with them or a mirror or something to make it extra creepy. Most cruel would be putting a phone inside because the increasingly hungry Sim would repeatedly call for pizza over and over again.

I realize this is starting to sound pretty sick, so I'll just stop now. Anyway, it's a great game and one you can play pretty much anyway you want.

4 - Armageddon Empires

Look, I've mentioned this game a couple of times already, and if you haven't been persuaded to try it by now you probably won't just because I mention it again. But this is a game that is starting to pick up more and more acclaim, and thanks to a recent mention in Penny Arcade I suspect it will get even more success than it already has. It really is a stunning achievement for a development team that small... heck, it would be a stunning achievement for a large dev team.

Seriously, with a free demo version available you have absolutely nothing to lose. Except hours and hours of free time.

3 - Starcraft

One of the things that made this category tricky was that we lumped these two genres together after repeated arguments about where certain games should go. Starcraft is the only RTS (Real Time Strategy) game on this list, even though that's one of my favorite genres. In my opinion it's the best in that bunch and therefore worthy of a spot. It has three very different but amazingly balanced races, plus a terrific single player campaign that is a ton of fun.

But with RTS games, multiplayer is where it's at, and one of the things that made this game so great was the free play over the internet via a service called "Battle.net". This was pretty revolutionary for its time, and meant that you could find a game anytime you wanted. It also meant that you could perform all kinds of immature, jerk internet moves that have become all the rage now.

For example, one of my favorite things to do in this game was get in a 3 way free for all, but secretly one of the 3 would be a friend (often my buddy Ed down the hall in my college dorm). Either Ed or I would create a "secret alliance" with the hapless third person, moving our armies into his base for "protection". Then, we'd cancel the alliance and launch an all out assault against the fellow whose defenses had already been breached. You'd think this would get old after the 100th time you do it, but it really doesn't.

2 - Civilization IV

Easily the best series on this list, every single one of the Civ games is great. But this is a series that has gotten better with every single version, and Civ IV is the latest and greatest. I've played this game way, way too many times and every time has been a blast. There are few things more satisfying than starting with a single settler at the beginning of the game and building a mighty empire from there. This is one game that makes you say to yourself "just one more turn" over and over and over again until the sun is coming up and your eyes are bleeding.

1 - Dwarf Fortress

To spite me, my compatriots put this as their worst game ever. So now is where I win the argument for once and for all.

Yes, the graphics take some getting used to. Yes, the user interface takes some getting used to. But the gameplay is so good, so deep, so completely unparalleled by anything else out there, at times you can't even believe what you are seeing.

Let me give you an example by way of a story.

During the building of my second fortress in the game, I had survived my first winter and with the first batch of immigrants I had about a dozen or so dwarves. At this point I was attacked by a horde of goblins, and I was woefully under prepared for the assault. The goblins went marauding through my petty defenses, slaughtering dwarves in their wake.

But then one brave dog came to the defense of one of my crafting dwarves. The dog was perfectly positioned in a chokepoint of the fortress and started killing the goblins one by one. Eventually it had killed all but one or two goblins before falling to the ground, bleeding to death. This drove the dog's owner (the aforementioned crafting dwarf) into a grief fueled frenzy, and he killed the remaining goblins with his bare hands, sustaining a horrible wound of his own in the process.

The assault being over, there were only a few dwarves remaining. The dog died, and the crafting dwarf who killed the last couple of goblins was hauled off to bed by the survivors. There he stayed for many weeks, and I assumed that he would likely die of his wounds.

Unbelievably, he survived. When he came to, though, he was mad with grief, and he immediately killed a fellow dwarf who was bringing him water. He then went on a kill crazy rampage. Checking his profile, it appeared that the horrors of war had broken him, and I watched sadly as he killed every last survivor of the goblin invasion before drowning himself.

The last dwarf he killed was an engraver who commemorated the terrible goblin invasion by making an engraving of a dog fighting a goblin in the dining room wall.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg of the kind of stories this game is capable of producing.

Worst Ever - Master of Orion 3

This is the only game I have ever purchased that I took back to the store the next day.

Imagine Microsoft Excel came in a box that said "Master of Orion 3" on it and you've got this game.

Excel, you have found your long lost brother.

What's so unbelievably horrible about it is how crippling disappointing it is. The first two games are absolute classics of the genre. This one should have been bundled with Office. It's "Spreadsheets in Space".

And Microsoft Excel has more competitive AI than this game. The enemies are so colossally stupid that even though you often have no clue what you're doing, you'll still win. Meanwhile Excel can find all kinds of ways to trick you. People who think the Dwarf Fortress interface is complicated have obviously never played this game.