This is a column about love and hate. And it's a column about where those passions originate.
This is about "Ultimate Ghosts 'N Goblins," a re-invention of an old classic released last week on PSP.
In 1985, Capcom released an arcade game called "Ghosts 'N Goblins," featuring a knight named Arthur who traversed floating platforms with an arcing hop and slashed weapons through enemy hordes. The game was hard. It devoured quarters.
A couple of sequels passed, as did a couple of decades' worth of game design before this year's PSP release. Games got longer and, by and large, they got easier. "Ghosts 'N Goblins" followed those trends grudgingly, its sequels giving Arthur a double-jump ability, but the series remained hard.
In the meantime, Super Mario was given the ability to fly and then the option to hover, saving himself from plummets with the jet-spray of a water-powered backpack. "Ratchet & Clank" typified the modern era — there were fewer jumping puzzles, the game allowed its lead character to get stronger with every enemy conquered and such progress wasn't wiped away when a life was lost.
"Ultimate Ghosts 'N Goblins" was released last month in Japan and got its share of raves. The game sports new levels and colorful widescreen graphics, rich with rough-skinned enemies, forests and glob-filled corridors, and flashes of purple, white and red eldritch energy. A few hours in, Arthur learns to fly. Still, it's tough. If it took quarters, it would be devouring them.
What's more interesting, though, is the debate surrounding the game's release. The notoriously stringent British magazine Edge rated it a 9, calling it "a master class in game theory." It didn't sell that well in Japan (PSP games seldom do in a country monogamously passionate for the Nintendo DS), but low sales are indicative of a cult classic in some people's minds.
Then Jeremy Parish, a reviewer at 1Up frequently friendly to old-school games, announced on his blog that he was planning to pan the game in 1Up and the major U.S. gaming magazine Electronic Gaming Monthly. He gave "Ultimate Ghosts" a 4.5, writing that it "belongs to a certain school of video game whose time has long since passed, the same school to which the likes of 'Battletoads' and 'Ninja Gaiden III' belonged: the double-standard school that demands perfection from players yet is far from perfect itself."
Parish criticized the game's graphics but saved most of his venom for its difficulty. He found it too reliant on guesswork and memorization, too fraught with random catastrophe. He found it cheap.
Others found Parish's review cheap, and a flurry of message-board activity ensued. The game's reviews have continued to be mixed, but Parish opened up a fascinating area of discussion: Gamers sometimes debate graphics. They sometimes debate level design. They argue music, online options and plenty of other details. But those qualities don't tend to stratify reviews the way "Ultimate Ghosts 'N Goblins" did. They don't tend to enflame such divergent and intense reactions. And that may be because game difficulty is different from those other qualities in a key way: It's personal.
Graphics, music and gameplay are all the design of the development team. Ideally, they are what the developers think is best — maybe best for the player, maybe best for them, but, overall, best for the game. A player will tend to absorb those facets as the nature of the beast, but a game's difficulty is part of a long-distance message the developers are transmitting to the player: "This is what we think you can handle."
Some games throw that gauntlet right in the player's face. The new "50 Cent: Bulletproof G-Unit Edition" launching today for PSP, for example, titles its easy, normal and hard settings "punk," "thug" and "gangsta," respectively. When the player sees that, they're being sent a message — and it's not "You spent $50, now please enjoy this game as you see fit."
"Ultimate Ghosts 'N Goblins" offers a few difficulty modes. The easiest, "novice" mode, bequeaths the player a nearly feline eight lives, a generous helping that is swiftly consumed. "Standard" and "ultimate" modes are more brutal affairs. Both offer six lives (though the game's manual claims Standard only provides two), which makes Arthur more vulnerable to enemy attacks.
Some games have mercy on their players. Shooters such as "Ikaruga" and "Gradius V" grant players more lives for every hour they've logged trying to play through their difficult campaigns. Others, such as "The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction," alter their difficulty on the fly, reacting to what players do. "God of War" encourages players who repeatedly fail to drop down a level of difficulty. The forthcoming "Activision Anthology" for PSP, which presents old Atari-era games on the portable, actually lets players manually switch difficulty modes — and subsequently gameplay rules — on the fly.
But titles like "Ultimate Ghosts 'N Goblins" will always make things a bit tougher. And they'll always leave those nagging questions: What did those developers really think of you? What did they think you could handle? What, exactly, are they trying to tell you? How best can you answer back? Do you feel love — or hate?
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When "Super Mario 64" and "Tomb Raider" popularized 3-D gaming 10 years ago, it seemed that gaming's new dimension would only improve games. But one issue still frustrating developers and gamers is the quality of in-game cameras. Viewing angles get clipped behind walls; giant boss characters disappear from the screen; targeting reticules get lost in the distance; and characters' posteriors often get in the way of better stuff to look at out there. Most vexing for many novice players is even getting the cameras to work. Now comes a bold solution: "We have a superior way of controlling the camera to a standard gamepad," Vicarious Visions associate designer Mike Chrzanowski recently told GameFile as he demonstrated his team's forthcoming version of "Marvel: Ultimate Alliance" for Nintendo's Wii. "On the standard gamepad, you use the analog stick for movement and you use the other analog stick for camera control. That moves your thumb away from the face buttons and you can't attack." Not so for his team's title of bird's-eye-view superhero brawling. He held the Wii remote in his right and its nunchuck attachment in his left. Both devices are motion-sensitive. The right-hand device controls the fighting in the game, but for camera work he turned his left wrist just a little. The game's overhead camera swiveled to the right. He turned his wrist the other way; the camera swiveled left. So while he walked his character with the analog stick and had it fight with gestures of his right hand, he was moving the camera with rolls of his left wrist — almost like he was patting his head, rubbing his stomach and roller skating at the same time, though the motions were somehow quickly intuitive. "I'm hoping this becomes standard," he said.
After a quiet few months, the PSP is enjoying a wave of new releases, including a pair of hip-hop console games getting a portable tweak. "When you come from Bed Stuy, Brooklyn, survival ain't a choice, it's a way of life," intones the narrator of EA's rap-fighting game "Def Jam Fight for New York: The Takeover." "You wanted to stay legit, but check it, sometimes the streets make the choice for you and hard work ain't enough to keep your hands clean." Through the story mode, players can brawl with the likes of Ludacris, Snoop Dogg and Xzibit. Then there's this: "You ever have one of those days that start out normal and end up with bullets flying?" asks 50 Cent at the beginning of "50 Cent: Bulletproof G-Unit Edition." "Well you're about to. It's some crazy-ass sh--, but that's the 'hood: a hard place to live and an easy place to die." 50's game stars the rapper in a series of ultra-violent shootouts, all played from an overhead view. And for those who don't want to go to the 'hood with their PSP, Tuesday (September 5) sees the release of "Loco Roco," a critically-acclaimed cartoon-sweet game about rolling a cluster of happy, singing blobs from left to right through a series of lush storybook environments.
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