Monday, June 30, 2014

What Valiant Hearts Is Like

Over the past few days I've become obsessed with the game Valiant Hearts, which is set in World War I, a time of colossal human tragedy, devastating horrors and rampant fetch quests. The era was apparently filled with needy people who needed things, and you and the other characters you control (including an adorable pup I named Barky) are the only ones who can get stuff for anyone.

It's an amazing game -- my favorite of the year so far outside of Mario Kart 8 -- but it also has the tendency to stress me out. Nothing in the game comes easy. If you want to do something as simple as get a bottle of medicine to help a dying soldier, you will have to pay for that medicine, possible with an apple. Do you just find an apple on the ground? No. You will also have to pay for that apple, which will have to be looted from a corpse trapped inside a cave blocked off with steel you have to dynamite by throwing a stick through fire you create by patching up pipework via pulling a string.

So, tough times. But you feel triumphant, if exhausted, whenever you manage to solve its crazy labyrinth of fetch quests. If only the game had started in time to tell Archduke Franz Ferdinand not to get assassinated and set off a senseless conflict.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The 10 Worst NES Games

Although the NES had its highs, giving me some of my favorite gaming memories, it definitely wasn't shy about drilling us all with stinkers at regular intervals. Here are the NES games that made me cry:

10. Wrecking Crew (Nintendo, 1985) — At least one of the crappy single-screen Mario games deserved a spot on this list, and I went back and forth between this and Mario Bros. for a while. This one won out because Mario doesn't even have the ability to jump. That's right. The character originally conceived as "Jumpman" in Donkey Kong is wearing lead shoes. And unlike Bionic Commando, he doesn't even have an arm that lets him swing across platforms. Instead, your job is to whack things with a hammer, stand around because you screwed up and now must wait for your impending death, then die.

9. Anticipation (Nintendo, 1988) — "Ya know what's wrong with connect the dots?" one producer must have said to another. "There's not enough Ouija Board in it." And hence, Anticipation was born. Billing itself as Nintendo's first board game, it asked you to pass the controller around as you took turns guessing the name of the connect-the-dots object onscreen through the tedious process of scrolling through the alphabet and e v e r  s o  s l o w l y punching in usually-misspelled guess.

8. Deadly Towers (Broderbund, 1987) — NES games were notoriously tough, but this one took things overboard. You play as a dagger-tossing prince who tries to kill impossible-to-kill creatures and find hidden shops to upgrade his equipment in order to make the creatures only slightly impossible to kill. In the ages before online walkthroughs, the only way to progress was to fail miserably for hours on end, then bang your head against the wall until you hallucinated success.

7. The Simpsons: Bart vs. the Space Mutants (Acclaim, 1991) — Back when The Simpsons was new, I begged my parents for anything with Bart's face on it, and convinced myself that the crappy t-shirts, this game and The Simpsons Sing the Blues cassette tape were all amazing. Hindsight shows us the error of my ways. The brawler-style side-scroller has almost none of the charm as the far better arcade game. Awful controls ensure constant death, not only of your character but your patience.

6. Track & Field II (Konami, 1988) — If there's one way to simulate the abilities of Olympic athletes, the developers figured, it was the pounding of the A button until your skin starts to peel off. No matter whether you choe triple jump, canoeing, pole vault or any other of the events, your job was to pound that A button to build up your power level. If you had the NES Max or Advantage controllers, the game was way too easy. If you used a regular controller, it was impossible.

5. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (Nintendo, 1988) — Throwing away most everything that made the original Zelda great, the slapped-together follow-up finds a tiny Link doll waddling through a needlessly huge overworld, only to transform into a spindly doofus who hops through side-scrolling levels when he's confronted with a monster or enters a town or dungeon. One of the few likenesses to the original this bastard child keeps is its insistence on stopping you from progressing unless you dig up items cruelly hidden from you in places you'd never think to look.

4. Urban Champion (Nintendo, 1986) — The one-on-one fighter is all about punching, blocking and avoiding falling down a sewer while dodging flower pots dropped by people who must be annoyed you couldn't find anything better to play. Your opponent never changes, you can never move on to a more interesting background and there are no special moves or even much strategy to put into play. I'm pretty sure this game was made in 10 minutes on a dare.

3. Bill and Ted's Excellent Video Game Adventure (LJN, 1991) — One way to make your game last longer is to make item you need to advance impossible to find. Bill and Ted's goes a step farther by filling each level with crazed enemies you have to avoid, giving you no time to look for stuff. Each level has a historical figure you need to find and draw into your time machine with you with one of these un-findable items by switching between two heroes stuck in parallel timelines. The game confused me on so many levels.

2. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Konami, 1989) — No game inspired as much controller-slamming rage as this brutal side-scroller. Memories of the water-set disable-the-bomb level still creep into our nightmares, and thoughts of tangling with the ridiculous bosses still makes us shudder. This brutal dream crusher was available on the Wii's Virtual Console but was yanked a few years ago. The official reason for the disappearance was "licensing issues," but I'd like to think Konami was just trying to act in the best interests of gamers everywhere by refusing to let this beast torture them any longer.

1. 10-Yard Fight (Nintendo, 1985) — I'd forgive an ancient football game for the inability to include the proper number of players on the field, but it's tougher to overlook forgetting to include things like correct scoring and plays. This rugby-like abomination avoids a soundtrack in favor of the repetitive sounds of players' footsteps and dives. Kickoffs bizarrely pit a 5-player defense against an all-but unstoppable 9-player return team. Things get easier for the defense should it be lucky enough to somehow tackle a ball carrier, because the offense is limited to a triple-option attack that gets fewer points depending on how long it takes to score. I remember being all giddy about getting to play football on my NES, only to be crushed that there was nothing close to football in the game.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

If I Were A Dancing With The Stars Judge

I would be an overpraising judge -- filling contestants with false hopes that they were really talented, only to have them kicked off the show soon and be scrubbing toilets again in three weeks -- but would just select a performance at random to give a zero. I would always select an overconfident dude for the distinction.

My only explanation to my chosen mark would be "You should be ashamed of yourself for disgracing the show."

Hopefully the contestant would approach me in anger, and then I would pull off one of the 19th century gentleman gloves I was wearing and slap him across the face with it.

I should be a TV executive.

Friday, June 27, 2014

What It's Like To Get Laid (Off)

I lost my job of 17 years today. I must have left it under my bed, or maybe it fell out of my pants pocket when I was using the bathroom.

The Arizona Daily Star, which plucked me out of the crib (or out of college as an 18-year-old freshman sportswriter -- can't quite recall) and later gave me the greatest job I ever had -- 8 glorious years as a movie critic -- eliminated my regional reporter position.

This wasn't the way I'd pictured leaving. I fantasized that one day I'd be scooped up by a giant magazine or newspaper, back when such things existed, and give a tearful farewell speech that everyone in the newsroom hoped ended soon so they could cut up my goodbye cake and get back to work.

Instead, there were no tears or cake. Just as I was about to head off to lunch, I got a single-ring call on my desk phone. That's usually a sign of trouble. An editor was maybe calling me from across the room about a problem in one of my stories, or possibly an angry caller had been transferred over. I expected urgency on the other end of the line, but instead was greeted by a calm, soothing voice of an HR director, asking if I could stop by her office.

I instinctively grabbed my phone, fearing the worst. As I lumbered downstairs, I sorted through my mental files, wondering if I had done anything controversial that would merit a verbal rap on the fist. Coming up empty, I shoved the fears out of the way, hoping that HR was calling everyone down one by one to give them a rundown about some new policy change or handbook adjustment. I had worried about layoffs for many of the past several years, but strangely had slipped into a comfort zone, assuming that my job was as safe as any, and that the herd had been thinned out as much as possible for the time being.

As soon as I stepped into the office and saw a higher-up waiting for me, I knew what was going on. Like my cancer-stricken dog, Goose, when he felt the piercing of the vet's life-ending syringe in his neck, I accepted my fate with solemn dignity. Or apathy? I was told I'd be paid for the remainder of the day, receive a last paycheck and lose my benefits at midnight. They asked me to hand over my badge and lanyard and told me they'd box up all the junk in my desk for me and ship it home. The upshot, encased in kindness, was that I'd never be allowed to go anywhere near my desk again. Just like that, it was no longer my desk, but just a desk.

I was handed a two-page contract that offered me a severance check in return for my signature. To get my hands on that money I would have signed a sworn affidavit accepting responsibility for the Kennedy assassination, the Hindenburg disaster and New Coke, so I didn't much care about the specifics. Still, I read every word, signed two copies and was escorted to the parking lot by a tiny little security guard who surprised me by not selling me Girl Scout cookies afterward.

So off I drove, jobless for the first time in forever. I'd need to sort through my career prospects and contacts, see about rolling over my 401(k) (into my wallet!), check if I could somehow get Obamacare before my insurance card turned into a pumpkin at midnight, change all my social media passwords that my old computer remembered and, most urgently, finally get that lunch.