Sunday, November 13, 2016

VGM Podcasts Review

Video game music has always had a big part in my life, at least since I started gaming. More recently it's pretty much overshadowed every other kind of music and become near the only kind of music I listen to. To be fair, in recent years gaming music has become so diverse that you can get your fill no matter what kind of genre you prefer, but mine happens to still mainly be chiptune-style. As mentioned a couple of posts ago, this also eventually led me into looking for podcasts centred around VGM to keep me company during my bike rides to and from work. And I've actually managed to find quite a few, of varying quality that I thought I would write a little more about. Firstly, it's important to note that what I am after when listening to a VGM podcast is mainly the music. Some podcasts delve a bit deeper into the technical aspects of the making and creating of VGM and while I do find those parts interesting as well, I prefer the ones that just play as many tracks as possible, with a bit of commenting. My evaluation of the podcasts I listen to will of course be biased by my preferences in this regard.

But where is the harp?

Battle Bards by Syp, Steph and Syl
This is probably my favorite or at least one of my favorite VGM podcasts. Eventhough they have niched into MMO-music specifically, which initially had me thinking that I'd get bored with the podcast eventually, they manage to make so much from their topics. The dynamic between the three hosts is by far the best out of the podcasts I listen to - they have completely different tastes and are not afraid to tell eachother. This leads to interesting discussions about the quality of the different tunes and I especially enjoy hearing the different perspectives they often have on the very same tune. This podcast is also unique among the ones I listen to in that it intersperses the music with the talking, rather than listening to a tune (or two) and then talking about it which is the standard procedure, and it really works! Sound levels can be off sometimes, where the music is too loud to hear what they are saying, but that is only occasionally and definitely not enough to remove any of the fun from listening to this gang talking and bickering about MMO VGM. Highly recommended!

Forever Sound Version by Michael
This podcast has only just gotten started and it's off to a very good start. Forever Sound Version is a bit unusual as he does most of the episodes on his own (although he is not the only one as we will see). He does a great job at it however - the focus is on music and the talking only adds to the tunes by keeping it relevant and interesting. Because he (mostly) does the episodes alone, he stays on point which can be very nice when you've listened to a couple of podcasts in a row where the hosts stray off the topics. For the first couple of episodes I've listened to he has managed to strike a nice balance between technical, informative and personal when talking about the tunes and my only gripe is that I feel he sometimes brushes through some topics a bit quick, I wouldn't mind longer episodes!

That's better.

Rhythm N Pixels by Rob and Pernell
Another great podcast with a duo of guys who just want to share some good tunes, making the podcast very laid-back and unpretentious. They choose an often whacky topic that they base their tunes around, which allows for a nice mixture of music. This podcast is more personal and goofy and less technical and I especially enjoy it for the often great variety in music within each episode. It's fun to hear the hosts thoughts around the different topics which can be as diverse as "Fire Levels", "Map Themes" and "All the Fours" and they always find a good balance between the personal anecdotes and music, giving each tune a personal touch without becoming repetative. They also do focus episodes where they listen to music from a specific composer or game series. Again, this podcast is very snack-sized which does go well with it's overall style, but I wouldn't mind them being longer! On the other hand it comes out more often than most other VGM podcasts.

Pixeltunes Radio by Mike and Ed
If you want a VGM podcast with a lot of chatting and topic wandering, this is the podcast for you! I'm not saying that sarcastically, it really comes down to matter of taste. This podcast definitely has a lot of charm, and one of the best thing about it is that there will be a lot of tunes per episode. They also do their own video game inspired skits which I find is a great idea and I am amazed at all the ideas they come up with for these skits. Unfortunately the podcast suffers from a bit of what I'd like to call "bromancing", meaning most of the discussions around the tunes can be wrapped up into "it's a great tune, dude". It's understandable to choose only music you like for your VGM podcast, but if you're a duo of hosts and both like exactly the same kind of music, it doesn't allow for much fun conversation about it and sort of removes the need for being two hosts in the first place. This is also one of the goofier podcasts on my list, and they wander off a bit too much for my taste sometimes. This podcast is also more of a video game podcast that is heavy on the music, because they often get very in-depth describing the game they're covering. They can go into full detail about everything from the first screen, through stage by stage until the end scene. This means it can get a bit far inbetween the songs with information I don't feel I need, but if you like a podcast where you get to know every detail about a game, this is great for you!

Even better!

Pixelated Audio by Bryan and James
This podcast is extremely similar to Pixeltunes Radio and therefor has roughly the same strengths and weaknesses. It does get a bit more technical and it can be quite fun to hear different channels from a certain tune and the hosts explaining what they do and how they affect the song. They also manage to get some really good guests on this show, everything from Chris Huelsbeck to Peter McConnell (the guy who did the OST for Grim Fandango). They often choose rather obscure games to cover, which can be nice if you want to find some new music to listen to and not just something that covers the same old classics (this is also true for Pixeltunes Radio). A bit too much focus on stuff that isn't VGM and with the same issues of bromance, it's an overall good podcast with just a bit much talking. Just as with Pixeltunes Radio this is a "pick the raisins" kind of show for me.

Sound of Play by the Cane & Rinse hosts
Sound of Play is a spin-off of sorts from the Cane & Rinse podcast. Sound of Play has full focus on VGM and although there occassionally are more than one host for the show they often limit their talking to personal experiences with the games and some thoughts about the tunes. Very straightforward and mellow, it is great if you just want to listen to a lot of music with as little talking as possible. I don't know if it is intentional, but Sound of Play definitely play a lot more instrumental and modern VGM tunes than chiptunes. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but if you're after 8-bit tunes you're probably better off listening to one of the other podcasts on the list.

Retro Reprise by Syp
Also a spin-off of sorts, but from Battle Bards, one of the hosts has taken it upon himself to branch out from the MMO-niche and listen to some retro tunes in this podcast. The formula is otherwise similar to Battle Bards in that the music is interspersed with the talking and Syp also does a good job at keeping the talking interesting and relevant to the music, as with the Forever Sound Version podcast. So far Retro Reprise has covered some real classics, and I think it is great. Classics are classics for a reason and great tunes can be heard over and over. There are so many things called Retro Reprise on the internet, so this can best be found under the Battle Bards homepage.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

We Were Right! Thoughts on the Switch

Almost exactly 8 months ago I wrote a post on some of the rumours surrounding the console now known as the Nintendo Switch. Based on the rumours I was pretty excited - it seemed Nintendo would go back to cartridges and do a crossover console basically turning their handheld and stationary into one. I loved both of these concepts, here we are more than half a year later and it turns out these rumours are pretty much true. As far as I know the cartridges have not been confirmed (although I think you can see it in the reveal trailer), but it seems pretty clear Nintendo are going to go for something like it.

So what can I say? I am not any less intrigued today than I was then, in fact I am thrilled so much of what I hoped for actually turned out to be true (as it seems). I absolutely love the entire idea and I am happy that Nintendo seem to have gone and done another... well Nintendo. Few people think so much out of the box like they do and rarely does it end up being a complete failure.

It looks better than anything I could've imagined (yes, even the dog head) and there are few things about it I don't have high hopes for. There are of course some important issues that need to work like battery Life - the portable screen (and all the other peripherals) needs to have a decent battery life, nothing substantially less than the 3DS is boasting now, if Nintendo wants this to work as part of their handheld line as well. I'm sure they don't need reminding that one thing the comparatively weak Game Boy had over its competitors was battery life (and game library).

I also find it a tad optimistic of them to show people split screening the portable screen. Eventhough it doesn't state the exact size of the screen I am pretty sure it is way too tiny to be split up and still give satisfying game play for everyone involved (especially in a moving car). I did grow up split screening a lot of games on a 16 inch TV and never recall it being an issue, but this screen is most likely smaller and people are just used to bigger screens nowadays. I know people around me who complain when they have split 30 inch TVs in a well lit, non-moving, living room. I love the idea of wirelessly hooking up several of the portable screens for some on the go multiplayer though, and since I know how effortlessly Nintendo have made it work in the more recent Pokémon instalments I have high hopes this will work fine for the Switch.

I have no idea what I am doing

Speaking of Switch, I like the name. Some people (like my bf) who don't like change and have gotten used to the NX moniker seem a bit reluctant to call it anything else. But "the Switch", as it no doubt will be known as, is short and neat and says everything you need to know about it (unlike a name like Playstation 4, which I can only assume it has because Sony are so damn proud of coming up with Playstation in the first place. By the way, I wonder if Gamecube is a play on that? Although, Xbox One is probably worse, at least ps4 is consistent and clear). I find it actually sounds "hip" without trying too hard, unlike NX would've. It also avoids the confusion the WiiU caused, having some people wonder if it was another console at all or just an addon to the Wii. I guess that time Nintendo tried to ride off the wave of fortune the Wii had spawned, but it clearly had the opposite effect.

This time around Nintendo seem to be promising a much bigger third-party support, which really was one of the biggest issues for the WiiU which is otherwise a cool console. None of the games shown in the trailer are anything that will make me throw money on the screen though. I am not a huge Zelda fan (and they cleverly avoid to show any interesting gameplay in the video), I couldn't care less for Skyrim (which hasn't been confirmed as a port or anything else anyway). I don't do sports games and I probably will never play Splatoon (although it seems like a decent game). I suck at any and every Mario game I've played and that only really leaves Mario Kart which ok... I always enjoy to play Mario Kart.

Dude... that things is going to fall on to the floor and break like that.

And that is pretty much it. Nintendo don't have to show me another Smash Bros, Mario Kart or Mario Party because (unlike the Metroid series) I know they will be on there, and they are what I am after.

I love that it is basically a little Swiss Army Knife-console, allowing you to turn it into what you need it to be for the moment. It looks like a lot of things for my 3 year old to accidentally (or deliberately) break, but just as with everything else precious to me it's up to me to make sure that doesn't happen.

I can't say for certain I'm not going to miss my Game Boy though, assuming the Switch means Nintendo are moving away from a pure handheld console. For instance, will I want to bring the portable screen with me on a trip somewhere? How do I charge it then? Do I have to bring the entire console? I dislike any handheld that doesn't have a flip-screen as the possibility of scratching the screen always gets me proper stressed out. Getting some sort of protective gear for the Switch seems like a necessity, but it isn't for my 3DS. To me this looks more like a portable, rather than a handheld, if you get the distinction. Basically I am worried that in trying to fuse these two worlds together, Nintendo are going to end up just getting both of them done half-assed. But, it is Nintendo we are talking about here. If anyone can pull it off, they can.

If the Switch is anywhere near as smooth to use as it seems like in the trailer (which I doubt it is, those people don't even have to turn their TVs on to play - or do they just leave them on all day?) I think it is going to be one hell of a cool console and I am very hyped about it coming out as soon as early next year. I really hope my economy (and the launch line-up) is good enough for me to buy one.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Character Creation and Identification

Now since I am playing a new game every now and then, I've come across a feature in gaming that I realize the developers have put a whole lot of effort into, and that I really couldn't care less about. I am, of course, talking about character creation, and specifically the looks of your character (as opposed to the stats of your character, which I care quite a lot about). As I started playing Dragon Age: Origins recently and I yet again only clicked "random" and "done" on my character, I took some time to think about it. Do the character looks matter to me at all? I tried thinking back to different games I've played where character creation was a thing, and the only time I could remember ever caring about it was in World of Warcraft. But then I wasn't so sure anymore. Was it really that simple for me? Is there no part of the character that is important to me, and in that case what and why?

Thinking back to early 90's and even before then, I hardly consider the characters even relatable. I don't think of Mario or Sonic as characters as much as a tool or prop I am using to get through the stage. Maybe this is the reason that many characters from this era have some really far-out character designs - like Plok, Chuck D Head, Dynamite Headdy and every animal in the animal kingdom. The games were then often designed to fit those characters. And eventhough character creation in terms of stats had been around for a long time, in terms of looks has only been more common fairly recently.

I think he/she is supposed to be laundry.

It's almost always been limited to role-playing games, and it makes sense. RPG's are the games where the creators want you be yourself playing someone else, hence the term "role-playing". In this way character creation is about identification, either about identifying with the character you're playing because they look like you or because they look like someone you want to be within that game. Sometimes these decisions have actual practical outcomes within the game and I realized that for me at least, that was by far the most important factor for deciding what kind of character I wanted to play.

Back when I started gaming, being able to identify with the character I was playing meant having to accept I was playing as someone who looked nothing like me. As a white female there were few games that allowed me to play as a character where I could pretend she was me (Perfect Dark and Lara Croft comes to mind, none of which I've actually played) and I just never did. Even removing all the games where anyone would have trouble identifying themselves with the main character (like the above-mentioned games) there were plenty of role-playing games (and still are) that don't offer any choice. I got so used to it that I stopped thinking about it and thought that is not even an effect I am after when I play video games, the same way I don't look for that effect when reading a book. I can get immersed in the story, sure - so much that it really deeply resonates with me. But I really didn't need to feel like I was the main character for this to happen. At least not until recently.

Definitely recommend Divine Divinity.

But let's linger in the 90's for a bit longer, even early 00's. The vast majority of games I played had a male, specifically a white male, as the main protagonist. I don't think it ever bothered me. Because the story was told to fit that character - think Final Fantasy, Deus Ex or Thief. I got so used to this that even at first, when I suddenly came upon games that had a choice, I chose to play as a male as long as the gender had no further impact on the game. When I played Divine Divinity I played as a male. When I played Diablo 2 I chose solely based on class and didn't care about gender. Same thing in Geneforge. Being used to only think of the character as a tool it took me a while to identify with it and I still don't really care when I play older role-playing games.

But then came the character-interaction heavy games, like the before mentioned Dragon Age, or games like Mass Effect and in a similar-but-different-sense any MMO really. Either I have to interact with other players or with other characters in a character-developing-social-kind of way I realized that I wanted to play as a female. Suddenly, when characters were interacting about anything from their favorite wine to whether to get all smoochy, I felt like doing this in a gender I didn't identify with would feel odd somehow. I know I can do it, and will have to do it in games like The Witcher for instance, but given the choice I definitely prefer doing it as a female.

Morrigan gets on my tits though, and not in the good way.

I had this thought initially in WoW as well. All my first characters were female, I guess so that players around me would now that I was also female. Funnily enough, eventhough anyone can choose any gender for their characters, I found that female characters were treated differently from male ones. After I had played the game for a while I lost all interest in representing my gender in my character and went with whichever had the best fighting and casting animations (male tauren is so much better than female tauren for instance and female orc wins over male orc any day). But in games that are dialogue-heavy this still matters to me. I have no idea if it would even if I knew the dialogue and options would be exactly the same between the different genders however.

One could ask the question why? Why do I need to interact "as a female" in a game just because I happen to be one? Of course it has to do with relatability, but since most female dialogue and interaction is also written by men (just my guess), I am in fact ending up playing a male interpretation of a female anyway. I don't want to make this a big discussion about gender differences, but in games they generally are very few and only stretch so far as to whom you can date (some games have even removed those restrictions, thankfully enough). So why do I feel slightly more comfortable doing these social interactions looking like a girl? Especially since it doesn't seem to bother me in other situations? Is it just so I can come on to the male characters if I want to (and I rarely want to anyway)?  I honestly have no good answer to these questions but I think they are interesting because it really comes down to how we enjoy games. It's just something about what feels right.

It's impossible to convey in a picture how awful the 3rd person view is.

Looks still holds no importance to me however. When it comes to looks I seem to be able to identify with anyone. In fact I played as a black character in Fallout 3 and was thrilled to see that my "father" had my looks. At first it confused me because the only father-character I had seen in trailers and the like was a white male so I was very pleasantly surprised to see that Bethesda had taken this part into consideration when giving you free hand to create your character's looks. In hindsight it is obviously perfectly logical.

So I thought maybe the looks of a character doesn't bother me at all because I know that no matter what I make my character look like, the game will treat me the same. In fact many games, Fallout 3 being among them, you are given the option to put a lot of time and effort on your character, only to find you won't even see them that often (unless you play in 3rd-person view, and in Fallout 3 you really don't want to). I spoke to a guy who was playing Destiny, if I remember correctly, and he told me he had spent up towards and hour on his character, only to find it looked exactly the same as everyone else once the armor came on. And generally, the armor stays on.

I know people to whom character creation matter a whole lot and who spent a lot of time to make their character look just right.  I wonder how they feel about playing games where there is no choice as to what your character is going to be. I guess I have a more pragmatic look on it where I only care as far as it will affect my gameplay (this is why I loved playing as Oddjob in Golden Eye). I'd like to think that gender is only important when it affects gameplay. But then I remember that I always choose to play as a female in Pokémon (ever since the option was introduced at least) and in that game the gender truly does not matter. And then I think that maybe I thought I didn't care about having to play a guy because I had to stop caring, because if it bothered me too much there wouldn't really be many games out there for me to get enjoyment from. I truly loved Deus Ex and Thief, but I can't help thinking that I might've enjoyed them a little bit more if I got the option to play as a female.