Good to be Back!

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Nintendo and I have an estranged relationship.  Once upon a time, we were inseparable.  For most of my life, in fact.  I had always been a dyed in the wool Nintendo fan.  For the longest time, I’d only owned Nintendo consoles, bought all of their major releases, subscribed to their magazine, made stupid arguments on their behalf in forums, all that sort of thing.  I was lucky enough to get my hands on the original NES right about the time I was learning to read, and my loyalty to the company was kept strong throughout the years that followed.

I had even been one of those guys that always seem to get shown on local news at console launches, waiting around well in advance for the release of the Wii.  It seems kind of silly now, but once upon a time I was so excited for a console launch I spent six hours sitting next to an ex-girlfriend in the gardening section of Wal-mart impressing my fellow nerds with my knowledge of how the Nintendo Zapper while waiting for midnight to strike so I could be one of the first in town with the system.  For a while after the release of the Wii, things were good.

Yet slowly, surely, I started to grow apart from the company.  I’m not going to be one of those consumers who claims the Wii has no good games, and that Nintendo’s abandoned their core market, because that’s not quite true.  The Wii has plenty of quality games, and Nintendo’s efforts on the DS at least show that they’ve still got the dedicated game player in mind.  It was true, however, that the frequency of game releases on the Wii that delivered the experience I was wanting was pretty low.  I started to dally in other consoles.  First, I took a PS2 off a friend’s hands, then I bought an Xbox 360.  Meanwhile, I slowly started to use my Wii more for its backwards compatibility than anything else, with only the most significant Wii releases finding a spot in my library.  I did have some really good times with my Wii, but those times were fewer than I would have liked, and as a result, Nintendo and I just grew apart.

And so it was for a fair while, Nintendo becoming just a footnote in my gaming life, rather than holding the amount of brainspace it had earlier.  But something has given me cause to review that relationship.  Recently, I finally got myself a 3DS as an early birthday present, and with it, a small collection of some of Nintendo’s recent offerings.  And it feels just like old times.  Nintendo was such a large part of my childhood, and this new console is fulfilling that old nostalgia while still offering new experiences.  It feels like I’ve been welcomed back as if I’d never parted ways with the company that made up so much of my gaming history.  Even in my brief return to Nintendo’s worlds, their games on the 3DS has been offering me the exact experiences I was hoping for from the Wii.

It remains to be seen if Nintendo and I can build the bridges we had once burned, but with my new 3DS, I’ve got more hope in my once favorite company than I have in half a decade.  May this be the renewal of the treasured experiences Nintendo once offered me, and beyond.

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Better Art Beats Better Graphics

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A couple of years ago, I decided I wanted to learn to draw better.  I picked up some basic erasers, a cheap sketchpad, and three grades of pencils.  Essentially, I had could produce one shade of light tones, one shade of middle tones, and one shade of dark tones with the tools that I had.  I stuck with those tools for a while, building up my skills.   I largely ignored any sense of color variation and shading, and just used the light pencil for basic sketching and detailing, the mid-pencil for tracing over my sketch lines and making them more visible, and the dark pencil for areas that were supposed to be black.  My drawings remained pretty rudimentary, limited by both my selection of pencils and my uses of them.

One Christmas, a friend of mine gave me a set of shading pencils as a gift.  Ten pencils of progressing gradients from 2H (relatively light) to 8B (really, really dark).  At first, I had no idea what to do with them.  I had no idea how to properly work shading into my pictures, and just drawing minorly different shades of lines didn’t seem that useful to me.  I kept experimenting, though, and once I learned how to properly use them in my drawings, well… I essentially went from drawing like this:

Death and Bunny

to drawing like this:

Unto the Breach

in a relatively short amount of time.  Those pencils not only gave me different shades to work with, they allowed me to use different techniques, to truly advance my artistic skills.  Sure, I could have just used them as I did my old pencils, and my pictures would have been a slight bit better, but it wasn’t until I started using them to do something new that I truly reached the next generation of my work.

The recent launch of the Xbox One and the PS4 has given me cause to reflect on that.  Just like I was when I received those new pencils, game designer should now have access to more tools to create their art than ever before.  Yet, if they just keep doing the same things with them, like if I had just used those new pencils for drawing lines, the eighth generation of consoles will be totally wasted.

Graphics get a lot of play when talking about, well, pretty much any console advancement, for solid reasons.  Evaluating a game’s worth solely by its graphics is about as dumb as evaluating an actor’s skill solely by how good he looks.  After all, I’m not the world’s greatest actor, am I?  However, there’s no denying that graphics have a universal appeal and can be markedly impressive.

Thing is, graphics are only as impressive as the work that they are used to produce.  The PS4 may be able to show 16 million colors at once, but if all of them are brown your game’s just going to look like a piece of crap.  Good graphics cannot stand alone; if you want to make a game’s visuals truly engaging, art style is key.  Graphical power is just a tool, like a pencil, to adequately display your art.

You could have the best graphics in the world, yet if your settings aren’t vibrant, your characters aren’t visually interested, and your cutscenes aren’t expressive, what is it even work.  A bland, drab landscape is never going to be interesting, no matter how high you turn up the fidelity.

Graphical power is just one more tool in the artist’s workstation.  In and of itself, it’s next to worthless.  It’s only once you learn to use it, once you’re able to add to your designs rather than simply doing what you’ve always done in higher resolution, that you’re truly creating better visuals.

As proof, I’m going to take a page out of Mental Gaming‘s book and show you some landscapes.  All of these are from games on non-HD consoles, yet the artistry on display on these makes them much more visually interesting than anything you’re likely to find in Battlefield Duty 8: Call of Honor 2 or whatever.

Xenoblade Chronicles-screenshot stolen from gamingenthusiast.net

Xenoblade Chronicles-screenshot stolen from gamingenthusiast.net

Baten Kaitos Origins

Baten Kaitos Origins

Final Fantasy X

Final Fantasy X

Okami

Okami

Shadow of the Colossus-Stolen from psxextreme.com

Shadow of the Colossus-Stolen from psxextreme.com

Wrestling with GFWL in Dark Souls

Last time on Aether Flails Wildly About in Dark Souls, we rescued Griggs of Vinheim and did a whole bunch of dicking around, before being frozen by indecision as to where to go next. Well, thanks to the very talented author Harliqueen, we now have a decision on where we’re headed next! It’s back to the Northern Undead Asylum for us, revisiting where we started the game and maybe catching a few more screenshots since I barely had any that first post.

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Well… in a little bit…just got to figure out…

Yeah, Games for Windows Live was acting up a bit. It’s a nice little preview for what’s going to happen if the service truly does shut down next year. I had to disconnect my computer from the internet just to access my save games because Microsoft truly cares about the consumer and can totally provide a better DRM alternative than Steam! In any case, that means no fun with other players, no messages, nothing of the sort. On the plus side, that means that no other players get to see me sucking and dying repeatedly.  At least, not until I post this.

Ok, back up now. Most places in the game, you can just walk to. It’s one of the bonuses about having an open world. The Northern Undead Asylum’s a little different, though. If you’ll recall, we had to get carried away by a giant crow last time. Walking there’s a little out of the question.

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Instead, what we do is we go back to the elevator that takes us up to the Undead Parish…

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Leap off as it’s traveling upward to land on this platform…

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Take a leap from this cliff to that tower…

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Get this key from the corpse on the roof of the building next to the tower and try not to imagine that the crow just dropped him onto there…

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Say hi to Snuggly as we pass by…

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Then find Snuggly’s nest at the top of the tower and pretend to be an egg. Eventually, she’ll come up to carry us off, back to the Asylum.

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And there we go! It’s like magic!

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Cooking with Testosterone: The Kentucky Whiskey Cake

So here’s a post that has nothing to do with anything you’ve likely ever visited my blog for. I mentioned a while ago that one of the things that pushed me towards starting this blog was a series of cooking posts I did on Facebook.  Well, I recently did another such post, and figured I’d share it here.  So I hope you enjoy my joining the world’s hipsters and writing about my food.

Just a bit of background info, I’m a meat eater sharing a house with two vegetarians. I often get people asking me how I deal with it. I can understand their concern. I’m pretty much half-man, half-beast as is, and all the most awesome beasts are obligate carnivores. They’re just concerned for my health. Thing is, being the only meat eater in the house, it’s actually pretty freakin’ awesome. Want to have some delicious food and don’t feel like sharing? Just cook up something with meat in it, and the herbivores can’t even touch it.

However, there’s a limit to the amount of things you can wrap bacon around and still have them be good. Desserts in particular are problematically meat-free. And that leaves me with one specific issue. How am I going to make myself delicious cakes while still being the greedy SOB that I am? I’ve struggled with this for years, before I recently came up with the perfect answer. Just like much else in life, this is a problem that can easily be solved with proper application of hard liquor. See, I’m the only real drinker in the house, meaning that if I can work a good drink into my cake, everyone else should have no interest in it.

(Yes, I know cooking removes most of the alcohol from the liquor, but shhhh……)

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Which brings us to today’s little delight: my Kentucky Whiskey Cake. This was supposed to be an Irish Whiskey Cake, but I changed the titular ingredient to bourbon for two reasons. The first is that I didn’t actually have Irish whiskey, whereas I did have plenty of bourbon. The second is USA! USA!

This is actually a pretty fruity cake, with both raisins and lemons playing pretty prominent roles. So this post is both educational as well as entertaining, let’s take a break to list a couple of fun facts about lemons.

  • Did you know that lemon juice has been used for centuries to discover small nicks and cuts in your skin? Try it yourself, and see how it works!
  • Did you know that lemon rinds are a pain to properly grate?
  • Did you know that if you’re grating a lemon rind, and you brush a knuckle against the grater, you’ll magically learn several new swear words?

Anyways, you grate a full lemon rind, get a bunch of raisins, and soak them in your best whiskey overnight, then puree them and mix with a bit of cloves, brown sugar, and generic cake batter. Well, technically the recipe doesn’t call for a puree, but I don’t play by your rules so I just went ahead and did it anyway. After baking, and icing of lemon juice and sugar tops the concoction off well.

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It turned out pretty well, I’d say. The whiskey taste is present, while understated, with the raisins and cloves providing the strongest flavors of the mix. Sure, there are a few things I could do better, but in all, I’d have to say this is a desert worthy of a champion. Namely, me. I can’t give any higher praise than that.

I am Thou… The Persona Retrospective: Introduction

So you remember last time we did this whole retrospective thing, when we were writing essays on each game of the Saints Row series and then all of a sudden they decided to release the fourth game about the time we would have finished up?  Most people would probably just write that off as coincidence.  But if you’ve been reading my blog, you know that I am far from being most people.  After much consideration, I’ve been forced to come to the conclusion that I have magic powers.  If I write enough words about a series, it will put the arcane forces into motion and summon the next game into being.  It’s a heavy responsibility, but I’m going to use these powers for the good of everyone.  See, there’s one series that is truly among the best of its peers, yet hasn’t had a real sequel for half a decade.  I speak, of course, of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona.

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You’ve probably heard of Japan.  If you haven’t, it’s that place where approximately 28% of weird on the internet comes from.  They’re very committed to their craft of making everything weird, and very little passes through their hands unscathed.  Give them pillows, they turn those into girlfriends.  Mention Mein Kampf to them, they’ll make it a manga.  Try to teach them about Jesus, they’ll turn him into a busty, scantily clad blonde woman who’s constantly the victim of sexual aggression.

You thought I was joking.

You thought I was joking.

So I guess we should be glad that when introduced to the basics of Jungian psychology, they just ended up making a series of JRPGs out of them.

The Megami Tensei series is one of the longest running JRPG series there is, with the first game actually coming out a couple of months before the original Final Fantasy.  The series is known for several things, including its high degree of complexity and challenge, its heavy use of mythology and religion, and its high degree of focus on spin-offs in comparison to other series.

And it’s the last of those points that brings us to the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona series.  One of Megaten’s first spinoffs, the series launched on the PS1 in 1996 and has been going strong since.  Probably intended as a more accessible gateway to the famously opaque main series, the Persona games certainly dial the challenge and complexity the series is famous for back quite a bit, ending up being merely really hard rather than Megaten’s standard controller-crunching difficulty.  In exchange, the Persona games are among the most character-driven and plot-focused of Megami Tensei’s offerings.  As the series go on, they only get better at this aspect, building up sprawling epics that absolutely will make you care about at least some of the characters on offer.

Both the gameplay and plots centers around the titular personas, the characteristics a person adopts to deal with others made manifest in the physical realm.  Every character in your party has formed their personas into some sort of god or mythical creature, and draws strength from them in addition to being able to summon them to deal with their enemies.  These personas are obtained through various means across the games, but they are the central pivot holding everything together.  Other bits of Jungian psychology, such as shadows and the collective unconscious, also get a fair bit of play throughout the series, but it is always the persona at front and center.

Battles are turn-based and often require quite a bit more thought than your standard JRPG.  Just hammering on the ‘fight’ button indiscriminately will get you nowhere.  Instead, you have to take advantage of the various strengths and weaknesses of yourself and your enemies to truly succeed.  The series has a heavy emphasis on dungeon crawling as well, with buildings twisting themselves into maze-like structures the likes of which would drive any engineer mad.  Resource management is also a central point of gameplay, moreso than most other JRPGs.

For the first three games, the Persona series is extremely experimental.  They’re constantly trying new things, including several that you’d be crazy to try to put into any serious game.  The experiments don’t always work out, but when they do, they work wonderfully.  In any case, playing these games gives you an experience that’s certainly unlike any other, and it’s honestly interesting to watch the series progress from being just a few alterations away from Shin Megami Tensei If… to being something so stridently different from any of the series’ other offerings.

The tone of the Persona games is a little more varied than the main series’ usual dour resolution.  In fact, this is one of the more optimistic series in Shin Megami Tensei canon, with your characters actively averting apocalypse rather than simply surviving and dealing with its aftermath.  That said, the series does take some really dark turns, moreso than many other JRPGs would dare.  Serious danger and death are always lurking in these games, but that does not mean there’s never any bits of levity.  In fact, some of the more memorable scenes from the series come from the characters just forgetting about the everpresent threats and just enjoying themselves for a while.

Just like last time around, we’ll be putting up a separate entry for each game.  These entries will contain a lot of words.  Hopefully, they’ll be good words, though.  We’ll be taking a look at every aspect of these games that my meager little brain can come up with.  And hopefully, I’ll develop a better understanding of them myself.  You can try to, reading over what I have to say about them.  Given the size of the series and the time it takes me to do these, it’ll likely take me a while to be complete, but I’m sure it’ll be a worthwhile journey.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some games to play.