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Turtle Tale name contest

Friend of the website Tony Miller got in touch with me to let me know about a contest he’s organized with Saturnine Games. You can read the whole thing here, but the short version is that their upcoming 3DS eShop game, Turtle Tale, stars a hero that still doesn’t have a name. But you can fix that:

From now until May 31st you can submit name ideas through a number of various outlets. You can go to Twitter and tweet your ideas to @SaturnineGames and @Nintendo_Okie. Be sure to include #nametheturtle in your post. You can send an email to nametheturtle@nintendo-okie.com. If you’ve got a Facebook account you can go to the Saturnine Games page or the Nintendo Okie Facebook Group and submit your ideas there. Entries can be submitted through all of the various means, but please don’t spam the same name to them all, be creative.

Anyone can enter, but if you live in North America and happen to be one of their favorite entries, you’ll also get a free download code for their excellent game Antipole. And I’m not just saying that…when I got the chance to curate my own shelf in the 3DS eShop last summer, this was one of my selections. Here’s why, if you don’t remember. It’s pretty awesome.

Anyway, that’s all…just wanted to pass on the information. Now get turtle namin’!

Lego City UndercoverI think video games sometimes forget that their job, at heart, is to be fun. Too many of them, especially those churned out by the largest developers, feel as though they’ve been designed by committee. They attempt to do so much and yet end up appealing to nobody. Those seeking a challenge are turned off by how easy they are, and those seeking escape are turned off by how complicated they are.

Games want to be bigger, louder, and more complex. But we don’t play games because they’re big and loud and intimidating…we play them because we want to enjoy ourselves.

I love Lego City Undercover, because “fun” seems to have been its guiding virtue during development. It positively pulses with charm and possibility. It creates a world that’s an absolute joy to explore. And that’s all it does.

Oh sure, you can unlock new vehicles, and switch from costume or costume to unlock new parts of the map. You can find hidden items and compete in races and scale the tallest buildings. But that’s just because you can do anything. This isn’t a game…it’s a universe. And it’s brilliant.

I don’t like that games are so terrified of being themselves that they feel like they have to be everything else at once. I like it when some major title manages to buck the trend simply by saying, “Here’s what I am. I hope you like me…but if you don’t, no hard feelings.”

Because all Lego City Undercover had to do was give us a loveable little Lego man to guide around a fantastically impressive plastic metropolis. Maybe we solve some crimes along the way. Maybe we cause trouble. Or maybe we just climb to the top of the tallest sky scraper and admire the view, appreciating the world of possibility that stretches out in every direction.

It’s always a beautiful day in Lego City. The game doesn’t feel the need to go dark, to take itself seriously, or to worry about how it’s going to be received.

No matter how we feel, Lego life goes on. And that’s exactly the kind of confidence that wins me over.

It’s a great game. I still haven’t seen everything it has to offer, and there’s a reason for that: I’m just enjoying my stay.

Metroidvania is not a thing.

It isn’t. Or, at least, it’s not a thing that should have that particular term appended to it.

“Metroidvania” is a classifying term gamers use to refer to video games, usually 2D, that restrict or grant progress based on the items you have. It typically takes place in a large world comprised of smaller sections. As you find items and upgrades for your character, you can explore more and more of that large world, and usually even find additional treasure and passages hidden in previous areas.

If it sounds like I’m describing Metroid here, that’s because I am. And if it doesn’t sound like I’m describing Castlevania here, that’s because I’m not.

The term “Metroidvania” is an obvious portmanteau of those two series. But there’s a problem, because Castlevania has fuckall to do with the formula.

See, when Metroid was released, this sort of gradual progression in all directions was a relatively new navigational approach for video games. Whenever a game was released afterward that followed a similar mechanic, it was usually classified as Metroid-like. Just as games that offered a stage select were often compared to Mega Man, and games that featured you jumping on enemies to kill them were compared to Super Mario Bros.

Castlevania began life as a simple — though very good — side scroller with a Hollywood-Gothic horror theme. The antagonist was typically Dracula, and the protagonist was a vampire hunter (typically of the Belmont lineage) who set out to destroy him. You fought with a whip or similar weapon through linear stages. Sub-weapons were temporary, there was no backtracking, little in the way of alternate paths, and no permanent upgrades of any kind.

In other words, it was nothing at all like Metroid.

Eventually however Konami struck rightful gold with Symphony of the Night, which was a lot like Metroid. The entire game takes place in Dracula’s castle, and you progress by collecting upgrades in the forms of items and abilities. It was, and is, a great game. And thus, “Metroidvania” was born.

Symphony of the Night — along with its similarly-themed quasi-sequels — is about the only time the term “Metroidvania” makes any sense to use. After all, it combined elements of Metroid and Castlevania.

Since then, however, the term has been thrown around to encompass anything even remotely Metroid-like, whether or not it incorporates any elements of Castlevania whatsoever. Somehow these two games — despite one being a series-wide approach and the other being a series exception — got hybridized in the cultural consciousness and had a genre of their own named after them.

But that doesn’t work. Or shouldn’t work. “Metroidvania” only makes sense if the game being described contains elements similar to each of those series, and, really, nearly always, that’s not the case. A game in which you explore a funhouse or something, throwing pies at clowns and gradually opening passages can be like Metroid. It doesn’t sound to me, though, like it could possibly be anything like Castlevania. So why would we call it a “Metroidvania?”

I find it interesting that one singular game could be looked at as Metroid‘s equivalent in defining the genre…and I also find it inaccurate. Symphony of the Night borrowed Metroid‘s approach. It added its own elements, yes, but those are not the elements that define most other games that have since fallen under the classification.

The fact that the term “Metroidvania” exists speaks volumes about how immediately important Symphony of the Night was to gaming. But nearly always, “Metroidvania” is a misnomer.

That game you’re playing where you’re seeking jump upgrades and better bombs to blast open new doors? It’s a lot like Metroid. It’s nothing like Castlevania. It is, I’ll grant you, a lot like Symphony of the Night. But Symphony of the Night was a lot like Metroid, so let’s not complicate things.

It’s Metroid-like. Unless it isn’t.

And it usually, unquestionably, is.

Retro City Rampage

Good gosh!
The hero has arrived.

Last month, a game called Retro City Rampage was released for download on the Wii. By this point, the Wii is already dead, its place in the console market usurped by the WiiU. This was a too-late release for the system in another way as well: other versions of the game on competing systems were released in 2012. The game itself was announced in 2010…and development began all the way back in 2002. That’s an extremely long journey for anything on its way to a dead platform.

I remember the announcement well, because I decided more or less immediately that I didn’t want it. It seemed like a nice idea — retro-style games such as Mega Man 9, the Bit.Trip series and VVVVVV had a pretty high success rate as far as I was concerned, and I’d take a simplistic, difficult romp over a modern-day talky slog every time — but early screen shots, and then the eventual trailer, were enormously disappointing.

Or, rather, there was one specific thing about those screenshots and trailers that was disappointing: the sheer number of references.

Retro City RampageI’ve written about this before. I’m simply not a fan of references for references’ sake. I don’t like the modern tendency for the snake to wink as it swallows its tail. I want to see art that carves out its own space to inhabit…not lazily inhabit the spaces carved out by those who came before.

There’s a place in the world for parody — of course there is — but that place is not front and center. That place is not in the spotlight. When parody becomes the dominant form of expression you end up with garbage like Epic Movie, which ends up spoofing Nacho Libre because there simply isn’t enough straight-laced material to serve as fuel anymore, and comedy has to begin eating itself.

Personally, I’m happy to blame Family Guy for the glut of lazy references and recreations masquerading as something new. Parody has existed long before Family Guy, of course, and lazy parody has existed exactly as long. But only Family Guy seems to have found more success the lazier it gets, to the point that entire sequences and acts consist of word-for-word reenactments of other programs, films, music videos, or anything else the writers might have watched earlier that week.

It’s lazy, and it’s not creative. But people eat it up. Prior to its first cancellation, Family Guy knew how to pull off its warped style of twisted comedy. Since its revival, it’s circled ceaselessly toward a lazy singularity, replacing jokes and cleverness with joyless recreations. It’s not funny, it’s not interesting, and it even drifts into the territory of insult when they decide to lift wholesale scenes from other parodies, such as Airplane! Perhaps the Family Guy staff simply can’t tell the difference anymore. Certainly its audience can’t. And that’s beyond disappointing…that’s irresponsible.

Retro City RampageRetro City Rampage appeared to be following in those footsteps. One of the areas resembled the first stage of Metal Gear for the NES, complete with on-screen mocking of that game’s infamous Engrish. Two of the characters are named Bill and Lance, who we remember from Contra. A store called WonderHats uses the ThunderCats font. A dessert parlor is called Vanilla Ice Cream. Tee hee hee.

Even its title is a triple reference: Grand Theft Auto, River City Ransom, and Rampage. This is all before you get to the clear Back to the Future homage of its cover art. The entire thing just screamed out that it was pieced together from bits and fragments of better things.

It felt cheap. It felt lazy. It felt like it was attempting to coast on the goodwill engendered by its source material, rather than any merit that it could have possibly earned on its own. It wanted the laughter of recognition. And that’s quite possibly the least satisfying kind of laughter there is.

The game boasted a huge world to explore, but if all I was doing is finding cutesy puns on the signage and identifying bland references to better games, then it didn’t feel worth exploring. At least Family Guy delivers its own personal blend of offensive laziness to you passively…Retro City Rampage required interaction. It wasn’t enough to just groan at what you were seeing…you first would have to make the effort to track it down.

And I wasn’t interested in that.

But I learned something from Retro City Rampage. Specifically, I learned that Family Guy has done even more damage than I thought. Because not only does it train me to see references like this — even in things that I enjoy — as unnecessary and annoying, but it made me forget why people started making references like this in the first place: love.

At Nintendo Life, Featured Editor and all-around great guy Thomas Whitehead interviewed Brian Provinciano, essentially the single man responsible for the entire game. And it was a good interview, but here’s what really stood out to me:

It became public knowledge on Gamasutra in 2009 that a sales threshold is in place, whereas, if you don’t sell enough copies [as a WiiWare download], you don’t get paid a cent. […] Many developers became unable to sell enough units, and this became a reason for so many cancellations of announced WiiWare titles. The publishers knew they wouldn’t make a cent and needed to cut their losses. Between the office rent, hardware, insurance, game ratings and other costs, had I not done the WiiWare version, I could’ve saved around $20,000 – not even including my salary in porting it. And as it stands, virtually no games hit the threshold these days, so it’s only being released as fan service. A $20,000 gift to the fans.

There’s no chance — and I say this in the nicest possible way — that Retro City Rampage will hit that sales threshold. Most games released through the WiiWare service never made it, and that was definitely one of Nintendo’s major missteps with the Wii. Far from encouraging developers to put their best work into the console, it encouraged them to put it anywhere else. Releasing through WiiWare was expensive, and as more developers and games failed to turn a profit, fewer developers and games went near the service at all.

Retro City RampageWith fewer games, the audience simply drifted away. A sales threshhold that was already near-impossible to hit just got shoved that much further out of reach.

Additionally the Wii is dead. And, with it, WiiWare. Retro City Rampage comes long after most Wii owners will have upgraded to the WiiU, and the ones that stayed behind aren’t likely to be in the habit of checking the shop channel anymore. On top of that, just about anyone who was dying for Retro City Rampage would have simply bought it somewhere else over the course of the past year.

And yet, here it is. Not because it’s expected to make any money…in fact, Provinciano is convinced it will lose him money. And I agree.

But he released it because he could. Because he made enough money from its other versions to put this one out there on a Nintendo console, as a gift to the fans. A “$20,000 gift to the fans,” to be exact.

And that’s love. That’s love, and that’s nothing short of love.

That’s also what made me buy Retro City Rampage. I know this version of the game won’t make a dime, but I bought it anyway. Because that’s the least I can do. Far from the smorgasbord of lazy references and winking visual recreations of classic games, Retro City Rampage was made with love. How do I know that? Because nothing but love could make you shovel twenty thousand dollars into a release you already know will be totally unprofitable.

It’s what I remembered about references, about why people make them, and why they took such an easy foothold in parody and pop-culture: making them betrays, or should, a love for that source material. It’s a form of flattery, a form of tipping one’s hat, respectfully, to those that laid the groundwork for what you are now able to do.

Family Guy doesn’t express love. It can’t, because it feels none. Its references are lazy at best and outright mean-spirited at worst. Robot Chicken feels very much the same way. It lives to deflate the cultural ephemera of days gone by. By contrast, when Futurama incorporates the lore of other science fiction works into its universe, it feels like the show saying thank you…no matter how they subvert the character, idea or object. Futurama exists because its creators and writers love the genre, and want to play with the same toys. Family Guy might have existed at first because Seth MacFarlane loved the golden age of television, but it continues to exist just to feed more meat into the grinder. It all comes out the same. A joyless, tasteless, inconsequential mush.

Retro City RampageRetro City Ransom, which I can say now that I’ve played it, is great. But I almost missed it, simply because I forgot that references aren’t always lazy…they’re often, when done right, admirable. They’re a familiar seasoning in a new and exciting dish. At least, again, when done right.

Many years ago, in 1999 or so, I made two video games myself. They were both part of the same series. The first was called Larry Vales: Traffic Division, and its sequel was Larry Vales II: Dead Girls Are Easy. I haven’t thought about them in a long time, though certainly at the time I was working on them they were everything to me. I invested a lot of creative effort into two games that, for all their faults — and there were faults, boy howdy — people enjoyed. That was all I really wanted. I wanted to make people laugh, and I wanted people to have fun.

A couple of years ago I found a video on YouTube of somebody playing through the first game. I watched it, and re-experienced the game for the first time in around a decade. And I was overwhelmed by the number of references I crammed into it. Whereas Retro City Rampage mainly pays homage to classic NES games like Super Mario Bros. and Bionic Commando and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Larry Vales paid homage to The Simpsons, and 1984, and Pink Floyd. In short, it was everything that had inspired me, at some point…just as Provinciano refers back to everything that inspired him.

Watching that video, I cringed. I felt lazy. I felt as though I had every opportunity to make something interesting and unique, but I fell back on mindlessly referring to other things that I enjoyed, hoping that others would share in the nostalgia, and that would be enough. I was being a bit harsh on myself, I think now, but I also believe there’s some truth to that.

But that’s just the Family Guy effect. I felt guilty for making those references because the practice of paying gentle homage to your inspirations has been dragged through the muck and become something dirty, something lazy, and, above all else, something to be avoided.

Retro City RampageWhat I forgot — or, perhaps, was in no condition to remember — when watching that video, someone else playing through a game world of my own construction, was that I made those references out of love. They may have been lazy. They may not have been funny. But they were my way of saying thank you…of openly expressing my gratefulness for the so many wonderful things that made me want to create.

That’s a lesson Retro City Rampage taught me, all over again. There are a few bad apples that have poisoned the practice…but, in doing it right, it’s still as noble a way to tip your hat as it ever was.

References are a way of saying thanks. That’s something I’m going to try to remember again. Perhaps, one day, I’ll even give those thanks right back to Retro City Rampage, for showing me that someone, somewhere, still knows how to make them for the right reason, in the right way.

Hell, releasing Retro City Rampage at all, with the complete foreknowledge that it will only lose money, is a way of saying thanks. Provinciano is using Retro City Rampage as a sort of double-sided note of appreciation…he’s thanking the industry that inspired him, and the players who’ve been inspired right along with him.

It’s an admirable thing to do. And I really do hope he ends up turning a profit, against all odds, because it’s nice to see goodness rewarded in the world every now and again.

And the game is also, to put a fittingly obscene button on it, pretty fucking incredible.

Let me take you on a journey through the past, to a magical time in our great planet’s history. I’ll set the scene for you:

A bleary-eyed world disconnects from Facebook for two and a half hours in order to watch a film about Facebook. An animated show called The Simpsons celebrates 20 years on the air, eight and a half of which were worth watching. A young Jessica Simpson releases an album of warbling Christmas standards in the hopes that it will generate enough money that she can do her own holiday shopping. And America comes, at last, to the tragic realization that their new president isn’t a Magic Negro after all…but is rather, disappointingly, just an extremely intelligent leader with his nation’s best interests at heart.

Yes, it’s 2010. And no I did not use a time machine to get us here…I simply inserted a dollar into Steam and downloaded World Basketball Manager 2010, the absolute best 2010 simulator I have ever played.

World Basketball Manager 2010

I haven’t played it yet…I’m about to play it for the first time which is kind of the whole point of this series…but I don’t think I’ve played any other ones so I think that’s a fair assessment no matter how it goes. (And as always, click the images for full-size. It’s funnier that way, I hope.)

World Basketball Manager 2010

On booting up the game I am presented with an option to run it in windowed mode, which automatically makes it a better game than Vegas: Make it Snappy. I also have an option to choose my skin color. I’ll go with orange, so that nobody will be able to tell whether or not I’m holding the ball.

There’s also a tab called EXCLUDE TOURNAMENTS. When I click it I get a list of around 50 different countries with check-marks next to them. I guess I can deselect any of the nations against whose races I am so prejudiced that I can’t even bring myself to play a game of basketball with them.

I de-select China.

World Basketball Manager 2010

I told the game — explicitly told! — to play the intro movie, but I guess that was just a short, choppy animation for the Ice Hole developer logo, because I’m immediately dumped onto this title screen that leads me to believe the entire game was developed in Microsoft Paint.

I click NEW GAME and it asks me for a “game name.” It helpfully suggests the game name “New Game.”

I sure as heck can’t improve on perfection so New Game it is!

World Basketball Manager 2010

Except I can’t get the game to start. I press Enter and nothing happens.

I press other buttons and things do happen, yes, but the game starting isn’t one of them. I just mess up my extremely well-chosen game name with garbage characters.

I can’t get this game to start. At this rate I’ll never see 2010!

I’m clicking everything. Nothing’s happening. I’ve pressed every button. Nothing’s happening.

I can click CREDITS and read about all the wonderful people who made this title screen, but I can’t play the game.

Doing something I never thought I’d have to do, I navigate to the game’s section on the Steam forums to see if anyone was discussing how to get the fucking thing started.

What I find instead:

World Basketball Manager 2010

There are only two discussions, both of which are baffled by the awfulness of this game. This screengrab comes from the more active of the two threads. The other is titled, simply, “wat.”

I don’t know what to do. Everyone’s talking about how bad the game is, which I guess should make me at least somewhat happy that I can’t play it, but certainly they had to get further than the title screen in order to make that determination.

Right?

Maybe not. I’m stuck at the title screen and I’ve sure as cock made that determination.

World Basketball Manager 2010

I find the website for the game, in the hopes that there will be some instruction on how to START PLAYING THE THING. Nothing, but their FAQ is crawling with concerns about game-crashing issues and the answers to simple questions (such as how to activate and deactivate basic features) tend to be “install this patch to keep your computer from catching fire when you try to run this horse shit.” Promising.

BUT I STILL CAN’T PLAY IT.

I finally look for some footage of the thing on YouTube to see if anyone has actually successfully started the game. Sure enough when the guy in the video — whose disgust for this game is already palpable — types in the name of his game, a little CREATE button appears in the lower right.

What’s that? You don’t see that in the screen grab above?

Neither do I.

It was under the Windows task bar.

Yep. Great design, Ice Hole!

Of course it’s not their fault…how were they to know that literally everybody ever has their task bar locked to the bottom of their screen?

Everybody but me that is, because I now had to move mine to the right in order to make room for World Basketball Manager 2010. I expect that’s something you won’t hear many other people say today.

World Basketball Manager 2010

The game has helpfully auto-completed the appropriate fields with my personal information. Or its best guess, which is that I’m a middle-aged Indian man who coaches exactly as well as he psychologizes. He also somehow has a perfect 10 in youth, despite the fact that he’s five years away from being eligible for residency in a retirement home.

Already I’m irritated by the fact that I need to click to this window in order to type my commentary by moving my mouse to the RIGHT SIDE OF MY SCREEN WHEN IT SHOULD BE THE BOTTOM but it’s okay. It’s okay. I’m doing it for you. I need to keep doing it for you.

I name myself Philip Reed, 32, U.S.A. Don’t ask me where I got all that…it just sort of came to me. I leave all of my stats at 10 because that’s the maximum and why the hell wouldn’t I?

Even with the task bar moved I can’t see where I need to click, but if I move my cursor just off the bottom of the screen I can click whatever it is anyway.

Did I mention you can’t resize the window? This is truly stellar stuff, Ice Hole.

World Basketball Manager 2010

This grammatically-troublesome invitation is also the least inviting thing imaginable to me right now. Pairing it with a geography test isn’t helping to get me in the mood for fun. I don’t know where half these places are. (Okay, more like a quarter, but go along with it please.) Even less do I know / care about their historical basketball skills.

Fuck it, I’m already overthinking this. I’m picking Serbia.

World Basketball Manager 2010

Now shitting what.

And why is it August 19, 2009? I was specifically told I’d be enjoying some 2010-era basketball action, not this mid-to-late 2009 bullshit! Everyone knows basketball was a joke between August 17, 2009 and September 10, 2009!

I don’t know what to do.

I’ll click World News.

World Basketball Manager 2010

Hm. Slow news day I guess.

I click blindly through some menus with the vague hopelessness that precedes any upcoming basketball game, I guess, and try to pick a fight — that’s what they call it in sports, right? — with Canada.

I get this:

World Basketball Manager 2010

I don’t get this.

What does this mean.

What does any of this mean.

Are these basketball words?

I don’t understand basketball words.

Please just let me play some basketball please just let me play some basketball please for the love of Jesus on the cross just let me play some basketball.

I honestly don’t know how to start a game. I click through to my own team info and I see that I’ve already won some Olympic medals.

World Basketball Manager 2010

GO TEAM SERBIA!

While I was reading the evening headlines and mindlessly poring over Canada’s dayplanner, my team went out and won a shitload of medals and awards!

I’m tempted to just end this “playthrough” here (though it’s more of a read-through I guess…my earlier presumption that this game was developed in Paint has yet to be shaken) with the joke that I WON THE OLYMPICS GAME OVER but, in the course of blindly clicking around (which passes for strategy in World Basketball Manager 2010) I clicked on the date and found that you can advance to the next match day.

So I will do that, obviously, and give the game an actual chance. Let’s just advance to the next match day and…

World Basketball Manager 2010

What.

WHAT.

How did I go four days back in time? What the hell is World Basketball Manager 2010 trying to pull? It’s bringing me even further away from 2010!

Why on Earth did the game wind back the clock? I just wanted to jump to, I dunno, A DAY ON WHICH I COULD FUCKING DO SOMETHING but instead it brought me backward.

To a day on which basketball is still not happening.

Let me just take a look around here to confirm…hmm…yep…no basketball. No basketball. Just me standing in front of the map from Dr. Strangelove‘s war room, waiting for something, anything, to happen.

Look, I know this is a management game. I don’t expect to be slam dunking and free throwing and ball dribbling and penalty stroking and whatever the hell else athletes do. But doesn’t managing a team entail more than sitting around with a world atlas open in your lap, waiting for your team to win some things so you can read about them?

I can click through to different countries but all it lets me do is look to see what games they’re playing while I sit around, doing nothing, waiting to be invited to a game.

World Basketball Manager 2010

Look. It’s insulting. Everyone else in the world — literally! — is having so much fun, but all I get to do is sit around fantasizing about what it must be like to ACTUALLY DO THE JOB I DOWNLOADED THIS GAME TO DO.

I can click on the names of the teams, including the Baston Ciltics a-fuckin-har-har, but that still doesn’t let me challenge them. It just lets me check out their roster and peek into their bank accounts for some reason. I guess that would be really helpful in Identity Theft King 2010 but for now it’s just a further reminder that somebody out there is getting paid to do the thing I thought I’d also be doing. Why am I just clicking on meaningless words over and over, like I’m being forced to navigate some middle-schooler’s hypertext poetry project?

I give up on this thing. If you want to play World Ass-Sitter Nobody “2010” then be my guest. Maybe you’ll even get it to work.

But for both of our sakes, I hope you don’t.

And with that, I’m putting my task bar back at the bottom of my screen. Where God intended it to be, Ice Hole.

World Basketball Manager 2010
Released: April 21, 2010
Price on Steam: $0.99
Regular Price on Steam: $4.99
Price It Should Be on Steam: You should have your credit cards taken away if you attempt to buy this game through Steam.

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