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    Mar 2nd, 2015 at 13:52:31     -    Pokemon LeafGreen (GBA)

    Being a kid in the 90s never felt as sweet as it did in the two or three year timespan following the release of Pokemon Red and Blue, right at the peak of the original card game, when the animated films actually received theatrical releases in America and the anime series still felt fresh, not quite so campy and predictable (though that last part may have more to do with the difference in age). While the universe surrounding the games has grown almost unwieldy at this point, with every new generation introducing its own set of ‘god-like’ legendary Pokemon, each set more powerful than the last, the core mechanics have always remained the same—collect and battle monsters. These games have spawned a massive franchise through this somewhat simple idea; however, this idea has grown vastly more complex, with each generation bringing a slew of new monsters, battle mechanics, and hidden abilities to the table. However, rather than slog my way back through the original Pokemon Red or Blue, with its noticeably long loading times and unnecessary lag between scenes, I have chosen to play the remake of Pokemon Blue for the Game Boy Advance—Pokemon LeafGreen, released in 2004. LeafGreen and FireRed are remakes in the truest sense of the word, featuring the same plot, game world, and available monsters as Pokemon Blue and Red, yet possessing the updated battle mechanics present in the other generation 3 games (Ruby and Sapphire), a clear-cut improvement over the more simplistic battle rules present in the original Game Boy Color games. Further, I have chosen to play the game via Gameboid, an Android Game Boy Advance emulator app. The main reason for this choice was ease of access, but it also does not hurt that Gameboid has a built-in fast-forward feature that allows the game to be played at up to 16 times original speed. I will be playing with 2 times speed—just enough to cut out the general monotony of extensive walking and cutscenes.

    Starting a fresh game save, I began my first play session by choosing my protagonist’s gender, name, and the name of his rival. After awaking in my quaint, small-town home, I made my way towards the trail of tall grass leading away from Pallet Town before being accosted by Professor Oak for entering the tall grass, where random encounters occur, before owning a Pokemon of my own to defend myself. In a very Nintendo-esque, “It’s dangerous to go alone, take this!” fashion, he then took me to his laboratory where I was given the choice between Squirtle, Charmander or Bulbasaur as my first Pokemon, of which I chose Squirtle. My rival then promptly chose Bulbasaur as his first pokemon, as no matter which starter the player chooses, his or her rival will always choose the starter whose type counters that of the player’s (in this case, Grass is super-effective against Water, meaning that Grass type attacks do double damage to Water type Pokemon). In the ensuing duel between myself and my rival, I watched Ziggy the Squirtle flounder and die almost immediately due to two lucky critical hits from Gary’s Bulbasaur. Not exactly a strong start, but such is the way of the RNG—given the same fixed variables, vastly different outcomes are always possible. Further, with the series’ iconic turn-based battle system, strategic planning for upcoming battles is key to victory, yet this battle being the first one offered no such chance for planned or calculated action.

    I then headed off into the aforementioned tall grass toward Viridian City, engaging in my first few wild Pokemon battles along the way, saving my Pokeballs for the time being until I could encounter monsters that were truly worth capturing and raising. Upon arrival, I spoke with an elderly man in town who informed me that the town’s Pokemon Gym was closed indefinitely, a fact which comes back into play later in the plot, as Viridian City’s gym is actually the last one which the player must conquer. These gyms, eight in total, are places where the top Pokemon trainers from a given city train and wait to battle any who would seek to defeat them and, most importantly, the gym’s leader, after which the victor is rewarded with the gym’s badge. These gyms serve as tests of strength, and their badges as milestones that mark the player’s progress throughout his or her adventure. After healing Ziggy back to full health at the Pokecenter and restocking on items at the Pokemart (the overuse of the Poke- prefix is really beginning to wear on me), I ventured off into Viridian Forest, headed towards Pewter City and, eventually, my first gym badge.

    This marks the beginning of my second play session, as I actually made it all the way to Pewter City and defeated its gym leader once before accidently resetting my game without saving. This time around, I wasted no time attempting to stop and catch any wild Pokemon on my way through Viridian Forest, defeating the other Pokemon trainers who challenged me to battles at various points throughout the forest and heading straight for Pewter. Pewter City’s gym leader, Brock, and his Rock type Pokemon proved easy prey for Ziggy’s Water type attacks, and in very little time I had obtained my very first badge—the Boulder Badge. An important note about these badges is that they actually have an effect on gameplay as well, with each new badge allowing the player to use higher-leveled Pokemon which they have received in trades. Without the proper badge, a traded Pokemon which is a very high level simply will not listen to the player’s commands in battle and “nod off” instead, a mechanic placed as a means of ensuring that players do not simply trade themselves a level 100 Pokemon from another save and proceed to annihilate the rest of the game.

    On my way to the mysterious Mt. Moon, a ‘dungeon’ of sorts which players must pass through in order to reach the second major city and its Pokemon Gym, my Squirtle reached level 16 while battling a trainer and evolved into a Wartortle. These evolutions serve not only as an aesthetic upgrade, but also as a massive stat boost to the Pokemon. There are tons of different rules for such evolutions—some Pokemon evolve only at night, some evolve only when traded, and others not at all—and they serve as an interesting mechanic which helps to break up the otherwise monotonous experience of grinding and leveling. Before entering Mt. Moon, I ran across a Mankey in the tall grass outside, a small Fighting type Pokemon that I can only describe as looking like a furry pig-monkey, which I captured using a Pokeball and added to my team. Fighting is a strong type, being super-effective against the ubiquitous Normal type, so I felt assured that I could put him to good use. Further, I also added a Nidoran found in this tall grass to my team, another interesting Pokemon that is actually distinct from the males of its species as another Pokemon entirely. While the female Nidoran will eventually have bulkier defenses but somewhat lower attack, the male version (exclusive to LeafGreen’s counterpart FireRed) have higher attack but weaker defenses. It is this sort of variety which makes catching, breeding and raising the little monsters so enjoyable, and which makes winning tough battles with one’s chosen team all the more rewarding.

    On my way through the rocky corridors of Mt. Moon, I encountered and battled my first members of Team Rocket, the story’s main antagonist. Team Rocket is a criminal organization that wishes to capture and use Pokemon for all the wrong reasons, using the monsters’ powerful abilities to further their evil schemes with no regard to their happiness or well-being. In Pokemon Red and Blue (and to some extent, their remakes), this idea still feels fresh and somewhat believable; however, with every subsequent entry in the series simply introducing its own ‘evil organization’ that utilizes the same naming convention (Team Rocket, Team Magma, Team Plasma, etc.), the trope begins to wear thin rather quickly. Maybe that is why so many gamers have a soft spot in their hearts for Nintendo’s series, because they always stick to what has worked in the past, for better or for worse. Regardless, I think it is certainly safe to say that, amongst all the major players in the current console wars, Nintendo is running a monopoly on nostalgia, able to sell remakes of their classic games as easily as new entries in their series.

    After battling a countless amount of Zubats, I finally emerged from Mt. Moon on the other side, just outside of Cerulean City. Awaiting me on the other side were two Fighting type trainers, discernable by their karate outfits, each willing to teach a different move to one of my Pokemon—either Mega Punch or Mega Kick. Once you have these trainers teach their move to a Pokemon, they can no longer teach it to another, a mechanic which Nintendo has steered away from in the most recent Pokemon games in favor of reusable move tutors and TMs, or Technical Machines, which are essentially items that behave just as these move tutor NPCs, teaching a new attack to a selected Pokemon. Reusability allows players to create lots of different teams and powerful monsters for specific situations or multiplayer battles, but in the case of LeafGreen, I went ahead and taught Mega Kick to my Wartortle and moved on—one and done. After healing up at the Pokecenter, I faced off against Misty, the leader of Cerulean City’s gym, and obtained the Cascade Badge for my victory. After the battle, I used the TM which Misty awarded me upon victory on my Wartortle, teaching him the Water Pulse attack. Further, my female Nidoran also evolved into Nidorina after the battle: this meant that I could now use the Moon Stone which I picked up in Mt. Moon to evolve it one more time into its final evolution, Nidoqueen. These two powerful upgrades to my team, as well as obtaining another badge, served as a satisfying end to my second play session.

    All in all, I must say that LeafGreen and, to a lesser extent, Pokemon Blue of which it is a remake, did not hold up to the idealized image I had of the game in my mind. And this opinion comes from someone who owns and has played the current generation of Pokemon games—all of the computation involved in turn-based battles which seemed like magic as a kid is now hard numbers in my mind, percentages and randomly-generated values that can be manipulated to steer the outcome of a battle. Stripping out so much of the possibilities available in the more recent Pokemon games leaves the combat feeling a bit stale, and I was glad to have been able to speed through some of the lengthier, more repetitive cutscenes. Where Nintendo has taken the battle system of Pokemon in recent years is miles ahead of its predecessors in terms of creating diverse strategies and team compositions, but the plot has only managed to recycle the same tired roles and conflicts, presenting them with an admittedly fresh face, yet one that is only skin-deep.

    This entry has been edited 2 times. It was last edited on Mar 2nd, 2015 at 19:29:15.

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    Feb 10th, 2015 at 23:14:11     -    Betrayal at House on the Hill (Other)

    Betrayal at House on the Hill lies somewhere comfortably between board game and table top game along the spectrum of such dice-rolling, encounter-centric, non-video games, managing to borrow key elements from both categories and merge them into an undeniably exciting gameplay experience. After two play sessions, I found myself genuinely wanting to play another round simply to witness the numerous other outcomes and combinations of events possible within the game’s world. Based heavily upon luck, nearly every aspect of the game, from the events that occur during gameplay to the actual game board itself, is presented to players via cards drawn from specific decks. As long as these decks are shuffled, then, every gameplay session has the potential to be vastly different, allowing a somewhat simple game (in terms of gameplay mechanics) to retain a respectable amount of replay value, even after the cards have begun to show wear and its rule booklet has turned to a disheveled, loosely-bound stack of papers.

    The plot of Betrayal is, in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek manner, quite stereotypical of the horror genre: the player assumes the identity of one member of a group of friends who have all wandered into a haunted house. Their initial goal is to simply explore the house, whether working together to overcome challenges, as real friends might, or acting more selfishly. Other than the initial tiles placed to represent each floor of the house—basement, ground and attic—every room of the house is drawn from a stack of tiles at the moment that a player steps onto it, giving each play session a sort of pseudo-randomly generated map. Each of these tiles has printed on its underside which floors of the house it can and cannot be placed in, as it would not follow for a courtyard to be in the basement, nor a kitchen in the attic—but a torture chamber? That could go anywhere.

    Further, most new room tiles will have an emblem on them signifying that one of three types of cards must now be drawn: event, omen, or item. These typically give the player a new item, such as a dagger or cursed mirror, or force him or her into an event, such as being caught in a spider web. Some events are one-time only, while others are permanent within the house; some omens are as bad as they sound, while others are actually quite helpful; and, while most items are beneficial to the player, some are harmful and cannot willingly be dropped. Of particular interest are the omen cards, however, which act to drive the plot forward from the initial exploration stage into its climax—the “haunt.” Every time an omen card is drawn, that player rolls six dice, and if their roll is not higher than the amount of omen cards that have been drawn, they become the “traitor,” setting the haunt phase in motion.

    The specifics of the haunt, defined in the rule booklet, are determined by the particular combination of room tile and omen card which initiated it, yet they all follow a basic formula: the traitor is now the antagonist, often working as an agent of some sort of monster or ghoul, and the rest of the friends must join together to stop the traitor’s plan. Unfortunately, in my own play sessions I never got to assume the role of the traitor, but of the two who did, one was revealed as a madman who had buried one of our friends alive, and the other discovered an alien ship and began working as their agent to control our minds and bring us onto the ship to be abducted. In the first instance, we had to race to locate and then dig up the buried friend before he or she died, and in the other, we were tasked with destroying the alien ship while avoiding the traitor-controlled aliens that began roaming the house. Both haunts posed very different problems for the remaining players, and, albeit within the bounds of the game’s mechanics, actually created somewhat distinct modes of gameplay, with each certainly favoring distinct character types.

    As previously alluded to, players assume the identity of one of twelve somewhat average people, each with his or her own strengths and weaknesses. These traits are represented via four major stats—might, speed, knowledge, and sanity. The first two, might and speed, are the “physical” stats; when a player takes physical damage, he or she can spread that damage evenly (or unevenly) across these two stats. The other two stats comprise the player’s mental health, and operate likewise when the player takes mental damage. If any one of these stats drops too low, it means death for the player. I played my first session as an eleven year-old, relatively strong but decidedly dimwitted boy, and the second time as a faster, more knowledgeable, yet weaker thirteen year-old. This choice of character is one of the few aspects of Betrayal that the player has total control over; as the game unfolds, however, stats which a player might have originally thought powerful may turn out to be useless, dependent entirely upon the cards that are drawn. For instance, in the session ending with the friend buried alive, we required someone with high knowledge to roll for finding the burial spot, and another with high strength in order to quickly dig the friend out. We nearly had these bases covered, with one player having chosen a professor character possessing high knowledge, but the brutish, muscled character who would have aided us most was actually the traitor himself—a bit of cruel irony that speaks toward the entertaining blend of choice and chance that the game creates.

    To place the gameplay of Betrayal within a familiar frame, one might immediately reach for the likes of Clue or, possibly, even a few of the more deception or horror-based tabletop games, such as Paranoia or Call of Cthulhu. It certainly lends itself in no small part to the influence of these more veteran games, apparent within its similarly deceitful and cutthroat player diplomacy, as well as its overwhelmingly dark themes and grim outcomes. Essentially, if one were to remove the inherent micromanagement and verbose rule set of the traditional tabletop, stripping out its narrative freedom and replacing it with random events (with the added benefit of removing the need for a game master), that person would be looking at Betrayal. The game itself is a blast, and involves only a slight learning curve—even less so if you are already familiar with “skill checks” and dice-based gameplay. Although the limitations placed upon players within the game world can be stifling at times, such as when one player could not attempt to command his dog follower to bring him another item, they are still quite reasonable overall, and the trade-offs toward ease of access and playability make Betrayal worthy of any praise it receives—so long as the aforementioned spectrum from board game to tabletop game remains intact, never collapsing under the weight of the ‘middle-ground.’

    This entry has been edited 3 times. It was last edited on Feb 10th, 2015 at 23:29:20.

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