30 November 2010

My Thanksgiving Trip/Pilgrimage To Funspot

Over Thanksgiving--American Thanksgiving, Canadian people--I traveled back to the East Coast to ostensibly visit New York, see my friends, and consume pounds of succulent turkey. But my ulterior motive, I confess, was to make a long-anticipated journey to Funspot in New Hampshire, otherwise known as the world's largest arcade.

Fellow writer John Teti grew up in the area and frequented Funspot as a child, never realizing that it would one day become an accidental mecca for gamers. So John and his terrific wife Anna and I flew up to Manchester, New Hampshire together in a plane that was only slightly larger than a mosquito.

If you've seen the documentary The King of Kong, Funspot--located in the town of Laconia--is the arcade where Steve Wiebe goes to prove himself as a true Donkey Kong contender to the eccentric community of doubters who celebrate--and verify--such things as Donkey Kong high scores. Funspot is also the place in the film where the term "kill screen" is first used. (One of Funspot's oddball patrons/score verifiers realizes that Wiebe is about to reach the Donkey Kong kill screen and begins an annoying journey through the arcade announcing to everyone that a kill screen is coming up, if they are interested in witnessing it. Despite the distraction, Wiebe admirably steels his nerves and reaches the kill screen regardless. It's one of Wiebe's many bravo-sir moments in the movie.)

If you haven't seen The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, grab the nearest pillow and deliver several hundred blows to your head/neck area. It's a terrific film for many reasons, but what I especially admire about it is how well it articulates the curious passion that we gamers have for what we do.

Because we don't always understand why we do what we do.

We simply do it.

In The King of Kong, Funspot appears to be a dingy, yellow-tinged warehouse housing a dream line-up of every incredible arcade game you can possibly think of. In reality, Funspot is a dingy, yellow-tinged warehouse housing a dream line-up of every significant arcade game you can possibly think of, only a disturbingly large percentage of those machines are in a state of disrepair. Also: there is a bowling alley on the lower floor, as well as a dearth of bathrooms. Also: there is an indoor miniature golf course. Windmills and fluorescent lights and indoor/outdoor carpet is a depressing combination. Honestly, when I saw the course, I literally had to rush out of the room for fear of losing my sanity. I thought: "This is a good place to hang yourself."

Yet nothing depresses me more than seeing an out of order arcade machine some reason. There's a place in Brooklyn called Barcade that an ex girlfriend once took me to, believing that I would enjoy it. I did not enjoy it. Seeing all of those beautiful, vintage machines covered in sticky cheap beer and sporting OUT OF ORDER signs just made me want to go screaming into the Williamsburg night.

One of the dual screens in Funspot's Punch-Out!! machine was on the fritz the day I was there, capable of only producing a flickering black and white image. That said, I still managed to reach Bald Bull, and put him down a few times. (Because that's who I am.) The Tron machine circa 1982 had a line of code--1's and 0's--literally streaming through the gameplay screen. Also: Rudy, the dummy head in the 1990 pinball game Funhouse, had his eyes rolled back in his plastic skull permanently as if he was channeling Linda Blair in The Exorcist.

For a place that proudly refers to itself as the American Classic Arcade Museum, these masterworks are generally in a sorry state of disrepair. I know these things are old, and only getting older by the day, but I learned from John that maintaining coin-op arcade machines is far less taxing and labor-intensive than maintaining pinball machines. There are simply fewer working parts to deal with. John has personally restored several pinball machines to working order, so he knows what he is talking about. Sorry, ladies; he's taken. So the frozen Rudy in Funhouse is borderline acceptable. Though John did storm away from the machine with a ball still in play, because seeing Rudy in a state of rictus was apparently too much for him to bear. But the flickering Punch-Out!! and Tron machines? Not as acceptable.

Other games faired better. Mappy, a game that stars a police mouse trying to stop a gang of cat criminals and recover their stolen loot was working well. Stolen loot included a boom box-style radio, an ancient PC, and a digitized replica of the Mona Lisa. Just what every cat criminal covets, no doubt. Our two-player round of Pengo, a game starring a red penguin who must use ice blocks to stop snow bees, went on for so long and was so dull that after a few screens I wished it was broken. Pro Tip: Pengo is a terrible game. Timber, a game that allows you to step into the role of a lumberjack--escapism alert!--who is trying to chop down trees while a kooky-faced bear hurls bee hives at you, also worked just fine.

I realize Funspot is no doubt short on staff and even shorter on funds these days. The day that John and I were there--on the Friday after Thanksgiving--all three floors were only moderately populated, with the top floor--where the American Classic Arcade Museum (of Disrepair) is housed--being by far the least popular of the three floors. Only a half-dozen quarter-wielding skulkers skulked in the Museum's shadows at any given moment.

The sad-but-true question I couldn't stop asking myself during my time at Funspot was this: Why aren't there more goddamn people here? Where is everybody, man? This is Funspot! The spot for fun! Yes, the lights were on the day I was there. But how much longer would they continue to burn?

Going to Funspot is akin to spending time with an obese middle-aged alcoholic/diabetic uncle. Everyone loves the uncle--he's funny and entertaining, even when he's discussing his latest gout flair up--but when the phone call comes that the uncle is dead, no one is going to be terribly shocked by the news. As I left Funspot, as I crossed the muddy parking lot and listened to the wind whistling through the nearby birches, I felt sad and worried. I literally was wringing my hands during the car ride home. As gamers, we need our gathering places. To use John's word, we need a mecca, and Funspot is as close to a bona fide mecca as we have. We need Funspot, and places like Funspot; we need places that celebrate where this medium has been so that we have a better, clearer understanding of where we're going.

What can be done? Consider planning your summer vacation to Laconia, new Hampshire next year. Lake Winnipesaukee is beautiful in summer. Or so I've heard.

Better still, let's start something not unlike the adopt-a-highway program. Call it the Adopt-An-Old-Arcade-Machine program. Donate a few hundred dollars a year towards your game of choice--all tax-deductible, mind you--and that few hundred dollars will go towards maintaining that arcade machine. Let's make this happen, people.

I've got dibs on Mappy, Teti.

[Photo credit: John Teti took the photo of the Funspot entrance that appears at the start of this entry.] [For the last time, ladies, HE IS TAKEN.]

The 10 Best Games of 2010

"You like what you like."

That's a phrase that Vic and I often repeat to one other while shooting the show. We say it on camera. We say it off camera. The only other phrase that even comes close to being repeated as often: "Let's stop here for coffee."

"You like what you like," of course, is shorthand for saying, "I am not going to go out of my way to understand StarCraft II, or Civ 5, or Gran Turismo 5. Yes, they are all well-made games. Yes, smart people made them. Yes, I admire those people. They worked very hard. Good for them. And yes, there are people out there in the world who are dying to play Gran Turismo 5. Also: good for them.

"But that does not mean that I am suddenly going to develop a taste for, say, the Gran Tursimo series, a series that I have despised for many years because of its lifeless, bloodless worlds. I am not going to hoist a game onto my shoulders and carry it around the stadium for a victory lap simply because 1. the rest of the world is doing so, and 2. I am supposed to follow suit.

"Because, in the end, on my death bed, as I am breathing my last breath and no doubt trying to get in one last game of Angry Birds 14 on the iPhone 11.5GSVX, when it's all said and done, all I can do is like what I like."

Here are the 10 games that I liked in 2010.

10. Vanquish (Sega, Platinum Games, 360/PS3)

I know! Trash. The dialogue is horrid. None of it makes a lick of sense. And it celebrates the most filthy habit in the world: SMOKING. DEAR KIDS: DON'T LISTEN TO THIS GAME. DO NOT SMOKE. IT IS NOT SEXY. SMOKING IS THE NUMBER ONE CAUSE OF NONSENSICAL GAMES. Regardless, I loved Vanquish. Shinji Mikami's games speak to me. He is my Sid Meier. Though Fumito Ueda would actually be my Sid Meier, if only he made more games. Sliding like Rickey Henderson between a mech-beast's legs in slow motion while peppering its mech-crotch with futuristic fire power thrilled me enough to make me forgive and forget the rest of the game's horse shit.

9. Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light (Eidos, Crystal Dynamics, XBLA/PSN)

With her ever-shrinking pair of shorts and ridiculously oversized mamms, this anachronism--she was practically left for dead on the side of Game Industry Highway a few short years ago--continued her campaign for relevancy with this superb game. My first impression, sexist as it is, was that the long distance, overhead perspective would diminish my fun, since I would no longer be able to, you know, see as much. Yet after the opening level, after sniffing out treasure the way my mother sniffs out bargains at Wal-mart, and solving puzzles--some of the best puzzles of the year in any game--and leveling up, man alive, did this game ever get its hooks into me.

8. Spider-man: Shattered Dimensions (Activision, Beenox, 360/PS3)

Fact: I could give a rat's ass about super heroes and super hero games. But if I have to spend 15 hours in someone's virtual tights, that someone without a doubt would be Spider-man. His versatility, in the air and on the ground, along with his Borscht Belt "zingers" make Superman, Batman, et al. all look like brooding bores. The art style, the first-person boss fights, and the constant channel surfing between dimensions--Amazing, Noir, 2099, and the symbiote-infected Ultimate--all effectively distracted me from the fact that I was basically hitting light attack and heavy attack buttons over and over again. Well done, Beenox.

7. GoldenEye 007 (Activision, Eurocom, Wii)

Never having been a Bond man, I loaded up the do-over of the 1997 classic with the lowest of expectations. The original game probably should win some sort of award for Worst-Aging Classic Game of All Time. There's a reason why it's hasn't received a Perfect Dark-style XBLA makeover, and that reason is because it's terrible. Yes, it was great in 1997. But trust me, your memories outstrip the actual experience.

The do-over and I, like Bond and Vesper in Casino Royale, did not get off to a good start. We bickered back and forth through the first few stages. It wasn't until I'd finally ditched the Classic Controller in favor of the nunchuck-Wii remote control scheme that this game and I fell madly, passionately in love. No game in history has ever delivered the stealth/fisticuffs/mow-them-all-down trifecta as well as this game does. Though I kept waiting for GoldenEye 007 to betray me at the end, just as Vesper does to Bond, it never did. As soon as the credits rolled, I immediately started playing it again. It's that good.

6. Bayonetta (Sega, Platinum Games, 360/PS3)

I know! More trash! This time, it's not Shinji Mikami but his cohort Hideki Kamiya who is to blame-admire (blamire?) for this stylish nonsense. Bayonetta managed to make even less sense than Vanquish did--no small feat--yet it was more exciting to play. I had no fucking idea what was going on in this game approximately 70-percent of the time. No joke. See if you can make sense of any of it by watching this. What made this game so remarkable was that it starred a witch with long, magic hair that can occasionally be turned into a hair-dragon. Which describes exactly zero other games in videogame history. And for that, Hideki Kamiya, I salute you. Pro Tip: Keep pressing buttons and jaw-dropping, amazing shit will continue to happen. Which, if you think about it, is really what videogames are all about.

[Five thru one of my like-what-I-like selections are on deck. I'll post them in a day or so. -Jones]

11 November 2010

A Fistful of Writing

Had a couple of reviews appear in The Onion's A.V. Club recently. First up: God of War: Ghost of Sparta.

"Ghost Of Sparta’s plot is more of the series’ highbrow trash. Typical of all God Of War games, the mythological milieu gives this installment a faux erudite patina. Though you're merely banging away at two buttons, the series’ genius is that you forever feel like you’re doing something of grave importance, something that would make a ninth-grade English teacher proud."

Read the rest of my words--the A.V. Club limits me to a miserly 400, so there aren't too many more to read--here. One commenter took issue with my use of the phrase "faux erudite patina." My feelings on this matter:

1. It makes me happy that people are not only reading my reviews, but also reading them closely enough to take issue with my phrasings.

2. I think "faux erudite patina" accurately describes my experience with the series--the GOW games have always come off as smarter than they actually are--but I can see the commenter's point. This phrase would probably merit at least an eight out of 10 on the Douche Scale, with one being least-douchiest and 10 being maximum-douchiest.

Still, I'm standing by my phrase. It's probably the most interesting string of words I've written all year. Just look at the way those vowels and consonants crash into one another! Whee! Say it aloud a few times. Faux. Erudite. Patina. See? It's already starting to grow on you.

My second more recent review for The A.V. Club was for the Kinect. A sample:

"In its worst moments, Kinect doesn’t feel like a better way to play—it’s more like a barrier between you and the game. Instead of drawing gamers deeper into the experience and making things more immersive, actions like navigating gameplay menus or pausing a game—simple actions that gamers take for granted—suddenly feel complex and needlessly obtuse. At these moments, veteran gamers will pine for the poetic certainty of an old-fashioned button press."

Read the rest of it here. In typical A.V. Club fashion, one commenter dings me a second time for my previous use of "faux erudite patina" in my Ghost of Sparta review. Bravo, sir. Brah. Vo.

One comment did get my ire up. A guy--well, I'm assuming it was a guy--left a comment saying that he wishes two things would happen. One: That the A.V. Club learn how to review games critically. And two: That the A.V. Club stop reviewing games altogether.

The not-so-subtle subtext here: That I have absolutely no idea what I am doing. That I do not know my ass from a hole in the ground.

To you, sir, I say this: I do in fact know my ass from a hole in the ground.

Of course, these sentiments are commonplace on message boards and comment threads. I've read them before. I'll read them again. People are always informing me that I am terrible at my job.

That simply is not true.

For some reason, gamers--more so than movie lovers, or TV fans, or book readers--perpetually feel that they are born not only with the toolset required to write and speak critically about games, but that they are also born with the inherent god-given right to review games.

No matter how well one writes, or how well one articulates something about a game, there will forever be be an army of salivating, semi-delusional jackals out there waiting to let you know they could have done your job exactly one million times better than you have done it.

To those jackals, I say: I hear you. And I love you.

I once felt the way you do.

And trust me: You. Are. Wrong.

Irrefutable proof that you are wrong: If you could do my job one million times better than I'm doing it, you would be doing it instead of informing me that I am terrible at it.

Now please enjoy this complimentary box of faux erudite patina.

02 November 2010

The Great Milo Hoax Of 2009

The defining moment of E3 2010? It was dapper Don Mattrick at the Microsoft press conference announcing that everyone in attendance would receive a free Xbox 360 Slim. We shrieked like guests on Oprah--myself included (I know!)--then went home and wrote very nice things about Microsoft--well, most of us wrote nice things--and waited patiently by our mailboxes for our shiny new Slims to arrive.

Looking back, this moment was not the act of largess it appeared to be at the time, but rather Microsoft's diabolical way of slipping the media and the industry at large a collective mickey. Slims-for-everyone made us all feel a bit groggy and starry-eyed that day. We walked out of that press conference, back into the blazing L.A. morning, feeling pretty kindly towards Microsoft. As if struck by a sudden, extreme case of amnesia, no one--not one of us--was grousing about Microsoft's wool-pulling fiasco from the the previous year. I am referring, of course, to gaming's greatest hoax: The Great Milo Hoax Of E3 2009.

Slight digression: As a boy my parents once took me to the Farmers' Museum in Cooperstown, New York. It was a miserable, miserable day. It was all old fucking plows and cotton gins and cider-making paraphernalia and gift shops and shit. I believe there was a display titled "The History Of Ribbon Candy."

The only thing of any interest to me was a display of a creature known as the Cardiff Giant. The Cardiff Giant was--or rather, is (he's still there)--a petrified, ancient giant. He hailed from a now-extinct race of giants. His corpse was discovered in the 1800's by two workmen digging a well.

As my parents wandered off, I stayed behind and studied the giant. I initially felt like phoning the media--HELLO CBS THERE IS A DEAD GIANT UP HERE AT THE COOPERSTOWN FARMERS' MUSEUM PLEASE DISPATCH YOUR FINEST REPORTERS IMMEDIATELY. And then I began to look a little more closely at the giant.

According to the Farmers' Museum pamphlet, a man named George Hull had the giant carved out of a 10-foot block of gypsum in the 1860's. Then he had it buried in the ground on the exact spot where he knew workmen were scheduled to dig a well.

A tent was erected over the giant's "discovery site." Hull and his partners charged the public the then-exorbitant price of 25-cents-per-peer to peer at their discovery, a price which they promptly doubled to 50 cents two days later once they realized that demand was greatly outstripping supply

P.T. Barnum immediately made an offer to buy the giant for 50K. The giant's owners said, in so many words, "Go screw." So Barnum had his own fake giant made. He put it on display in New York and publicly declared that Hull's giant was a fake, and that his fake giant was the real giant.

Hull and his partners weren't about to let Barnum get away with this. So, in 1870 they took Barnum to court and sued him for calling their fake giant a fake giant. After a cursory investigation, both giants were revealed as fakes. In the end, the presiding judge ruled that Barnum could not technically be sued for calling a fake giant a fake giant.

Meanwhile, all parties involved--Barnum, Hull and others--made scads of cash on these fake giants, thanks in no small part to the one thing hucksters, fast-talkers, and telemarketers have relied on since the dawn of civilization: the never-fail gullibility of the general public.

I peered through the rickety fence surrounding the Cardiff Giant and thought, What a damn fool I was! How did I ever think, even for a second, that this giant was real? Of course giants are not real! In the same way that Batman was born out of his parents' murders, I swore in that moment to never be duped this way again. Yes, from that day forward, I, Scott Jones, would lead an utterly duped-free existence.

On that muggy August day in Cooperstown, New York, my greatly advanced degree of cynicism was born. Never again would I sit in awe before magicians performing magic on television. And Tooth Fairies, Sasquatches, and E.T.'s? Santa Clauses, Easter Bunnies, or that that kid Mikey from the LIFE cereal commercial died when he combined Pop Rocks with Coke?

The Cardiff Giant killed them all.

Or, at least I thought he had.

A few days ago, while enjoying my full-blown, fully adult, and totally cynical life, I caught wind of this Charlie Chaplin-cell phone phenomenon thing. I Googled it. I watched the old woman, who resembles my long-dead alcoholic Aunt Clara, as she passes through the frame chatting excitedly into what appears to be a bona fide cell phone.

I thought, as did many of you, "MY GOD IS THIS EVIDENCE OF TIME TRAVEL? Has this woman transcended time and space and, while doing so, remembered to bring her cell phone with her?" (Something that I personally forget to do approximately 19-percent of the time whenever I leave the house, let alone leave my entire era.)

It's silly, yes. But for a few, brief, and pretty glorious seconds, it was fun to believe. Well, maybe not believe; "believe" is far too strong a word. It was fun to "entertain" the notion. I like the sound of that. Yes, I entertained the notion for a few seconds that time travel was actually possible, that this overweight woman in her jaunty hat and ill-fitting dress was actually a savvy time traveler from another dimension.

And then--poof--reason, sanity, good sense and my old friend cynicism came rushing back in.

Which brings me back to E3 2009.

I was attending the Microsoft press conference on a painfully early morning in May. Beatles Rock Band was coming out that year. Oh, look! Paul and Ringo are here. Then Steven Spielberg made a cursory appearance. But somehow upstaging both Spielberg and the remaining Beatles was Lionhead's Peter Molyneux and his "friend," Milo.

Milo was a diminutive kind-faced boy who lives inside your TV screen. Peter cued a short film--which should have been my first clue that a duping was in the offing--showing his virtual boy interacting with a real woman. The live woman and the virtual boy appeared to be having an actual conversation. The boy seemed to hear her, and she seemed to hear him. Then the woman drew a picture on a piece of actual paper, and somehow fed it into the top of the TV where Milo received the paper in his virtual world.


No kidding. I thought all of those things. Except for the satan parts.

My jaw, quite literally, hung open, something which I had assumed was only a cliched expression. I walked out of the press conference on unsteady legs, unsure of what I'd just seen. Milo was all I could think about, or talk about, or write about for the rest of E3 2009.

Later that day, a handful of writers got the chance to talk to Milo firsthand. (Unfortunately, I wasn't one of them.) "What was it like?" I asked, as if they'd just returned from the future. Responses, for the most part, were disappointingly measured. No one, it seemed, had experienced anything even remotely approximating the degree of interaction that the woman had experienced in Peter Molyneux's press-conference video. "There's something kind of fishy going on with Milo," one writer quietly said to me. There was, he explained, a Wizard Of Oz-feel to the Milo demonstration, as if there was a wizard behind the curtain, pulling Milo's strings. I assumed he was speaking in metaphor until I talked to a few more people who'd chatted with Milo and discovered that there was an actual curtain at these demonstrations, behind which no doubt secret bullshit was going on.

Then, as quickly as he had arrived, after becoming the biggest E3 sensation of all time, after making me walk around on wobbly legs for three days, after making me wonder and hope and open my heart again, Milo vanished.

He hasn't been seen since.

This year, Microsoft made no mention whatsoever of Milo. Instead, they set their phasers to stun by throwing free Slims into our laps, then sent us on our merry way. The saddest part? It worked. It fucking worked. All we could talk about after E3 2009 was Milo and Project Natal. After E3 2010, all we could talk about was who got one and who didn't.

Well played, Microsoft. [Insert slow-clap sound effect HERE.]

Project Natal turned out to be lame. They changed its name to "Kinect." It does not let you feed real paper to a virtual boy who you can be friends with, as Microsoft once promised it would do. From what I can tell so far, now that Kinect is here in my living room, it's a futuristic device capable only of misunderstanding my voice commands and allowing me to steer a virtual raft by jumping up and down.

These are definitely not the droids I was looking for.

The larger question here is this: As gamers, why aren't we vein-popping-from-our-foreheads angry about this? Why haven't we excoriated Microsoft for this shameful display of smoke and mirrors? Why aren't we storming Microsoft headquarters with pitchforks and torches and chasing Bill Gates into the old windmill?

Imagine Nintendo announcing next year that the Wii 2--the Wiiii--will be powered by actual rocks from the moon. Imagine Sony showing up at next year's E3 and saying that their new hardware has a special graphics chip inside which will allow gamers to finally experience the sensation of what it feels like to eat four slices of great pizza while receiving a deft, high-speed handjob from Mila Kunis.

Any promise, any claim, no matter how outrageous, can be made. It's a post-Milo world. We just live in it now.

Bullshit has been foisted upon gamers practically since the dawn of the medium in the form of doctored screenshots, broken promises, terrible games, and a steady, constant stream of misinformation. That wee cynic who was born on the boring grounds of the Farmers' Museum so many years ago wants to slap you all across your collective faces and say, "Wake the fuck up, people. We can't allow these jag-offs to get away with this shit anymore. We're mad as hell, and we're not going to take it anymore."

But the gamer inside me? The same person who so desperately wanted to believe in the Cardiff Giant? The one who wanted to believe in Milo and the Charlie Chaplin cell-phone lady and televised displays of magic? Honestly? That part of me will forever be down for a decent hoax. That part of me will always be here waiting, bracing myself, ready to believe the unbelievable.

Yes, we've had our hearts broken before. And, yes, without fail, our hearts will be broken again.

Yet, as gamers, we hope.

Because gamers, for some inexplicably fucked up, totally unreasonable reason, have the biggest hope tanks in the world.

We hope, and we hope, and we hope. Then we hope some more. We read the day's news, and we hope. We load up a new game, and we hope.

And when something once again fails us? (And it will.) When another promise turns out to be empty? When we're confronted with yet another Milo?

Put a few gratis Xboxes in the mail.

Or you know what? Don't. Either way, Xbox or no Xbox, we'll just be out here, hoping that at least some games are good, hoping that some of the news doesn't turn out to be another Cardiff Giant.


What a pack of beautiful fools we are sometimes.