Bad design

I remember really enjoying Super Mario Sunshine when I first played it on GameCube. The high marks that it got at the time seemed entirely justified. Sure, it had its moments of frustration, but I always thought it was a terrific game, and undeserving of the backlash it seemed to get from the internet after its release.

I’ve been playing it again recently, and all of a sudden I see what everyone was criticising. While I think the camera is mostly fine, it struggles with any interior sections, with little room for the player to manouevre it, and often forcing jumps that are all too easy to misjudge as it’s impossible to move the viewpoint to an appropriate one to make the leap.

There’s a terrible secret level set inside a pachinko machine (I do remember struggling with it first time around, but I don’t recall it being quite so hateful), but worst of all has to be the section leading up to the final boss battle, which commits so many cardinal design sins it’s untrue.

For starters, it’s repetitive – forcing you to make a series of jumps across platforms either spiked or smouldering. There’s little challenge to this section, and it feels little more than a space-filler. The next bit is even worse, placing you aboard a flimsy wooden boat which you must attempt to steer through a sea of lava with the water pack on your back. The idea is to spray to propel the boat, but so capricious is the boat’s movement that making it to the other side seems to require as much luck as skill. You’ll get there eventually, but more by accident than design. The boat seems to turn entirely at random, and the slightest contact with any obstacle equals an instant loss of life. The fact that the collision detection can see you strike a rock  when you pass closely by it only exacerbates the issue.

Amazingly, it gets worse. You then have to use a rocket nozzle attachment to power Mario upwards to clouds floating above. It’s impossible to move the camera into a position where you can see the clouds properly, so you’re essentially jumping blind. Make it to the next part, and you have to jump again, only this time the clouds above are moving. Miss, and there’s a strong chance you’ll plummet to the ground, losing energy in the process and having to start the process all over again.

What’s particularly staggering is that this is a Nintendo game. Nintendo games – particularly Mario ones – aren’t supposed to have bad design. That Sunshine manages to make so many mistakes in just one single level is almost unforgiveable. Little wonder it’s considered the black sheep of the series.

You’d think someone might, at some point during the game’s development, have commented on how poor that section was. It’s hard to imagine that it was never flagged up. Did Nintendo simply run out of time to change it?

It’s a pity we’ll likely never know, just as we’ll never know why so many examples of bad design make it through the rigorous testing processes implemented by the vast majority of developers. Like why some developers go to the effort of finding an interesting setting, and then funnel us through factories and warehouses for the game’s duration. I imagine a simple lack of time and/or money are the most common reason – in Sunshine’s case, the former is the most likely cause – but it’s a shame when an otherwise great game can be spoiled by a design fault that could so easily have been rectified.

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Deadly Premonition and the pointlessness of scores

As some of you will know, I reviewed Deadly Premonition for Eurogamer earlier this year. I gave it 7/10. I could just as easily have justified a 4 or a 9. I’ve spoken to two other journalists who are playing it now and don’t quite know how to score it. It’s cases like this which make a bit of a mockery of the idea of awarding scores for games.

Now Deadly Premonition is a rare breed: a game that’s fundamentally both bad and good at the same time. Its graphics are last-gen, but with an eye for human mannerisms and detail in places it would normally be lacking. Its mechanics are seriously flawed, yet often very inventive. Its sandbox environment is full of glitches, incongruities and other limitations, but is one of the most fascinating game worlds I’ve ever spent time in.

Reviewing a game like Deadly Premonition is easy, because there’s so much to talk about. Scoring it is much harder, because it’s difficult to know how to weight the pros and cons. Its Metacritic page perfectly illustrates this dilemma, with one review rating it 2/10 and another at 10. It has probably the widest range of scores from professional websites or publications of any game I can think of. Do you, as the reviewer, assume that others will be able to overlook its issues, or do you decide they’re too many and too ruinous to award a high score?

It’s a tough question to answer, and it’s one which has ultimately led to such a wide range of scores. It’s a reminder that scores are not nearly as important as the text which precedes them; read most of the 7/10 (or thereabouts) reviews of Deadly Premonition and it’s clear most have a genuine affection for the game. I’ve read my review again since writing it and while I think my appraisal was entirely fair, my score seems both right and wrong. In the end, I wish I’d been able to leave it off entirely.

Procrastination

Why is it that the more you have to do, the more time you spend putting it off?

It’s not really so much an issue with work, but with everything else I could be getting on with. I have invoices to produce, I have a lot of tidying up I want to do, I have games to catch up with, and other games to try and sell, and every evening I sit at my PC wondering what on Earth I’m going to write about for my #oneaday. Knowing all this, I’ll spend time watching TV I have absolutely no interest in, or mooch aimlessly around the internet, clicking on links about things I don’t particularly want to read, but will do so anyway.

I honestly think if I somehow had less choice in the matter – if I could somehow fix it so I had one task to do at any given time, then I’d be able to get it done much easier. The problem with me is deciding what to do next. Do I tidy? Do I gather all my games together and decide which I want to sell? Do I start playing through Mass Effect 2 or Red Dead Redemption? Do I invoice for the last bit of freelance I did, or for the billing I did earlier in the month?

Or do I waste time avoiding all of those things?

There’s no choice, really. The latter wins every time.

Rudderless

The name of this blog is also the name of one of my favourite songs by one of my favourite bands. But I didn’t choose ‘Rudderless’ purely for that reason.

I chose it because I’m a 33-year-old man who still doesn’t have the first idea where he’s headed in life. It’s not that I don’t have ambitions to do other stuff – far from it – I just don’t know what I want to do and how I’m going to get to do it. Writing and talking about videogames is something I’m semi-good at and enjoy doing, but I’m not daft enough to think that it’s going to sustain me for the rest of my working life.

As I said to a friend in an email the other day:

“I like painting, I like playing the guitar, I like watching films and football and playing videogames. In short, I’m an indecisive prick who’s waiting for someone to tell him what to do.”

I’m a Jack of all trades, master of absolutely nothing.

But then isn’t that kind of exciting? Not being on a single set path, and having loads of things you like doing? Still not quite knowing where you’re headed? So yeah, I’m rudderless, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing. There are far worse things to be. The fact that I don’t know where life’s going to take me, or which career path I should follow could be happily construed as a great opportunity. There’s still stuff I want to do; there’s still stuff I’m going to do. I just don’t know when, where or how.

But I will do it. One day.

Welcome, stranger(s)!

We’re well over halfway through the year now, and some of you #oneadayers have hit the 200-post mark. Congratulations to you all. I’ve no idea how many I’m up to, nor do I have the inclination to count just yet, but either way, most of us have reached the peak, and will now begin our descent until we reach base camp at 365 entries.

What a thoroughly awful metaphor that was.

Anyway, I digress. Even at the midway point we’re still welcoming new recruits to the fold. So it’s a hearty “hello!” and a big welcoming hug to three new bloggers, all of whom have pledged allegiance to the, erm…we really should have a flag, or badge, or something. Anyway, they all seem committed to the cause so let’s make ’em feel welcome, eh?

First newbie is the delightful Ella Jensen, Office Paladin at Lionhead Studios and colleague of seasoned #0neaday veteran, Rhiarti. She likes to walk around the house naked – or would do if our stuffy English ways would allow it – and is prone to swearing loudly in wine shops. I’m sure Ella will fit right in here.

Secondly, we have Ella’s beau Jodi Chapman. Jodi is a Call Centre Team Manager/mad criminal genius, and has a ridiculously awesome beard. Again, he should fit right in.

Lastly – but certainly not leastly – please welcome Martin Lee Ireland. I don’t know much about Martin because his blog’s About page is somewhat lacking in detail, but judging by his Twitter profile he’s a “full time greenskin, part time worker, and a slacker at everything else”. So he’ll definitely fit in, not least because his Twitter name is fantastic.

Three new people and three new blogs, then. Please add them to your blog’s links section. And please remember that I now have significantly more work to do when I do the Picks of the Week post, sassenfrassenrassen. I’m kidding. It’s great to see new recruits join our merry band. Welcome!

One A Day Picks of the Week 19th – 25th July

Time is of the essence this week, what with that three-deadline thing I mentioned in yesterday’s entry, so let’s get cracking with the week’s pick of the posts.

Krystian Majewski’s lament on the dwindling of couch-based multiplayer certainly struck a chord with me, as did Adam Englebright’s splendid – and relatively spoiler-free – review of Christopher Nolan’s brilliant Inception.

Going to see Inception was one of the first times I’ve properly been out for something not directly related to work for quite some time, though Pete Davison suggests that venturing outside alone isn’t really that much fun. I felt my head tilting slightly to one side in sympathy for Pete as I read his post, which has left me with a slight pain in my neck. But do read it! It’s awesome.

It’s always fascinating to have your views challenged, and I imagine many people will disagree with Daniel Lipscombe’s post about not liking Limbo (that’s the arty XBLA puzzle-platformer, not the bending-under-low-bars thing) very much, but it’s a fascinating read nonetheless.

There’s a brilliant post from Mat Murray this week about one of life’s little accomplishments – something he did that wasn’t particularly taxing but which nevertheless made him feel like a man. Meanwhile, Ian Dransfield managed an entire day’s worth of achievements, this time in the field of sport. True British heroes, the pair of them.

Also a hero is Rhiarti, who – despite having been diagnosed with an apparently incurable illness just two years ago – managed a twelve-minute mile. Major kudos for that particular accomplishment. Meanwhile, Jennifer Allen wins several brownie points from me for her favourite love story in a movie – I won’t spoil what it is (you’ll have to click to find out) but suffice to say that, like the movie it discusses, it’s fairly short but very sweet.

Which means my Post of the Week on this occasion goes to Mike Grant, and his simple but joyous tale of a hot-air balloon trip. Also, the photos accompanying it are really quite pretty. Well done, Mike! Now back to work I go…

All at once

Typical: you wait ages for offers of work and then three come along at once.

The problem with being a freelancer is that you have no real way of controlling workflow, unless you happen to be lucky enough to get regular work from perhaps two, maybe three, different sources whose deadlines are at different times. Otherwise you’re at the mercy of the gods. Granted, you can say ‘no’, but I’m one of those people that worries about turning work down and then never getting it from the same mag or site again.

Plus, my current finances dictate that I pretty much have to say yes to everything that comes my way, even if – as in this case – it’s not only all arrived at once, but at a time when I’m feeling the worst I have for quite some time.

It’s times like this that I miss the regularity of a ‘proper’ job, a job where I can afford to take time off if I’m ill, or where the amount of work is pretty steady rather than all or nothing. But there’s something pretty exciting about flying by the seat of your pants, cramming as much into as short a space of time as you possibly can and managing to get it all done. The satisfaction at having completed a load of work over the space of 48 hours is immense, and you can usually give yourself a treat of a few hours off before it’s back to the coalface.

Bargain!

Our traditional lazy Saturday got a bit more active today as we walked up hill and down dale to Stockport Carnival today, though ‘carnival’ was perhaps pushing it a little. Stockport Averagely-Sized Fair And Car Boot Sale would have been more accurate, but we had a lot of fun regardless.

While James enjoyed bouncing all over the trampolines – due to fortuitous timing, he had all six to himself for his alloted five minutes, and gleefully leapt between each – and had his first taste of candyfloss, the success story of the day was a bargain I spotted while wandering around the car boot stands. The box may have been a bit battered, but I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to get my hands on a limited edition Resident Evil 4 GameCube (in great condition, and with the game itself present and correct) for the knockdown price of fifteen quid. The seller even managed a pitch perfect impression of the gravel-throated “RESIDENT EEE-VILLL” growl that plays on the games’ title screens.

It helped make up for the disappointment of five pounds spent on what may be one of the worst games I’ve ever played. Pokémon Dash was always going to be purchased once James clapped eyes on it, but even his love for the pocket monsters couldn’t disguise the fact that this was a disaster. It lasted all of twenty minutes before I switched the DS off in disgust.

Still, I’d have happily spent as many pounds on the Cube, so it didn’t really feel like a fiver wasted. Looks like a night of Ganado-slaying may well be in order.

“Cooking doesn’t get any tougher than this”

Ah, Masterchef. A bit of a guilty pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless.

In the past, when Loyd Grossman was in charge, it always felt a little bit aloof, a bit too upper-middle-class. These days it’s all extreme close-ups, fast cuts, dramatic music and shouty fat men bellowing at each other, their faces no more than two feet apart.

Neither my wife nor I are particularly experienced cooks, and indeed with a four-year-old in the house we don’t get as much time as we’d like to really take our time to make meals that require serious preparation. But we’ll happily watch this every time it’s on, as formulaic as it’s become. You know exactly what to expect, you’re rarely – if ever – surprised at who qualifies each time (there’s very little misdirection and that which you do get is very easy to read) and John and Gregg repeat the same phrases over and over. There’s even a MasterChef drinking game which shows how clichéd it has become.

It’s a competition, but unlike most TV contests, the contestants really put a lot of effort in. It’s particularly noticeable in the celebrity version – outside their comfort zone, it’s interesting how often you find yourself rooting for famous people you may not have previously been particularly fond of. The ante is regularly upped, as the celebs cook for increasingly sniffy critics, in harsher conditions, or for more and more customers. There’s a strong sense that each cook is improving as they progress through tougher and tougher tasks.

So when Gregg yells “cooking doesn’t get any tougher than this”, you begin to believe him.

Games Media Awards 2010

Being a games journalist is often a thankless task. You can, for example, play a turgid, repetitive RPG for around thirty hours, slap an actually-pretty-generous 5/10 on it, and be told by the members of a game forum – purely based on the score, and not the accompanying text – that you’re either on crack, don’t understand the genre, didn’t play the game, or all three. And yes, that really did happen to me.

So the Games Media Awards is a really rather lovely idea, celebrating the best writers and publications in the UK. It’s particularly gratifying as a lot of gamers don’t seem to be awfully familiar with the people that are writing their reviews. It’s not such a problem in America, where certain journalists are practically afforded celebrity status. Geoff Keighley, Jeff Gerstmann, Chris Kohler, Jeremy Parish, Adam Sessler are all routinely name-checked by American gamers who read, enjoy and recognise their work. Over here, you’d struggle to get someone to name their favourite British journalist, while across the pond I’d wager most NeoGAF users could easily list a top five.

It’s not as if UK journalism is in any way worse – far from it, in fact. Perhaps it’s because we’re relatively small fish in a big old journalistic pond. Perhaps it’s because the US tends to get big news, reviews and exclusives of all kinds before the British sites and mags do. One thing which the US has certainly done better is to foster a sense of community around its biggest sites. There’s only Eurogamer that can really compare with the IGNs and 1Ups of this world, while Giant Bomb’s podcast is a big reason for that site’s success. We were a bit slow on the uptake when it came to the internet, and we’re suffering for it.

But I digress: this is about the best of British journalism, and if last year’s event is anything to go by, it should be one hell of a fun night. I distinctly recall shouting “MARIO DIES!” at the top of my lungs to a slightly bemused Kieron Gillen as I attempted to explain the ending of Super Mario Galaxy. Of course, the reason I was so roaringly drunk was because I was somehow nominated for the award of Best Specialist Writer (Online). I vividly remember the morning I found out I was nominated. I found out via Twitter that the list had been announced when one mag congratulated one of its writers for a nomination, and I visited MCV just to see who was on there, in no way expecting my name to be there. As I scrolled down the list I was genuinely shocked to see my name among such luminaries as Pat Garratt and Simon Parkin, and while Pat won the award on the night, I was just pleased to be in such great company.

So to this year’s awards. I’ve not been writing quite so regularly for anyone bar Megaton (up until a month or so ago, anyway) and The Observer, so I’m pretty sure I won’t be on the list this time, though I’ll be sending my votes tomorrow. As ever, the nominations and winners will be voted for by members of the media and industry PRs, so if you fall into either category feel free to vote by clicking this here link and sending your nominations for the categories shown to gma@intentmedia.co.uk.

This absolutely isn’t a cheap plea for votes, more a suggestion that you do vote for someone (Matthew Castle and Christian Donlan would be particularly wise choices, if you ask me), as it’s the one night the forum jibes and the parental nagging – like “why don’t you get a proper job?” – are forgotten about, even if merely through the haze of alcohol.

(Though if you genuinely do rate my writing, then you know how to show your appreciation, wink wink.)