Friday, June 29, 2007
Thursday, June 28, 2007
“I went all weekend without playing Pokemon!”
We’re picking up the campsite, getting ready to leave North Country Fair behind for another year, and I fully understand my buddy’s pride, pride detectable behind the sunburn, behind the twigs in the beard, behind the post-mushroom, looked-into-the-abyss glaze in his eyes. There amid the weekend’s flotsam of crushed cans, empty cases, upended lawn chairs, half-collapsed tents and miscellaneous debris, I know how good it feels to come out the other side of this sodden, smoked-up annual hippie/hoser musical bacchanal without having crawled away into the glowing refuge of the DS screen -- because I’ve managed it, too. My body may be hung over, but my game-addicted mind is clear.
It was a near thing, let me tell you.
A couple weeks ago, I wrote of my frustration at being teased by Legend of the Unemployed Ninja into a futile desire for a portable roguelike game – that is, a handheld version of one of the many dungeon-crawling games that follow in the footsteps of the1980 computer game Rogue, which featured totally randomized levels, minimalist text-based “graphics”, unforgiving difficulty and total addictiveness for a certain kind of nerd. The idea that I could get netHack, Angband, Moria or somesuch on my DS seemed like a ridiculous daydream; such a thing could never be commercially viable, would never be published or distributed.
I’d somehow forgotten that commercial viability, publication and distribution have never been issues for the roguelike genre; it’s the nichiest of niches, developed and evolved over the years by legions of obsessed hobbyist/hacker/fans. Of course somebody was going to cobble up a DS roguelike. All I had to do was look for it.
I’ve followed the videogame homebrew scene in a casual, almost osmotic, way throughmy blog-reading, but I’ve never actually downloaded anything. I “upgrade” the firmware of my PlayStation Portable with Sony’s regular anti-piracy – therefore anti-homebrew – updates, and I never bothered with the flash RAM system that’d let me get that action going on my DS... until I discovered DSCrawl, the answer to my longing. One borrowed piracy tool later – buddy wasn’t using it since his machine had been wholly given over to Pokemon – and I was once again down in the crudely yet efficiently depicted dungeons I love so well.
DSCrawl is a port, by a programmer who goes by the handle Sasq, of Linley’s Dungeon Crawl, a roguelike in a fairly conservative tradition. With its 26 player races and a like number of character classes, its 400-something monster types and its dozen-deity pantheon, Crawl is deeper (mathematically if not narratively; roguelikes are infamosly story-light) than any commercial RPG, while still much simpler than what many of Rogue's offspring have developed into. It’s basic: fight your way to the bottom of the dungeon, get the magic thingamabob, and fight your way back up.
I’d thought the lack of a keyboard would pose an insurmountable problem for a portable roguelike. Straightforward as the game’s objectives may be, they’re accomplished through a bewildering array of commands, with nearly every key of a standard keyboard mapped to some function and most doubling up – “d”, for example drops stuff, while “D” dissects slain monsters into gross but (maybe) nutritious slabs of meat. Sasq has put together a control scheme, making intuitive use of all the DS’s shoulder and face buttons as well as a soft keyboard on the touchscreen, that actually feels smoother, more "gamelike", than traditional keyboard controls once you get it ingrained into your hands’ muscle memory.
It might take a while to get to that point, but a while is what I’ve taken. This game, with its constant treadmill of die-retry-die-retry-etc. – “winning” a roguelike is the gaming equivalent of driving a hole-in-one, or bowling a perfect game – got its hooks into me, hard. I must have taken two hundred characters (I usually make myself a Sludge Elf Monk, despite the poor survivability of that race/class combo; I just like weird kung-fu dudes) into the pit over the last couple weeks. I could honestly play it all day, just zoning out, crashing down through the levels on glazed game-zombie autopilot. So when North Country wrapped up with my DS still fully charged in the bottom of my bag, it felt like an accomplishment, a triumph of social ability and will to party over demanding geekdom… or maybe the thought of being in the roguelike headspace while on mushrooms scared me off; I can’t really remember.
Now, consider; it has no commercial slickness, but DSCrawl is pretty much my favorite DS game ever… and I had to go through Nintendo-disapproved greymarket channels to play it. Officially, I shoul dnever have been allowed its enjoyment.
There is hope, though, for these impossibly specialized games. Just yesterday, Nintendo announced their “WiiWare” initiative, a system by which smaller independent developers will be able to create and publish original downloadable games for Wii. Lower development and distribution costs mean more risks can be taken – this is going to be the model for much of the games industry as the cost of mega-blockbusters increases and gaming mainstreams (and niches) itself away from the hardcore. That’s good, and we’ll see some cool games out of it – already indie web sensations (flOw, Line Rider, N, Alien Hominid) are being regularly picked up for consoles and handhelds. In the future, games like Crawl will more often and more easily find their way out of the dungeon and into the light.
Posted by DRZ at 1:19 PM
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
For some reason, I've got Steve Martin on the brain this morning. Oh, wait; I know the reason. It's this clip.
Steve Martin is one of my all-time heroes, one of my favorite writers, and probably my favorite comic. His first book, Cruel Shoes, is a masterpiece of wild absurdism that goes so far beyond mere zaniness it becomes haunting. Often when I think about the World Situation, the following piece comes back to me:
Demolition of The Cathedral at ChartresMr. Rivers was raised in the city of New York, had become involved in construction and slowly advanced himself to the level of crane operator for a demolition company. The firm had grown enormously, and he was shipped off to France for a special job. He started work early on Friday and, due to a poorly drawn map, at six-thirty one morning in February began the demolition of the Cathedral at Chartres.
The first swing of the ball knifed an arc so deadly that it tore down nearly a third of a wall and the glass shattered almost in tones, and it seemed to scream over the noise of the engine as the fuel was pumped in the long neck of the crane that threw the ball through a window of the Cathedral at Chartres.
The aftermath was complex and chaotic, and Rivers was allowed to go home to New York, and he opened up books on the Cathedral and read about it and thought to himself how lucky he was to have seen it before it was destroyed.
Posted by DRZ at 9:53 AM
Monday, June 25, 2007
As in, my inert carcass will be in "the zone" after I download Carcassonne off XBox Live Arcade this Wednesday. You know I love me some tile-laying action, and you know I've been elbows-deep for weeks now in the XBLA edition of my second-favorite German board game. What you might not know is that I'm going off the 9-to-5 and back to full-time freelancing next week, so... I might be ever-so-slightly doomed, especially if I give in and renew my Gold membership and start nerding it up online-style. Unlike Settlers, though, the Live Carcassonne will support a four-player local hotseat game. So, yeah... actual, present friends!
Seriously, check this out. Dig those screens. Feel that love.
Posted by DRZ at 4:30 PM
Friday, June 22, 2007
Thursday, June 21, 2007
"You either know or have a received image of some of
the surface indicators: scarily dilapidated walkups, their lawns strewn with trash tossed from balconies by transient tenants making midnight moves; fucked-up beggars and grisly prostitutes; fights and knifings and murders; crack. But have you seen the women in abaya and headscarves, chatting gently as they push a baby carriage? Have you seen the smiling young Punks in Love and the new-Canadian entrepreneurs? Have you seen my backyard?"
Posted by DRZ at 2:22 PM
Running in front of the storm, the wind rips down the river valley to whip the deck of the boat. We dodge skittering plastic chairs, weigh down napkins and menus with plates and cellphones. We ought to be taking shelter down on the dining deck with the rest of the lubbers, but something keeps us on station; we paid money for these tickets, and damned if we’re going to waste them huddled inside a floating restaurant. Besides, we can’t just abandon these nachos…
This Father’s Day started out with great promise, breakfasttime showers breaking to summer sunshine. A good day for a family cruise on the Edmonton Queen, riverboat pride of the North Saskatchewan. Down by Rafter’s Landing the heat raised that damp, good valley smell from the soaked greenery as a kid at the ticket trailer – obviously well-drilled in the unforgiving ways of transport – wailed in fear: “Daddy, we’ll miss the boat! Daddy! We’ll miss the BOOOO-OAT!”
Relax, kid; you sound like your mom. Besides, even if you miss this sailing, you’ll have years and years in which to try again. After some early error-comedy and fun-poking, and with the passage of time allowing us to come to terms with her depth-proscribed area of operation, the Queen has become a fixture in mainstream Edmontonian hearts, a slightly silly but beloved extravagance, like the Chateau Lacombe’s revolving restaurant or the Igloo Room at WEM. She’s now featured in too many paintings, murals and tourist brouchures to be allowed to sink or scuttle, literally or metaphorically.
Still, regulations require lifejacket drill. As the girl on the loudspeaker goes over the floatation-device procedure and gives us the rundown of riverboat Dos and Don’ts, she mentions something about the “Stern Bar”. Immediately I’m taken out of the safety moment, visualizing such a place. Concrete bar-top and form-follows-function furnishings, industrial lighting, barmaids in grey librarian tweeds giving you the drinks they decide you need and not taking any shit about it. Some kind of dystopian sci-fi tavern music. I like it; it’d be a refreshing change from the usual vaguely inept chirpiness…
Unfortunately, the only thing stern about the Stern Bar – other than its picturesque location near the churning paddlewheels – is the boat’s security detail, whose main job seems to be patrolling the gunwales like sailors repelling boarders, stopping safety-conscious moms and dads from lifting their precious little ones up past guardrail level for a better look at the river they’re now dangling over. This duty keeps the vigilant marines very busy.
The Stern Bar pours Santa Carolina, a real fightin’ Cabernet. With a pronounced tannic rush taking point and playfully aggressive notes of blackcurrant and chem lab on the nose, this frisky claretoid presents well in its plastic catering goblet. I tip the barmaid two bucks for generosity; she poured until the wine formed a meniscus and I had to stoop-n’-slurp before I could carry it away without danger to my light-colored sport coat.
Back at the family table, the conversation has turned – as I’m sure many an Edmonton Queen conversation has turned – to the subject of river-valley development. Details aside, the consensus seems to be that Louise McKinney park should have been / should be developed with a riverfront commercial strip “like Granville Island.” Parking, strolling and spending, slurping $10 margaritas on a chain-restaurant patio while watching reflected mini-lights twinkle on the dark water… this is the new dream for the valley. Because God forbid we maintain a zone that’s not actively picking your pocket; any space that’s not blaring satellite radio over the white noise of espresso machines is waste land. Besides, as is strenuously mentioned, “you could make nothing but serious money down there!”
The storm’s blowing up harder now as we round the bend before the turnaround point, Capilano Bridge like a mirage in the distance. There are tents in the trees below the topside condoscape; friendly bums(?) wave hello. Now rain’s coming, with wind that pushes my half-filled glasstic toward me as if to say “Drink up! Drink up!” We’re the only ones left on deck in the tempest, save for the security dudes stacking chairs so they don’t waltz away. I imagine it more epic than it is, imagine mythical Voyage of Sinbad monsters in the water, hiding in the aspens… the Sirens of the Storm Sewer Outfall…
“Don’t listen, men! Their song will ensorcel your wits! Stop your ears with wax!”
Except there is no wax at hand; there is only… nacho cheese.
Posted by DRZ at 12:41 PM
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
I played a lot of Odin Sphere...
"Second impression: A gorgeous façade fronting a dated, repetitive triviality, simulating depth through overwriting and busywork.
"Third impression: Here I am, still playing it hours after Impression Two. Why?"
I wrote some preview bumf on NextFest, an unsatisfying experience...
“'The chief thing, I guess, is that I want the people I’m painting to look really good. Otherwise, I feel I’d be doing them a disservice. I only paint people that look good. That’s pretty important to me, ideologically.'"
I went to Fort Edmonton Park...
"One moment you’re strolling along with cranky families laden with modern plastics, slowly filing past roped-off exhibits of trade tools, exhibits that haven’t changed in 20 years, the next you’re treated to an honest moment of universal human history as the general store’s cute countergirl blushes furiously at the entrance of the handsome young Mountie."
I learned a lesson about robot monarchs and some other stuff...
Also, I guess I know who I'm tele-psychically inducing some weak-willed american to vote for next November:
"Apologies, Lizzie; you were right. I’ll never again undervalue the power of the sheepfold."
Posted by DRZ at 7:50 PM