I realized the moment I fell into the fissure that the book would not be destroyed as I had planned. It continued falling into that starry expanse, of which I had only a fleeting glimpse. I have tried to speculate where it might have landed, but I must admit that such a conjecture is futile .Still, questions about whose hands might one day hold my Myst book are unsettling to me. I know my apprehensions might never be allayed, and so I close, realizing that perhaps the ending has not yet been written.
-The Book of Atrus
When I was a kid, my father would play video games. He still does play things like online poker and “Literati,” and from time to time he’ll get a game like Max Payne, but back then, back in the late eighties and the early nineties, I remember him staying up all night playing Zelda 2 on the Nintendo, and later, games light Lighthouse on the computer. My memory is foggy about chronology of things back then, particularly with computer games—I’m sure the eerie, atmospheric 3D-looking computer games must have been much more recent than the 4-bit jump-run-and-shoot games like Commander Keen, and we must have gone through several different computers over the course of several years, but it all really blurs together for me.
I distinctly remember owning an Atari, but I don’t remember much about it. I seem to remember a game labeled as “Popeye” even though the characters on the screen bore no real resemblance to those on the box. I remember some kind of tennis game, or more accurately, I remember a controller with a tennis racket icon stamped onto it, a controller featuring one button and a rotating dial, which even though I can’t remember using it in any game, my memory reveres it with more coolness than just about any other controller.
The Nintendo Entertainment System came out in 1985, the year I was born, so naturally I have no idea whatsoever when it was that we got it. Aside from the already-old Atari, the NES was the only game system my family had until we got an N64 around 1997. As anyone can tell you, by the time an NES gets to be about ten years old, it works about half as often as it doesn’t. Still, it was during that ten years, apparently, that I became such a huge fan of video games, even though I wasn’t very good at them. It was also during that time that green became my favorite color, after spending most games as Player 2. At some point, I believe it was still before we got the N64, I think my Dad just gave away most of our Nintendo games, because I at least know that we don’t have most of them now. In the long run, that was okay, because as I alluded to earlier, the machine stopped working around that time anyway.
It comes and goes, this fandom. I still remember getting the Nintendo 64 for Christmas. Finally being able to play Super Mario 64, it was like seeing the games I’d been playing in the past suddenly brought to life, as the transition to 3D was so perfect, it seemed at the time like the line between video games and reality had been crossed. It wasn’t until around the time that Mario Party came out that the concept of “polygons” (the flat shapes used to create 3D figures in video games) became apparent to me; looking back, I’m not sure how I missed them, as they’re certainly apparent in Mario 64 and Mario Kart 64.
While games like Mario Party and Super Smash Brothers were fun games to play with friends, it was the games like Mario 64 and Zelda 64 that felt like portals to real, living worlds to explore. Since I got the system after it had been out for a while, there seemed to be an endless supply of such games, but after I’d worked through the backlog that I had missed, it became clear that such great games, modern classics, were few and far between. The last N64 that brought that sort of feeling was Paper Mario, which was by no means a realistic or groundbreaking game, but it clearly created its own unique world, with massive amounts of charm, and just enough throwbacks to the NES era to make me nostalgic for the games that made me a fan.
I still remember the months before the next Nintendo launched. Ideas became rumors, rumors became facts, and Project Dolphin became the Nintendo Gamecube. Luigi, my long-time favorite character, was going to have his own game. But once it did come out, while it did host some great games, none of them brought back that feeling of entering and exploring a new world. Luigi’s Mansion was quaint, and looked great, with its own distinct style that helped flesh out Luigi’s character, but the game was small, very literally a new house to explore, rather than a world. Even the follow-ups to the N64 games that I loved didn’t quite live up to the originals. Super Mario Sunshine, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and Paper Mario 2, for instance, were all fun games, and they all looked great, but that immersive feeling of newness was gone. Perhaps I had simply outgrown it.
However, at some random point on some random day of last year, a random thought fluttered across my mind: Myst. It was one of the games my father had played when I was much younger. Back then, I could never really get the knack for open-ended adventure games. My strategy for Zelda was “run around the overworld killing enemies until you die,” but that didn’t work for Myst, as there were no enemies to kill, and no ways to die. So my strategy had become “wander around aimlessly until you get bored.” On that random day last year, it occurred to me that I’d probably enjoy the game a lot more now that I was remotely competent, and the fact that I now realized that note taking was a relevant skill would probably improve my chances.
The graphics of the original Myst haven’t aged well, unfortunately, but I managed to get my hands on RealMyst, a greatly improved version of the original. At the time the remake came out, it was regarded simultaneously as having great graphics but being painfully choppy on even the most powerful computers. Fortunately for me, about 5 years had past, so my mediocre computer was surprisingly able to run the game with beautiful results, after some obnoxious tweaking with the options and settings.
The game opens with Atrus’s catchy monologue. “I realized the moment I fell into the fissure that the book would not be destroyed as I had planned…” At the time, I didn’t really have a clue what he was talking about, just that the book he was talking about was the one which landed just in front of me. I opened it, and I saw a moving panel showing another world. I touched the image and was brought there.
A New World
“Weeeee! That’s what you say when you’re havin’ fun.
You refer to yourself, and some other people.”
“Black! Red! Black! Yellow! Red! Black! Blue! … Blue! BLEEUUUUE. Balooo! … ‘It seems the hardware is unable to process your voice.’ Dangit!”
“Yeah, it has problems with blue. I think it’s because it was programmed in Japan, and they pronounce stuff differently there.”
“So I should be saying ‘Brue,’ then?”
I chuckle at that, but the truth is far… sillier. “Actually, one of the people on the forums suggested saying ‘Badoo.’ I always just say ‘blooo!’ though, like I’m psyched about it.”
Katie laughs out loud at the word “badoo,” but tries the Stroop test again. “Black. Red. Black. Yellow. Blue. Bloo! Baloo! Brue. Baroo. … Badoo!” Badoo worked.
Wonky “blue” recognition aside, the fact that a Nintendo DS, a handheld game system about the size of two wallets, is even remotely capable of administering a Stroop test is pretty impressive. The Stroop test, of course, being the experiment when you have to say the names of the color a word is written in, made difficult by the fact that the words themselves are the names of other colors. That they were able to digitize this into a game in which the colored words pop onto the screen rapidly, the built-in microphone recognizes what you’re shouting, and the game scores you on how quickly you say the correct words, is both clever and amusing, however unscientific the results.
The game is Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day, and it’s easily the most brilliant use of the Nintendo DS I’ve seen so far. Instead of simply recreating an existing game and adding worthless features to try to incorporate the touch screen, the two-screen system, or the microphone, Nintendo took a completely different approach, literally turning the system on its side.
The game is based on a book by a Japanese neuroscientist, Dr. Ryuta Kawashima, who actually appears in the game as a cartoonish floating head to guide you through the game’s unique features. While the book presumably just gave you tips on how to stimulate and exercise your brain, the game actually forces you to do it. Reading out loud, doing quick math problems, and drawing from memory, for instance, are all incorporated as training exercises in the game, and things like the Stroop test mentioned above are used to judge your “brain age,” with the best being 20 and the worst being 80, and mine being around 40 on a good day. It seems like no matter what my score, Dr. K is always telling me “your brain is a little tired!” or “don’t give up hope! Try again tomorrow!”
While the last thing I would have wanted was a video game that patronizes me, the fact is, it’s completely different, a whole lot of fun, and I hope it’s working. Then again, the game is intended to be played every over the course of a couple months or even a year, and I’ve only had it for a few weeks, so it’ll take time. Even if it does nothing, it’s amusing to have an excuse to shout “badoo!” at a little plastic box.
Nintendo, now more than ever, has been targeting non-gamers as a means to expand the market. I stopped watching TV a while ago, so I’m limited to the bias-heavy internet advertising, most of which I filter anyway, so I have no idea if or how that message is getting out to the general public. But the games themselves, at least, have been showing greater and greater diversity, particularly on the DS. In one game, which I didn’t enjoy but others certainly would, you raise an adorable puppy, using the stylus on the touch screen to pet him, and using the microphone to tell him to do tricks. On the other hand, the DS is also the home to the best Mario Kart game so far, which doesn’t use the touch or microphone features much at all, but allows you to play multiplayer modes with up to 8 people in person (or 4 over the internet). More recently, they delivered the best version of Tetris ever, which included the classic version everyone knows, along with a two-player version in which competitors play from opposite directions to get the other player’s stack to reach their side, and a “touch” mode which feels like a physical “slide puzzle” version of the original Tetris.
So if Nintendo’s going to do all this crazy stuff with their handheld system, where does the home console fit in? I’ve been fairly unimpressed by a lot of the offerings on Gamecube, because all of it just felt like stuff I had done before. I defend the system, as it’s no worse than Sony or Microsoft’s offerings, and if I’m going to be playing the same old thing, it might as well be something I liked the first time. So while a game like Super Smash Bros Melee, the sequel to an N64 fighting game, was and is a ton of fun at parties, only occasionally would a game like Animal Crossing or Pikmin come out which was totally different from anything else, and for some reason those particular games didn’t click with me. Still, if the DS has proven anything, it’s that completely new ideas work best on a completely new system. So what will Nintendo’s next home console, its Revolution, be like? How will it be different? How will it attract new people, and me?
Yep. Wii. Not “Nintendo Wii” or even “The Wii,” just “Wii.” Pronounced “we” as in “Wii love to play Nintendo games” or perhaps pronounced “Whee!” as in “Wii! This game is so fun!” In either case, the name is intended to suggest the idea of togetherness as well as the idea of having boatloads of fun. Even the logo, with its odd spelling, suggests two little i-people chilling together. And since most adults seem to lose the ability to learn new proper nouns at some point, resulting in their calling any game system they see either a “Nintendo” or a “Playstation” depending on which they saw first (or in some cases, a horrid amalgamation of vaguely game-related names), Nintendo took the safe road: A monosyllabic, personal pronoun. You simply can’t mistake Wii for any other word, even if your Brain Age is 80.
If you’re a gamer, your first thought when you see the Wii’s controller may be, “where are all the buttons?” To Nintendo’s target audiences, non-gamers and people who haven’t played games since the NES era because they got too complicated, the relative lack of buttons wouldn’t even come to mind. So does that mean all the games are going to be so simplistic that they only require one or two buttons to play? Not exactly…
The cool thing is, what Nintendo has done is to translate an extremely complex control mechanism into an extremely intuitive design. The controller senses motion. You can point it at the screen like a gun. You can flail it around like a sword. You can turn it like a steering wheel and tilt it toward and away from yourself to speed up or slow down. I can’t be alone in saying I think that’s freaking cool. Very few games have actually been announced, but I already know of one I’m going to buy the day it comes out: an official Bob Ross painting game. Seriously, that’s one of the few overlaps between “things that I thought would seriously never happen” and “things that are quite likely going to be the coolest thing ever.” Again, it’s by taking these steps so far from where anyone’s ever gone that Nintendo is going to make real progress.
A New Age
"The flow of time is always cruel. Its speed seems
different for each person, but no one can change it."
-Sheik, Zelda 64
I’m secretly hoping that someone will announce a Myst game for Wii or for the DS, or at least a good game in the same genre. A game called Trace Memory came out for the DS a while back, but while it was in the same point-and-click puzzle-venture style, it was geared toward younger players. Since I bought this game shortly after playing Myst, Riven, and Myst 3: Exile back-to-back, the child-difficulty puzzles made me feel like I was back playing “Putt-Putt Saves the Zoo” again, only instead of playing as an anthropomorphic car trying to find lost zoo animals before opening day, I was playing as an angsty teenage girl trying to find out the details surrounding the murder of her mother. Okay, so the story’s a bit more mature, but the difficulty was about the same.
Oddly enough, one promising sign comes from the trailer for the upcoming Zelda game for DS. Because everyone (myself included) is looking forward to the upcoming Gamecube Zelda, which looks to be pretty much the same as Zelda 64, Zelda DS seems to be flying in under the radar. When I really looked at it, though, there are some very interesting things going on. The game is in 3D, with cartoonish graphics clearly modeled after those from The Wind Waker, for Gamecube. The gameplay itself, however, seems to be largely 2-dimentional, a very nice homage to the earlier Zelda games for the NES and SNES, which Nintendo’s target audience is likely to be familiar with. One final touch that ties it all together, Link is followed by a fairy (technically, Link follows it, but more on that in a bit), much like he was in Zelda 64.
In Zelda 64, Navi the fairy was a sort of guide, helping Link to figure out where to go, and worked into the games interface as a sort of targeting system, as she would hover around target areas which Link would then focus on. This created a lot of animosity toward Navi from the fans, as she would constantly shout things like “Hey!” and “Look!” and “Listen!” whenever she found something interesting. Now she (or a different fairy, as this appears to be in the Wind Waker timeline) is back, and from what little footage is shown in the trailer, she seems to be doing something interesting. Instead of simply hovering around where Link walks, she seems always to be ahead of him, and the farther ahead she is, the faster Link moves. Going back and rewatching this, it hit me:
Navi is the cursor.
It was clear that they touch function of the DS was an important part of the game, as the gameplay footage shows, for instance, a line drawn across the screen which Link’s Boomerang then follows, but it wasn’t until recently that I realized the game would be entirely stylus controlled. That makes it less like the traditional Zelda’s which it resembles and more like an action-based version of the classic point-and-click adventures from the days when those were popular, or more likely, an original fusion of those two genres. Indeed, one clip shows the map being pulled onto the touch screen so that the player can write notes (to help solve puzzles) onto it, and another clip shows the fairy (and by deduction, the stylus) making a quick circle around Link, causing him to do a spinning attack with his sword.
If that’s what they’re doing for the DS, then Wii will be playing some very, very interesting games in the future.