Backlog: Welcome Back, Spring Edition

Why hello there.

Just like crisp spring weather, pollen allergies, and daylight savings time, we are back. After something of a hiatus -- more a hiccup given our history, to be honest -- we've returned. We have more podcasts to bring you, we will have new articles in the coming weeks, and Nick has been busy churning away beginning his game design career -- and is even crashing the Game Developers Conference this week, so that should prove interesting as well. We have plenty to talk about if this Backlog is to be believed: Nick has been mining the pits of masochism, Doug has been burning money on 3DS Virtual Console titles, and Spencer wants to talk about a Blizzard game -- no, not that one, but the OTHER one.

So kick back, click the button below, and give it a read. Thanks as always for your support. Enjoy! Doug Bonham

Nick Cummings

Doug can confirm that, just like Dark Souls, training for a marathon does indeed feature many dangerous dragons

Doug can confirm that, just like Dark Souls, training for a marathon does indeed feature many dangerous dragons

We’ve been absent for a while, which happens. Maybe you noticed that about us? It’s difficult. We’ve all got our own full-time obligations outside of this blog, and frankly, we’re pretty sure nobody even reads what we write most of the time. In one sense that can be liberating since it empowers me to write more freely and without reservation. On the other hand, that kinda sucks; I’d love to think that the stuff I write connects with people. I’d never presume to have that, but it’s something I think I’ve always aspired towards as a writer. Yet here I am, almost six years after graduating with what I assume is a good baseline understanding of how to write things that people can read, and I’m pretty sure I’m no closer to establishing even a handful of steady readers than I was before.

I don’t intend to sound melodramatic. I’m just wondering what it is about this blog — what it is that prevents an audience from getting engaged with the things we do. Maybe we need a forum? Maybe it’s just a matter of being even more consistent with publishing? Maybe we need to do more community events? Or maybe it’s time we rethink this whole project and see if we can come up with something new and better. I’m just thinking out loud here.

In any case, it’s good to be back! I’ve been busy the last month learning the ins and outs of Unity, and I’m cranking away on a few new games as I write this. But I’ve also found myself hopelessly sucked into a game in a way I haven’t seen since Dragon Age: Origins. No, it’s not Titanfall, although Titanfall is an immaculate and endlessly enjoyable game in its own right. And it’s not South Park: The Stick of Truth, which is also wonderfully well-produced and filled to the brim with clever uses for its source material; its only flaw is that its core gameplay systems probably wouldn’t be enough to sustain my interest if I wasn’t a fan of South Park.

No. I’m talking about Dark Souls, the cleanest distillation of pure, unadulterated hack-and-slash roleplaying I’ve ever seen.

As I get older, I’m finding that a lot of the best and most rewarding gaming experiences require a small but significant commitment to give yourself a chance to reset your expectations of how a game should work — a bit of a leap of faith, in other words. The Souls games are off-putting to so many people because of their perceived ruthlessness and high difficulty level — qualities I wouldn’t contest — but those concepts are often conflated with sadism and unfairness, which are negative qualities. There’s something deeply rewarding in playing a game that breaks you back down to square one and tasks you with rebuilding your toolkit for survival — your reflexes, your knowledge of a world and its ecosystem of enemies and items and equipment. The game does nothing to help you out, but it promises you a rich, deeply realized experience that’s designed to be conquered with enough persistence and patience.

I’m closing in on the final few boss fights of Dark Souls after about forty hours invested in my character, and I can only count on one hand the number of games I’ve played that were as challenging and rewarding as this one. (Super Meat Boy, Spelunky and, I’d argue, Rock Band’s library on expert difficulty, are great examples of this as well.)

If you’ve been holding off on playing games like Dark Souls because you’re worried you’re gonna have a hard time, I’m not going to calm you with platitudes about how it’s not so tough. It is tough. It’s hard as hell. But it is surmountable, and each little victory along the way brings more gratification and sense of accomplishment than most games do in their entirety.

If you love games for what they are at their very essence, you owe it to yourself to invest the time to give Dark Souls a fair shake. Yeah, it’s gonna hurt, but so does training for a marathon, writing a doctoral dissertation, mastering a new craft or making it through the entirety of Infinite Jest. Nothing truly worth doing comes without its own share of pain, but it only serves to make the reward that much sweeter.

Playing Dark Souls is the best way I’ve found to remember why I love games. If you’re tired of the status quo and feeling disconnected from the high-budget, low-creativity output that characterizes most of the big-name game franchises these days, you need to play this game.

Spencer Tordoff

For a place that prides itself on its “skin harvested from the backs of tortured giants”-based economy, Hell has a confusing amount of gold. Currency reserves, I guess.

For a place that prides itself on its “skin harvested from the backs of tortured giants”-based economy, Hell has a confusing amount of gold. Currency reserves, I guess.

I blazed through South Park: The Stick of Truthin the course of about a week, and it was a lot of fun. I'm sure I'll pick it up at some point again in the future, but honestly it was a bit of a one-shot -- very enjoyable, like an episode of the show, but not terribly deep -- also like an episode of the show. But, as a fan of the series (and as someone who had anticipated the release for some two years prior), it was quite worth it.

Nick and I have been making our way through one of his childhood favorites, the venerable Final Fantasy 6. The experience of playing is great, as is getting to chat with Nick about the role it played in his youth but the game itself... well, it hasn't aged terribly well. In a variety of ways. Tune in sometime, and you'll probably hear us making disappointed sighs and occasional "tsks."

Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Editionmade it into my library by way of a lacking show of willpower. Maybe I'll stream it. Maybe not. We'll see.

So let's get to the meat of this: I want to talk about Diablo III.

You may have overheard on the podcast (presuming, of course, that someone has heard the podcast) my occasional derision directed at D3, much to our own Nick Cummings' chagrin. While the game felt excellent -- with tight, responsive controls and fast-paced action in the vein of its predecessors -- many of its aspects rubbed me the wrong way. The shallow, forgettable storyline took a fair portion of the blame, as did the loot system -- indeed, my wizard was forced to wear considerable quantities of agility-heavy gear. But the most damning 'feature' of D3 was the Auction House system, where players could spend in-game gold or real-world currency to kit out their characters.

Now, I'm not opposed to microtransaction games -- indeed, the amount of money I've spent on Team Fortress 2 and Hawken would make any argument I could level against the model fall flat. I'm not even truly against the "pay-to-win" approach, though I do tend to avoid such games on general principle. But the addition of the Auction House turned Diablo III from a flawed successor into an outright insult. Short of playing near-constantly, one was not going to find suitable gear for their character outside of the AH, at which point the object of the game became farming enough gold for a decent set of rings -- or shelling out a few bucks for some reallygood stuff from the cash money AH. That's pay-to-win in a game that -- speaking personally -- I had already spent sixty bucks pre-ordering.

Suffice it to say, I was extremely disappointed.

Flash forward to today. Diablo III has been released on consoles, the Auction House is nearing its demise, and the game's first expansion, Reaper of Souls, is imminent. In a fashion reminiscent of World of Warcraft, Blizzard released the 2.0 patch for D3, and it's full of adjustments to bring the game in-line with its new content. There's some revamps to character abilities and crafting, sure, but the real meat of the patch is the new loot system. Loot is back, and it mostly doesn't suck!

Well, perhaps that's an overstatement. However, loot is now weighted heavily toward having stats and effects relevant to your current character, meaning that my formerly-agile wizard is now kitted out in the finest intelligence-based gear that has fallen out of the game's multi-shaped, murderous, item-and-gold piñatas. Maybe that's all that it took to make the game enjoyable for me, but I've been having a blast making my way through once more -- murdering baddies, picking up treasure, and skipping every cutscene and cinematic that will allow it. Drop in on a game sometime.

Also, Threes is dangerous.

Doug Bonham

Ah, the cartoonish violence of the early 1990s. Gotta love it.

Ah, the cartoonish violence of the early 1990s. Gotta love it.

I have a lot on my plate. While I’m still playing F1 2013 and WWE 2K14and I’ve finished The Last of Us, I’ve also spent time searching for cheaper classics. In fact, I just rediscovered a little piece of my childhood recently.

Instead of spending too much money on a brand new game, I spent a little bit and got a card of NintendoBux® to use on my 3DS. What I did was put 2000 yen (approximately $20) into my account and then downloaded three Virtual Console titles. I took some time to consider how I was going to spend this money, but in the end, I wound up feeding my nostalgia in an altogether wonderful way.

First, I downloaded WarioLand 2. Originally for the GameBoy Color, this side-scroller featuring Wario was featured a few months back on Retronauts. (As a side note: If you’re reading our site, you probably already know about Retronauts, but if you don’t or haven’t listened in a while, the re-launched version that began in the fall is absolutely fantastic whether you are a fan of the subject or not.) The hosts, whose opinions I hold in regard, gushed about this little old game, so I decided to drop 600 yen (about $6) and check it out. It looks really cool and handles well, but I know from the podcast discussion it’s a game with depth, so I need more time with it.

After that I continued to search through Nintendo’s available games on the handheld Virtual Console. I wound up finding two games from one series: Super Dodge Ball and Nintendo World Cup. I jumped into the soccer game because I remember it quite distinctly from my childhood.

These games are important because in Japan they’re actually in the Kunio-kun universe, the same as River City Ransom. River City Ransom in Japan (called Downtown Nekketsu Story) was direct about the characters being high school students, so these dodgeball and soccer spin-offs, naturally, see the students competing against other high schools in interscholastic sports! They're literally called Nekketsu High School Dodge Ball Club and Nekketsu High School Dodge Ball Club: Soccer Edition. The soccer game I played even has a pre-game cut scene where the soccer club student manager asks Kunio and the boys in the dodgeball club to play soccer for her for some reason or another. Because they're fans of violence? Who knows. While Nintendo World Cup and Super Dodge Ball saw you compete against other national teams, instead the opponents in the Nekketsu titles were different stereotypical Japanese high schools -- rich kids, farmers, mountain kids, fishing schools, and more. The gameplay holds up surprisingly well, and my knowledge of Japanese school culture let me giggle about the opponents like some kind of inside joke.

For the hour or two I played Nekketsu HS Dodge Ball Club: Soccer Edition I really enjoyed how simple it was. Sports games now often get way too complicated, but this keeps it simple and very manageable -- directions, pass, and shoot on offense, and standing and sliding tackles on defense. And did I mention that characters' eyes bulge out of their heads in a rather amusing manner when they get tackled? It's pretty fantastic. Maybe it's just the rose-tinted glasses, but I loved dragging it back out and getting its catchy music stuck in my head. It's like I'm 7 years old all over again.