Tag Archives: rockstar

Top 100 Games – 94 – Space Station Silicon Valley

27 Feb

Space Station Silicon Valley
Year: 1998
Genre: Platform/Puzzle

The minds at DMA Design were some of the most inventive and talented in the gaming industry. The studio became Rockstar North after the Grand Theft Auto series became immensely popular, but before then they produced this quirky and underrated gem. Featuring a thoroughly unusual plot in which a spaceship crashes into a bizarre space station populated by robotic animals. With the pilot of the ship incapacitated, it’s up to the microchip brain of his robot companion to save the day. If this sounds a little odd, then the gameplay will seem even more so. Evo, the aforementioned microchip, can jump between animals, taking them over and allowing the player to control them. This concept is not only brilliantly creative, but also perfectly suited to a game which is as unusual in its approach to plot and character design as to gameplay.

The humble 'dog with wheels' is one of the early animals available

Space Station Silicon Valley is ostensibly a platformer, but after a few levels it becomes abundantly clear that this is something altogether more taxing on the mind than Mario 64 or Banjo Kazooie. With each animal having a unique set of attributes, each level becomes a case of finding the right tool for the job. If there’s a large jump to be made, a sheep can float across, but a mouse can speed boost up a ramp and over. Later levels see larger animals, and surviving long enough to even figure out what to do can be challenging. This is what makes the game great though, there’s a huge amount of reward to figuring out how to take down a bear or lion, as you gain their power. This sudden move up the food chain changes the way the game is played, and allows different approaches to the unique puzzles to be explored. It encourages the player to use their imagination and intellect to solve problems, and there are some genuinely tough levels to contend with.

On top of the great gameplay, there is a real sense of humour throughout the game. Each animal is ridiculous in its own way. The sheep are lovable balls of floating fluff, the penguins angry snowball throwing lunatics, and so on. DMA offer an experience full of charm and not quite lovable, but certainly appealing characters. It’s really not like any other platformer, offering a variety in gameplay rarely seen and a personality all its own. With the huge amount of Mario 64 imitators that hit the N64, this is one of the few that stood out and created its own identity, one that not only appeals in terms of its strangely crafted characters, but also in its perfectly executed core mechanic. DMA, and later Rockstar, have always been able to offer a unique slant on the gaming world, and this is some of their best work, up there with GTA for sheer creativity and intelligence, but without any of the controversy or violence.

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Games as Art – Part 2

27 Jan

The Discerning Consumer

In explaining why the gaming press fails to separate those games with a more artistic nature, it led me to us, the players, and our role in shaping the industry. With the press doing nothing to tell us which games are really special, it falls to the consumer. Unfortunately, gamers are, as a group, not exactly discerning. We probably buy far too many games, and still the more interesting ones are ignored. The marketing of certain releases is obviously a big influence, yet we don’t generally go out of our way, as a film buff would, to actually learn what is really good. And how are we expected to when the games a vocal minority of gamers cry out for are simply given the same, or worse review scores as those which permeate the consciousness through advertising and media coverage. It is rare that a smaller budget, or more artistic game is previewed extensively, and games thrive on the hype machine, aided by the internet and rabid fanboy-ism. Gamers are, to pigeonhole, ‘nerds’ and as such, cling to certain franchises as horror fans do (Someone kill the man who made ‘Saw’- preferably in an ironically over elaborate trap). The ‘hardcore’ audience simply demands more sequels, or even remakes from their developer or publisher of choice. The smaller community, if it even exists, who want games to transcend these stereotypes are largely ignored, it is far easier to make money from a core consumer base that will support even a substandard product.

It’s usually developers and publishers who suffer the criticism of the vocal minority, but that seems rather reductionist. Gamers need to point the finger in some other directions. I’ve already mentioned the gaming press, but more so – at themselves. The publishers are merely satisfying the incredible demand of the majority of consumers, the same way movie, book and music companies do. In that sense, the gaming press serves a similar function, they are populist, they offer a product which praises across the board, for a variety of reasons, because there are many reasons we play games, as there are many reasons we go to the movies or read a novel. As I said in the previous article, games have not been separated as other media have. There are trashy novels, to be read on holidays or for a light read before bed, and there is literature, which is to be savoured, debated and reflected upon. In gaming terms, we consume and reflect on everything. Call of Duty (I think it’s fair I single this series out, but it’s not alone) is simply a ‘holiday read’ or ‘popcorn movie’ but it is debated ad infinitum, along with Halo, Battlefield and every other major release. The problem is the subject of these debates.

Gamers don’t look at their hobby the way a film buff does. They pore over technical details, differences between consoles, graphics, frames per second and every other aspect of the coding. Content is last on the list of priorities and story has only recently become a strong focus, but only as far as looking to generic Hollywood action movies for inspiration. I’m sorry, but Uncharted 2 is just not that good, it’s another generic cover shooter with a slightly more interesting exploding background. It’s not that there’s no place for that kind of thing, I enjoy a simple distraction from the existential dilemma of modern life as much as the next man, but I often want more from my entertainment, I want to think and be challenged. Games very, very rarely do that. What young game designer, who has creative and intelligent ideas, has a chance to use them in an industry so dominated by large publishers, huge budgets and worst of all, an audience that rewards mediocrity and repetition. Did we really need another Assassin’s Creed game this year? Yes, the sequel was an improvement on the original, but maybe the developers would have been better off spending far more time crafting a third instalment which was a huge improvement over the second, which told a new story in a new way. The critical praise and consumer reaction to Assassin’s Creed 2 however, meant that the publishers wanted to strike while the iron was hot, and build a franchise. There’s more profit to be made now, and into the future as things stand in gaming, from franchise-building, which has become the goal for publishers.

Gamers should celebrate the original, the new IP, but we stick with the brand we trust. Magazines don’t drop review scores even if the sequel is almost identical, and we continue to give money away for a few more tries at something we enjoyed, in absence of guaranteed fun from a brand we don’t know. This incredible lack of trust in a new commodity has led to countless iterations of the most tired of formulas. Final Fantasy may change its story and characters in each new game, but the brand remains, despite the game being unrecognisable to those who remember its heyday. The franchise has changed, but utterly failed to innovate, and that remains true for most of the industry. Mediocre games which achieve even moderate success garner sequels. Was it really necessary to give us another ‘Kane and Lynch’? Well, yes, of course it was, the gaming public never tires of shooting people. Even Rockstar, when attempting to create a game set in the Old American West, an entirely admirable change from the greys and browns of urban grime or warfare, chose to resurrect an IP most had no knowledge of. Pointless, but they surely had their reasons to do so, and it boils down to the importance of brand recognition in generating interest. Even an obscure brand is more valuable than an entirely new entity.

If we want to see games challenge other art forms and establish themselves as worthy, then we need to change the way we approach the industry. Firstly, buying every major release, or most of them, is an exercise in futility, they’re mostly the same as each other, and most of those which offer something different end up being clones of other games. How many versions of God of War have appeared since Kratos first ripped the head off a mythical beast? And God of War is derivative itself, it’s just a more polished scrolling fighter. If sequels, imitations and remakes stopped selling as well as they do, then developers would be forced to push the envelope and create something more unique. This in turn would increase competition to provide the most originality and creativity, to offer something different, be it story or gameplay, and to innovate rather than imitate. It is through this that we might see more artistic games. We also need to stop clinging to our precious franchises. Yes, the characters might be ones we like, but seeing them in their seventh game is simply absurd. I’m not quite as critical of Nintendo for this however, they do attempt to create a new Mario or Metroid experience somewhat regularly, and while say, Mario 64, Sunshine and Galaxy share similar core mechanics, they are vastly different games. There is a good reason why Nintendo continue to compel a new audience, and it is quality and imagination, not the same game over and over.

The backlash over Metroid: Other M is an interesting example of the problems with how we approach our hobby. Metroid Prime had three games in its series, it had run its course after adding the innovation of Wii controls. Nintendo wisely moved the franchise, which they know makes them more money than a new IP, that’s the market reality, to a new developer. (As much as I’d like to see a whole new game, setting and character, Nintendo do have to make money.)This was a disappointment for many fans, but do we need a fourth Metroid Prime game? Yes, Team Ninja changed some of the main character’s traits and personality, but they also made something different, and that should be commended, and Nintendo praised for taking a risk when every other company is content to offer the same thing in a different box. We, as consumers, even those of us who consider ourselves informed, are failing to reward intelligence and innovation, and the backlash against us has begun as the games we play have become more bland than ever. Thank goodness for the downloadable games of XBLA and PSN, where some wonderfully original titles like the beautiful and poignant ‘Flower’ or the unsettling ‘Limbo’ can be found. The problem however, is that without marketing from the companies, without reviews and press reflecting it, and without gamers making the effort to seek it out, imagination will always be trumped by the safety of the familiar, and this will inevitably lead to the continued lack of respect games receive in the artistic pantheon.