Monday, August 27, 2012

Shuggy Goth

Yesterday, a friend of mine (through the SA forums) sent me the gift of The Adventures of Shuggy through Steam. My friend is a much bigger gamer than I am, and was telling me about the great mechanics this particular game had in store for players. Unfortunately, things became very busy in my particular part of the world, so I could only squeeze in about 10 minutes before going to bed.

This morning, however, I was expecting for an important package to be delivered from FedEx, so I fired up Shuggy while I waiting for the impending pounding at my my door at the ungodly hour of "before noon."

The Adventures of Shuggy is a very simple game, at first blush. You can move in the four basic directions (up, down, left, and right), jump, and there is also an action button. This is where the simplicity ends. On each stage (many of which will take under a minute to complete, which is great for casual gamers - or those wondering where the hell the FedEx guy is with the package I ordered last week, damn it all, I NEED the instant gratification a shut-in like myself it entitled to!) uses the action in different ways. On some stages, you will have to rotate the entire screen in order to guide a gem (you need to collect these as a conceit of the game) through a maze. On others, you will have to speed up time. Some stages don't even use the action button, and spawn "shadow Shuggy characters" that follow your movements, and if you run into them - well, the results are everything you'd expect from a quantum paradox.

I played through about 15 stages, with what looks like many times that left to complete.

The story surrounding the main character is presented in comic book format, and is as follows:

Shuggy (who is a vampire or a youngster who likes to dress as one), has inherited a  mansion full of ghouls, demons, and (for some reason) green gems. Most of the doors in this mansion are locked, but as li'l Shuggy completes a stage, he is given a key. If you acquire enough keys, you can unlock new areas and challenges. There are even leader boards so you can compete against your best time. (I have yet to try out the cooperative play mode, but maybe I'll ask the FedEx guy if he want to play a round or two considering HE DOESN'T SEEM TO BE IN ANY HURRY TO DELIVER ANYTHING TODAY! But I digress.)

The Adventures of Shuggy employs just about every platformer hook you can imagine, and then puts an interesting twist on the mechanics so that the game never gets old (unless you tire easily from having fun, in which case you might enjoy sticking with your Facebook games). The levels are short, the gameplay is addictive, and you can play for as long or as little as you'd like - though the game is admittedly tough to put down after the first stage.

The Adventures of Shuggy came out in the middle of June but only appeared as a tiny blip on on the radar - possible due to it being released in that tiny window after Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion, Lollipop Chainsaw (do people play this?), and immediately before Civilization V: Gods & Kings.
So many nerds never quite made it to the bathroom that day.

I will also put forth that Gateways (the other offering from Smudged Cat Games that I believe was developed solely to push nausea pharmaceuticals) may hve made people a little wary about the content of this title.

Don't press "play." You've been warned.

Yesterday (and possibly for the 15 minutes after I post this article), The Adventures of Shuggy went on sale for 75% off the list price, meaning less than the price of your favorite caffeinated or 40oz. malt liquor beverage of choice. Even if it's not on sale, if you want something you can play without having to invest hours at a sitting, while still having a fun and satisfying experience, pick up The Adventures of Shuggy Today!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Symphony (Reprise)

When Empty Clip Studios released Symphony on Steam, the audience was very excited. Here we had a shooter with a great retro feel to it, and it used music from your own library to generate the enemies and gameplay. The game was initially full of bugs that would seemingly cause it to crash if you so much as hummed a tune to yourself while you waited for the game to load.

However - and this is something more developers should take note of when releasing games - the staff over at Empty Clip (specifically MShores) were quick to respond to the problems users were experiencing, and created a beta version to help record the instances of crashing, slowing down, and any other issues. The results came in the form of an update that was brief in details, but very big in making the game playable and very fun.
Those four points made a world of difference.
First off (and this is the biggest one, considering the game required music to play), Symphony can now handle large music libraries, even if they are located on a drive other than the game itself. This is a boon for people (like me) who have a large external hard drive dedicated to storing music tracks, that totals in excess of 100 thousand tracks. The game analyzes and loads the songs very quickly and smoothly. I know a few of you are probably upset that Symphony will not use tracks that are over ten minutes in length, and while I'm sure some of you wanted this game solely to play through Wagner's Ring Cycle or your favorite Godspeed You Black Emperor albums (you know, that one you used to talk about but never listened to in order to impress people with your only-slightly-less-than-mainstream college music knowledge), the game itself was made for tracks that are between three and nine minutes in length.

The other thing Empty Clip changed was the size of enemy bullets, making them larger and easier to track as the move across the screen. so your ship doesn't seem to blow up for no reason. (Back in my day, we had a little game called Time Pilot, where both your bullets and the those from enemy aircraft were not only white and about a pixel in size, but they were set against a light blue background. We played that game and we liked it! Personally, I liked the challenge of the smaller projectiles, but I can see how they might get lost in everything else that's demanding your attention in Symphony.)

Symphony feels like how you remember arcade games from the 1980s (as opposed to what they were really like - no, don't break the fond illusion your mind has spent so many years creating). Glowing line graphics and polygons zip around the screen to the beat and nuances of your favorite music, and you almost want to start lining up quarters along your keyboard to mark your place so no one else tries to take the next turn. (If you want to get all meta about it, you can load up your favorite video game music and play along to that.)

The story has not changed: An entity has corrupted your music, and you have been challenged to reclaim it, track by track, defeating the demons who have been embedded in the tracks, and picking up the power-ups hidden in there, as well. The ship customization screen allows you to to control which weapons go where, and the direction they fire.

You cannot die in Symphony. As you get hit, you may lose pieces of your ship, but if you destroy enemies and gather enough of the musical notes they leave behind, you can rebuild your vessel as you play. Occasionally, your ship will be destroyed completely, and you will be docked a certain number of points, but a new ship will appear on screen in a few seconds. This does not make the game any less challenging. When you play track, there are certain point targets you have to reach in order to advance or get a new upgrade for your ship, and the amount docked each time your ship is completely destroyed is significant enough to make you want to stay alive as long as possible.

Of all the games I've played that attempt using music to create a combination visualizer/video game (Audiosurf, Beat Hazard, The Polynomial, etc.) none come close to what Symphony has achieved. The visuals never become old hat, and you will often forget there's a goal to the game. Instead, you will just load up your favorite songs to see how they unfold on the screen, and what challenges they present.

The music filtering system is easy to navigate, so you can find that song that's been running through your head all day and start playing instead of going through a clunky folder tree. Symphony also supports a wide range of audio file extensions, so you aren't waiting for a separate expansion or DLC in order for the game to have access to your .m4a and iPod tunes (Beat Hazard, this entire paragraph is pointed at you).

For casual gaming that incorporates your music collection, I cannot think of a better game for you to get than Symphony from Empty Clip Studios. You can play for hours on end, or casually advance through the game when you find yourself with a few minutes to spare (or for when you're on hold with your favorite customer support department).

Normally, shooters don't do much for me, and the best I can say about them is that they aren't terrible. Symphony has gone above and beyond in being a fun, exciting, and visually pleasing game, while also having a development team that is very quick in responding to the players and fixing any problems that come along. For all of this, Symphony is my new arcade shooter of choice, and probably will be for as long as I enjoy music and gaming.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

A Symphony Of Bugs

After last month's Steam Summer Sale, I found myself with an overwhelming backlog of games, including Beat Hazard. I'd been looking for a game that would incorporate my music library, yet have a bit of a retro arcade feel to it. That's not being too specific, is it? Anyway, I chose Beat Hazard over Audiosurf, and I was really enjoying the game, despite a lack of visual variety.

Almost immediately following the sale, I saw that Empty Clip Studios was slated to release their games, Symphony, through my preferred game management application of choice. I'd been following the development of Symphony for a while now, and it had those cool vector-esque graphics that made it look like the arcade games of yore, combined with upgrades and customization for the player's ship. On top of that, it recognized almost every audio file type that I had stored on my computer and external hard drive(s), so really, the low price point was a no-brainer. (Oh, and it had Steam Achievements, which I have become a sucker for over the past year or so – you know, because those are the types of awards employers really look for on a resume.)

Last night, I installed the game, had it scan specific directories for music (which it did effortlessly – unlike many other games or even audio playback applications), grabbed a refreshing adult beverage, and sat down to play.

As the plot goes, an entity is trying to enter this world, and needs souls in order to make its plan come to fruition. There is soul in music (apparently this being didn't take a good hard look at my John Zorn or Slayer folders), therefore by corrupting the music files it will be able to capture souls and transition in our reality. (Noooooooooo!) The premise of the game is simple and contrived enough that you don't really have to think about how and why this is happening. You simply accept it as a convention to get you to play through your music collection and watch the tracks come alive and try to kill you. Luckily, you have infinite lives, so all you have to worry about is a point setback if you are taken out by an enemy.

First up, was a Tiger Lillies song. Simple, fun, and with just enough tempo changes to make my first run interesting. Symphony actually analyzes the songs before you play, so it doesn't seem like there's a lot of random action with the occasional movement that may synchronize with your music here or there. In this respect, it is by far the best game in the genre of “games that let you play your own music and generate enemies and situations based on those songs while giving you the visual impression that you are stuck in 1983” - which, for the record, is one of my favorite genres.

Dodging bullets, blasting other ships, and weaving through enemy lines to get my power-ups with aplomb, I made it to the end of the track without suffering a single loss.

And then the game crashed.

Fine. This was not a big deal. Maybe it was just getting used to pulling tracks off the external hard drive. With that theory, I loaded a local track – the Desert Theme from Diablo II (there's something very meta about that, but whatever).

And the game crashed before it even started.

Okay, well, let me try a very short track. So I loaded something by Marc Bolan & T-Rex. That level actually worked, and I earned a few achievements, got an upgrade to my ship, and unlocked a few in-game weapons. Maybe that was the trick – to use songs that were under four minutes in length.

Up next, I decided to really make it easy for the game. I chose a piece of music from the game's own soundtrack, located in the game folder. It was time to face one of the “boss demons,” and the level was extremely interesting. I won! I was really getting into this!

And then the game crashed before I could see the results of my victory.

I loaded it again.


I went for a 36-second A.C. song.

It crashed (in all fairness, I have friends who have a similar reaction).

So here is my final evaluation:

Symphony is a really good game and a great way to kill a few minutes here and there, if you can get it to work. If you don't care about “beating the game” and just want to see how your music looks and feels as a game, then you will probably enjoy Symphony. If you get annoyed by buggy applications that crash if you look at them the wrong way, then you might want to hold off until the developers fix a few things (or rant about it to no one in particular). However, visually and conceptually, Symphony is fantastic game. Hell, even those two times I got it work properly for about half an hour the game play was great!

If I were to tweak a few thing or offer suggestions to Empty Clip Studios on how to improve the Symphony experience, it would be the following:
  • Make it so that the game can handle larger song libraries, or at the very least so it doesn't crash when accessing songs from locations other than the local hard drive.
  • Implement a randomization feature so players have the option of not having to select each individual song (admittedly, this goes hand in hand with those of us who have large music libraries).
  • Pay attention to the feedback users are leaving on the Steam forums. Ignore the negative comments that don't go into depth, but the people who are having problems (some with setups more advanced than what I'm using to play the game) have some very valid points.
In closing, Symphony is a great game (when it works) and is really fun for listening to music and engaging in casual gaming. The retro feel combined with being able to watch your music in action is better than other game of its kind. Is it worth the price? Yes. Is it worth the frustration and constant crashes? Ask me in a few weeks when/if the developers fix any of the problems with this initial release.

Update: Matt from Empty Clip Studios has stated the developers are aware of some of the bugs, and are keeping a direct line of communication open with people who have purchased the game. (It's always good to see the actual developers jumping into the forums and taking a hands-on approach.

8/14/2012 Update: The team at Empty Clip Publishing have been putting in long hours since Symphony's release and have released an update that fixes a majority of the issues.

When not writing, Jonathan can usually be found cooking, reading, going on breathtaking adventures, or playing games until the sun rises.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

I Love Mail Days

I have "things" from famous people, but none have ever really meant anything. There was an autographed picture of Tommy John, because I went to grade school with his daughter (though the draw of baseball eluded me well into my 20s). I had a long conversation with Warwick Davis, his wife, Lou Ferrigno, and Bill Mumy once at a science fiction convention. They were away from the main thoroughfare and completely riffing on one another. That was entertaining, but again, all this did was reinforce that two-dimensional people on a screen are three-dimensional people, and the ability to rehearse and act is a job like any other. There was no golden light surrounding them. Many years later, I had the opportunity to meet one Captain Lou Albano at a community center in Albany, NY. My brother picked me up, and we were all set to ask him trolling questions about Cyndi Lauper and the Super Mario Bros. Super Show, but when we got within range of the man, all we did was stand in awe and thanked him for years of entertainment. I honestly don't know what happened that day - I think I felt a bad that no one was approaching him, considering (or because of) his portfolio.

Famous people have always had an invisible wall that separates them from the crowd. Sometimes it is hard-earned and deserved. Other times, it is a barrier that we construct for them, or that they imagine is there. (Hell, I'm a pretty big deal on this site.) I think this has lessened somewhat over the past decade or so, as technology has made the world smaller, but allowed it to gain depth. We are all people, and we often feel and think on similar levels about many topics. We don't always agree, but smiling for photo opportunities (or punching a cameraman, as it were) has gone by the wayside in favor of Twitter feeds and the occasional blog update to maintain that bridge between artist and the people who appreciate the artist's work.

At TAM 8, I was with my good friend Shane, and we talked with James Randi, Phil Plait, and hung out with Tim Cavanaugh of Reason Magazine, and a few others. These were certainly people to be respected, and who are incredibly smart and accomplished, but they were also willing to engage people in regular one-on-one conversation.

Now I am older - not necessarily more mature, but I've definitely moved along chronologically, despite my best efforts with hot tubs and cars. 

This past year, I was given two gifts from my girlfriend. One was a novella that Judith Tarr wrote for me (there aren't enough exclamation points to go here) about Charlemagne's horse, Tencendur. This was a winter present, and an incredible take on the unseen world that influences historical events.

The second was a birthday gift. This was also from Judith Tarr, and concerned itself with the eternal bond of Anubis and Bastet, and what they are doing these days.

Full disclosure: I asked for this story based on two plush friends who live with us. The story is (I think) a very accurate depiction of what these two might do when no one is watching. It would make an excellent illustrated story, and has become the preferred "out loud" bedtime reading in this house.
Ancient, fierce, and imposing powers from a bygone civilization!
I don't know where I was initially going with this, because I've been bouncing up and down (I've grown up, you see) because Judith Tarr wrote stories FOR ME! 

OH! I remember why I wrote this! Because I'm really excited and happy and wanted to brag!

Also, if you haven't read any of her books, you should go and do so. NOW! I have never witnessed history become so palpable in books before, nor have I read books where magic, science fiction, and the worlds in which they exist make so much sense. There is careful planning put into her worlds, and our own (when she pulls back the veil on the forces and beings working behind what is written about in the history books.

I can see where this is headed, so rather than make you scroll through miles of text about how awesome Judy is, I will paraphrase my above statement: GO READ SOME JUDITH TARR BOOKS!

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