Crash To Desktop – 8/14/2009

Posted by | August 14, 2009

Spaceward Ho!Good morning, friends, and welcome to Vox Ex Machina. I’d like to extend a special welcome to all of you coming off the latest wave of advertising. You read good comics.

Today’s Crash To Desktop is the first of its kind, hopefully to become a daily chronicle of my meandering thoughts and the latest gaming news. Today’s Crash To Desktop is also late because I’ve been playing Spaceward Ho! again, and anyone who lived through the era of Macintosh gaming in their underfunded public school knows exactly what that means. Spaceward Ho! is sort of like Master of Orion, Sword of the Stars, and Galactic Civilizations, boiled down their raw elements and strained through a fine mesh screen dug up from an abandoned mine somewhere in southern Tucson, Arizona. It takes the 4X genre, you know, eXpand, eXplore, eXploit, eXterminate, strangles all the details until a bare two managed resources squirt out, and slaps a cowboy hat on top.

It’s also more misanthropically random than two NetHacks in a Stone Soup.

But that’s nothing. Even if all five of the enemy races start directly on the five closest planets to your own. Even if you get the bad luck cat that drops your fighting ships from even odds in battle to a 5-to-1 disadvantage. Even if the baddy you’ve been fighting the last twenty turns surrenders all his resources and planets to the baddy who just declared war on you. Nothing.

All that really matters is those two resources pulled dripping like a set of tonsils from the screaming mouth of the 4X beast. Money and metal. Money is money. You earn it, you spend it, it comes back. Metal doesn’t. Once you spend metal, say, building the ships that protect your homeworld from the ravages of those space bastards hungering to unleash their gluttonous lusts upon your population, it’s gone. Forever. A good planet might give up some 10,000 metal, and a good ship costs just around 1,000 metal to build.

Losing a fleet of twenty ships renders to the heart a pain only a father standing at the grave of his son could know. And then you try again.

Spaceward Ho! is interesting to me for reasons beyond understated cruelty. You see, I’ve been watching games transform slowly over the years into something that aren’t quite games anymore. In the 4X genre, it manifests as an endless parade of statistics, resources, data to manage. In RPGs like the Final Fantasy series, it comes out as an over-arching story. Even the MMOs aren’t immune, as they become little more than chat rooms with overdone graphics. What I’m talking about here is that elements outside the actual game play are taking over our games. The game part is becoming, almost and by design, irrelevant and unnecessary.

Think about it. The computer can run your empire in the latest batch of 4X games, and in Master of Orion 3, it did. Combat under the player’s control is becoming a rare sight. The game ceases to be about planning and choices, but management. Make the right numbers do the right tricks and you win.

RPGs are full of story and exploration, but these things aren’t the game. Game is where you take playing pieces and use them to achieve goals within a set of rules. While RPGs do have gamey bits, mostly fights and boss battles and the occasional minigame where you need to press X within a quarter-second of pink flowers appearing in the clockwork girl’s hand, none of that is necessary in any way toward success. You could, in fact, take all of that out, leaving just a world to move the characters around, and story events to pop up once you’ve trundled across the right cutscene trigger. The game elements of choice and rules and goals are meaningless, tacked on.

I dare you, grab Psychonauts, play the Milkman Conspiracy, and tell me those miniboss battles are anything but filler.

Spaceward Ho! removes all that, cleansing the game of plot, of characters, of cutscenes and the thousand points of resource management light. It’s just a bunch of planets, two resources to spend and balance, spaceships to send into battle, and your white hat alone against a sea of black hats. It’s game. Raw game.

And that’s why this column is late tonight.

The first news item I’d like to talk about tonight is Rage. Id’s new game, still under wraps, revealed in bare glimpses at Quakecon, Rage is a little bit of Fallout, a little bit of Mad Max, and a whole lot of wonderful scenery. In a way, it’s like Tolkien’s take on the lands after the apocalypse. The destinations exist only to justify the journey. Kotaku.com has the details.

Okay, it’s not the sort of cognitive dissonance that thrummed through the gaming community’s collective skulls when Rockstar unzipped and whipped out a ping pong game, but a driving game from id is something new. I’m keeping an eye on this one, and so should you.

Kicking it truly old school, the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center will play host to Ralph Baer, the man who invented video games. Mr. Baer is scheduled to play a few rounds of the game Odyssey with his partner Bill Harrison, before taking questions from the floor. The event will go down tomorrow, August 15th, in Spark!Lab within the National Museum of American History at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue N.W. Check out this Art Daily article for all the details.

So, how about that Pokemon? Nintendo and the Pokemon Company just emitted a press release concerning the upcoming release of two new games, Pokemon HeartGold and SoulSilver, based on the previous Gold and Platinum games. We’re looking at spring of 2010 for the Europe and the colonies across the pond. Expect to see the games on Nintendo DS and the DSi. A proper Pokemon MMORPG on the Wii awaits the development of a machine to collect the souls sold to buy it.

At least the logos are really cool.
Pokemon HeartGold and SoulSilver
That’s today’s Crash To Desktop, hope you enjoyed our maiden voyage. Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter for the latest updates.

I’ll leave you tonight with a little ditty from Gitaroo Man’s solid wall of **** you, the Sanbone Trio. And remember, save early, save often.


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