Thursday Thoughts – Old Games Made New Again

I’ve been on a retro game kick lately. Having dabbled in game design theory – we’re talking armchair hobbyist level here – it’s been driving me crazy with some of these titles. There are so many good ideas dragged down by unfair or unfun game mechanics that seem, from my position, obvious. Granted, many of the frustrations and short-comings come from the limitations of the technology of the times. And even in the early 90s, videogame development was in its infancy. We crawl before we walk, stumble before we run, and my generation grew up during some of the most inventive – if not most successfully designed – periods of game development.

On the other side of the coin, I look at my library (and regrettably large backlog) of modern games and feel less of a draw to them these days. I want a momentary distraction, not a major time investment. And that stems in part from the amount of time, money and manpower that goes into them. It’s staggering! And I’m just talking basic development, not the marketing or brand licensing. There’s considerably more thought put into modern game design, which is fantastic. But in a lot of ways, it also feels overburdened.

Games today cost so much to create, market and distribute they’re desperate to get your dollar. To woo you they add every bell and whistle, wave their shiniest screenshots at you, cater to the solo player, multiplayer and professional league player alike, and cram as much content as possible onto the disk – and then charge you for the DLC. It feels like a system that can’t sustain itself.

This feels especially true with the rise of mobile gaming with his far smaller production teams, budgets, and the appeal of the simpler gameplay. Instead of waiting for the latest software patch, assuming your console of choice’s network is running, passing the litany of developer logos, choosing your file and engaging in a game that wants to hold you for as much time as possible – you can click your app, hurl a bird at a pig’s house for ten minutes, and be done. Or you can sink days into them if time allows. (I’m looking at you, Tales of Link).

So where am I going with all this? I grew up in the glory days of the Console Wars, and I’m a sucker for a solid IP. Numerous franchises languish, begging to be reborn for a new age of gamers. And in an era when franchises are being pushed hard in television and movies, you’d think revitalizing these older IPs would be a no-brainer. But what if they fail? Giving them a AAA revival and modern retooling is a risky venture, especially when the console market is fighting tooth-and-nail with the casual mobile market. I think the answer lies in a simpler solution.

Let’s look at Sonic Mania, which has me ridiculously excited. It holds all the promise of the classic style of Sonic gaming, but with a level of polish greater than what the Genesis could provide. It doesn’t run on the Havok engine, it doesn’t have an unprecedented number of polygons or require the latest graphics card. It’s just the core gameplay that made the Sonic franchise stand out from among the other mascot platformers with extra polish – and that’s all you need.

Instead of reinventing the wheel, go with what you know and let a simple, solid game bolstered with the franchise name. Give us an Odin Sphere-styled Golden Axe. Dust off the God of War engine for Altered Beast. Give Mega Man to Yacht Club, the geniuses behind Shovel Knight. Hand Darkstalkers to Lab Zero, who gave us Skullgirls. Give us a straight port with updated sprite work and localization for the Phantasy Star quadrilogy! Pokemon-styled Chao Rancher! Ristar by Kirby’s Hal Labs!

In summation: I want to play with all my old toys again, and there’s comparatively cheaper and easier ways to breath new life into them than trying to “modernize” them. Go small, go focused, and once the quality foundation has been laid, go big.

And I’ll write the comic adaptation. Or the game script. Or, hell, slap a “producer” title on me and let me shout ideas all day long. I ain’t picky.

Thursday Thoughts – Legacy Comics & How to “Fix” Them

I grew up reading comics. Usually just a smattering of whatever happened to find its way into my hands, but the two titles I actively followed in the 90s were Sonic the Hedgehog and X-Men. I know the first one comes as a shocker, but bear with me.

I grew up in those crazy, halcyon days that saw stories like “X-Cutioner’s Song” and “Age of Apocalypse” where any gimmick could become a character, there were teams galore, and it felt like anything could happen. This felt especially true with “Age of Apocalypse” where the entire X-series of books was cut short and rebooted for four months in a storyline where nothing was sacred and no one was safe. I fell off the bandwagon around “Operation: Zero Tolerance” and never really got back on. I enjoyed Ultimate X-Men for a time, but that didn’t hold me as long. And along the way I enjoyed the TV series with the camp of the 90s cartoon, the “remember they were kids at a school?” angle of X-Men Evolution, and moments within Wolverine and the X-Men. And of course there are the movies which launched the current comic-to-movie juggernaut with their hit-and-miss films.

But X-Men falls into the same trap all of these “legacy titles” where nothing can ever really change. There have been numerous approaches to keeping things fresh or revitalizing the ideas behind the various properties: sliding time-scales, soft and hard reboots, the delightfully awful 90s reimaginings (Scarlet Spider notwithstanding), future versions, “Elseworld”/”What If” takes, and so on. None of them really seem to stick, with the attempts to streamline stories and characters to make them more accessible becoming mired in back-tracking to appease the fans who have been riding their particular train since the 60s. (Or the heartbreaking attempts to liven up the cast leading to mass-murder to return the status quo)

It’s off-putting to the layman because they have no idea where to start. Just the question of how much of which continuity they need to know is a turn-off. And when the big publishers have multi-title crossovers, but some titles aren’t as rebooted as others, it only compounds the problem. The entire comics market lost roughly one million readers between April and May of this year alone. Something has to change. And I, being a person on the internet, have an opinion on the matter.

The first is simple: put comics back in grocery and convenience stores. Keep the incentives for the specialty stores, but get these books in front of more people. The second is to get kids reading these big properties again, but that’s a whole other can o’ worms.

The third, and the point of today’s blog, is more experimental. It might even be a terrible idea, but hear me out. I think back to my enjoyment of the X-Men series and what stands out to me the most is the potential for change. In “Age of Apocalypse,” everything was turned on its head. In X-Men Evolution, some of the characters were kids, adding a new spin on the perspective. The movies took their own spin, and so on. It was the same characters, the same settings and themes, but played out in new scenarios. It was the comfort of the familiar and the excitement of the unexpected bundled together. I enjoyed when each series hit the plot beats I was looking forward to and entertained when it went in new and interesting directions. That kind of approach can’t last over the long-term – and I think that’s the key.

So my modest proposal: set a hard time-limit on the legacy books. Get your creative team together and do a one or two year run on Captain America, or Superman, or whatever. Let the creative team and the power of the known property carry the story to its conclusion, and then start anew. Let the casual reader be able to pick up the product, enjoy the ride, and move on because – face it – we live in an age of rapidly consumable media. And if there’s a stand-out hit, let it continue on as its own thing. Did this run of Batman set the charts on fire for its entire run? Keep it going with Batman: Relevant Subtitle and give the main line to a new creative team. Keep it flowing, keep it fresh.

But what of the sprawling, shared universe? Coordinate it as part of one of the cycles. Ignore it for another and let each title showcase who they want, or let creative teams collaborate between a title or two. And what of the die-hard fan who wants to keep the continuity? Well – let’s be frank here – most of them aren’t going to ever be satisfied. The debates over whose run was better, over consistency of theme, over the minutia of continuity details ten, twenty, thirty and even forty years old will always remain. And this limited cycle approach would lose some of those veteran readers. But I think the majority would stick around for the characters and worlds they enjoy. And if they don’t like a particular run? You’ve got a built-in reason for them to try you again. And the casual readership will fill in gaps – perhaps even expand the readership.

“This coming from the guy on a ten year stint with a continuity-heavy title,” I hear you say. One could argue a licensed book like Sonic the Hedgehog is a different beast since it follows material from another medium. Mega Man especially had its narrative laid out from the beginning thanks to the games. But would it have worked bettered as stand-alone stories, set to the individual games, instead of trying to create a single narrative? Or are these books different given that they’re thirty to sixty years younger than the legacy books? I don’t know. I’m not saying that I have the answer, just an answer.

At the very least I’d like to see the Big Two take a crack at the idea with some limited series. Tell an Iron Man story, tell a Wonder Woman story – whatever – just do it on its own. Don’t make it some weird special event or heavy reimaginging, just tell a story about the character in the world we love. Put it out there in front of everyone, not just the comics enthusiast. See what happens. I think it’d pay dividends.

Thursday Thoughts – Hurricanes

As Hurricane Matthew makes its worrisome way up the east coast, I’m reminded of the one storm that hit my home town of Charlotte, North Carolina. It was 1989 and Hurricane Hugo was shaping up to be a nasty one. I remember lying on the floor watching the news with my parents as the newscasters did their duty of informing us of the danger to come while making sound as terrifying as possible.

Since I was a kid who stayed awake at night worrying about extinction-level event meteor strikes and the sun exploding, this storm was alarming to say the least. My folks assured me that we would be fine – and we should’ve been. Charlotte is set deep in the Piedmont and doesn’t really suffer any extremes. The terrain isn’t conducive to tornadoes, there aren’t any unstable fault lines, it’s never too dry for forest fires and rarely floods. This meant snow days were virtually non-existent, too. I distinctly remember looking at the weather radar map one winter and thinking it looked like a golf green: sweeping sheets of green-coded storm clouds, and a perfectly clear circle around Charlotte.

All logic and history aside, I had the clairvoyance of a worried seven-year-old and knew – just knew – that Hugo was going to hit us. And for once I was right. Hugo stomped on some island, went back into the ocean to catch its breath, and then body-checked North Carolina as a Category 4. My dad drove through the wind and rain to get to the radio station where he did a morning show. He was there as people woke up to no power, telling them where to find water and shelter. I woke up to my street covered in trees and debris. One tree had obliterated the fence in back yard. One had fallen into our neighbor’s driveway, right where his vintage sports car would’ve been – had he not taken it into the shop the day before. A third had fallen into the street. Had it dropped in the opposite direction, it would’ve crushed my baby brother’s room. All-in-all, we got off light.

We coped in our own, unique Flynn way. I wrote and illustrated a story in which local NBA mascot Hugo the Hornet fought Hurricane Hugo with a lightning rod. (The teacher put on a polite, bewildered smile and let me do my thing) Dad put together a catchy little diddy to make people smile again.

If you’re in the path of Matthew, or if you’ve already endured it, take care and keep safe.

Thursday Thoughts – Your Friend the Potto

I like weird animals. This stems from an early love of dinosaurs, but since those glorious beasts died off and/or evolved into birds, I’ll happily take any oddity nature provides us. But what counts as “weird” when a bus-sized, tusked-faced, hose-nosed behemoth like the elephant feels pedestrian?

There’s countless answers to that, which I’d gladly babble on about at length, but my all-time favorite will always be the potto. My fascination with the little fluffy oddballs earned me the nickname “potto” in college, and it’s stuck as a nickname (and mistaken surname) since.

Roughly the size of a cat, they don’t look like much at first glance. They’re just wide-eyed, round, hairy things. (The similarities I share with them are staggering) But under that bundle of innocuous fluff is a hardcore creature!

The most metal of all is the fact that its neck vertebrae extend out as spines. That’s right – that doe-eyed teddy bear will stab you with its neck bones! And if that wasn’t enough to drive you off, it’ll bite you with a special saliva mixture that inflames the wound. Still haven’t learned your lesson? It’ll just curl up and drop out of the trees like a cannonball and waddle off like it ain’t no thang – good luck catching up. It is the living embodiment of the trope where the goofball supporting character is secretly the utter badass.

No, it’s not one of the four venomous mammals in the world. It’s not going to set any world records in terms of speed, strength or ferocity. But it’s a stub-fingered cuddle-monkey that can stab you with its spine! Isn’t that just fascinating and delightful?!

Useful as a Solar-Powered Flashlight

One of my biggest inspirations is my father. He was the first person to introduce me to the idea that if I wanted to tell a story all I had to do was sit down and write it. I tapped out countless pages of nonsense on his electric typewriter, futzed about on his computer back when Microsoft Word still looked like DOS prompt, and showed him any number of (now cringe-worthy) Star Trek manuscripts and fan-fics to critique.

Among many of his articles and short stories, one in particular has always stuck with me. I reprint it here with permission:

What? No Post-Apocalypse Skills?
originally published August 24, 1998
© Charlotte Business Journal. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission
Welcome to my nightmare.

Each of us has a situation that we dread we’ll be a part of – a giant earthquake, walking into a really big web full of hairy spiders, having the second phrase of your column end in a preposition – pretty terrifying stuff. I want to let you in on mine. I want to TESTIFY!

I play solitaire on the computer. Yeah, like, you don’t? Why do you think the government’s after Bill Gates? A monopoly? Oh, please. The real reason is some CEO’s special assistant burnt up the mouse chasing that red seven. Because the sales department wanted to win one more game of FreeCell before they started their obligatory cold calls. Because there are thousands of offices out there in Business Land that grind to a halt on a regular basis when the action of the Microsoft Hearts Network is hot. But I digress . . .

I play when I should be working. Just the other night, when Daddy was “upstairs writing,” my nine year old son caught me in the middle of a tenacious game of Vegas Solitaire. The PC gods were smiling. I capped off the last king. The cards wheeled in their little Pentium mambo, ending in a bright green screen asking if I wanted to “Deal Again?”

My son said, “Gee, Dad. You’re good!”

There was no pretense. He actually thought his dad was King of the Keyboard. Master of the Mouse. Sultan of Solitaire. He was proud of me.

There’s something heady that comes from the unabashed adoration of a child. It is a fleeting feeling. I know, deep down in my primordial core, that sooner or later he’ll grow up, work a computer with the same ease I manage trimming my toenails and leave me in my old age, wheezing in his binary dust. But right now, he’s proud.

But was his pride based on the two novels I have lurking on the hard drive? The three dozen short stories searching for a publisher? The wall full of advertising awards? Nope. I play no-prisoners solitaire. It gave me pause. And brought me to my nightmare.

It’s after World War Three on Earth. India has obliterated Pakistan. China, defending its borders, has taken out India and, oops – ha-ha, one little rascally Scud slipped into Taiwan. America and Russia heave a couple of MIRV’s at China and France launches at the United States because it’s a good excuse to get back at us for introducing Le Drugstore into their language.

The radiation. Nuclear winter. Those are the up-sides, along with the fact all the talk-show hosts will be vaporized in the first strike. No, the bad thing is I survived.

And have no marketable skills whatsoever.

After they drop the Big One, what is going to be in demand? Society will need professionals to help it get back on its feet. Doctors, mechanical and electrical engineers, even farmers that can get the crops perked up will be the new barons of Armageddon Industry. And I’ll be at the bottom of the post-apocalyptic pecking order, right there with politicians, radio sales people and the Spice Girls.

Think about it. The last vestiges of humanity are scrapping for survival and the best I’ve got to offer is a dynamite Mr. Haney impression and my prowess at Solitaire. I’m a damn good public address announcer, but with the NBA experiencing a 30 megaton lockout, there goes that gig. If I only had something to offer my fellow survivors, a mastery of some necessary craft…

Bloodied, but bold leader –  “This computer is our last hope to get the power back on so the old people and children won’t freeze. Suggestions?”

Me –  “Umm . . . red jack on the black queen.”

I feel a sudden urge to walk around with a sign saying, “Take the Bomb outta Bombay.” And I will. Just as soon as this column finishes printing out.

Might as well play a little Solitaire ‘til it does.

As I write this, my old home town is currently under a State of Emergency. I’m a two-day drive from my parents as the National Guard marches in to stop rioters and looters. While my family isn’t near the worst of violence, I’m left sitting here living my father’s nightmare – there is a crisis and I’m just about useless during it. And that’s nothing compared to larger racial, political and terror concerns facing the world and the nations I call home.

I’ve spent many a long night staring out towards Lake Ontario, where night and water come together as one, and try not to be crushed by the worry and the sense of powerlessness. And on the more hopeful nights, I come back to this thought: if I need an escape, so does everyone else. What I do isn’t big. It won’t shape national policy or cure disease. It won’t end systemic violence or convince people to accept the simple concept of treating each other equally. But it will give people a few minutes of escape. As long as you’re invested in that comic, you’re taking a break from reality. Sometimes a breather is all you need to shoulder the burden you carry for just a bit longer.

So today I’m going to find that escape by working – with my phone, email and messenger all immediately in my grasp and a weather eye on the news.

Stay safe, everyone.