A to Z Challenge: (V)iva Pinata

VivaPinataI’ll admit it: I had a horrible time coming up with something to talk about for “V” day, and up until a couple of days ago I didn’t think I was going to have anything worth bothering to write about.

But then I was looking through a book my husband has, called, “1001 Games You Must Play Before You Die” and I saw it. “Viva Pinata”.

On “K” day I spoke about how fresh and weird and addictive “Katamari Damacy” was when we first discovered it. It was so strange and oddly fun that it soon became an obsession, even though at first glance it seemed stupid and pointless. “Viva Pinata” is another of those kinds of games. When you first look at it, it seems like the dumbest idea in video game history, but that’s just because you haven’t actually tried it yet.

Developed by Rare for the XBox 360, “Viva Pinata” is a simulation-type game that takes you into a very bright, colorful, and strange world, where a variety of animals – who are actually pinatas – roam the landscape. The point of the game is to take a dilapidated plot of land and turn it into a beautiful garden by attracting lots of little pinata animals to come live there. Basically, there is a set of requirements that must be completed in order to attract any one kind of pinata. When you’ve completed some of the requirements (say, purchasing a special home for them), a black-and-white pinata will wander into your garden and start snooping around. If you complete the rest of the requirements while the pinata is hanging about it will make itself a permanent resident and bloom into full color. If you successfully attract two of the same pinata, you will be presented with a further set of requirements in order to convince the two to mate. Mating initiates a maze mini-game which, if successful, results in a baby pinata egg.

Sexy.

Sexy.

Does it sound easy? Well it shouldn’t. For one thing, while you’re trying to attract new pinatas and make little baby pinatas, there are ‘enemies’ that you have to worry about. ‘Ruffians’ and ‘sour pinatas’ can wander into your garden and wreak all kinds of havoc, destroying homes, eating your pinatas food (candy, of course), and dropping sour candy that can make your pinatas sick. In addition to dealing with those issues, you have to realize that the pinata world actually has its own intricate food chain. In other words, some pinatas eat other pinatas. So you’ve got to protect your little pinatas if a “pinatavore” wanders into their midst, and alternatively if you want to attract those particular pinatas to your garden you have to be willing to let them devour some of the pinatas that you’ve already raised. In order to do everything that it’s possible to do and collect each and every available pinata in the game, you have to start from the bottom and make lots of sacrifices on the way to the top.

Meh. Who really needs a chicken pinata? >.>

Meh. Who really needs a chicken pinata? >.>

And, to be honest, that was part of the game’s charm. It seems like this super-simple sim game aimed at young children, but there’s actually a fair bit of thought and effort required if you want to collect everything and grab yourself every achievement. That system made it addictive, and the playfulness of the whole concept made it super-fun. When my husband and I first picked it up we were sure it was going to be dumb as hell, but once we got to playing it we both ended up engrossed. It’s a fun little escape, not difficult but not super-easy either, and definitely a huge change-up from the over-saturated world of first-person-shooters and follow-the-path-RPGs.

Have you ever played Viva Pinata or any of its sequels? What did you think of it? What was your favorite pinata? Any that you had a hard time attracting to your garden? Please share!

Enjoying the A to Z Challenge? Why not check out some of these other participating blogs?

A to Z Challenge: (U)ematsu, Nobuo

UematsuNowadays video games are a huge deal. It’s not enough just to make a game that is fun to play; it also has to be visually stunning and have a gripping story, and a big part of creating a game that is also a cinematic masterpiece is incorporating the right kind of music. A game like Dragon Age would not have nearly the same epic adventure feel if not for the booming orchestral pieces accompanying every boss fight. Gone are the days of computer-generated beeps and boops that form a repetitive melody or two. We need to feel the music in our bones as we set out to save the world.

Of course, this idea is not nearly as new as I’m making it sound. In reality, Mr Nobuo Uematsu has been composing grand, orchestral video game music since the mid-1980’s. Uematsu, of Japan, is a self-taught musician who began his career by playing the piano when we was only eleven years old. He claims Elton John as an early musical inspiration, and after college he composed music for commercials while working in a music rental shop. It was during this time in his life that he was approached by an employee from Square about the possibility of creating video game music. In 1986 he joined Square and composed his video game soundtrack for “Cruise Chaser Blassty”. During the composition of this first soundtrack he was approached by the creator of the Final Fantasy series, and video game music history was made.

Eventually Uematsu left Square to go freelance, but he continued creating amazing video game scores through his own company, Smile Please. In 2012, Uematsu made history when a song of his from the Final Fantasy VII soundtrack, “Aerith’s Theme”, became the first video game musical piece to ever appear in the Classic FM Hall of Fame.

There is certainly no doubt that Uematsu has made an enormous impact on the world of video game soundtracks. The wildly popular ‘Play! A Video Game Symphony’ has paid tribute to him numerous times by incorporating some of his most well-known compositions into their concerts.

I grew up with Mr Uematsu’s music, although I didn’t think much of the composer back then. This man composed the scores to my two favorite games of all time: Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy III (North American version). Though a kid doesn’t usually register such things, the soundtracks of those games were a big part of what made them so amazing. The heroic scores in Chrono Trigger could make you feel like you were truly on an epic adventure. The individual character themes in Final Fantasy III helped to describe each character’s personality in a way that simple dialogue could not. To this day I still hum the tunes to most of the songs in these games, and I sometimes love to just sit and listen to their soundtracks for old time’s sake.

If you're a gamer and you're not humming the correct tune right now, you fail life.

If you’re a gamer and you’re not humming the correct tune right now, you fail life.

Are you a fan of Mr Uematsu’s music? What is your favorite song of his? Have you ever seen ‘Play! A Video Game Symphony’? Please share!

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A to Z Challenge: (T)etris

TetrisWhether you’re a casual gamer or a hardcore gamer – or you’re really not even a gamer at all – pretty much everyone has heard of Tetris. It’s one of those pop-culturally relevant things like Star Wars or Ninja Turtles; even if you were never into it yourself, you likely know someone who was, or at the very least you can hear the world and not be completely bewildered by it.

So what’s the story behind this iconic piece of gaming and pop culture history? Well, it all started in 1984 with a man who loved the puzzle board game, Pentominos. Oh, and did I mention that he also happened to program computer games for the expressed purpose of testing the capabilities of USSR equipment? Having both the skills and the motivation, Alexey Pajitnov decided that he was going to design a game for himself, based on Pentominos. After deciding that the game should challenge players to arrange puzzle pieces under pressure, he created the iconic seven distinct geometric pieces that we know and love (or hate, if you were never really very good at Tetris). The name ‘Tetris’ comes from a combination of “tetra” (the Greek word for “four”, to represent the fact that each geometric piece is made of four squares), and “tennis”, which was Pajitnov’s favorite sport.

The finished game was created on an Electronica 60 at the Moscow Academy of Science in 1985 and soon became the subject of lots and lots of legal battles. See, it was ported to the IBM PC, and eventually worked its way to Budapest, where it was ported to the Apple II and Commodore 64. From here the president of a British software company took notice, and planned to buy the rights to the game from Pajitnov. However, before even contacting Pajitnov, he turns around and sells the rights to the game to Mirrorsoft UK and their affiliate, Spectrum Holobyte (USA). From there you can imagine how badly this mistake got out of control.

But despite rampant licensing messes and the downfall of more than a couple of companies, ‘Tetris’ eventually made its way onto Nintendo’s blockbuster handheld system, the Gameboy, in 1989, and North Americans haven’t stopped playing it since. The simple idea of fitting shapes together like puzzle pieces, combined with the difficulty of gradually increasing speed, has captured several generations of gamers and non-gamers alike. ‘Tetris’ has been ported – mostly unchanged – to every possible platform; it can even be played for free online, and is available as a free downloadable app on iOS and Android devices. It’s staying power is truly magnificent. And also, it’s existence brought about things like this:

…which is just amazing.

Myself? You’re damn right I’ve played my fair share of Tetris over the years. I owned a cartridge for my first Gameboy (which I think I lost…damn it), and have seen fit to play the game on a number of devices over the years…there’s currently one version on my Samsung phone. It’s one of those games that you just go back to every now and then because it’s familiar, easy to pick up, and keeps you busy for a few minutes when you need to be kept busy. I suspect it will probably stand the test of time for quite a few years to come.

Have you ever played Tetris? Please tell me you’ve played Tetris. I will seriously be sad if anyone comments on this post and tells me that they’ve NEVER played Tetris. Lie to me. Please share, but lie to me.

Enjoying the A to Z Challenge? Why not try out these other participating blogs?

A to Z Challenge: (S)uper Mario 64

SuperMario64No one in their right mind can deny that the Super Mario brothers are an extremely important part of the history of video games. The pudgy plumber (and, to a lesser extent, his lankier brother) have been featured in more than one hundred games in their career, and many of those games are some of the most popular of their days.

Mario made his debut into gaming as Jump Man in the very first Donkey Kong game back in 1981. He was so named because the game involved dodging barrels thrown by Donkey Kong by jumping over them. He was given a real name for American markets, and soon followed his debut title with an antagonist role in Donkey Kong Jr in 1983.

Mario’s designation as a plumber came as a byproduct of these early 8-bit roles. Because it is difficult to create a distinctive human character using 8-bit technology, creator Shigeru Miyamoto used a few tricks to ease the process, including giving Mario overalls to make his arms more visible, and adding a hat to avoid having to program hair. A thick mustache completed the look, since it was more visible than just a mouth, and the character that is so well-known today was born.

Mario has been the hero of an outstanding number of video games over the years – not to mention TV shows – and I played quite a few of them growing up. If I had to pick a favorite, I would definitely choose Super Mario 64. Right off the bat, getting a Nintendo 64 as a kid was a huge deal because I’d been dealing with 8- and 16-bit graphics for half my life at that point. So I was already pretty damn excited before I even got the game in the console. Then I saw Mario in all his “3-D” glory, and it was like my world had changed.

The amazing (for the time) graphics aside, Super Mario 64 is a game that many kinds from my generation remember fondly because it was outrageously fun. The story involved Mario taking a trip to Princess Toadstool’s castle to find that Bowser had attacked and hidden the castle’s power stars in the many paintings hanging throughout. To save the day Mario had to track down the 120 power stars and defeat his reptilian nemesis.

The style of game-play was amazing at the time. It was a huge, open-world concept that allowed you to unlock more and more of the castle and its hidden worlds as you played. There were lots of different ways to unlock stars – boss battles, fetch quests, races, etc. – so you never got bored. And the new three-dimensional, 64-bit world meant that you got to see all your favorite characters, enemies, and worlds in a larger-than-life capacity. I remember the first time I saw Bowser – towering over Mario like a dinosaur looking at its lunch – I almost had a little gamer heart attack.

It may not seem like much now, but a boss that size was terrifying back then.

It may not seem like much now, but a boss that size was terrifying back then.

Even years later, when the re-release came out for the Nintendo DS, I ate it up because it was just as fun as it had been the first time around. Super Mario 64 is definitely one of those classic games, the kind that lasts throughout the ages.

Do you recall the video game leap that was Super Mario 64? What was your favorite stage? Your most loathed stage? Please share!

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A to Z Challenge: (R)esident Evil

ResidentEvilMuch of my childhood video game history is riddled with happy-go-lucky plot-lines and cute, cartoonish characters, and that worked for me because I was a pretty wussy kid. But eventually I was bound to delve into something a little darker, and when I did it was with one of the most popular horror survival games of all time: ‘Resident Evil’.

In early 1994, game designer Shinji Mikami began work on a big new project. He had spent the era of 16-bit gaming working on Disney games for the Super Nintendo, but now the industry was shifting to the three-dimensional world, and Mikami wanted to aim his new project toward more mature players. He took influence from everything from George Romero’s zombie flicks, to a French game called ‘Alone in the Dark’, the later of which gave him the formula for the perfect blend of action and adventure, poured into a zombie survival scenario.

In March of 1996, Capcom finally released the first ‘Resident Evil’ game for the Playstation, and in a little more than a year it sold a million copies, joining ‘Street Fighter’ as one of Capcom’s biggest blockbuster games ever. From then ‘Resident Evil’ became one of Capcom’s biggest and most-loved franchises.

In the original installment, the player would begin the game as one of two characters – Chris Redfield or Jill Valentine – who are both members of an elite task force known as S.T.A.R.S. As their chosen character the player would set out to investigate the disappearance of fellow S.T.A.R.S., a mission that would take them to the outskirts of Raccoon City. The next thing the player would know, they’d find themselves trapped in a creepy old mansion, beset by zombies and other monsters. The player would then have to set out to explore said mansion, recovering clues to the mysterious outbreak, and solving puzzles to aid in survival. Throughout the game, different actions could be taken by the player that would affect the game’s ending.

In addition to the creepy setting and the relentless, undead antagonists, one of the things that made ‘Resident Evil’ suitably frightening was the fact that the playable characters were designed to be significantly weaker than many gamers would have been used to beforehand. Even though they were highly trained operatives, Chris and Jill were programed to be as fragile as any normal human, as opposed to being the kind of fantastical powerhouses that most games employed. This meant that gamers had to be extremely wary when using the limited ammo and healing items hidden throughout the mansion. This system added a second layer of difficulty to survival, and an extra punch to the panic gamers would feel when running into zombies.

I’m giving you the background of the original ‘Resident Evil’ because it is iconic, but the first game in the series that I actually played was ‘Resident Evil 2′. My best friend and I rented it one night back in our last year of junior high school, and it scared the beejeebus out of us. This installment was the first to introduce the Licker, a new mutation with enormous claws, an exposed brain, and an extremely long tongue. These days the dated graphics make the reveal a lot less powerful, but at the time it was top-of-the-line technology and seeing that horrible creature stalking toward us was like guaranteeing that I’d have nightmares for the rest of my life.

Actually, screw that. This thing is still creepy as f**k.

Actually, screw that. This thing is still creepy as f**k.

‘Resident Evil 2′ wasn’t my only experience with the series, of course, but over the years I’ve done a great deal more watching than playing when it comes to these games. The best example would be ‘Resident Evil 4′, which my husband became mildly obsessed with for quite a spell when we were dating. The story follows Leon S. Kennedy, a U.S special agent who is on a mission to rescue the president’s daughter from the sinister cult who kidnapped her. Shortly after arriving in remote rural Europe, Leon is faced with the realization that a new mutation of the zombie virus has overtaken this land. It was an amazing game with an interesting and clever twist on the limited-resources system, and I spent hours watching my husband play it when we were first dating. That, to me, is a big sign of an excellent game, that someone can thoroughly enjoy it without even actually playing it.

Have you played any of the Resident Evil games? Which is your favorite? Least favorite? Scariest moment? Please share!

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A to Z Challenge: (Q)uake

QuakeIf you’ve been following my video game theme and you’re a gamer yourself, you’ve probably been expecting this one. I mean, come on…how many games start with the letter “Q”? And besides, even if it may not be the greatest game of all time, it is definitely an influential part of video game history.

‘Quake’ was developed by ‘id Software’ and released in June of 1996 for Microsoft DOS. The first-person shooter was influenced in many ways by the wildly popular ‘Doom’, but unlike its predecessor, ‘Quake’ was the first game from ‘id Software’ to be designed with three-dimensional sprites, something that was practically unheard of at the time. This game also gave rise to many ideas that gamers take for granted today, such as client/server online play and multiplayer clans.

The basic story of the game is thus: the government, after years of experimenting in teleportation technology, has developed a working prototype called “Slipgate”. Unfortunately, beings from another dimension have compromised the device with their own teleportation technology and are using the resulting dimensional rift to send “death squads” into the human world. The enemy’s code name is “Quake”, and as a Range you, the player, are sent through a portal in order to find and stop it. The player jumps through slipgates, trying to survive and to hunt down the four rune stones that will allow for a confrontation with Quake.

Both the game’s maps and some of the bosses take a great deal of inspiration from dark fantasy author, H.P. Lovecraft, which roughly translates into the game being pretty horrifying. Here in the age of hyper-realistic graphics it’s difficult to take these claims seriously, but back in the day when ‘Quake’ had the highest-quality graphics imaginable, fear was the name of the game. The makers of this game wanted you to be terrified – a single human fighting against an army of Lovecraftian horrors. And to deepen that atmosphere a little further, amidst all the explosions and gunfire is a truly eerie soundtrack composed by Trent Reznor of ‘Nine Inch Nails’.

I was gonna try to find a creepy screenshot, but I found this "family photo" instead and couldn't resist. Look at that frikkin' thing. LOOK AT IT.

I was gonna try to find a creepy screenshot, but I found this “family photo” instead and couldn’t resist. Look at that frikkin’ thing. LOOK AT IT.

My own experience with Quake? I sucked at playing it. That’s basically my experience. I borrowed this game from one of my cousins after he had finished playing it, back when we had only had a computer in our house for about a year and it was still super-amazing to me to be able to play games on it. Up to that point I’d been a Nintendo girl, mostly playing RPGs on my Super Nintendo, so not only was I not exactly playing anything terribly frightening, but I was also used to playing with a controller in my hand, controlling direction with my left hand and actions with my right. Moving to a game like Quake on a PC, I was suddenly using a keyboard, swapping which hands did what, and constantly hitting the wrong buttons by accident, all while having my face practically pressed up against a screen on which disgusting monsters were constantly jumping out at me. I was a wreck playing Quake, to be honest, and I never really got the hang of playing games with a keyboard. But I will grant this: the game appealed to the same part of me that enjoyed watching ghost-hunting shows on Friday nights…the part that kinda liked getting scared out of my wits.

Have you ever played Quake? Were you creeped out by the Lovecraftian horrors? Are you a keyboard-playing master or are you a hopeless controller-player like me? Please share!

Enjoying the A to Z Challenge? Why not check out some of these other participating blogs?

A to Z Challenge: (P)laystation

PlaystationYou definitely can’t talk about video games without mentioning the series of console that has served Sony so well: the Playstations.

Sony Computer Entertainment Inc began researching into gaming platforms long before CD-Rom gaming as an affordable option was viable. They wanted to create a console that would change the industry forever, and it was with that goal in mind that the Playstation gaming console was released in North America in 1995. The release was an enormous success, with over 100,000 consoles sold in the first weekend alone. But Sony kept setting their sites higher, and in November of 2000 they released the Playstation 2. With greater power than the first console, and the ability to play CD’s and DVD’s as well, the Playstation 2 became the entertainment “hub” in millions of households. Even a decade after its first release, the Playstation 2 prevailed as one of the most popular game consoles of all time, and had sold more than 50 million units in North America alone.

Of course that’s not the end of the story. In March 2005 Sony released their first portable gaming console, the PSP, which did not enjoy a rousing success, but showed that Sony was willing to dabble into other gaming options. In November of 2006 they revolutionized gaming again with the Playstation 3, which incorporated state-of-the-art Blu-ray technology and was their first home console to be equipped with a pre-installed hard drive, rendering the “memory cards” of the past a distant memory. In more recent years Sony released their more robust handheld, the Playstation Vita, and most recently their most powerful console yet, the Playstation 4. They’ve also enjoyed great success with the online Playstation Network and Store, as well as their subscription service, Playstation Plus, which offers members special deals and free downloadable games for a yearly fee.

So what is my personal history with the Playstation line? Well, right off the bat, while I don’t have an original Playstation, I do own a Playstation One, which was the smaller, more affordable option that was made available after the initial launch – it’s basically the same machine more cheaply made.

Pictured: No less a huge part of my childhood than the one with $100 more plastic casing.

Pictured: No less a huge part of my childhood than the one with $100 more plastic casing attached.

I also avoided the PSP, as it seemed that not many people were terribly impressed with it at the time. I do, however, have the Playstations 2, 3, and 4, as well as Playstation Vita.

The Playstation 2 was a huge source of my and my husband’s entertainment for many years, especially during our college years when we couldn’t afford much. The Playstation 3 continued to carry that torch for several years afterward, and in fact we still have several games for the PS3 that we have yet to play because our Playstation library is so big. These days my husband has been focusing on the PS4 games he got for Christmas, while I’ve mostly been sticking with my PSVita for now. We’re both big fans of the Playstation Plus service, which provides us with enough free games every year to far surpass the cost of the subscription.

What kinds of games do we play on our Playstation consoles? Well, all kinds, but as of the writing of this post my husband is playing ‘Diablo 3′ while I’m into ‘The Wolf Among Us’.

What is your experience with the Playstation line? What isĀ  your favorite system? Favorite game? Please share!

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