Sunday, April 20, 2014

Bit Brigade: The Most Fun You Can Have Watching Someone Else Play Video Games

Bit Brigade shreds games almost as quickly as guitars

Bit Brigade is a five-piece rock outfit based in Athens, Georgia. The band features Bryant Williamson and Jace Bartet on guitar, Luke Fields on bass, Mike Albanese on drums, and Noah McCarthy on... NES?

Yes. Bit Brigade is a band that combines music and video games into a performance art all their own. As Noah blasts at top speed through the game of the night, the other band members provide their own blood-pumping interpretations of every song and musical cue in near-perfect synchronization.

I saw Bit Brigade perform at PAX East 2014, where their chosen game was the original Legend of Zelda. From the opening “press start” screen to the final image of the Triforce of Power among Ganon's ashes—which took, all told, about 40 minutes with Noah at the controller—they kept the audience rocking.

If you are familiar with the original Legend of Zelda game, you know that there are about four songs total in it: you have the overworld theme, the dungeon theme, the final dungeon theme, and the credits. There is also the game over music, but that never came up. These same songs repeat over and over as the player goes from the overworld to each dungeon and back to the overworld again, but those who expected a repetitive and boring performance were quickly reassured as Bit Brigade drew on songs from the entire Zelda franchise to keep things going. For me, at least, part of the fun was seeing how many of the tunes I could recognize—most of them, as it turned out. My favorite Zelda tune was and will always be the iconic overworld theme, but other notable selections included the Dark World theme from Link to the Past, the overworld theme from the franchise's dark horse Legend of Zelda II, and Ganon's Tower from Ocarina of Time.

As good as the music is, Noah's playing keeps pace. As fans of speed running and professional gaming know, there is a certain satisfaction in seeing a game played well. A classic game like Zelda, one of the old standbys of Nintendo and modern gaming as a whole, has a powerful nostalgia factor as well. Being very familiar with the game myself, I found myself watching and analyzing McCarthy's playing:

Where are you going? There's a 30-rupee secret room there!
Not going for level 5? Oh, he wants the White Sword first.
Last extra heart/potion room, honestly at this point I would go for the potion. Yup, good call.

Et cetera. I probably don't need to tell most of you what it's like to watch someone be way too good at a game: a combination of analysis, awe, and learning. I imagine it's much the same experience that sports fans have watching their favorite teams (though I couldn't speak from experience on that one).

These two elements of Bit Brigade's performances—the music and the game itself—are impressive on their own, but come together to create a new kind of experience. The real magic is in their teamwork. This could easily degenerate into inappropriate songs and mistimed effects, but they've learned to work together. Each time the music faded out as Noah waited for the right moment to collect the latest piece of the Triforce, it gave the air of a dramatic pause. When he picked it up and the musicians rocked out the fanfare, it never failed to get a huge cheer from the audience.

Unfortunately, as eloquent as I like to believe I am, a performance is something that must be seen to be fully appreciated. Much as I would like to, I can't get all of you tickets to their next performance, so instead please enjoy this video of their performance of Mega Man 2 at MAGFest X:

Monday, April 14, 2014

My Little Pony CCG: A Horse of a Different Color

Pictured: Pre-release promo Nightmare Moon

I played a lot of fun and interesting games at PAX East 2014, including a memorable game simply titled Throw Trucks with your Mind—a review of which will be forthcoming—but the game I undoubtedly spent the most time and money on was the My Little Pony Collectible Card Game.

My Little Pony, as most of you are probably already aware, is a show by Hasbro, targeted at young girls, whose latest incarnation is titled My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Friendship is Magic, the fourth generation of the franchise, first aired in 2011.

While My Little Pony has historically been at best a thinly veiled toy commercial of atrociously low quality, Friendship is Magic's unexpectedly deep characters, surprisingly rich stories, and powerful messages of friendship and positivity have drawn in an enormous fanbase of all ages and genders. Hasbro has capitalized on this unlooked-for market with a wide variety of products, including a new collectible card game (CCG), which brings us to the topic at hoof. Er, hand.

The My Little Pony CCG, which was released in December 2013, allows players to take control of their favorite ponies and use them to solve various Problems that crop up. At its simplest it is a game of confronting and solving Problems for points, with the first player to reach fifteen points declared the winner. This is accomplished by sending characters to each Problem until a certain minimum power level is reached, at which point you are able to confront it.

I don't want to devote too much time to breaking down the mechanics and rules of the game, but just so we are all on the same page, here is a quick rundown:

Each deck contains one main character, 45 other cards, and a ten-card Problem deck for a total of 56 cards. As I said before, the goal is to confront Problems and build up your points. Players begin with their main characters on the field and support them with Friends and various Events and Resources—which if you're familiar with Magic: The Gathering are essentially instants/sorceries and enchantments. The other type of card is the Troublemaker, which can be played on a Problem to prevent your opponent from being able to confront that Problem, and often has other negative effects as well. As you build up your power on the field you are able to play more powerful cards, and as players gain points they both start generating more Action Points (AP) with which to play those cards, giving the game the feeling of build-up that is central to so many CCGs.

It is important to keep both the power level and the color of each card in mind, as many cards require a certain amount of a certain color to be in play before they can be used, and all Problems require at least two colors to confront. Each Problem has two costs: a color-specific cost for the one who played it, and a more expensive but non color-based cost for the opponent. This adds another layer of strategy, as it allows players to pick their battles based on what they currently have available.

The last mechanic worth exploring is the faceoff. When both players confront the same problem it triggers a faceoff, which is a confrontation between the two groups of friends at that problem. Each player totals up the power of the friends at the problem then flips one card from the top of his or her deck and adds that card’s power. Whoever has the higher total wins the faceoff and receives bonus points, at which point the problem is considered “solved” and the characters return to their starting area.

While the goal is the same no matter who you are playing as, each main character has their own playstyle. For example, Twilight Sparkle operates in large part by generating additional AP, while Rarity is devoted more to control-based mechanics like Inspired, which allows the player to look at the top card of his or her opponent's deck and put it back on the top or bottom. I found myself with a certain affinity for Rainbow Dash, which is not surprising as she plays a great deal like a mono-red deck would in Magic—those of you who know me personally know that I am a die-hard Red Deck Wins player. Rainbow Dash plays by sending out a lot of ponies, which she is then able to move around the field quite quickly and easily. Her power builds rapidly, and her movement tricks enable you to make sure you have that power right where you need it.

My concern going into this game was that it would simply be a money grab by Hasbro: a lackluster Magic or Yu-Gi-Oh clone with ponies on the cover, looking to make a quick buck from the fandom. I could not have been more wrong. My Little Pony is a solid game, and the mechanics and overall tone of the game are like no other CCG I've ever played. Rather than a battle, this is a race to solve Problems and correct what's wrong before your opponent can; a competition, certainly, but not a fight. This is shown not only in the terminology used (ponies confront instead of battling, and are dismissed rather than killed, for example) but in the very mechanics of the game, namely in the scoring system.

In Magic the Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh, Kaijudo, Vanguard, or any other CCG you care to name, the objective is to break down your opponents defenses and attack until you are able to deliver the killing blow. In My Little Pony, it is the opposite. Rather than aiming to take away your opponent's points, you try to build up your own. The other part of this mechanic is how Action Points are generated: at the start of each player's turn, that player gets a certain number of AP which he or she can then use to play cards, move characters around, draw extra cards, and a few other things. The interesting part about it is that points are generated based on the score of the highest scoring player. While this is in place mostly to prevent the game from quickly becoming too one-sided, it also feeds into the ever-present feeling that, even though you are competing against your opponent, you are not really enemies. Even though you are doing your best to win, you are helping your opponent as well.

Overall, the MLP CCG is an unexpectedly good game, and a breath of fresh air in the trading card game world. It has some innovative ideas and an atmosphere that's all its own. Is it as good as long-standing games like Magic or Yu-Gi-Oh? At the moment I would have to say no, but on the other hand it has only been out for a few months. Details are still being ironed out and options are still rather limited. The second set, Canterlot Nights, is scheduled to release in May, so I am excited to see where Hasbro and Enterplay are able to take this game with the second set and beyond.

Whether you're a pony fan or not, this is definitely one to keep an eye on.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

It is good to be back

Some time ago, I started this blog with the intent of keeping my friends and followers up to date on my current writing projects and events.

I quickly ran out of ways to make "I'm still working on a book!" sound interesting, and the blog petered out.

I've cleared out the old posts and I'm rebooting it with a slightly altered, or perhaps I should say expanded, focus. Rather than being strictly about my writing projects, it will be about whatever is going on in my life or whatever has caught my attention recently. That can and will include my writing projects, of course, but I will also be writing about games I've played, books I've read, people I've met, places I've been, whatever happens to be enriching my life at the time, in the hopes that it might help to enrich your life as well.

With this new mission statement and a reaffirmation of purpose, I hereby reopen this blog.

I just returned from PAX East, so expect a few articles about games and the like coming up shortly.