I’ve been a fervent, even zealous supporter of the PC for gaming for pretty much my whole life; even during the NES golden age in the mid-80’s. The openness of the platform allows anyone with a vision and some coding talent to flesh out a game from scratch, whereas console products must be licensed for a huge fee. The fidelity of the graphics and sound are pretty much limited only by one’s pocketbook, while consoles evolve much more slowly than multimedia technology. Thanks to languages such as C and standards like DirectX PC has always been infinitely easier and, purportedly, more enjoyable to program with than the low-level utilities provided for consoles (although third-party SDKs have surfaced for Xbox and PS2 allowing programmers to unlock greater potential from the limited hardware). And last but not least, load times on any media except cartridges and hard drives is friggin unbearable.
All in all, I see console gaming as second-tier. The hardware is dated 6 months after release, the simplistic gamepad is a huge game design bottleneck (case-in-point, Fable: The Lost Chapters), modding is impossible, making personal backups is illegal, internet connectivity is an afterthought, and even dedicated online services do little to facilitate person-to-person interaction. Basically, you buy the thing and you’re stuck with a static brick of unimaginative hardware – a toy, not a computer.
Despite my pessimism for consoles, I’m a sucker for inexpensive aging hardware so I bought my friend’s PS2 (the sexy small form factor). Since the console was so incredibly popular the technology has matured very nicely and I have some opinions on my new toy.
The form factor of this little console is gorgeous. It’s a tiny little pip of a box with an insane number of ports and sockets including internal modem and ethernet. Even the on\off\reset switch is cool with its low key LED. The CD door opens nice and wide although it feels a little flimsy. The cables attach good and snug but I’ve yanked out a controller once or twice (though controllers can be hot-plugged). The gamepad is fantastically comfortable and all the buttons are well within reach, though in intense gaming sessions I sometimes press in the thumb stick buttons by accident.
The console came with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas which is one of my favourite games of all time. I’d finished it on PC with mouse and keyboard which is how I’ve played every GTA game (though GTA1 and 2 didn’t need the mouse) even though I own a USB dual analog gamepad (the amazing Logitech Rumblepad 2). Although the PS2 version preceded versions on other platforms by a good 6 months, it had big shoes to fill after my sterling impression of the PC iteration.
If video games were reviewed in one word, the word for GTA:SA would be “BLECH!” Yes, with the exclamation mark!
The colours appear drab as if the scene is rendered in 16-bit colour with bilinear filtering (maybe it is). The draw distance is so short that cars appear out of nowhere 15 feet in front of you making speeding all but impossible and negating the phenomenal map design. Driving is okay on the gamepad – precision cornering isn’t an issue in this game so gamepad is no better than keyboard – but aiming is freaking atrocious! I’m used to bringing down gangsters with headshots but that’s totally impossible when you have to rely 100% on a lock-on button that targets baddies’ armoured midsections. And holy hotdogs, those load times!! If the next GTA were to come out for PS2 (doubtful) I’d wait 6, 12, even 18 months for a PC version.
My impression of the console’s performance is certainly not all bad, though. I purchased a couple of other games as well – Ace Combat 4, Ratchet and Clank: Up Your Arsenal, Harvest Moon, and We Love Katamari.
Ace Combat 4 – Very nice graphics, nice precise control, kinda boring. Didn’t play it much yet but it’s up my (Mig) alley so I’ll report back if there’s anything worth mention.
Harvest Moon – Holy crap what a boring 15-minute tutorial. Got so bored and exhausted looking at this ugly piece of poop that I saved and quit after the pixelated lecture, from which I retained nothing. I hope this game is as fun as everyone says it is.
Ratchet and Clank – Fantastic graphics! Great draw distance and impeccable frame rate. The controls are very comfortable and precise. Cameras are a little touchy but not bad at all. The weapons are varied and tres cool. Obviously an expertly designed and balanced game by an experienced crew. The cut scenes are very cute and clever. I’d be playing this game here and there if it weren’t for…
Holy crap, this game is one of the finest pieces of art and programming I have ever laid my eyes and mitts upon. I haven’t been obsessed with a game in this capacity since Super Mario World. I turn the thing on, play a few levels, blink, and 6 hours have passed.
The art design of the game and cut scenes is positively gonzo. Seriously, sitting close to the TV while playing this game is the electronic equivalent to licking 3 dripping star wars hits. The colours are vivid and varied and the whole palette is used, abused, cycled, and shifted. Models and meshes are uber-simplistic, no doubt to compensate for the CPU’s wussiness, but the neo-cubist bent makes for very interesting watching. The writing, though translated from Japanese, is top notch and polished with plenty of North American colloquialisms making it feel mostly right at home on western soil. The characters are absolutely adorable and ridiculous (I love Miso whose head is a bowl of soup!) and can be adorned with accessories like crowns, giraffe heads, streamers, and fake noses. And the cut scenes are cute and endearing, yet serious and sombre.
I’m gushing and I haven’t even talked about the gameplay yet.
It’s safe to say that the gameplay wouldn’t be as engaging without the context, but I wouldn’t be hooked like Robert Downy Jr. if it wasn’t excellent. The King of All Cosmos has charged you, as his son the Prince or as one of many other little dudes, to roll up a bunch of Earth stuff into a katamari (Japanese for “clump”) that will be shot into space to become a new star. Missions are constrained by time, a size goal for your katamari, or several other objectives such as feeding a skinny sumo wrestler, but they all involve rolling up as much stuff in as little time as possible. Amazingly, this NEVER gets stale.
The controls are odd and awkward but become fluid with practice. The dual analog sticks act as your wee avatar’s hands, so both must be used to roll the katamari in different directions. The controls are buttonless except that you can press in both joysticks to turn 180 degrees (which I sometimes do by accident in heated rolling sessions – take that as you will). The whole thing feels a bit like the Battlezone arcade cabinet which any geriatric gamer like me will tell you is a great thing! As you roll up more and more stuff your katamari gets bigger and bigger, frustrating obstacles are rendered into pick-up sticks before long. The sense of scale is incredible as a single 20-minute mission progresses from picking up thumbtacks to books to schoolbags to children to desks to cars to elephants to helicopters to buildings to satellites to dinosaurs to national landmarks to mountains!!!
And geez, I almost forgot to mention the soundtrack! I’d downloaded the soundtrack to both Katamari games long ago which was one of my main reasons for wanting to play. Though almost exclusively in Japanese the appeal of the varied and professionally articulated songs is universal. There have been some masterpieces in original video game soundtracks – Star Control 2, Halo, and Gabriel Knight to name a few – but the Katamary Damacy series whips them all. A more catchy and whimsical soundtrack there never was. I love that many tunes are variations of a central theme, akin to Space Channel 5. These songs get stuck in my head all over town, all day. I’d buy the soundtrack in a heartbeat if I could find it.
So then, my wrap-up. I’ve learned 2 things from my latest foray into consoledom.
Primarily, I’ve learned that it’s mostly about the games, not the platform. If a game is mutliplatform then obviously you’ll want the best version, but excellent games are timeless no matter what the platform or presentational limitations.
However, having played PS2, Xbox, and Xbox 360, I’ve also learned that the PC is still the best gaming platform (a lot of) money can buy.