24 August 2013

Super Mario Galaxy 2

Yeah, I just gave Bowser another thrashing!

Earlier this summer I blogged about my experiences playing Wii's Super Mario Galaxy, my first time playing a Mario game since the days of the NES. (Check out the Mario label for those posts.) It was a fun enough experience to make me buy the sequel.

It's the night of the Star Festival, an event that takes place once every 100 years. Princess Peach has invited Mario to the castle, but suddenly Bowser attacks and kidnaps the princess, planning to use stolen Power Stars to create a new empire in the centre of the universe. Mario has to search for Power Stars on various planets so he can follow Bowser, and... and... hang on, isn't this the story of the first Super Mario Galaxy? I mean, almost word to word... Honestly, they could have put at least a little effort into creating something even slightly original. If anything, the story elements in the game are even lighter than in the predecessor.

But, as I wrote back when I was playing the original Galaxy, Mario games aren't really about the story. They're about beating the levels. So, when it comes to gameplay, anyone who's played the original should be right at home. The controls are exactly the same. The appearance of both games is pretty much the same. A lot of elements have been imported more or less directly from the original. But as you proceed, you'll notice that they have, indeed, added a whole bunch of new gimmicks to the levels. There are several new power-ups, perhaps most notably the addition of Yoshi, and all manner of weird stuff, like switches that slow down time.

I've currently got 89 out of 120 stars. Except of course when you get those 120 stars, you unlock another 120 stars, hidden in the levels, and one final level after you get all those... So I'm really nowhere close to actually completing the game. And, as with the first Galaxy, I'm not sure I ever will be. A lot of these additional challenges are pretty tough. And there's a very fine line between challenge and frustration...

They've made level progression a little more linear this time, akin to many earlier Mario games. You have to beat a level before progressing to the next one—although there are some forks in the paths, giving you a little choice. (You can freely return to any unlocked level, of course, to get additional stars.) This didn't bother me until now, once I 'beat' the game, as this unlocks an additional 'Special' world to play. The levels in this world are getting to be pretty hard, so it would have been nice to try out different ones, but I can only access one to begin with (and my first crack at it was... not exactly successful).

But even if you only play the regular levels, working your way up to the final boss fight with Bowser, there's still plenty of fun to be had, and a lot of variety. The level design is still highly original, unique and often downright crazy.

So, in summation, even though there was a slight feel of being 'more of the same', Super Mario Galaxy 2 was a pretty entertaining, fun, and challenging experience, just like its predecessor. In their genre (which, admittedly, is not one I've played very extensively) I think they're among the very best. I doubt I'll be getting other Mario games in the near future, though. Next up will be something completely different...

22 August 2013

A Witch at Heart (The Story of a New Year's Resolution)

I don't write that much openly about religion or spirituality, mostly because they are very personal topics that are very difficult to communicate. But on the other hand, writing is a great way to process thoughts. Trying to shape them into actual, intelligible words and sentences forces us to look at them from different viewpoints, and sometimes we may even learn new things in the process. So, for a change, I'll write a little about me and my relationship with religion.

I have mentioned my interest in spirituality and occultism before in this blog, though. A theme of those posts has often been change and instability. I have had great difficulty in the past settling on a particular approach that would satisfy my spiritual needs. (Or perhaps I should say settling on particular details; a lot of the really big issues have remained more or less the same through the years.)

A lot of my problems with this stem from a basic dilemma in my make-up. I am, by nature, a child of the modern, scientific age—a naturalistic, empirical person. I've seen no convincing evidence of conscious entities controlling our world, or of life after death, or any other 'supernatural' phenomena. Yet, regardless of all this, I seem to have a deep-seated yearning for spiritual experiences. How does one satisfy a yearning for something that one doesn't, at least in literal terms, actually believe in?

It's largely a question of psychology, of course. Religion, in one form or another, has been a part of our lives since... well, basically since mankind has existed. Our cultures have been shaped by religion, so it should hardly be surprising to feel its pull. On the other hand, I believe religion (and ritual) can have a real beneficial psychological effect on individuals. However, to do so religion must be able adapt to a changing world. Sticking to age-old tenets that clearly go against scientific evidence and common sense can be quite harmful, even deadly in extreme cases.

I hope that clarifies my stance on religion at least a little. But what does this all mean in practise then? As I said, my spiritual path has been one fraught with change and instability. I was basically raised Christian, like the majority of Finns still are (though in an increasingly secular atmosphere), but by early adulthood I'd grown to feel that wasn't my path. For many years in my early twenties I'd have described myself primarily as an 'agnostic'.

The crucial turning point came when I was in my mid-20s (I don't remember the exact year now, I'd guess sometime between 2005 and 2007). On a whim I borrowed a couple books on Wicca from the local library. What I found within intrigued me. I'd always been fond of nature, and had flirted with neopagan ideas as a teenager, though I'd never delved very deep into the subject back then.

Wicca, in a nutshell, is a neopagan religion largely created by Gerald Gardner in the early 20th century based on theories—popular at the time, but now disputed—about ancient matriarchal religion focused on Goddess, rather than God, worship, and a witch cult carrying on these traditions. (Gardner claimed to have been himself initiated into this tradition, but there is little concrete evidence of this. Whatever the origins, it's clear that he wrote at least part of the early material himself, and borrowed much from Victorian occult tradition. In any case, the origin of the religion isn't really what matters.) 'Wicca', derived from an Old English word for 'witch', is a slightly more modern term—originally the tradition was referred to simply as 'witchcraft'. (Oh, and the word 'witch', in Wiccan use, refers to both male and female practitioners.) Wiccans traditionally revere a Goddess and a God, though interpretations of them vary widely. The Goddess is frequently associated with the earth, the moon, birth (and death) etc., the God (often pictured with antlers or horns) with animals, the sun etc. Together they often represent the basic rhythms of nature—the seasons, fertility and the harvest, and so forth.

Originally Wicca was a communal movement, focused on 'covens' of initiated members. In recent decades, however, as material has become more freely available, the number of solitary practitioners has increased dramatically. There may still be some traditionalists out there who'll say you can't be a Wiccan unless you're initiated by another Wiccan, but they are likely a minority these days. I don't believe in such sentiments. In matters of the spirit, you are what you feel you are. Religion shouldn't be about strict rules and definitions. It should be about the feeling it invokes, nothing more, nothing less.

Anyway, as I was saying, what I read about Wicca intrigued me. I soon came to the conclusion that this could be the faith for me. I decided to be Wiccan. It was as simple as that. Even back then I was probably not the most stereotypical Wiccan, though. There have always been aspects I don't agree with, a more 'new agey' side to the religion in many authors' writings. Many talk about reincarnation, for example, but, as I already wrote, I've seen little convincing evidence concerning any kind of afterlife. But being an 'eclectic, solitary Wiccan', I could pick the parts that appealed to me. I think I espoused enough of the core ideas, the spirit of the tradition, to justifiably identify myself as Wiccan. The deities I would interpret less as literal entities, but rather as symbolising forces of nature and/or psychological constructs. (This, I think, is a relatively common approach among modern neopagans.)

I would celebrate the full moons and the eight 'sabbats' with simple rituals, and experiment with magic—though I've always been much too lazy in that respect and can't boast much success (I should perhaps emphasise that I view such things as primarily psychological exercises, meant to interact more with the subconscious than the world around as, not as actual supernatural forces).

However, as Wicca was obviously influenced by a long tradition of Western occultism (even if the existence of a long-standing 'witch cult' it was supposedly derived from is somewhat doubtful), I eventually begun to read more widely about occultism. I got carried away with Hermetic traditions and Qabalah and begun to incorporate elements from these into my philosophy and rituals. This let to a lot of experimentation with different influences, at times returning to more traditional Wiccan ideas, at other times going in very different directions. While this was all quite fascinating, the downside was that I eventually became more confused than ever about what my religion was. No path seemed to fit any longer.

Last Christmas I spent a couple weeks at my grandparents' old house, where I've spent most of my holidays since I can remember. With limited internet access and all, I had time there to think about things, and as often in such circumstances, my mind turned to spiritual matters again. I thought particularly about Wicca again, about how it had been my starting point on my spiritual quest, a foundation for all my later experiments, and how I always kept returning to Wiccan ideas. I made a New Year's resolution then. I decided I would try to be 'just' Wiccan again, for a whole year (or a 'year and a day', which has a more Wiccan ring to it). Practise simple rituals like I did in the early days, and focus on (re)discovering the Goddess and the God. Some eight months later, I'm still feeling good about it. I'm not saying it's gone perfectly—as usual I've been much too lazy with my rituals, and my ideas still aren't exactly stable, but it's more fine print stuff than major questions—but I've felt more at home with my spiritual side than I have in a good while.

It's been a long, roundabout journey that has now, in a way, come 'full circle' again. I regret none of the, shall we say, 'detours' I've take over the last few years. My explorations of other traditions have given me a lot of insight and new perspectives. My experience with Qabalah and ceremonial magic has taught me to beware overly complex structures and symbols. They have a habit of getting in the way, the proverbial trees keeping me from seeing the forest. I need a simple, more down-to-earth spirituality, and Wicca is a perfect fit there. On the other hand, more modern philosophies like Chaos Magic and Discordianism have taught me not to take everything too seriously, and to seek inspiration in less conventional places, such as popular culture.

What this blog post boils down to is a simple statement, for public record, that I identify as Wiccan. I have done so for the past half a dozen or so years (with varying levels of enthusiasm). Whether I will still identify as Wiccan next year this time, I cannot say. But to me spirituality is about living in the moment. This is part of who I am. This is my statement of pagan pride. A sort of 'coming out of the broom closet', I might say, except of course I have actually written about a lot of this stuff before—though I don't actively or publicly speak about it much, it's never been a big secret.

To round up this long post, some readers may well be asking what it is exactly that I believe in, what this whole being Wiccan thing actually means.

To put it simply, I believe that this universe is an amazing, wonderful thing; an intricate web of endless cause and effect; an infinite dance of unnumbered, unseen particles. It is something to be seen with awe and respect—and reverence. So much so, in fact, that I choose to call the universe a Goddess, a cosmic being of untold beauty. But I also believe that each unique living being is just as wonderful in its own right. We are all individuals with our own drives and desires, our own strengths and weaknesses. This 'life force', for lack of a better term, to me represents the Wiccan God, pictured as a horned man—a primal figure part man and part animal.

(These are by no means the only interpretations of the Wiccan gods—not even the only ones in my mind—nor necessarily any kind of standard views held by other Wiccans. But they are the most powerful images I currently associate with them. They are, of course, symbols created by human beings, but they are also something more, as they represent primal forces of nature and human consciousness. Not conscious forces, of course. Except for the tiny parts of them that are, in fact, our minds, since the gods, in a very real sense, are us. Should I pray to these gods, it is my own conscious and subconscious mind I'm really speaking to.)

And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, since ideas in the end mean little without practical applications, I believe that ritual is always a worthwhile endeavour, whether a simple moment of meditation or prayer, or a full-blown celebration of the full moon or changing seasons. It is a way of relaxing, of escaping the hubbub of the modern world for a short time. It can be therapeutic, exhilarating, or just plain fun. And that, to me, is what religion ought to be about: making you feel good, while appreciating the world, and people, around you.

15 August 2013

Saga, Vol. 2

Last spring I wrote about reading the first collected volume of Brian K. Vaughan's comic book series Saga. (Here's the blog post.)

Now I finally got my hands on the second trade paperback and read it tonight. And it was great.

It's actually pretty hard to write anything much, really, about this series. It's a unique, original, crazy space fantasy epic. It's brimming with violence and sex, yet somehow it manages to be one of the most heart-warming comics I've ever read. The characters are brilliant, the twists of the story great, and the art top notch.

I'm sure it's not quite everyone's cup of tea. If you're squeamish about blood or nudity, I wouldn't necessarily recommend it (but then again I prefer not to recommend anything much to anyone, 'cause people's tastes are so different). But as for myself, I've rather loved both volumes thus far.

Of course the second volume, like the first, ends with a cliff-hanger. And now I have a long wait ahead of me. Being a little late to pick up the first TPB, I only had a few months to wait for the second volume. But now the issues of the next story arc are only just beginning their release, so I expect it'll be well into next year before the next TPB comes out... *sigh*

DuckTales: Remastered

I should be in bed, but I'm still kinda wired. So I might as well write this while it's still fresh in my mind...

DuckTales: Remastered was released today for PS3 (and other platforms). I bought it, downloaded it, and just played through it (on the easiest setting). And it was fun.

Let's not kid ourselves; this game is all about the nostalgia. The original DuckTales game for the NES is a classic. I played it a bunch as a kid. It was one of the few NES games I could actually 'beat' back then (though I mostly played on the 'easy' setting—and of course the game actually having a difficulty setting was pretty progressive for its time). So I've been waiting for this game pretty impatiently ever since it was announced last spring.

Remastered brings the game to the 21st century. We're talking hand drawn, high definition sprites, re-arranged music, voice acting by the cast of the original animated show—the whole shebang. The game looks and sounds great. And the gameplay is, of course, the same as it was, all those years ago. Except, of course, now you have modern comforts, like saving progress between levels, a map screen etc.

The level designs are, for the most part, true to the original, though I think there are some small differences (I cannot remember the original game that well—it's been, like, a couple decades since I've really played it, after all). The levels have new added objectives, mostly involving retrieving some items spread through the level, which means you'll need to visit more areas of a level in order to beat it. There is also a whole new final level leading to the final boss (instead of returning to Transylvania), and a new tutorial level. Oh, and speaking of boss fights, they've been expanded and made tougher. Money you collect actually has a use now; it's used to unlock bonus content (concept art etc.).

I mentioned voice acting, and indeed, dialogue plays a much larger part than in the original. They've attempted to add an actual story to the game. It's pretty simple treasure hunting stuff, of course, but it works well enough in the context. Some reviewers have even criticised the game for having too much dialogue, disrupting the flow of the game. I didn't find it a problem first time around, but when re-playing it some of it may, of course, seem unnecessary...

Some downsides as well, of course. During this single session the game crashed twice. And I actually had to replay most of the final level (including the boss) since progress is saved only between levels. Some points in the game were also pretty darn tough, even on the easy setting. I had most trouble with segments involving hanging from ropes. I discovered that for some reason these were easier using the left stick for control rather than the directional pad, even though mostly I favoured the pad for this game. Thankfully you have infinite retries, and checkpoints are fairly frequent.

The price, at 15€, might seem a mite high for a game you can play through in one sitting. But it's obvious that a fair amount of effort has gone into making DuckTales: Remastered, what with the animated sprites and voice acting and all. For those with golden memories of the original NES game it is, of course, a blast from the past. It's hardly perfect, and of course it's pretty simple and short by modern standards, but it's still a whole lotta fun, at least in my humble opinion. For those not familiar with the original... well, it's still a decent, fun, oldschool platformer, although it probably won't make quite the same impression as it will on fans.

7 August 2013

Numenera First Impressions

Monte Cook's new game Numenera has been one of the most awaited RPGs this year. Last week the PDF version of the rulebook was finally released to Kickstarter backers and pre-orderers, while print versions should be shipping soon.

I've had a chance to browse the PDF for a few days now, and yes, I quite like it. It features a pretty interesting science fantasy setting and original, fairly lightweight rules. The game's website introduces the concepts of the game pretty well, but in a nutshell, the game's set in a far future world, with one of the core ideas being Arthur C. Clarke's statement: 'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.' The society is superficially medieval, but relics from great civilisations of the past are everywhere, both assisting the world's inhabitants and creating great dangers. It's a world of small, isolated communities, where almost anything can happen and every location has a unique flair created by the wonders (and dangers) of the past active in the region.

Discovery is a major theme in the game. It's primarily about exploration and encountering the weird and wonderful relics of past civilisations. Which, in my mind, is a wonderful premise for an RPG. Even the guidelines for awarding experience points emphasise making discoveries, rather than, say, killing things.

The rules are quite fascinating, and not exactly like any RPG I've played before. The system is basically class based, but instead of a single class characters are defined by three basic elements, a character type, a descriptor, and a focus, each of which grant particular abilities to the character. These are described as a noun, adjective and verb, respectively. A core idea of character creation is that the character can be described with the sentence: 'I am an adjective noun who verbs.' For example, a character could be a 'Rugged Glaive who Controls Beasts' or a 'Charming Nano who Focuses Mind Over Matter' ('glaive' being the game's warrior class, and 'nano' a kind of tech wizard).

There are many combinations to choose from (with three character types, a dozen descriptors and close to 30 foci). But you do still need to create characters within the framework provided by the rules; this is no GURPS with infinite character options but a game with a fairly specific scope and theme (which, personally, I think I might even prefer, in the end, to universal systems). Of course creating characters for the first time might be a little daunting, when one's not familiar with the options, which can have exotic names like 'Rides the Lightning' or 'Howls at the Moon' or 'Bears a Halo of Fire'...

The system is based around three basic stats: Might, Speed and Intellect. Unlike most systems, however, these aren't hard numbers that directly affect dice rolls, but pools, from which you spend points to boost rolls and use special abilities. Damage is also taken from these same pools, so the more damage a character takes, the less he or she can do, and vice versa. It's a pretty interesting idea, and should be interesting to try out, although I expect it may take a little time to get used to. Not because the game is complicated, but because it's a little different from most games we've played.

The book's over 400 pages, full colour and quite pretty, although I can't really fully judge the aesthetics until I get the print version. I do much prefer reading RPG rules in book form...

I don't know when I'll get the chance to actually play the game. Seems like there are plenty of games already going on in my social circle right now. Hopefully it won't take too long, 'cause this game is right up my proverbial alley...

5 August 2013

Little Games

When I finally bought my first proper smartphone last winter, I thought I might end up playing plenty of games on it. Welp, it didn't really happen that way. I tried out some, but, as it turned out, it's very hard to actually make an interesting and playable game for a small touchscreen device. Also I was mostly trying out free games, which, basically, tend to be less about making good games than they are about trying to induce you to pay micro-transactions to proceed in the game...

In the early days I played Zen Pinball a little. That's a pretty fun way to waste a few minutes. I also played Blood Brothers for a while. They tote it as an RPG, but it's really nothing of the sort. It's mainly about collecting different units, with a very thin story progression and automated combat with almost no interaction tucked on top, and it gets pretty darn boring pretty darn soon.

Recently, though, I spent a few weeks in the country without my consoles, so I figured I should try some more phone games. I even bought a couple bigger games, Mass Effect Infiltrator and Bard's Tale. Did I end up playing them, or even trying them? Nope. The time was never quite right, and I spent much of the time pretty much exhausted from all the chores that needed doing around the house. I did, however, waste some time with a few free games.

I actually tried out the classic Nethack for the first time ever. The Android port I played worked reasonably well on the phone, and it's not as huge a battery drain as many modern games. I didn't play a lot of it, though, mostly 'cause it's bleedin' hard.

Then there was Robot Unicorn Attack 2. That's a pretty fun and addicting little sidescrolling platform game. While the game itself is deceptively simple, there are goals you have to complete in order to progress in ranks, which in turn gives you new customisations for your unicorn and stuff. I played it for a while, but sometime getting close to rank 20 the goals began to be simply unbeatable with my skills, which put me off the game.

Lastly, probably the game I ended up playing most over the last few weeks was, perhaps a little surprisingly, the My Little Pony game. This is basically a pretty simple village building game, with mini-games you have to play to raise the pony inhabitants levels. There are goals you have to complete to proceed the story, which is loosely based on characters and concepts from the Friendship Is Magic series. There are some social elements involving giving gifts to friends (you can use your Facebook account to connect), but for some reason this has seemed to be broken much of the time I've played the game, leaving me unable to visit other people's villages or receive gifts from them (assuming anyone's sent any — I know a few of my friends have played the game at some point, though of course I can't know whether they've been active lately). Luckily you can skip some of the goals involving social interactions by spending jewels earned in the game... All in all it's a fun enough game to spend a few moments on every now and then.

Now, though, I'm back home with my precious consoles. Hopefully I'll get a chance to play some real games soon enough...