NBA 2K14 – Quantum Hoop Episode 13: Make Rivals Not Rivals.com Puns

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C’mon, Sam, join my agency. Don’t you want to be famous?
Don’t you want to make more VC?
More sweet, sweet VC…
Are you drooling?
Don’t listen to that guy. He’s going to take a huge cut of your money.
Also I’m your best friend.
I don’t respond to guilt, man.
Really? You should. It would make this decision a lot easier.
Also, I maybe got you a Kia commercial. Kia!
The super agent or my best friend? What do I do?
I don’t know, Sam, but right now you should get ready for another game against Detroit and Jackson Ellis.
Them? Again?

Justdetroit

Okay, Ellis, let’s go over this one more time.
You are going to kill Sam Beckett Jr.
In the tunnel, or in the locker room, or on the court…
…and when I say “on the court” I mean you will literally kill him…
…not just try to outplay him in basketball.
Yo, I heard you last time.
The first time I misunderstood, but you were loud and clear before game 2.
And?
I decided not to commit murder, especially when I still don’t get why you want him dead.
Don’t make this harder than it has to be, Jackson.
More importantly, I’m the reason you made it to the NBA, remember?
You keep saying that, but I don’t know if it’s true.
In the original timeline, where I don’t interfere, you’re nobody.
I’m not even drafted?
You don’t even exist.
How does that work?
I’d have to teach you string theory for you to understand.
Oh, is that how you make string cheese?
I definitely want to learn that. How do you get the cheese to pull apart in those strips?
Well, you see, the proteins are aligned so that–
Wait a minute, that’s not what string theory is about at all!
Aw… Damn.
This is all just a distraction. Are you going to do as I ask or not?
I can’t kill him, Dr. Beckett. Even if he is actually you, and you must have a good reason.
He’s my rival. We drive each other to be better. If he’s dead…
Maybe I might as well be out of the game, too.
Oh shut up with that self righteous bullshit.
You’re asking me to murder another human being.
For the greater good.
Explain how killing your son–inhabited by yourself from the past–is the greater good…
And maybe I’ll do it.
I can’t.
Then we’re done here.
You’ll regret this, Ellis. Come March 29, you won’t have this choice.
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Experiences in Old Sports Games: High Heat Baseball and Dogme 95

In 1995, two Danish filmmakers by the names of Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg got together and decided to do the most Danish thing possible, which was to write a manifesto about film making.  The Dogme 95 Manifesto (which roughly translates to “The Manifesto of My Dog”) detailed a new philosophy of film, which wasn’t really all that new because it was largely just French New Wave on steroids.  Once the manifesto was complete, von Trier and Vinterberg followed up by doing the second most Danish  thing possible, which was to use government subsidies to fund films based on their manifesto.

This is the third most Danish thing possible.

This is the third most Danish thing possible.

Along with the manifesto, von Trier and Vinterberg developed a “Vow of Chastity”.  I am tempted to list the restrictions imposed by the Vow of Chastity but there are  10 or 11 of them, depending on how you read them, and they all work towards the same goal. Dogme 95 seeks to strip film down to the mere act of capturing light and sound on 35mm film, and remove all other trappings of cinema.  No period pieces. No genre films.  No special effects. No non-diagetic sound. No props. No fancy lenses, placed lighting, or even tripods.

Without tripods, the Dogme 95 adaptation of War of the Worlds told the story of a day-long picnic on the lawn of the Moesgård Museum.

Without tripods, the Dogme 95 adaptation of War of the Worlds told the story of a day-long picnic on the lawn of the Moesgård Museum.

I don’t know how in the mid-1990s a couple of talented filmmakers could have stumbled into the trap of Realism that other art forms had clawed their way out of decades, if not centuries, before.  A backlash against mainstream cinema was understandable, but Dogme 95 didn’t just throw out the baby with the bathwater.  It launched every other baby on Earth into the sun and boiled the oceans in the hopes that bathwater could never be created again.

If I let myself, I could probably write this entire post about Dogme 95.  As theory and thought experiment, it’s an interesting set of concepts.  But like raising a child for eighteen years without human contact to see how their mind develops in a vacuum of language, Dogme 95 is better left to theoretical discussions and never applied in the real world. It constricts a filmmaker from using the massive potential of film as an art in the name of achieving objective realism.  In the realm of video games, I’ve mentioned in my reviews for Brunswick Circuit Pro Bowling and Sensible Soccer that I don’t think that absolute objective realism is a noble goal.  The same is (mostly) true of film, and I think at least Lars von Trier has come around on this point of view based on the last decade or so of his films.  Just off the top of my head, the only part of the Vow of Chastity that Melancholia follows is that it is shot on 35mm film, and if Dogme 95 were written today I can almost guarantee that it would require the use of digital video rather than film.

Okay, let's face it, they were probably just doing the fourth most Danish thing possible: trolling the shit out of everyone.

Okay, let’s face it, they were probably just doing the fourth most Danish thing possible: trolling the shit out of everyone.

But what does any of this have to do with sports video games?

In 1998, 3DO released High Heat Baseball for the PC.  3DO is probably better known for their ill-fated console, the 3DO Interactive Multiplayer, rather than their later publishing efforts.  And there’s a good reason for this.  The 3DO console had all sorts of problems, but it was an interesting attempt to jumpstart the CD era of gaming, as well as an experiment in console funding that sought to undercut the licensing fees of Nintendo and Sega.  The games published by 3DO following the console’s failure were almost universally bad.  Remember Cubix?  Battletanx?  GoDai: Elemental Force?  So many Army Men games that the words “army” and “men” stopped having any meaning in the years between 1999-2002?  The only really good games that 3DO published were Might and Magic titles acquired from New World Computing and, of course, the High Heat series.

Sadly, in 1999 the naming conventions of video game websites and publications reached their zenith with GamerzEdge and we will never see those halcyon days again.

High Heat Baseball was a mixed bag upon its immediate release.  It had the unfortunate distinction of arriving in the wake of the early Triple Play games published by EA.  By the end of its life, the Triple Play series became something of a joke, but ’97 and ’98 were absolute revelations in sports game presentation and features.  They didn’t play the best, and they were plagued by Early Playstation Graphics Syndrome but at the time they were absolutely something special.  That wasn’t the only thing working against 3DO, though.  Just months before High Heat, Acclaim released All-Star Baseball 99 for the N64.  Like Triple Play, All-Star Baseball 99 looks so dated that it might as well be carrying a beeper.  But, again, at the time it was amazing.  You wouldn’t believe it from looking at it today, but the graphics outclassed anything on the market.  See also NFL Quarterback Club for the N64.

"The high resolution graphics of NFL Quarterback Club don't just move the chains...they're off the chain!" - GamerzEdge

“The high resolution graphics of NFL Quarterback Club don’t just move the chains…they’re off the chain!” – GamerzEdge

So the odds were stacked against High Heat Baseball and it honestly didn’t do itself any favors.  It didn’t have flash or glitz.  The learning curve was far more drastic than the pick-up-and-play Triple Play franchise.  It was missing the management aspects that were present in the Hardball series, and that’s without getting into the very early days of the Baseball Mogul franchise.  But High Heat did have one thing going with it: beyond the graphics, beyond the menus, and beyond the half-hearted presentation, it played a game of baseball better than anything on the market.  The variety of hits was unparalleled.  The AI was better than the competition. The interface was simple, but it produced results that felt like baseball.

Except I refuse to believe that Kyle Farnsworth ever threw a pitch slower than 90 mph.

Except I refuse to believe that Kyle Farnsworth ever threw a pitch slower than 90 mph.

The series diverged briefly in 1999 and 2000, with High Heat Baseball 2000 and Sammy Sosa High Heat Baseball 2001 respectively.  The PC game continued to evolve as a nuanced simulation while 3DO simultaneously released godawful arcade-style Playstation games under the same name.  The 2001 Playstation installment (of course named High Heat Baseball 2002) was the first decent console version of the series, and was followed up with a good PS2 port. For the next couple years, development was primarily focused on the PS2, with ports to the Xbox and Gamecube for the final installment, High Heat Baseball 2004.

All of the good High Heat Games (read: not the early Playstation ones) had one thing in common: they played great and they looked terrible.

We have replaced Scott Rolen's forearms with tied-off socks full of oatmeal.  Let's see if anyone notices!

We have replaced Scott Rolen’s forearms with tied-off socks full of oatmeal. Let’s see if anyone notices!

This brings us full circle, back around to Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg, and Dogme 95. Even fans of Dogme 95 would have to admit that it produces ugly cinema. 35mm film is finicky stuff and it doesn’t always play nice with natural sources of light. And that’s without even getting into capturing sound or lack of music or any number of restrictions that makes Dogme 95 films rather somewhat unpleasant.

Now, I’m not about to claim that High Heat Baseball is the Dogme 95 of video games.  That’s ridiculous, as High Heat actually has graphics and sound, even if they’re terrible.  If there is any Dogme 95 of video games, it’s roguelikes without tilesets that use ASCII symbols for visual representations and PC speaker for all (if any) sound.

C'mon, let's be honest, you have to be a little autistic to understand this interface intuitively.

C’mon, let’s be honest, you have to be a little autistic to understand this interface intuitively.

Nevertheless, the High Heat philosophy comes from the same place as the Dogme 95 philosophy: strip out the extraneous production value, focus on the fundamentals.  The broadcast presentation of Triple Play or the “high resolution” of All-Star Baseball don’t lend anything to how their relative games actually play.  And, I suppose if you want to be reductive about everything, visual effects, props, lighting, and any number of other things don’t truly lend anything to the storytelling of a film.  If a stage play can convey a story, then a film can do the same without all the trappings of a film.   Rogue is playable on an ASCII terminal and a lot of people have spent a lot of time playing as an @ symbol in a field of punctuation.

Well thanks to this game I just remembered Chuck Knoblauch's career and got really depressed.

Well thanks to this game I just remembered Chuck Knoblauch’s career and got really depressed.

Of course, like Dogme 95, High Heat Baseball didn’t last. This wasn’t the fault of the High Heat developers.  3DO went under, and if anyone is to blame it is the people behind those god damn Army Men games.  Even if High Heat was a huge fiscal success–and it wasn’t–it couldn’t possibly be enough to keep the entire publisher afloat.

But that’s not to say that High Heat and Dogme 95 didn’t leave their marks.  The echoes of Dogme 95 can, naturally, be seen in the later works of von Trier and Vinterberg.  But also in the later work of Harmony Korine, an American and one-time Dogme director himself, and mainstream/indie crossover master Steven Soderbergh.  The minimalism is tempered with the ridiculous rules falling by the wayside.  Meanwhile, Sony’s MLB: The Show has felt largely like a spiritual successor to High Heat, providing realistic scores, impressive hit variety, and a brutal learning curve.  But for The Show, good game play doesn’t come at the cost of  washed-out colors, marionette players, and presentation that never quite left the original Playstation era.  The Show has been a fantastic success, reviewing consistently well and selling better than a console-exclusive sports game should.   More than that, it’s become one of the best reasons for baseball fans to continue to buy Sony hardware.

Maybe the lesson is this: spectacle isn’t everything, but strip it away and you’ll see that it can be pretty important.

Oh dear god look at the graphic design on this menu.

Oh dear god look at the graphic design on this menu.  It’s like they’re trying to hide Randy Johnson’s identity with the word CPU but nothing can truly hide Randy Johnson’s identity.

Experiences in Old Sports Games: Pete Sampras Tennis

The George Foreman Grill launched in the year 1994, when I was only nine years old.  We had one early on in my home, and then when I moved out to go to college it was relatively quick purchase.  As such, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve either owned a George Foreman Grill, or lived in home containing a George Foreman Grill, for at least half of my life.

I’ve used the George Foreman Grill–either the one we had growing up or the one I purchased later on–maybe twenty times.  On its face, the George Foreman Grill seems like  fantastic idea.  A simple way to cook lean meat dishes?  Easy toasted sandwiches?  Sign me up.  But the reality of the product isn’t nearly as glamorous as its promise.  Burn anything and it’s a hassle to clean.  There’s no way to adjust the temperature, so it’s a crapshoot whether you can fully cook anything thick before the outside sears onto the “non-stick” surface. And that fat that’s draining out of your chicken or hamburger?  Turns out that wasn’t all that bad for you anyway.

I don’t know why I bought my own George Foreman Grill.  At that point, I should have known that it wasn’t really my thing.   I was aware that I preferred a cast iron skillet.  So why did I get one?  It was probably hope.  Hope, and this man’s smiling face:

Note how one hand is touching the hot surface of the grill, and yet the other hand is wearing a protective mitt.

Note how one hand is almost touching the hot surface of the grill, and yet the other hand is wearing a protective mitt.

Celebrity endorsement is a transformative act in which the celebrity allows a product to take on some of the qualities generally ascribed to the celebrity.  When I use the word “celebrity”, I do not mean it to refer to the person George Foreman, but the symbol George Foreman.  The nature of fame and exposure is that certain facets of personality and identity are either expressed, suppressed, or made up out of whole cloth.  George Foreman the celebrity has qualities that are not wholly representative of George Foreman the person.  In 1994, he symbolized toughness, longevity, and athleticism.  Now, after almost two decades of peddling grills, he is probably better known for his salesmanship.

When George Foreman allowed his name to be put on the grill, he loaned the grill some of his meaning as a celebrity.   Subconsciously, people associated it with the same significance they associated with George Foreman.  In turn, competitors have sought out similar endorsements over the years, leading to the Hulk Hogan Ultimate Grill, the Evander Holyfield Real Deal Grill, and the Paul Wall Fast Life Grill.

WITH THIS PATENTED TECHNOLOGY, THE FAT AND GREASE JUST DRAINS INTO MY MOUTH.

WITH THIS PATENTED TECHNOLOGY, THE FAT AND GREASE JUST DRAINS INTO MY MOUTH.

For a long time, sports video games traded on the power of the celebrity endorsement.  Of course, they didn’t just use any celebrities. They used players or managers from their respective sports.  There are tons of examples: Ken Griffey Jr. presents Major League Baseball, named after the Seattle CF phenom in 1994.  Wayne Gretzky 3d Hockey, the arcade (and later N64) game that endorsed by the Great One.  Nester’s Funky Bowling, named after Nestor Carbonell from LOST, for the Virtual Boy.

You don’t see it so much these days, with almost all sports titles being as minimalist as to only include the league and the year.  The exception, of course, is the grandaddy of them all, Madden Football, but for a long time every other sports title bore the name of a famous figure.  This brings us to today’s old sports game:

Momma Sampras warned you your face would stick like that.

Momma Sampras warned you your face would stick like that.

Tennis has appeared in some form on just about every video game system known to man and also the Ouya. It holds a special place in the history of video games. Everyone knows about Pong, which first popularized the coin-op arcade machine and the home video console, even if it was predated by Computer Space and the Magnavox Odyssey on both fronts.  But the sport of tennis was also the inspiration for Tennis For Two, a 1958 oscilloscope device that has at least a tenuous claim to be the first video game.  If nothing else, Tennis for Two is easily the first computer game to simulate physics, specifically gravity. Unfortunately, no one could figure out how to display the Havok logo on startup of an oscilloscope, so Tennis for Two never saw the light of day outside of a laboratory.

Pete Sampras Tennis came out for the Mega Drive and Genesis in 1994 which was the same year as the George Foreman grill, and it was approximately just as useful for cooking a chicken breast evenly all the way through. Unlike the grill, which was specially formulated to appeal to the twin American desires of eating more meat and buying things from television that enable the eating of more meat, Pete Sampras Tennis was only given a limited release in the United States. Its sequels, on the Mega drive and PlayStation, didn’t even make it across the Atlantic .  It was developed by Codemastersa U.K. development house and publisher which has been around forever.

Did you know that Pete Sampras Tennis was the inspiration for the God of War series?

Did you know that Pete Sampras Tennis was the inspiration for the God of War series?

Codemasters has some decent successes in their length history-specifically the Game Genie and the Dirt series-but they could cure cancer tomorrow and to me they’d still be the monsters who allowed Leisure Suit Larry: Box Office Bust to exist. Many Codemasters games never made it to the United States and stayed in Europe forever. Sometimes this was a good thing. Be sure to call up your grandparents and thank them for their sacrifices, because without them we’d all be speaking German and waxing nostalgic about Dizzy Kart for the ZX 64.

Pete Sampras Tennis doesn’t necessarily take any risks, and the AI is terrible, but it generally succeeds in representing the game about as well as any other title at the time. The control pad moves your player around the screen, and the three Mega Drive/Genesis buttons each give different strengths for a swing, letting you choose to lob the ball, shoot it, or try and nail it with some topspin.  Basic stuff, but a step above, say, Jimmy Connors Tennis for the NES, released the year before.

F U

Several characters are available, both male and female, but the only real tennis player featured is, naturally, Pete Sampras.  What, did you expect he would let Andre Agassi into his game?  It’s a well known fact that Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi had a long-standing rivalry.  In 1994, it was so bad that Pete Sampras visited the set of the children’s film Andre during post-production and literally murdered half of the crew before he discovered that it was about a friendly sea lion and not Agassi.  The only reason that Sampras didn’t go to prison was because the judge’s kids made him see Andre in the theaters and the killings were dismissed as justifiable.

Pete Sampras is an American.  This is a game developed in Europe, for a European audience, and yet it trades on the celebrity of a man halfway around the world.  It–or its Europe only sequels–could have been Stefan Edberg Tennis or Boris Becker Tennis. Yet an American was chosen, despite the target demographic being almost entirely from other countries. The simple reason is that Sampras transcended nationality. He was the best player of his time, and 1994 was hardly a time of great anti-American animosity.

This fundamentally conservative game portrays most of the USA with lady liberty, a symbol of freedom, but assigns to California a picture of a government-funded bridge.

This fundamentally conservative game portrays most of the USA with lady liberty, a symbol of freedom, but assigns to California a picture of a government-funded bridge.

But why wasn’t Pete Sampras Tennis, a game featuring one of the biggest American athletes in the world, successful in the United States of America? Codemasters making poor decisions aside, tennis simply didn’t rate in the USA during the mid-90s. Americans simply didn’t care about the game, and generally haven’t with the exception of the careers of John McEnroe during the 80s and the Williams sisters in the late 90s/early 00s.

Why is this? Ultimately, tennis is perceived as a high class sport. Matches are silent, players are expected to act respectfully, everyone is wearing white, and no one would dare sew a Pennzoil patch onto their jacket. It’s generally accepted that talent and hard work alone are insufficient to succeed, and that the teachings of a highly paid professional are required to even be a decent amateur player. While this is true of many sports, Americans hate this shit. They want to believe the story of the poor kid from Montana who fine-tuned his baseball swing chopping wood or the quarterback who kept his arm fresh chucking toilet paper roles as a stocker at the grocery store.

Americans hate to be reminded that class exists. A key part of the American national mythology is that everyone is born equal and has the same opportunities to succeed. It’s bullshit, and all it takes to know that it’s bullshit is the the fact that George W. Bush of all people was elected to the highest office in the country on two separate occasions, but all the popular spectator sports in the United States feed into this mythology.

Pete Sampras approved every single pixel in this representation of his hair.

Pete Sampras approved every single pixel in this representation of his hair.

Not tennis. Professional tennis embraces its status as a privileged sport for privileged people. It has adopted the trappings of an aristocratic duel, rather than the brawls and street fights that Americans prefer to see. See my last post on hockey, and try to imagine how Tony Twist would fare on the courts of Wimbledon. Americans don’t want to see that shit. They don’t want to watch a man named Federer (only two letters away from Federal, so he’s probably trying to take your guns away) who speaks multiple languages fluently, and was coached at age 10 by a man named Adolf at The Old Boys Tennis Club in Switzerland.

Ultimately, unlike George Foreman, Pete Sampras wasn’t the kind of celebrity that would be embraced by Americans enough to lead to a successful product. Sampras was, like Federer, a symbol of privilege. He represented country club training and the luck of a prodigy. He wasn’t like Foreman, a poor kid from Houston who dropped out of school and made it big throwing punches then became a Baptist minister. Sampras was known for taking up tennis before he could read. That’s genetics. Foreman was known for battling the odds to make a comeback at age 38. That’s hard work, and Americans love hard work up until the point when it tries to unionize.

It’s a shame, because if Codemasters does anything right, its simulation/arcade hybrid sports titles. Their F1 series is quite beloved, though F1 is ignored in America for largely the exact same reasons as tennis [citation: Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Dir. Adam McKay. Perf. Will Ferrell, Sacha Baron Cohen. Sony Pictures. 2006. Film.] They hitched their hopes of American success to the wrong American. If only they’d found the right celebrity endorsement, maybe we’d still be buying Codemasters tennis games.

Next time, think about who Americans admires. I suggest going out of the box and shocking the states with the one thing they can’t get enough of: those guys on Duck Dynasty.