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What killed rap music?


Eric B. and Rakim -- one of the greatest duos in hip hop history.

I made yet another visit to that giant Internet video repository, YouTube.com, this weekend, after someone passed me a link to something I hadn't seen or heard in a long, long time. It brought back a lot of memories and raised the same question I'm sure most music listeners have asked and answered thousands of times by now: What killed rap music? (Because surely, it's dead today.)


The Low End Theory from A Tribe Called Quest -- One of the best rap albums of the 1990s.

Was it the mainstream success, the wealth, and the fame? Did people really just forget what the music was all about when they realized there was so much money to be made? I'll be honest with you, I don't know the answer, and I've tried to block out the question since I stopped listening to it more than 10 years ago. Yes, rap had risen to the top 40 charts, but it had not only gotten stale, much of it, particularly West Coast rap, had become too fixated on negativity--violence, drugs, and the stupid, pointless glorification of crime.


De La Soul - One of the last bastions of thoughtful hip hop.

There was a time when the most successful hip hop artists got to the top by putting together the best lyrics and the best beats to create a kind of musical poetry. Some of best music back then was smart, had a great flow, and was supported by a great musical backdrop of an addictive baseline / backbeat plus musical accompaniment from creative sampling of older tunes.

Some examples of what rap music used to be:

Exhibit A (from 1991)
Exhibit B (from 1991)
Exhibit C (from 1987)

These days? It seems like it's all pretty much garbage. Just a bunch of jackasses singing about how much money they have, or something. I don't know what happened, but someone wake me up when it's over.

Street Fighter makes another box-office attempt


Don't be fooled. Even Jean-Claude doesn't get it.

If you're puzzled too, don't feel bad. I'm even less clear about why production company Hyde Park Entertainment is taking a shot at a second Street Fighter licensed motion picture than you are. As much as I enjoy the source material, it has never translated well to any non-game format.


Hardcore fans know this game. Does anyone else?

Aside from the fact that the characters are all pretty thin and have few to no meaningful relationships, why would a Hollywood company go after Street Fighter as a film license now, of all times? When the last (first) movie was a critical and commercial failure; led to a horrendous and conceptually confusing licensed game ("the game based on the movie based on the game"); and marked an embarrassing end to an otherwise illustrous film career? When the last new game in the series was released seven years ago? The series is only relevant on a day-to-day basis to die-hard fighting game fans (like myself), but after seeing the lousy performances from Van Damme & company in the first movie, I can't imagine that any fans of the games would actually want to see another live-action film, especially not at this point. I sure as hell don't.


And if we're lucky, maybe we'll get another one of these next, huh?

Movies based on licenses with strong, loyal fan followings need to have some kind of insight into what fans like most about the original properties. From the sound of things, I really doubt there are m/any hardcore Street Fighter fans on the cast and crew of this one to provide that kind of insight. Forgive me for being a pessimist, but I can't see this film turning out to be anything but bad.

Halo: The Real-Time Strategy Game

Microsoft's X06 press event is underway, and while we have a crew of fearless GameSpot editors and video producers attending the event in person, we also have several people back at the home office scratching their heads about some of the news coming out from the event.

What jumped out at me immediately was the announcement of Halo Wars, a 360-exclusive real-time strategy game using the Halo license and in development at Ensemble Studios (the creator of the world-history-inspired Age of Empires series). It seems a little weird that Halo is finally becoming a strategy game--it was reportedly conceived of as one by Bungie originally, you know, back when Bungie was allowed to make games other than Halo--but with a different developer.

Previously, Bungie actually had a lot of experience creating real-time strategy games with the Myth PC/Mac series, which included highly acclaimed fantasy strategy games that let you command armies of knights and pyromaniac dwarves against evil hordes of monsters. Then, Bungie was acquired by Microsoft, a third-party developer created a solid-but-otherwise-unmemorable Myth III, and that was the end of it.

If a Halo RTS must be made, I'm glad to hear that an experienced studio like Ensemble was chosen for the task. Ensemble has proven it isn't just married to the exact same gameplay and features--it took a considerable risk and did something radically different with the excellent 2002 game Age of Mythology (which featured Greek and Egyptian gods and mythological monsters, rather than trebuchets and pikemen), and also introduced a totally new concept in Age of Empires III with the RPG-like home city system. I'm sure Ensemble will make sure to avoid the mistakes made other games that have tried to shoehorn existing licenses into game settings that didn't quite fit, such as a certain 2D real-time strategy game that had wookiees driving tanks and R2-D2 chopping wood.

When you get down to it, I'm still probably most taken aback by game companies trying to get real-time strategy games onto modern consoles. To be fair, historically, those have been few and far between--Starcraft 64, Goblin Commander, the Pikmin games, and really, only a few others. The only recent attempt at console real-time strategy is EA's Xbox 360 version of The Lord of the Rings, The Battle for Middle-earth II, which, I have to admit, ended up looking pretty good for a console strategy game. 

But do game companies think that figuring out how to successfully put real-time strategy games on consoles is the Da Vinci Code, and once it's cracked, it'll be a gold mine? Will this somehow make them rich beyond their wildest dreams as millions of users buy console real-time strategy games? I'm primarily a PC game player (though I own all major consoles and handhelds) and I enjoy my real-time strategy just fine on the PC, thank you. And I don't know of any console game player on the planet who actually pines for real-time strategy but is handicapped by their lack of a good gaming PC. Do you? I made an analogy while I was speaking with Greg earlier today: both he and I are fighting game enthusiasts, but you don't see us clamoring for fighting games on the PC--primarily because as things stand, fighting games are best suited for consoles (and arcades), based on control schemes and more importantly, the audience that plays them. Maybe that's just me, though.

I could be totally wrong about this, and I hope I am. Anyway, I'm know Halo Wars is in good hands and if nothing else, I'm looking forward to seeing more of the game in the coming months.

 

No more PSP fighting games, please


A great character, but good luck performing her moves on the PSP.

Like several other GameSpot editors, I have the Tekken: Dark Resurrection UMD sitting in my Sony PlayStation Portable, since that game is, as far as I'm concerned, the most exciting game to be released for the PSP in quite some time. If you've read Jeff's review, or even if you haven't, you'll still have to agree that the game is a technical marvel, and looks absolutely astounding. No, seriously--watch some videos of the game in motion if you haven't seen it. Unfortunately, playing it on the PSP feels like trying to play the piano with boxing gloves on, not because of any fault of the game itself, but because of the hardware. Simply put: the PSP hardware, as-is, isn't capable of delivering a good experience with modern fighting games.


And good luck performing King's multi-part grapples. Me, I've given up.

You heard me. Fighting game enthusiasts who have played the PSP version of Dark Resurrection, or any other PSP fighting game, know what I'm talking about. Yes, the console does have four face buttons, which ostensibly gives it the same button layout as Tekken, and with two additional shoulder buttons, it technically has a total of six, so, theoretically, it should be able to support Capcom's six-button fighting games as well. But in practice, the handheld just doesn't work--if you want to play Tekken like you do in the arcades, you need to lay your PSP unit on a flat or slightly tilted surface to be able to tap the face buttons with your index, middle, and ring fingers, like you would on a Tekken cabinet.


A 6-year old game on a dead handheld has a better control scheme.

Except that if you do, you won't be able to make good use of either of the controller options--like the overly stiff D-pad which is completely unusable for fighting games, or the imperfect analog thumbstick, which lacks the tactile responsiveness of something like the NeoGeo Pocket (which had a circular indented well around it that was extremely helpful to orient complex joystick maneuvers). You say you want to make the best use of the thumbstick for complex joystick motions like the Mishima godfists, or King's Giant Swing? You're going to have to hold the PSP in both your hands, which makes reaching for the face buttons with your right thumb cumbersome, and virtually impossible to do accurately in a fast-paced game like Tekken, which requires precise control input with strict timing. You say you want to pull off complex series of button presses, like the sequence of horizontal and vertical two-button combinations that King uses for his multi-part grapples, or even the three-button presses for some of Nina's advanced grapples? Yeah, good luck with that.


Street Fighter Alpha 3 has hit the PSP. Who's next? 

It's frustrating enough to have to limp along through such an impressive a game using an imperfect control setup, but Dark Resurrection for the PSP raises a more important issue. Tekken is one of the heaviest hitters in [what remains of] the fighting game scene these days. The PSP is also already home to ports of games from the Street Fighter Alpha (for which Capcom took the embarrassingly drastic step of releasing a potentially warranty-voiding limited edition D-pad overlay to compensate for the PSP's shortcomings), Guilty Gear, and Darkstalkers / Vampire series, and considering Namco's close relationship with Sony and its history of producing fighting game ports for Sony console hardware, it seems pretty obvious that a port of some version of Soul Calibur will appear on the PSP at some point. (For Ivy players like me, the PSP control layout will probably give the name of her infamous Summon Suffering grapple a whole new meaning.)


Little work + little cost + lots of sales = big profits!

That's a lot of quality fighting games shoehorned onto the PSP, and could provide more momentum for game companies who care less about delivering a good fighting game experience and more about the "slam dunk" of expending little-to-no effort porting a classic fighting game onto a handheld console with what is becoming an established library for the genre. Hey, Tekken's there, so let's keep pumping and dumping fighting game ports onto the PSP. It's easy money!


This works just fine on the PSP. Do more of this.

Don't get me wrong: I still think the PSP is a very impressive gadget, and it works very well for racing games like Burnout: Legends and puzzle games like Lumines. I also think it has, or could have, a very promising future as a platform for console role-playing games like Square Enix's Final Fantasy and Namco Bandai's Tales series, as well as for "strategy RPGs" like Final Fantasy Tactics and Disgaea 2. But it should not be playing host to modern fighting games--not unless their control schemes are somehow retuned to work with the PSP layout. Nice-looking ports of classic fighting games with lousy control schemes that ultimately don't deliver a good game experience don't really benefit anyone in the long run--they don't help the PSP's cause; they don't benefit fighting game products which could come to be thought of as frustratingly difficult to control; and they don't benefit the customers: fighting game enthusiasts who demand tight, responsive game controls.

Get "T. M. X. Treme" this holiday season

Mattel toys has taken the wraps off the reason mothers all across America will risk frostbite, starvation, and death by merciless trampling:


Say hello to "Tickle Me Elmo Extreme." Yes, that's really the name.

That's right: a new Tickle Me Elmo doll released by Mattel.

Apparently the original product was released 10 years ago, and this year, the new version will "laugh" differently if repeatedly poked (it will apparently lean over and hold its belly, pictured above). This is what may end up causing mothers everywhere to wait in line in freezing weather and fight with each other to grab the last one. The item will reportedly sell for $39.99 in stores. I'm sure you can already imagine what it will end up going for on EBay from scalpers.

I'm not a smart man. I don't know much about this world, and that I understand even less about how it works. This would be one of the many things I just don't get.

Get Out and Vote

 
Yes, this is how desperate I am to get your attention.

This is long overdue, in my opinion. No, not the Paris Hilton photo. I'm talking about how the Entertainment Software Rating Board has launched a campaign to get young adults who play video games to get out and vote, at least on issues related to game regulation. No offense to anyone in these forums (and anyone who posts a response to this entry is automatically an exception to what I'm about to say), but from my experience talking with people who play games both in person and over the Internet (which probably shouldn't count), most don't really know a whole lot about the issue, nor do they seem to care. They don't seem to care that Congress and state legislators are going on the offensive against the video game industry and are pursuing much stricter about age enforcement guidelines now...but may be going after actual content regulations in the future, at the rate things are going.


You just keep that sword up nice and high, where we can see it, missy.

For most people who work in the game industry (and I guess this goes for several people who don't work in the game industry, but wish they did), a lot of the politicking and speechifying up to around 2004 to early 2005 was basically hand-waving and silliness. Conventional wisdom used to suggest that local politicians would accuse the video game industry of being a negative influence on children to boost their own image as upstanding re-election candidates because the video game industry never really fought back. Most people in the biz didn't take notice of crackpot Florida "lawyers" because all the speeches and such didn't seem to affect their daily business, and therefore, they could be safely ignored. Also, acting really dismissive and talking trash about politicians, the Entertainment Software Rating Board, and Florida "lawyers" on the Internet--talking about how over them you are--it just makes you look so cool.

This is New York state senator Hilary Clinton on the left, and California assemblyman Leland Yee on the right.
This is an election year. Do you know these politicians are?

That started to change in 2005, when heavier hitters like Hilary Clinton and several state supreme courts started pushing for much stricter regulation, while several games had some embarrassing "scandals" that resulted from explicit content that "somehow" got past the standards group at the Entertainment Software Ratings Board. This made the ESRB look quite bad and raised questions among politicians about whether the game industry was fit to regulate and rate its own content, or whether the government (state and federal) should get involved in regulating what goes into and out of games. This should have set off some alarms among people who play games, because when all is said and done, deciding what goes into World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade should be done by Blizzard Entertainment. Not California state assemblyman Leland Yee.

Please consider visiting the ESRB's Video Game Voters Network site, get some basic information and try using the information to help you make a more educated decision when you vote this year, assuming you're of voting age.

Actor Tony Jay, R.I.P.

Voice actor Tony Jay.

Though this is somewhat old news, I found out about this myself only just the other day. Veteran actor and voice actor Tony Jay has unfortunately passed on at the age of 73. While it's debatable whether he ever really made it big on the silver screen, it's pretty clear to most of us who play computer and video games (or who have watched animated TV shows or movies in the past 10-15 years) that he was very much a star--a perfect example of a great voice actor whose distinctive voice and excellent delivery made many characters, and the games they appeared in, feel much more real to those of us who played them. I, myself, have been a fan of Mr. Jay's work for many years.

The Transcendent One from Planescape: Torment.

Mr. Jay's stirring voice helped lend a somber, otherworldly quality to characters with supernatural origins, such as the Elder God from the Soul Reaver video game series; to give a nuanced and menacing tone to villains like Judge Frollo in the 1996 Disney animated movie The Hunchback of Notre Dame; and in some cases, to grant both qualities to characters like the Transcendent One, a godlike being who served as an allegory for the unnatural nature of man's quest for immortality in the classic PC game Planescape: Torment. However, he proved to be an adept actor with enough range to also voice such characters as the mild-mannered prophet Mithras of Shiny's underrated action-strategy hybrid Sacrifice, and the self-consciously (and humorously) drawling narrator in the recent Bard's Tale remake. In every case, Mr. Jay capably delivered a performance tailor-made to each character's role, despite his extremely recognizable voice.

Mr. Jay apparently passed away earlier this month after losing a battle with cancer and is survived by his wife and son. We who play games are richer for having known him. Rest in peace.

UPDATE - According to BobC, a current Blizzard Entertainment employee, Mr. Jay did not provide narration for World of Warcraft as I previously mentioned in my original journal entry. Apologies for the error.

Humbling

There are a lot of myths and a lot of misconceptions about what it's like to work this kind of job, and to be honest, listening to some of the "theories" people have about what guys like me do each day, and how guys like me operate, can get pretty old sometimes.

But every so often, something happens that reminds me of how fortunate I am to be where I am. The other day I attended a press event and saw Neverwinter Nights 2 for an exclusive preview I wrote for GameSpot, and got a one-on-one demonstration from Obsidian Entertainment's Chris Avellone, a game designer and writer for whom I have tremendous respect, and whom I was convinced I was doomed to never meet in person. Earlier this year, I arranged a studio visit to Obsidian from which I had to excuse myself at the last minute; later I booked Avellone and studio president Feargus Urquhart to appear on GameSpot's live E3 stage show, although during the broadcast, I was on the other side of the convention center on the way to various appointments to cover different games, pushing past crowds of people who had absolutely no business being there, rather than hanging out at our stage.

For those who don't know, Avellone was lead designer on Fallout 2 and Knights of the Old Republic 2. He also did most of the writing for one of my all-time favorite games, (and one of GameSpot's Greatest Games of All Time), the text-heavy Planescape: Torment. In my book, he's one of the best writers in the game business--I feel he's especially adept at creating believable, memorable characters that are endearing by not being cliche sympathetic characters (victimized damsels in distress or soft-hearted, spineless do-gooders who bend over backwards for everyone they meet), but rather by being complex, yet having relatable issues that don't seem petty or self-indulgent.

The Nameless One, the protagonist from Planescape: Torment, is probably my favorite character in any game I've ever played. Yet there I was, finally meeting Avellone, and finding that he was nothing like I expected him to be (soft-spoken, talkative, and not quite as tall as I thought he would be), and exactly as I expected him to be (bright, insightful, and passionate about good stories and game development). The guy who created my favorite character in one of my all-time favorite games looked me right in the eye, shook my hand, and actually remembered me from all the emails we'd swapped in the past--a game developer ready and eager to show me the new project that he and his colleagues have been working so hard to create.

I don't get starstruck. I'm always pleased to make new acquaintances, and revisit existing ones, with developers in the game industry, all of whom I respect greatly for their hard work and creativity. But meeting with game developers for the purposes of covering their games is part of the job, and it's a job I take very seriously, because if I didn't, frankly, I wouldn't deserve it. However, Avellone is one of the last few game developers on my informal (and extremely short) list whom I both hold in the absolute highest regard, and whom I hadn't yet been able to meet in person. But now I'm sitting here and going back over my week, which also included a visit from Blizzard Entertainment on Friday to get a firsthand look at World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade, also for another preview I wrote for GameSpot. And earlier that Friday morning, I met with Shawn Firminger of ACES Studio for a hands-on demonstration of Flight Simulator X, the next game in what is possibly the longest running game series in history (the series has been around for 25 years and counting), also for another preview I wrote for GameSpot.

At the beginning of the week, I conducted a telephone interview with the one and only Will Wright for an interview I wrote for GameSpot earlier this week. Wright is a game designer so accomplished and so talented that everyone in this business--everyone knows of him, and everyone respects him. Wright's unique and maverick creative vision helped give rise to classic games like the SimCity series and The Sims, and now the designer is working on Spore, which, of all the games that are currently in development on all different game platforms, I probably want to play the most (and this is coming from a guy who would probably donate various body parts for a shot at Resident Evil 5 and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars). Yet Wright greeted me over the phone the same way he greeted me at this year's E3 when we met face-to-face again; he alleged that "it was good to talk to [me] again" as though he actually remembered who I was. Whether or not he really did, or if he was being polite, doesn't matter, now that I think about it. Because how often does anyone get a chance to chat over the phone with Will Wright?

Within the past 12 months or so, I've sat down to discuss Civilization IV with Sid Meier, the legendary (and very down-to-earth) game designer whose tenure at both Firaxis and Microprose has given rise to classic game series' like Civilization, Pirates!, and many others. I've interviewed Chris Taylor of Gas Powered Games, formerly of Cavedog, and the creative mind behind both the well-loved strategy game Total Annihilation and its highly anticipated successor, Supreme Commander. At E3, I caught up with Irrational Games' Ken Levine, the designer whose creative vision helped produce System Shock 2 and the Freedom Force series to talk about GameSpot's E3 Game of Show, BioShock, for the extensive E3 preview that Brad and I put together. I've even met a few more times with Cliff "CliffyB" Bleszinski, who has contributed to the development of such games as the highly anticipated Gears of War; the Unreal Tournament series, which has been an outstanding series of first-person shooters in recent years; and the Jazz Jackrabbit series, which has...certainly been a series of games. This is just to name a few of the highly accomplished game developers I've had the opportunity to meet over the course of what has apparently been a career for me all these years.

But the point I'm trying to make isn't about dropping names or bragging about how I've met all these people and you haven't. It's really more of an affirmation, for myself as much as for anyone else, of how fortunate I've been to be where I am, doing what I'm doing. There may or may not be a lesson in here for you, somewhere. There's definitely one here for me.