Archive for April, 2008


Fifth of Five

With the release of GTA IV there’s a new number one in town. As others before me have noted there’s no disagreement that the latest Liberty City scenario is a “10,” or whatever other top grade it can get.

Having been obsessed with a GTA title in the past this new round of hallelujahs got me thinking of the video games I’ve had love affairs with. Full blown, lack of sleep, loss of appetite, unhealthy pallor of the skin love affairs. I’d use the word obsession but it doesn’t really speak to the depth of emotion I had for these flickering pixels.

I’m not saying these are the best games in history, but they are the ones that sucked away my will, hurt my eyes, and tried to prove that the real world had less to offer me then their electronic realms.

So, here we go, the first entry is the fifth on my list. I’ll follow up with one a week. Building suspense and saving me from wracking my brains to figure out what I’m going to write every Thursday.

5. Asteroids, Atari 2600

OK. I suppose now I have to explain that I’m on the 40 side of 35. When this game was released in 1981 I was nine years old. There were no levels, no saves, and no real “end game.” You just shot space rocks with an arrowhead shaped “spaceship.” Big rocks, when shot, spawned numerous smaller rocks. Which, now that I think about it, is a pretty decent metaphor for cellular reproduction. But awkward sexual allusions aside, that was the whole of the game. Points were racked up and the eponymous asteroids just kept appearing for you to destroy.

The arrow design of your ship was in fact way more sophisticated then the “player” of other contemporary games. You could imagine that a spaceship would look like a sleek dart more easily than you could justify a square with a one way street sign being used to represent a brave knight.

I played that game as though my family’s well-being depended on it. Every day I’d spend a couple of hours making virtual gravel in 2D outer space. So much of my time, in fact, that I did reach the sort-of end of the game at least twice. I flipped the score.

I don’t know if there’s a modern example of this phenomenon. But back when Atari was the final word in home video game entertainment the games had a limit on the amount of points they could record. I’m sure the game programmer (I doubt there was such a thing as a “development team” in 1981) figured that no one would ever reach 1,000,000 points. No one would ever be able to survive the glowing rock menace long enough to make it that far. Their cleverly programmed granite killers would shatter the spaceship’s thin hull well before enough points were earned.

But I was one of those who made it. I watched with mounting glee as the numbers crawled up and up until, after hours and hours, 999,999 appeared and was quickly replaced with a big fat zero. Flipped the score.

It was my first real love and I’ll never forget Asteroids. Simple and repetitive, it still showed me a good time.


loreology: jolly roger

If you’ve got a memory like an elephant, the old saying goes, then your noggin’s in good shape. Mine, when challenged under the gun, tends to shoot blanks. I’m a research kind of guy, not a living, breathing almanac.


Each week “Loreology” will unravel the mysteries behind something in gaming that I may have known once and completely forgot, or something that I should probably know and cram up into my nearly full brain cavity.



This Week: the most feared pirate flag in history, or is it?


Jolly Roger: the infamous skull and crossbones symbol on the flags of pirate ships throughout the ages. Its true origin is lost to the dark fathoms of the sea, though there are many possibilities: the emblem of a famous 18th century pirate, long since forgotten, but adopted by generations and generations of pirates to follow; the corruption of a foreign tongue, such as the words “joli rouge,” or “pretty red” in French, playing off red battle flags; or my personal favorite, the smiley “jolly” skull face paired with “Old Roger,” a common nickname for the Devil himself back when pirates owned the Caribbean.


The Jolly Roger may hold many secrets, but its purpose was clear: intimidate the enemy, and to do it in gritty, seditious style. Sailors would break out in a sweat just seeing the white skull on black looming off their stern.


But it wasn’t always the Jolly Roger that brought fear to the ships of the civilized world. Pirate vessels would often carry a trunk full of flags, and fly the appropriate colors to sneak up on an unsuspecting target. Once in cannon range, the pirate ship would actually fly the Jolly Roger as a chance to surrender. If the targeted ship continued to flee, the pirate ship would pull down Jolly Roger and fly a red flag, which meant bloodshed and no mercy.


Why my fascination with pirate threads this week? I’ve been logging a ton of miles in the Caribbean seas of 1720. Pirates of the Burning Sea is a fine addition to the realm of MMOs (massively multiplayer online games), and I’ve chosen the Pirate career to terrorize my neighbors. In keeping with history (and parody), I’ve dubbed my ship the “Folly Roger.” Not because I think it’s folly for any ship to try and take me down. Nope, it’s more to poke fun at my own ability to lose treasure maps but always find my way to the bottom of Davy Jones’ Locker.


The Next Battlefield

Hello all of you in the blogosphere. Since this is my first blog in this venue, I thought I would take a few lines and introduce myself. My name is Michael Knight and I have been writing strategy guides for 12 years. During that time, I have seen a lot of changes in the video game industry. That was back in the days of the PS 1 and the N64. Things have really come a long way.

My current project is writing a guide for Battlefield: bad Company. I have been a fan of this series since Battlefield 1942. The latest incarnation takes things in a new direction. In addition to the infantry and vehicle multiplayer action which is a given for the series, Bad Company also includes a great single player campaign with a storyline and related objectives. Therefore, if you don’t want to play against other players, you can still enjoy the game without having to resort to playing the multiplayer games against AI bots. However, what really makes this game stand out is the destructible environments. While other games have offered this, it is usually only cosmetic. Bad Company’s destruction can totally change the tactics of how a mission or match is played. Tune in next week and I will share more about how to advance through the battlefields in a rain of devastation. Right now I have to get back to the game….


Mario Kart Wii: Guide Creation Blog 1 of 3

Back in early March, I visited Nintendo for what was perhaps the most intensive two weeks of kart racing ever undertaken. I was there to blow out all the courses, uncover the best racing lines, and unlock the hidden characters of Mario Kart for the Wii, waggling a plastic wheel judiciously in the process. The plan was theoretically straightforward; to offer up expert techniques for each of the game’s 32 tracks, and 10 battle arenas. We wanted you – the reader – to come away with something rather special; so we hooked up with 99 Lives Design; who helped create some of the very best Nintendo Power guides of the last decade, and got them drawing all the course maps, and designing the look of the guide itself.


Bullet Bill: An all-new power-up transformation allowing speedy recovery during a race.


After situating myself in one of the many conference rooms (mine, I think, was called “Donkey Kong”, as all Nintendo rooms are named after their characters), I began a meticulous playthrough of the game, and it wasn’t long before I realized Mario Kart Wii has a whole load more strategy and unlockables this time around. Having already authored the Mario Kart Double Dash guide, I was prepared for the technique known as “Drifting”, where you flick the control stick as you scream around a corner until blue sparks flicker from your rear wheels, but I was pleasantly surprised at the game-balancing changes have turned this technique into a really useful strategy. Then there was the subtle differences between karts and bikes.


This time around, Nintendo has added two-wheeled vehicles to the game, and these – quite simply – are brilliant to control. Although you can’t “turbo” out of a drift at quite the same speed as karts, they do offer an all-new technique that karts don’t have; the wheelie! Sacrificing quick steering in favor of a higher top speed, I was soon popping a wheelie along all the tracks with major straight-aways, and recording amazing lap times in the process. I made sure to mention which of the 32 tracks favors bikes over karts, and began to map racing lines showing exactly where the best places were to Drift, Mini-Turbo, and Wheelie. All of this before lunch; it took considerable will power to drag myself away from the game and up to Café Mario; Nintendo’s in-house restaurant, where I chowed down on a delicious Luigi Burger. After this power-up, I sprinted back to the game to uncover more of the tracks….


Next time: I skid at a break-neck pace around some of the all-new tracks, revisit old favorites, and check out Nintendo’s own record times for every course.


Purchase the only Official Mario Kart Strategy Guide HERE!



Unfinished Business

So April 29th is right around the corner. You know what that means. It’s about time to shelve all of your current titles and return to the new and improved Liberty City. Knowing that my modest stack of games would soon resemble week-old leftovers in the corner of the fridge, I recently took steps to bring some closure to a few unresolved adventures. This isn’t something I took lightly either, since free time is so incredibly precious to game guide authors. So I put some serious thought into which games I should tackle. Should I play through Mass Effect one more time? Nope. Don’t have the time. Maybe I should finally finish BioShock? But I really like to play that one in the dark, so that limits me to night hours. Yeah, that’s right. I haven’t finished BioShock. My progress was interrupted by a couple of back-to-back projects (Battalion Wars 2 and Assassin’s Creed) and further delayed by the narcotic known as Rock Band. What about that unopened copy of Army of Two? No, if I want to shoot stuff I should really spend more time reaching the rank of Warrant Officer in Rainbow Six Vegas 2. Orange Box? Too daunting. Plus I already finished Portal; one outta five ain’t bad!

So what did I settle on? Assassin’s Creed. Although I assisted on the guide, I never really got the chance to play through the game from beginning to end; that wasn’t my job. In fact, I tried to shield myself from the narrative’s “secrets”…at least the best I could. Even though I know every nook and cranny of each city and the Kingdom, I’m still having a blast knifing unsuspecting Templars, shoving archers off of rooftops, and taking on scores of guards in epic sword fights. Right now I’m wrapping up Memory Block 5, working my way toward Sibrand in Acre. So I’m hoping I have the time to complete Altair’s journey before I’m forced to vacate the Holy Land.

But Altair might have to wait…and Niko Bellic along with him. Instead, I’m scheduled to preside over Baldur’s journey in Too Human, with pre-production getting underway soon. So it looks like my Liberty City escapades are already being shifted to the back burner. I’m still buying GTA IV on Tuesday, but it will probably remain on my backlog stack for some time to come. At least it will have good company.


A Gothic Metropolis

A coworker and I were sent to the New York Comic Convention to represent Prima. Me and comic cons (sorry, “Comic cons and I”) go back a long way. I used to pay $1.50 every month at the Ambassador Hotel (final living place of Bobby Kennedy) to spend money on X-Factor, Alpha Flight, Groo, and other four color miscreants. I moved up the ladder, attending WonderCon in Oakland religiously and the mecca, San Diego Comic Con, for six straight years hustling a possible comic script (never read).


Now with a corporate card in hand, we were going to see what New York had to offer the combination of Strategy Guides and Comic Books. On the first day tips were forgotten at the hotel and a taxi was hailed. The gratuity industry is a puzzlement to a man from California and a coworker recently from Japan, places where tips are the province of the rich and an insult, respectively. And then we were awash in comics. A mild flow of pros for the first five hours, reconnecting with people from my company’s main office. Jolly-ness is infectious at a con. We had nothing to sell, just give-aways and so our ballyhoo is innocent though mistrusted until the free comic is in their hands and, after a beat, we haven’t tried to sell anything more. Then smiles.
I made a sign: “Nothing for Sale. We just want to talk.” and it’s true. I love these people. I was these people on that side of the table, head down, furtive glances at wares, afraid to look too closely or with interest as that would invariably trigger a hard sell from the merchants or, from the creative hopefuls with table space full of xeroxed copies of their work, a patter tinged with minor desperation (growing as the weekend progressed) that caused so much guilt in me since I could not buy everything they had crafted or help them realize their dreams which, mostly, seemed so unlikely but so earnest it made me want to cry in cynical frustration for them. Can’t we all just create and be paid? And no matter how awful the art is, how hackneyed the story, I envied them the passion to put it in front of the world and pitch with gusto and was concurrently horrified that they couldn’t see how terrible was their creation.

Now I get to sit on the other side of the ramparts, give something away, and try to reassure the timid that not every table is an obstacle or a money trap. I’m polite to the socially stunted in a way I wouldn’t have been able to conceive when I worked at a comic book store and took great delight in tormenting the same. Here and now I ask questions of passersby about their costumes, t-shirts, hats, and hair. I ask them to pose for pictures, I cajole them to explain cryptic fictitious symbols on their clothes, I try to give them the opening to explain exactly why they are cool.

Which, by my own experience, is exactly what the costumes, logoed t-shirts, and patches are attempting to convey. I know they want me to recognize the Tardis printed on their jacket, the Mandalorian armor, the web-comic t-shirt, to give them the Prisoner salute. And I want to show them I’m cool by that same recognition. Sure, I’m telling them, I’m here behind a corporate desk, but I get you.



This mutual admiration convention went on for three days and I enjoyed the hell out of it.

High five. Live long and prosper. Be seeing you.




Let there be Blood (Pressure)

Last week, I made a delightfully heavy-handed pitch for my book as the perfect foundation for planning a career in video gaming. But what’s it actually like, behind the scenes, inside the world of making (and reviewing) video games? Well, sometimes it’s equal parts sweat shop and sanitarium, but mostly it’s a group of like-minded and furiously excitable folks intent on creating the next God of War. Or in my case, actually creating the first God of War, which neatly segues into my Monday anecdote about visiting Sony’s Santa Monica studios:


God of War was, and still is, one of the biggest and bloodiest romps through fantastical ancient Greece ever seen, but two months before the game shipped, the scene was one of grim determination and outright exhaustion. I’d been dropped in at the worst possible moment; to play through the game with a tester whose plethora of piercings and neon mohawk was in danger of giving me the Fear. As Programmers tweaked bugs, downed Redbull, and collapsed in various heaps, the God of God of War, David Jaffe, wasn’t oozing the steadfast assuredness that he musters throughout his numerous interviews and lectures these days. This was in his pre-luminary days, and he wasn’t sure his game was good enough.

The pitch

The Pitch (above): Two dweebs on comfy chairs, inserting sound fx into games with the power of their minds.

The Reality: Years of hard work with a team you must gel with, followed by a 7.5 out of 10 review to really kick you when you’re down.


Let me be clear here; he thought he knew his game was bloody marvelous (indeed, bloody and marvelous for that matter), but he asked me what my thoughts on the game were, and whether it was “any good.” This was last-minute nerves to be sure; but he and his crew were so close to the project that they’d lost all objectivity. No one had slept properly for weeks, and Jaffe was worried about the reviews. Fortunately, he was a little more chipper when I left, and I’d like to think it was because of my enthusing about everything being brilliant – from the copulating mini-game to the cow costume – and the fact that GameSpot were also there, mouths agape at the sheer spectacle of the game. But it’s more likely he was glad to see the back of me; the last thing a three-year development process needs is some strategy guide nitwit stinking up the place, siphoning off testers at the time they’re most needed.


In conclusion, and to skillfully maneuver this story thread back into relevance; before you begin a career in video gaming, you need to know the risks you’re taking: This job is highly stressful, and you need to be able to manage stress properly. If you don’t know the benefits of rowing machines and/or Lisinopril, you will.


Next time: I recall the hilarious story of how I got my first writing gig about video games. Spoiler alert; it involves a “fanzine”; the 17th century equivalent of a Blog. It also involves pirates. Yes, really.


Just finished: The second edition of my Video Game Careers book.

Currently: Creating all manner of freakishly unspeakable beasts in Spore.

About to: Continue editing and tweaking my chapters on how to squeeze the most out of your mutant offspring in Spore.




Don’t Judge me!

Alright, so I’ve been hooked on one of those ‘gem’ games for a while now. I’m talkin’ like four or five months here. When it was released, I was hooked on Xbox 360 Achievements, so I didn’t give a new PS3 game a second thought. After reading a few reviews, however, I decided that this would be the game that made me *gasp* try out a Collectable Card Game!

See, you have to understand this about me. I’m a snob. I’ve always thought that Collectable Card Games (CCGs for those in the know) like PokeMon, YuGiOh, and Magic were for geeks. Well, a different breed of geek than myself at least. Now, before you reach out for the rotten cabbage and squishy tomatoes…. tomatos?… tow-may-toes, hear me out. I don’t have anything against CCGs, I just always had the impression that they were too hard to keep up with and too inconvenient to play. I mean, after all, if you don’t know someone that also plays the game and lives next door, then you’re S.O.L. right?

Anyhow, The Eye of Judgment fixed all that. Not only is it immediately accessible, but I automatically got tens of thousands of people to play against online. So I gave it a shot. Here I am, months later, pockets empty, and several hundred online battles later blogging about it. That’s gotta’ say something about it, no?

I’m not entirely sure that I have a point, really. Truth be told, I just really like the game. It doesn’t have a story mode. It doesn’t have any secrets or awesome unlockables (the only thing you unlock are more cards to play against) and the soundtrack is total crap, but I found that it really embodies the spirit of one on one competition moreso than any other online game I’ve ever played. You can’t glitch yourself to victory and you rarely, if ever, get the racial slurs and homophobic expletives mentioned in a previous blog here (so true by the way!). It really boils down to battling different people in one on one matches to see who’s got the skills to pay the bills.

I didn’t realize just how much I missed that type of competition. Sadly, I can’t remember the last time I played an online MP game and enjoyed it the way I do an EoJ battle.

All that being said, I highly suggest it. If you were a skeptic like me, give it a go. You’ll find that the spirit of competitive gaming doesn’t live only in team deathmatch or capture the flag. It’s alive and well on the nine fields of the Eye of Judgment.


Change of Habit

I usually avoid magazines at the doctor’s office for obvious reasons. But on a recent visit I saw a couple of neglected issues of PC Gamer sitting on a table in the waiting room. After recovering from my double take, I noticed both issues were from 2008. It was kinda like seeing an old friend from high school. In this case, my friend had dropped a lot of weight. Setting aside my germ phobia, I thumbed through the issues, reading a few articles and reviews. While the writing was up to the same high standard I remembered, the games discussed were completely foreign. Of the games reviewed, I had only heard of a couple. And based on the scores given, it didn’t look like I was missing out on much.

Although I’ve spent a lot of time with my Xbox 360 over the past 18 months, I still consider myself a PC gamer at heart. In fact, I maintain a classic Pentium system (running Windows 95) that I can play my old DOS games on at a reasonably slow speed; after 14 years, X-Com still rocks! But as reinforced by the magazine reviews, there hasn’t been too many compelling reasons to upgrade my four-year-old Pentium IV system. I can still run WoW, Company of Heroes, and all of the Battlefield games. What more do I need? Plus, most multi-platform titles look just as good on my 360 as they do on my PC. While there are some games on the horizon (Spore, The Sims 3) that might warrant an upgrade, it looks like my aging PC will last me much longer than I expected. Who knew? I never thought I’d feel so content with such an old machine.



Working for a strategy guide company is like being from the future. It’s a very narrow, specific sort of time travel but I suspect it’s just as disorienting as the more general warping of causality made popular by Michael J. Fox 23 years ago. (A brief aside: “Holy crap, Back to the Future was 23 years ago? Hearken unto me, children, and I will tell you of the ancient times…”)


So. Time travel. Imagine I’ve just finished working on a project, like Super Smash Bros. Brawl for example. Weeks of constant, focused effort. Days saturated with images and text and brightly colored pages with the SSBB characters and their details splashed across them. And then the book goes to the printer. We are done. The files are emptied; my desk is purged of all traces of the frantic, funny fighter. The next project slithers from the shadows where I’d banished it earlier while my energy was focused on the more urgent task of informing the public about the details of SSBB in all its glory. I flush my mind of all things Brawl to concentrate on soothing and smoothing the next guide’s many elements.


Two weeks pass and I see a copy of the book bound with glue and wrapped in its shiny cover. Flipping though it with coworkers we ooh and aah for a few minutes and it goes on the shelf as yet another guide project wails for attention with red exclamation marked e-mails in my inbox. Another week passes, and then I see a commercial for Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Or a magazine ad or a web banner.


Confused I stare stupidly at the marketing material and the time-vertigo hits me as I wonder (usually out loud to my tolerant wife) “Didn’t that game come out like…a month ago?”


The hype that I experience for a game comes so far before the general media hype that I honestly forget that the title hasn’t already been on the shelves. With every project I see the future of gaming. Sadly, I can’t bet on it.

April 2008