Grim Fandango Remastered has made me so, so very happy

Update: I thought I’d document any glitches or bugs I’ve encountered playing Grim Fandango Remastered and I encountered my first two last night playing on my Macbook.

It was fairly early into the game where Manny is talking to a balloon artist at a parade near his office and I noticed the shadows cast by two skeleton pigeons were above the ground and flickering. The disappeared when I switched to Original mode.

The second glitch was when I tried to get Manny back into his office from the street and he was stuck on a audio loop from the conversation with the balloon artist. After a few moments clicking and moving around it righted itself.

I’ve made no secret over the years that along with games like Full Throttle, System Shock 2 and Blade Runner, Grim Fandango is one of my most loved games of all time.

Set amongst a backdrop of Mexico’s Day of the Dead, the game tells the story of Manny Calavera, a travel agent working the afterlife. Sadly, it didn’t sell very well when it was first released, I’m told, which is a shame.

In fact, I’m sure that I bored readers of a video game blog that I did for a New Zealand news website a couple of years ago to tears with my continuous ramblings about how much I loved Grim Fandango and how I wished the game was re-created for modern platforms. Note the photo below of my original disc versions of Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, Blade Runner and System Shock 2.

Hard to find: I still have disc copies of Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, Blade Runner and System Shock 2. No, I won't sell them to you.

Hard to find: I still have disc copies of Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, Blade Runner and System Shock 2. No, I won’t sell them to you.

Grim Fandango comes from game developer Tim Schaefer and was released in 1998, an era when LucasArts was the king of adventure games and 16-bit operating systems were all the rage, but that means that it isn’t exactly easy to get running on modern OSs like Windows 8 or Windows 7. In fact, trying to get the game to run on a current PC is a nightmare.

Grim Fandango’s minimum specs are Windows 95/ME/2000/XP, a Pentium 133 CPU and 64MB of Ram so trying to get it to work on modern operating systems – both Windows and Mac – is, frankly, a hassle that requires a few hoops and you having to jump through them. You have to use a program like Residual VM to run the install files that you’ve copied from the install CDs – yes, CDs – because modern PCs with their 64-bit operating systems won’t run the stock installer from the game.

Modern PCs also created some inadvertent game play issues for Grim Fandango, as well. If I recall correctly, there was one puzzle involving a conveyor belt under the ocean that couldn’t be completed on a modern PC unless you disabled some of the CPU cores: Multiple core CPUs made the conveyor belt spin too fast!

After years of tinkering and file copying to get Grim Fandango to work on my Win8.1 PC and Macbook Pro, my wish has been granted with the released of Grim Fandango Remastered, a new version of the game which is exactly what it says on the box: A Remaster not a re-imagining.

So what has Tim Schaefer and his company Double Fine done with Grim Fandango to Remaster it? The character models are now sharper and more defined, textures are now high resolution, the lighting is now more atmospheric (venetian blinds cast shadows on characters when they walk in front of them), the audio has been remastered, the musical score has been re-recorded by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and the control scheme has been revamped (meaning you don’t have to use the tank controls if you don’t want to. The name tank controls came from the fact that in the original game, Manny Calavera could move forwards, backwards, left and right using the arrow keys within the environment. He did this little shuffle on his feet while he turned left or right, too. Essentially, he moved like a tank does).

The changes to the game are cosmetic. It’s not a complete re-build of the game so if you’re expecting an adventure game with photo-realistic graphics and 7.1 channel audio, then look somewhere else.  Grim Fandango Remastered looks and feels like the original game but with a new control scheme that makes it so much more enjoyable to play.

During the game you can swap between the remastered and the original graphics and essentially the only difference is the character models. The backgrounds are essentially the same, apart from now having higher resolution textures and the game keeps the original 4: 3 aspect ration. You can stretch the 4:3 ration to 16:9 but I wouldn’t: It just looks wrong.

A nice touch is the developers commentary that you can listen to at certain points. It gives a nice insight into the thought processes behind the game and why certain decisions were made (for better or for worse).

One thing that might annoy newcomers to Grim Fandango is its puzzles: They don’t hold your hand and there’s no hint system to help you if you’ve got stuck on a particular section. Some of the puzzles are actually quite obscure and don’t really make a lot of sense so you’ll need to do some lateral thinking (or search for a walkthrough if you really get stuck).   Seriously, though, some of the puzzles are down right confusing so you have been been warned.

Advanced lighting: Grim Fandango Remastered now looks more film noir thanks to the new lighting.

Advanced lighting: Grim Fandango Remastered now looks more film noir thanks to the new lighting.

The game also doesn’t have an auto-save, something that is a given in this modern age and one omission that I wish was included in this remaster. Don’t forget to save your progress regularly if you play it or else you’ll face having to replay sections.

For me, Grim Fandango Remastered remains a classic and while I may be clouded by the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia, I didn’t hesitate much to drop the NZ20 or so on buying it. The reason I initially hesitated was I mulled over whether I should get the game seeing as I had the original happily running on my Macbook. What swayed me was that it was only $20, which is four coffees from a cafe, and it meant I didn’t have to muck around with Residual VM to get it running. I don’t regret buying it.

While Grim Fandango Remastered is a piece of adventure gaming history, it creates something of a conundrum for gamers. On the one hand, if you already own the original you might have trouble justifying buying it again, even with the changed control scheme and touched up graphics. But on the other, if you have yet to play this classic and have always wanted to, here is the chance – but the old-school mechanics and puzzles might frustrate younger gamers.

Personally, I think it’s worth it, even if you own the original. Grim Fandango Remastered keeps what made the original game so great while tweaking it just enough to make it worth playing again. Here’s hoping it sells enough to convince Schafer and everyone else involved that a re-master is required of Full Throttle.

Here’s hoping.

See the E3 hype following Sony & Microsoft pre-show conferences

Microsoft and Sony held their pre-E3 press events today. Both had games, games and games. Sony also had a TV device. Microsoft hardly mentioned Kinect at all (I think it’s needed for the Dance Central game).

Instead of prattling on, I’ve just posted some videos. Personally, I’m still super keen on Batman Arkham Knight, the time-lapse trailer for Ubisoft’s The Division, the fact that classic point-and-click adventure game Grim Fandango is heating  to PS Vita and PlayStation 4 and Sunset Overdrive: It looks the bee’s knees. Oh, and Crackdown: I loved the original Crackdown and despite being another bad guy being taken down, it could be interesting.

Watch and enjoy. Happy E3!

Batman Arkham Knight (and the Batmobile blowing shit up):  

The Division:  

Sunset Overdrive

Grim Fandango (featuring DoubleFine developer Tim Schafer pretending to be a small child):

Crackdown:

Far Cry 4: 

 

I’ll post more videos when I can be bothered.

Were you swept away by the hype? Did you get up outrageously early to watch the Microsoft livestream? Thoughts? You know what to do …

 

Indie games & Broken Age

I’ve become a little disillusioned with the current state of the games industry.

Well, perhaps disillusioned is the wrong word: I’m getting less and less joy out of so-called blockbuster games that involve teams of hundreds of people and budgets of many millions of dollars, and finding more and more enjoyment out of games that are innovative, try something different and are made by much smaller teams with much smaller budgets than the Call of Duties, the Assassin’s Creeds, the Mass Effects.

The Stanley Parable: a game that will mess with your mind.

The Stanley Parable: a game that will mess with your mind.

That’s not to say that I dislike AAA games. I enjoyed Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us and most of Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag was fun, but the games that give me the most gaming pleasure last year and I got the most fulfillment out of were games like The Stanley Parable, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Thomas Was  Alone and Gunpoint,  as well as a whole host of games that I bought through the thoroughly wallet-unfriendly Humble Indie Bundle.  (After days of internal debate, I caved and bought the latest Humble Indie Bundle. I didn’t need it, and should be saving money, but I couldn’t help myself. I got nine games for $US5.40!)

My teenage son doesn’t get indie games. He’s a AAA gamer all the way. I had a discussion (it was probably more an argument) with him the other day and he can’t understand why I like indie games so much. He seemed to think that indie games showed little imagination and weren’t hard to make at all. I disagreed, saying that indie games actually who a lot more imagination that many games around and they’re actually harder to make than he thought. We ended on a stalemate, but I’d still play an indie game at the moment than a triple A one, and big-name development studios and partners could learn a lot from independent developers.

And, despite naysayers saying PC/computer gaming is dead, most of the games I’m playing lately have been done on my desktop computer or my Macbook Pro.  In comparison, I think I’ve turned on my Xbox just once in the past week – to finish ACIV and enter a points code that my daughter gave me for Christmas – then turned it off once I was done.  I can’t remember the last time I actually played anything on my Xbox One. The new generation of consoles just aren’t grabbing me at the moment, so I’d rather download games onto my PC (and, happily, some of the games I own on Steam actually have Mac versions which I can download onto my Macbook) and play them on that.

Somewhere over the past few years – I don’t know exactly when –  the games industry seems to have dumbed down games. I don’t mean that developers are treating gamers as if they’re stupid but it seems to me that lazy publishers have got wise to the fact that they can milk a franchise for all it’s worth – Call of Duty is a case in point  –  generally regurgitating the same game play mechanics time and time again, year after year, and know that fans will still buy the game.

Assassin’s Creed is falling into the same trap and there will be countless others. I’ve had enough of games that should have been put to pasture two games ago and am gravitating more towards games that try something different and give me something compelling and different. I’m tired of being a well-armed super commando who kicks alien but in his quest to save the galaxy/damsel.

I guess it was my move towards more independent games that made me so intrigued by Tim Schafer’s Kickstarter pitch a couple of years ago for a game that seemed to return to the traditions of the old-school point-and-click adventure that he was famed for. Games like Grim Fandango, Full Throttle and the Monkey Island series. Games that somehow have lost favour with today’s new generation of gamer who prefers high-tech weapons and Quick Time Events than puzzles that will test them and laugh-out-loud dialogue.

I’m a gamer that grew up on point-and-click adventures – Grim Fandango and Full Throttle are two of my most treasured and I still have copies of them sitting on my hallway bookcase –  so when he announced that he wanted to try something similar with his Kickstarter, my heart heaved and I was excited.

Broken Age: Tim Schafer's first point-and-click adventure game in quite a few years.

Broken Age: Tim Schafer’s first point-and-click adventure game in quite a few years.

So, I backed it. And now it’s  here. Well, part 1 of the game that was Codenamed Reds but is now called Broken Age is here. And it’s a lot of fun, although I’m not sure it’s going to become a classic point-and-click game like some of Schafer’s other games.

The whole process of the development of Broken Age, from its Kickstarter funding to where we are now, is an interesting one and the documentary series available to backers showed just how tough a process it was. Schafer’s Kickstarter raised something like $4 million (he was asking for much, much less) but it seems that even that figure wasn’t enough to fund the vision that Schafer had, hence the decision to break up Broken Age into two parts. Sales of Act 1 from non-backers will go towards finishing Act 2 and the full game.

Visually, Broken Age is gorgeous to look at. I know the term “hand-painted” is bandied around a lot in video games, but this game really does have a story book-like quality to it. Almost painterly in its look. I like it. Central to the game are two characters, Shay and Vella, two very different people but with very similar lives ( You can swap between the two at any time by clicking an icon in the game’s inventory bar that sits at the bottom of the screen, but I didn’t: I played through each story separately. It just seemed to me to be the best way to play it).

Shay (voiced by Elijah Wood) is a young boy turning into a man who lives on a space ship controlled by a motherly computer (voiced by Mass Effect’s Jennifer Hale) who does everything it can to keep him from harm. His days become monotonous routines of which cereal to have for breakfast or whether to rescue cute knitted things from an ice cream avalanche or a runaway train, or investigate a strange anomaly on the exterior of his ship.

Vella, on the other hand, is a young girl who lives in a seemingly nice place called Sugar Bunting. Things aren’t as they seem, though, and she’d probably quite like Shay’s mundane routine: She’s due to be sacrificed to a giant monster, as is the tradition in her village.

I have to say that I found the first 20 minutes or so of Shay’s story incredibly boring and was close to quitting, but I’m glad I didn’t. I realise why the first moments were so mundane and repetitive: It was to emphasise how the motherly computer determined Shay’s every move but stick with it, as once you break the routing (it’s pretty clearly signposted on how to do it) the game opens up and is much better for it.

The Space Weaver: Perhaps the most interesting character in Broken Age.

The Space Weaver: Perhaps the most interesting character in Broken Age.

Unlike a lot of Schafer’s previous works, the puzzles in Broken Age (at least in Shay’s story: I haven’t played Vella’s yet) are pretty simple and signposted so that you shouldn’t have trouble solving them (although the Space Weaver one had me scratching my head for a few moments until the Space Weaver – the ship’s navigator – pretty much indicated what to do).

That disappointed me a little.

I guess I was hoping for some of the mind-bendingly hard puzzles from Schafer’s earlier work, which I’m sure a lot of other backers were hoping for, too, but they aren’t here. I guess this is a game for a new breed of gamer.

Some of the puzzles are quite inventive, though, but they just won’t have you pulling your hair out.

Perhaps my biggest criticism of Act 1 of Broken Age is that it’s not as memorable as, say, Grim Fandango or Full Throttle. As gorgeous as each screen looks, most of them are filler, with only a few things you can actually click on – and many of those clickable items just provide a commentary from Shay or Vella (the so-called Junk Room on Shay’s ship is a case in point).

There also aren’t a huge numbers of characters to interact with, and Shay’s ending feels really disjointed – it ended abruptly – and feels like Double Fine just sliced it off. Obviously, this is because of how Double Fine is handling the funding for the next Act but Shay’s ending left me confused.

Can I recommend you buy Act 1 of Broken Age? It’s a hard one.

It’s a nice adventure from what I’ve played but without know how Act 2 pans out, it’s a hard one to say you simply must buy it. It’s not as memorable as Grim Fandango or Full Throttle, that’s for sure. I still remember playing those games all those years ago: I’m not sure Broken Age will have that impact on me – but I think that’s because of the Act 1 and Act 2 thing.

One thing I do know, though, is that Broken Age is a game that has Tim Schafer’s DNA scattered all through it and the gamer part of me likes that. Whether that’s enough to ensure funding for the next act, I’m not sure, but I hope enough people buy Act 1 so we can all find out.

Sorry, but I don’t want to have a dance off with Darth Vader

Update: It’s amazing the difference a day makes, huh? Today, Tim Schafer announced that if he can raise $400.000 through the Kickstarter fundraising programme by March 13 he’ll make a “brand new downloadable point and click graphic adventure for the modern age”.

Well, he’s going to have no problem raising that amount: as of 8.15pm tonight, almost $US270,000 had been raised – after less than one day of making the announcement. That’s crazy.

Why did Schafer decide to go down the Kickstarter route? “Big games cost big money,” he says.”  Even something as “simple” as an Xbox LIVE Arcade title can cost upwards of two or three million dollars.  For disc-based games, it can be over ten times that amount.  To finance the production, promotion, and distribution of these massive undertakings, companies like Double Fine have to rely on external sources like publishers, investment firms, or loans.  And while they fulfill an important role in the process, their involvement also comes with significant strings attached that can pull the game in the wrong directions or even cancel its production altogether.”

“Crowd-sourced fundraising sites like Kickstarter have been an incredible boon to the independent development community.  They democratize the process by allowing consumers to support the games they want to see developed and give the developers the freedom to experiment, take risks, and design without anyone else compromising their vision.”

Schafer has made a number of donation options available, which you can find here, but as an example if you donate $15 you get a free copy of the game when it’s available (estimated in October this year); if you donate $30 you get an HD download of the documentary being made of the project, a digital copy of the soundtrack and a copy of the game; if you pledge $1000 or more you get a mini portrait of yourself drawn by a Double Fine artist plus the other rewards. 

I’m seriously thinking about donating $15 to the project  but it’s amazing seeing thousands of people pledging money to a person they don’t even know: I guess that shows just how much faith people have in Tim Schafer and what he’s doing. Good luck to him and I’m looking forward to the final game. 

In my eyes, Lucasarts used to be a great game developer, back when it made games like Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, Day of the Tentacle,  X-wing vs Tie Fighter, Dark Forces  and the Jedi Knight series.

I couldn’t tell you how many hours I lost pretending I was Kyle Katarn in Jedi Knight or Manny Calavera in Grim Fandango, but it was a lot. In fact, I like Grim Fandango so much that I’m replaying it now on my Windows 7 PC – and you know what? The humour is just as witty now as it was then. It was a gaming masterpiece from a gaming genius, Tim Schafer.

Incidentally, talking about Grim Fandango, I read today that Minecraft creator Markus “Notch” Perrson has offered, on Twitter to Grim Fandango creator Tim Schafer to fund development of  Psychonauts 2, which would be a sequel to one of the greatest games of all time,  Psychonauts (which I still have for the original Xbox console). Word is that Schafer has been trying to pitch Psychonauts 2 for some time but has had no luck but I think the time is right: he’s been making more casual titles such as Trenched, Stacked, Costume Quest and Once Upon a Monster (for Kinect).  I hope it happens.

Actually, Tim, if you’re reading this, I’d really like you to do a remake of Grim Fandango. Not Grim Fandango 2 as I’m not sure a sequel could capture the magic of the original but a reimagining, like how The Secret of Monkey Island was handled on Xbox Live Arcade. I loved that at the press of a button the modern graphics reverted to how things were in the original game. Of course, Grim Fandango’s graphics were a lot more impressive than Monkey Island’s but still, a remake of Grim Fandango would just be plain awesome. I’d buy if for sure. What do you think, Tim? Is it doable?

OK, back to Lucasarts.

You’ll probably have noticed how I said that Lucasarts used to be a great game developer. It saddens me to say that I don’t think it’s a great developer any more. The company faced its toughest times in 2010 when the company laid off a third of its staff and its creative director on The Force Unleashed unexpectedly quit and personally, I think the company has lost its way (in fact, I think the whole Star Wars series has lost its way, but that’s another story) – and it’s down to games like Kinect Star Wars and its Galactic Dance Off mode.

Yes, you heard that: Galactic Dance Off mode where you’ll be able to (and I’m quoting an official press release here) “battle Darth Vader on the dance floor or bust a move ‘Solo’ style”. I swear I did not make that up.

Galactic Dance Off mode will be  “loaded with Star Wars-themed pop tunes”. I don’t know about you but I couldn’t imagine anything worse. In fact, yes I could:  seeing Darth Vader on-screen pulling some break dancing moves. Sorry but I just don’t think Darth Vader, the man who can choke people using just the power of his mind, would hit a dance floor in a dancing game.

I’ve seen Kinect Star Wars in action and while it looks entertaining it’s not blowing my socks off. In fact, the last trailer I saw for it didn’t show any game play at all. It had some American comedian re-enacting the Darth Vader/Ben Kenobi lightsabre battle in Star Wars. Not having game play footage in a trailer doesn’t fill me with enthusiasm.

For Lucasarts to become a great company again it needs to return to making the types of games that made it great all those years ago. Games like X-wing vs Tie Fighter and the Jedi Knight series. Games like Full Throttle and Grim Fandango. Those are the games that captured the imaginations of gamers the world over.

For Lucasarts to capture the hearts of gamers again it needs to stop making games like Kinect Star Wars and The Force Unleashed and start making quality games again. Games that people want to play.

Perhaps they could hook up with Tim Schafer and start with a remake of Grim Fandango. It’s a start, right?