Blackgate: The Batman game no one is talking about

Nine times out of ten it’s a terrible idea to release the latest console and handheld installments of a franchise on the same day–at least from the handheld perspective. Sure, Metroid Fusion thrived despite hitting the streets the same day as Metroid Prime, but Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate (3DS/Vita) seems destined to end up as one of the nine unluckier examples. Not only is the game getting completely blanketed by its console-cousin’s hype, but there seems to be a bare minimum of news coverage for the game. Bare minimum. And not in a sexy-dirty way.

In case you’re completely unaware of Blackgate, it’s a 2D Batman sidescroller set in the Blackgate Penitentiary, where a slew of villains ranging from the Joker to Solomon Grundy are held up… though not for long. I hesitate to call the game a 2D platformer because Batman is reportedly unable to jump, although he can grapple to reach gargoyles and high ledges. In addition to grappling, Batman will utilize a bundle of other gadgets and techniques from the console Arkham games.

As for the story, Blackgate serves as a sort of epilogue to Arkham Origins, although the storylines will not lend to spoiler-heavy overlaps. Blackgate is also taking a page from Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker by telling its tale through scenes that resemble hand-drawn comicbook art.

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The move to 2D won’t evict Arkham’s stealth segments. Enemies will have sightlines, and Batman can slip from the foreground to background to avoid them.

Don’t think for a second that Blackgate is some mailed-in portable version of Origins. The 3DS and Vita game has been built from the ground up to serve as its own Arkham experience. You’ll still recognize gadgets, Detective Mode, and the freeflow combat from the console Arkham games, but Blackgate’s developer Armature Studio has started from scratch to best serve Batman in the second dimension.

What has me absolutely amped for Blackgate is the game’s Metroid influences. Most notably, the level-design will offer item-based exploration through the labyrinthine prison. Considering that we haven’t seen a new 2D Metroid in nearly a decade, Blackgate should get fans’ juices flowing, if not bubbling (mine are boiling for the record). And to sweeten the deal, Blackgate’s director happens to be Mark Pacini, the man who directed the entire Metroid Prime trilogy.

Metroid isn’t the only classic 2D series influencing Blackgate. Turns out players will be able to fight Blackgate’s bosses in the order of their choosing. After defeating a boss, Batman will receive a new gadget for battling enemies and exploring new areas. If you’re getting misty for Mega Man’s boss-and-weapon formula, we’re on the same page. My only concern is how the exploration and boss-order will balance. How exactly will I be able to fight any boss of my choosing if Batman needs certain items to navigate different areas?

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“Because Blackgate’s the game Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now.”

The Caped Crusader will hit portables on October 25th. Chances are, Blackgate will get buried among the hype and reviews for Arkham Origins. I can’t blame you if you’re aiming to grab Origins early, but if you have any love for 2D stealth and exploration, check out Blackgate.

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Gaming’s Re-release Epidemic

Remakes, ports, HD Editons, Collector’s Editions, Game of the Year Editions, combo packs, ported portables… There are plenty of ways to release a game you already released. Game companies know this, and they also know that they’re not making money off used copies of Final Fantasy X, Zelda: The Wind Waker, and Tales of Symphonia. So what do they do? Remaster what’s succeeded in the past, plug in a few bonuses, add shrink wrap, and convince you that you can’t live without it.

Re-releases are part of the biz. They serve as a second chance for game companies to score money off their AAA titles, whether they be classics or last year’s big thing. In some cases, like with the just-released Zelda: The Wind Waker HD, companies use re-releases as a form of advertising. Nothing says, “Hey, it’s time you considered a Wii U” like a brand new Zelda. Even if it isn’t brand new.

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Wii U’s in trouble? No killer-apps on the horizon? Just release a Zelda game, all will be fine.

The trend these days is HD Editions of games that don’t need HD Editions. Honestly, whether you loved or hated Wind Waker’s art style, you definitely never punched a wall over the fact that you couldn’t play it in high-def. And no one threw a fit over standard-def Final Fantasy X. Same goes for Tales of Symphonia, Kingdom Hearts, Silent Hill 2 and 3, Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3, and every other HD update out there. Still, people continue to fork over thirty or forty bucks for games that could show up on PSN or Nintendo’s eShop for $10 in their original forms.

HD updates are one thing, full-on remakes are another. Some remakes are absolutely stellar (Metroid: Zero Mission); some fix the original’s errors (Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions); others divide fanbases (Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes); and still others prove to be rather unnecessary (Final Fantasy IV Advance).

The one thing they all have in common? People buy them.

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Metroid: Zero Mission is a masterful remake that improved upon the original in every way.

And as people buy them, they clamor for more. In 2011 Nintendo released a 3DS version of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. A year later, this fake trailer for a Majora’s Mask update hit Youtube. Suddenly everyone and their kid sister wanted a Majora update. Then–just weeks ago–Nintendo’s Eiji Aonuma spiked interest in a Majora’s Mask remake, getting the whole fanbase warm beneath the belt. Meanwhile, the game has been available on Nintendo’s eShop for ten buck the entire time.

Before you call me a killjoy, answer me this: Why obsess over a remake when you can push for a sequel, spiritual successor, or spinoff? You’re telling me Majora’s Mask HD is more important than Majora’s Mask 2 or a spinoff starring Fierce Deity Link? C’mon, now.

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If you get the choice between seeing Fierce Deity in high-def or seeing him star in his own spinoff, take the latter. I’m begging you.

A lot of people are quick to point out that there’s no need to complain about re-releases. Yes, they keep our favorite companies afloat. Yes, they introduce younger gamers to the classics we enjoyed years ago. And, yes, we don’t have to buy them if we don’t want them. But the truth is, they’re multiplying wildly and masking a lack of AAA-production from Nintendo, Square Enix, Konami, and others. Wind Waker HD and Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 aren’t 2013 releases. They’re excuses. Stopgaps. Attempts at staying relevant. And if we can’t stop the spread of them, can we at least quit asking for them?

Micro-transactions: Diminishing your GTA Online experience one dollar at a time

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a cheapass, but my gripe with GTA Online’s micro-transactions has nothing to do with money. Okay, fine, there is cash involved, but the real issue here is bigger than money: these micro-transactions are taking the game out of the game.

Here’s the scoop. Rockstar is enabling GTA Online users to put real money (the kind you earn from real heists and robberies) toward virtual cars, weapons, clothes, and other in-game goodies. These items are still available to those unwilling to pay, but it will take thrifty players time to obtain them–how much time, we don’t know. Bottom line: if you don’t have the time to become the top virtual gangster, you can invest a few bucks to get ahead or catch up.

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Why play when you can pay?

As a guy with a full-time job, an exercise routine, and hobbies other than videogames, I can understand why this might seem practical. Some people simply don’t have enough time to commit to an extensive multiplayer experience. And as the famous math problem proves, time = money, so Rockstar is making a logical move by offering a money solution to a time problem.

I’m not writing to label Rockstar as virtual pickpockets; my issue here is that the point of buying a game is to play it. When you pop into Barnes & Noble, you don’t take the latest Stephen King book to the register and pay an extra $5 for the cashier tell you what happens in the first 100 pages. Why is it more acceptable to buy your way through a multiplayer mode? Now, I understand that novels and online multiplayer modes are vastly different, but we’re still talking entertainment media. And isn’t “entertainment” the key word here? Where’s the fun in getting drubbed by other players who paid to have an advantage over you?

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Back in the day Prima was our source for “micro-transactions”

Now, I realize buying multiplayer advantages has been around forever. In high school a couple of my best friends sold their Diablo II accounts for hundreds of bucks. While I won’t argue that their accounts could be valued that high, I don’t understand why someone would rather buy a high-level account than learn nuances, develop skills, and enjoy the damn thing. At the risk of sounding whiny, that’s a big problem with gaming today. The focus has shifted away from enjoying the experience. Nowadays, many people are more concerned with trophies and leaderboards than with seeing Hyrule Field for the first time.

The cheapass in me wants to complain about the idea of paying for virtual guns, but the sophisticated gamer in me recognizes that micro-transactions are just cheat codes with a price tag. It’s really not all that different from back in the 90s when you’d buy a codebook or use a GameShark to give yourself six Mewtwos.

Micro-transactions have been around for years in various forms. The problem is that they can sour an online experience for those unwilling to indulge in them. With GTA5 as the biggest game in the Western world right now, it’s possible that we’re approaching a watershed moment in online gaming. If gamers willingly buy GTA weapons and this catches on, how long before every online mode becomes a marketplace?

Metal Gear Solid 5: Tokyo Game Show takeaways

Just yesterday, I tore apart Metal Gear Solid 4 in my Most Disappointing Games write-up. If there’s one silver lining to disappointment, it’s that the next in line arrives seeming all the more impressive. After watching a 14-minute gameplay video, I can safely announce that “the next in line” (MGS5) has blown through the next-gen gates. Yeah, it’s early, but based on this Tokyo Game Show footage, Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain looks to be returning to the series’ stealthy roots (MGS4 was too much of a shooter for me).

I’m not going to bother summarizing the video while it’s posted above, but I will note my takeaways from what I watched:

1) The video doesn’t convey the “open world” that Hideo Kojima has been hyping. While Snake does hijack a Humvee, the mission’s contained area kept it from feeling like Grand Theft Auto. Instead, this particular scenario reminded me of infiltrating Groznyj Grad in MGS3 more than anything. Now, I realize this is just a brief demo, but if we get a handful of “contained area missions” mixed into the large-scale world, I’ll dance in the streets naked. Seriously. I loved what I saw from this demo that much.

2) Snake can now carry and toss incapacitated enemies. A much needed upgrade over dragging bodies into lockers or tall grass. Loved the part when Snake chucked his kidnapee into a guard for a KO.

3) When did Snake bump into Bruce Wayne? His new gadgets enable an Arkham-style detective mode and maps complete with real-time visuals.

4) The visuals are every bit as slick as Snake’s rain-drenched suit. The trampled mud in the intro movie is disgustingly realistic.  With that said, I’m not seeing a major graphical jump from MGS4 to 5.

5) The Matrix-style slow-mo that occurs when Snake gets discovered turns me off. Will it make for some adrenaline-spurting excitement? Sure. But at the same time it loosens the emphasis on stealth. Sneaking around is only intense if you pay a major price for being spotted.

6) Loved the nuances like taking out search light operators and using the lights to spot the mission’s pivotal meeting. Also enjoyed the brief railing shooting segment from aboard the helicopter.

From here on, my major concern is how open-worlded gameplay and Metal Gear will mesh. It still sounds unfeasible to have mass-scale exploration without compromising on the series’ trademark stealth, but I’ll keep my glass half-full until the time comes.

Top 5 Tuesday: Most Disappointing Games

Last week I grilled Mass Effect for having framerate issues and party members who couldn’t be dumber if they had blonde highlights and a fake tan. My opinion of the game was in a total free fall, but at some point over the weekend I warmed back up to it. My change of heart resulted from discovering that you can control the dispersal of Techs in battle (Way to mention that, in-game tutorial.) and realizing just how varied the missions are. After playing through Eden Prime and Feros, I expected every major mission to follow a “talk to the survivors and kill the Geth” formula. But that’s not the case. I’m currently working through the snow-world of Noveria, which has a nifty political mystery going on. I won’t spoil. Instead, I’ll introduce a new weekly gag.

To celebrate my renewed attitude toward Mass Effect, I’m listing the five games that disappointed me the most in my lifetime. Keep in mind that this list is based on my own experiences and not whether or not the gaming world as a whole was let down. Now that we’re clear, let’s unveil these soul crushers.

Honorable mentions: Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, God of War, Mario Kart: Double Dash, Goldeneye 007, Metroid Prime Hunters,

5. Half-Life

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Half-Life: Influential in 1998. Archaic in 2010.

Expectations:

The greatest FPS ever. Complete with thrilling action, brilliant level design, and a riveting story.

To be fair, I didn’t play Half-Life until 2010, so my opinion is skewed by playing modern FPSs that improved upon the standards it set. Still, genre growth and the passage of time  haven’t stopped fans and journalists from pumping up original Half-Life as a masterpiece.

Why it disappointed:

Half-Life has aged horribly. The control scheme and the controls themselves feel wonky by today’s standards (ladders are the most threatening enemies in the game), and the combat doesn’t carry the same hectic rush that FPSs of the 2000s spoiled us with. Although the game is credited with revolutionizing the FPS genre in terms of story, setting, and atmosphere, I found the dark gray halls of the Black Mesa Research Facility to be dull and confining. The story was nowhere near as compelling as its reputation suggests, and what hurts even more is the vow of silence Gordon Freeman took during the development stages.

Was it good?:

I realize I’m being a bit unfair, but no. After having experienced FPSs like Metroid Prime and Bioshock, the original Half-Life felt archaic. I feel the same about Goldeneye, which I didn’t play until 2004. Timing truly is everything.

4. Disgaea: Hour of Darkness

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It’s just like Final Fantasy Tactics. Without the tactics.

Expectations:

Underworld strategy-RPG Disgaea was actually rare when I bought it. Back from 2003 to 2005 the game had serious cult status, with fans and reviewers praising it as a masterpiece in the same vein as Final Fantasy Tactics. Disgaea’s rarity and rabid fanbase had me expecting the strategy-RPG to end all strategy-RPGs.

Why it disappointed:

The ironic thing about Disgaea is that it’s a strategy-RPG that emphasizes power-leveling over, well, strategy. While I suppose the same could be said of a lot of SRPGs, Disgaea is the most guilty one in my book. Though some early battles required careful thought and planning, I got blown right off the grid in later stages–not because my strategies were faulty, but because Disgaea decided that I should grind my way to the ending credits.

Was it good?:

The characters contributed some humorous moments, and the first half of the game had some solid story battles. Disgaea was actually likable for about 15-20 hours, then somewhere along the line the emphasis shifted toward geo-panel combos and level grinding.

3. Super Smash Bros. Brawl

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Brawl offers a ton of choices, but the best choice you can make is playing Melee instead.

Expectations:

The highest ever. Seriously, the hype for this game was vast enough to crack the ozone layer. Nintendo unveiled the game at E3 2006 with a trailer introducing Solid Snake as a guest fighter; that triggered endless fan speculation about other 3rd party guests, from Sonic (who got in) to Master Chief (who never even appeared on a Nintendo console). As if the series’ reputation and the E3 trailer weren’t enough to pump my hype balloon, the Smash Dojo website–which I visited every day until release–left it at the bursting point.

Why it disappointed:

Brawl was destined to disappoint. I wanted it to be twice the game that Melee was, but instead it fell short of its predecessor’s standard. Brawl featured a slowed-down fighting engine that simply couldn’t match Melee’s intensity. And though the roster nearly doubled, Nintendo did almost nothing to tweak the movesets for the returning characters other than adding over-the-top Final Smashes that made the battles more luck-based than skill-based.

Was it good?:

Hell yeah. For as disappointing as it was, Brawl offered deep single-player options, excellent multiplayer, endless amounts of unlockables, and more Nintendo than could fathomably fit on one disc. Oh, and Boss Rush mode on Very Hard was a masochistic blast.

2. Final Fantasy VI

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Everyone has a favorite FF6 character. The problem is you have to endure Terra along the way.

Expectations:

The best RPG ever created. A lot of Final Fantasy fans who consider themselves “hardcore” list FF6 as their favorite in opposition to FF7 which is deemed the “casual” entry point of the series. Prior to getting my hands on FF6, I had listened to these FF6 fans who touted the game’s cast, story, and “unforgettable” moments like the famous opera scene.

Why it disappointed:

I first played FF6 on the PS1 collection Final Fantasy Anthology, which was a mistake. If you have any respect for gaming, you should never go near FF Anthology–the battle slowdown and load times make the games as choppy as a buffering Youtube video. Anyway, after about 5 hours in the Anthology version, I ditched FF6 and later returned to it on a SNES emulator. The version was far superior, but the game was still a drag.

FF6 disappointed me for the same reason Stephen King’s The Stand does: it has a massive cast with no clear-cut protagonist to lean on. A great protagonist makes or breaks a story for me. Sometimes you can get away with having two guys sharing the spotlight, but when a narrative spreads its focus across four or more “main” characters, I tune out. Had FF6 been Locke’s story, it might have been one of my favorite RPGs. Instead, it forced me to endure scenes involving the robotic Terra Branford, who you couldn’t pay me to show interest in. Story and characters aside, the battle system was by no means electric, and I found most of the character-specific abilities to be underwhelming (though I loved Sabin’s button-combo Blitz technique).

Was it good?:

Kefka is the best villain in the series behind Kuja. And I’ll be honest, I like Locke, Edgar, Sabin, and Celes. Shadow, Cyan, and Setzer have their moments, too. The problem is that when you have so many storylines jammed into a 30-35 hour game, the characters end up thin and forgettable.

1. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots

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Committing to stealth in MGS4 is about as difficult as committing to sobriety on a pub crawl.

Expectations:

High expectations? Let’s put it this way: I dropped $500 on the PS3/MGS4 bundle to play this. Any time I buy a new system for one particular game, it’s serious. When the game happens to be the fourth installment in a series that pumped out three landmark titles, the expectations are through the roof and beyond the heavens. What jacked up my MGS4 hopes even more was the fact that the series got better with every game up till that point. I never thought MGS2 could top the original; nor did I believe that MGS3 could top Sons of Liberty. But they did. So by that logic, MGS4 would top them all. Right?

Why it disappointed:

MGS4 is a classic case of identity-loss as a result of trying to do too much. Hideo Kojima had a great idea in theory: give gamers the option of either sneaking or run-n-gunning through game. It enabled players to approach the game however they wanted, but unfortunately freedom isn’t always liberating. Rather than enjoying another stealth-based masterpiece, I found myself “cheating on” the stealth and treating the game as a 3rd-person shooter.

Worse yet, three of the game’s five acts could cure insomnia, and revisiting Shadow Moses Island was such a letdown that I almost gave it its own spot on this list. Even the story was a colossal buzzkill. It consisted of endless buildup that never hit a crescendo, and it relied on established characters who had little left to desire or prove. Whereas each of the first three MGS games offered their own brilliant cast of brand new characters, MGS4 took a a greatest-hits approach and brought back literally everyone you could think of. Trouble was, instead of playing integral parts throughout the story, most characters hopped aboard for one act and vanished until the ending. What you were left over with was the disjointed mess that is MGS4.

Was it good?:

No. Aside from some stunning cinematics and two decent acts, the game is an abomination. The series thrived off stealth-based gameplay, hectic boss battles, and gameplay scenarios that forced you to strategize and execute. MGS4 marked the series’ degeneration from distinct espionage into commonplace 3rd-person shooting.

Tomb Raider (PS3) Review: 9/10

Last week I raved about Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider reboot and promised a full-length review. Here it is, hot off the word processor. Give it a look if you want an in-depth, spoiler-free outlook on a game that I feel is exhilarating from the moment you press start.

Also note that Tomb Raider is going for cheap on Amazon these days. If $22 is too steep for you, keep TR in mind around Black Friday.

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Want two big reasons to play Tomb Raider? Yeah? You’re into that? Try combat and atmosphere.

According to this old IGN article, most gamers are too lazy to read any part of a review other than the intro and conclusion paragraphs (if even that much). Just in case my readership consists of a mass of loafing sloths, I’m pasting the conclusion below. Enjoy it, you lazy bastards.

To recap, Tomb Raider is a stellar entry into what will likely become a trilogy or sub-series. Crystal Dynamics drank liberally from Uncharted’s fountain while developing the core gameplay, and the distinctive TR nuances of stealth and exploration keep this game from feeling hackish—it is by no means “Uncharted with a chick.” Despite the weak and forgettable supporting cast, the story proves intriguing thanks to Lara’s character development and the mystery swirling around the island of Yamatai. I can’t speak as someone who has played prior entries in the Tomb Raider franchise, but as a gamer who enjoys slash-paced action and exploration, I would highly recommend TR13 based on its riveting single-player campaign. If online multiplayer is vital to you, dock a point off my review score, as you won’t find a buzzing community or brilliant level design here. But as far as the single-player experience goes, it’s a twenty-hour journey that keeps firing away with brutal action, inviting environments, and puzzles of the climbing and thinking varieties.

+ Excellent combat system, climbing segments, tomb puzzles
+ Supernatural world with great sense of place and history
+ Lara’s character development
+ Stunning, detailed character models and environments
+ Numerous collectibles, weapon upgrades, skills

– Supporting cast doesn’t get enough screen time to make a dramatic impact
– Glitchy moments with enemy battle dialogue
– Passable online multiplayer

The (insulting) portrayals of games in film and TV

I started watching The Sopranos this past week, and during the fourth episode I heard one of the most familiar jingles from my childhood: the Luigi’s Circuit music from Mario Kart 64. Next thing I knew, Tony Soprano’s kid was zipping through the course’s tunnel, stuck in 5th place. Big Tony joined in soon after and played one-handed, just smacking the control stick around with no regard to the gas button. Rather than pointing out that Mario Kart requires two hands to play, Tony Jr. hit the reset button and by some miracle of 64-bit gaming, they had themselves a new Grand Prix race instantly. Big Tony continued to play with one hand and somehow came in 4th despite never pressing the accelerator. Authentic television, right?

I could nitpick all day over this scene and how inaccurately and pathetically it portrays gaming. I won’t because the purpose of the scene is to convey the relationship between Tony and his son, as well as his son’s reluctance to discuss his recent fights at school. Most audiences won’t care how the Sopranos play Mario Kart, but any gamer should find this scene jarring. Simply put, it’s bad acting and it spoils the show’s authenticity. Good screenwriters research meticulously, and clearly the minds behind The Sopranos studied up on mafia life. But if you’re going to such painstaking lengths to bring fiction to life, why portray a Mario Kart session so laughably? If Tony’s son was reading a novel, the director wouldn’t have him read it upside-down while flipping pages every two seconds. With that in mind, why is an awkward portrayal of playing a videogame forgivable?

This wasn’t the first time I’ve come across this in a film or TV series. The photo below depicts two kids playing Final Fantasy VIII in the movie Charlie’s Angels. The issue is that two kids are playing FF8 together. In the hundreds of hours I’ve spent playing FF8, I never managed to unlock this mythical multiplayer mode. These kids must be as dazzled as I am, because not even a naked Drew Barrymore can shake them from their trance.

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It’s hard to blame these kids for ignoring naked Drew Barrymore in favor of FF8’s hidden multiplayer mode.

I used to watch House M.D. back when it shared FOX’s primetime schedule with 24. For as much of a genius as Dr. House is, he never quite figured out Metroid: Zero Mission. In fact, he died in the hands of a completely harmless Chozo Statue over and over. Then he’d quickly restart, jump into the the statue’s hands, and die again–an impossibility in the actual game. Any Zero Mission fan knows that balling up into a Chozo Statue unlocks a chunk of the map and heals you. Instead of showing Samus die at the hands of a Space Pirate, the show’s writers dropped the ball (literally) and fabricated a ironic death method.

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Dr. House sucks at Metroid. He’s the only guy I know who gets Game Over from balling into in a Chozo Statue.

This Madden clip from The Break-Up is a real winner. Vince Vaugn and Jen Aniston’s date get a “real nail-biter” going in the amount of time it takes Aniston to flip her hair a few times in the bathroom. Are they playing one-minute quarters? Not likely, considering that the two guys take plenty of time to finish their “nail-biter”, much to Aniston’s chagrin. And while we’re on the subject of realism, what guy takes Madden over Jen Aniston when she’s looking like that. Yowza.

I understand that TV/film directors have to condense scenes for the sake of pacing. I get that. What I don’t get is why they invest so much effort into creating realism, then proceed to depict people playing videogames in ways that no human ever would. The worst part of all this is that these trainwreck portrayals could be avoided easily: 1) have Tony play with both hands 2) have one kid play FF8 while the other grows restless and nags him about giving up the controller; 3) have House run Samus into a enemy to trigger an actual game over; 4) don’t call Madden a nail-biter when the game started 30 seconds ago.

It’s really that simple. If you pay these actors millions to study and mimic human beings, why can’t they mimic gamers?