Saturday, December 3, 2011

Paperboy 2 review - "Right in the mailbox!"

After reflecting on my two previous posts that had a high word count and very little in the way of simply talking about video games, I decided to switch gears (bicycle reference there) for this post and write a game review. One of my friends recently reminded me of an excellent video game review site, Action Button Dot Net, which since I last visited seems to have been given an absolutely horrid but somehow appropriate visual overhaul (appropriate in the sense that humor is an understandable coping mechanism for someone trying to look like they’re not really taking their work seriously, when in fact that someone probably takes what they are doing extremely seriously). Basically, the funky background—which comes off like an inside joke—makes the text purposefully difficult to read. It’s kind of funny and kind of unfortunate, because the articles on the site are worth reading.

One thing I really like about the site is its incorporation of the Roger Ebert four-star rating system for reviewing games. It really is the best rating system (I give it four stars), hands-down superior to the 10-point score employed by most game journalism publications, as well as that troublesome thing we call Metacritic. Why do I like it? It’s more intuitive. A four-star rating system (with the allowance of half-stars) seems to better acknowledge the subjective nature of critical exposition. We’re expressing our opinions and observations of wildly different artifacts, not grading term papers. Anyway, that’s the system I’m using and if you don’t like it I don’t care. No stars for you!

Now, about that review.

"Hey, Mr. Wilson!"

Ever have one of those chaotic days at work where it feels like everything that can go wrong goes wrong and nobody will just let you do your stinking job? Try getting through a week of Paperboy 2, a game I’ve been fondly revisiting the past few days on my Sega Genesis. (From looking at some YouTube videos I can say the Genesis version is quite distinct from its SNES and NES counterparts—and there were several other versions still. I would wager to use the word “superior,” but I wouldn’t be speaking from experience. I will say the Genesis version appears to play much faster and has speech sound clips that are ... just ... awesome.)

This early 1990s sequel didn’t deviate too much from the Atari arcade original, a game I never played, partly because it came out in 1984 (the same year I turned two). In the game the player assumes control of a bicycle-riding newspaper delivery boy or girl. The primary objective of the game is to guide the avatar through a suburban neighborhood and successfully deliver The Daily Sun newspaper to all subscribing residences, hopefully making it in one piece to the bonus obstacle training course at the end of the last block. This seemingly simple task is made astoundingly difficult due to all manner of hazards, including but by no means limited to punk skateboarders, runaway baby carriages and random swarms of bees that will knock the biker on his or her ass and cost the player a valuable life. Even running into a curb will crash the bike.

The secondary goal is to cause as much mischief as possible, à la Dennis the Menace. In other words, feel free to knock that cute elderly couple off their porch swing with a spare newspaper. Try aiming for that jacked-up automobile in the driveway so that it falls on the dude’s face underneath, and break one of his house windows while you’re at it—assuming he’s a non-subscriber. One could also use their throwing skills to try and stop said runaway baby carriage or thwart the occasional convenience store robbery, good deeds that might end up on the front page of tomorrow’s morning edition.

Don’t get the wrong idea, however. This game, unlike another game I’m still trudging through, has nothing to do with morality. It’s all about the points, and hitting one target—be it that guy taking out the trash or his charging Dalmatian—registers the same 100 point score as any other. But the player cannot just toss and toss without consequence due to the limited number of papers on hand, tallied nicely at the top of the screen. To replenish the supply the player will need to be on the lookout for extra paper bundles around the block, sometimes situated in dangerous-to-navigate places. It creates an excellent little risk-reward dynamic. The player can try and play it safe in the street, but the lure of points, thrills and sometimes sheer necessity will draw the player closer to the dangers of people’s front yards.

"Every day, it's a gettin' closer..."

What I love about this game is how much different it feels after maybe an hour or so of play. Stepping cold into this game isn’t easy—it’s like, learning to ride a bike? Actually, it’s rather like learning to ride a bike. I can still remember when I was probably five or six years old and I first learned how to ride my bicycle sans training wheels. There’s a definite learning curve in terms of trusting one’s balance and the instincts of when to turn the handlebars and by how much. Some time not long after I thought I had figured it all out—meaning I was perfectly willing to take off on my bike without having dad spot me for the first few feet (that Kodac moment probably does get old for the proud parents after a little while)—my grandmother came over to our house to visit, and my mom told me to show off my riding skills. This will be a piece of cake, I thought. And so I took off down the driveway, maybe beamed at my grandma over on the sidelines and for some reason got mentally tripped up at the prospect of that driveway fence about ten feet in front of me. I’d avoided it probably tens of times already but this time the proper kinetic response didn’t quite register and, at any rate, I didn’t have the wherewithal to stop myself from slamming into that fence.

This is basically the same thing that will happen to a first-time player of Paperboy 2. Inevitably they’ll be trying to avoid a monster pickup truck barreling down the street and swerve right into a picket fence, or a sunbather, or a house. There’s some finesse to the controlling of the bike that is probably never mastered but definitely better subjugated over time. And just when the player thinks they are improving—smash! One thing the player quickly realizes is that there is no way to stop, only to slow down and move at a snail’s pace. This is accomplished, intuitively, by pressing down on the directional pad. Pressing up, of course, accelerates the paperboy to a maximum velocity, which when played at with some level of skill rewards the speedy player with the equivalent gratification of a Mario speed run (also, hitting ramps sends the player avatar on a wondrous moon-gravity journey that never quite loses its excitement). Braking, on the other hand, is necessary, and also satisfying. The friction of slowing is near perfect, as is the accompanying rubber-skidding sound effect. The timid player might actually be able to get through the first couple of days on the easy setting with his or her finger jammed down on the brake button (I can’t imagine how boring this would be), but the developers countered this by programming a swarm of bees that will essentially chase the player who moves too slowly for too long. It’s the only hazard that sneaks up from behind the player, a phenomenon that kicks in more quickly as the week progresses.

Staying alive is still only half the challenge, the other being to carry out the actual task of delivering newspapers. Each subscribing house essentially has two targets, one being a doormat that earns the regular 100 points, the other being a tiny mailbox that nets a bonus 150 for each one hit (Seriously, I don’t even bother with the doormats). The act of throwing is kept thankfully simple with the press of a button. The A button throws left and the B button throws right (the C button, by the way, performs a bunny hop, useful for clearing hedges, curbsides and whatnot). There is no variation in the speed or trajectory of throws. Each thrown newspaper flies from the deliverer’s hand exactly the same. Because the neighborhood blocks are shown from an isometric perspective, it’s all about learning the invisible diagonal line that will hit the target. With so many other potential objects moving, it can sometimes be like threading a needle to hit that mailbox.

Again, delivering actual papers is vitally important, part of the game’s integral system of reward and punishment. As long as the player delivers to the subscriber’s mailbox or doormat—and doesn’t smash any of its windows or other property—those residents will remain complacent, loyal customers. In other words, the newspaper employee can unleash total havoc on the surrounding neighborhood, have their unscrupulous exploits printed in bold headlines on the very product being delivered. No worries. Not until they are the ones replacing a broken porch vase will they cancel their subscription—and if that isn’t a spot-on parable for consumer complacency, I don’t know what is.

The finer points

While playing I made a deliberate effort to test the point system when smashing house windows. This is great. If the player smashes the window of a non-subscribing residence, that’s 100 points. If the player smashes the window of a subscriber’s house, that residence automatically becomes a nonsubscriber and no points are awarded for hitting that particular object. But, if one second later the player throws another paper and breaks another window on the same house—now an unsubscribing residence, that throw is worth 100 points. I love it! The player can regain subscribers by making a perfect delivery to all current subscribers on a later day, but only one residence will re-subscribe at a time. If a player loses all subscribers the game is over (although most players will lose by crashing too many times).

Another thing this game does remarkably well is to create a balance of challenging gameplay and casual entertainment. The game’s three selectable modes of difficulty are three different paper routes: Easy Street, Medium Way and Hard Road. Each successive route is longer, more elaborate and more immediately chaotic. Each route begins on a Monday, and each new day until Sunday—like the New York Times crossword puzzle—presents increasing challenge. New obstacles like fire hydrants and flamingo ornaments materialize on sidewalks and lawns overnight (and I assume all of the extra Sunday drivers are on their way to church).

Basically, playing Paperboy 2 is like playing pinball. The player starts with three lives—like three pinballs, if you will. The goal is to make those lives last as long as possible, ideally from Monday through Sunday. Getting to the bonus training course at the end of each delivery day is like getting the pinball machine’s multiball round, and making it to the course finish line—one of the best ways to rack up points—is hitting the jackpot. Also like pinball, there is a way to collect an extra life (ball), but this requires making a perfect delivery to all original subscribers. The drawback is that this is usually next to impossible after the first couple days, or whenever the attrition of lost subscribers becomes too sizable to recover. The ultimate playthrough would be to start on Monday of Easy Street and survive through Sunday of Hard Road. I don’t even know what happens when you finish a week on Hard Road, because if there is one recurring obstacle more (cheaply) difficult to avoid than any other, it's the damn cars that run crosswise at the intersections between blocks! Sometimes, too, I simply end up losing a life on the first block of the very first day on easy, which in pinball is like losing your first ball within seconds. It happens. It sucks. Oh well.

The stuff of dreams

Aesthetically, Paperboy 2 presents the suburbs as the one of the scariest, most threatening environments imaginable, with some macabre elements—sewer monsters, ghosts, ravens—thrown in for good measure (I’m almost convinced there was some cross influence going on between the Paperboy games and the brilliant, short-lived television series Eerie, Indiana). George A. Romero did something similar with the Night of the Living Dead—using zombies as a vehicle to capture that latent fear that one’s next-door neighbors are the true dangers of the world. I never had a paper route growing up but my best friend did, and I remember he had his own horror story of being chased down the street one morning by some angry or perhaps mentally-disturbed transient with a Jimmy Hendrix afro.

For me, however, this game does bear resemblance to the theme of a long-recurring nightmare, in which I’m essentially panicked behind the wheel of a speeding automobile, unable for whatever reason to stop or slow down and about to crash into something right when I wake up in a cold sweat. I’m beginning to wonder if that early embarrassing bicycle spill in front of my grandmother did a bigger number on my psyche than I thought. In that case, I think Paperboy 2 might be a great means of therapy, both for myself and traumatized paper route veterans everywhere.

(Final Note: I at least hope that after the last print newspaper has disappeared we will still be able to play paper-delivery simulation applications on our iPads.)

Paperboy 2 gets three-and-a-half out of four stars.

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