Thursday, December 31, 2009

spirit tracks review

Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (hereafter "ST") is the second Zelda game for the Nintendo DS, following up on the relatively successful Phantom Hourglass (released November 2007). ST works off a lot of the elements Phantom Hourglass (including a bit of the story), but since I've never played Phantom Hourglass I cannot say to what extent these games are similar. I can say that ST is markedly different from Twilight Princess (released in December 2006 for the Gamecube and Wii), both in style and overall gameplay. And while Twilight Princess was a very good game, so is ST, but in different ways. Let me try to explain through this review.


Nintendo went back to cell-shaded "cartoon" Link for this game, giving the game a "cute" atmosphere to it. But don't assume this style symbolizes superficiality on any level: the visuals are still stunning. Dungeons look good, the world map is colorful and varied, and the towns look good as well, considering the engine of the DS. My only complaints would be the lack of detail in the maps and the slowdown which sometimes occurs when too much is going on (some train battles and a few dungeon battles caused slowdown for a few seconds). I'm guessing the developers were truly pushing the limits of the graphical capabilities of the DS.

In addition, the story themes, towns, and music all add to this "cartoon" atmosphere in a significant way, engrossing the player deeply in another world in the way a really good game should. In this aspect, it is similar to the great games Okami and some of the earlier Final Fantasies, and it is much different from Twilight Princess or some of the later FF's such as FF12, whose worlds are so expansive that depth in any one town or area is sacrificed for more breadth overall. In ST, so many things happen in such a seemingly small game that it's amazing to think how the developers made sure no two sidequests bumped into each other at any point. I'll explain a bit more about this below.


Zelda games have never emphasized story, as they are mostly about puzzle solving in dungeons and exploration (which implies here, though it doesn't have to a lot of sidequests). That being said, the story is at least mildly interesting for its interaction with gameplay aspects: Zelda's spirit comes along with you for this journey, playing an integral part in dungeons and even some boss battles. She adds a good comic element to the story as well.


Just as the unique aspect of the story mentioned above adds to the gameplay, it also adds to the music. Link is in possession of a spirit flute which is used to advance the story. The songs are all excellent for ST's environment, further immersing the player in this highly detailed world.


(See my previous post on ST where I talk about this a bit.)

This is where things get really interesting. In addition to 5 dungeons, you must make your way up the Tower of Spirits, taken in 6 parts over the course of the game. The dungeons follow the standard Zelda format: you find a new item, use the item throughout the dungeon while solving puzzles, and use the item in a final test by fighting the dungeon boss. Overall, I found it easy to navigate the dungeons although the control takes some time to get used to.

The Tower of Spirits is also a dungeon in itself, played in 6 parts over the course of the game, but is less standard: you use Zelda to possess phantoms which you must control alongside Link and which have different abilities that you must utilize to traverse three or four floors of the tower at a time. In a sense, this is your "new item" in the normal dungeons. Yes, you still must use Link's items in the Tower, but emphasis is placed on controlling Zelda in her phantom. Being in control of both Zelda and Link adds a really interesting strategic dimension to the gameplay and is done quite successfully. There are a few times where movement of Zelda/the phantom is frustratingly difficult but there is nothing in these that seriously inhibits the gaming experience.


There are so many things to do in this game! It's really amazing at how such a small world (relatively speaking) has so much going on in it: there are hidden stamps to collect in mostly every main area of the game, hidden rabbits to find on your train, several minigames involving dungeons and hidden areas/tracks, as well as tons of people who need help getting to this or that place, etc. So after you beat the game, there are many reasons to simply start right up after watching the credits and explore the world. This is definitely my favorite part of the game.


From the minute you start playing, ST throws you into its world in a way that few games can do so completely. Charming you with its unique concept (driving a train to traverse the world map?!) along with an amazing variety in dungeons, puzzle solving, and side quests (the three reasons to play a Zelda game, right?) once you start playing you will easily get hooked. Aside from a few minor issues with the lack of detail in environments, some slowdown and a few problems with the controls, this game will not disappoint you.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

why study traditional economic institutions? part I of a week-long series

Part I: Background, motivation, initial challenge

Lately I've read some libertarian arguments criticizing the "nostalgia" some American leftists have over what were "better times." The libertarians argue that we shouldn't be looking backward and praising primitive societies for being more democratic, more equal, more communal, etc. One basic reason, they argue, is that we should not engage with essentialist human nature theories (although I would question whether the libertarians in general have a better response). Their arguments against the nostalgic views are well taken. Furthermore, I think they are right to a degree, that some leftists in the U.S. like to pine over better days and that influences their stance on economic policy (for example, labor or financial institutions). In fact it can plague the most radical of leftists. But where the libertarian critique and my own views diverge is in that I do not think a careful study of these alternative societies, whether they existed hundreds of years ago or still exist now, is counterproductive.

This is an extremely important point: themes of social policy; of more academic or theoretical issues; even themes concerning the very future of economic systems arise from a discussion of what we can learn from precapitalist forms of society. (See the Tocqueville quote on the right side of this blog.) Here's a quick question to demonstrate my point: where was the first social security program enacted? Answer: Bismarck's Germany, 1889. Interestingly enough, the social security act page on the government website has at the top a disclaimer: THIS IS AN ARCHIVAL OR HISTORICAL DOCUMENT AND MAY NOT REFLECT CURRENT POLICIES OR PROCEDURES.

I beg to differ. History can tell you a lot about contemporary policy, especially an act such as this one which was introduced in the U.S. as part of New Deal legislation in the 1930s. But why did Bismarck enact it? In part, to quell labor unrest. He did it to appease labor which was obviously pushing for more radical reform. Social security was just enough to keep them happy with a labor reform and to not hurt capital too much. The fact that social security was instituted as part of New Deal reforms at a time when, as Sombart would later write, "workers learned to look toward the State to solve their conflicts with capital" (paraphrased) tells you a lot about historical contingency and how it influences contemporary policy. In short, policies that are sometimes seen as a victory for leftists were really, at another point in time, merely a compromise between parties who were looking towards much more radical change -- that goes for both labor and capital! And even further, that very fact changed how future labor radicalism in unions was expressed!! (Think carefully about the Sombart quote!)

So given the importance of history, might we find elements of so-called "primitive societies" in our contemporary one? And if so, how do they interact on the scene of policy or academic discussions? It's a big question to tackle but their are clues in the example of Bismarck's policy. This is my specific thesis: The historical and contemporary existence (both of which need to be proved) of moral economies -- more specifically, institutions of democratic governance of the economic sphere-- work against capitalist institutions that have aimed, since day 1, to separate the spheres of politics and economy.

The first important question is: how do we demonstrate the existence of these moral economies? (But don't forget, we eventually want to arrive at an answer to the question of "why study traditional economic institutions?") A helpful related question is, how do you "see" capitalism? I've never written a blog post on "Why 'Imagining History'?" but this is exactly what I mean by it: we must accept that we are largely informed of history through other people imagining historical events, constructed of course from letters and other documents, other evidence that is necessarily incomplete. The task of understanding history is to imagine for yourself in the most complete way how events took place and then unfolded as a sequence. Here we are confronted with the possibility of imagining what capitalism looked like in the early 1800s U.S. and imagining its alternatives.

This is the end of part I, which has summarized the background, motivation and initial problems for exploring the question of the uses and abuses of praising traditional economic institutions. Part II to come in a day or two! And please, feel free to post your own thoughts/answer to the question. I will try to incorporate these views into future posts.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

sifting through the criticisms and praise, ff13 -- should we be excited?

Final Fantasy XIII is provoking a lot of controversy. It was released on December 17 in Japan and even before that, people were outraged at certain aspects of it, such as its apparent linearity (examined below). While the game will not be released in the U.S. until March 9th, I thought I'd give a summary of what I see to be the pros and cons of the game after sifting through message boards and websites.

Is the game linear? This is one problem many people have with the game. First, however, we should specify what we mean by "linear". The story could be linear in the sense that there aren't a lot of subplots to the characters. The most recent trailer, which you can see here, seems to easily dispel this possibility. In fact, this trailer gives you an early look at the story, which is argued to be one of the best parts of the game and definitely does not seem linear. Is the actual gameplay linear (in the sense that you don't have a lot of sidequests)? Not from several reviews I've read, one of which can be found here: you have the return of hunts from FF12 along with a chocobo digging game (similar to the excellent one found in FF9?). Or are the actual, physical dungeons linear? One of the message boards linked to this picture. It's an astonishing picture for sure. So, it seems we can safely admit the game is linear but in a very narrow sense of the word.

I would argue that without towns, with linear dungeons, and with little to speak of in terms of a world map, the game is portrayed as being one-dimensional but in a very insignificant area. Furthermore, even if the game is criticized for being linear, we must ask, "relative to what?" In fact, most FFs are linear at their core (story, gameplay, and dungeons). The least linear FF in the series is probably 6, given the branching off you do throughout the game's story and even moreso toward the end. Also, consider the amazing amount of characters you have in that game. In FF7, 8 or 9 (the Playstation FF's), you had your share of minigames and sidequests but there wasn't much opportunity to explore various characters' histories until near the end, when you might wrap things up and get their ultimate weapons or summons. Aside from that, a town in an FF game may be "devoted" to a character, but aside from this, the game didn't explore alternative plots or areas.

Some would argue that through these elements, Square Enix is attempting to revolutionize the Japanese RPG (JRPG) genre. Is that a bad thing? Square has been doing this since the first FF! Consider the controversies around most of the FF's of the last 12 years (starting with FF7): people either loved them or hated them, but all saw extremely high sales and were successful in this regard at least partly because each game was so different from the previous ones and did some really innovative and interesting things. Each was a milestone and influenced many JRPGs that came after it. Especially consider the first games on new consoles: 7, 10, and now 13 all have undergone extreme criticism but sold millions of copies.

Of course, some would argue that the disappearance of towns, and therefore shops, takes the soul of the RPG right out of the game. Perhaps, but until the actual buying and selling of items or weapons upgrades becomes devoid of any strategic element, I'm not going to have any less fun if I can't buy my armor from a mog in some random village.

I'd also like to note a very interesting debate over the game's difficulty: those who have played it through seem to argue for the most part that the game is generally harder than past FF's. I was relieved to hear that because FF's have been notoriously easy; in fact it wasn't until FF4 (for the DS) was released two summers ago that I had ever experienced a "game over" screen repeatedly for some boss or dungeon. Others say the difficulty is too easy so I guess this aspect is still open to debate, but I am doubtful at this point.

Finally (and this is something I can comment on with experience) the music seems really good! Here is the battle theme (not bad but not great). Here is the main character's theme (very good). Lately the FF's have been moving towards non-instrumental main themes and ending themes. I am not a fan of this as most cases it hasn't turned out too well. The latest example of this is FF13's use of a Leona Lewis (???) song for the ending in the American version. Not good, not good at all. The only good main theme with lyrics I've heard is "Sanctuary" by Utada from KH2, found here (and highly recommended).

Overall, based on what I've seen I think the game will be worth getting, although I may wait till the summer to play and review it here, considering how long it is (many people have said it's over 60-70 hours!). Enjoy this hyperlink-ridden summary of fanboy criticism and praise and leave comments!

Material for this post came from a collection of links found on the message boards for Final Fantasy 13 at, the best website out there for gamers.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

legend of zelda: spirit tracks first impressions

Another excellent Nintendo title. They really have put a lot of effort into making the more recent games in the series accessible, enjoyable, and challenging. Just to recap: in the last two to three years we've seen a Metroid Prime series makeover, Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, New Super Mario Bros. Wii and DS, and Super Smash Bros. Brawl.

At any rate, I am about halfway through Spirit Tracks and I'm loving it.


Firstly, I should not that I have not played Phantom Hourglass, which is the other Zelda title for the DS that shares a lot of characteristics with Spirit Tracks. The game is definitely different from Twilight Princess (the last epic Zelda game for the Gamecube and Wii): dungeons are still the central part of the game, but a lot of gameplay occurs outside of these dungeons in the form of various quests and backtracking, along with smaller dungeons which serve different purposes. These are all great aspects of the game and keep things refreshing. Filling in the gaps between all these dungeons and towns is your standard world map, but travel to different towns and dungeons takes place on a train (thus the title "Spirit Tracks"), which is a surprisingly fun part of the game.

Your train is your mode of transport on the world map and as you progress, you can make additions to the engine, car, or cannon. There are also some game-specific tasks to be completed on the tracks, such as delivering goods (or people) to various locales and having to keep to a set of tasks in the process. There is a minigame which you can play on the tracks as well, involving spotting rabbits hiding behind various parts of the scenery ... it's nothing serious, but this game was not meant to be serious (something one can tell from the very beginning). Overall, the train bit does not become monotonous (yet... and really, I think it would have by halfway through the game considering this is the slowest the train will be).

One dimension many have complained about is the controls. The dual screen of the DS is used well, with the top screen providing a map in dungeons which the player can fully write on, which may be useful for taking notes on treasures to return to or for help in solving puzzles. The bottom screen touch pad is used to the fullest extent: the XYAB buttons are not used in this game, nor is the D-Pad. So, movement involves touching the screen in the direction you want Link to move. Attacking involves tapping an on-screen enemy. Occasionally, a poorly placed rapid tap will send link somersaulting across the room, which can get a bit annoying and (at rare times) dangerous to Link's health. Link's items also make extensive use of the touch pad (and even the mic!), but for the most part if you properly use the shoulder buttons for activating the items, you will not run into any issues. In fact, once I realized that holding down "L" button activates my weapon, say boomerang, and then I can trace the direction of the boomerang with my stylus in the right hand, and then simply let go of "L" when I am done using it, things became immensely easy for me. I am able to rapidly switch between item and sword which makes battling much more effective, quick, and fun. So really, I don't think there are any serious problems with the controls; like most of the people who have issues with controls, it is more often than not about the person using the controls.

I sound harsh here because it's really the same thing as when people blame the controller, or the game itself (!) for missing a critical jump in, say, one of the early platformers (remember Spyro!? what about the early Mario Bros. ... they could get quite frustrating). I can't tolerate these arguments, especially when reviewers use it to say a game is not worth getting. This stuck out most clearly for me in some reviews of Okami for the Wii. As most of you who have read this blog for a while know, Okami is my favorite game of the last 4 or 5 years. Originally for the PS2, Capcom decided to bring it to the Wii around two years ago. This game relies heavily on the Wii controls since a central part of the game is painting designs on a canvas (for special moves, or items, etc.), so any imprecision can be a real hindrance to gameplay. Some people said that the controls were outright terrible and made the game unplayable. This is completely untrue! Perhaps the reviewers should have paid more careful attention to the sensor bar in relation to where they are sitting/standing, because I honestly had no problems in that game.

Of course, there are times when controls are so bad that the game is unplayable. But this rarely happens, and definitely rarely happens to a game that has a lot of hype behind it. One of the many testers are sure to point this type of flaw out.

At any rate, I hope you see my point that the controls really are not that bad and it's more about adjusting yourself to the game and learning a few shortcuts. Overall, this is a really good game and you can look forward to a fuller review quite soon.

Friday, December 25, 2009

review of new super mario bros. wii

Just wrapping up a few more thoughts on New Super Mario Bros. Wii (NSMB Wii)!


The Wii has never been a console whose purpose is to demonstrate the technical potential of developers' skills. Nintendo is purposely focused toward opening gaming toward a wider audience. While this goal doesn't imply graphics will take a backseat, in reality this is usually the case. NSMB Wii is no different on this account. Don't get me wrong; the levels are really well done, very colorful and detailed when necessary (some of the backgrounds are really cool). The special effects are well-done, too. In addition, the game never slows with a great amount of activity. Overall, I'd say the graphics definitely fit the "atmosphere" of the game.


The basic framework is this. You have 6 or 7 levels in a world. There are 9 worlds total. The minimum goal is to complete the level by evading and killing monsters, clearing perilous platform challenges, and (of course) jumping on the infamous flagpole. For gamers looking for more challenge, there are three star coins placed in each level that are usually placed in somewhat tricky locations. Getting all the star coins in a world unlocks a secret, difficult level in the ninth world, which is unlocked once you beat the game. Each world ends with some boss level, and also includes a ghost house and some random monster encounters.

The game is said to be relatively more difficult than more recent Marios, and having completed the game 100% on 7 of the 8 worlds and getting a few of the less challenging star coins in worlds 8 and 9, I agree with this assessment. Some of the coins are really challenging to get and you will find yourself spending quite a few lives, and sometimes even asking your friends to help you get some of the trickier coins. It's not so difficult as to detract from the game, however, so I find it a positive aspect of the game.

The cooperative mode is the real innovation in NSMB Wii. By allowing up to 3 players to join Mario in working through the worlds, the game adds dimensions of frustration, cooperation, and what can turn into loads of fun. While it can make the main challenges in the game a bit more difficult at times if you have a companion slowing you down, I think that, overall, it does add a positive element to the game. This is especially true when considering you can have fun with other players without having to work through a level in a serious fashion.

What I mean is there are two alternative game modes that are open to cooperative play: "Free-for-all" and "Coin Battle". The first simply allows you to go through any level you've completed in the game in a "just for fun" style. The second is more involved but, I would argue, is also tons of fun if you have 3 or 4 players on the screen at once. In this mode, you choose one of 5 specially-designed levels or any of the regular levels and race with other players to the end, trying to collect as many coins along the way as possible. Bonuses go to those who finish highest on the flagpole, beat the boss, or get a star coin,. It adds a really interesting competitive atmosphere, especially when you have more than two people on the screen at the same time. The "battles" for coins can get quite heated and they are a lot of fun!

It's interesting to note this because when I gave my "first impressions" of the game in a previous post I noted that playing the main game cooperatively is no fun with more than 2 players, especially if the third player is not particularly talented or into the game. The fact that competitive battle is only really fun when there are more than two players (whose talent can vary widely and still offer a great experience) gives you the perfect balance of multiplayer experience.

It is for this reason that I am tempted to award full points for gameplay. The game is just that fun.

Overall, after having enjoyed this game for quite a few more hours, I give it between a 9 and a 9.5 for offering a fun, challenging experience that is not too long and that really offers a great array of options for those looking for a cool multiplayer experience on the Wii. Anyone with a Wii should add this to a select few "must have" unique, charming and fun titles for the Wii.

Monday, December 7, 2009

more links

Three articles on time, all tangentially related to something I mentioned a few posts back on the relationship between work culture and time (both in discussion of the relationship between technology and industrial structure here and in my mention of one of my favorite papers, by E.P. Thompson in this post). The first is a contemporary example of why, and what we need to do in the twenty-first century to take some time off. The second and third are book reviews of Eva Hoffman's Time. While the reviews differ widely in their appraisals, both bring up some very interesting points which are addressed in Hoffman's book and which address the relationship between time and economy/society.


Sunday, December 6, 2009

/el doctor/ fidel castro: american politician

Every revolution needs a language, right?

Pietro in The Nation on the Cuban Revolution:

Who knew that better than he, the man who had subjugated the entire country, brought it to its knees with his "revolutionary violence"? Because where others--and I myself at the time--naïvely saw a voluntary acceptance, an "election," he saw with absolute clarity that all of it had been adamantly opposed, that it would never survive the test of a real election or stand up to any airing out, any public discussion of his practices and methods. That's what happened with Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms, to which, with perfect clairvoyance, el doctor Fidel Castro was fiercely opposed from the beginning.

For Castro and Gorbachev were historical epochs apart from each other. Gorbachev had inherited his power, didn't know how it had been gained, saw himself as a "good leader," someone who hadn't needed to have people killed, who'd never gotten his hands dirty or built socialism by force and against the popular will. Standing atop a pyramid of infinite power, Gorbachev behaved like an heir who knows nothing of his grandparents' effort and sacrifice to amass the fortune that he, wanting to be a good person and not an "exploiter," is eager to squander, distribute among the poor.

Fidel Castro's situation was very different: he was the one who'd brought socialism to Cuba. The superhuman effort it had taken to put the entire country onto that footing was fresh in his memory (though, let's concede once more, he did it for reasons of the Confrontation and not in pursuit of the mere chimera of a better life for all). He harbored no doubt that given a choice, the public, the entire nation, would choose to get rid of him, and fast.

Much more here

Saturday, December 5, 2009

a real gem in "guitar hero: van halen"

Guitar Hero: Van Halen is not a great Guitar Hero. There aren't many changes from Guitar Hero 5, but I guess that isn't the point of a game like this -- it's more about getting a package for fans of the band. Not to alarm you -- I am not one of these fans. I got the game for free (!) because I bought Guitar Hero 5 within the first week of it coming out. I had to mail in a sticker and some confirmation info which was a bit of a hassle but it's worth it for a free game.

So why am I writing about it? Because even though there's not a lot to write home about this game, there is something about it which is unique. The song list includes 20 or so Van Halen songs and 20 or so songs from other groups. The songs from the other groups are mediocre at best (one of several reasons the game is not that good). The Van Halen songs are, of course, very well done. But even most of these songs have a point where I start to get sick of them. It's the case with all Guitar Hero songs, for the most part: you can only play them so many times before you get bored. One Van Halen song, however, has me coming back again and again in a way that only one other Guitar Hero song has ever done. This song is just simply fun to play, in a way that combines challenge and innovation. That song is "Little Guitars". While I couldn't find a youtube video of the song played on "Hard" (the difficulty setting I'm at), I found an "Expert" which is surprisingly close in structure to the Hard version, so I'm posting it to give you a good impression of why this song is so fun:

Oh, and in case you were wondering what the other song is that I can play over and over again, it's "Cliffs of Dover" by Eric Johnson which can be found on Guitar Hero: Legends of Rock. Here it is on Expert (again, I can only play it on Hard):


Thursday, December 3, 2009

assorted links

Here are some interesting articles I've found this week:

I liked this piece for many reasons: it's funny, it's instructive (in terms of giving a history of big business in the U.S. and its effects on capital-labor relations), and it brings in some perspectives that we are not used to seeing (namely, how capital attempts to monopolize more than just market space -- artistic ability as well). Overall, it is highly recommended.

*The economic effects of religion, in 2 parts: here and here

Unlike some of my more leftist colleagues, I see a positive role for religion in economy/society. Whether it is the Buddhist belief in shunning material desires or Christian adversities to inequality, I believe that at the local level (at the very least) religious institutions can have a significant impact on economic performance. These articles search out the direct causal mechanisms, either finding room for a link (as in the first two articles) or failing to find one (in the third). To speak to the Boston Globe article, I do think it's more of an indigenous religion finding, and that we need to be careful with the conclusions we draw concerning whether it's religious institutions themselves or simply the behavior fostered by these institutions.

The second link is to a paper which is supposedly the most data-intensive test of the Weber hypothesis.

*A new collection of T.S. Eliot letters appears

*Stiglitz and Akerlof have a nice piece on innovations in models of the financial market

While it definitely falls in the "plurality" camp (essentially all these new models have nothing to say about the most fundamental institutions of capitalism and how those might need to change) I thought it was a good look at where the profession is headed