Friday, January 9, 2009

Palm pre

So I was expecting that Palm's keynote at CES would be the final nail in the coffin. No more vague promises of a new direction. No more limping along behind other smartphones. There would be closure now, one last uninteresting new product to seal their fate and shatter my hope in a Palm revival.
I didn't expect the Palm pre.

Saturday, January 3, 2009


Sometimes I think that the wrong games get sequels. I understand the rationale. You've got a successful game with lots of sales. Why not give the public more of what they like? Why not take the chance to improve on the formula? Don't get me wrong: I don't have anything against these sure-fire sequels. It's just that sometimes I feel a bit of pity for the sequels that should have been. There are so many games I've played that had fun and interesting ideas but for whatever reason were relegated to one-shots. Whether it be due to some gameplay flaws, lacking presentation, poor marketing, or just bad luck, some games don't get what they really deserved: a second chance.

Shooter Starfighter Sanvein already had a few strikes against it. It was released under a budget label. Its package, though an accurate depiction of some of the games elements, is a bit bland. On top of that, the localization was obviously rushed. Flipping through the instruction manual reveals not only a paltry page count, but a lax editing job, as well. Paragraphs are copies of the previous section, unrelated to the heading they fall under (a particularly grievous error, as I'll cover later), and the control instructions seem to be taken from a racing game. It's easy to see why most people would give up on this game based on first impressions. Too bad for them.

The game is pretty easy to figure out from a pick-up-and-play standpoint. Each level (or floor, as the game calls them) is an arena that consists of a number of enemies that must be destroyed to advance. A clock counts down as you blast away opponents. Take a hit and lose ninety units (Pips? Intervals? They count down too fast to be seconds) of time. Run the clock to zero, and the game is over. On a larger scale, the hexagonal floors make up the composition of each of the five stages, with each floor (save the first) only being accessible if one of its six sides has a cleared floor touching. Here's where the play gets interesting.

You don't pick up items to increase your firepower in Sanvein. Your secondary weapon recharges on its own and does a constant amount of damage. Your primary weapon, on the other hand, changes attack power based on the number of cleared floors touching the current one. That means if a floor is surrounded by three completed floors, you play through it with an attack power of level 3. This is hard to pick up without observation, since the section on attack power in the instruction manual is actually a copy of the ship control section preceding it, leaving the player with only a picture to illustrate what I consider to be one of the best parts of the game. The time limit and the power-up mechanic combine to force the player into a balancing act. Is it worth the lost seconds to make myself strong for this next floor? Should I risk taking a hit and losing even more time? This constant need to prepare causes me to do what rarely comes to mind when I play shooters: think ahead. After a number of playthroughs, I do find myself using the same old shoot-em-up skills, i.e. pattern memorization and twitch reacting, but it's in addition to strategizing and not instead of it. The constant flux between these two play styles (fast action during the floor execution and slower planning during the floor selection) is part of the appeal for me.

I would have loved to see a sequel to Sanvein and the improvements it would have brought: refinement of the gameplay and new stages to compliment the meager number of stages in the original. It says a lot when a budget game doesn't make enough to warrant a sequel, but its really our lose. In the end, I can live without the sequel, given the amount of fun I've gotten from the game. I just think it deserves more attention than it has.

Other Things I Like:
  • Time limits on choosing floors. You would think that being rushed to choose your next stage would be annoying, but it works in the confines of the games. You have three free seconds to choose the next floor before it starts eating into your main timer. This doesn't rush your choice, as you can pause the game at anytime, but it does put a penalty on traversing the board and encourages you to proceed on a path rather than jumping from board edge to board edge.
  • Ship variety. Each ship has a different velocity, turn speed, and weapon. These difference force a different strategy for each ship, changing the game in a way that, at least for me, justifies multiple playthroughs.
  • Soundtrack. There's no denying the electronic themes went well with the cyberspace setting, and it was more varied than you'd expect.
Things I Didn't Like:
  • Weird timer units. I wish they would have used seconds and milliseconds. It's hard to get a grasp on how boned you are from the timer, and the fast-paced nature doesn't lend itself to doing the conversions on-the-fly.
  • Cluttered. I like the style, but sometimes the background would cause me to take a hit that I couldn't see coming. The metal bullets look cool, but there's a reason most shooters have neon projectiles: visibility. Maybe they could have used some brighter accents.
  • No independent aiming. This is a bit forgiving, since it's more of a design choice, and the game was made around it, but I can't count the number of times I wished I was able to shoot with one thumbstick and move with the other. The symptoms of a post-Geometry Wars world, I suppose.
If Sanvein has caught your interest, it's not that hard to find in a secondhand store. Hell, it's on Amazon sealed for as little as $4.