A Summer Diversion Katie Couric Would Love


When you talk about it with the folks that have seen the exhibition, everyone agreed the recent Whitney Biennial kind of sucked. I mean, what was with those dull, deli canopies from the Reena Spaulings gallery? But two things didn’t suck, and the reasons for their unsuckiness had to do with a good idea conceived and executed simply. Tony Conrad’s pickled raw film stock in canning jars says a lot about the idea of preserving film if you look at the things with a Monty Python-esque nudge-nudge wink-wink. And the documentary about the anti-St. Nicholas craziness in Austria called “Kranky Klaus,” with its coal-in-the-stocking meets-bullying-frat-boys-for-a-night-of-mischief is just a lone video camera or two following the herd of mythical, antlered Krampuses as they harass the local villagers. Both are simple. But both are so effective, they’re ingrained within the consciousness of $15-paying museum-goers forever.

When Rockstar, the pseudo-controversial video game company that created the violent Grand Theft Auto franchise, sent over a game called TABLE TENNIS, I almost thought it was a joke. I laughed, Maybe this is some early public relations idea to promote Grand Theft Auto 4. I mean, where’s the complexity for the next generation system? It’s too damn simple.

But, yes, it’s a ping pong game. Now, ping pong games in video gaming are nothing new. Everyone knows that 1972’s Pong, the original video game, was a version of table tennis. Since then, there have been dozens of such offerings for everything from your Palm (Table Tennis 3D) to your mobile phone (3D Slam Ping-Pong). But none has had the panache and the attention to detail of Rockstar’s Table Tennis.

First, the graphics are pretty darn mind-boggling. You might think, who cares—it’s just a table with clunky paddles and a hollow, celluloid ball.  But what’s stunning is the way the life-like characters react to winning and losing. Not only do they look human, they act human. They get angry; they sweat; they talk to themselves, either to calm down or to pep up. They have egos and they live for applause from the crowd.

I seriously expected to play this game for a few minutes and then get on to the next thing. But with my first point, I was excited. By the end of my first match, I was hooked. That’s because the simplicity of the game is deceiving.  You don’t have to move your character from side to side: the game does it for you. All you have to concentrate upon initially is moving the right thumb stick forward and releasing it when you want to hit the plastic ball. It’s so much fun that I looked into the history of ping pong. It’s a game that began in the late 1800s as a form of indoor tennis played by well-to-do Victorians who were addicted to tennis. But they couldn’t play outside in the nasty English winters. Supposedly, they initially used a rounded Champagne cork as a ball and a stack of books as a net.

Fast forward to 2006. With the Table Tennis video game, there is such a subtlety in the way you hit the ball that it’s almost poetic. Not only can you add topspin and backspin, you can add left sidespin and right sidespin. By pressing the right trigger on your controller, you activate something called Full Focus. With three levels of focus, your game play gets better and you’re truly in the zone. When you get a little better, you’ll be able to tell what kind of spin is coming at you, and you’ll be able to counter that spin.

There are no real ping pong champs in the game. But the ones that have been imagined not only have their own playing styles (anything from fleet feet to killer defense). They also have personality. You’ll meet a variety of players as you move from the various tennis circuits, some of which are seedy and some of which are so full of people, you’ll get nervous.

But the real magic and wonder of Table Tennis comes with Xbox Online play. You can volley with up to eight players in a tournament online. When you have a rally against someone from, say, Olympia that goes over 100 hits of the ball, your heart starts pounding and you wear the look of grim determination.  You’ll probably hear a lot of bragging through your headset. But you can turn that off. 

The upshot? Because Table Tennis is so easy to pick up, it will probably introduce a lot of casual gamers to the Xbox Online experience. That means a more mature crowd, and a more civilized game with fewer moments of Madden-like trash talking. But Rockstar’s ping pong game will have some competition soon: Nintendo is creating a table tennis game for its Wii system to be released in the fall. If it works as well as Table Tennis, they should subtitle it “Kranky, Pickled Mario Pong.”

  • Check out reviews of all the latest and greatest games (updated every week), along with past faves in NYC Guide.
  • Da Vinci Code

    Publisher: 2K Games

    Developer: The Collective

    All the way back, back more than 80 years ago, H. L. Mencken did a telling thing. He had a funeral for the gods, dozens of gods like Furrina, the Roman water goddess, and Enurestu, the Assyrian god of war, gods who were no longer worshipped. He posed, “Where is the graveyard of dead gods? What lingering mourner waters their ground?” It all makes me wonder if our current gods will, centuries later, go that same way. Right now, God is big, the Christian God, the Jewish God, the Muslim God, and you shudder to think that has to do with the horrors of war. But God is popular again, and that’s one of the reasons THE DA VINCI CODE became a mainstay for readers in the Western world. Of course, they had to make the book into a game, so game geeks could worship in their button pressing way, too.

    Movie-based games have always had a checkered history, and it’s rare that these offerings are equal to or better than the hits that preceded them. Still, The Da Vinci Code occasionally has some compelling things going for it.

    The Da Vinci Code book has been on the New York Times best seller list for 163 weeks. Despite middling reviews, the movie took in $77 million here in the U.S. last weekend. So everyone wants to play the game, right, in order to live in Dan Brown’s world of strange religion and complex quandary?

    In its behalf, the DVC game is a kind of throwback to times when adventure games were the big things in the industry. You examine things and pick things up and use them to solve the case. That’s because, at its core and beyond the controversies, the book and game are mystery stories.

    As you begin, you’ll be confronted with a dead body bearing a pentagram in the Louvre museum, just like in the book. As in any mystery that involves a conspiracy, there will be a lot of talking, deduction, and clue finding. All this can be as frightening as Freddie Krueger when dealing with the more fanatical elements in the game. 

    At its best, Dan Brown’s book lets you learn new things. You can discover interesting aspects about anagrams and ancient history from the game, too, but the conversations among characters do get a little dry—quickly. But it’s fun to search around in the museum among the priceless artworks (and you don’t get the dreaded symptoms of museum back, either). Although the puzzles can sometimes be a little too simple to deal with (even if you haven’t read the book), you do get the feeling of a great mystery: You feel tension and you get the creeps from time to time.  

    While you’ll explore crypts, find cylinders with messages, and even fight occasionally, there are still two things missing. You don’t really get a sense of reward for the accomplishments you make when you solve bits of the mystery. Perhaps that’s because the characters act so wooden and so bland.  Finally, you’ll wish they would have added more to the game, more puzzles, more plot, more history, more excitement.

    Over The Hedge

    Publisher: Activision

    Developer: Edge of Reality

    OVER THE HEDGE is a platformer, not an adventure game. But if you made games from animated movies, you’ll delight in the humor that’s presented. Here, the characters are never boring. In fact, they feel alive as an old Bugs Bunny cartoon. Everything from the way the animals move to the one liners they spew will make this game sing to its target audience: big-eyed kids with unsullied senses of wonder. 

    The movie-based game features a motley crew of animals who are trying to make their forest safe from an ever-encroaching suburbia full of McMansions and uncaring humans. There’s even the evil Exterminator, who can get the animals to turn on one another. When you choose a character to play, you’ll also have a sidekick, who’ll help you on your missions. There are also various mini-games to play, the most enjoyable of which is racing radio controlled cars. While an adult would feel the game is too simple, it will easily capture (and perhaps inspire) the imaginations of children, who’ll love the personality-rich characters, the lush environments, and the ever present humor. 

    Gamer Galore: E3 Highlights and Surprises

    Back in the day, Albert Einstein wrote “All of science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike—and yet it is the most precious thing we have.” As I staggered among the throngs at E3 and got elbowed in the ribs by the photo-taking hustlers during the Paris Hilton mobile game event, I felt I could apply Einstein’s moment of scientific/literary brilliance to the science of making video games. Case in point: the forward-looking innovation at this year’s E3 (but not the overly imitative Paris Hilton DIAMOND QUEST game).

    What was most surprising about E3 began at the PlayStation 3 press conference and ended at the Sony game booth. The good news? The PlayStation 3 will be released on November 17, dashing rumors that it would be delayed for a second time. Yet much of the press conference was humorless and tired, and many of the nation’s top journalists strained to see from the back of huge soundstage on the Sony Pictures Lot. Usually, Sony brings up a celebrity or two to spice things up. But the press conference was full of power point presentations and videos of games that looked, at best, like the Xbox 360 games. Since the PlayStation 3 is supposed to be far more powerful than the 360, this was a bit of a disappointment. So was the high-ish price. A fully loaded machine will cost $599.

    As of last week, the game that looked the best was HEAVENLY SWORD.  It follows a red headed female warrior as she seeks revenge upon a despotic ruler and his army, even though she only has a few days left to live. Sure, the graphics shined. But the demo that was shown to me proved the power of the PS3 where the other games did not. Inside an arena, the warrior fought about one hundred enemies. They all seemed to move independently, and they all seemed to have their own personalities. Additionally, WARHAWK, looked stunning. In this flying and fighting game, you use the controller as a kind of steering wheel. Sony took a page from Nintendo’s innovative Wii controller and added a gyroscope-like device so you can fly the planes by moving the controller up and down, and by tilting it from side to side. Still, the games offered nothing completely extraordinary and new. I mean, even the PSP will release the utterly creative LOCO ROCO later this year, and its simplicity will change gameplay. Of course, Sony will get it, and the PS3 will be a great machine with amazing games. The games just won’t have that “Wow” factor until about this time next year.

    The most scintillating offerings were those showcased by Nintendo for its upcoming Wii device. With WII SPORTS, you use the wireless controller in tennis as a racket to serve, volley, and add spin. In baseball, you use it as a bat. These simple games are addictive and will probably give you a bit of a physical workout as you play. But Nintendo didn’t stop there. SUPER MARIO GALAXY takes you through the universe as you hop from planet to planet and use the controller to vanquish monsters. THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: TWILIGHT PRINCESS lets you use the controller as a bow and arrow. There’s even a mini-game which allows you to relax and fish for bass. I didn’t think the graphics of the Wii were all that, even with Zelda. But this is a revolutionary year because the way you play games is going to change—for the better—when Wii is released this fall.

    Overall, Microsoft had the best looking game offerings. When Xbox executive Peter Moore showed off everything from GEARS OF WAR to HALO 3 at the packed Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, jaws dropped and the crowd went wild. The graphics looked hyperreal. It was as if you were nearsighted and put on the right glasses for the first time. Then, Bill Gates took the stage to explain how the Xbox 360 could interface with the upcoming new Windows operating system, Vista. He then outlined how both of these would work with your mobile phone. For instance, if you want to play a 360 racing game on Xbox Live, you can choose the car and set up a game time via your cell phone. Finally, VIVA PIÑATA, a children’s game that takes a page or two from Nintendo’s ANIMAL CROSSING, looks like a real winner as far as the cute factor goes. Here, you raise living animal piñatas in a vivid, lurid world that constantly changes. Viva Piñata may well bring adults and children together as they play on the 360.

    Over at the Electronic Arts booth, there was a two-and-a-half hour wait for a demo of yet another game that will change the character of gaming. Will Wright, the creator of The Sims, showed off SPORE. It’s a mind-boggling PC game in which you can really create creatures from cells and grow them until they take off in a spaceship for the far reaches of the universe. The creatures you create are so much like the computer graphics in a Hollywood movie that it was no brag when Wright said, “The idea is to give you the tools to make a creature in minutes that it takes a Pixar animator two weeks to make.” Even more compelling was the idea that every world a gamer creates can be uploaded to the Spore Web site. So there will be a vast universe of planets that you can land upon and explore with your spaceship. If you’re angry, you can even make war with the aliens you find. Spore truly will be Will Wright’s magnum opus.

    So beyond the scantily clad booth girls with aching feet, beyond the too many yawn-inducing shooting games, and far from a din so loud that fire marshals had to be called to one of the displays, there was optimism. It’s as though game developers finally built a spaceship to check out the world beyond the earth.  What an unparalleled time of exploration the next few years will bring.