Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Best Webshow You're Not Watching: Portscenter

In 2016, if a game is released for multiple gaming consoles, odds are that it's going to be virtually identical from platform to platform. Take Fallout 4 for instance; the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 versions were designed to be the same. Sure there may be some performance differences based on the compatibility between the hardware and software but the intent was to make an identical gaming experience. Those lucky PC users though have the luxury of mods and console commands to make their experience more unique.

But mods are built off of a core experience that's already established. What would it be like if different versions of a game were more substantially different? Gamers who are accustomed to handheld devices ranging from their smartphone to Nintendo's various Game Boys already have been exposed to this. It's frequently the case where a mobile or handheld version of a game is completely different from the console version thanks to them having obvious differing levels of power.

Go back a generation of games and you could see this happening frequently between the Xbox 360, PS3, and the Wii. If a game was released for all three systems, odds are that one of them would get a version not quite like the to take a guess as to which?

If you guessed the Wii, you're right. Here's the game Ghostbusters released in 2009. One version is the PS3, the other is the Wii. The Xbox 360 version easily could've been used as an example of the PS3 picture below, since the games are the same, but there's quite an obvious difference with the Wii's take on it. The characters are cartoonish instead of realistic, the resolution is much lower, and though you can't see it from the pictures there have been some heavy changes to the gameplay. Interestingly enough, the Wii version actually supports split screen co-op for the story mode while the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions don't.  The game was also released on PS2 and PSP, looking like the Wii port, and the DS version is just something completely different altogether.

The number of these kind of differences have a direct relationship to the age of the console generation. Back in the days of the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, there were a tremendous amount of differences between many of the games that got ported. Sometimes a game would share the same name but be completely different; as is the case of Batman: The Animated Series for the SNES and Sega Genesis. The SNES is an action/platforming brawler that models itself after various episodes of the show, the Genesis version is a run and gun side-scroller.

Now to be fair, that's not exactly a port so much as it is a completely different game of the same name. Compare this to what happened with the 1991 arcade title, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time. In 1992 this arcade brawler was ported to the SNES with some new bosses added and some graphic effects and sound clips edited out. That year also led to the release of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: They Hyperstone Heist on the Sega Genesis. While not a direct port of Turtles in Time it does use many of the same assets, remixes the levels, and plays virtually the same as its SNES counterpart.

Confused yet? Ports, remakes and the like can quickly become a terribly convoluted web of name changes, similarities, and differences. Lo, there is someone who can help you navigate this tangled mess of titles: Ben Paddon.

Ben is the host of the YouTube channel and show, Portscenter. As you can probably guess from the name of the show and the paragraphs that led up to this point, his show discusses ports of various video games. Each episode of the show focuses on one game and how it changed from system to system, release to release.

Portscenter debuted it's first episode on YouTube in July of 2012 with an episode dedicated to the classic first person shooter, Doom. The production values on this early episode don't compare to how much stronger they'd be in the future, but it's still very well shot and produced. Ben mixes strong amounts of game play footage with shots of him so you can get a feel for the game he's talking about while also giving the show a very personable face in Ben himself.

I first discovered Portscenter about a year ago from the time of this writing when I was desperately searching for something entertaining and game related to watch. At that point I had gone through all the videos from JonTron, Caddicarus, ProJared, etc. and was craving something new. Somehow I stumbled upon Portscenter and was instantly hooked. I plowed through every episode released at that time in one massive, marathon session. It was easy to keep watching given how well the episodes were presented, Ben's knowledge of the games, his telling of his personal experiences with them, and the variety of games he covers.

One of my particular favorites is his episode on The Addams Family. I personally have fond memories of this game as I owned both the SNES and NES versions of it. Ben focuses on what I knew as the SNES version, but also goes on to discuss that the game was also released for the Sega Genesis, Amiga, and Atari ST. If those last two systems sound strange to you, that's okay, they sounded strange to me too at first, but we'll return to one of those momentarily.

Ben goes through and shows how the Atari ST version doesn't have smooth screen scrolling, notes that both that version and the Amiga one lack the weaponry found in the SNES and Genesis versions, and even goes into the rather unique NES version of the game. But by that, I don't mean the NES version I mentioned I had; see this is where it gets really interesting. The NES game titled The Addams Family is a fairly crappy platforming game that involves Gomez Addams trying to find money scattered around his mansion and has completely different levels than the SNES game. But both the SNES and NES received sequels called Pugsley's Scavenger Hunt. The SNES version is a completely original game with new levels, enemies, etc. and is based off of the mid 90s Addams Family cartoon instead of the movie. The NES version is also based off the cartoon but is actually a slimmed down version of the original SNES Addams Family game. They copied the levels as best they could and condensed them into the NES cartridge. It's fascinating if you enjoy this kind of video game trivia and Ben does a wonderful job of presenting all this information in an easy to understand and bitingly sarcastic form.

See, Ben's English, and he has just a wee bit of that fondness for dry, English humor; or should I say, "humour." And by "wee bit," I mean he's all into it. He's perfectly okay with dropping the F-bomb when necessary, and even when not necessary; he "takes the piss" out of Americans, quickly and frequently insults terrible games, and readily wears his biases on his sleeve. Remember that Amiga thing I mentioned above? Well that ties back in here with Ben's English-ness. The Amiga was a home computing and gaming system that sold dreadfully here in the States, but actually did decently well in Europe. Ben has very fond memories of the system and it's games and is not ashamed to admit it. Put it this way; if there's a game that was debatable better for the Amiga then another system, Ben's going to favor the Amiga. Not that he doesn't acknowledge the shortcomings of it all though; you'll hear on more than one occasion the frustration of a one-button Amiga joystick and pressing "up" to jump.

Portscenter is an incredibly informative show for those who really enjoy gaming. There have been a lot of webshows that make a name for themselves by playing and making fun of bad games, and Ben does that with bad ports, but there's also a LOT of information he gives you about these titles. The Mortal Kombat II episode is great for this as not only do you get to see how bad the PlayStation version of this title was, but you get some wonderful inside information as to why it turned out so terribly. Or in the Darkwing Duck centered show, Ben discusses how the NES title is really just a Mega Man game in disguise. Even though it's not a port in any way, it does provide something for fans of the classic Capcom franchise to look at and hopefully enjoy.

The best episode Ben's done is also one that embodies what makes Portscenter different and special in the online video universe. In November of 2014, Ben uploaded a video in dedication to his mother who had recently passed away. The episode entitled, "Deluxe PacMan + Tettrix" discusses how Ben's mother enjoyed gaming, helped shape his interests growing up, and was a huge supporter of him starting his show.

This edition could've easily turned into a long, heartfelt testimonial, but Ben makes it very much like any other episode of the show as he deftly weaves kind words and sentiments about his mother with his typical biting analysis and discussion of the games she enjoyed. There's a few laughs, some very heartfelt moments, and a genuine sense of love and appreciation that is shown and not told. Ben doesn't just put himself out there and break from what he normally does, he just weaves his emotion into his typical style to make a tribute that feels more like a respectful celebration than a time of mourning.

Portscenter is easily one of the best gaming related shows on YouTube. Very few programs combine the level of information with entertainment that this does, and fewer still are presented with the sarcastic yet personable attitude that Ben has. The more invested you are in gaming, the more you're likely to get out of the show, but you don't need to be a enthusiast to find the material interesting.  If Ben's talking about a game you've never heard of, you can be sure you'll get enough background information about it to understand what changes occurred to the game when being ported and why these changes were good or bad.

I really can't talk this show up enough. Go grab a snack, something nice to drink, sit down and enjoy. Unless you've already seen the show in which case, do all of the above except enjoy it again.

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