Wednesday, December 31, 2014

One for the Road

I know 2014 hasn't been a great year for most folks, but aside from a surgery in March, it's treated me pretty well. The icing on the cake was finding this super-sized 3DS at a Target in southern Arizona for just $100, half the normal retail price. Happy soon-to-be birthday to me, huh? 


I know about the forthcoming New 3DS with Almonds, and I know there are going to be games I won't be able to play on this unit, but come on, man... it was a hundred bucks! Who could resist? 

Anyway, happy new year, folks. Hope 2015 shows you as much kindness and generosity as the last 365 days had me. 

Saturday, December 27, 2014

I Declare You to be Living Impaired: The Ballad of Valkyrie Profile

You've gotta hand it to the Animaniacs... they could frustrate anyone into lip-quivering submission, from a thinly disguised Sam Donaldson to Death himself. I still never figured out why the Reaper sounded so Swedish in that episode, though...

Holy crap, it's a female lead character in a
video game! And she's fully dressed!
 
Anyway! One of the PSP games I bought a few weeks ago that didn't get mentioned in my big pile 'o reviews was Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth. Frankly, I didn't think a glib paragraph-long summary would do it justice. Fourteen hopelessly addicted hours later, I'm certain of it. 

Normally, I'm not a fan of RPGs... I just don't have the attention span for them. However, on rare occasions, something will come along that reaches beyond the boundaries of the genre and grabs me by the throat for a couple of weeks. Something like Panzer Dragoon Saga, or Suikoden and its sequel, or, well, Valkyrie Profile.

Here comes the pain! 
I didn't know much about this game when it was first released for the PSOne back in 2000... just that the death blows were called "Purify Weird Souls," a term which aspires to the heights of Shakespearean lore but ends up crashing headfirst into the Japanese/English language barrier. Silly as the title may be, Purify Weird Souls is the compelling hook in Valkyrie Profile's combat system, and one of the many ways the game distances itself from the status quo of Japanese RPGs.

See, each character in your party- from swarthy swordsmen to demure mystics to designate leader Lenneth- is assigned one of the face buttons on the Playstation controller. Each hero springs into action with a tap of a key, limiting the need for boring menus and ending fights almost as quickly as they started. Beyond that, the members of your party can attack a single enemy en masse, breaking their guard and opening the door to devastating combos. 

String enough attacks together and you'll be able to perform a coup de grace which brings down all but the hardiest foes. You can even chain together each of your characters' Purify Weird Souls attacks, turning an already defeated monster into a thoroughly beaten dead horse. There's not much point in going Shazzang on the easily dispatched creatures early in the game, but in later chapters, you'll need every ounce of power you can squeeze out of your characters to defeat the harpies, dark knights, and Iori Yagami-ish vampires that stand in their way.

And how will you recruit these heroes? The same way you usually do in these games... by finding them. After they die. Okay, that part's new! Lenneth's a Valkyrie, and only picks allies who are past their expiration dates. She scours the countryside, listening for the dying gasps of worthy warriors, then invites them to fight alongside her in the afterlife. The best of these soldiers will even get a free trip to Valhalla to clash with Loki and the Vanir army. Choose wisely... the fate of the world depends on it!

Unlike the Suikoden games, new party members are handed to you on a silver platter. You just have to meditate to find them, then fly across a beautifully rendered landscape to their current location. Since most of the work is done for you, you can sit back and enjoy each character's dramatic and surprisingly detailed introduction. These stories don't always have as much impact as they should thanks to shaky scripts and miscast voice actors, but they nevertheless go a long way toward humanizing the cast and fleshing out the storyline.

Sharpen your blades... the enemies
just get more vicious as you progress.
 
It's clear developer Tri-Ace put just as much effort into Valkyrie Profile's graphics as it had its characters. Much of the game is seen from a side view, with brilliantly drawn characters set against backgrounds that are low on vibrant color but overflowing with ambiance. Lenneth sets foot in everything from opulent kingdoms to ramshackle ghost towns, along with over a dozen spine-tingling dungeons. Your first thought when you visit the Cave of Oblivion, with its gooey strands of spider web stretching from floor to ceiling, will probably be "How the hell do I get out of this place?" (You'd better listen to your gut on this one... the cave is teeming with the game's most dangerous monsters!)

There are just two problems with Valkyrie Profile. The first is that the game engine feels slightly wonky, with running and especially jumping lacking the fluid grace you'd expect from a Nordic goddess. The second is that the game is complex, even obtuse at times. You'll play for hours before you understand how some of the mechanics work, and it's entirely too easy to leave your fighters unprepared for battle because you forgot to switch on their skills, or boost their personality traits, or equip them with an important item they'll need to win fights in Valhalla. Even the seemingly simple combat system can leave you overwhelmed because the infinite combinations of weapons and characters can bring a lot of guesswork to the Purify Weird Souls attacks. Expect some initial frustration and a few paper cuts from leafing through the official strategy guide.

It may be as dense as a lead brick, but it's hard to ignore the defiant creativity of Valkyrie Profile. You won't find a single Japanese RPG that plays like it... and after a quarter century of games stubbornly stuck to the Dragon Quest template, that's a huge relief.

(images culled from multiple online sources) 

Monday, December 22, 2014

Alert, alert!

Spy ship sighted! Er, no, that wasn't it.

I just wanted to say that internet is still a huge problem for me. CenturyLink insisted that I dig a trench on my property so they could install internet cable there. We'd scheduled a time for the cable to be dropped, and surprise surprise, the technician never arrived. I've heard a lot of complaints about CenturyLink (I mean, a lot of complaints), so this will probably be just the tip of the iceberg. Don't be surprised if I return in a couple months to angrily rant about the company double-billing me for service they never provided the first time. Hey conservatives, remind me again why this country's ISPs don't need to be regulated?

Anyway, just wanted to let you know that aside from the internet, I'm doing fairly well in the Arid Zone. I'm still lovin' my new PSP-3000 to pieces, and I still give my Vita a workout whenever the opportunity presents itself. It's funny... the first time I lived here, I was muscling my way through the Japanese cult hit Grandia on the Sega Saturn. Fifteen years later, I'm doing it all over again, this time in English on a Playstation-branded handheld. The more things change...

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

December PSP Game AVALANCHE!

Look out, here they coooome!!

Capcom Classic Collection Reloaded

This looks incredible on a PSP-3000.
Seriously, you have no idea. 
Looking back, 2006 was a damn fine year for retro gamers. It was the exact moment in gaming history when home systems were capable of perfect emulation of more advanced arcade hardware, yet just before the rise of online game marketplaces and the nickel and diming that quickly followed. This resulted in incredibly generous game compilations like Capcom Classic Collection Reloaded. This disc features two dozen arcade hits for around thirty bucks, the sale of the century when you consider that games like this are often sold on Xbox Live for five dollars a pop.

Compared to its predecessor Capcom Classics Collection Remixed, the games in Reloaded are more predictable and less eclectic. There are no underground hits like Black Tiger; just iconic Capcom series like 194x, Ghosts 'n Goblins, and Street Fighter II, all presented exactly as you remember them and looking gorgeous on the PSP-3000's dazzling display. Reloaded has a more sterile interface than its predecessor which further detracts from its personality, but that will hardly matter to you if you're just here for the games... and boy does Reloaded deliver in that department. This is an absolute must for anyone who set foot in an arcade back in the 1990s. 

A-

EA Replay

Ricky Coogin is... Ghost Dude!
"Boo, dude!"
Everyone was making classic collections in 2006, so why not Electronic Arts? HERE'S why not. EA pioneered the concept of the disposable video game with the John Madden Football series and had earned a reputation as a maker of precisely two things in the 1990s... sports games and kusoge. Half their games were obsolete in a year and the other half had no business existing at all. If any publisher SHOULDN'T be making a classic collection, it's Electronic flippin' Arts. 

Yet here it is anyway, full of forgettable originals and ill-conceived console adaptations of PC titles like Wing Commander and Ultima (the Super NES port by Pony Canyon, no less. You monsters!). Each game has the original credits hastily replaced with a generic copyright notice, and several have other weird alterations, like the soundtracks in all three Road Rash games being swapped for some royalty-free heavy metal EA must have found in a quick Google search. EA Replay is worth the price of admission just for the Road Rash trilogy and the hard-as-nails Strike series, but everything else will leave you as cold as the heart of the EA exec who greenlit it.

C-

Activision Hits

Can't... stop... playing!
Don't... know... why! 
There's nothing thrilling about this collection, really. I mean, you get about thirty games from the classic Activision library, but they're all very old games for the Atari 2600, and they're not exactly packed with depth. However, throw in some chart-topping, toe-tapping hits from the 1980s, and the experience turns into a compulsion, like digging to the bottom of a bag of potato chips. You're not really aware of what you're doing, and fifteen minutes later, you're left with greasy hands and a nagging sense of shame. You'll find yourself playing Activision Hits (most likely the better games in the collection like Megamania, HERO, and Beamrider) without even understanding why, nodding your head to Nobody Walks in L. A. while picking off UFOs, spare tires, tarantulas, or whatever silly thing the programmers throw at you. There's no real point beyond unlocking badges by earning seemingly impossible high scores, but it's a good way to burn away a few spare minutes you'd otherwise spend wiping sour cream and chives out of your mustache. 

B-

Resistance: Retribution 

Horrifying abominations await in every
corner of Resistance: Retribution. 
The PSP honestly isn't cut out for first and third person shooters... it's got too few buttons and too many hardware limitations to get the job done. Having said that, Bend Studio (they of Uncharted: Golden Abyss fame) has done a tremendous job of squeezing the Playstation 3 favorite Resistance onto the PSP. The game, best described as a head-on collision between World War 2 and an H. R. Giger nightmare, is one of the best looking titles on the system, approaching Vita quality with its detailed character models and ravaged battlefields. But that ain't all, folks! You get satisfying shoot 'em up action to go with your window dressing. The control is contextualized to make up for the PSP's lack of buttons and the way your crosshairs are magnetized to each enemy takes some of the challenge out of the otherwise enjoyable gameplay. Nevertheless, Resistance is one of the high points of the PSP library, impressively stretching the boundaries of its host system. 

B+

Namco Museum Battle Collection

Don't play this one. Seriously. 
Ms. Pac-Man. Galaga. Dig Dug. Is there anything else you need to know? 

Well, there are a few other details worth pointing out. The emulation of these games and a dozen others is much better than it had been in previous Namco Museum releases, without the shrunken sprites that made the Pac-Man games such a bummer on the Playstation, Nintendo 64, and Dreamcast. Each game looks kingly on the PSP-3000, even titles like The Tower of Druaga which kept Japan spellbound for decades but will be lucky to hold your attention for more than a few minutes. Then there are the arrangements, modern sequels to Namco's arcade hits that don't hold a candle to their thirty year old ancestors. Frankly, they're not even as good as the arrangements that appeared in Namco Museum for the Playstation 2 and XBox, but look on the bright side! At least the time you won't be spending with them can be better invested in trying to kill that blasted Andro Angenesis in Xevious! 

B

Burnout Legends 

This is the one game no PSP fan should be without,
Feel the burn, baby! 
racing fan or no. It's not quite up to speed with its console counterpart Burnout 3: Takedown thanks to less impressive graphics and stages from the first two games that aren't a good fit for Legends' more aggressive, less technical play style. However, start a "quick" Road Rage match and it'll take the jaws of life to rip that PSP out of your hands. Nothing is more intense than shoving your rivals into guardrails, off bridges, and into medians, hoping to heaven that they won't come back to return the favor. The lush colors leap off the screen (in sharp contrast with the grittier sequel Burnout Dominator) and the sense of speed is utterly mesmerizing. Pop this game into your system and leave the real world in the dust! 

A-

Motorstorm: Arctic Edge

Motorstorm's brand of over the top and slightly
Jeeps versus rally cars? Oooohkay... 
slippery racing action comes to the PSP, looking as beautiful as ever but lacking the consistency or the compulsive gameplay that makes Burnout Legends the king of handheld driving titles. Rather than a single class of vehicle, competitors bring anything they can find to each race, from compact snowmobiles and motorcycles to mammoth snowplows. You could argue that this gives Motorstorm variety, but some of the vehicle types are excessively bulky and don't handle as well as others, leaving the player at a disadvantage. 

Another issue is the computer opponents' tendency to start out strong but lose interest in the race halfway through. In the beginning, you'll struggle to keep up with the rest of the pack, but by the second lap, you'll be well ahead of the other racers. Motorstorm is fun in its own quirky way, with lots of dips and hills in each track to keep the action unpredictable. Nevertheless, there's no shortage of great racing games on the PSP, and Arctic Edge struggles to compete in a very crowded field. 

B-

Dariusburst

One reviewer dismissed Dariusburst as "forgettably
Here, fishie fishie! 
competant," but that's selling the game short. While it may not measure up to the best games in the series like Sagaia and G-Darius, it's a strong shooter in its own right, demonstrating a great deal more care and craftsmanship than Taito's other PSP sequel Bust A Move Deluxe. 

For the most part, Dariusburst is familiar territory. Steel-plated sealife pours out from the edges of the screen, and you blast it, collecting the power up orbs left in its wake. The polygon-powered graphics are better than ever and the Zuntata soundtrack is even stranger than ever (no small feat), but what distinguishes Dariusburst from its predecessors is that you're armed with the kind of all-consuming laser blast that bosses have vaporized you with for decades. Just blast a few dozen enemies to charge it up, then let 'er rip, clearing a path through minor foes and putting the hurt on the larger ones. 

As mentioned earlier, Dariusburst isn't the best game in the series. Surprises are in limited supply and the game is a little on the easy side, letting you keep your power ups once you've been destroyed and even topping off your Burst meter as a bonus. Having said that, Dariusburst is a perfectly entertaining shmup, and you'll have a hell of a time finding a better one designed especially for the PSP. "Forgettably competent," my foot. 

B

Bust A Move Deluxe

I had an adverse reaction to this game when I first
Blah. Blah! Bleech. 
played it, but after a few hours, I can see what the developers were trying to accomplish with it. It's a Halloween-themed Puzzle Bobble game, with spooky backgrounds and theme music. The theme isn't expressed particularly well, but it's as good a setting as any after more than a decade of Bust A Move titles. 

That's the problem with this game, though... after ten years, there's really no place to take Bub and Bob, and the developers are scared to try. When Taito changes the art style, the fans violently reject the new look (as well they should, in the case of the rubbery Super Bust A Move). When they experiment with the gameplay, it's no longer as fun as the original. So Taito took the straight and narrow with Deluxe, adding a dozen completely optional (and mostly obnoxious) play styles, but keeping everything else familiar. And predictable. And boring. It's Bust A Move at its most timid. 

If you're looking for a quick and dirty bubble popping fix, BAM Deluxe will do the job, but the discriminating puzzle addict should stick with the exceptional Bust A Move 2 or the touch-enhanced Bust A Move DS instead. 

C

(Images culled from multiple online sources.)

Friday, December 12, 2014

Third Time's the Charm: The PSP-3000

An unfortunate reality of handheld game systems is that a couple of years after the first model launches, a second will come along to address many of its design issues. Call it a natural byproduct of the advance of technology, or shortsightedness on the part of the engineers, or good old fashioned greed from the manufacturers. Whatever the cause, it's been happening since the Game Boy Pocket came along to replace the old white brick Nintendo threw at us in 1989. 

And so it goes with the PSP-3000, the third revision of Sony's would-be Game Boy killer. With a lighter frame, a more responsive D-pad, and a memory buffer for faster game loads, it's the PSP that will make you feel profoundly foolish for buying the original in 2005. It's actually better for PSP games than *later* models of the system too, thanks to its support for UMD discs and compatibility with the full PSP library. There's been ongoing debate about the quality of the display, but for my money, the 3000 is Sony's best crack at the PSP hardware. Here's why. 

THE LOOK

Sexy? Well, if you're into
that kind of thing. 
When it first launched, the PSP was lauded by critics as "sexy" for its sleek black capsule design. (Yes, that's the word they used. Try not to pinch yourselves in the UMD drive door, guys.) However, the PSP-3000 demonstrates just how much work Sony had left to squeeze the system into a truly portable package. The two models look similar at first glance, but you'll notice a huge difference the moment you hold the 3000 in your hands. It's half the weight and nearly half as thick as the original, making the launch model seem almost as fetching as a rusty boat anchor. 

THE FEEL

The PSP-3000 was designed with ergonomics in mind... not only is it more comfortable to hold than the original, it's more fun to play thanks to its responsive, finger-friendly buttons. The keys on the face are wider and more accommodating, especially the four action buttons which fit comfortably under the thumb and have just the right amount of give for confident gaming. The D-pad is similarly improved, and responsive enough that you can pull off the complex motions in fighting games with little difficulty. It's not preferable to the fully exposed, pivoting pad on the Vita, but it's a drastic improvement from previous PSPs and a better option than the tiny analog nub in games that support both. That hasn't changed, by the way, and it's still a sorry substitute for an analog thumbstick. 

THE SCREEN


The choice is clear. And a lot more
colorful, too! 
Here's our first snag. Curiously, the 3000's LCD display has horizontal scanlines, similar to what you might see on an old computer monitor. This may prove distracting for some players, but the scanlines are very faint and won't reveal themselves unless you're very close to the screen. What's obvious from any distance is how much better 2D games look on the new display. Colors are radiant and every pixel is razor sharp, without the constant blurring of the past two PSP models. Classic collections in particular look fantastic on the 3000, making it the model to have if you're a retro fanatic. 3D games don't fare as well, with their rough polygonal edges no longer disguised by ghosting, but they're still quite presentable, looking better than equivalent Nintendo DS titles. 

THE HORSEPOWER

Where performance is concerned, the PSP-3000 isn't much different from its predecessors. You get a built-in microphone for Skype (heaven help you if this is your only option for chatting online), Bluetooth for PS3 functionality, and a memory buffer to make game loads a bit less laborious. Beyond that, the 3000 is just a more comfortable way to enjoy the games you've been playing for nearly a decade. 

It is worth mentioning that the extra memory comes in handy for homebrew programs, especially emulators which won't run on the first model of the PSP. On the other hand, actually running homebrew on the system is a kludge, forcing you to not only hack the 3000 but run a recovery tool to refresh the firmware every time the system is booted. Fortunately, keeping the PSP in sleep mode lets you avoid that hassle. That wouldn't have been practical with the first model of the system, but better energy efficiency means that you can tuck the 3000 in at night without worrying that its battery will be drained in the morning.

THE VERDICT

It took Sony a few tries, but the company finally perfected the design of the PSP with the 3000. Its lighter weight makes it a joy to hold, the memory buffer takes some of the sting out of the UMD drive's access time, and support for more games and the readily available Memory Stick Pro Duo makes it more appealing than either the PSP Go or the PS Vita. Sony's latest handheld is your best bet for continued software support and a more advanced gaming experience, but if you're still happy with the classic PSP library (and there's a lot to be happy about!), it doesn't get any better than the 3000. 

I'll be reviewing a handful of the games I recently purchased for my PSP, so stay tuned for that!

CORRECTIONS: Research reveals that the PSP-3000 is actually only 20% thinner than the launch model, but nearly half the weight as previously mentioned. Also, the PSP-3000 does not have Bluetooth; that's a feature exclusive to the PSP Go.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Too Much to Baer

I was planning on writing a brief review of my latest toy, the PSP-3000, but this is more important. Ralph Baer, the creator of the world's first home game system, passed away at the age of 92 yesterday. Not content to rest on his first important achievement, Baer also came up with the concept of video game digitization, later used to great effect in games like Mortal Kombat. Ralph's original idea was to let high scoring players leave behind a selfie instead of just their initials, but one play tester thought it would be fun to take a snapshot of his other end, forcing Baer to change his plans. 

His game ultimately evolved into Journey, starring the bobble headed members of the 80s rock band on a cosmic quest to retrieve their instruments. The game quickly faded into obscurity thanks to the crash of 1983, and was even openly mocked by Journey's irascible lead singer Steve Perry, but personally speaking, I really enjoyed it. It wasn't just the novel use of digitization that made it stand out, but the layered gameplay that went from cautious to frantic once a band member claimed his instrument. Imagine if everything on the screen- girders, barrels, ladders, and hammers- tried to kill Mario the moment he saved Pauline, and you'd have a pretty good idea of what to expect.

Anyway! You'll be missed, Ralph. Say "hi" to all the other giants of gaming history we've lost.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Playstation Memories... and Resentment

Well, it's officially been twenty years since the Playstation first launched in Japan. It's a bittersweet milestone for me personally... I was as excited about the system as everyone else when it first hit these shores, but after a chance encounter with NightWarriors: Darkstalkers' Revenge, I switched my allegiance to the Sega Saturn and refused to abandon that sinking ship. 

It wasn't until 1999 that I finally bit the bullet and traded a handful of import Saturn games for a boxed Playstation.* I'm not sure what my first game was... I suspect it was Final Fantasy VII, which was a crushing disappointment after coming down from the highs of Grandia and Panzer Dragoon Saga on the Sega Saturn. However, the first games I bought with any personal significance were Armored Core: Project Phantasma, Mega Man Legends, Rival Schools, and Street Fighter EX Plus Alpha. These four titles are as good an introduction to the Playstation as any, and after all these years, I still find myself digging out Street Fighter EX for a rematch against bizarre characters like salaryman-turned-Power Ranger Skullomania.

Twenty years after the Playstation's debut, and fifteen years after I broke down and got one for myself, I can honestly say that I'm happy to have owned the system. Even with its frustrating focus on 3D, it's got a more eclectic, Japanese-centric library than its successors. Where else could you play No One Can Stop Mr. Domino!, or Einhander, or Parappa the Rapper, or Castlevania: Symphony of the Night? 

Well, technically, all the other Playstation systems too, but backward compatibility doesn't count. And before you bring it up, you really don't want to play Symphony of the Night on the Saturn. Trust me on this one.

* It seemed like a good idea at the time, but fifteen years later, with those games going for $100 a pop on auction sites and Playstation systems selling for... considerably less, perhaps I should have given this more thought. I'm not known for my foresight.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Feed the Sea with Ghosts: The (Partial) Ballad of Deadstorm Pirates

Sorry it's been so long since I've updated, folks. Internet's been hard to come by 'round these parts, but I'm working at it. Right now, I'm typing this entry at the local library, and wanted to let you know about a game I recently played at an arcade in the area.

Well, "arcade" might be stretching things a bit. The steady march of technology over the past fifteen years have made the arcades from my childhood obsolete... the Dreamcast closed the performance gap between home and arcade hardware, and the rise of emulators like MAME means that players no longer have to run to the nearest laundromat or amusement center to scratch their retro gaming itch. These days, arcades are packed with redemption machines like Skeeball and coin bulldozers, along with action games centered around a gimmicky controller that's too impractical for home use. You know, steering wheels, massive rifles, a giant butt you can stick your fingers into... that sort of thing.


Yikes! You don't have to tell me twice!
(image from Namco America)
These games typically don't have much replay value, but for the first hour, the really good ones will have you convinced that they're the best things you've ever played in your life. Such is the case with Deadstorm Pirates, an obscure Namco release from 2009. Deadstorm Pirates combines the frantic gunplay of Sega's House of the Dead series with the high seas thrills of Pirates of the Caribbean, then adds a "golden gun" with unlimited firepower. There's none of that reloading nonsense here... just keep the trigger squeezed and you'll hose down the hordes of rampaging skeletons with magic bullets. A second player can join the party, and when both players fire at the same point on the screen, their bullets are given a power boost, especially handy against shielded enemies and during boss battles.

Thanks to the inexhaustible golden guns and a generous life bar, Deadstorm Pirates is pretty easy. I finished most of the first stage on a single credit, and would imagine a perfect playthrough would be possible with some practice. Nevertheless, the game is a blast the first time you play it, as all great light gun titles should be. The action is intense, with the screen routinely choked with skeletons, and the graphics, while a little plain, really sell the nautical setting with scurvy shipmates and violently churning seas. You'll even get a chance to steer your ship from time to time with a wheel in the center of the cabinet. Cranking the wheel is exhausting, but narrowly missing that haunted schooner makes it worth nursing a sore arm the next day.


"Wait, grim reapers too?"
"Never mind that, just keep shooting!"
(image from PS3.mmgn.com)
The only real complaint one could launch at Deadstorm Pirates, aside from its limited replay value, is that the voice acting kind of stinks. It's not as enthusiastic as it ought to be, and it's even condescending at times. Really? Shoot the enemies with the golden guns? Gosh, I'm sure glad you told me! I was gonna try cutting them up with the plastic sword from a nearby Mazan: Flash of the Blade cabinet! (Yeesh.) However, you could make the argument that lousy acting is expected from light gun games after the legendarily awful performances in House of the Dead and its sequel.

I'd never heard of Deadstorm Pirates until this week, so its existence came as a pleasant surprise. I'm even happier to discover that it was released for the Playstation 3 not just once, but twice. It was originally included in a three game collection called Time Crisis: Razing Storm, and was offered on its own as a PSN download. At fifteen dollars for roughly an hour of gameplay, the download is more expensive than it probably should be. However, if Sony ever cuts the price during a flash sale and you've got some Move controllers stashed away in the closet, you'd be smart to hop aboard this ship.

Friday, November 14, 2014

South by Southwest

Just a quick heads up that I'm in Arizona right now, using my smartphone as a makeshift internet hub. So I'm not going to be doing much with the blog until I'm online in a meaningful way. See you then!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

One Step Back

You know, the Vita doesn't get much respect, but I've got to say that it's a massive improvement over Sony's previous handheld game system. I picked up my PSP for the first time in months, and while the system is still capable of some fairly impressive visuals, it's a disaster ergonomically. It feels like a brick in your hands, the D-pad is practically useless, and that stubby analog nub is no replacement for an honest-to-goodness thumbstick. Trust me, once you've upgraded to the Vita, it's incredibly hard to go back.

Annnnyway, I'll be taking an extended vacation in a couple days, so you may not be seeing too many updates to Kiblitzing until I've settled into my new digs. Of course, if the plane crashes, you won't see be seeing any updates at all, but let's hope it doesn't come to that.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Kiblitzing Defined

So, you may have asked yourself at some point, "Just what the heck does 'Kiblitzing' mean, anyway?" Well, it's a long story...

Let's rewind the clock back to 1981. That's around the time I got my first computer, the VIC-20. Designed by Commodore, the budget-priced VIC-20 quickly attracted a mainstream audience, and was the first home computer to sell one million units in the United States. There wasn't much it did especially well, but it was a capable video game system, with performance that struck a comfortable middle ground between the Atari 2600 and the ColecoVision. Commodore's beige breadbox had hundreds of games on both cartridge and cassette, serving me well in those lean years before I bought a Nintendo Entertainment System in 1988.


One of the games in my VIC-20 collection was Sargon Chess II. Like many folks with Asperger's Syndrome, I was something of a savant, learning to play chess at an early age. The only problem was that I didn't have the foresight or the patience to play it well, so I had to rely on a feature in the game called "Kibitzing." The computer would think of a move for you, which could either get you out of a jam or make a bad situation worse. However, a slim chance at victory was better than a guaranteed loss, so I milked that feature 'till the teats fell off. (It was also fun to use the edit mode to populate my side with queens and leave the computer opponent with one naked, helpless king. Try winning now! Mwa ha haaaa!)


Fast-forward to 2012. When I started this blog, I wanted to give it a clever, memorable title which doubled as a tip of the hat to the gaming web site I'd retired the year before. This is what popped into mind. It doesn't have the same ring as "The Gameroom Blitz," but it gets the job done... and it seems to fit pretty well now that I know what kibitzing actually means.

Contrary to what the instructions in Sargon II Chess would suggest, "kibitzing" is not a flattering term. It's Yiddish for backseat driving; offering advice that wasn't requested or even desired. I've often gotten the feeling that people weren't interested in my running commentary on video games... yet it still keeps coming!

Friday, October 31, 2014

Viva Oktober-Fist... and Horror Gemonth! Darkstalkers

I was all set to eschew Anne Lee's Horror Gemonth and do my own thing, but then I remembered Darkstalkers. Out of the hundreds of fighting games released in the 1990s and beyond, it's my absolute favorite, and with a cast of creepy monsters, it's the perfect way to celebrate Halloween. How do I love Darkstalkers? It may take a while to count all the ways.

One of the best reasons
to own a Saturn.
(image from Giant Bomb)
One: Darkstalkers was the first fighting game to look incredible and play the part. Before its release, you usually had to settle for one or the other. Street Fighter II was brilliantly designed but had an unremarkable art style cribbed from 1989's Final Fight. On the flip side of the coin was Martial Champion, which had colossal characters but rather dismal gameplay and a dearth of special attacks. Darkstalkers stretched the boundaries of video game visuals with its color-drenched backgrounds and clever animation, but it was a great game even without the window dressing. Darkstalkers got even better in the sequels, leading to...


Two: Darkstalkers was the reason I bought a Sega Saturn. Hell, I was so impressed with the Saturn port of NightWarriors: Darkstalkers' Revenge that I bought the game months before I owned the system! There was a conversion of the original Darkstalkers for the more popular Playstation, but it was outsourced to Psygnosis and suffered from all the usual shortcomings of early PSOne arcade ports. Beyond that, NightWarriors was more refined, with extra characters and the option to fill your super meter up to nine times. Playing the game with the Saturn's fighting game-friendly joypad was also a better option than the Dual Shock or its predecessors.

The Darkstalkers cast. Really, how
could you not love these guys?
(image from Popcults)
Three: Darkstalkers has a brilliant cast of characters. The game was originally supposed to star monsters from the Universal Studios film library, but the creatures dreamed up by Alex Jimenez and touched up by Capcom's art staff are so much better. You've got a vampire who shows his dark side whenever he attacks, a ghostly samurai with a cursed sword, a hyperactive feline fatale with a massive mane of hair, a punk rock zombie, and a werewolf who actually looks like a wolf and not some guy who fell face-first into a puddle of Rogaine. Future games included everything from a kyonshi with Swiss Army sleeves to a ruthless bounty hunter disguised as Little Red Riding Hood, making the cast even more deliciously demented.

Four: Darkstalkers is a pretty good reason to own a Vita. Although Darkstalkers Chronicles: The Chaos Tower was designed specifically for the PSP, it's even better here thanks to the system's vivid OLED screen and a more responsive D-pad. The system's four face buttons hurt the game a little, but it's still extremely playable... just set the shoulder buttons to three punches and three kicks and you're in business.

Five: Darkstalkers had a cartoon, which... uh, forget the cartoon.

Fear this reaper.
(Image from NowGamer)
Six: Darkstalkers was an important evolutionary step for Capcom games and the fighting genre as a whole. The chain combo system is similar to the ones in Killer Instinct and especially the Marvel vs. games, which would come years later. It also ran on more advanced hardware than the first few Street Fighter games, broadening the horizons of the art staff and paving the way for Street Fighter Alpha, Street Fighter III, and competing games like the Guilty Gear series and Skullgirls.

Capcom hasn't released a Darkstalkers sequel since 1998's Vampire Savior, and because of the middling sales of the Darkstalkers Resurrection collection on the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, it doesn't look like we'll ever get one. However, the last two games in the series have aged pretty gracefully, and are tremendously fun to play whether it's Halloween, Thanksgiving, or a week from next Tuesday!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Viva Oktober-Fist! Learning to Love Tekken

And goofy haircuts.
It's been nearly twenty years since the Tekken series first debuted in arcades... and it's taken me about that long to find the charm in the franchise. However, after picking up the PSP version of Tekken 6 at a steep discount, I'm determined to squeeze every drop of entertainment out of it that I can.

Some things I've learned from my time with Tekken:

* It doesn't hold a candle to Street Fighter X Tekken, but it looks pretty darned nice for a PSP game, and is more than acceptable on the beefier Vita. The fighters' faces are more detailed than the rest of their bodies, but you don't notice much when the camera's zoomed out. What you do notice are the attractive backgrounds, including a dimly lit backlot with train tracks in the distance and ground zero at a messy tomato festival.

* It's technical, almost to the point of obscenity. I went to Tekken Zaibatsu to look up a moves list for the Jackie Chan-esque Lei Wulong, and it was a daunting fourteen pages long. Seriously, count 'em for yourself! Some attacks are dependent on your position, your opponent's position, your distance from the wall and the other fighter, the current lunar phase... it's complicated, is what I'm saying.


Newcomers to Tekken 6 include Miguel and
the creepy contortionist Zafina.
(image from Modojo)
* The combat system seems like a random jumble at first, but things start to fall into place after a few dozen matches. There's a button assigned to each of your fighter's limbs, which isn't far removed from the two punch and two kick buttons in most Neo-Geo fighting games. Pressing a punch and kick button together throws your opponent, while pressing both kicks (usually) switches stances. You can move around the playfield by double-tapping up or down, and charge toward your opponent by double-tapping toward them. Running sets up some interesting possibilities that weren't available in Virtua Fighter... if you do it from halfway across the screen, you can tackle your rival for minor damage. Do it from a greater distance and you can shoulder check them for a lot more. 

* Never stop attacking. Whether they're on their feet, on their back, or stuck in mid-air, your opponent is always vulnerable, so keep that punishment coming! It may not seem sporting to kick a man (or woman, or panda, or wooden automaton...) while they're down, but unrelenting aggression is a big part of what makes Tekken Tekken.

* I'm a little surprised by how personality-impaired these characters are after playing Street Fighter X Tekken. You get comments before and after every match that offer some insight into each fighter, but the outrageous facial expressions and exciting cinematography from SFxTK are deeply missed. Tekken 6 is too grim for its own good, although there are rare moments when a sense of humor creeps into the gameplay. After all, one of the stages is set in a Swiss pasture, complete with wandering sheep and yodeling!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A Sublime Scrap: Dreamcast Fighters (part 1)

The Dreamcast was one of gaming's most fascinating paradoxes. It was a 21st century console that came to the party a few years early and left just as the festivities began. It had all the good games in 2000, while the Playstation 2 got all the attention from customers. It courted a young male demographic, yet had a distinctly feminine, sterile design, looking disconcertingly like a Japanese tampon dispenser. Considering Sega's misfortunes in the late 1990s and its eagerness to abandon the Dreamcast shortly after its American debut, perhaps this peculiar system shouldn't have existed at all... but gamers were nevertheless glad that it did.


Captain Parakeet here is tougher than he looks.
(He'd just about have to be!)
Without a second analog stick or the horsepower of later consoles of its era, the Dreamcast didn't do everything well... but one genre it mastered was the fighting game. Arcade hits that were a challenge for the Playstation and Saturn were no trouble at all for the Dreamcast, and it was capable of so much more. Soul Calibur and Dead or Alive 2 are still considered some of the best games in their class, and even the bad fighting games don't seem so awful in hindsight. Take Plasma Sword, for instance. This Dreamcast conversion is barely improved over the Playstation-powered arcade game, with flat levels and noticeably boxy character models. It's hardly brimming with technique, either, but it's still dumb fun to cut down a motley assortment of cyborgs, hairy giants, and space cockatiels with your light sab... er, plasma sword.


Freeze, punk! (Sorry.)
Mortal Kombat Gold is another Dreamcast dud that's sweetened with age. It's painfully dated next to the 2011 Mortal Kombat remake (even the Vita version!), with stiff animation and splatters of blood that look more like scattered gems. However, it at least plays like classic Mortal Kombat, which is more than can be said for the dreadful Deadly Alliance and its sequels. It's fast and frantic, and the addition of weapons doesn't gum up the works like the many pointless features in the Bush-era Mortal Kombat games. (Why give each character three fighting styles when none of them are any fun to use?) The two on two battles are also a welcome feature, although you can't swap fighters on the fly like you can in Mortal Kombat 2011's tag-team mode... one character just leaps into the fray after the first explodes in a shower of blood and limbs.


Tennis the Menace.
The Dreamcast fighting games that were pretty good in 2000 remain so today, although I'vestill got mixed thoughts about Rival Schools 2 after all these years. On one hand, it's the best high school-themed versus fighter in a crowded market (trust me, there are a lot of these in Japan), with outrageous parodies of familiar student archetypes. You've got a surprisingly tough bookworm, a big-breasted cheerleader, and a dozen flavors of athlete, ranging in size from a tiny tennis phenom to a (literally) barrel-chested sumo in training. It's hard not to love a cast this crazy, but the gameplay is a harder sell. It borrows from a handful of previous Capcom fighting titles, resulting in an awkward patchwork that doesn't play as well as any of the games that inspired it. Combos feel stiff, jumps don't have enough horizontal reach, and in an unwelcome change from the first game, super moves can be interrupted with a brief showdown which the computer opponent usually wins. It's not Capcom's best work, but Rival Schools 2 certainly has its moments. There's nothing like calling out your massive partner to shrug off hits meant for you, then flatten your would-be assailant with a tooth-shattering blow!


My money's on the walking tank.
One Dreamcast game I didn't get to play back in the day was Tech Romancer, but after trying it in an emulator I wish I had. It's not fighting in the traditional sense, but rather an epic battle between giant robots. Each metal colossus is based on a character from a popular Japanese cartoon- for instance, Giant Kaiser is a dead ringer for Mazinger Z- and the action follows suit with bright colors and big explosions. I haven't gotten the hang of the gameplay yet (super moves are possible... somehow) but I really like what I've seen so far. It's way more approachable than Virtual On, which offers all the confusion of piloting a fifty foot tall metal soldier without much of the fun. It's just a shame about the title, which brings to mind a really uncomfortable fetish.

I'll cover some of my favorite Dreamcast fighters in a future update. Believe me, there are a whole lot of them!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Gatecrasher

I've seen some stupid things from the Game-Я-Gate* mess, but this has to take the lead paint-frosted cake. Just... just look at this.




Listen, you little rectal wart. There's no feminist hiding in the bushes, hoping to extract the challenge from your video games. Nobody's taking away your killy-killy-bang-bang games packed to overflowing with blood, swearing, and barely covered breasts, either. Hell, there's a new title on the horizon called Hatred, which true to its name is the most antisocial yet.

Let's dispense with the absurd hypotheticals and talk about something that did happen to me ten years ago.

(walks into video rental store)
ME: "Hey, do you guys have Culdcept?"
CLERK: "No. What the hell is that?"
ME: "Well, what about Katamari Damacy?"
CLERK: "Nope, don't got that one either."
ME: "Well, what do you have?"
CLERK: "What we got is over there."
(motions over to a shelf with eighteen copies of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. I kid you not, there were at least that many copies on the shelf)
ME: "Lovely. Look, don't you have anything a gamer from my generation would like?"
CLERK: "We stock what's popular. If you don't like it, buy something from a store."
(storms off grumbling)

So you'll understand when I say that I have no sympathy for the legion of überdorks who complain that the hobby is being taken from them. None, nien, zip, zilch, goose egg. You seemed all too eager to push old-school gamers like myself into the periphery by demanding polygonal games with all the whimsy of the latest Saw movie. Guess what? Now it's your turn to watch helplessly as the industry caters to a new audience at your expense. 

Besides, it's not like you're really losing all that much, since you've got way more options than I did in Playstation-dominated 2004. There are three next generation game systems, two older but still currently supported ones, two handhelds, hundreds of tablets and smartphones, and PCs with about a dozen different game distribution services. Believe me, you have options. And you'll have plenty of opportunities to satisfy your bloodlust. After all, there will always be room for that lowest common denominator schlock, as long as there's room in the video game industry for a movement as moronic as Game-Я-Gate.

To make a long story short (and at the risk of ending a sentence with a vulgar preposition), shut the fuck up.

* Yeah, I'm not spelling out the hashtag as it appears on Twitter. I don't need the flood of assholes.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

This victory has strengthened the soul of... Gabrielle!

My new video card has opened the door to a world of cutting-edge gaming... yet I find myself returning to the fourteen year old Dreamcast library. The emulator NullDC runs the bulk of the system's library with ease, while bumping up the resolution of polygonal games to a crowd-pleasing 1440x900. That's, uh... (counts on hands) a buttload of pixels. Maybe even a buttload and a half!

I've learned a few things from my reunion with the Dreamcast. The first is that its graphics have gotten a little creaky in the decade and a half since the system's launch in 1999. The games we loved the most still look fantastic, but they're not always an accurate reflection of the Dreamcast experience. Many of the system's titles- even very good ones- are tarnished by boxy limbs, repetitive backgrounds, and coarse textures. The previously savaged reviewed Virtua Fighter 3tb is a good example of this, but so are more warmly received games like Power Stone and Rippin' Riders. Aside from a small pool of standouts, Dreamcast titles could never match the visual luster of later Playstation 2 games. 

We'll never know for sure how far the DC could have been pushed if it had been supported past 2001, but I tend to think that it would have hit a brick wall in 2003, around the time the Prince of Persia remake had been released for its competitors. I recall a friend offering this unflattering description of the frame rate in the Dreamcast version of Shenmue 2: "Just step into a crowd and watch the slideshow." No wonder it was an Xbox exclusive in the United States...

The other thing is that the Dreamcast was the 20th century's best system for fighters... not even the Neo-Geo and Saturn could touch it. Heck, it can even run Neo-Geo CD games with the aid of an emulator, and without the absurd load times that took a sledgehammer to any enjoyment players could have gotten from an actual Neo-Geo CD. The Dreamcast could play 2D games like Street Fighter III: Third Strike that were beyond the Saturn's reach, along with 3D games that wouldn't have been possible on the dated Playstation hardware. Take Soul Calibur, for instance. The arcade game ran on modified Playstation hardware, but the Dreamcast version was significantly improved, with the rough polygonal edges smoothed out and a bounty of console-exclusive features.

Oh yeah, that brings me to the other other thing I noticed while playing Dreamcast games. After looking at the Soul Calibur cast, I've noticed that Greek warrior Sophitia is a dead ringer for another Mediterranean hero, Xena's sidekick Gabrielle. Just look at the two of them side by side! No way that's a coincidence. It's amazing how much developers cribbed from the likenesses of celebrities in the days before gaming hit it big.


(Poor Xena: Warrior Princess. It was a fun show before Hope and all that Quantum Leaping.)

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Wednesday Night Vita-Thon II: Dead and Loving It

The Vita is doomed! DOOOOOMED!

But it's still fun. Here's a few games I've played on the system lately.

PIX THE CAT


Shiny on the surface but retro at its core, Pix the Cat is a smart reinvention of the classic maze game. It seems simple at first, with your wide-mouthed feline scooping up duck eggs, but the eggs quickly crack open, leaving you with a trail of hatchlings. You'll quickly be trapped by your brood if you don't drop the ducklings in nests scattered throughout each level. Just when you think you've got the hang of it, skulls, mines, and serpentine passages arrive to further complicate matters. If the action gets too intense, you can switch to a puzzle mode where fast reflexes take a backseat to careful planning. Between the fluorescent graphics and a wealth of features, Pix the Cat will make fans of Pac-Man Championship Edition and its sequel very happy... although they won't be as thrilled with its obscenely long load times. A-


NEED FOR SPEED MOST WANTED

Most Wanted is a shotgun marriage of the white-knuckle action of Burnout and the more realistic racing of the Need for Speed series. It's a forced pairing which will leave fans of both series satisfied, yet somewhat underwhelmed. The customization that was at the heart of later Need for Speed games has been kept to a minimum, while the crashes of Burnout aren't as frequent or exciting. The gameplay most closely resembles Burnout Paradise with its dozens of events scattered across a vast playfield, but it's a dingy rust belt town without the appeal of Paradise City. Having said all that, there's fun to be had in Most Wanted if you're willing to look for it. Races (although often too long) are still packed with excitement, and you can launch your car off ramps and into billboards, just as you could in Burnout Paradise. Chases by an ever-growing swarm of cops are the secret ingredient that makes Most Wanted more than just the diluted offspring of two of gaming's biggest racing franchises. B-

SOUL SACRIFICE DELTA

This one gave me warm, fuzzy memories of Phantom Dust, an obscure action game on the classic Xbox that was equal parts Power Stone and Magic the Gathering. In both games, you charge into battle with a handful of pre-chosen abilities, ranging from weapons to shields to healing items. However, Soul Sacrifice Delta lets you keep all of these powers at your fingertips, rather than having to frequently run back to home base for a recharge. It's also got a more entertaining storyline, courtesy of a living book which instructs you how to bring down the demon sorcerer Magusaur... when it's not subjecting you to withering insults. With its nightmarish setting and the option to slaughter defeated enemies to strengthen your magic, Soul Sacrifice Delta isn't one of the more optimistic games in the Vita library, but it's undoubtedly one of the best. A-

INJUSTICE: GODS AMONG US

Whoever said "looks aren't everything" clearly wasn't on the Netherrealm staff when they were making Injustice. This fighting game starring the heroes and villains of DC Comics is the definition of style over substance, with fighters being punched through buildings, fed to sharks, and charging after each other in clashes worthy of an episode of Challenge of the Superfriends. In fact, the designers packed so many awesome sights and sounds into Injustice that they barely had any room for gameplay! Like other iffy fighters, it limits itself to three mostly random attack buttons, with a fourth button reserved for character-specific abilities. It makes memorizing each character's special moves tougher than necessary... not that you'll want to stick around to learn them after you've seen every super move and level transition. C

BLAZBLUE: CONTINUUM SHIFT EXTEND

There's an unwritten rule in fighting games that there has to be an oddball to round out the cast of generic karate experts, lightning-fast ladies, and brawny wrestlers. For Street Fighter, that was stretchy-limbed yoga master Dhalsim, and for Virtua Fighter, it was the perpetually drunk Shun Di. BlazBlue rewrites that rule by making all of its fighters the weird one. The closest BlazBlue has to an ordinary character is the vaguely Ryu-esque swordsman Ragna the Bloodedge; the rest of the cast includes a frantic cat girl, a child puppeteer, a creepy amorphous shadow, and a scarlet-clad martial artist armed with a pole and massive breasts. BlazBlue's bag of mixed nuts are brought to life by Arc System Works' crisp artwork and some surprisingly deep back stories, but the peculiar fighting styles and life bars that take an eternity to drain might make BlazBlue a hard sell for players who already own the faster, more intense Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter X Tekken. C+

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Fighter's Misery: Virtua Fighter 3tb

I'm very disappointed in you, Sega.

Granted, it wouldn't be the first time. Sega's offered a steady stream of disappointment since the well-intentioned but badly botched Sonic Spinball. However, Virtua Fighter 3tb is the company's most bewildering blunder. Since its debut in 1993, Virtua Fighter was critically important to Sega; perhaps even more than its mascot Sonic the Hedgehog. It helped ease Sega into the 3D gameplay that would become dominant in the 21st century. It was the fighting game other fighting games wanted to be, as evidenced by Tekken and Dead or Alive. It was one of the few titles that made Americans seriously consider buying a Sega Saturn.

And this is the send-off it gets on Sega's last game console.


Pants... too... shiny! Can't... concentrate!
Admittedly, Virtua Fighter 3tb isn't a bad fighting game. Well, it is compared to other fighters on the Dreamcast, and the original arcade game, and players' expectations after Virtua Fighter 2 on the Saturn. When judged on its own merits, however, it's... okay. I mean, it's recognizable as Virtua Fighter. You've got the usual punch, kick, and guard, along with a button that grants some rudimentary 3D movement. If you press it, oh, about thirty times, you can lure the opponent to the edge of the playfield and knock them out of the ring. The stages are more organic than in previous Virtua Fighter games, with dips and hills in the topography. However, it doesn't add much to the action beyond window dressing, and it's not nearly as exciting as knocking your foes off buildings and down stairs, like you could in Dead or Alive 2.


There's a sumo wrestler somewhere in
that mess of polygons, I swear!
I tried, I really did, but it's hard not to compare Virtua Fighter 3tb to other Dreamcast fighting games. The graphics are well below the standards of fellow launch title Soul Calibur, with sharp-edged polygons that frequently clip through each other. The developers tried to disguise the low poly count with an extra helping of gouraud shading, but the hasty paint job only highlights the fighters' creepily skeletal finger joints and scraggly hobo hair. 

Virtua Fighter 3tb has a (tacked-on) team battle mode, but without the robust character selection of Project Justice, Marvel vs. Capcom 3, or King of Fighters Evolution, it gets repetitive in a hurry. If you fought Aoi in one match, don't be surprised if she comes back for revenge in the next. Adding to the boredom is the fact that you can't swap partners on the fly or double-team your rival. What you can do is wait five seconds for your next fighter to load after losing a round, which is all the time you'll need to reset the game and play the traditional arcade mode instead.

Finally, the game lacks the thrills of Dead or Alive 2 or Fighting Vipers 2, with a leisurely pace and little to distinguish it from previous games. Sure, you get a couple new characters, but one's not especially memorable and the other is a generic sumo wrestler Sega would like to forget, writing him out of later games. 

Luckily, that includes Virtua Fighter 4 for the Playstation 2, which set the series on the right track after Virtua Fighter 3tb derailed it. It's fun, it's gorgeous, it's readily available, and there's even an update with more characters and some compelling bonus features. Its only real flaw is that it's not on the Dreamcast, but Dreamcast owners are used to that kind of disappointment.