Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Assessing the Damage: 2014's Xbox Ultimate Game Sale

Well folks, it's finally over. That annual threat to your wallet, the Xbox Ultimate Game Sale, officially wrapped up yesterday, ending with a handful of games from the former T*HQ that mercifully, I have no interest in buying. Oh, but I did pick up a whole lot of stuff in the past week! Here's the rundown for those of you who may be interested:

price: $1.84

Similar to Microsoft's Game Room, Capcom Arcade Cabinet lets you buy your favorite arcade hits a'la carte. It's not preferable to getting them all on one reasonably priced disc, but welcome to our DLC-laden future! (groan) 

The game was called Black Dragon
in Japan, because, well, you get
the idea.
Anyway, Capcom was kind enough to give players a taste of the action by giving away its severely underrated medieval platformer Black Tiger. If you want more, you can buy games in packs of three for about six bucks a piece. Alternately, you can just grab the whole collection for twenty and get a couple of bonus games out of the deal. The games offered in the Ultimate Games Sale were the previously mentioned Black Tiger, another personal favorite, 1943: The Battle of Midway, and nobody's favorite Avengers, a kludgy overhead view brawler with absolutely no superheroes. 

Every game in the collection was emulated by M2, and the company has shown its usual love for the source material with detailed color manuals, art galleries, and a handy casual mode for less dedicated players. You can't get any achievements in this mode, but it's still pretty awesome to play Black Tiger and find treasure in every chest, instead of booby traps. 
price: $7.94

I already spent a lot of time talking about this one in a previous post, so I'll just say that the game was easily worth the eight bucks I paid for it. You may want to bring a joystick along for the ride, however, since Radiant Silvergun doesn't map well to the standard Xbox 360 controller and you'll lose a lot of that authentic arcade feel without one. 

price: $1.10

When you win, you get gems. When you lose,
you get killed. Now that's what I call a
high-stake game of poker!
(Image courtesy of Unlimited Lives)

Bejeweled is an odd fit for the powerful Xbox 360... this gem-matching puzzle game was originally intended for computers and smartphones, and playing it without the benefit of a mouse or a touchscreen feels more than a bit awkward. Having said that, you can tell Popcap Games gave this port their all. Gems glitter and explode as you slide them into place to make matches, and when you finish a stage, the jewels are sucked into a vortex leading to the next one. There are also plenty of game styles, including a unique game of poker where making lousy hands could spell your doom, and a Zen mode without rules... you just slide gems around until you're bored. You might be surprised by how long that'll take, though. Some players have lost hours to this game without even realizing it! 

price: $5.29

A car wreck, in a train wreck!
(image courtesy of Mirror.co.uk)

As I'd alluded to in the last entry, I didn't like this one very much. A Ridge Racer game that borrows heavily from the king of arcade-style racers, Burnout, sounds like an enticing idea, but don't take the bait! This has many of the same problems that plagued 2010's Split/Second, including overly rigid gameplay (want to run your opponents off the road? Unless you've shifted into turbo, it ain't happening) and slingshot A.I. that ensures you'll never win a race. My best ranking so far is fifth place, and that's in the first race. The game's small cadre of fans swear that the game improves if you're willing to master drifting, but Unbounded is so intent on spanking you raw that you'll quit in disgust long before you learn the ropes. Save yourself the red marks and stick with Burnout Revenge.

price: $5.24

Confession time... I'm not big on stealth action games, and made it a point to avoid the Metal Gear Solid series in particular. I think I played through the demo of the very first game on the Playstation, and that was about it. Friends have urged me to give the series an honest chance, which is why I picked up a copy of Peace Walker during the Ultimate Game Sale. They also told me that I should start with Metal Gear Solid 3, but since I missed that one when it was on sale last year, I'll have to settle for this high-definition port of the PSP game that snuck under the radar of most players. I've heard good things about Peace Walker from the handful of critics who caught it the first time around, so I'm hoping this will work just as well as an introduction to the series. Wish me luck! 

price: $10.48

"I'm comin' for you, Lizabeth!" (clutches chest
and stumbles around the room)
(image courtesy of Dualshockers)

I know next to nothing about Persona, and for that matter, the entire Shin Megami Tensai franchise. The only titles in the series I've played are Raidou Kuzunoha vs. the Soulless Army and, peculiarly, the Virtual Boy title Jack Bros. Since there's been a lot of buzz about these games but because I'm not a huge fan of RPGs, I figured Persona 4 Arena would be a good way to introduce myself to the series. P4A was designed by Arc System Works and is said to be similar to their last big fighting game BlazBlue, with the addition of alter egos that fight alongside you, a'la JoJo's Bizarre Adventure. I wasn't a big fan of BlazBlue, but I'm hoping the cast of characters and their, uh, personas will be compelling enough to keep me entertained in spite of those similarities. 

price: $4.99

Well, it's not the most appealing title for a video game, but the price was right, and I've heard nothing but effusive praise for this rally racing simulation, so why not take a chance on it? The best case scenario is that it measures up to Sega Rally Championship, the old Saturn release that ranks up there with Burnout and Wipeout as one of my all-time favorite racing games. The worst case scenario is... well, I don't like to think about that, but it couldn't possibly be as lousy as Ridge Racer Unbounded, right? (...right?) 

price: $4.28
He's a nice enough guy, but he really needs to
do something about those mushrooms growing
on his back.
(courtesy of Edge Online)

This is one of those art games that's low on action but delivers ambiance in spades. As a teenager and his impulsive (read: bratty) kid brother, you must travel the countryside to find healing herbs for your ailing father. Hearkening back to the forgotten Playstation 2 launch title The Adventures of Cookie and Cream, each thumbstick on the controller guides a brother through the beautifully rustic landscape, while the triggers on the top have them perform context-sensitive actions. Sometimes the brothers have to perform actions together to advance... for instance, the younger brother is afraid of water, so the older brother has to carry him across rivers and streams. It takes time to adjust to the gameplay- your multitasking skills will be pushed to their limits!- but stick with it and you'll quickly realize that it leads to a lot of brilliant moments. I haven't gotten far in this one, but I suspect it's going to be one of those experiences that's terrific the first time around, but won't offer much to lure you back after the credits roll.

price: $5.29
I can't get over how amazing this game looks.
(image courtesy of Pass Me the Popcorn)

MK isn't my fighting game of choice, but I've been curious about its resurrection at the hands of Warner Bros. Games, and it's worth five dollars to satisfy that curiosity. If Netherrealm Studios has brought Mortal Kombat's gameplay back to its roots and away from the kludgy, overcomplicated, and confused 3D fighter that it became in the 2000s, I'll be happy. Sure, the mini-games in Deadly Alliance, et al were cute, but I wish Midway had spent a lot more time working on the core gameplay and less on silly distractions. 

price: $1.04

It's funny how quickly a one dollar price tag will convince you to buy a game you'd otherwise never consider. I thought all my Xbox 360 pool needs were met with Backshot Billiards 2, but the members of Cheapassgamer were adamant that this was an absolute must have, and for just one dollar, who am I to argue with them? 

price: $2.64
Included in the game is Christmas NiGHTS,
a holiday classic and an instant collector's
item after the Saturn's demise.
(image courtesy of Videogamer.com)

Frankly, I'm a little stunned by the cold reception this game has gotten seventeen years after its debut on the Sega Saturn. Today's gamers seem utterly baffled by its androgynous hero and its airborne action... but that reaction probably wasn't much different from Saturn owners who crossed their fingers for a supercharged Sonic sequel and got this instead. Personally, I enjoyed NiGHTS... it was an acquired taste, sure, but it was creative, eccentric, and unexpected, making it a perfect reflection of the Saturn itself. It'll likely be out of place on the considerably more mainstream Xbox 360, but NiGHTS' colorful dream world should work nicely as a palate cleanser after an hour of sending stocky space marines to their doom. 

price: $5.29

Oh dear, what have I gotten myself into? I was in an abusive relationship with the previous game, Demon's Souls, for the brief time I owned a Playstation 3. After spending dozens of hours with that game and making precious little progress, I vowed that I would never put myself through that hell again. I resisted the last time Microsoft offered the sequel for five dollars, but the second time Dark Souls came up for that price, well... it broke my willpower. Just like how the game will break my spirit when I finally get around to playing it. I've heard Dark Souls offers some concessions to less skilled players, like a "Homeward Bone" that lets them return to the start of the game with everything they've collected, but I nevertheless suspect that there will be plenty of gruesome deaths and screamed expletives in my future. 

price: $7.00

A Quinn-Martin production.
(Image courtesy of games.softpedia.com)
I needed an arcade-style racing game to get the icky taste of Ridge Racer Unbounded out of my mouth, and the latest game in the Driver series was nominated as my aperitif. The normally implacable Ben Crenshaw gave this one a big thumbs up on Zero Punctuation, his weekly video review series, but his review left me a little bewildered, perhaps even terrified. So you're a cop in a coma, whose disembodied spirit possesses other motorists? Do I have this right? You go all Ghost Dad on people so you can catch criminals from your hospital bed? Apparently, when Reflections re-invents a game series, they don't let a little thing like sanity get in their way. 

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Shine on You Crazy Genocidal Diamond: The Ballad of Radiant Silvergun

You can also get Ridge Racer Unbounded in
the Xbox sale... but you don't want that.
(image courtesy of D-Pad Magazine)
For those of you still using these things, I just thought I'd point out that we're in the middle of Microsoft's Xbox 360 Ultimate Games Sale. Dozens of titles have been, will be, or currently are heavily discounted from their usual retail prices on the Xbox Live digital store. That not only includes obscurities like Viking and the critical darling Brothers, but blockbuster hits such as Batman: Arkham City and Skyrim as well. My advice is to get as much as you can until your overburdened hard drive screams for mercy!

One game that found its way onto the sale was Treasure's classic shooter Radiant Silvergun, although that was probably not Microsoft's intention. Shortly after it was offered to Xbox Live Gold members for $7.49, it jumped back to its usual fifteen bucks. There's no official explanation for the quickly rescinded price cut- Microsoft's Xbox support team seemed just as confused about it as I did- but it's been suggested on CheapAssGamer that Microsoft intended to shave the price for Japanese Xbox 360 owners, and that it had been offered to Americans by mistake.

(Heh, a likely story! Nobody in Japan owns an Xbox 360!)

Whatever the reason for the brief blue light special, I finally scored myself a copy of Radiant Silvergun, which makes a nice bookend to my digital copy of Guardian Heroes. Both games were by Treasure, both were originally released for the sadly neglected Sega Saturn, and both go for monstrous prices, should you be so unwise as to purchase the discs on eBay or from a used game shop. However, while Guardian Heroes is an exhilarating but ultimately hollow beat 'em up, Radiant Silvergun holds up remarkably well for its age.

Everything looks better in the Xbox 360
version of Radiant Silvergun, especially the
animated video clip that plays
before the game begins.
One reason for the game's graceful maturation is that it was rewritten for the Xbox 360 hardware. With older games like this one, it's customary for developers to just dump the original code into an emulator and call it a day. However, the Saturn hardware was cobbled together with two processors, which don't play nice with each other, would-be developers, or emulators. Treasure saved itself the trouble of working with the system's notoriously difficult hardware and built an entirely new engine for the game. The result is more than just a faithful port of the Saturn release from 1998; it's actually a better game.

Authentic transparencies replace the ugly latticework of the original, your ship's blasts exude a warm glow as they flow from its cannons, and the screen regularly fills with enemies and their bullets without the Xbox 360 breaking a sweat. One of the members of the Talking Time forums observed that Radiant Silvergun really shines when it's on hardware that can actually handle it, and as much as I respect the Sega Saturn and all it did to keep 2D gaming alive in the late 1990s... well, I'd have to agree. The Saturn had trouble keeping up with the high ambitions of Radiant Silvergun, but the more advanced Xbox 360 runs rings around them.

Radiant Silvergun's three button
control is an awkward fit for
the Xbox 360 controller.
(image courtesy of Ikotsu's
Blogspot page)
There's only one thing the Saturn version of Radiant Silvergun does better than its Xbox 360 counterpart, and that's the control. Obviously, the Xbox 360 controller isn't as well suited to 2D gaming as the Saturn's exceptional gamepad, but there's more to it than that. Radiant Silvergun was designed for three horizontally aligned buttons, and the Saturn pad has them, with buttons to spare for combined weapons and swipes of your energy sword. The Xbox 360's cluster of four face buttons makes using your arsenal of weapons less convenient and more confusing. An arcade joystick isn't absolutely necessary for this game, but it'd be a smart investment.

(By happy circumstance, this game perfectly maps to the Saturn controller I'd cobbled together years ago to play fighting games on my Xbox 360. Why Sega didn't officially release one of these for the system is a mystery for the ages.)

So for those of you who didn't catch Radiant Silvergun the first time around, here's what you missed. RS is an embryonic danmaku, or bullet hell shooter, with massive enemies that fill the screen with elaborate patterns of hot white death. Luckily, you're pretty well armed yourself, with three base weapons that can be combined a'la Gunstar Heroes for even more attacks. There are no power ups per se, but blasting chains of like-colored enemies will raise the strength of your base weapons.

A single swipe of your sword sweeps away all
your troubles. Well, most of them, anyway.
Oh yes, there's one other thing! Pressing all three buttons at once (or the right trigger on the Xbox 360 pad) produces a laser sword which trails behind your ship, slicing through foes and catching otherwise deadly clusters of pink energy. Grab enough of these with your blade and it becomes a weapon of mass destruction; twin swords that clap together, purging the screen of smaller ships and cutting the larger ones down to size. Even on the humble Saturn, this deadly pair of scissors was a stunning spectacle that left my friends screaming with delight. It looks just as awesome sixteen years later on the Xbox 360, but more importantly, it forces players to work for their salvation, rather than handing it to them with each new ship.

The game is well balanced like that, but it's rarely merciful. It lays down a heavy spread of fire that can be tricky to avoid, even with your ship's extremely lenient hit box. There are also set pieces in some stages that are tough to muscle your way through, like the rotating electrical fields which retract when you fire at their ends... and quickly snap back in place as you try to slip past them. You can take a different route through the game in arcade mode, but in the Saturn mode, you'll have to finish all the stages, no matter how nasty they get. At least you can farm for credits, if you've got the patience for it.

So, to make an extremely long blog entry short: Radiant Silvergun, the pinnacle of both the vertical shooter genre and the Sega Saturn library, is finally here on these shores, and it's never been better thanks to the power of the Xbox 360. While the $7.49 I paid for it is certainly preferable, anything Microsoft is charging for this game is a deal. You can get a used Xbox 360 and Radiant Silvergun and Guardian Heroes for what the Saturn disc will cost you on eBay, so unless you're a rabid collector with no intention of actually playing the game, the choice is obvious.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Penny Squeezins: My Latest, Cheapest Game Purchases

Good golly Miss Molly, I was supposed to be updating this blog! A thousand apologies, folks. My early impressions of the Wii U haven't been fully fleshed out and my top forty list of Genesis games has hit an Earthworm Jim-shaped roadblock, so how 'bout some brief reviews of the games I've bought (for stupidly low prices) over the last couple of weeks? Maybe I'll throw in my thoughts on the recent Nintendo Direct presentation as a bonus.

Android (played on Nexus 7 2013 edition)
Price: 99 cents

Oh, you'll miss plenty with control like this.
(image courtesy of Jeuxcapt.com)
What's most amazing about the Android format is how a tiny phone can offer everything you love about the home console experience. Well, everything but the fun, anyway. This port of the Dreamcast favorite Crazy Taxi is just one example, looking and sounding very much like the real thing but quickly running out of gas thanks to its awkward touchscreen control. You can also play the game by tilting your Android device like a steering wheel, but neither option compares to an analog thumbstick, and you won't be able to use one on 'droid unless you're willing to root your system and jump through a whole lot of hoops.

The predictably lackluster control makes Crazy Taxi a largely hands-off experience. Nevertheless, you'll be surprised by how faithful it is to the Dreamcast game while you're kind-of sort-of playing it. Music by The Offspring and Bad Religion blasts in the background as you tear through the city, picking up passengers and taking them to such iconic locales as, uh, Pizza Parlor and the Fried Chicken Shack. Even without the official license, it's not hard to figure out what that red roofed restaurant is supposed to be... not that Pizza Huts even look like that anymore. Remember, Crazy Taxi was released nearly fifteen years ago! (Why yes, you are old.)

By the way, there's a rumor floating around on the internet that Sega was able to survive its many dumb mistakes because it patented the navigation arrow and fleeing bystanders in this game. Thanks to the popularity of sandbox games and the necessity for a navigation arrow in their massive worlds, Sega gets a steady stream of profit from video game sales, even when those games aren't their own.

Nintendo 3DS
Price: $15

I scored a digital copy of this game from a member of Cheap Ass Gamer, the internet's foremost pincher of gaming pennies. Normally, I wouldn't be interested in Link's latest adventures, but I'd gotten tired of endless rounds of Super Street Fighter IV and wanted something meatier in my 3DS library. Besides, at fifteen dollars, who could resist?

Ravio: Because the Zelda series needed
more creepy, disturbing sidekicks.
(image courtesy of Operation Rainfall)
I haven't really dug that deeply into A Link Between Worlds, but I've been impressed with what I've seen so far. The bird's eye view attempted in A Link to the Past is better realized here thanks to the system's more advanced technology and 3D display, and that Zelda brand confusion is kept to a minimum now that you've got a map marked with the next location you need to visit. Some critics have complained that the game treads on overly familiar ground, borrowing its level design and overall look from A Link to the Past, but as someone who grew up with a Genesis and never played that game, it all seems fresh to me. In fact, I think it's actually the third Zelda that comes up short in a comparison. I bought the Game Boy Advance version of A Link to the Past from another CAG member shortly after I got this one, and it seems so dated next to the 3DS game that it seems almost... quaint.

Xbox 360
Price: $10

I'd be perfectly happy if Sega made a game
that was 100% this and 0% new Sonic.
(image courtesy of Miikahweb)
Many people cite this and Sonic Colors for the Wii as the turning point for the Sonic series, which lost its way starting with Sonic Adventure 2 and spent the rest of the 2000s making more people miserable than the Bush administration. From my brief time with Sonic Generations, I'd have to agree that it's a step in the right direction, although not without a few stumbles. The game starts with classic Sonic, pleasingly plump and mercifully mute, speeding his way through an absolutely gorgeous 21st century re-imagining of the Green Hill Zone from the Genesis game of old. Once you zip past the sign that marks the end of the stage, the spotlight shifts to modern Sonic... and that's where the headaches begin. The action is seem from behind crappy Sonic's back and the control is noticeably more awkward, in keeping with later titles like Sonic Heroes and the universally reviled Sonic the Hedgehog 2006. Maybe I could get used to the way the modern Sonic stages feel with a little practice, but geez, I like the way classic Sonic handles now.

Xbox 360

Price: $1

This game's pretty sweet! Well, sweet-ish.
(image courtesy of Digital Trends)
(also, please stop hitting me)
This was the best deal of the bunch, although it took a lot of work! When I purchased Sonic Generations from a pawn shop, I found a lonely copy of Skyrim behind the glass display, lying there naked and shivering without its green plastic case. I was offered an incredible deal on this poor, orphaned disc, but only on the condition that I couldn't return it and acknowledged that it may not work. 

At first, it didn't... the disc was badly scratched and had cracks in the spindle. I could get as far as the title screen with it in this condition, but two brisk cleanings with a dab of toothpaste got it to the point where I could transfer the data to my Xbox 360's hard drive. It's a clumsy workaround, but hey, it gets the job done!

Anyway, about the game. It's extremely similar to the previous Elder Scrolls installment, with two immediately noticeable differences. The first is that the interface has been rebuilt and streamlined, which is good news for newcomers but a little awkward for veteran Oblivion players. The second is that the setting has taken a sudden turn for the Norse, with snow-capped mountains in the distance and characters speaking in Swedish accents. It's a jarring shift that hits you like an Ikea chair to the face, but I suppose I shouldn't complain. After all, Bethesda also replaced the Oblivion gates and their long, boring dungeons with thrilling battles against massive, fire-spitting dragons. Good call!

Wii U
Price: $11

I'll discuss this in more detail when I review the Wii U in a future blog entry. However, what I'll say now is that Mass Effect 3 is the kind of game the Wii U desperately needs to be competitive with Sony and Microsoft's systems. Of course, the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 got their versions of Mass Effect 3 a couple of years ago, but having the game at all is a step up for Nintendo, which missed out on the entire franchise in the last console cycle.

The only Commander Shepard you'll ever need.
(image courtesy of Leviathyn)
Mass Effect 3 continues where the last two games ended, with Earth conquered by the Reapers and the rest of the galaxy in deep shit. Once again, it's up to Commander Shepard to assemble a force to repel the Reaper assault, while also thwarting the sinister intentions of the shadowy Cerberus. As Ms. Shepard (please don't play as the guy), you'll spend equal time negotiating with being from other planets and blasting them into space-burgers with a small team of your best soldiers. This time, you can customize the experience to your liking, turning the game into a full-blown cover shooter, a story-heavy RPG, or a well balanced blend of the two play styles. There's also a digital comic that offers a quick summary of the events from the past two games. You know, the two games that were never released on a Nintendo system. (Thanks, Nintendo.)

I've spent a few hours with Mass Effect 3 and am already coming to the unfortunate conclusion that it's not quite as good as the sublime Mass Effect 2. Combat is looser, with less emphasis on finding cover, and the storyline is depressingly bleak... yes, even more so than the previous game. On the plus side, the acting is up to its usual high standards, with Jennifer Hale being the Captain Janeway you always wanted, instead of the one we actually got. (Who's that guy on the front of the box? Uh, I think he's the janitor or something.)

Oh, one other thing. The Wii U port of Mass Effect 3 lets you the game directly from the gamepad, freeing up the television for other family members and giving you the freedom to play it just about anywhere in the house. You can have Mass Effect in the kitchen, on the can, or even in the tub if you're willing to take that risk. It's a much better handheld option than Mass Effect: Infiltrator on the Android, which looked like an authentic Mass Effect experience but lost much of its heart.

Satoru Iwata
Price: Free

If you can't trust a Chuck E. Cheese character
with a bad comb-over, who can you trust?
(image courtesy of Shack News)
For those of you who don't know, Nintendo Direct is a monthly video broadcast with the president of the company announcing upcoming games for the 3DS and Wii U. These announcements are typically followed by gameplay footage and (often frustratingly vague) release dates.

This month, Satoru Iwata revealed the latest addition to the Super Smash Bros. cast, Little Mac from the Punch Out!! series. (That's the game where Mike Tyson beats you bloody in a matter of seconds, making it an extremely realistic boxing simulation.) He also announced the long-awaited comeback of the Koopa Kids (they'll be in Mario Kart 8, alongside their pop Bowser), and a video game which lets you ply a bulldog with doughnuts to receive real-life discounts on downloadable content. The broadcast ended with footage of a mysterious science-fiction action-RPG (anyone catch the name of this?) and Bayonetta 2, the Wii U-exclusive sequel to Sega's madcap beat 'em up.

At least the punching bag from Waku Waku 7
is still getting work.
(image courtesy of... me!)
That was about it for the memorable moments. There was a lot of footage of Kirby: Triple Deluxe, as well as the launch of the latest game in the Steel Diver series (this is a series now?! Oh lord...), but there wasn't much else for Nintendo fans to get excited about. That's a pity, because if ever there was a time for Nintendo to release a breakout hit, it's now. I don't think another Yoshi's Island sequel that fails to capture the magic of the Super NES game is going to cut it.

Thursday, February 6, 2014


I know, I promised this would strictly be a gaming blog, but you'll grant me this one indulgence. Earlier today, I went to McDonald's and asked for the usual Big Mac, Coke, and fries, along with a hot mustard sauce I could use as a dip. I was flatly told that they had no hot mustard, and that there never will be hot mustard again.


I let it go when these McMorons replaced the scrumptious McDonaldland cookies with fresh baked chocolate chip cookies that taste like bitter ash in my mouth. I even was willing to look the other way when they replaced characters like Grimace and the Big Mac (which helped define my disconcertingly fat childhood) with Klasky-Csupo rejects like that stupid ravenous goat.

Fuck you, goat.
(image courtesy of EatDrinkPolitics)
But this... this is way beyond my capacity to forgive. Do you fry-slinging fools realize how much better hot mustard sauce made nearly everything on your menu? I dipped my fries it, slathered it on my Big Macs... hell, I would have dived into it like Scrooge McDuck if I had enough to spare. All that's gone now, because you've dropped a product that was on your menu for THIRTY YEARS!!! Are you that committed to keeping flavor out of the McDonald's experience? Hell, while you're at it you might as well just cut out the middle man and hand each customer a glucose bag and a syringe of fat they can inject directly into their ASSES!

Seriously! ARRRGH!!!

I'll make a video game post later, I swear. Right now I'm grieving.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Turnaround is Fair Play: Catching Up with the Xbox 360

We interrupt this interminably long Sega Genesis feature for some important news!

A couple months ago, Microsoft sold dozens of Xbox 360 games for jaw-dropping prices, often five dollars or less. This clearance sale, coupled with the Games for Gold promotion that offers free software to Xbox Live subscribers, left me with a huge backlog of games, a massive pile I've only just started to pick through. Here now are a few of the titles that stood out.

(Note that these are early impressions; if my opinion changes or I'm struck with a lightning bolt that suddenly makes me great at first-person shooters, I'll let you know.)


The best part of Spelunky HD? Better explosions!
(image courtesy of Videogamer.com)
Designed as an unofficial sequel to Broderbund's Spelunker with all the kinks smoothed out, Spelunky was one of the best freeware titles on home computers when it was first released in 2008. Six years later, it's still a great game, and the extra razzle-dazzle afforded by the Xbox 360 hardware only improves the experience. The pixelated graphics from the original have been replaced with sharp cartoon artwork (yes, that really is a big red Elmer Fudd nose on the explorer's face), and the background music has likewise been upgraded. It's still nothing special, but it sure beats the screeching chiptunes from the computer game!

The graphics and sound have been beefed up, but the heart of the gameplay is largely unchanged. You still run through procedurally generated (let's call them "random" for brevity's sake) levels, scooping up all the gold you can, blowing holes in the landscape with your limited supply of bombs, and escorting distressed damsels to the exit at the bottom of the screen. While on your adventure, you'll be regularly menaced by snakes, spiders, and those damned stone faces that fire arrows your way when you least expect it. Cautious exploration and smart management of your equipment is the key to survival, but don't drag your feet... there are ghosts in these caverns!


Frickin' robot smileodons, man.
(Image courtesy of GameDynamo)
"Ultimate" is a bit of an overstatement, isn't it, Capcom? Sure, the game looks spectacular- we've come to expect that from Xbox 360 titles- but the gameplay is a bummer, watered down from the decade and a half old Marvel vs. Capcom 2 on the Dreamcast. That game's two punches and kicks have been turned into three "whatever the hell we want them to be" attacks, along with a dedicated launcher. You've still got three fighters on your team, but the commands for switching between them and calling them out for quick attacks are assigned to the same buttons. It's overly simplistic yet somehow kludgy, which wasn't a problem in the past two Marvel vs. Capcom games.

Despite Capcom's insistence to the contrary, the third Marvel vs. Capcom feels very much like the Wii crossover fighter Tatsunoko vs. Capcom, except with even more spastic gameplay and characters Americans might actually recognize. Some of these newcomers are packed with personality, like fourth-wall smashing assassin Deadpool (who grabs the camera and screams at the player after winning a fight!) and ace photographer Frank West, but even they can't hide the fact that this game is a chaotic mess. 2012's Street Fighter X Tekken is a more focused and well-rounded fighter, and that's just sad.


I'm told this game was originally designed as a reboot of the True Crime series, until Activision scrapped the project and Square-Enix arrived with dustbuster in hand to pick up the pieces. Luckily, Sleeping Dogs works just as well as a standalone franchise, and is easily one of the best sandbox games on the Xbox 360, with an authentic Hong Kong setting, terrific voice acting, and crowd pleasin' combat which makes the stubbornly complacent Grand Theft Auto look like a relic. (Not that it needed any help.)

The Streets of H.K.
(image courtesy of Tech Gage)
Sleeping Dogs casts you as Wei Shen, a Hong Kong cop who's gone deep undercover to track down the country's biggest crime bosses. You'll race through crowded streets, pushing your way past bystanders, snarfing on pork buns to boost your health, and of course, busting heads whenever a shop keeper refuses to pay his protection money or thugs threaten your sharp-tongued sidekick. Fighting is simple but satisfying, with buttons for attacking, counters, and grapples. After he's softened up an opponent, Wei can drag the poor sap over to a hazard zone for a humiliating and often lethal finishing blow.

What's most amazing about Sleeping Dogs is how tangible the environments feel. As you walk down the dimly lit streets, you'll notice paper lanterns in the distance, signs looming overhead, and street vendors eager to sell their wares. The game's closest Playstation 3 equivalent, Yakuza, didn't even come close to matching that level of immersion thanks to buildings that looked like they were made from cardboard boxes. Then again, Yakuza had better combat, so you win some, you lose some.


Games like this make me wonder if we really need new game consoles. Tales of Vesperia looks so fine, I wanna plant it and grow a whole field of y'all! Will Smith jokes aside, Tales' old world architecture, delicate colors, and a cast of heroes straight out of a Japanese animated feature will blow your mind. Yeah, that Xbox One purchase can wait a few years.

Dances with wolves.
(image courtesy of Holdenlink.com)
One thing I'm not so thrilled with is Tales' combat system. On one hand, it's real-time, with the player in full control of their fighters' attacks and magic. On the other, it's a bit awkward. Er, better make that really awkward. The fighter you're controlling is trapped on a single axis unless you hold down the left trigger, and jumping is accomplished by pressing a button AND holding up on the controller, which is needlessly excessive. I've only scratched the surface of this one, but I'd wager the control doesn't get any easier when you're switching between four party members.

Still, I'm willing to give Tales of Vesperia an honest chance. It's a first-class effort all the way, from the quality voice acting to the beautiful artwork, and I strongly doubt the combat system will be wonky enough to eclipse everything the game's got going for it. 


A member of the video game price watchdog Cheapassgamer told me that this sardonic spin-off of the Far Cry series was worth a purchase, even after I'd made it clear that I didn't enjoy first-person shooters. I ultimately took his advice, marking the first time Cheapassgamer cost me money rather than helping me save it.

Point that gun at yourself... it'll be less painful.
(Image courtesy of The Guardian.)
On paper, it seems like this game would be perfect for me. After all, I love the '80s*, and Blood Dragon is a clever send-up of both action films from that decade and the video game industry's most aggravating habits. The tutorial stops your character in his tracks while throwing page after page of instructions at you, finally ending with "Annoyed yet? Press A to stop these messages." I am, and I will!

Unfortunately, once the tutorial ends, you're tormented with gameplay that could only be described as infuriating. Your first mission is to defend comrade-in-arms Spider Brown (Phil LaMarr, playing an extremely obnoxious black stereotype) as he hacks a computer. Naturally, Spider attracts the game's army of Daft Punk rejects and their bullets like a magnet. Should he die- AND HE WILL- you'll have to start the scene over... and over... and over again. Even if you succeed, the surly cyborg succumbs to the computer's defense systems, leaving you wondering why you bothered. I've never wanted to punch Phil LaMarr more in my life... and I've seen that damn snail cartoon on Netflix.

The only thing more frustrating than being swarmed by Blood Dragon's masked soldiers is knowing you'll never see all the good parts. The game does a great job of capturing that 1980s action film vibe, with ominous background music, a lead hero who delivers all his macho one-liners through clenched teeth, and dark landscapes bathed in garish neon colors. I'm sure there are plenty of great moments in store for players who beat Halo 3's Legendary mode blindfolded. Everyone with human reflexes should scratch their '80s itch with Double Dragon Neon instead.

* Nostalgia for past decades is a registered trademark of Viacom International. All rights reserved.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Genesis DOES! (part 3)

Back in my days as a professional gaming writer, a colleague warned me that readers don't have the attention span to follow a series of articles about a single subject. With that said, here's the third part of a ridiculously long feature covering my favorite games from a long-dead game console! (What can I say, marketing was never my strong suit.)

Everyone’s chosen a side in the cola wars, but whether your preference is Coke, Pepsi, or even RC Cola, sometimes you want to forego the usual refreshments and try something refreshingly different. It was no different for Genesis owners… when the taste of Sonic the Hedgehog, side-scrolling beat ‘em ups, and vertically scrolling shooters weighed a little too heavily on the tongue, they reached for a tall cool glass of Ultimate Qix.
Hand grenades.
Ultimate Qix (or Volfied, if you prefer) is the 16-bit sequel to the Taito arcade game Qix, which challenged you to claim territory by drawing lines around it. As you draw, a swirling cluster of neon lines bounces around the playfield. Contact with this evil Kandinsky painting snaps your cosmic pencil in half; touching the “Sparx” racing along the lines you’ve drawn is likewise fatal.
Ultimate Qix keeps the basic gameplay of the original while enhancing the graphics and adding a few modern touches. The Qix is gone, replaced with a dozen futuristic bosses, and there are pyramids strewn throughout each stage which grant special abilities, if you’re quick enough to draw boxes around them. You’re supposed to trap the boss in a tiny portion of the screen, but if you’ve got the almighty star power up, you can end the battle of wits early and vaporize him with a deadly hail of lasers. Hey, screw the rules!
One word of caution to players eager to try this one… there’s a constant droning noise in the background of every stage. It’s supposed to add tension to the gameplay, but there’s plenty of it here without the splitting headache this noise will trigger. Get familiar with the mute button and you’ll enjoy Ultimate Qix a whole lot more.
(What’s the deal here, Taito? Was Zuntata on vacation when this game was being developed?)

Gauntlet is an undeniable classic; the perfect marriage of twitchy arcade action and deep role-playing fantasy. It was also pretty old by 1993, which is why a straight arcade port just wasn’t going to cut it on the Sega Genesis. The system was capable of more than this, and more is exactly what you get from Gauntlet IV.
Whatever you do, don't open that door!
Gauntlet IV offers all the frantic action of the arcade game, but you knew that already. Four player action with a Sega Multi-Tap? Check. More monsters than you could count and stages than you could possibly finish? Check. A sarcastic dungeon master who reminds you to “eat your food, not shoot it?” That’s a big check.
However, there’s a lot more in store for players smart enough to snap up this title. That includes a lengthy quest mode, an arena where you can battle your friends, and the biggest plus of all, an incredible soundtrack by composer Hitoshi Sakimoto, best known for his work on Radiant Silvergun and Final Fantasy Tactics. This music, hugely reminiscent of the Conan the Barbarian film soundtrack, sets the perfect mood for slaughtering millions of monsters.
Gauntlet IV may be a little simplistic by the standards of 16-bit RPGs, but hey, you try convincing three of your friends to join you for a rousing game of Sword of Vermilion.
Before Sonic the Hedgehog and that irritating Welcome to the Next Level marketing campaign, Sega was committed to making the Genesis the game system of choice for fans of the arcade experience. Case in point: Strider. Weighing in at a hefty eight megabits (trust me, this was a lot back in 1990) and designed by programmers on loan from Capcom, the Genesis version of Strider was the closest arcade conversion ever on a game system, until the Super NES version of Street Fighter II knocked it from its throne a couple of years later.
Screw Mario's hammer! This is the way
to deal with errant gorillas.
At its heart, Strider is a standard-issue side-scrolling action game, with futuristic ninja Hiryu charging from one end of a stage to the other, collecting power-ups and cutting down the enemies in his path with a nifty laser sword. However, it’s stylishly presented, with massive, color-soaked sprites and a breathtakingly acrobatic hero. Strider was also one of the first games with a running narrative woven into the gameplay, rather than waiting for cut scenes to tell a story. Hiryu slices his way through dozens of bizarre set pieces, including a perilous climb to the top of a power factory, a race down a hill littered with explosives, and a battle with the Soviet Politburo, whose members leap from their chairs to form a giant, scythe-wielding snake. It’s outrageous and incoherent, like a Paul Verhoeven fever dream, but just go with it!
Strider’s only problem is that it’s punishingly hard. Precise control of Hiryu’s graceful leaps and memorization of each level are an absolute must if you hope to make any progress. Worst of all, you’re only given a small handful of credits, ensuring that you’ll be playing (and swearing) for many hours before you reach the sinister Grandmaster Meio.
(By the way, is it me, or does “Grandmaster Meio” sound like a guy who raps about sandwich condiments?)

(I was recently informed by a reader- and I know, I'm surprised I have them too!- that "Grandmaster Meio" is a redundancy and that it should be either one of the other. I'll compromise and just call him "that cackling guy who's impossible to beat at the end of the game.")
If only we had the P-Beam in 1978...
I’ll probably be hung from a yardarm by other Genesis fanatics for recommending this over Phantasy Star and Ecco the Dolphin. Let them rage, though! I was raised on fixed screen shooters, from the original Space Invaders to Megamania to the king of the genre, Galaga, and this is the best one you’ll find on the Sega Genesis.
Space Invaders ‘91’s gameplay is predictably straightforward… aliens march across the screen, dropping down and reversing direction when they hit the edges, and you pick them off before they can reach the planet you’re defending. However, there are a whole galaxy of worlds to defend in this sequel, and plenty of new aliens to blast, each with a satisfying death animation when they’re pierced with your bullets.
Equally gratifying are the hidden achievement-like bonuses (make the middle invader your first target and your shields will be fully charged), the devastating power ups you’ll earn by nailing UFOs, and a fantastic soundtrack which proves that nobody can make the Genesis sound chip sing like Zuntata. Seriously, this is really, really good music. Highlights include… everything, honestly, but the nail-biting tracks from stages five and six stand out.
It may not be up to par with its closest cousin, Galaga ‘90 on the TurboGrafx-16, but as Space Invaders games go, this is one of the best. That’s pretty high praise when you consider the excellence of later titles like Attack of the Lunar Loonies and Space Invaders Extreme.
The bigger they are, the harder you fall.
Everyone who bought a Genesis had a reason to forsake Nintendo and join the 16-bit revolution. For some, it was the flashy (but ultimately forgettable) pack-in, Altered Beast. For others, it was Sega’s sleek new mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog. However, it was Forgotten Worlds that sold me on the system. When I first saw the game in action at a local rental store, I was mesmerized by its lush colors and eye-popping detail, which would never have been possible on the dated NES hardware. Not longer after, I sold my NES and thirteen games to the same rental store, and stepped up to the big leagues of the Sega Genesis.
With that personal anecdote out of the way, let’s talk about the game. Forgotten Worlds is a side-scrolling shooter and the follow-up to Capcom’s Side Arms. While that game was a little rigid with its robotic cast and two-way firing, Forgotten Worlds was filled to the brim with personality, with its two nameless heroes battling crowds of lizard men, possessed Egyptian barges, and goliath war gods. There are plenty of weapons available to our cosmic crusaders, and many are as impressive as they are deadly. A personal favorite is the flamethrower, which turns even the most stubborn bosses into charcoal in a matter of seconds.
At only four megabits, Forgotten Worlds isn’t a perfect conversion of the Capcom arcade game, but you’d have a hell of a time noticing the differences. Everything that matters is still here, from the omni-directional firing to the option to play with a friend. (You’re going to want to do this if at all possible; you’ll have a long, hard road ahead of you if you choose to go alone.)
Finally, Forgotten Worlds deserves credit for featuring a black guy who’s just as cool as the white one. African-American representation in video games was rare in the early 1990s, and not always flattering. Forgotten Worlds bucks this trend nicely, and believe me when I say the unappreciated African-American segment of the Genesis audience noticed.
Strider Hiryu has a robot smileodon as a pet.
Like most cats, it serves little purpose,
but damn, it's a robot. Smileodon.
More to come!