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
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
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.

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