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. 


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.


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. 


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. 


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! 


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! 


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. 



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. 


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. 


(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. 


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 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 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. 


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.


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.