Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Hallow Pursuits: More PSP Reviews

Yes, it's a Halloween post that has nothing to do with Halloween. Now take these PSP reviews and this small box of raisins and scoot. And don't even think of TP-ing the house, because I know your parents' phone number.

Ultimate Block Party

The lead characters Kollon and Marinne fished
their sidekicks out of a claw machine.
I imagine they have some ugly stories
about where that claw has been...
This game was pilloried by the press for not being Lumines, but here's a crazy thought... there's room in the vast PSP library for puzzle games that aren't Lumines! Ultimate Block Party is an entirely different beast, a warmly familiar throwback to the dozens of Japanese titles released shortly after Tetris hit the NES in 1990. It most closely resembles Tetris Attack or Puzzle League, with players scrambling to match colored blocks as they're fed into the bottom of the playfield. The big difference is that you rotate the pieces into place, and can tack extra blocks onto a successful match before it disappears. The blocks come at you fast after you've gone up a dozen levels, and you'll have to be just as quick to clear them away and stay in the game.

You'll want to keep playing too, because the frantic action is accented with a cast of abstractly drawn, cleverly designed characters and a soundtrack with tunes ranging from "pretty good" to "where have you been all my life?" The track that plays in the single player challenge is the best use of steel drums since Compile released Guru Guru Logic for the Game Boy Advance back in 2001. Throw in a versus mode that lets you mess with your opponent's playfield in all kinds of nasty ways, and you've got a top-shelf puzzle game that proudly stands apart from Lumines and its sequel.


Puzzle Guzzle

Omitted for the sake of your sanity:
"Stop it!" "Waah!" "Stop it!" "Waah!" "Stop..."
Ultimate Block Party proves that puzzle action on the PSP doesn't have to be limited to Lumines... but the drab Puzzle Guzzle illustrates that you at least have to put in some effort to get noticed. On one hand, the game's play mechanics are original, with the player building tangrams out of scattered triangles. On the other hand is... everything else. The presentation is aggressively bland, with a series of nondescript shapes taking the place of the brightly colored, hilariously animated stars of Ultimate Block Party. Sure, you can build your own forgettable mascot from the pieces of your vanquished opponents, but it's a feature that doesn't amount to much. 

Frankly, "doesn't amount to much" is a pretty good way to describe Puzzle Guzzle in general. Mindlessly spinning pieces provides some brief distraction, and will really annoy your roommate with the constant blipping noises streaming from your PSP, but there's not much else that can be said in the game's defense. Other puzzle games are better... yes, even ones without "Lumines" in the title.


Xi Coliseum

The Japanese are getting this in their version
of the Playstation Classic. What are we
getting? Tom freaking Clancy. Bah!
Funny thing about Sony... the company makes a lot of games for its Playstation line, but some of them never leave Japan, and others still are licensed to third parties for publication in the United States. Such was the case with Demon's Souls for the Playstation 3 and Bombastic for the Playstation 2. Evidently Sony didn't have enough faith in these two titles to bring them to America, and let Atlus and Capcom take that risk instead.

Sometimes the risk pays off... Demon's Souls was a surprise hit, spawning numerous sequels and starting its own sub-genre of viciously hard action adventure games. Sometimes it goes exactly as Sony expected, and the game doesn't click with Americans. That was the case with Bombastic, which is likely why its PSP counterpart Xi Coliseum never came to the United States.

Xi Coliseum looks a lot like Bombastic, using the same cel-shaded graphics and rounded fonts. However, the gameplay hearkens back to the humble debut of the series, Devil Dice. Rossi the elf still rolls dice around the playfield by racing along their tops, but when several like-numbered dice touch, they don't explode... they just turn red and melt away, lessening the excitement and limiting the opportunity for score-boosting chain reactions. 

Why Sony took a step back from the frenzied action of Bombastic is anyone's guess, but Xi Coliseum is still a strong entry in this series of addictive, if somewhat inscrutable, puzzle games. It's got a higher learning curve than Tetris, which is probably why it never caught on in America, but once you wrap your head around the play mechanics, you'll get why the Japanese love it.


Marvel Ultimate Alliance
Activision/Vicarious Visions

Presented by Shrinky-Dinks!
What is this, a game for Ant-Man? Marvel Ultimate Alliance gets credit for being so faithful to the home console versions, but sometimes it feels like there's just too much game here for the PSP to handle. The system's resolution and the camera, apparently set on a satellite miles above Earth, means that you'll have trouble telling the difference between Luke Cage, Wolverine, and the nameless soldiers they're supposed to fight. It's like you're playing Marvel Ultimate Amoebas through a microscope.

Yes, the camera can be adjusted, but that just leads to more proof that Marvel Ultimate Alliance fits the PSP almost as well as The Incredible Hulk fits in one of Bruce Banner's shirts. The control for everything beyond running and punching is awkward, with the player forced to press combinations of the face and shoulder buttons to use super powers and switch between teammates. It works, but it's uncomfortably constrained. If Marvel Ultimate Alliance on consoles was a first-class experience, the PSP version of this thinly disguised dungeon crawler is more like being squeezed between passengers in coach.


Def Jam: The Takeover
Electronic Arts/Aki

"C'mon baby, better make it hurt."
And boy, do they.
Technically, Def Jam: The Takeover is inferior to its console counterparts. Most of the cut scenes and voice clips have been trimmed away, and the graphics have been streamlined to the point where your fighters look like the background characters in the Xbox version, and the background characters look only vaguely human. What happened to your face? Do you even have one? You shouldn't be on the sidelines of an underground fight... you should crawl back into your cloning tank!

So it's a bit of a surprise that I actually prefer this to Def Jam: Fight for New York. It dispenses with the storyline of the original and gets right to the business of fighting, and fighting dirty. The game doesn't cut corners here... you get all the fighting styles, all the outrageous moves, and of course all the pain of the console versions. You'll find yourself wincing a little when you send your opponent's head through a jukebox, or fling them into an oncoming subway train. The action seems a touch slower than it was on the Xbox, but I consider that a plus since the fights were overwhelming at their original speed.

Def Jam: The Takeover takes out some of the content from the console versions, but it kept what was most important. Namely, Xzibit sitting on his opponent's back, then punching him in the head and ass until the broken bastard has to be carried away on a stretcher.


Monday, October 29, 2018

And That's Final

I said I was going to discuss this a few days ago, and I suppose I should make good on that promise before it slips my mind. A member of the Talking Time forum named Peklo wrote a lengthy examination of the R-Type series, which is deeper and more contemplative than you ever thought a discussion about a shoot 'em up from the 1980s could be. Peklo looks at everything from the evolving storyline to the color schemes used throughout the series, starting with the meaty organic reds of the original and ending with the subdued oranges and browns of R-Type Final, evocative of sundown or the months of autumn. The developers at Irem wanted to drive home the point that R-Type Final really was the end of the line for the series. In an industry where stale franchises get dragged from one decade to the next, it's refreshing to find a series of games that knew when to make a dignified exit.

Okay, promise kept. Now let's turn our attention to the Playstation Classic. The full list of games was recently posted online... let's give it a look.

image from Cheap Ass Gamer
Well, that sure is... something. It's hard to represent the eleven year lifespan of the Playstation with just twenty games, but picking these games makes me wonder if Sony was even trying. I'm totally down with Intelligent Qube and Jumping Flash, and Twisted Metal, Resident Evil, and Metal Gear Solid just about had to be there. At the same time, Grand Theft Auto feels like revisionist history on Sony's part... sure, it's a big series NOW, but it would be hard to find anyone who gave a damn about it back in its early days, when the action was seen from an overhead view and the control could be charitably described as wonky. Similarly, there's too much presence from Ubisoft, which is a major game publisher in the 21st century but didn't get much love from Americans in the 1990s. Sure Ubisoft, Rayman is famous all over the world, not just France. Whatever helps you sleep at night. (pats beret condescendingly)

The Japanese get a better selection of games in their version of the Playstation Classic, with G-Darius, Armored Core, and the inscrutable yet strangely compelling Devil Dice taking the place of Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six and Destruction Derby. All the same, there are better ways to get your early Playstation fix. Might I recommend the Vita instead? Sure, I'll give you a minute to dig yours out of the drawer and wipe the dust off the front.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Hacking Up PhlEGM

Ah, Electronic Gaming Monthly. The more things change, the more you stay the same. You're aggressively pushing high profile games that probably don't need your hype, just like you did back in 1991 when Street Fighter II hit arcades and you just wouldn't shut up about it. Let me put on my rubber gloves and scoop up their latest journalistic offering, referencing Rockstar's long-awaited (although heaven only knows why) Red Dead Redemption 2...

EGM: "One of the most gorgeous, seamless, rootinest, tootinest games ever made, and if you voluntarily miss out on it, you’re either not a gamer or in a coma."

Oh no, my gamer cred has been threatened! I'd better run out and buy the bloodthirstiest, shoot 'em firstiest, doggone worstiest video game ever made, before my reputation as a forty year old man who plays Xbox in his underpants is sullied forever!

Heh. Right. Look, I've been playing games since I could grip a joystick with my chubby little baby hands, and I'll be playing them long after EGM ends publication, most likely with my gnarled, arthritic old man hands. (By the way, when is EGM ending publication? Let me know so I can mark it on my calender and buy some bubbly for the occasion.)

Just for the record, I can think of plenty of reasons I wouldn't want to buy Red Dead whatever. The fact that I just don't like Rockstar games is pretty high on that list. I'm currently knee deep in the definitive edition of Sleeping Dogs and I'm having more fun with that than I ever had with anything Rockstar has published. It's the little things, like a protagonist you don't want to punch in the face and cars with a reasonable turning radius. If that wasn't enough reason to skip RDR2, there's what we already know about the working conditions at Rockstar...
It's crunch time, peons! We need twice the bricks,
and you'll need to supply your own straw!
(image from
Anyway. I was going to discuss a deep and well-researched article I found elsewhere about R-Type, but it deserves its own blog post, rather than having the second-hand stink of EGM rubbing off on it. Stay tuned for that in a couple of days.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Diggin' A Hole

I'm not even sure if AtGames disappointing players is news at this point... more like a morbid inevitability, like death or taxes. But it's happened again, and in the worst possible way. AtGames sent out a handful of its Bandai-Namco Blast plug 'n play units to prominent YouTube game reviewers, and the device was well received thanks to its rock solid emulation of a dozen Namco arcade hits.

Problem is, while these reviewers were treated to a top-shelf product, ordinary consumers got something far less exciting when they stepped foot into their local Wal-Mart. The Blast available in stores is powered by a (shoestring) budget processor and runs the NES ports of a dozen Namco arcade hits. Here's where the salt really hits the wound... those games aren't even well emulated, hobbled with screen tearing and frame skipping. Here's YouTube tech-spert ETA Prime with the ugly details.

(Hm, tech-spert. That's kinda catchy... I need to trademark that or something.)

It's galling enough that the games are dumbed down versions of arcade favorites. Some of those NES conversions are actually pretty faithful (Galaga, Dig Dug, Mappy), while others miss the mark by a mile (Xevious, Pac-Man), but regardless of their quality, there's no excuse for the Blast to deliver anything less than the full arcade experience. It's 2018, man. We have the technology... hell, AtGames delivered that technology to reviewers. 

Ignoring that, we've had several plug 'n plays over the last twelve years that came a lot closer to arcade perfection than the Blast does. Personally, I owned Jakks-Pacific's Ms. Pac-Man joystick from 2007 and was quite happy with its performance. Another gamer, Negative1 from the AtariAge forum, sang the praises of the more recent Bandai Pac-Man Connect and Play, claiming that all the patterns and tricks from the arcade originals will work on this device as well. This is not a guy who's quick with a compliment... there's a reason they call him Negative1.

Getting back to the Blast, what's most frustrating about this product is that it not only doesn't bring the arcade experience home (in spite of AtGames' apparent attempts to convince consumers otherwise), it can't even meet the minimal expectation of running NES games at their original speed. NES games, which ran perfectly well on a Pentium computer and a freeware emulator twenty years ago!
The AtGames Blast isn't as good as NESticle,
which was designed twenty years ago by two
stoners and had a character named Shitman as
a mascot. It really makes you think, doesn't it?
(image from NeoGAF)
(also, I know it's gross. Sorry!)
AtGames is currently defending itself from criticism and the obvious accusation that it tried to hoodwink YouTube reviewers with a ringer in place of their actual product. Most people aren't buying it, not only because the company's reputation is already in the sewer thanks to ten years of inferior products, but because their press flack has addressed the controversy with all the charm and forthrightness of the Iraqi Information Minister. Perhaps instead of flimsy excuses, snitty rejoinders, and clinging to technicalities (the pictures of arcade games on the package were for reference purposes only! You don't expect fresh strawberries in your box of Special K cereal too, do you?), this would have been a more appropriate response...
(image from Mega Man Network)

Friday, October 19, 2018

To Infinity and Beyond

Mulligans aren't just for people who are terrible at golf, it seems. Rumor has it that Capcom will take another swing at Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite, rebranding it Marvel vs. Capcom 4 and throwing in some characters that were missing from the previous release. Nothing's been confirmed yet, but it doesn't seem that far-fetched considering that Capcom did the same thing with Street Fighter V. It's also not clear if the suckers who bought the deluxe version of Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite (me) will get the new fighters free of charge, or who those fighters will even be. Unfortunately, VG 24/7 states that they probably won't be from the X-Men universe, despite Disney's planned acquisition of 20th Century Fox. My tepid demand for this reboot decreases.

In other news... I don't really have any other news. I really need to spend more time with the major gaming blogs. (No, not Destructoid... that sucks ass.) I can say that online voice IP service Discord is trying to railroad users into accepting an arbitration agreement. You'll find more information about this on Kotaku, and like Kotaku, I recommend that you opt out while the opt-ion is available. How on earth are you going to get a fair shake in a complaint against Discord when the arbitrator is an employee of Discord? Talk about your conflict of interests.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Supercharging the Super Retro-Cade

I can't believe it's not another PSP post!

Oh, there will be plenty of time for that. In the meantime, let's jump back a few months, to my review of the Super Retro-Cade. I was pleased with this mini-console, if not deliriously happy, but warned my readers (both of you) that Retrobit may have used emulation software without the permission of its creators. It brings a whole new meaning to the term "guilty pleasure."

Beyond that, Retrobit updated the Super Retro-Cade with new games and enhanced performance, but to get the revised firmware, you have to buy the system all over again. That brings the usual meaning to the term "being a colossal dick." Fortunately, the fine folks at GBATemp have found a way to not only flash the Super Retro-Cade with the new firmware, but circumvent it entirely and run the feature-rich Lakka emulation suite instead.

As GBATemp member PSX_Specter explains in this post, you'll need a copy of Lakka, a speedy SD card, and image writing software to put Lakka on the card. Etcher hasn't let me down yet, so I used that. When you're done, you make a minor change to a text file on the card, then stuff it into your Super Retro-Cade. Power it on and after a brief set-up period, you should see something like this...

You'll need to find some way to put games on the SD card. No, just popping it into your PC won't cut it. Either you'll have to plug a wifi dongle into your Super Retro-Cade and transfer files to it through a network (this didn't work for me; I tried three such peripherals without success), or burn a Linux disc, reboot a computer with the disc in the drive, and write files directly to the SD card. 

Once you're done, the Super Retro-Cade will run any games the stock unit could, but better. Here's a close-up of Bio-Hazard Battle for the Genesis, without the smeary filter the machine uses by default.

Crisp pixels ahoy! With Lakka, the Super Retro-Cade will also run games it couldn't before, for over a dozen other systems. Here's Namco's Bravoman for the Turbografx-16.

Er, you probably want to run something better than that. And you'll have the option, because Lakka can handle everything from the Atari 2600 to the ZX Spectrum. I'm told the Super Retro-Cade hardware can comfortably run Playstation games, but anything beyond that (even if it's technically compatible) is pushing your luck. It's also worth noting that Retrobit's previous console, the Generations, will NOT work with this hack, since it's running on entirely different (and inferior) hardware.

Special thanks to both PSX_Specter and his partners in crime Kuwanger and WD GASTER2 for digging deep into the Super Retro-Cade and revealing its true potential. It was nice to have a reason to take it out of mothballs after all these months.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Vitae and Their Kin

I think it's time for a little Vitalogy, don't you?

image from Wikipedia
Er, not that. That was an overrated Pearl Jam album, from where I'm standing. No Code got ripped by the critics, but at least it didn't have Bugs and Hey Foxymophandlemama on it. How is that last one even a song?!

No, this was the Vitalogy I had in mind.

I've built up quite a collection of these guys over the last four years, haven't I? From the top, we have a Playstation TV deluxe set, two PSP 3000s flanking a PSP Go, another Playstation TV, and two Vitas. The Vita on the left was my most recent acquisition, procured from a pawn shop and upgraded to the latest firmware. Yes yes, I know, but all the other systems in that picture have already been hacked. I needed a legit machine that I could use to access the PSN Store and play physical cartridges, since the cart port on my first Vita is already occupied by an SD card adapter. No regerts.

Admittedly, I wish my second Vita had been, well, the second Vita. You know, the lighter one with the less impressive LCD screen but option buttons that don't require surgical precision to press. Why Sony thought it would be a good idea to use tiny ovals flush with the face of the unit is anyone's guess. Sega did the same thing with the first model of the Saturn, and it drives me bananas. C'mon guys, say it with me... function before form!

But I'm not just posting to grouse about the design flaws in obsolete hardware, or show off my collection of Sony handhelds and juicy grapefruits. I just wanted to say that I picked up another pawful of PSP games, and that I'd be happy to post reviews if you'd like to read them. I mean, I'd still probably post the reviews even if you didn't want to read them... I'd just be less happy about it.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Curiously Strong, or Just Plain Curious?

I should have jumped on this news the moment I heard about it, but better late than never, right? Anyway, a modder named Shank decided that the world needed a Nintendo Wii squeezed into an Altoids tin. Polygon reported on this in detail a couple of days ago, but the Cliff Notes is that Shank pared the system down to its barest essentials to fit it into a palm-sized form factor. It runs hot and chews through a rechargeable battery in ten minutes, but it sure is a thing that exists. Here's how it looks on the inside, again courtesy of Polygon...

And here it is in action, presumably playing the GameCube version of Super Smash Bros., since people just won't let it go fifteen years and three sequels later. For those curious, this image came from GameTyrant.

Good luck wave dashing with those tiny little buttons.