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You take games too seriously.

Buy Now or Forever Hold Your Peace

Be one with the board.

Be one with the board.

Over Turkey Vacation I reviewed Shaun White Snowboarding: Road Trip for UGO.com. The review focuses on the controls, specifically the immersion provided by the Balance Board, but here’s the gist.

Buy it.

There’s been lots of talk about reviews and innovation and navel gazing and so on this week thanks to two titles that set out to add politics (Far Cry 2) and art (Mirror’s Edge) to videogames. They’re both solid games with grand aspirations, and both started an epic conversation. Shaun White Snowboarding: Road Trip has no such goals, but does that make it less of a game? Instead of a topical locale or a genre bending design, Road Trip offers one of the most enjoyable gaming session’s available this season thanks to refined controls, a clear and entertaining narrative and addictive pick up and play multiplayer. It’s a perfect piece of winter fluff.

I shouldn’t be surprised, as Ubisoft Montreal developed it—the same folks behind this week’s major release, the Prince of Persia reboot. Both games feature beautiful, colorful artwork and striking architecture. Neither are afraid to show their cards inspiration wise, rather they openly borrow piecemeal from previous games , graft the beast together, and polish away the edges. Rather than float away from their original goal to craft a well-made game in an effort to over innovate, these two games nail themselves down with what makes their genres enjoyable–the basic.

Many blogs have discussed the importance of praising innovation, though what about casual games that perfect an an older genre? Old hats need love too, right?

No doubt Road Trip will sell like Pumpkin Spice Lattes this holiday, but will hardcore gamers eager to rotate between the major mature blockbuster titles give this more casual E-rated release  a chance or will Shaun White be left out in the snow. The good news: other reviewers seem to agree that Road Trip’s pretty swell.

ctp

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Filed under: Commentary, Reviews, , , , , , , , ,

Dance Dance Emo-lution

My recent posting hiatus can be blamed on a lot of things – my thesis being due, my job being insane, a few family crises – but really, what it all comes down to is this:

I don’t know what to say about The World Ends With You.

TWEWY (I hate to go the acronym route, but good god, I can’t write that title over and over) is, as anyone who has kept up with the trickle of non-GTA gaming news still on the internet knows, the new Nintendo DS action-RPG created by the Kingdom Hearts team and designed by Square character design mastermind Tetsuya Nomura.

In a rare and glorious departure, though, the game is set in a world that resembles our own. To the extent that Shibuya, Tokyo’s youth fashion epicenter, can be considered the real world. Instead of some steampunk future, some magical village, or Halloweenland, you’re travelling through packed intersections and ramen shops.

I’ve already talked a little bit about what makes the gameplay so special. The level of customization I talked about there – the on-the-fly difficulty adjustments that encourage playing the game at the exact level you like best, from super hardcore to blissfully easy – is just the beginning. The game allows you to restart failed battles at a lower difficulty level, completely avoids random battles, and allows you to play the two-character combat with as little attention to one character as you wish.

And that two-character combat model, the game’s odd combination of selling point and detraction, both pushes the possibilities of the DS to its furthest limit and shows just how insanely overcomplicated the system can be. You control one character with the stylus – the one you must control – and one with the d-pad (in Dance Dance Revolution-style combos), the one you don’t have to, necessarily. The game rewards you for playing as hard as you can, but you can take on most encounters with a decidedly casual difficulty level. 

How this pays off for the story and the direction, after the jump.

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Filed under: Commentary, Portable Media, Reviews, , , , , , , ,

Early to the Party: Space Invaders Extreme

Awesome down to its Turkish-rug box art.

There are few things nerdier than importing a game. It’s either to buy something before everyone else, relying on GameFAQs for rough translations of the Japanese and puzzling through the non-localized weirdness, or to buy something you can’t get in the US, because you just can’t get a good Witch-fondling game at your local GameStop.

Sometimes, though, it’s totally worth it. Sometimes there’s that game out there that you need, no matter the cost, no matter the absurdity of paying twice as much to get it a month or two early. For me, that game is the stellar Space Invaders Extreme. If you haven’t seen the trailer yet, jump to it.

Like Pac-Man: Championship Edition, its spiritual predecessor (and a game I’d shortlist for Best Game Ever), this isn’t just a port of the game for a new system. Because there have already been four or five of those for Space Invaders on the DS alone. This is a refinement, a reimagining, taking the spirit and the core mechanics of the original and expanding them with an inventiveness that borders on sacrilege.

For Space Invaders Extreme, that means jettisoning the one thing that most identifies Space Invaders’ gameplay – the defensive shields that line the bottom of the screen. With those gone, the game switches over into fast-paced, powerup-heavy shooting with a sole emphasis on moving back and forth and shooting things. In fact, if it weren’t for the sprite art (those iconic pixelated bad aliens – including, far more frequently than in the arcade, the bonus UFO), it would be easy to mistake for Galaga.

That’s what I love about Pac-Man: CE and Space Invaders Extreme – they take thrilling mechanics from the next-gen and the retro games, marry them with style, sound, and a shocking variance of play modes, and create something instantly familiar but infinitely challenging. 

Pac-Man will be fun forever, which is more than I could really say for Space Invaders – a game that has been improved upon, specialized upon both by railed, top-down space shooters and the back-and-forth action of a thousand casual internet games. Which is why it’s a stunning accomplishment that Space Invaders Extreme is so damn good.

Walk, don’t run, as soon as the game drops. Or, join me in importing, for the gimmicky (don’t count on the people who say it’s essential – those people are the worst kind of game importers) paddle controller – infinitely important if you love throwing your money away on gimmicky controllers.

Wait, why exactly isn’t Taito bringing the paddle controller to the US?

 – Sam Ryan

Filed under: Commentary, Portable Media, Retro Today, Reviews, , , , , ,

Escape Velocity: An Indie Appreciation

How can you not love a title screen like this?

When I was a kid, we didn’t have videogames in our house. No NES, no Sega, no Game Boy. It wasn’t until late in the SNES cycle that I weeded enough yards to pick up an SNES, and the world finally opened up in front of me. I rented Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy III, racked up massive late charges, and the rest is history.

But what we did have was a Apple Performa 6116CD – perhaps the worst gaming machine on the planet, excluding the Apple Pippin. The 60mhz PowerPC 601 and 8 MB of RAM could barely power a QuickTime movie, let alone Marathon. But there were people out there who knew exactly what this biege, Gil Amelio-era monstrosity was capable of.

If you had a Mac in the ’90s, you know what I’m headed for. While the PC side had id and Epic to keep them company, those of us who cruised around on Performas and LCIIIs know the real masterminds of ’90s shareware: Mac publisher extraordinaire Ambrosia Software. Ambrosia’s still around today, and making absolutely necessary utilities (and a game, here and there) for Mac OS X and the iPhone. They’re certainly one of the longest-running and most successful shareware publishers, even in this era of swapped serial numbers and open source. 

But in the ’90s, they were first and foremost a game publisher. Apieron, Maelstrom, Avara, Barrack, Swoop – just a few of the names that will bring a smile to the face of anyone who played Mac games back in the day. Ambrosia staked their claim on arcade-y games, based on familiar game mechanics with unique and charming twists, and an undeniable and charming sense of humor. Their house style was immaculate, and nothing came out until it was immaculately polished – think of their supposed Quake-killer, Manse, a survival horror FPS that lived screenshot to screenshot for years until it was finally canned, looking better than the vast majority of shovelware on the PC side.

Escape Velocity, though, was a masterpiece, a piece of intelligent and complicated gameplay with a depth completely unheard of in the shareware world. 

How Escape Velocity and its sequels shaped my appreciation of gaming, and what I think modern games have to learn from it, after the jump.

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Filed under: Commentary, Retro Today, Reviews, , , , , ,

Has the Wii-mote lost control?

I believe my Nintendo Wii came with an invisible contract. Up front, I agreed to spend an exorbitant amount of money on two controllers (three, if you include the classic), and, in return, Nintendo would never require I buy another peripheral. The Wii-mote provides plenty of innovation, making silly things like light-guns, racing wheels, and the Sega Activator obsolete. Sadly, two major upcoming Wii releases, WiiFit and Mario Kart Wii, took this contract, rubbed it in dirt, and thrre it to the dogs

This spring, Nintendo will package two new controller SKUs with popular games. Mario Kart Wii will arrive with an aesthetically pleasing, but ultimately useless plastic driver’s wheel. If you’re into $150 balance boards, WiiFit’s your perfect game, but you better run to your Gamestop and pre-order—don’t underestimate Nintendo’s inability to keep products on the shelf.

Last year, Nintendo tested the stagnant peripheral waters with the Wii Zapper, a plastic attachment that latches onto a Wii-mote and transforms it into a gun, and you into a moron. Nintendo sells it as a novelty item. Fine by me, as long as the Zapper isn’t necessary to enjoy any games. Mario Kart Wii‘s Wii Wheel peripheral a different beast. Recently, Kotaku confirmed the classic and GameCube control schemes for Mario Kart Wii are crippled, a move that handicaps traditional and hardcore players, while subtly benefiting those with the Wii Wheel accessory. While one Wii Wheel comes with the game, more are $20 a pop. Across the Pacific, the WiiFit has taken mandatory peripherals a step further, winning over a handful of Japanese publisher–one of their releases, WiiSki, is the first game to require the WiiFit balance board.

Unlike Sony and Microsoft who have other motivations (i.e. digital media delivery), Nintendo has pursued a profit from the get-go, and these peripherals show no signs of Nintendo letting up. But, with that in mind, is it possible for the Wii peripheral market to super-saturate? Just as the Sega Genesis’ 32X and Sega CD created a detrimental hierarchy of players, could the same happen with pricey peripherals like the WiiFit?

It’s silly to rant about Nintendo’s innovation, and no one’s forcing my hand to pick up every piece of Nintendo gear, but it disappoints me that the device than can do it all, the Wii-mote, needs a lot of help from friends.

-ctp

Filed under: Industry, Reviews, , , , , ,

Late to the Party: Puzzle Quest

Puzzle Quest

 One of the things about being a hardcasual / midcore / harmcore (the last is actually the name of the hardcore band I was once in) gamer is that you’re not always going to be the first one to the party. In fact, it might be months after the buzz that you pick up a game – after some discount-bin surfing or some finally-having-time-for-it (sorry, Mass Effect, you’re going to stay in that pile for a while). Hence, a new feature: Late to the Party Reviews.

To initiate the column, I decided I’d give Puzzle Quest DS a shot. This is the exceptionally well-reviewed, fawned over puzzle-RPG, which I must give credit for giving gaming a new, unlikely hyphenate. It spent some time on the PC before moving to the PSP, XBLA, and the DS, my puzzler platform of choice.

Let’s get down to it – I love puzzlers. I’ve been playing Peggle’s challenge mode on my iPod for months now, I played Professor Leyton with a dedication and fury I haven’t given anything since BioShock, and my Live friends may notice that I’ve dropped a bit of time into Hexic HD. 

This game, though, breaks every fundamental rule of the things I enjoy about puzzle games.

 Its pick-up-and-play nature is broken up with completely arbitrary fantasy cliches – may I never have to “slay an orc” again as long as I live – and talking heads that last longer, and have none of the charm of, the often-amusing ones in Professor Leyton. These scenes, not to mention the useless overworld map, break up the gameplay with nothing but tedium and blandness.

 But that’s the game’s choice, and great gameplay can trump story – especially when we’re considering that our game in question here is a puzzle game for a portable console. My expectations were never to be wowed by the story, because this was all about the fun, challenging gameplay.

Learn how wrong I was after the jump.

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Filed under: Portable Media, Reviews, , , ,

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