Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Game of the Year 2010 Fourth Nomination: Red Dead Redemption

My fourth nomination for Game of the Year 2010 goes to Red Dead Redemption, the insanely good game from Rockstar that once again demonstrates their gift for strong dialogue, characters, amazing visuals, and very fun gameplay. If you've played a GTA game you'll definitely notice similarities in the gameplay department, but this still feels like a completely different experience, with more than enough relating to its excellent setting to set it apart.

I rarely find myself doing sidequests in video games but in Red Dead Redemption you're constantly given the opportunity to do missions for people you run into on the road, and I always find myself excited to do these, usually just as excited as I am to get to the next intense main story mission. The main character's very likable and with top-notch production values and dialogue that sounds so convincing that these characters might as well be real people talking to you, not to mention the amazing voice acting, the story's awesome. The gameplay's intense, the visuals are amazing, and there's so much to do. One of those games that's very easy to lose yourself in.

Red Dead Redemption's definitely one of this year's highlights and is totally deserving of all the praise and great sales it has gotten so far.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Game of the Year 2010 Third Nomination: Final Fantasy XIII

Well, after yet another unbearably long wait, Final Fantasy XIII was released this March, and just like Final Fantasy XII before it, it would seriously divide the fanbase. The developers' decision to base Final Fantasy XIII's game design on that of an action game meant that things like interaction with characters outside your main party and exploration were scaled back to a very bare minimum. Even though it was flawed, however, Final Fantasy XIII pulled me into its story and characters and took me along for the ride like only Final Fantasy seems to know how to do. One of the best battle systems I've ever experienced and very frequent and captivating cutscenes ensured that Final Fantasy XIII was always a blast to play, and its action-driven approach, though not without its issues, meant there was literally not a second of downtime in the game's first 9 chapters. Amazing visuals and a great score that merges orchestration and electronica made me excited to see every new environment that the characters would end up in.

Final Fantasy XIII's relentless pacing, likable characters, awesome battle system, and top-notch visuals and audio, and incredibly-directed cutscenes make this latest installment in the long-running series worthy of a nomination, even if it's not necessarily the best in the series. It still manages to be the best Japanese RPG I've played this gen.

Note: As with all the games that I've nominated, you can read my review of Final Fantasy XIII in the Archive, though keep in mind, my GOTY is not based on which game this year has gotten the best score. It's based on which game has, looking back, left the biggest impression on me and delivered the most memorable experience.  

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Game of the Year 2010 Second Nomination: Enslaved Odyssey to the West

The second nomination for my GOTY 2010 goes to Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, another game that didn't get the attention it deserved. This cinematic and jaw-droppingly gorgeous action/platformer, which takes place in a colorful post-apocalyptic world, combines some great character customization with a rock-solid combat system and music and sound design that's completely absorbing.

But what makes Enslaved truly stand out is its storyline, which, though maybe a bit predictable, features great chemistry between the two lead characters, Monkey and Trip, as well as the addition of the hilarious tagalong Pigsy in the game's final 1/3. Their banter throughout the game always feels convincing and natural, but then again, with a script co-written by 28 Days Later screenwriter Alex Garland and the main character voiced by Andy Serkis, I guess that shouldn't have been too much of a surprise. The characters are so likable and the story is so well-presented that I found myself hooked into it in the same way that I was pulled into the Enslaved's gorgeous world. The visuals are not only great on a technical level, but artistically they shine as well, with some imaginative enemy designs and a fantastic lighting system that reminds me of the awesome-looking Dinosaur Planet from Star Fox Adventures back on the Gamecube. It's just such a colorful look, and I can't tell you how refreshing I found this in our era of so many brown and gray-looking games.

I just can't express how fun an experience Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is, from its start all the way to its mindblowing ending. It's an ending that's almost hauntingly beautiful, making fantastic use of live action footage in a very Wall-E like way, and it stuck with me long after the credits rolled. It's too bad that this game didn't sell all that well, but hopefully more people discover it down the road. It may not necessarily re-invent the genre, but what it does, it does so incredibly well.

Note: As with all the games that I've nominated, you can read my review of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West in the Archive, though keep in mind, my GOTY is not based on which game this year has gotten the best score. It's based on which game has, looking back, left the biggest impression on me and delivered the most memorable experience.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Game of the Year 2010 First Nomination: Sin and Punishment Star Successor

The Wii has had so many rail shooters over the course of its lifespan, but none of them has managed to be quite as awesome as the criminally overlooked Sin and Punishment: Star Successor. From the moment I booted this up, I felt as if I'd entered a time machine and I was back in my local arcade (before it closed down) jamming quarters into one of the machines. Sin and Punishment: Star Successor is probably one of the most action-packed titles I've ever played, let-alone this year. In what other game do you have hundreds and hundreds of enemies flying around on screen at any given moment? And let's not forget the epic boss battles every 5 minutes.

As far as the arcade vibe goes, Star Successor is loaded with all you'd want. Squealing guitars on the soundtrack at the Game Over screen? Check. Wonderfully cheesy voice acting? Check. Online leaderboards to rank your score against other people's scores? Check. Old school challenge? Aaaand check. Thia game's challenging but rarely unfair, and the (skippable) cutscenes are surprisingly frequent, demonstrating two pretty likable main characters. The level variety's also impressive, and each level and action scene feels different from the last.

Really a gem. I wish more people had gotten to experience the old school fun that is Sin and Punishment: Star Successor, definitely one of the craziest and most "hardcore" games of 2010 and one that deserves its place on this list.

Note: As with all the games that will be nominated, you can read my review of Sin and Punishment: Star Successor in the Archive, though keep in mind, my GOTY is not based on which game this year has gotten the best score. It's based on which game has, looking back, left the biggest impression on me and delivered the most memorable experience.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Announcement: Game of the Year Awards (Yeah, seriously.)

Alright, even though it's just one person's (my) opinion, and even though it's probably only going to be read by like, 10 people, I thought it would be kinda cool to do a Game of the Year awards-type thing here on my blog, mainly because I've always wanted to do one of these.

So here's how it's going to work. Of course since this is just me doing this, the only games nominated will be games that I've played, so even though many sites will be giving GOTY noms and awards to games like Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood and CoD: Black Ops, they won't be nominated here because I haven't played them. These will just be the best games that I've played that were released this year, and which one I feel, overall, was the top gaming experience I've had in 2010.
So I have right now 5 nominations set in stone. That has the potential to grow to 6 or 7, because there are two other games from 2010 that I plan on playing. And I have a feeling (though of course I could be totally wrong,) that at least one of them will be up for a nomination. I'm going to give myself the opportunity to play these games, but what I'll begin doing is releasing my nominations one at a time, starting probably late this week. And in early to mid, January I'll reveal the winner, and then maybe I'll even do one of those "honorable mentions" things where I talk about games that were very good but didn't totally make the cut, or even my biggest disappointments of the year. But we'll see how this goes first. If it's a total bust I'll probably just leave it at GOTY.

So that's pretty much what this blog will be about for the next couple weeks unless I find something else to post about as well.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Review: Donkey Kong Country Returns. Decent game, but never really feels like anything special

Alright, this marks me trying a new format with my reivews, going the IGN route by ending with closing comments then a categorical breakdown of everything. This was always something I was afraid of doing because it makes it easier for people to avoid the review entirely and just skip to the end, but then again, being able to sum up the review at the end means I can throw in little details that would have bogged down the review otherwise, and my reviews do tend to run a bit long, so I guess I'll see whether this way works better or not.

So here goes.

In 2002, Texas-based Retro Studios amazed the video game industry by creating Metroid Prime, a game that many today celebrate as being among the best of the decade. Though people were initially skeptical, the game managed to feel like a Metroid game despite taking bold risks with the franchise and dramatically shaking things up.

So my expectations were high when it was announced that Retro Studios would now be taking over the reins of the Donkey Kong franchise. Though it was pretty obvious from the start that Donkey Kong Country Returns was not going to attempt to re-invent the franchise in the same way that Metroid Prime did, I have to say that I think I expected a bit too much from Retro Studios' latest effort. The game plays fine and looks nice, but generally it doesn't do all that much to stand out. Donkey Kong fans will probably enjoy getting the chance to play more of the same Donkey Kong they remember, but those new to the series, like myself, may be left wondering what all the fuss is about.

Visually the game looks nice, with some great effects present as Donkey Kong progresses through the colorful environments. It all looks polished and pretty, even when the camera gets to go in close. The characters and enemies look great on a technical level and animate well, I just wish artistically the game was a bit more interesting. I realize this all takes place on an island, but I still think it was possible to spice up the art direction a little bit more. Aside from a couple cool-looking sunset levels that seem to have been inspired by Frank Miller, not much was done to make the various jungles, beaches, and volcanoes you'll traverse feel like anything we haven't seen before. There are examples of inspired character design, but this was something Rareware really excelled at, and Retro Studios I think is a bit out of their element here. Interaction with other characters is minimal, with an old shopkeeper providing the game with its only dialogue, and his one-liners aren't much to write home about. Meanwhile, the screen where you select your levels from is so bland that it makes New Super Mario Bros' hub world look good, and aside from the shop, there's nothing you can do between levels but head to the next one. Though there are plenty of things to find and collect in the levels themselves (such as letters that form the word “KONG,” which will unlock a hidden world) you must find each letter in every single level to reap the bonus content that it unlocks, which is an awfully tall order that many will probably feel isn't worth the effort. This is a relatively bare-bones platformer and aside from the collectibles and a time attack mode, there are no distractions at all from the main quest.

Which is unfortunate, because the main quest, though it can be both fun and rewarding in short bursts, can also be very draining, given the high difficulty and intensity of some of the levels. Often I found myself opting to simply turn the game off instead of going from one very difficult level to another one. Each of the 8 worlds you visit contain several levels, which generally look similar to each other, and though there are occasionally brutally difficult mine cart and rocket blast segments to shake things up, for the most part this simply is what it is. Donkey Kong must chase after his stolen bananas, he can use Diddy Kong as a sidekick to gain extra health and hovering abilities, and he can deal with enemies by bopping them on the head, rolling into them, ground pounding, or sometimes blowing on them if they happen to be fire-based. Aside from jumping, Donkey Kong's actions are all mapped to shaking the Wii Remote and holding the D-pad in a certain direction. A big problem I have with Donkey Kong Country Returns is that I just can't stand shake controls. They bothered me in WarioLand: Shake It and they're not any better here. Though you can opt to play with the Nunchuck attachment, there's no way to map the shake controls to any buttons. I eventually got used to it, but it made the first half of the game or so a pain for me to play.

One thing I want to commend Retro Studios for, on the other hand, is not going easy with the game's difficulty. This is a challenging game, “retro” in every sense of the word, and it has no problem making you sweat. At the shop in between levels you can buy as many additional lives as you can afford, and even a key to unlock a different path through the world map if the level you're stuck on is just too hard. You can also buy an extra heart for use on one level, or another power that will make Donkey Kong invincible for a short time. There's also the Nintendo-enforced “Super Guide” feature that will be offered to you if the game sees you dying a lot, and taking advantage of it will have the game play through the level for you, though you will receive no collectibles from using Super Guide. Make no mistake about it, this is not an easy game and you'll be trying to collect every banana you see to gain as many lives as possible, as you *will* die constantly. Even hardcore gamers may find themselves tempted to use the Super Guide at certain points. How fair is the difficulty? Sometimes fair and satisfying, other times it relies too much on trial-and-error and memorization, and checkpoints can sometimes be very far apart. Some will tolerate this type of difficulty more than others. I understand that they were going for a retro gaming experience, and this form of difficulty definitely reminds me of the Sega Genesis games I grew up with. Games have changed a lot since those days, though, and so for me it was often frustrating, rather than satisfying, to have to essentially die on certain set pieces in Returns over and over again before I memorized exactly how they worked in order to get them right.


Verdict: There are some moments of inspired platforming, and the pacing is actually very fast, making it easy to always turn the game back on, even if minutes later I found myself cursing at the TV. Donkey Kong Country Returns is a strange game, one that's fun one second and then frustrating the next. I guess my biggest problem with it is that it doesn't really have much of a personality. It feels workmanlike, as if Retro Studios was told to make a 2D platformer in the spirit of the Rareware Donkey Kong Country games and they didn't have the freedom (or maybe were afraid) to branch out and really make this their own. Even the music seems to be mostly remixes and comes off as forgettable. The graphics are nice but the art direction and dialogue feels like a secondhand Rareware, and as I played this game, as much as I tried, I found it hard to get past the fact that this fairly standard 2D sidescroller is really what Retro Studios has been working on for these past few years. It feels like a waste of this brilliant developer's talent. The Donkey Kong Country games tried to push 2D platforming forward, while Returns is content to just be a throwback. Granted, the gameplay is solid and can at times be a lot of fun, I guess I just expected more for my $50 than what's basically an updated version of a game that came out in 1994. I think what it comes down to is that Donkey Kong Country Returns was made for fans of Donkey Kong Country. If you're new to the series, you'll find a fairly standard and very difficult 2D platformer that doesn't quite have the creativity or ambition to stand out in what's becoming a very crowded market. Fans should buy, everyone else should rent first to see if they like it before dropping the $50.

Presentation: Game follows your typical Nintendo game "8 world structure" on a pretty boring worldmap that's light on things to do or characters to interact with. Not a whole lot of surprises here. Story is minimal and what you'd expect.

Graphics: Colorful environments, superb lighting, and nice graphical effects are pleasing on the eyes. Fluid animation and some cool-looking enemies have trouble masking a general lack of inspiration. Level types (jungle, beach, cave, fire) can feel a little stale.

Gameplay: An often very challenging sidescroller that's exactly what it says it is, Donkey Kong Country Returns. Series fans will be more forgiving than others of the old school try-and-die difficulty mechanics. Gameplay isn't nearly as revolutionary now as it may have been back in 1994, and a late-game switch hunt feels like filler. Aside from this, Returns keeps up a fast pace and there are moments of very inspired platforming.

Sound: Sound effects are solid. I recognized some music tracks which I assume are remixed from older games, but all in all the music doesn't do a whole lot to stand out.

Value: The challenging difficulty and 8 worlds ensure a lengthy gameplay experience. There are several puzzle pieces and KONG letters to collect in each level, not to mention Time Attack options on levels you've beaten. If you're looking for things to do outside of the main quest, though, you're pretty much out of luck.

Overall: 6.5/10 (My reviews go by a .5 scale.)

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Blog Post: Spike TV amazes with another cringe-inducing Video Game Awards show

Well, tonight was the night, the annual Spike TV Video Game Awards. Ah, the video game awards, the biggest non-event of the year where Spike TV gets to humiliate itself in front of millions of....actually, does this show really attract millions of viewers? I'd honestly be amazed.

It's tough to figure out exactly who this terribly weak awards show is meant to entertain. The "big game reveals" are almost all leaked beforehand, they’re announced with short FMV trailers that show no gameplay to speak of, the jokes are so awful that one of the presenters even blamed the teleprompter, and those who present the awards seem to have nothing to do with video games as they stand up there awkwardly with their feeble jokes in front of the merciless crowd….wow.

Seriously, who dresses up and heads out to the annual Video Game Awards? I just can’t even imagine who exactly is sitting in this crowd, but it had to be the most lifeless audience I think I’ve ever seen at any televised event. My Chemical Romance, who for some reason performed (their song appears in the Gran Turismo 5 commercial, so I guess that has something to do with it) might as well have been doing a show in an empty hall. There wasn’t a single cut to the audience during their entire performance, the show’s directors clearly not even bothering to fake the crowd’s excitement.
But let’s head back to the games for a minute. It amazes me that the video game industry continues to legitimize this 3rd rate award show by giving it these “BIG EXCLUSIVE REVEALS!” I assume these are meant to get gamers to watch the show (despite the fact that I’m sure the trailers will be up online in no time) but the trailers themselves are so brief, contain almost no gameplay, and come and go with no sort of context or explanation. One of the more bizarre moments of the show for me was the announcement of a new SSX game. Remember SSX? It was a pretty awesome snowboarding series of the PS2/Gamecube/Xbox era, where you’d play as characters with giant orange afros who do The Worm on their snowboards.

Well apparently it’s getting a “deadly” sequel about racing down “dark, dangerous” terrain with realistic-looking characters and not a joke in sight. Really? It's pretty much the equivalent of giving Spongebob Squarepants an uzi for his next movie and turning it into a serious R-rated drama about him rescuing Patrick from underwater, bomb-wielding terrorists and killing everyone in his path.
This SSX trailer is absolutely begging for some context, but instead, we get a quick look at what appears to be a  “dark, serious snowboarding game” called SSX and then that's it. We don't get to understand how exactly this is an SSX game or even what systems it’s on, making its reveal almost entirely useless. At E3, for example, when a game's revealed, usually a developer takes to the stage after the trailer to explain what we've just seen, but not here. Here they're apparently too eager to get to the next unfunny skit.
The one game reveal that seemed to have been given a somewhat decent trailer (as in, we actually got to see some gameplay) was Uncharted 3, but everything else, if you happened to be watching for the new video game reveals, was terribly lacking. And if anyone not into video games is watching this....I can't even imagine how any of this could be interesting to them. The show simply fails to communicate what's so amazing about many of the fantastic video games being showcased, and why video games are played and loved by so many people all throughout the world. Though of course they have time for a skit where a celebrity explains which male video game character she'd have sex with. Classy.
Neil Patrick Harris, despite belting out jokes as bad as everyone else’s, actually manages to escape with some dignity, mainly because he comes across as someone who actually did some preparation for this. His sarcastic tone and a constant look of amusement on his face that just screams “doing it for the paycheck, BABY!” actually elevates the show slightly, if only because it lets the viewer know that at least someone up on the stage knows how ridiculously stupid this all is.  During one of the (many) cringe-inducing skits throughout the show’s two hours, the sound effects on the gun he was using came too late, giving him the opportunity to improvise a one-liner.  During another skit where he proceeds to place a live chicken into a slingshot (I wish I were kidding) before the show’s director “lets him know that PETA disapproves and he has to stop the stunt,” he says in a voice fully loaded with sarcasm that the Oscars would have let him do it. He ends the show very appropriately by commenting that this is probably “the end of his hosting career.”
Though to be honest, the only one who has to worry about that is Dane Cook, who makes several jaw-droppingly unfunny appearances to introduce the nominees for “Year’s Best Character,” and while I know Dane Cook isn’t exactly George Carlin, this was bad even by his standards. Nick Swardson makes an equally unfunny appearance to promote his new TV show, a decision I’m sure he’s now totally regretting.
It’s sad because there are some really solid things about this show. The clips used as the nominees are introduced are well-cut, and the awards in general don’t seem to be *too* rigged. Except, of course, for Neil Patrick Harris winning Best Male Voice Actor (he remarks sarcastically, "well, that was a surprise,") against John Cleese, Daniel Craig, Gary Oldman, and Martin Sheen...yeah, okay. There was a great NBA Live 2011 joke, and a pretty fantastic live performance by José González of his song from Red Dead Redemption, a performance which thankfully wasn’t butchered by the echoing caused by a bad mic job.

Otherwise, it’s frustrating that an industry that’s reaching for universal acceptance and is begging to be taken more seriously among the general public is stuck with this awards show that makes video gaming look so tacky. This collection of disinterested presenters, groan-inducing skits, and what feels like a majority of the awards being given off screen, seems to do nothing but set the image of the games industry back. It’s seen improvements over the years, but at this point it feels like it’s content to be “that 3rd rate awards show” that seems like nothing more than an excuse for the game publishers (and Burger King) to advertise themselves. But ugh….why does it have to be so embarrassing?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Review: Kirby's Epic Yarn. It's for little kids but this game's fun and looks amazing.

Well, this was a nice surprise. When Nintendo announced Kirby's Epic Yarn, it looked to me like nothing more than yet another 2D side-scroller with an art style gimmick, but words can't really express how fun the latest Kirby adventure is to play. It may not have much in the way of a challenge, and its kiddy atmosphere may drive cynical older gamers away, but some awe-inspiring visuals, always fun gameplay, and solid music make for an incredibly unique adventure.

Graphics: One thing that makes Epic Yarn stand out from the rest of the pack is the visual presentation. Kirby finds himself inside a yarn world, where everything, including himself and all the characters he meets, is stitched together like patchwork. This graphics style never ceases to amaze. A vibrant color scheme coupled with the inventive way a world "made out of yarn" was created ends up disguising the Wii's limitations. These visuals are so clean (especially in 480p) that it's almost easy to forget you're even playing a Wii game. The bosses are inventive, Kirby has an arsenal of clever transformations at his disposal, the levels are varied, and even the way the characters move and animate is smooth. Almost nothing to complain about here graphics wise, the developers have created a Wii game that doesn't look like a Wii game.

Gameplay: Kirby's Epic Yarn takes the form of a 2D side-scroller. Since he's now in yarn form, Kirby has lost his ability to fly, though he can hover gradually to the ground, and he's no longer able to suck up enemies. Much of his attacking is done by unraveling the enemies, or by picking them up and throwing them at other enemies or at breakable walls. Kirby also has the ability to go through holes in the fabric and end up behind it, opening up paths that lead to hidden jewels or treasure. Kirby can also change into different forms for certain parts of levels. He can transform into a fire engine, he can turn into a tank that fires yarn missiles, or into a car or a sled....and those are just a couple of them. All of his transformations are fun to control, using the Wii Remote's tilt controls well without it being too much of a distraction. The only transformation that feels slightly unintuitive is one in which Kirby becomes a train, and you have to draw the tracks on the screen. Though I got the hang of it eventually, it's the one transformation that I don't think feels as....seamless (...sorry about that) as the others.

These transformations though really shake things up and add some great moments and even at times a Sonic-like sense of speed to these levels. But even when not transforming into anything, Epic Yarn does its basic platforming very well. This is a fun game, plain and simple. It even features a large list of activities to participate in when outside of the levels. Kirby has an apartment in Quilty Square that can be decorated with treasures you've found throughout the levels, or purchased from the nearby store. Early on, Kirby's landlord asks him if he can help with decorating the neighboring apartment, and doing this gets Kirby a new neighbor. Eventually you're given the opportunity to expand the apartment building even more, adding more and more rooms to allow others to move in. These people all have optional tasks and mini-games that you can complete, and these help add more time to a game that's already at a pretty decent length. (8 hours for me with a little bit of optional content.) Other optional content exists in the form of hidden levels in each of the game's worlds. These are unlocked by getting a "gold" medal on the world's boss, which encourages you to try your best not to get hurt when fighting a boss encounter.

Which brings me to the game's often-discussed lack of challenge. Epic Yarn is not a game that will challenge you in the traditional sense. Bosses are fun to fight but they always feel like they're holding back, and there's no way to die in the game. Instead, Kirby collects jewels throughout the level. Taking damage or falling down a pit will cause some these to spill out, and you lose them if you don't re-collect them in time. Sometimes you won't be able to re-collect them, as they'll fall down a bottomless pit or end up outside of your reach. In this case, you don't get them back, and you'll have to hope there are more jewels in the rest of the level or your grade at the end will suffer. As you play through the levels, a meter at the top of the screen lets you know your current (gold, silver, and bronze) and getting gold medals isn't always easy. It's in this way that Epic Yarn allows for "challenge." It's still not particularly difficult, but it'll provide a challenge if you're trying to get as many gold medals as possible. Though I initially thought the game was too easy, I quickly grew to like this take on the platformer genre. There's no frustration whatsoever to be had, and the fun platforming and sense of amazement at the game's visuals and invention is never ruined by any tediousness. It's a fun and relaxing interesting way to play a game, that's for sure.

That's not to say that some challenge wouldn't have been welcome...especially on some of these bosses. The final boss in particular didn't seem to put up any sort of fight, and I got a gold on it my first try. But the ease in difficulty didn't bother me nearly as much as I thought it would, I guess I was having too much fun to care.

Audio and Storyline: The music can sometimes feel a little too childish, but at other points it really helps to enhance what's already a great atmosphere. The winter levels in particular are almost enchanting, and the music (as well as the visuals) play a big role in that. There is voice acting in this game, but it's only done by 1 guy, who narrates several of the game's cutscenes. He delivers his lines like he's reading a storybook to the kids. It's as babyish as it sounds, and with a name like "epic yarn" and with such a great world at their disposal, it kind of sucks that a great story didn't seem to have been very high up on the developer's priority list. This is especially disappointing since the script is generally very well-translated, with the usual winks to the audience and clever dialogue that Nintendo's translated games are often known for.

Verdict: Don't play Kirby's Epic Yarn if you want a challenge, or if you want this to be like the other Kirby games. It's not. This is a game designed to be a purely fun experience. It's one of the best-looking side-scrollers I've ever seen, the atmosphere is at times incredible, there's inventive visual tricks at almost every turn (even opening your next level is always preceded by an awesome and creative visual) and each set of levels feels distinct from the other.

I should stress that this is my first Kirby game, and I've been told that it's very different from the rest. I can't say for sure what Kirby fans may think of some of Epic Yarn's big changes, but I think if anyone's open to something that might feel a bit childish at times, and that's more about fun than challenge, then they'll have a lot of fun with this very creative game.

8.5/10 (My reviews go by a .5 scale)

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Blog Post: The death of dying?

The idea of “dying” has been a major aspect of video games pretty much since they began. Anyone who has lived through the first couple console generations likely has memories of getting so incredibly close to the end of the game, only to lose your last life, discover that you had no continues left, and then face the crushing realization that you now had to start all over again. 
Of course, since you couldn’t save your progress in many cases, you were almost always forced to complete your games in one sitting. Seeing the dreaded “Game Over” screen was the ultimate punishment for messing up, and in this way, video games back then demanded a certain amount of skill and patience. Being able to complete a game was a legit test of skill, and I salute anyone who beat that 1993 Aero the Acrobat those are some interesting childhood memories.

(^ fu****g game, lol.)
Times are undoubtedly changing. It began with the save feature, which made losing all your lives much less of a punishment. With a save feature, losing all your lives and continues simply sent you back to the game’s main menu to load your last save and try again. You still may have lost some progress, depending on when your last save point was, but certainly, you didn’t have to start the entire game all over again to reach the same point. As the years went on, we’ve seen this concept taken further and further. Some games now give you check points in addition to save points, and dying sets you back to the nearest check point regardless of your last save. Some games let you save whenever you want, some games even save for you automatically every few minutes. The recent Final Fantasy XIII, for the first time in the long-running series’ history, removed the concept of losing progress entirely. In addition to save points literally every 5-10 minutes, dying in Final Fantasy XIII simply starts you right back in front of the enemy that killed you, with no penalty to speak of except having to try the fight again.
What’s becoming apparent is a shift in the video game industry that seems to be removing the idea of “dying” entirely. There are now games, such as 2008’s Prince of Persia, (yup, that's where I got the idea for this) that  don’t let you die at all: falling off a ledge simply results in a spirit guardian pulling you back up and letting you attempt the jump again. I think this shift is happening for a couple reasons. The big one is money.
Video games are becoming more expensive to make, and as a result, the industry has become more mainstream: it had to. As many people as possible need to buy big-budget games for them to make any profit, so publishers and developers seem to have realized that inaccessibility can turn away potential buyers. This has been going on for a long time and it’s not even debatable: video games in the past 10 years or so have become significantly easier than they ever were before. Many would argue that it goes back even further than that.
                Some people have undoubtedly resisted this change, (probably those with fond memories of the days when games were hard as hell) and some people have embraced it, and to be honest, I’m not sure where I stand on the issue. On one hand, as someone who played video games back during the Sega Genesis era as a little kid, there are some games today that I feel have become too easy, and the games that don’t let you die at all bother me a little bit for that reason. The old-school gamer in me just can’t wrap my head around the idea that there’s no punishment at all for, basically, playing badly.

On the other hand, I think that the very creation of saving your game at all made “losing all your lives” totally irrelevant anyway, and common sense would tell us that it was only a matter of time before the idea of a game giving your character “lives” at all was, in turn, removed. And in Prince of Persia 2008, if you lose a QTE on a boss, the boss simply gets a huge chunk of their health back..and isn't that sort of the same concept as dying anyway? So that begs the question of what exactly people (myself included) are complaining about.

The lack of dying can even be a good thing in some cases: since you were never in danger of losing your progress in Final Fantasy XIII, the developer had the freedom to make the battles actually pretty tough without worrying too much about people quitting the game in frustration. In that sense, I think this change can be a good thing. Accessibility is a good thing. It is a tightrope, though. Developers need to be careful not to make their games too easy, otherwise they may become almost mindless, and even boring.

Overall though, it was a change that was probably inevitable and who knows? Maybe games will be able to do what Final Fantasy XIII did and focus its challenge on the gameplay itself instead of focusing its challenge on the frustration of losing all your progress. If this happens, games may very well be better for it…….and these are probably the games I'll like best going forward.

It's funny though, because even after saying that, I've just finished playing Kirby's Epic Yarn, (review coming at some point,) a game I didn't expect to like at all because of its ease in difficulty, but I ended up enjoying it A LOT more than I'm currently enjoying Donkey Kong Country: Returns, which seems to be all about dying and its "lives" system. Go figure.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Blog Post: The 90/2000s and Tony Hawk

First of all, happy Thanksgiving to anyone who might be reading this. The blog post today was inspired by a bit of nostalgia. At this time of the year, for a pretty large portion of my childhood, I was playing a new Tony Hawk's Pro Skater game. This year actually marked a big year for the series, as it was the first year that a new Tony Hawk game absolutely flopped at retail. Tony Hawk: Shred (I barely even knew it existed) flopped almost beyond words. ( The game is such a flop that as of this writing, there's still no Metacritic score because only 3 critics have managed to review it. As of this writing, the game's Wikipedia page consists of a whopping two sentences. And as of this writing, the game's apparently only been recorded as selling 3,000 copies across all platforms. Ouch.

Anyone remember back when this series was one of the coolest things ever? Back before the Aggressive Sports gaming genre really even existed, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater showed up and pretty much blew everyone away. There were no games to copy or be inspired by, Neversoft totally invented this entire thing from scratch, and even with this being a complete first effort, it was a home run. The gameplay was addictive, the controls were nearly perfect, the soundtrack was mostly obscure (and "punk") and there were no frills, there was no story, it was all just skating and completing goals. The game probably inspired so many kids to pick up might have been what got me into it, come to think of it, I barely remember. But it made aggressive sports larger than life. The music at the main menu pretty much defined "chill" years before "chill" was even used as an adjective.

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 was even better, a game that took what was so awesome about the first one and multiplied it by two, at least. The soundtrack was amped up to include the likes of Millencolin and Rage, but it still had a very "punk" flavor to it. The levels were even better, the customization was a very welcome addition, as was the manual, which took scoring HUGE amounts of new points to new heights. I remember putting more time into this game's demo (I subscribed to the Official Dreamcast demo discs with each issue! Epic!) than I put into some other games entirely, and this was only 1 level.

I don't think any other entry of this series would ever have the impact that Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 did. THPS3 was of course awesome too, and when I got my Gamecube at launch, it was the first game I eagerly popped into it. But something started to happen to this series. It began to feel like the games were being put out more as an obligation than as games that really aimed to innovate like the first 2 Tony Hawk games did. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 did try something new: it removed the time limit and turned into a free roaming game where you'd wander around talking to people to get tasks. I couldn't for the life of me get into this game, it just felt like the fun spirit and awesome simplicity of the first 3 games was totally gone. The next couple installments (The Tony Hawk's Underground series) I barely even played, they continued to feel too "different" and were almost removing the focus away from skating, with their stories and all that stuff.

This is where the series started to become too "self-aware," it began to get too "promotional," too much about the money, about the advertising, about the collecting missions, about the soundtrack deals, the platforming (yeah, you could hop off your board and platform...ugh,) felt unnecessary, and I longed for a return to the simple fun of Tony Hawks 1-3. That's not to say that the series beyond 3 totally sucked...I have good memories of playing Tony Hawk's American wasn't as amazing as the first 3, of course, but it was really good. Then, with Project 8 and Proving Ground....I don't know. It's become too complicated, too much about analog stick tricks, and all that. It began to move even farther from the simple fun that Tony Hawk was. Then Neversoft left the series and Robomodo royally effed up with Tony Hawk Ride and the stupid board peripheral, a dumb idea to cash in on the whole "Guitar Hero" craze and an excuse for Activision to charge nearly $100 for a crap game.

And that's pretty much where we are. I wonder where the Tony Hawk series is next headed, if anywhere at all. Growing up playing video games in the 90s and early 2000s, Tony Hawk's 1 and 2 remain a HUGE part of my gaming memories. I remember every year buying the new Tony Hawk game and having my friends over to play it, and spending hours and hours blasting through all the goals, unlocking all the levels and characters, and trying to get the top score in the trick attack multiplayer. On one hand, I think it'd be really awesome to see Neversoft return to the series, make another Tony Hawk's Pro Skater game, and just strip away all the unnecessary stuff that was added over the years, focusing instead on just creating another amazing, revolutionary aggressive sports game. Then again.....maybe Tony Hawk just belongs back in that era....afterall, we'll always have the classics. And they're still awesome to this day, seriously, pop in Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 and you'll see, the magic's definitely still there.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Announcement: Review Archive

For a collection of all my reviews:

Some of these go back to when I was in high school so a couple are a bit of a mess in terms of structure, but I've gone in over time and fixed some of the more basic issues with them without altering too much of the actual opinions in 'em.

So enjoy.


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Announcement: New blog look

Just giving props to Shadi from for coming up with the new color scheme for the blog. I think it looks pretty good, and if it makes these (pretty long, sorry, I write a lot) posts easier to read, then I'm all for it. Link to my review archive of 80+ reviews (going back to when I was in high school all the way up till this point) coming up in the next announcement.


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Review: Sonic Colors is here and it's ....really colorful.

Sega’s effort to restore honor to the Sonic name continues with Sonic Colors, which was given a surprise announcement earlier this year. While I was skeptical at first, Sonic Colors began to look more and more promising, as it seemed to take the best parts of Sonic Unleashed, (Sonic’s levels) and bring them into a game that had no werehog. Sonic Colors, it turns out, actually has a very different feel from Unleashed, and it ends up offering a surprisingly fresh take on the series. It’s certainly not without its flaws, but this is a game that Sonic fans, especially fans of 2D Sonic, will definitely enjoy.

Graphics:  Visually, Sonic Colors is a game loaded with, well, color. There's a lot of creativity on display here, with SonicTeam for the first time since Sonic 3 getting to let loose and create a complete fantasy setting. Taking place in a giant interplanetary amusement park built by Robotnik…erm…Eggman, there’s no shortage of surprises, from areas made out of food, to a run through a starry space sky, and even levels on a grassy alien planet and the series’ best underwater sections. Sonic looks great, easily his best non-HD design to date, and the cutscenes, a mixture of in-game and CG, (with mostly in-game) feature lip movements that match the dialogue. It makes Sonic Adventure's story feel like a world behind. The framerate does drop occasionally, especially in the underwater levels, but this is rare and doesn’t take much away from the spectacle. The only bummer about the visual presentation is how jaggy the game looks on an HDTV set. While the Wii is of course not an HD system, there are many Wii games that look great on an HDTV in 480p. Sonic Colors is not one of them, with everything looking so unbelievably jagged that it’s almost reminiscent of the PS1. It’s pretty sad, because there are amazing graphics here for a Wii game, but the jaggies give everything a very rough look. If you have the choice, definitely play this on an SDTV. Don’t let it be a deal-breaker, as the game still looks great, but it will look much closer to the vision of the developers in Standard def.

Gameplay:  Sonic Colors uses the physics from Unleashed, but what makes this so different is that while Unleashed was primarily a 3D experience with some 2D thrown in for good measure, Colors is mostly a 2D adventure. In most levels, I’m talking about what feels like 70% in 2D and 30% in 3D. The 3D segments are used almost exclusively for grinding, or running and boosting down wide paths. Almost all of the platforming is saved for the 2D parts of the game. Sonic Colors contains some of the best 2D platforming I’ve ever seen, and it’s miles ahead of Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1. On the other hand, the focus on 2D makes this feel smaller in scope than other 3D Sonics, and I….sort of like 3D platforming, to be honest, so it was a little disappointing for me to see it so scaled back. That said, many of the boss fights are in 3D, (or a mix of the two) and some recycling aside, boss battles are pretty fun. They often make use of powerups called Wisps, which are the alien creatures captured by Robo….Eggman, and these add a layer of freshness to Sonic Colors’ gameplay.

Each Wisp offers Sonic a different ability, from boosting, to drilling through dirt, to floating, and even rampaging. Unlike most gimmicks used in 3D Sonic games, the Wisps do not slow Sonic down much at all, in fact, they actually add depth to the game. They open multiple paths through the levels and the hover powerup is awesome in a "Mario Galaxy" type of way. I’ve got to give SonicTeam props for Colors’ atmosphere. I haven’t played such lively Sonic levels since Twinkle Park from Sonic Adventure. There’s a feeling of excitement all throughout the game, even the world maps (which are just level select maps, Mario style) radiate with color and energy. It almost all feels like a giant celebration. Every level’s a running level, which means no werehogs or other playable characters to be found here. Sonic Colors features six acts per stage, plus a boss battle, each act managing to feel distinctive.

There are, though, definite issues that need to be worked out. Similar to Sonic 4: Episode 1, the controls in the 2D segments feel slippery, and there's too much reliance on bottomless pits for my liking. The game can also be maddeningly vague at times with regard to how to control certain segments. For example, in one of the food-themed levels, Sonic can swing from floating lolipops, but you're given no indication exactly when you should hit the A-button to cause the lolipop to propel Sonic upward. Frustratingly, they force you to hit several of these at once, and falling on one sends you right into spikes. Similarly, a roller coaster in a couple of later levels is sure to send some controllers flying, and unlike in some of his more recent games, when Sonic loses rings in Colors, he loses *all* of his rings, regardless of how many he happens to be carrying at the time. Other frustrating factors include instances of Sonic finding himself on a road that suddenly turns upside down over a bottomless pit, and it’s unclear which direction you should be holding the analog stick to keep him moving. I feel like SonicTeam could really benefit from doing some more pre-release test sessions with gamers; I definitely think that some of Colors’ more frustrating sections could have been fixed with a little gamer feedback.

So yes, it can be frustrating, and the controls are less than perfect. But there’s something so “fun” at the heart of this game. It has a very “Sega” feel to it, from the upbeat music to the always-excellent sound effects. Each level feels like a new experience. Some of the platforming is so inventive that I found myself full of admiration for SonicTeam, who clearly still has the skills to do this after all these years. Great stuff. If I had one other complaint, it'd be the short length. Clocking in at around 6 hours, it feels like this could have used another planet or two. Keep in mind, though, that there's a retro-themed co-op mode (that can also be played solo) that grants you a bunch of new levels. These are unlocked by collecting red coins in the main game, and there are plenty of these to go around. There's also a Challenge Mode, which is basically an endurance mode with all the game's acts, one after another, with no break in between. Of course, there are also the usual S-rankings to achieve.

Audio and Storyline: Sonic Colors' soundtrack is a mix of orchestra and synthesizing, and I couldn't think of a better fit for this game. The piano in particular is used to great effect. The audio fits the exciting and imaginative levels and provides some truly catchy jingles. If only Sonic 4: Episode 1 had this type of work put into its audio experience. Sound effects mix the old and the new, again, to great effect. The theme songs are mind-numbingly awful, but thankfully they stay mostly out of the way.

As far as voice acting goes, Sega has finally ditched the 4 Kids Entertainment voice actors, replacing the cast (except Eggman, who keeps his 4 Kids Actor) with new talent. From the start, it’s a huge improvement. Though I complimented Sonic’s previous voice actor for stepping up his game from Sonic and the Secret Rings to Sonic Unleashed, the fact remained that his voice just always sounded too childish, and lacked the attitude that Sonic needed. This is entirely fixed here, as Sonic’s new voice actor does a thing all his own, (for some reason it makes me imagine how a “stoner character” would talk in a 1990s cartoon) and he turns Sonic into a really likable character. The dialogue helps, and this game follows Sonic Unleashed's lead in the script department. Complete with plenty of chuckle-inducing moments and the return of Eggman's dimwitted robot sidekicks, cutscenes are always fun to watch, despite occasionally feeling a bit childish and the game's pretty lame ending. This humor-driven approach is, without a doubt, the perfect way to tell the story in a Sonic game.

Verdict: With Sonic Colors, we are seeing an undeniable shift back to the 2D perspective, and I’m sure a lot of people will celebrate this change. Fans of the 3D Sonic games may have slightly more mixed feelings about this, though luckily the 3D gameplay hasn’t been forgotten entirely. There are some definite issues that need addressing, including the frustration factor and a short length. I also have to stress the *serious* need for improved “2D” physics. All that said, Sonic Colors is so fun that it’s almost impossible not to recommend it to Sonic fans and people who like platformers. Incredible atmosphere, great music, nice visuals, funny story, some very inventive platforming, and of course the usual Sonic speeds make this one of the year’s bigger surprises.
Score: 7.5/10
(my reviews go by a .5 scale)

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Blog Post: Why good dialogue is so important (Metroid vs Enslaved) and the JRPG

Story-driven games are a great thing....if done right. Being an interactive medium, video games are of course still primarily about theirgameplay. When developers take that extra step, though, to develop a compelling narrative to go along with the gameplay, sometimes that's what it can take to make a good game...well, great. Or even excellent. The Japanese RPG genre has thrived on this principle for so long. The gameplay in a JRPG has in the past never been known for being particularly amazing, especially with the likes of random encounters, dungeons, slow battles, etc. The main reason people loved JRPGs, though, was for their stories. Maybe not everyone remembers exactly how they flipped those switches in Gargan Roo in Final Fantasy IX, but they remember Vivi's powerful encounter with the other mages in Black Mage Village.

Lately the Japanese RPG genre has been noticeably struggling, it seems, both to get good sales and to get the same critical acclaim it once did. I think a big reason for this is that scenario writers for JRPGs have become too reliant on cliches and have resorted to borrowing heavily from past JRPGs as more of their efforts seem to be moving to the gameplay. The gameplay simply can't compare to other genres, though, and without the storylines being as good, I think current JRPGs have been viewed as far lesser experiences than they once were.

Anyway, that may seem a bit off topic from what I originally wanted to discuss in this post, but it does tie in to what I'm going to talk about, and that's the importance of a good story and well-written dialogue in games that are attempting to be story-driven. Nintendo of course released Metroid: Other M last August, and the game has apparently not sold very well. Fans were very much divided on the game's portrayal of Samus, and even those who did like the game, (yup, me,) admited that the script and voice work were definitely below what they could have been. And when some of the (unskippable) cutscenes go on for minutes at a time, this can be a problem. A lot of fans and critics have expressed disapproval of Sakamoto's (writer/director) decision to focus so much on story for a series that never needed it before. What I think is too bad is that if the dialogue was better-written...if it was delivered by top-notch voice actors, if the story was interesting and the characters convincingly developed, I think a lot of fans would have been able to get past all the things that bothered them about Samus speaking, about her freaking out when she saw Ridley, etc. But with such unconvincing dialogue, it, to some, cheapened the feel of the game to the point where it stopped them from being able to enjoy it.

Then, you look at something like Enslaved. It was a game that many felt wasn't too distinctive in its gameplay, but one that was elevated by its compelling story and strong characters. And this is what I mean when I say that a great story can take a good game and make it great. If Other M had a story as well-written and acted as Enslaved's, I'd be willing to bet that a lot of people (and critics) would have been much happier with the final product.

Developers, especially ones who have been around for a long time, including Nintendo, need to realize the importance of a strong script and good voice acting in this day and age....especially if they're dealing with an iconic franchise. It's not just enough to have lots of long inner-monologues. Video games are being looked at more and more with the same scrutiny in the story department as movies are, and in this day and age, it can severely limit a game if its dialogue and voice acting isn't up to par. Especially a game that's story-driven.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Blog Post: Prince of Persia (2008) is...pretty good, actually.

Well, I almost feel that I owe the Prince of Persia series a bit of an apology. In my review of Enslaved I mentioned that I couldn't stand Prince of Persia. I based that on the bits I had played of Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones, which I pretty much hated, and the large chunks I had played of 2008's cel shaded Prince of Persia. (PoP 2008 for the rest of the post.) After finishing Enslaved, I decided just for fun to give PoP 2008 another shot, and lo' and behold, it's actually a really fun game. It just takes some time to get into.

My biggest issues in my first attempt to play it stemmed from its non-linear direction, which makes it feel too much like I'm completing a checklist of objectives...a problem I have with non-linear games in general. Due to the non-linearity, there are always several paths you can take at any given moment, but to get to your desired location, which you select from the menu, you obviously have to know where you're going. This means that you must rely almost constantly on princess Elika to point you in the right direction. I also wasn't originally thrilled with how badly I was judging jumps and constantly falling to my "death." (You don't actually "die," in the game, though.)

But as I played the game with a bit more of an open mind, I found myself getting the hang of the platforming and controls. I also began to appreciate the story a bit more. It's definitely not Shakespeare, but the prince and Elika actually have some pretty great banter and the more I found myself listening to their optional discussions, the more I found myself liking them.

Visuals are also amazing. Cel shading is almost always a great choice and this is a very pretty game. Music's also awesome. The only thing I still just can't get into is the combat system, which just feels clunky. But I'm glad I started playing this again. I'm not sure what Ubisoft plans to do with this series, but I'd love to see another installment like this, bringing back a cel shaded world and keeping up this game's great sense of humor and character banter. Good stuff. If you haven't tried this out yet it's a good time.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Blog Post: Happy 10-year anniversary, Shenmue.

On this day 10 years ago, I remember venturing to my neighborhood toy store to pick up a Dreamcast game that was hyped to be "the most amazing game ever made," Shenmue. Whether or not the game actually lived up to the hype depends on who you ask, of course. But for me, Shenmue and its sequel ended up being a gaming experience that, 10 years later, I'm still waiting to be surpassed, or even equaled. As time goes on, I'm beginning to accept the fact that it may never happen: Shenmue was just something special, and there’s simply nothing like it.

November 6th, 2000 marked the day that Shenmue was released to North American retailers. Being in middle school at the time, my money was pretty limited, so it was rare that I’d ever buy a game without first renting it. But Shenmue was something different. This was something that Sega Dreamcast owners had been looking forward to since we had first seen any (amazing) image from it. It was late in the afternoon, and I know that in a little bit a group of us were going over to a friend’s house to spend the night, but thought I could pick up Shenmue first and hopefully get some time with it before heading over there. Long story short, I got it, played about an hour of it at my house, then, so amazed by what I played, I brought the game with me to my friend’s house to show everyone. We all literally spent the entire night playing it.

Shenmue is a detective story. It’s a game where your main character, Ryo, witnesses his father being murdered, and vows to somehow track down the killer and take revenge. You were then set loose in a fully-realized town, with shops to enter, money to spend, arcade games to play, people to talk to, toy capsules to buy, fights to get into, and, of course, that cat to take care of.

Exploring Dobuita was an eye-opening experience from the moment Ryo first set foot in it. The sound design was amazing, with the mournful howling of the neighborhood dogs, the sound of the crows squawking as night approached, and the footsteps of your character as he trudged through the snow all providing the perfect backdrop. You could practically feel the crisp winter air as you wandered through the streets, and could actually imagine that all these townsfolk had lives and were going somewhere. I can’t even describe how amazing all of these things felt back in 2000. The mystery, which I was put into this world to solve, was compelling, and nothing beat the feeling of satisfaction that came from getting an important clue from a local and seeing it point the way forward as Ryo jotted it down in his notebook…so addictive.  The music, the gameplay, the atmosphere, the story, the fights…..what an experience Shenmue was. Shenmue 2 then came along, and not only did lightning strike twice, but it was even better the second time, ending up being one of the best sequels I’ve ever played, and still, to this day, the best game I’ve ever played.

There is nothing like it. These games can still be played and enjoyed today, and in fact I made it a point to go back and replay them many times. But now they feel pretty dated, as time has finally caught up with the series. People who play them for the first time today will likely never understand why an entire fanbase is so frigging obsessed with the Shenmue games. It was really one of those things you had to be there at the time to understand, and Shenmue (and Shenmue 2, for those of us who imported the Dreamcast version) was probably the best sendoff the Dreamcast could possibly have had.

Here’s to Shenmue, the Sega Dreamcast that made it possible, and of course, the one day when we finally will get to finish the saga.

Watch this and remember.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Blog Post: No more 3D platformers?

Is anyone else noticing all the nostalgia going around the video game industry this console gen? Somewhere between the whole Sonic 4 thing and the (amazing) new trailer for Donkey Kong Country Returns (check it out: ) I'm realizing how much people have been loving the past lately, and it looks like this has started to translate into game development, especially in the platformer genre. It’s lead me to wonder if we’re witnessing the slow but sure death of the 3D platformer.

Remember when platformers were all about complete re-invention? Think back to the N64, PS1, and Dreamcast days when the genre was all about totally changing itself from its 2D setting. I think back to games like Sonic Adventure, Super Mario 64, Donkey Kong 64, Rayman 2, etc...and it's almost amazing how much their developers were willing to change them for the 3D generation.

It suddenly hit me when playing Sonic 4, which got me thinking back to the Genesis Sonic games. I can’t believe how ambitious Sonic Adventure was. Say what you want about some of the changes, but for the first time in the series, we were in true 3D, which was a huge change in and of itself. But it didn't just stop there. SonicTeam brought about new characters and several new types of gameplay, there were the exploration zones (adventure fields) that were created, which contained their own hidden secrets, and then there was the addition of cutscenes and voice acting. There was a soundtrack which included fully produced rock songs, (c’mon, you know you remember some of those tunes) the Chao gardens, which were like an entire game's almost mind-blowing how ambitious this game was. If you play Sonic and Knuckles then look at Sonic Adventure…this wasn’t just a tepid jump into 3D, this was a headfirst dive into the relatively new 3D landscape.

The same went for the the likes of Mario 64, which also switched things up in a huge way. We've had about 10 years of pure 3D gameplay, and looking at the genre now, we’re seeing New Super Mario Bros, we just got a new 2D Kirby game, we're getting a 2D Donkey Kong game, Sonic Colors will be predominently 2D, the Mario Galaxy series cut out almost all of the extra exploration, Rayman will be returning to's almost as if we're seeing all the extra stuff that was added to platformers over the past, well, decade+, being totally forgotten.

It's kind of amazing to me that a genre that seemed to change so much with the transition to 3D is now doing all it can to return to its roots, and I wonder if this is something that will carry across to the rest of the industry. I also wonder where platformers will be going in the future….will they stay in 2D, and if they do, will people begin to crave another evolution? Or are people happier with the simpler “move left and right” gameplay of a 2D platformer? Something to think about, I guess.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Blog Post: What can be done to fix Sonic the Hedgehog 4

So, Sonic the Hedgehog 4 finally arrived last month, though it was with more of a whimper than a bang. That’s not to say all hope is lost. There are still two more episodes planned, and SonicTeam can easily make up for the somewhat disappointing Episode 1. Here’s what I think they can do to salvage the Sonic the Hedgehog 4 project:
                *New visual style= Sonic 4 featured a look that was very similar in style to the classic Sonic games. So similar that it was almost boring. None of the levels felt inventive of fresh. In a game like this, the levels should pop with visual style and feel unique to the Sonic 4 experience.
                *Better bosses= Sonic 4’s boss encounters were all about bringing back boss fights from earlier in the series with minor tweaks. No idea what they were thinking with that one, but Episode 2 should feature entirely new boss battles that make bosses from earlier games look simple in comparison. It’s been almost 17 years since Sonic 3, SonicTeam should probably act like it.
                *Level to level structure= One new thing SonicTeam did for Sonic 4 was allow you to select any level at any time from the main menu. This was an interesting idea but I think that overall, the game taking you from one level to another suits Sonic better. This builds momentum to the final battle and makes it feel more like you’re progressing through an adventure instead of just completing a checklist of levels.
                *Return the missing features= No multiplayer racing, no co-op, lack of some of the series’ better powerups, no check point bonus stages? C’mon, SonicTeam, let’s bring back the cool power-ups and features that Sonics 2 and 3 added to the mix. We didn’t want another Sonic 1 here, we wanted Sonic 4.
                *Better special stages= Sonic 4 did feature its own special stages, and though they were based somewhat on Sonic 1’s, they still played like their own thing. I think SonicTeam should take this even farther with Episode 2 and give us special stages worthy of the next gen hardware they’re on. Do something creative.
                *Fix the controls and physics= Go back to the physics used in the first 3 Sonic games. Sonic’s movement just didn’t feel right in Sonic 4. The fact that he stopped dead in his tracks as soon as you let go of the d-pad (regardless of how fast he was going) didn’t make any sense, and neither did the momentum on ramps. Improving the physics would address many of my gripes with Sonic 4's gameplay.
                *Bring back the other characters= I’m sure SonicTeam has this planned already, but it doesn’t hurt to say it anyway. Where are Tails and Knuckles? Bring ‘em back. They don't necessarily have to be playable, but they should at least make an appearance, especially given how big a part they played in Sonics 2 and 3.
And I think that’s about it. Sonic 4 still has great potential, and hopefully Episodes 2 and 3 live up to the name.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Review: So.....where's Sonic 4?

We all remember Sonic. For many kids growing up in the 90s, myself included, the Sonic the Hedgehog series on the Sega Genesis pretty much defined our childhood. Then video games went 3D, Sonic got his 3D rebirth in 1999, and with that, the quality of the series became much less consistent. Some of his 3D efforts, I thought, were very successful in capturing that Sonic magic. Although they haven’t aged particularly well (let’s be honest, though…not a lot of games from that era have) I thought the Sonic Adventure games were great experiences, and I thoroughly enjoyed 2009’s Sonic Unleashed. Unfortunately, between those we’ve gotten some terrible Sonic games, and the less said about these, the better. Sega has lately been taking steps to improve the quality of this franchise, however, and one of their first steps to doing so was to release Sonic the Hedgehog 4, a game done in the same exact style as those Genesis games back in the day. They’ve chosen to release the game in episodes, and with Episode 1 now here, (2 and 3 will arrive at a later date) the time has come once again to return to the classic 2D Sonic.

If only the game had more to offer. Granted, there’s something at least somewhat fun about getting to control the blue blur again in his classic setting, and everything from the music to the scenery is ready to follow suit. Sonic the Hedgehog 4 had a lot to live up to, however, and for the most part, it fails pretty dramatically as a sequel to the excellent Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and its second half, Sonic and Knuckles. First and foremost, the controls and physics have undergone a change for the worst. Sonic’s movement and speed feel very floaty, the physics are unpredictable and difficult to get the hang of, and the homing attack, which I think was a solid addition, fails to make up for the unnecessarily slippery controls. This should have been a game where fans of the Genesis series could pick up the controller and feel right at home, and unfortunately, that isn’t the case. Equally disappointing was the decision to play to fans’ nostalgia instead of adding anything new. All the enemies and almost all the bosses are recycled from earlier entries of the series with just minor tweaks. Each of the (only 4) levels all visually resemble levels from previous games as well. I understand that Sega probably wanted old school Sonic fans to celebrate these touches, but Sonic the Hedgehog 4 should have been an entirely new entry in the series like Sonics 2 and 3 were, not a trip down memory lane. This is even more disappointing when taking into account that many of the great features added to Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and 3, like a multiplayer mode, the checkpoint special stages, the co-op play, and the new Sonic powerups, have all been removed here. Clearly, this was a game meant to emulate Sonic the Hedgehog 1 rather than one meant to continue from where Sonic the Hedgehog 3 left off. If this had been released on the Genesis after Sonic and Knuckles, people would have looked at this for what it was: a huge step backward.

Overall, pretty disappointing. Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 is a playable 2D Sonic game, but rather than being what it should be, a sequel to Sonic the Hedgehog 3, Sonic 4 simply comes across as a rehash, one that controls poorly to boot. There's nothing special about the final product. None of the bosses are particularly inventive or fun to fight, the levels are in shining HD but all feel like rehashes, the platforming is uninspired, the special stages are annoying, and even the ending's a ripoff of a previous entry in the series. This is a BLAND game that unfortunately positions itself as Sonic the Hedgehog 4. Here’s hoping they get it right for Episode 2, as I think there's still a chance to salvage what should have been Sonic's triumphant 2D return. You can do a lot worse for $15, of course, and Sonic fans I'm sure are dying to pick this up. I won't tell you guys not to, just don't expect much more than an average, short, and uninspired 2D rehash.

(This review is for the 360 version)
(My reviews go by a .5 scale)

On that note, lol, tomorrow (or the next day, depending on if I have time or not,) I'll post a list of things I think Episode 2 can do to redeem itself. So check it out.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Review: Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. Game's a lot of fun, give it a shot.

There are sometimes games released that are so fun and engrossing, so enjoyable from the moment they start all the way to the end, that they remind me of why I started playing video games in the first place. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West seems almost destined to be lost in the shuffle, which is too bad, because it's a game that I thoroughly enjoyed, and I'd easily recommend it to anyone who's a fan of platformers or games with great storytelling.

At the start of this cinematic adventure, you're given control of Monkey, a warrior-type who bears a bizarre resemblance to Mel Gibson... though thankfully, once you get past his odd character design and initially aggressive attitude, he becomes a very likable character. He wakes up in a prison aboard a slave ship, where he's freed from his captivity by a girl named Trip. In this futuristic, post-apocalyptic world, humans live in fear of mechs, robotic remnants from the war that destroyed their way of life, as well as the slave catchers, who look for humans and bring them against their will to a mysterious Pyramid. Monkey and Trip escape the slave ship just before it crashes in the ruins of New York City, a deserted wasteland that nature's already beginning to take back. Trip wants to return to her home town some 300 miles away, and needs Monkey's help. Though Monkey initially refuses to help her, Trip reveals to him that while he was unconscious, she put a slave headband on him. She informs him that if he fails to follow her orders, or tries to run away, the headband will deliver a fatal shock.

It's in these circumstances that the two unlikely main characters are partnered up and of course they grow to like each other more and more as the game progresses, their dynamic together being one of the story's highlights. Their cooperation also plays a big role in the gameplay department. Though you only control Monkey, you'll often have to pick Trip up, throw her across gaps, help her up ledges, etc. Very similar to Resident Evil 4. Trip has no skills in combat but lots of technical knowledge, and both characters quickly discover that they need each other to get where they're going. The game's a platformer very reminiscent of Prince of Persia, but with more emphasis placed on the combat than the platforming. Though there's a healthy amount of hopping platforms and climbing up walls to be found in this adventure, Enslaved will rarely let you fail while doing this. There are sometimes cinematic sequences where you must climb walls or hop platforms in a hurry as you run from something, and you can certainly fail these, but for the most part, the platforming element is totally painless. If there's a jump that Monkey can't make, you will simply not be allowed to attempt it, the A button only responding when you try to jump to a pole or ledge that Monkey can reach. Though some platformer fans might find that this makes the game too easy, I thought it helped Enslaved avoid the try-and-die" mechanics that make me personally not able to stand the Prince of Persia series.

Instead, much of the difficulty comes from the combat system, which may not re-invent the wheel, but provides a lot of fun. Monkey's movements feel fluid and natural, and he has plenty of moves and techniques that you can unlock as the game progresses. Scattered throughout the environments and inside enemies are collectable experience orbs. Collecting these allows you to customize your character the way you want him, and it's a surprisingly flexible system. For example, don't want Monkey's health to automatically regenerate? Simply don't buy that ability, and you get to rely on health packs just like the good old days. Though I would have liked to have seen maybe a bit more offensive combat moves at Monkey's disposal (I found myself relying on the "evade, jump-behind-the-enemy's-back" move far more than any others,) there's still plenty of cool upgrades and abilities that Monkey can learn.

As far as exploration goes, you're kept on a linear path, with your goal always clearly mapped out for you, which keeps things moving. The game sticks mostly to combat and platforming sections, but there are an assortment of puzzles, shooting segments, boss fights, and even a pretty awesome hoverboard-like machine that you can ride, all of which help to keep things fresh.

Also helping to make Enslaved such a compelling experience are the visuals and audio, which is, simply put, incredible. Though Enslaved takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting, the world is refreshingly colorful, and there's no shortage of breathtaking vistas and dynamic lighting. This is one amazing-looking game, and the sound design, from the atmospheric sound effects to the subtle musical score, is quite an accomplished bit of work as well. The only thing missing is a little extra polish. There are a couple technical glitches here and there, one of which required me to start from my previous check point, and other small issues, like a sometimes spotty camera, but these instances are rare and generally don't get in the way. The framerate can chug pretty badly at times, though this is for the most part unnoticeable, only really becoming apparent when facing off against large amounts of enemies in areas big enough for you to run from them.

Tying this all together is a great story. Co-written by 28 Days Later scribe Alex Garland and with a voice cast that includes the likes of Andy Serkis (Lord of the Rings) and some great facial expressions, (well, except when someone starts crying,) this is a story that never ceases to be entertaining. The characters are all likable, with one you encounter later in the game, Pigsy, adding to an already great dynamic. There's also a very effective use of live action (think Wall-E) and an ending that's actually pretty thought-provoking, sticking with me well after I finished the game. Like the rest of Enslaved, the story doesn't offer a whole lot of surprises, going more or less where you'd expect it to go, (except for that ending) but what it does, it does very well. The game might even be worth playing simply to see how natural and realistic video game dialogue can sound.

"What it does, it does very well" is pretty much Enslaved: Odyssey to the West in a nutshell. There's nothing here that exactly pushes the genre forward, but developer Ninja Theory (Heavenly Sword, which now I'm much more interested in playing) clearly knows how to do this type of game very well. The length is standard for an action game, (in other words, relatively short) and while I easily thought it was worth the $60, you should keep in mind that there's not a whole lot of replay value here. That said, Enslaved is a solid platformer with amazing visuals, great storytelling, fun gameplay, an intriguing world, and perfect pacing. It's the type of game where I couldn't put the controller down, telling myself "just one more level." It may be somewhat of a short-lived experience, but it's sure to stay in my mind for a long time.


(This review is for the 360 version)
(My reviews go by a .5 scale)