Wednesday, January 30, 2008

New York Times Crosswords

Just a short blurb for this little title. It didn't gather too much attention when it was released a few months back, probably because its subject matter doesn't really call for a lot of hype. It's the New York Times Crosswords on your Nintendo DS. You pretty much know what you're going to get. If you're a fan, then you'll expect this to be a quality product that delivers the goods.

It's a really fun little title, offering all the Times' crossword puzzles from 2004 to 2006. There's a sliding difficulty scale, from fairly easy to good-heavens-I'm-an-idiot, which should keep nearly everyone happy. The presentation is very nice, the background music consists of an arpeggio guitar that's mellow, the color scheme is easy on the eyes while remaining varied, and the handwriting recognition is superb. And there are really no extras, just the ability to play a daily crossword, a quick random puzzle, or play with a friend.
It's crosswords. It's cheap. It's another solid DS game worthy of the train ride.

Smash Brothers Brawl Roster

I saw the flood of "spoiler" material for Super Smash Brothers Brawl this past week, but I wanted to wait a bit and see if any of it was real or fake. Apparantly, it's all real - and what a surprise! The expectations had been that all the game's major surprises have been revealed. Now, suddenly, we have wind of many new characters and stages.

Games like this make the perfect argument for proper delays. If setting the release date back another few months means adding more material, then so be it. Nintendo has been setting Brawl up as the ultimate trip, hurling us through their entire videogame history. At this point, I'm surprised a pack of hanafuda cards isn't buried in the game somewhere.

It's great to see R.O.B. return again. He was one of the really fun surprises in Mario Kart DS. A weird little bit of nostalgia, really; those two R.O.B. games were just awful. But the robot itself looked pretty neat. This was back in the day when we were being promised our own Androbots for the home. What ever happened to that? What happened to our Jetson future?

So by now, I think it's safe to assume that Smash Brothers Brawl will become one of the Wii's greatest sellers, and probably the biggest hit among the hardcore fans. And I'm sure that once Nintendo actually bothers to make another Wii console....ahh, who am I kidding? The Nintendo Wii doesn't exist. It's an urban myth.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Surprise! Yet More Nintendo Shortages!

I don't know about anyone else, but for me, Nintendo is getting a nasty reputation for not getting their shit together. First there are the ever-chronic shortages of Wii consoles that will seemingly never end (the console war's answer to Iraq). Then there were intermittant DS shortages during the holiday season. Now Smash Brothers Brawl is expected to face severe shortages for its Japanese launch.

It's been suggested that perhaps these shortages across the pond is the reason the game has been delayed in North America. It wouldn't surprise me, but that would be terrible news if it were proven true. Nintendo is fast becoming the company that can't get their products out. It's not even a matter of demand. It's a matter of supply. They enjoyed a blessed phase in the gaming market over the last 18 months. But that's going to change. 2008 is going to be far, far more competitive.

It comes back to a question I've had in my head for a number of months, around the time I became completely burned out on buying a Nintendo Wii, and the question is this: Does Nintendo Even Want to Win? Considering that they've found their success in the long tail as a niche provider, was there ever really any great incentive to expand their market and pursue Sony and Microsoft?

Still, at least when it comes to Smash Brothers Brawl, the one key title certain to draw in that increasingly-cynical hardcore gamer crowd, you'd think Nintendo would really get their game together. The prospect of yet more empty store shelves is another (self-inflicted) black eye for Nintendo.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Found My DS Games - Whew

Okay, found my games again. Turns out they were left on a counter-top in the apartment. Whew. So it's back to working on the Advance Wars maps for me.

Which brings me to an interesting thought: why did I bother with all these games? I've spend nearly all my time with Animal Crossing and Advance Wars, and maybe a NY Times Crossword puzzle here and there. Just a matter of time, really. My teenage days of doing nothing but playing videogames are - thankfully - long past.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Virtual Console Games Slow to a Crawl; Master System Added to the Roster

Good news and bad news for the Virtual Console. First the good news. Sega's Master System will be added to the console roster next month in Japan. Good news, of course, if only because that means we get to play Phantasy Star, Golvellius and Outrun again. Oh, and maybe Impossible Mission if we're lucky.

Bad news is the ever-slowing pace of new VC releases. The number of games that appear each week has dropped to two, and we're seeing weaker and weaker titles at every turn. It's becoming clear that most of the best games - the big sellers - are already out. And too many great games are left in legal limbo, as their developers or publishers went belly-up. There's a reason you haven't seen any of Technosoft's games.

Nintendo's also running up against two major hurdles where Virtual Console is concerned: the high price of individual games, and the serious lack of storage space. If they're smart, they should dramatically lower the cost of downloading games (I'd switch to a 99-cent model, ala iTunes), and allow users to save on SD cards.

Then again, I'm a committed Wii-theist. I don't believe the Nintendo Wii even exists.

I Lost All My Nintendo DS Carts

Well, that was fun. I knew I should've kept my money in the bank.

Just my luck - mere days after I pick up a Nintendo DS again, I leave my short stack of cartridges at the apartment clubhouse last night. I didn't realize it until this morning, riding the bus to work. This is what I get for being so absent-minded. I'm one of those smart people who will somehow completely forget about things, like that old story about Albert Einstein forgetting how to tie his shoes. If my mind is focused elsewhere (and it usually is), I'll put something down and completely forget it ever existed.

I'm pretty sure I still have a job at GameStop from 1996. Don't remember ever quitting. I probably just forgot that I worked there...for a period of years.

So unless someone turns up with those games, they're as good as gone. And what Nintendo DS games did I just lose? Take a look and weep:

Advance Wars: Days of Ruin
Zelda: Phantom Hourglass
New York Times Crosswords
Contra 4

Like I said. Should've saved the money in the bank, or bought some books instead.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Yet More Advance Wars Ramblings

Time for another update on the brand-new Advance Wars: Days of Ruin for Nintendo DS. I figured I should continue to highlight some rambling thoughts, while porting and updating my old AW2 maps to the new game.

The graphics have been greatly improved. It's a subtle difference, something that won't immediately grab you. But as time goes by, you'll appreciate how much better everything looks. This was one of my major beefs with the last game, Dual Strike. The game graphics, aside from some minor tweaking, almost completely unchanged from the Gameboy Advance titles. How could a title that important feel like a rush job? Ah, well, that's in the past now.

There is a zoom function which is used by the R button. The far view is classic Advance Wars, with similar animations. Zooming in reveals an almost entirely new visual style. Everything takes on a new sheen, and all units are redrawn at slight angles. Everything's been completely redrawn.

One interesting visual treat, which fits perfectly with the game's apocalyptic theme: rockets launched from the silos will leave scorch marks on the ground. A very nice touch. There's a subtle use of shading and shadows everywhere, like on the mountains. That old cartoony look is long gone.

Watching heavy units, like war tanks and boats, explode is great fun.

The bronze metal pipes are gone. They've been a staple in the last two games. This has required me to redesign some of my old maps, and I still don't know what to do with some of the ones that were really pipe-heavy. I may just have to scrap those.

In place of the pipes, I've been using two new units, the meteorites and the plasma fields. The plasma can be connected like pipe, with the meteorites serving as the hubs and keeping these electric blue fences together. Destroying the meteors will collapse the field. I've used this for my Warlords map, and it's working pretty good.

There are other new terrain units which add to the atmosphere, such as ruins and wasteland. Oceans can be peppered with mists and rough waters. I have no idea what to do with the fire just yet. This is another reason why I want Nintendo to host larger maps on their servers. I'm eager to see all the crazy new ideas from the mapmakers, and that puny 10x10 grid is just completely useless.

There are now six air units, and six naval units. This is a crucial fix to what was arguable Advance Wars' greatest flaw, the complete dominance of the ground game. Air and sea were treated as throwaways. Now things are far more balanced.

The History Records screen includes shaded spaces on the top screen for ten medals. I wonder what you have to do to earn them. Should be interesting. There are bound to be some surprises hidden in this game, I'll wager.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Advance Wars: Dawn of Whatever It Was - First Impressions

Yay! This is a good day, kiddies. The stock market didn't crash (yet), Persepolis was nominated for a Best Animated Film Oscar, and I picked up the new Advance Wars. Had to trade in a couple carts, but that's always been my mojo. It's best not to collect too many possessions.

So, anyway, let me just say that I'm very impressed. If you're sitting on the fence, wondering how things stand....don't worry. At the end of the day, it's just the latest version of Advance Wars. Don't let the hype fool you otherwise. Suffice to say, this is one slimmed-down game. It's much sleeker and gets to the point. The gameplay is just as solid as always; hardened vets won't miss a beat, and newcomers shouldn't worry about being left back. This isn't Virtua Fighter. You'll catch on in seconds.

Upon starting the cartridge, my first impulse was to check out the map editor. Much better, folks. Much better. You can scale the size of your maps from 5x5 to 30x30. You can save up to 50 maps; while I still insist there should be vastly more storage space - 500 at a bare minimum - it's a terrific improvement from the past. I've already printed screenshots from all of my Advance Wars 2 custom maps, and they'll have a permanent home on my DS cart.

Downloading maps from Nintendo's server is a cinch, although these maps are currently set at 10x10. I tried to be patient with this, but, seriously, this is just fucking stupid. Advance Wars is practically useless at something so small. I've only downloaded one map so far, but it was horribly crowded, and I fear this feature will be quietly forgotten unless Nintendo gets their act together. There's no damned reason why larger maps cannot be uploaded to the servers. None whatsoever.

I don't see why Nintendo couldn't change this in the future, so I suggest we politely toilet paper their houses until they cave in. I want to share my super-cool maps with the world, dammit! These are still the best multiplayer Advance Wars maps ever made. I should know; I playtested the hell out of 'em.

Online Matches

What about the online matches? No worries. We won't be forced to play on tiny 10x10 maps. I played one short game on a desert course with a lake in the middle - come to think of it, it looked almost identical to one of my own creations, Oasis. Too bad this map was horribly unbalanced. I really should have sent that resume to Intelligent Systems years ago.

I don't know if you can choose which maps to play online. I don't think I was given a choice. The only options are to play against someone at your skill level (based on your win-loss ratio, I expect), or play against anyone. The interface is so simple as to be virtually nonexistent. Yep, good 'ole Nintendo. I'm curious to experience the voice chat in action.

More info about online. Matches are set against the clock. There are only around 25 turns or so, and when it's your turn, you have just over two minutes to complete everything. Thankfully, watching the combat sequences won't count against your time. This adds an extra level of "speed chess" into the mix. Time becomes a real challenge as the game drags on, and you have to fight multiple battles, capture several territories, build and repair units, and plan your next move. You'll have to move fast. If time runs out, turn's over - no ifs, ands, or butts.

I experienced no problems with lag, and while I had to wait a moment between turns, it was always smooth. I could also look around the maps whenever I wanted.

Oh, the number of online players? Two. Unless someone discovers online multiplayer for more, you're only limited to a strict versus game. Too bad, but I'm sure Nintendo is desperate to keep the games short.

Summing up, online is terrific. This is going to be fantastic, kids.

Other Random Gameplay Notes

The stats screens from AW: Dual Strike returns, which is a nice touch. That was probably my favorite feature from that game.

Many units have been streamlined or replaced entirely. There's a new motorbike which can capture territory; a flamethrower tank that lights flares in Fog of War; three tanks, from Tank to Medium Tank to War Tank; a new artillary unit that can respond to direct attacks; units that can build factories, air strips, and satellite dishes; the naval units have been completely revamped; there are no dual-screen battles, thank heavens; and here's a real surprise...battleships can move and fire in the same turn. Ooof!

I'm pretty sure the balance between the units has been reshuffled. One great addition is a stats page on the upper screen, one that informs you the strengths and weaknesses of each unit. Damage has been evened out a bit. That battleship packs a lot less heat now, for instance.

You can collect music during the story mode, which then goes into a special music page. It's a nice feature, but, really...does anyone really listen to the sound test these days? If the DS could only store MP3's, then we'd really be getting somewhere.

The much-hearalded change in graphics style is a bit of a hype. True, everything is coated in a grim ashen way, and the character portraits are far more Americanized (instead of the old anime style), but the in-game graphics look pretty much the same. It just looks like a more polished, refined Advance Wars. The story aims to be grittier, at least by Nintendo standards, but it's nothing that you'll notice. That is, if you're used to, you know, reading actual books.

There are over 100 maps which are playable in the "free battle" mode right away. Some complain about the loss of the map store from previous episodes, but I really prefer it this way. Unlockable content is just a cheap way to pad out the playing time, forcing you to work away for something you really should be getting for free. And I never liked that old guy in the shop who kept rambling on and on. He was a real pain. Come to think of it, I never really liked any of those old characters.

The battle graphics are really neat. It's a closed-in, 3D view. Closeups are slightly pixely, but for me it's slightly nostalgic. Reminds me of the Atari Lynx. CO's are responding to the damages again, just like the first Advance Wars. Too bad I can't create my own custom messages. That should be a gimmie for online. Right?

Just wait until you sink a naval vessel. Oooh! Really cool.

Arguably the best new feature: veteran status. Every time an enemy unit is destroyed, your unit is raised one rank. There are three levels: one star, two stars, and veteran. With each upgrade, your unit's attack and defense powers are raised. Very smart move. This adds in another layer of depth to the strategy.

Oh, and have I mentioned that CO's can directly fight in the battles? Oh, yeah.

That's enough rambling for now. You have more than enough to go on. Now go out and get your damned copy so I can whup your hide online.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Advance Wars 4 Coming This Week

First of all, I should probably admit that I finally broke down and bought a new DS Lite this weekend. I really shouldn't have, considering that the American economy is in the early stages of meltdown, but temptation got the better of me. And, oh, look, Advance Wars 4 should hit stores sometime this week. What a coincidence.

I've been an AW junkie ever since the Gameboy Advance days, so it's no surprise that I'm waiting for the latest one. I was mildly disappointed with the last installment, Dual Strike, or whatever it's called. The game had fallen into the Madden Trap, a sorry condition when a game series just piles on needless extra features, while letting the core game stagnate or rot. I feared that the sublime balance had been needlessly ruined.

I was also extremely miffed that online play was not included. Getting some pointless arcade tank game in exchange didn't cut it. Thank goodness Intelligent Systems came through with the goods this time.

The early reports have been drifting in through the blogosphere, and it's certain that Days of Ruin will polarize a lot of fans. The game has stripped down, almost to the bare basics. The changes include the following:

  • no War Room
  • no Hard Campaign
  • no Battle Maps store
  • no Survival Mode
  • no Combat Mode
  • no tags/rankings outside of the medals screen
  • only 12 playable characters (Dual Strike featured over two dozen)

(I grabbed this list from DS Fanboy, so thanks to the crew over there)

A lot of the fanboys will cringe, but, personally, I find this to be a welcome change. It's like the jump from ...And Justice For All to The Black Album. Trim the fat, cut the excess, get to the damn point.

The issue with the maps is interesting. Unless I'm reading it wrong, it seems all the maps in the game will be open and playable from the beginning. This game carries a strong Quake 3 vibe - the bulk of the attention is placed on online multiplayer action. Again, another great plus for me. I'm getting tired of the Soul Calibur model of unlocking endless extras through a long and laborious story mode. Just gimmie the goods and leave me alone.

Hmm...why am I feeling so cranky? I think it's because I watched Persepolis at the Uptown Theatre this weekend. It re-awakened my teenage (okay, twenty-something) punk spirit. I'm feeling rebellious. Maybe I really should dye my hair after all.

Anyway, back to Advance Wars 4, or Days of Ruin, or whatever you feel like calling it. Online is the real feature of this game, and we're finally allowed to upload, download, and rate our custom maps. I've read on the Neogaf forums that these maps are only 10x10 - I hope this isn't the case. If I remember, the custom maps were always 20x10. I'd be fine with that. I'd be better with larger sizes, too; fix a set number of custom sizes, from small to large.

You'll be able to store 50 custom maps, which is good news. I was fearing another debacle of only three slots. I still would have preferred some obscenely large number, like 500 or 1000, which would really encourage the fan community. But Nintendo has always been borderline paranoid when it comes to online gaming.

The strategy of the game itself, according to the early birds, is better than ever. A lot of the units have been changed or removed entirely, and there's a better balance with infantry, fog of war, and the naval units, which were always treated as throwaways in the old games. Fog of War looks especially interesting, now that you have the option of building radar dishes and flamethrower units.

All I want is to be able to upload all those uber-cool maps I created for Advance Wars 2. That's all I'm asking for, people. Will I get my wish?

Oh, and my other wish is that our economy doesn't collapse. Is that asking so much?

Update: Okay, a little surfing around the Neogaf forums has clarified the custom maps issue. You can still create the larger maps for local wi-fi with your friends, as before. The 10x10 maps are for uploads and downloads from Nintendo's server.

Yuck. You've got to be kidding me. There's no reason for that in this day and age. Still, I'll be able to port all of my AW2 maps and take 'em with me. That's a great plus.

Wii Chess

Looks like Nintendo's Touch Generations will be releasing Wii Chess in the near future. I don't have anything to go by, aside from a mention in Go Nintendo and an ad, but it looks pretty good. The design, at least, is solid, and the game includes online matches. That alone makes it a pick for me.

I saw a chess game released for DS recently, but the damned thing doesn't feature online? Am I missing something here? That should be a gimmie - I can play a real chess game with anyone else here in Reality Land. I don't need a freakin' Nintendo for that. The only good function for computer chess is to play opponents online.

Oh, and throw in stats, too. Lots of stats. And let us customize our chess pieces. And maybe also design some team banners. And definitely throw in one of those "Boo" buttons from the arcade table-top hockey games. You know the one. Chess may be the best thinking game ever devised, but it's boring as hell.

So keep your eyes open for Wii Chess. That is, if you're actually lucky enough to get a Nintendo Wii in the first place. Did Nintendo just forget to make these things?

Friday, January 11, 2008


Here's a cool idea I came up with recently: Micro-Podcasts.

A micro-podcast would be a very short podcast, only a minute or two. Instead of putting together a 20 minute show (or longer), I could just read a single post from my blog, or even a single review. Something that you can shuffle in and out of without any hassle.

I thought of recording a micro-podcast for every one of the blog posts from this site, and maybe even the Virtual Console reviews. It's even a good idea for the proposed book. Everything would be uploaded to iTunes, Amazon, Zuma, and all the major places where you could download for free.

What about musical accompanyment? Should it just be me and the microphone? I thought I should add in my acoustic guitar or some bongos (hey, I really need some bongos) for background - going for that poetry slam feel. How does that sound?

Oh, and I also came up with the idea of buying a can of parmesean cheese, you know, the one with the odd smiley face, and turning it into a YouTube star. "The Wacky Adventures of Barfy McCheese." He's extremely allergic to pasta. Hey, he could even do movie reviews. What did you think of "Norbit," Barfy McCheesy?

Okay, I really need to get some sleep.

My Upcoming Book Plans

For the past year or so, I've been promising/threatening to publish a book or two. The idea was to take advantage of, which offers print-on-demand, and, more importantly, an ISBN number and bar code which gets you listed on Amazon.

I haven't forgotten or put anything off, really. I just haven't been satisfied with the material to put together. It's a case of figuring out which songs go on the album. Before, my plan was to throw as much together as possible, treat it like a crazed smorgasbord. But that never really held for me. I always thought I was a little thin in this area or that area. So I do what many artists do: I put everything aside for a while to let it age.

Now I think I'm ready, and after a lot of heavy thinking, I should have a much better book to publish. As soon as I'm online and with a functioning computer, I'll begin the serious work of assembling and arranging the pages (Lulu lets you do everything yourself).

I've wanted to publish three games-related books - Videogame Classics, the greatest-hits column; a book of the Virtual Console Reviews; and a book of posts from this humble blog. I'm going with the blog book.

So pretty soon, I'll be unleashing Videogames of the Damned - the book. I think I'll be printing all the videogame-related posts from this blog, aside from the VC essays, of course. I haven't taken the time to see how many pages I've got just yet, but I'm hoping it's a decent amount. These blog books are something to publish once a year, depending on how often I write, of course. These things always come in cycles of feast and famine.

With Lulu, I'll have a print version which you can buy from Amazon. I should also release a digital version, a PDF file. I haven't thought much about pricing, but my reading of the masterful book "The Long Tail" - I've been raving about it on the Ghibli blog, don'tcha know - has inspired me to be aggressive with the prices. Which means that I could give away the digital version for free, and sell the paper book for as little as possible.

For me, exposure is probably more important than anything, which also taps into that whole artist mystique. If you're an artist, you're always thinking about future generations. Those are the boys and girls you're really talking to, anyway.

I won't worry about that until the time comes. First I have to get my hard drive working again.

Too Many Damn Consoles

I'm far past the age where I want to be among the die-hard gamers who must own every games console. I already did that a lifetime ago when the Genesis and Super Nintendo were battling it out, while NES enjoyed its final glory days. Oh, and I had an Atari Lynx around somewhere. Yikes.

This strain of thought has been popping up this week, because I'm getting the feeling that I may be heading down that path once again. I really need to get out of the house more often.

Right now, I have a pile of emulators on my PC's hard drive (which I've discovered may or may not work anymore), but I never use those except for writing reviews every now and then. I have a Sega Saturn, for which I've burned somewhere around 200 games. But I haven't really touched the thing in months, and when I did it was pretty much for World Series Baseball '98 and one of the Virtua Cop games.

My dilemma isn't that I want to own a dozen game systems. It's that I only want to play two or three games on each console - and these invariably wind up being the exclusives.

Here's how things stand right now. I'd like to score an old Atari 2600 just for Warlords. Four-player Warlords was the best thing to ever happen to Atari, and the emulators just couldn't work it properly. So that means pulling out a couple pairs of the paddle controllers, which strangely enough are still very entertaining and intuitive to use. My wonder at those little gadgets from 1980 still shines.

So I'm thinking of Atari 2600, for Warlords, and maybe Yars' Revenge...and Activision's Ice Hockey, for sure...and then if I could ever find Quick Step somewhere. But that's pretty much it. 99% of the library couldn't hold my interest for 60 seconds.

Then my brother gets used versions of the Dead or Alive games and Soul Calibur 2 for xBox. All this does is sparkle my fondness for the real greats - namely, Virtua Fighter and Soul Calibur. Then I start thinking seriously about getting a PS2, which I skipped entirely, just for VF4 Evolution. Oh, and I might as well score Katamari Damaci and Ico. But that's pretty much it.

Soul Calibur 2, of course, just makes me miss my old Sega Dreamcast all the more. That was the last console I ever really cared about, aside from some dabbling with the Nintendo DS. There are so many used Dreamcasts floating about these parts that it's almost impossible to resist. You can get one in pristine shape for $40 or less.

Dreamcast is the one real exception to my 99% Rule. I actually loved most of the games that were released. There were so many wonderful, endlessly fun games. That elegant little box was a fixture of weekend parties at the Dinkytown Pizza Hut. Pizza, breadsticks, beer, Dreamcast. What more can one ask for? So expect me to really pile on the games.

Mention Dreamcast, and the first two games to immediately pop out are Soul Calibur and NFL2K1. Need I say more? Then add in Virtua Tennis, Chu Chu Rocket, San Fran Rush 2049, SF3 Third Strike, Power Stone 1 & 2, Tony Hawk 1 & 2, Test Drive Le Mans, Crazy Taxi, PSO...and on and on. And now that the system has died, I'll want to collect and play around with far more games. It's funny how one becomes more open-minded and generous about these video game consoles after their time has passed.

Oh, by the way, you saw this coming, but I really need to get a DS again, just because the new Advance Wars is coming out. And there's Contra 4. And the new Zelda with the stylus control. And Animal Crossing. Augh! Not fair! This is where I throw on some vinyl and get lost in the headphones. Jimi Hendrix, help!