Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Rape the Environment I - III (2003)

Rape The Environment I-III

The digital pieces are some of my favorite paintings. I worked so long and hard on them, to create something beautiful and colorful and visually challenging. My only mistake was not creating them in a high enough resolution, which prevents any prints from being made. But perhaps they are better served online, in a purely digital realm, apart from the commercialism and cliques of the art business.

I love the transcluscent style of the second one. I have no idea how that came about. I was too busy having fun with all the switches and knobs on Paint Shop Pro.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Deep Thought

I'm impressed with all my old writings on video games, but I'm also left wondering why I expended so many hours, so much blood, sweat & tears on something that remains so trivial. Perhaps I was trying to elevate the medium towards something approaching art. Each new cultural movement needs its advocates.

I don't know if my writing ever made a difference in the world. That's a problem that continues to haunt me through my days. Maybe I've made a difference, maybe I've changed some minds. Maybe I'll achieve some notoriety and fame, and maybe I'm only amusing myself as the yawning grave awaits. Nobody knows.

Videogame Classics - Wario Ware Twisted

Wario Ware Twisted
Gameboy Advance

October 1, 2005

After absorbing the news of Nintendo's Revolution controller, I wanted to see the motion-sensing technology in action, so that meant a trip to Target for a copy of Wario Ware Twisted for Gameboy Advanced.
I'm a bit of a late bloomer to Wario Ware. I only spend a very short time playing with the original 2003 Advance game, but its novelty was mostly lost on me. Perhaps I just wasn't willing to give it a proper chance; perhaps my head just wasn't in the right place. Wario Ware is something like Frank Zappa albums: wonderfully ingenious but completely out of left field. You have to be a certain kind of individual to ever "get it."
So, thankfully, I'm far more appreciative with Wario Ware Twisted. The idea of the game is the "microgame" - simple reflex tests, mere fragments of games, spit out one after another at a dizzying clip. Most events are over in less than three seconds, and it's interesting how this approach gives the game such a wierd glow. It's the perfect collusion of channel surfing, classic Nintendo nostalgia, and Japanese wierdness. It's very much the spiritual successor to Panic on the Sega CD.
Twisted was released in the first half of 2005, and uses a motion sensor that is part of the cartridge. I'm aware that I'm playing this after Revolution was unveiled, but I'm somewhat surprised that most reviews in websites and the prozines never learned what they were getting. This gyroscope is clearly not a "gimmick" - it's a window into the future of games.
Almost immediately, I'm struck by how much more natural, how much more intuitive, this control scheme is. Instead of using the d-pad, you rotate the Advance or DS (yes, this works fine on a DS). Movement is so much more fun. Isn't that wierd? I feel like I'm eight again, and I'm seeing an Atari VCS for the first time.
I think that Twisted is easier to grasp than the original Wario Ware because of this. The microgames aren't necessarily easier, but the control is so much more natural. That "what do I do now?" time has been shortened dramatically. I haven't played Wario Ware Touched yet, but my experience with the DS - most notably Yoshi Touch and Go, Meteos, Zookeeper - reinforce this belief.
Nintendo is actively moving away from the traditional control scheme. The d-pad is headed for extinction, and their designers are discovering how to play games with the new technology. Twisted feels like a crazed collection of tech demos, 200 grand experiments.
There are a lot of excellent examples throughout the game, from the 200 microgames to the 140 or so bonus items, games, and oddball trinkets. Head over to the NES microgames. Included in this bunch is a faithful recreation of the first world of the original Super Mario Bros. This version of Super Mario is set on a giant sphere that rotates as you move left or right. Note how you turn the handheld to make Mario move; a slight tilt will make Mario walk, and a heavy turn will make him run.
It took me a couple quick tries to become accustomed to turning instead of pressing a d-pad, but I quickly caught on, and realized how brilliant a movement-based control is. Control is more intuitive, more precise, more nuanced than in the original game. In a way, I felt cheated that only three shortened levels were offered. I want a full version of Super Mario now, and I'll wager that quite a few gamers feel the same way.
If we want a clue into how Revolution games will play, Twisted is the perfect example. Remember that Revolution will allow for fully three dimensional movement; Twisted uses only one dimensional movement, and it's a wonderful innovation. And a title like this gives designers necessary experience, which only promises that next year's Revolution games will be that much more polished.
I haven't even gone into detail about Twisted's great variety of visual styles, its oddball Japanese sense of humor (even moreso than the first Wario Ware), or its endless challenges. Isn't this just the coolest thing ever? What matters most right now is the movement control, how perfectly natural it is, and how many new game ideas will arise from the new order. Clearly, there's going to be a DJ game - tell me you haven't killed a couple hours scratching discs and having a ball. If Nintendo's creativity can continue to hold, then anything is possible.

Yoshi Touch and Go (Nintendo DS)

Yoshi Touch and Go - Nintendo for Nintendo DS - 8/10

October 1, 2005

I think it's fair to say at this point that I have more games for my Nintendo DS than I know what to do with. A more sensible person would have played through these games, one at a time, before running off to the store for the next fix. But, then, "sensible" would mean my saving my hard-earned money instead of playing videogames well into my thirties.

In any case, I've been killing my bus time with Yoshi Touch and Go. Perhaps you need to be old enough to remember the golden age of video arcades to really appreciate this game. You have to be a fan of that short-burst, improvisational arcade game. Younger reader probably won't remember, but videogames used to be designed to be played for less than five minutes at a stretch. True, the aim was usually to steal quarters from your pockets, but we learned the ropes, and pretty soon we were making those Aladdin's Castle tokens really stretch.

A lot of reviews in print and online have complained that Touch and Go is shallow and "gimmicky" - little more than a demonstration of the DS' innovative touch screen, something you use to show off your new handheld. Essentially, they want a modern platform adventure, not an arcade game. In today's jargon, videogames are judged by the length of time it takes to slog through from beginning to end, the number of cheesy Hollywood cut-scenes, or the amount of hidden, unlockable material.

Do these critics even remember what videogames were like? You know, games. Not $20 million movie previews.

Yoshi's best trait is its randomness. While the game consists of two modes - Baby Mario in a vertical drop, the Yoshis in a side-scrolling stroll - each game is structured differently. Coins and obstacles are always placed differently, enemies may be sporadic or swarm in droves, and passing breezes will blow away all your carefully drawn clouds. Whoever cooked up that last idea was bloody brilliant...and a bit of a psycho, too.

Has this happened to you? Baby Mario is sliding down a cloud path, towards some prized coins, and then that breeze kicks in, and drops Mario into a patch of spikes. D'oh! Yoshi Touch and Go's randomizing is really the best feature of the game (aside from the stylus, of course); the game possesses a rare balance between classic arcade reflexes and platforming know-how. It's more than simply a gimmicky way to repackage all the best moments from Yoshi's Island.

And this Yoshi can be pretty tough, too. It may be a little hard for the average person to connect at first, but I've also found that Meteos shares the same learning curve, and it's an absolutely smashing game. You just need to learn the ropes, master the game's sense of pacing and rhythm, and be prepared for anything.

Finally, the stylus is just wonderful. This is clearly a signature title for the DS touch screen, and you'll probably need to spend some time with the game before it really clicks with you. I remember some old lightgun games for the NES like Gumshoe, in which a character moved on rails while you shot at incoming obstacles, but Yoshi Touch and Go is far more involving. It's more intuitive, too, thanks to the interface, and demonstrates Nintendo's endless innovation these days. I really don't mind not being able to manually move Mario and Yoshi. Really, what would I do differently if I could?

I'd like to see more designers experiment with this style of gameplay. It's just different enough to open up a new world of possibilities in the right hands. That pretty much sums up a lot of DS games, but Yoshi's has that classic arcade feel - the right mix of speed, tension, strategy, and imagination, all in the quest for that high score. Perhaps you have to be old enough to have lived through Pac-Man Fever; perhaps you need enough real-world distractions to not allow for more than a quick game here and there. Life has a funny way of intruding without knocking.

Perhaps, simply, you need only posess a sense of patience and wonder at what a well-designed game can offer. Nintendo's DS handheld has quickly built a reputation for quirky, innovative games that never lose their sense of fun. Playing Yoshi Touch and Go is like opening a box of warm sunshine, where for ten or twenty minutes you can smile and laugh with your inner child.

Space Invaders Revolution (Nintendo DS)

Space Invaders Revolution - Marvelous Interactive and Taito for Nintendo DS - 6/10

April 9, 2006

The latest Space Invaders on the DS arrived with little fanfare, which is to be expected, since the videogame press is more interested in state-of-the-art eye candy than another rendition of a game from 1978. For them, it came and went without much thought. Please don't be like them.

Despite its age (whatever that's supposed to mean), Space Invaders is among the true classic games, and certainly among the most important milestones. It was this game that pretty much birthed the whole "videogame craze," and there's something timeless about it that remains riviting and tense. There have been a number of attempts to "modernize" Space Invaders over the years, but they've only been moderately successful, except, of course, for that marvelous retro version on the Super Nintendo. Now that was a kick.

Well, cut to the present, and the original designer, Tomohiro Nishikado, has supervised the newest version, Space Invaders Revolution. It's a great game; nothing transcendent like Jeff Minter's Tempest 2000, but nothing cheap or gratituitous, like that SI knock-off that wound up on the PS2 a while ago. It's an update to the classic game, but it's a strictly faithful update, and that makes all the difference. It's even closer to the metal than most of the later arcade sequels; heck, even the original sound effects are used again.

SI Revolution offers a mission-based structure, spread across 20 different locations. Each location has a different mission, with different enemies to defeat. On one level, you have to defeat a single doppleganger that frantically bobs and weaves. On another level, you face a single giant Invader, whose individual pixels must be destroyed (that's the one on the box). Another mission involves a smaller playfield, and less time to defeat the aliens, while others stick to the classic formula.

You'll face against one or two rows of invaders who fire so many shots that your shields are obliterated in a single pass. You'll face attackers that must be destroyed in a specific order. You'll even face waves of invaders that disappear and reappear. This is great stuff.

Shooter fans will enjoy the various polygon cut-scenes of your spaceship blasting off; that's pretty much required for any shooter, right? Now here's something that will really trip your world. There are various new power-ups you can earn and use on the missions (via touch-screen, of course), which can be combined much like you could in Gunstar Heroes. But here's the kick: in order to access them, you need to earn points in Classic Space Invaders.
Now that's something I've never seen before: a classic game designer who requires you to spend some serious time with his original game before you get to use all the toys in the new versiion. It's pretty gutsy, and it shows just how much confidence Nishikado has in his child. Game publishers today just figure the kids wouldn't touch anything unless it involved swearing or hijacking cars or bashing hookers over the head with 2x4's.

The DS has a number of classic games in its roster, and the success ratio is pretty good. Frogger is a sloppy mess. Dig Dug is really good. That Atari Anthology (or whatever it's called) is a train wreck. Namco's Pac-Man games are either really cool or, at the least, interesting. And Tetris, despite that whole "infinite rotation" controversy, is still Tetris. Who says classic gamers are stuck in the past? We're the only ones who know what a real videogame still is.

SI Revolution should be seen by more people, if just to show how a cool retro game on the Nintendo handheld could be pulled off. Heck, any game that let's you use the stylus to put quarters into the arcade machine has to be good.

Sonic Rush (Nintendo DS)

Sonic Rush - Sonic Team for Nintendo DS - 3/10

April 9, 2006

Here's one question I've yet to find an answer to: what's the deal with Sonic the Hedgehog? Now here's one of the great videogame characters, arguably the most iconic character of the '90s, and star of four of the best platformers of the 16-bit era. Then he disappeared for a number of years, only to make a major comeback in 1999 with Sonic Adventure. Since then, Sega's mascot has appeared in a pile of console and handheld games, but the same nagging problem remains: the newer games just aren't very good. They're certainly nowhere near the level of Sonic CD and Sonic 3 & Knuckles, and even the quality of the first SA has never been matched. What's the deal?

I've had Sonic Rush on my DS for a while now, and I've been willing to get my hopes up, since this is the first traditional Sonic game made by Sonic Team since the Genesis. They've stubbornly stuck to the 3D realm, while pawning the 2D Gameboy Advance titles to outside developers. So this is something of a homecoming of sorts, not unlike Nintendo's upcoming New Super Mario Brothers.

And, yet, I've found myself largely unimpressed with Rush, and I'm trying to understand just why that is. It's a game I want to enjoy, because I still have a lot of affection for the spikey blue spud, and like Sega, I want to see him somehow recapture that youthful glory. Instead, Sonic (and Sega, especially since the Dreamcast died) has just been going through the motions, lost in some primordial midlife crisis. Sonic is now just another middle ager wallowing in self-pity and tired stories about "the good old days."

Perhaps I should get down to specifics. Here's what I'm tired of. I'm tired of seeing the same layouts over and over. Every Sonic game, it seems, must have the following levels: the forest zone, the ancient ruins zone, the casino zone, the mechanized city zone, and the giant death-egg-that-looks-like-the-death-star zone. Also, don't forget the underwater zone, the winter zone, and all the other standard climates you've seen in ever other platformer.

Remember the crazy environments in Sonic CD? Remember how varied the different zones in S3K were? Why is it so difficult now to come up with any new ideas? What's the deal? Would it kill anyone to come up with a better plot for a Sonic game than the tired Eggman Conquest Scheme? If we're being asked to sit through another round of dull cut-scenes that have no business being there in the first place, the least the designers could do is come up with a decent story. Something different. It couldn't be that hard.

It's the paradox of today's videogame industry. Publishers want franchises, recognizable brand-name products that will continue to lure in the same suckers, year after year. In order to maintain that audience, you need consistency, predictibility. You need to condition the lemmings into shelling out for the same product again and again.

And then this same industry wonders why their market never expands anymore. They're just taking more money from the same small clique of game nerds and uneducated peasants.

Back to Sonic Rush. My biggest beef, it turns out, is the same as Matt Paprocki's from his Digital Press review: the bottomless pits. The whole game feels like it takes place in mid-air; there's hardly ever any ground floor, only three stories of bottomless pits. It's as if you're being punished every time you stray off the intended course; not that there's anything to be discovered by exploring. You're just set along the standard rollercoaster ride, and if you miss a jump or fail to notice that important platform switch...poof! Down you go.

Sonic has always been dedicated to the highs of speed, but much of the variety from, say, S3K, is missing. Now it's equal parts rushing and crashing. Sonic has an aging speed addict. The bottomless falling is pretty much the only danger in the game, which is pretty wierd.

I should probably mention a few things I like about Sonic Rush, including the vertical twin-screen layout, the new character Blaze (still too many cartoon characters in the series), and the number of stunt moves you can perform while flying through the air or grinding on pipes.

Now back to the beefs. See if you can spot your favorites:

- The boss fights are way, way, waaaaayy toooo loooong. Clearly meant as an attempt to put 2D Sonic into a 3D realm, but keeping it confined to a single gimmicky screen. Doesn't Sonic Team remember that they already created the perfect 2/3D Sonic? It's called NiGHTS, and it's probably the best game Yuji Naka and company have ever done. Just when are they going to realize that, and create the definitive 21st Century Sonic that we've all been asking for? From the flailing of the franchise, my guess is "not bloody likely."

What I will not tolerate is spending three minutes, four minutes on a boss fight. All I'm being asked to do is spot the simple pattern and hit Ivan or Eggman or whatever eight times. There's no excuse for dragging out something so elementary, so basic.

- I hate those stupid voices. Can I please use the stylus to stab Tails every time he speaks? Yuck.

- I'm not enamored with Sonic's polygon model. Doesn't he seem a bit too...lanky? He even looks like a strung-out addict, even down to the unkempt mass of hair. He used to have his act together during the Genesis days. He even had that attitude, which was the best thing about him. Now, he can't even bother to act impatient. Too busy scrambling for that next rush. You got a quarter, buddy? I need to catch the bus.

- Alright, this is just being mean, but it deserves to be said: Sonic can't dance. Please make him stop. Sonic's bad dancing make my feet sad.

You know, if this is all that's left of the blue hedgehog, then I don't see why Sega just doesn't follow Nintendo's lead, and reissue all the classic Sonic games on the handheld. Those are the ones we all loved, anyway. Seriously, tell me a DS port of Sonic CD (with the original Japanese soundtrack!) wouldn't be a hit. If they're only interested in sucking the gas fumes of nostalgia, then at least be honest with us and do it right.


Nintendo DS
Review Score: 3/10

November 2, 2005

Polarium is a good example of a game system's first generation of software. Here is a title that takes advantage of the Nintendo DS' touch screen (indeed, builds the whole game around it), but the whole experience remains sloppy and unfocused. The crusher is that this could have been an excellent little puzzler if the playtesters had bothered to show up.

The game is based around the idea of flipping squares - white to black, black to white - with the DS stylus. Horizontal lines of the same color are removed from the playfield and score points. Polarium offers two different game modes: a standard, Tetris-style arcade puzzler where groups of blocks drop down from above, and a challenge mode, where the player must solve 100 puzzles by removing all the blocks with one pen stroke.

Of these two modes, challenge is the better by far. Perhaps because there is no pressure to clear the playfield in a set time, it fosters a real sit-and-think approach. And the movement of the stylus is fairly smooth enough to allow you to doodle your way to a solution. The difficulty of these puzzles range from embarassingly easy to bafflingly hard. There are 100 puzzles to solve, and I suspect you have to be a bit of a sadist to actually work your way through all of them.

Perhaps this is the fatal flaw of the black/white design. There are so many patterns you can create before the puzzles become too difficult and abstract. The word "gimmick" comes to mind; but, then again, I'm reminded that puzzle games are very often difficult games. The great Chip's Challenge is a perfect example, as is the landmark Sokouban series (a puzzler whose influence is so far-reaching that nearly every modern game involves a crate-moving scene at some point).

No, of Polarium's two game modes, challenge gets a pass from me. A Gameboy Advance version will soon be arriving, and you may feel inclined to wait for that version.

Polarium's real crime comes from the arcade puzzler mode. I'm not sure if this mode was always part of the design, or if it was merely hobbled together at the last second. Clearly, what we see here is a breakdown in basic game design and play testing. The Bride of Zoo Keeper Quest Mode! In 3-D!

Here's the problem. When you want to flip a series of blocks, you simply draw a line with your stylus. But in order to finish the line and switch those blocks over, you need to tap the final block again. Then, as the white blocks switch over to black, or vice versa, you must wait for the animation to complete before you can begin another line.

In the casual challenge mode, this isn't an issue, because you're only making one movement. But you can imagine how many problems this presents for an arcade mode, when blocks relentlessly move downward from the top of the screen. Why, praytell, am I being handcuffed? This isn't some lowly computer that can barely draw the graphics.

Notice that blocks don't fall down randomly, or one at a time. They fall down in set patterns, usually three rows at a time. I think the idea is that you're supposed to eliminate each series of blocks before the next stack falls down. This has two main problems: first, the game devolves into a simple series of patterns to memorize, and two, if you ever fall behind, you're screwed. It's fiendishly difficult to catch up before the playfield fills up with blocks.
The great strength of Tetris, and all the best videogames, is its improvisational feel. You're not being forced to play the way the designers want you to. Polarium's designers are more interested in forcing your hand.

What good is this? You can just imagine how this game should properly play, allowing you to tap and draw blocks at your own pace, finding brilliant solutions to impossible situations, clearing the screen of blocks at the last possible moment.

None of that happens in puzzle mode. Instead, you're forced to click around and wait for the damn animations to finish so you can play again. Not that the game will bother to wait for you. Oh, no.

Can somebody tell the Quality Control department to step away from the foosball table and do their damned jobs? Is that too much to ask for? This for a game that retailed for $40 new? You've got to be kidding me.

Pac 'N Roll - Super Monkey Ball:Touch & Go

Pac 'B Roll
Nintendo DS
Review Score: 5/10

Super Monkey Ball: Touch & Go
Nintendo DS
Review Score: 4/10

August 8, 2006

Blah. Double Blah.

Two Nintendo DS games that use the stylus for controlling the main character. Pac 'N Roll involves rolling Pac through various N64-styled game worlds, through all the usual platform cliches. Super Monkey Ball is, well, another Super Monkey Ball.

Of the two, I'd say Pac is better. At least it's a new game, instead of the latest rehash. It's not a bad game, but am I wrong to feel that rolling Pac along with the stylus is a bit of a gimmick? It's also a little tiring. I feel like Sisyphus.

So I'm sure this could be a game that you would enjoy. To its credit, the polygon 3D graphics are solid and rendered nicely. But, for me, it's a little boring. I got tired of trying to roll poor Pac across one narrow ledge after another. If there was always some forward momentum, requiring you to only change direction (like, oh, I dunno, the original Pac-Man), things would have gone much easier.

For what it's worth, it's a decent effort. At least Namco has tried a lot of new ideas with its DS games, even if they've stuck with classic franchise names. I think I'm getting tired of all these cutsey-colored mascot platformers. Shouldn't we have evolved beyond that by now?

To be completely honest, the only reason I grabbed Pac 'N Roll is because the original Pac-Man is included as a dual-screen bonus. Too bad I have to play all the way through this game in order to get to it. Let's keep our fingers crossed and hope the dual-screen Pac reappears on the inevitable future installment of Namco Arcade.


Back to Super Monkey Ball: Touch & Roll. I mentioned that I picked this up along with Brain Age. Brain Age took away all my time, and Monkey Ball, after about eight or nine boards, just lost its luster for me.

I've finally come to a conclusion about this series. I've never really liked Monkey Ball. Perhaps if I sit down and play the GameCube original (and I just may do so on...doggonit...that new Nintendo console; I'm not using that name), I might connect with it, but I never really cared for the arcade game, and the Gameboy Advance version was sloppy.

The whole control scheme, moving the boards around like those old Tama boards, doesn't work for me. Anytime I want to turn around, or shift directions suddenly, and the camera doesn't keep up with me. Or maybe the stupid monkey-in-a-ball isn't steady enough. Or the controls are too touchy. Or whatever.

The DS version has roundly been critized for its control scheme, which uses the stylus (again, similar to Pac 'N Roll) to move the monkey ball. I don't really have a problem with this, to be honest. Much of the time, I found it to be a good use of analog controls, and whenever it became a real problem...well, let's just say that using the d-pad is a lost cause as well. When the controls screw you over, you're on your own.

What the bloody hell has happened to Sega?! I say this more and more, but they really lost their creative spirit after Dreamcast died. None of their DS games are any good, unless you could the latest version of Puyo Puyo. Even then, that's a pretty vanilla puzzler when faced with the likes of Zoo Keeper, Meteos, and Tetris. And besides, it's Compile's game, and it hasn't changed an ounce in ten years. Why is this game still around?

Somehow you wish Sega would just get back to its roots, and port over some of their classic arcade games like Afterburner, Hang On, Space Harrier, and pretty much anything from the Genesis. Heck, just pack together NiGHTS and Christmas NiGHTS and put that out on the DS. Give me that and I'll be happy.
But whatever Sega does, they need to stop relying on their remaining two or three franchise titles, none of which are really viable anymore. They need to find themselves again before they disappear forever.

New Super Mario Brothers (DS)

New Super Mario Brothers
Nintendo DS
Review Score: 9/10

May 27, 2006


It's been 11 years since Yoshi's Island, and 15 years since Super Mario World. Those were the last two traditional 2D Mario games. After that, only two proper Mario games, one of which (Super Mario 64) is just about the greatest videogame ever made; the other (Super Mario Sunshine) is unfairly maligned for not meeting players' unrealistic expectations. Then there are various spin-off titles, like Luigi's Mansion, Yoshi's Story, and Yoshi Touch and Go, which are loved by a few, but dismissed, waved away by the masses. The Mario Brothers have become the Orson Welles of the videogame world.

So you can understand why New Super Mario Bros. has been positioned as a return to greatness. It's a magnificent game, clearly among the finest for Nintendo's DS handheld. It may even be the best, right up there with Meteos and Animal Crossing and Yoshi. From a technical view, every visual trick is used, from smoothly animated polygons to pre-rendered characters to all those little sprites and sound effects that hark back to classic Mario. This is clearly meant as a grand nostalgia trip for aging 30-year-olds who grew up on Nintendo. It's also a triumph for that other old dinosaur, the 2D platform game. Remember those?

Nintendo's belief is that the games industry has lost its way, lost in a sea of corporate consolidation and exploding budgets and horribly overpriced consoles. It's all down to The Sports Game, The Driving Game, The Doom Game, and The Game Where You Shoot Hookers. Is that supposed to be fun? Perhaps, for the overweight, lazy, stupid children of America.

So Nintendo's out to either take us back to their youth, or ours. Either way, they're promising games that are actually games, not Comic Book Guy's latest lousy pitch to Hollywood with Ken and Barbie dolls. The DS has been a great success, and New Mario is a perfect capstone to that success.

A bit too much thinking, I suppose, for something that never was meant to be more than lighthearted, imaginitive entertainment. But I've always suspected that Shigeru Miyamoto and his collaborators had something of an agenda up their sleeve. Somewhere between the nostalgia trips and thinly veiled psychedelic imagery ("magic mushrooms" were perfectly legal in Japan until a few years ago, didn't you know), there's an optimism. A belief in the brightness and magic of everyday life. We just need to reconnect with that sense of magic we possessed as children, before the world of the grownups tried their best to pound it out of us. There's a reason most adults end up in lousy jobs, dispirited.

Again, I'm thinking too much. Current events are on my mind a lot - can you tell? Maybe that's why I'm eager to revisit the worlds of the Mario Brothers again, eager to stomp on those Koopa shells, eager to consume the magic shrooms and watch the colors bleed. There has to be a better world out there; we just have to look around hard enough and find it.

We need Flower Power more than ever, kids.

Frogger: Helmet Chaos

Frogger: Helmet Chaos
Nintendo DS
Review Score: 4/10

November 2, 2005

From my games blog, the story of my odyssey with Frogger: Helmet Chaos on Nintendo DS:

"Picked up a copy of the new Frogger on (what else? Nintendo DS. It's a game I've wanted to check out for a while, because of its retro gaming appeal, and also because it just looked promising and it's almost completely swept under the rug.

I've played for a little while, and my overall opinion of Frogger keeps swaying back and forth. I don't know right now whether I could recommend it, and that in itself is very frustrating, because the core of the game is really quite good. There have been a number of attemps by Konami to revive the Frogger name ever since that disastrous Playstation title, so perhaps they've finally figured out how to make the old frog work in a modern action-puzzler.

I think the reason I want to like this game is because it reminds me so much of Chip's Challenge. Chip's was one of Epyx's first launch games for their color handheld, which became the Atari Lynx. Heck, Chip's Challenge is one of the best puzzlers, period. It's also, as anyone who's devoted a couple hours to it, brutally hard. I don't think I've ever solved more than a couple dozen levels, and there's over 150 total, not counting a few bonus levels. Now that's a puzzle game.

Frogger on DS follows a similar vein, albeit far simpler; kind of a "My First Chip's" for the kiddies. There's a lot of hopping about islands and caves and green medows, avoiding cleverly-drawn bad guys, grabbing coins, and moving blocks for the millionth time since Sokouban. Hard to believe the most copied videogame of the last 20 years is...Boxxle. How did that happen?

So, anyway, I think I'm on the third world, but I'm not sure, and this touches on one of the real flaws with the game. Apart from the cut-scenes (aided with horrible Disney-esque voice acting), there's nothing to tell you where you're going from one level or world to the next. It's just POOF! and you're in the brown stage. Then POOF! and it's the dark green level.

After I finished one level, I was taken to a couple of bonus screens, bumbled through, told I couldn't pass forward, and then taken there anyway. Sounds undescriptive, yes, but that's the impression of the experience. All I know is that I didn't have enough coins to give somebody. No clue who he was, what he was after, or what the whole point to the exercise was. Maybe he was just homeless; God knows if that were the case, I'd only be too glad to help him.

It's a strange thing to me, because world maps have been standard ever since Super Mario 3 and Super Mario World. You think a game that included a butt bounce would also feature those things. So that's a strike against Frogger.
Now, the levels themselves are a lot of fun. There's a good variety of challenges and puzzles that left me stumped for a moment or two. The box promises 30 levels in total, and each one is sufficently large enough that I'm not feeling shortchangedd. At least, not yet.

Everything in Frogger looks great, and it's a good showoff for the DS' polygons. There's a lot of color and shading, the animation is really good, and it all churns along smoothly at 60fps. And, it needs to be said, it's funny to watch Frogger wipe out when he smacks into a wall.

There are also a number of unlockable items to collect, all standard issue in the post-Soul Calibur world, and a number of multiplayer mini-games, including a couple variations on the original 1981 Frogger. Are any of these mini-games any good? Well, some are and some aren't; I really don't expect any of them to become the next Bomberman or Monkey Ball, but you never know. Most likely, never will anyone else.

So, at this point, I'm leaning slightly in favor of the new Frogger, but there are two monstrous flaws that may just kill it altogether. First is the life gauge. Your health is measured as four hit-points in a green heart. Standard issue, yes. However, you only have one life. One life per game. Now this is where it gets wierd. Anytime you are killed by, say, falling into water and drowning, you simply lose one hit point and restart from the last save point. Figure that one out. I drown and continue, minus one hit point. I get knocked out by a rolling hedgehog, and it's game over.

Currently, I'm stuck on a boss battle which is completely unnecessary (does an action-puzzler with a clunky-moving frog need a boss fight?), completely frustrating, and completely unfair. I'm up against a giant Robotnik tank, armed to the teeth with half a dozen different attacks, and you're only supposed to outlast it. Oh, don't forget the screen is scrolling...slooowly. This frog isn't good at dodging, I'll say that. The kicker? Some attacks will hurt you, and some will knock you out, which starts the whole battle over from the beginning. I have no idea what triggers this.

Yuck! It's the Zookeeper Quest Moder, all over again! If I can get past this part, then hopefully the rest of the game will settle into a good rhythm and actually be fun. I'll be disappointed if Frogger falls apart, the death from a thousand cuts, because it should have been better; all of these stupid problems could have been avoided."

After some time, and a few attempts to give the game another chance, I finally gave in, and realized that, despite my best hopes, it was not meant to be. Frogger: Helmet Chaos is a sloppy, unfocused game. These are the ones that always frustrate me; if only a few more hours of playtesting were allowed, if only the developers discovered some insight, if only the Frogger name would stop being dragged through the mud like yesterday's trash. If only. A lot of hopes and dreams in this world come down to those two words.
And just think, I could have picked up Super Princess Peach instead. BOOO!!!

Bust-a-Move DS

Bust-a-Move DS
Majesco, for Taito
Nintendo DS
Review Score: 8/10

May 27, 2006

In the annals of videogames, the words "budget title" are the equivalent to the Hollywood B-picture: cheap, low-grade, instantly disposable. Well, kids, there are times when it's wiser to ignore popular sentiment, and this is one of them.

Goodness knows Bust-a-Move has been played to death on every conceivable platform, and bears responsibility for spawning a whole sub-genre of cheap kick-the-jewel puzzle games that have made video arcades (what few are still left in the West) unbearable. It's one of those no-brainer games, something that's cheap and probably sells just enough to warrant another knock-off somewhere down the line. All that matters is that this was probably the last novel puzzler to appear until Q Entertainment finally revived the genre last year with Meteos and Lumines.

So imagine, despite all my misgivings, not only grabbing Bust-a-Move DS, but enjoying the hell out of it. Really digging it. Go figure that one out, kids.
If the DS touch screen isn't the best thing to happen to puzzle games since Tetris, I don't know what is. It's just that simple change, that instant and fluid control that the ancient d-pad cannot provide. Meteos became a modern classic because of the touch screen; Zoo Keeper - a damned freeware game, of all things - achieved a new level of addiction (at least until "Quest Mode" destroyed everything); now Bust-a-Move sweeps in, and is transformed.
There's a world of difference between pressing left or right to aim a cannon just right; it's another thing entirely to stretch and drag with the stylus. It's all a matter of control, of having it. This is a game that is dependent on achieving different kinds of trick shots, a little like billiards, a little like marbles. For the first time, I actually feel empowered. I feel as if I actually can make that impossible shot.

The game's structure is different, focused largely on solving set puzzle patterns, in sets of ten. There are 25 levels to plough through, and then another 25 after that. They do become more challenging, but I've never felt overwhelmed. If anything, the levels are structured so that one especially tough board - where you literally have to shoot your way through a screenful of marbles - is sandwiched by a couple boards that can be brought down with a single skilled shot. Some boards emphasize speed, others dexterity; here's where having a stylus in hand makes a whole world of difference.

In addition to the main puzzle mode, an endless mode is available, which works if you need your arcade kicks and just want to see how long you can hold out against the inevitable. Five players can compete against one another with a single game card, which really makes the game cheap. Get everyone to shell out four bucks, and you're set. You've got yourselves one heckuva drinking game on your hands.

So what else is there to recommend? The graphics are bright and colorful, and the music is catchy as hell. There's a high score table somewhere, but it's dribbled out, line by line, during the attract mode. Apparantly for a decent score table, you'd have to pay full price. Fair enough.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Art Gallery - William Schroeder (2003)

Written in 2003

William Schroeder was one of the four students shot dead by National Guardsmen at Kent State in May of 1970. This painting is among a series of five -- with a similar visual theme -- remembering Kent State and its four victims.

By remembering what happened then, we reflect on the power of free speech, war and peace, the right to dissent, the power of the state, and excessive force by police and the military. In 2003, these are again important issues in America.

That a significant number of Americans do not remember or know about Kent State is telling; also a bit chilling. In our age of computerized, instant-access, global information, Americans are ignorant about the world around them. To be so chronically uninformed is to court tragedy; to forget past tragedies is to invite future ones. The legendary American Attention Span (what is it down to now, five seconds?) ensures that we will be more easily entertained and disctracted by something else. Probably some crummy reality show on Fox.

Not to bring everybody down, drowning in tragedy, but sometimes, history is important. Take a moment to remember William Schroeder, and Allison Krause, Jeffery Miller, Sandy Scheuer, and what happened on May 4, 1970. Then get off the couch and learn what's happening in the world around you.

And turn off that damn TV.

Art Gallery - Jeffery Miller (2003)

Written somewhere between 2003-2005 (I honestly can't remember)

We pay our respects to Jeffery Miller, who was killed at Kent State for the crime of protesting the reckless actions of a runaway government. This was one of the iconic events of that era that stretched from the assassination of John F. Kennedy to Watergate. Those iconic '60s that everyone remembers.

It can be difficult for someone in my generation to understand what it was like back then, marching against Vietnam, marching for Civil Rights, marching for Women's Rights. Everything is written with capital letters; it's all been lionized now. In America today, there is still political activism; the run-up to the Iraq war was met with the largest antiwar protests in a generation. Unfortunately, that really is the exception to the rule. Most folks are too busy struggling with their daily lives to worry, or too apathetic to care, or just too ignorant to participate. We've tuned out of the process. This time next year, we might forget that war ever happened.

Politics today is almost the exclusive domain of nerds, social outcasts, and the obsessively ambitious (ever see "Election?"). If you want to be cool and popular and well-liked, you don't talk politics. Talking about deficits and chemical weapons won't score you a lot of dates. You have to fit in with the crowd, you see, and nobody wants to be seen as out of place, rocking the boat. What would Simon Cowell say?

Politics is such a dirty game, anyway. The whole system's been rigged to keep us out, or keep us distracted. It's best to sit back and watch TV, buy more things, work on our pick-up lines, and worry about what the celebrities are wearing. Don't think about, you know, things and stuff.

Maybe we shouldn't worry about what country we're invading this year, or what campaign promise the President is breaking behind our backs, or where your state will find the money to keep the local libraries open. Public libraries have become homeless shelters, anyway. No one visits there anymore; we have Barnes & Noble now. Besides, who reads anything besides Cosmo and Maxim? Reading is for losers.

Maybe we just don't care anymore. Or maybe we do, and this is our way of tuning out the information overload. Maybe those "60s" were overrated in the first place. I really can't say. We're all living in such crazy, trivial, epic times.

FIFA 2002

FIFA 2002
Electronic Arts
Gameboy Advance
Review Score: 5/10

April 28, 2003

Goodness knows, the Gameboy Advance should be a goldmine for Electronic Arts. The Nintendo handheld is often seen as a 16-bit system on steroids, which often means many ports from the Super NES and Genesis. Goodness knows, I have no idea why some of these titles have been ported over at all, aside from the bona-fide classics, but this situation is perfect for EA. These were, after all, the years of their legendary sports franchises; starting with Madden, they managed to perfectly capture every sport they tried, setting the gold standard for the sports videogame.

That software developers still struggle to create with modern 3D polygons what EA achieved effortlessly is amazing. I would still argue that the NHL Hockey series on the Genesis was as good as anything today, and the Madden's and FIFA's have only aged marginally. For the Advance, portable versions of these games still work. I still enjoy the new Madden as much as the old Genesis classics, and NHL Hockey 2002 is almost worth the price of an Advance alone.

I'm puzzled at FIFA, though. This should be a standout title; obviously, the effort has been made to modernize the game instead of merely porting an old copy of FIFA '95. And, yet, somehow, it doesn't quite work. It's almost as though the final game was rushed out the door before it was properly finished. This isn't even the usual comparison against Konami's brilliant soccer games; even though, again, there's a better version of International Superstar Soccer waiting nearby.

There are some things I like, starting with the field. The old angled viewpoint is thankfully retired in favor of a standard side-scrolling view. The players are large and distinct, and even move fairly well, even if it's more than a little limited. And there are an obscene number of teams to choose from, with more leagues and names than most Americans like me have ever heard of.

The best quality of this FIFA is its fast-paced, arcade-style play. This is one of those games that you can pick up and run with almost immediately, and EA should be thanked for that. The limited number of buttons on the Advance is no doubt a factor; there is only so much you can do with four buttons, so only the basic moves are included. I'm fine with that, as long as the game on the field moves swift and smooth. You can probably play a full match in five or ten minutes, passing and scoring with ease.

I just wish some more effort was put into the making of this game. For instance, take the players on the field. As I've already noted, they look fine and move well, but the animation is pretty much limited to running. There's not much interaction between two players fighting for control of the ball, or passing, or pretty much anything. And the team uniforms are usually two colors, one of which is always white. And there is only one stadium to play in, with the same grass patterns and crowd chants. What's the point of this? The cynic in me suspects that FIFA has fallen victim to the dreaded Franchise Curse, where the first installment has only the bare essentials, and too many important features are left on the shelf for next year's version.

Of course, I enjoy this game for short bursts, but after awhile, I become aware of something that turns me off to the whole experience completely. Put simply, the computer is stupid. As dumb as a bag of rocks. Want to score? Just take control of the ball, and then sprint to the end of the field, wait for the goalie to run towards you, and shoot the ball in. There's a little weaving around defenders, but it's more like a glorified obstacle course; there's no real defense going on here.

Artificial Intelligence simply doesn't exist here, at least not compared to any sports games over the last decade. When you have the ball, your teammates all run forward, in unison. When the other team has the ball, they all retreat, in unison. There's no attempt on the computer's part to defend or capture the ball. They just return to their original starting points, and then just stop. It's downright insulting to watch a defender charge an opposing net while three defenders stand by, twiddling their virtual fingers. And it's even more insulting knowing that it was Electronic Arts that did away with this primitive practice in the 16-bit era.

Now we're back to the Intellivision age, where you do all the heavy lifting. Playing, I get flashbacks to Football on the Atari 2600, where you move the entire team as one unit. That game was made in 1977.

There's no excuse for this. I don't want to wait a full year to see if the developers put in the features that should never have been missing in the first place. What happened here?

Sunday, July 05, 2009

F-1 2002

F1 2002
Magic Pockets for Electronic Arts
Gameboy Advance
Review Score: 7/10

April 21, 2003

Electronic Arts is not always a name that oozes quality and imagination as much as consistency. You may not be seeing something special, but you are guaranteed to see something good. That's never been more apparent in the company's lineup of titles for the Gameboy Advance. These are all good games, but for the most part, not great ones. Of course, with EA, you are promised that next year's version will be better, and their many software studios will be working on it.

That's an important thing to keep in mind when you spend time with F1 2002. I enjoyed this game, I liked this game, but I can't honestly say I loved it. I wasn't excited of hooked the way I was with Moto GP and Motoracer Advance. Still, on a handheld system with one too many cartoon racers, we must be happy with what we have.

This title captures the world of Formula One racing, with authentic cars, drivers, and racetracks. Players begin by registering a name and signing with one of the racing teams, and choose a car and driver. As far as I can tell, there isn't any difference between any of them; a Ferrari drives just the same as a Jaguar. It all comes down to which color you like.

Then, once you're ready, you can compete in a championship, a full season, or a quick race against a friend. Why more than two players can't race together is beyond me; four players should be the absolute standard in every racing game, and it's sorely missed here. There's really no excuse, and, yes, I will point this out every time a game supports only two players.

This title goes to great lengths to make racing as easy as possible on the Advance's unjustly tiny screen. Each race is previewed with a map of the course, clearly labeling all turns, as well as the ideal speed necessary to successfully navigate them. During the actual races, there are the usual signs off the side to tell you how close the next turn will be, and an on-screen icon appears to warn you when it's time to slow down. This is a common feature in rally games, and I really appreciate it here. Thank goodness most everyone has the sense to include these icons in their Advance titles.

I enjoyed the look to everything. The tracks are all flat, devoid of any hills or dips, but the roads are wonderfully detailed. The red stripes to the side, the well-worn asphalt that guides you to the best racing line, the saturation of the browns and greens during sunshine or rain; everything just looks terrific. The backgrounds include photorealistic pictures of blue skies and clouds, which are perfectly sharp and without dithering. This is much closer to what one expects on the modern consoles, and is continuing evidence that this little machine has yet to reach its full potential. Much better than it's "portable Super Nintendo" reputation.

The racecars themselves look great, but here's a problem I have. Their movement tends to be a little choppy. This is no doubt a concession to prevent needless blurring on the color LCD screen; there are also twenty or more cars on the road at a time. So smooth animation is sacrificed for overall speed. This is more noticeable during turns; it seems your car only has a few frames for turning. Add in twenty cars all doing this and everything starts to look, frankly, a little cheap. Maybe I'm just being a trite picky, but I would willingly settle for a slightly slower game to have cars that didn't look like they were cut and pasted.

This tends to transfer to the handling of the vehicles. The steering is very fine, especially when you consider how lousy it can be in so many other games. The movement of your car feels a little greasy; quick, responsive, perhaps a tad light. There isn't as much traction as there should be, especially for a car that's flying by at 300 mph. Again, this is possibly just a concession because of the platform. It still bothers the hell out of me.

It may seem that I'm waffling; that may be true. There is much about F1 2002 that I enjoy so much, and yet there are things that just stick in my side. For instance, I like the fact that the computer-controlled cars aren't perfect automatons. They often make mistakes, crashing, spinning out. I don't like that you can quickly dart out to the front of the pack before the first turn. This is supposed to be a simulation, and I don't need any help, thank you very much. I like that you can actually make contact with the cars without spinning out. I don't like it when I crash, but the other car just drives off, unaffected. I like the club music that's played during the menu screens. I really don't like listening to all those engines' high-pitched buzzing. Sounds like I'm being chased by hornets.

According to the credits, this game was the work of Magic Pockets, who should be commended for their efforts. F1 2002 reminds me a lot of Super Monaco GP on the Sega Genesis many years ago; many players remember that title fondly, and rightfully so.

Fire Emblem

Fire Emblem
Intelligent Systems for Nintendo
Gameboy Advance
Review Score: 7/10

February 28, 2005

Intelligent Systems' Fire Emblem series has enjoyed a following in Japan for a number of years, appearing on the NES, Super NES, and Gameboy platforms. Now, the American arrival has been making waves on the Advance, giving the portable system another quality strategy game. That's always a good thing.
This is actually the seventh Fire Emblem, but knowing that isn't important, unless you're trying to impress other nerds with your trivia (of course, you could also smuggle them alcohol, but that's another topic). If you're familiar with Advance Wars, then you know pretty much everything you need to know. This is a turn-based strategy game that also involves moving military units around forest, hills, bridges, and towns.

Giving the strategy genre a fantasy-RPG twist is novel enough for console games to still stand out. The story, which plows ahead at a steady clip, involves a girl who discovers that she is a long-lost princess who must reclaim her rightful place before villanous upstarts steal the throne from an ailing king. Usually, this is when I start groaning, as these games just start piling on the same fairy tale routines; it's as lifeless and outmoded as a mullet man in a biker bar.

What do I have to do to get someone to write a decent script? If you're going to make your game dependant on story, than shouldn't you put, oh, I don't know, ten minutes into the writing? There once was a whole thriving genre of computer adventures with witty scripts. I'm not expecting Hemmingway, but seriously, enough with this. Boring!

The real game (the part that involves, you know, playing) is solid fun, thanks to Intelligent Systems' longstanding experience. These people know how to make a game that's challenging. If you want a Gameboy game that will kill a lot of time, it's this one.

That said, I have to major beefs with Fire Emblem that I've never been able to overcome. First, if you lose a character in battle, you can never get them back. They're gone for good. Usually, in an RPG, dead fighters can be revived; not here. Needless to say, that's a pretty lousy kick in the shins.

Second problem, you can't create your own maps. Now, granted, I'm likely in the minority on this one, but the custom maps feature is the best thing about Advance Wars 2; it makes the game a multiplayer classic. This game is largely a single-player exercise, but so what? There should be the option to play against other friends and create your own maps. That mantra ought to be framed in a plaque and hung on the wall.

How much that affects things for you is your business. If you can still slosh your way through Fire Emblem and keep a smile on your face, more power to you. Knock yerself out, kids.

Egg Mania

Egg Mania
Hot Gen Studios
Gameboy Advance
Review Score: 7/10

February 16, 2005

Hot Gen Studios had established themselves as a quality videogame studio on the Gameboy Advance. I'll still insist that Kelly Slater's Pro Surfer is, after Advance Wars 2, the finest game ever created for the handheld. These people knew how to make great games, knew how to keep the players hooked, knew how to paint graphics that glow and dance.

They have since closed down, like so many small development houses in Europe and America during the past few years. This fact is even more depressing when you discover just how gifted and skilled these people were, and how increasingly stale and risk-averse the giant publishers have become.
Egg Mania is an good example of this. Here is a puzzler with enough personality and polish to elevate it above the level of Cheap Gimmick. It's a good little game.

For some reason, the Advance has seen very few puzzlers. There was a long stretch in the 1990's when the original Gameboy had nothing but puzzle games. A lot of those titles were really good, too. What happened to them? I expected the steady stream of puzzlers to continue into this decade, but they've all but died out. Goodness knows, games like these can't be expensive to produce.

Excuse me, I'm rambling here. It happens.

What you should know about Egg Mania is that it takes the standard Tetris game, adds a few clever twists to the formula, and still manages to feel fresh. Here, you are given your choice of egg charcters, each with their own unique look, who must catch the falling pieces and form the rows.

Egg Mania, however, is not about clearing endless rows of blocks. The goal is to build towers so that you can escape to a waiting balloon at the top of the playfield. You must, however, pay attention to your structural integrity. For insance, if you were simply to throw blocks on top of one another, eventually, the foundation will collapse and you'll lose all the pieces. Since this is a race to the top, you will lose precious time. Oh, and one more thing: your pit is being filled with water.

It's a great example of solid game design. You must call upon your Tetris skills, but you must also keep your eyes on your opponent, who is trying to beat you to the finish. There are a number of power-ups and bonus blocks, ranging from concrete (to fill up holes) to faster speed, to - my favorite - bombs. I'm sure you know what to do with those.

There are a number of gameplay modes, including a special bomb-throwing mode where you and a friend just throw bombs at each other (it plays like a portable Twinkle Star Sprites). Usually, the single-player game involves a ladder progression against different eggs, playing against any number of brightly colorful backdrops.

I find myself enjoying this game, but I suspect this was made with human opponents in mind. Playing the computer feels functionary at best, because there's never really any challenge. You're just going through the motions. Why isn't there more variety in the computer players' strategy and technique? Why isn't this game, well, tougher?

Playing against a friend is where the real action lies, and my suspicion is the single-player modes are merely practice for the real action. And on that front, it really does work. There can be some really heated matches, especially when you're hurling bombs at one another. If that isn't your idea of fun, then I don't know what is.

Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars

Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars
Revolution Software
Gameboy Advance
Review Score: 7/10

February 19, 2005

And now, as a benefit to my readers, allow me a few words about a little-seen, but critically-received game called Broken Sword. This blongs squarely in that category of Gameboy Advance titles that deserved an audience, but came and went without much notice. A diamond in the rough.

Older fans of computer games will recognize the name. It was a successful series of adventure games from that bygone era, and they still invite a warm nostalgia to anyone who remembers them.

These kind of games were more common in the 1980's and 1990's, when home computers were content to let the consoles have all the fast, arcade games. A graphical adventure game like, oh, Broken Sword (can't let myself wander too far) is a slower, more literary experience. It's much more about creating a vivid word with character and story, and not about running around and shooting things.

The story involves an American on vacation in Paris, who nearly becomes the victim of a cafe bombing. Despite the pleas of the local authorities, he is determined to solve the case singlehandedly. Perhaps he is a little like Joe Cotton's character in The Third Man, something of a mild caracature of cowboy Americans. To bad there aren't any Orson Welles cameos.

In any case, he discovers some leads, meets several interesting people, and finds himself caught in something far bigger than himself. It would be cruel of me to reveal any more of the story; you will have to discover all the great moments for yourself.

This installment in the Broken Sword series, titled The Shadow of the Templars, is a port from the PC, where it was a best-seller. It's remarkable how the entire game was translated to the handheld format without any cuts or compromises. Revolution Software deserves our appreciation.

The game's visuals are striking, bold; they stand out as among the finest this handheld as ever seen. There's a terrific amount of detail on the tiny screen, and I'm impressed how clear everything looks. Everything is drawn in a realist American cartoon style, a little bit like Brad Bird's little gem The Iron Giant.
If you own a Gameboy Advance and you're looking for something a little different, then you absolutely should give this a chance. I think you'll thank yourself for the effort. It ranks among the best of the lost gems. I can't recommend it enough.

Videogame Classics: Advance Wars 2

Advance Wars 2
Intelligent Systems for Nintendo
Gameboy Advance

February 18, 2005

The best game ever made for the Gameboy Advance is Advance Wars 2. This is a true example of the 'killer ap:' a wonderfully attractive, easily accessaible, and richly complex game with a great sense of depth. And it also happens to be a hell of a lot of fun.

Turn-based strategy games were a staple of videogames a long time ago, before the genre moved into realtime. Now most strategy games are overburdened and too complicated, too pomous for their own good. Who wants to play a game where armies battle one another all by themselves? Since when is that entertainment? If that's what I wanted, I'd get a television.
Intelligent Systems has been steadily working on its series of strategy games since the beginning of time. Versions of Wars have appeared on the Famicom, Gameboy, and Super Nintendo. When the Gameboy Advance launched, it appeared with Advance Wars, and Nintendo immediately had a system-seller.

The first Advance Wars worked so well because it mixed up turn-based strategy with an entertaining, character-driven story, and then throwing in dozens of playable maps and a map editor for good measure. This was the rare game that deserved all its extras.

I think the second title is the better of the two, although its differences may not seem as apparant at first. The visual design is much better; the color scheme is brighter and with less contrast, and objects such as buildings and trees are less obtrusive. The first game looks garish compared to this. I also have to say I prefer the artwork of the characters, with their romantic, yet slightly comic poses.

The most notable difference is the tweaking in the game's balance. The idea is that all units - infantry, transports, tanks, anti-aircraft, and so on - should have a fighting chance. In the last game, a squad of tanks could completely destroy a squad of infantry. This tends to encourage building only the biggest and most powerful units. This sequel levels things out, and there's more of a paper-rock-siccors feel.

Chances are you already know something about this game, so you don't need me to recite the Campaign Mode for you. Everybody goes through it at least once, if just to enjoy the playful banter between all the cartoon characters (this is the only world where Macy Gray would team up with Marilyn Manson). Most everyone enjoys this mode, although most levels require you to overcome overwhelming odds again and again.

Chances also are you'll also know about the dozen upon dozens of extra maps to buy and play through, including all the maps from the first Advance Wars. Most of these you will only play through once, and some are worth repeated visits. This doesn't really matter to me, since I have the option to create my own levels.

It's the same question I've been asking for twenty years: why don't more games have a level editor? These things are pure gold. Through the AW2 map editor, I've created some terrific levels and shared them with players around the world. Building that sense of community is what make computer games like Quake and Unreal Tournament so endlessly entertaining. You give us the tools to create, and we'll be loyal fans forever.

I don't like reading overhyped praises in game reviews, but Advance Wars 2 really is the best game for the Advance, and just about the best handheld game ever made. It has the ability to grab even those who don't enjoy strategy games or military sims, that same way that all classics hook you.
Intelligent Systems is continuing the series on Nintendo's DS handheld, and we're all eager to see if they can continue their successful formula while adding enough new content to keep everything fresh. Personally, I don't think any major changes should be made. I'd try to empahsize naval units a little more (all those ships are way too expensive), do away with the Neotanks (they're far too powerful), and maybe even offer seasonal-based levels (instead of merely raining or snowing for a turn). I'd also look into the possibility of destroying or bombing cities, because I don't think it's ever been done before.

See? This is what happens when I start to go on a game design streak and create my own custom levels. I don't think a game like this even has a shelf life. This may be a multiplayer classic on par with MULE, Super Bomberman 2 and Herzog Zwei. But don't quote me on that just yet. Ask me again in two or three years.