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3:29 PM on 12.29.2009

The Games of Christmas Past

As I’m sure is the case with most gamers, my favorite Christmas presents over the years have always been video games. In fact, certain Christmases are virtually defined in my mind by the games I received that year. While this year’s festivities are still fresh in mind, I thought I’d run down a few of the greatest gaming Christmases I’ve had.

Games received:

I was late to the Playstation party, so in ’96 I was still rocking the Super Nintendo. While Final Fight II and Super Star Wars are mediocre games that I have fond nostalgic memories of, Zombies Ate My Neighbors remains one of my very favorites from the 16-bit era. It’s impeccably designed, and the ‘50s B-movie vibe is flawlessly executed in the game’s visuals and music (it’s easily one of the top soundtracks from the SNES). It’s also the first game that introduced me to the joys of co-op gaming – and the sheer hatred that arises when your “partner” steals the weedwhacker.

Games received:

Man, this was a great year. There were about two weeks after Christmas before school started again, and in 1997 every free second of those two weeks went into these magnificent games. FFVII was and still is one of my favorite RPGs of all time, but Oddworld really knocked me on my ass. I’d asked for it solely on the strength of its brilliant “The Odds are against you” ad campaign, but didn’t really know what to expect in terms of gameplay. Seeing the opening cinematic for the first time blew my mind, and when it ended and Abe was under your control immediately I fell in love.

Games received:

Okay, in hindsight Vigilante 8 isn’t that great. It runs slow, its visuals were overly ambitious for what the PS1 could handle, and the ‘70s style is a little grating. Still, after years of playing Twisted Metal’s cartoony take on car combat, the realistic physics and incredible level of destructability in environments rocked. And while today Pokemon is an inescapable staple of gaming, 11 years ago it was a little bundle of awesome, direct from Japan, that only America’s coolest kids knew about. Or, at least, that’s how it felt at the time to a 14 year old Pokemon fan. The Poke-fever in me died somewhere around the second half of Pokemon Silver, but Blue was the only one I truly loved.

Games received:

We were far from rich growing up, so when Christmas rolled around I knew to expect precisely one big, expensive gift – like a new game. When making my ’99 wish list, I put three new games at the top, any one of which would have made me freak out with joy. Christmas morning, when I opened game after game and ended up with all three, I just about crapped my pants. Talk about an embarrassment of riches – it took the better part of an hour for me to figure out which one I wanted to play first.

Games received:

This year Christmas started in late October, when I took the funds I’d slowly saved over the summer to EB Games in the mall to purchase a little game called Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. It’s probably no surprise that I was still playing it when Dec. 25 rolled around and I unwrapped three games that are still personal favorites to this day – a violent samurai epic, an unbelievably fun stealth/FPS/RPG hybrid, and the scariest game of all time. Gift cards were then used to acquire a farming simulator and a slow-motion noir. My new games were as great as they were diverse, and thus I was entertained for nearly the whole of 2003.

Games received:

Things can change a lot in a year. By Christmas season 2003, I’d moved out of my parents’ house and into an apartment with my girlfriend, and I was gainfully employed by the very EB I’d bought GTA at the year before. This was the year I learned the painful truth about game store employees’ at Christmas; namely, that nobody wants to buy you a game as a gift if you could have used your discount to buy it cheaper yourself. But a new co-worker and all-around great guy took it upon himself to spread the word about a game he loved, and bestowed upon me a copy of Beyond Good and Evil. Thanks, Keith.

Games received:

Games as Christmas gifts were few and far between in the last few years, which made this present all the more awesome. I know it’s been getting really mixed reviews across the gaming world, but I have fallen in love with Climax’s pacifist take on nightmarish horror. The fact that every time Silent Hill shifts to a dead ice world it brings back haunting memories of last February makes the game even scarier.

So that’s my Christmas gaming memories, folks. What about it, any of you have gaming-related holiday stories to share?   read

2:42 PM on 10.07.2009

The 10 Halloween Tracks That Need To Be In Rock Band

Last year, Harmonix released three Christmas tracks for Rock Band download. While the tracks themselves (Barenaked Ladies’ “Hanukkah Blessings”, The Pretenders’ version of “Blue Christmas”, and Billy Squire’s “Christmas Is the Time to Say I Love You”) were not necessarily the classics I would have wanted, it did introduce an intriguing idea: seasonal track packs.

Now, while I eventually plan to tackle Christmas, for the moment I’d like to look at some music for a holiday that’s a lot closer: Halloween.

Believe it or not, I’ve been working on this blog idea for a while – long before Guitar Hero announced that they were doing basically exactly what I had in mind. While their choices (GWAR’s “Gor-Gor”, “Beautiful People” by Marilyn Manson, and The Misfits’ “Astro Zombies”) are actually pretty good, I think Harmonix could do even better.

“Ghoul’s Night Out”, Goldfinger


The pop-punkers covered The Misfits’ “Ghoul’s Night Out” for the ‘Violent World’ tribute album and produced a track that’s much more suited to Rock Band than the original. Like most of the Misfits’ earlier recordings, in their cut the sound quality isn’t very good and the performances are a little sloppy. The Goldfinger track kicks off with a hard, crisp drum beat that jumps into their fast-driving, bouncy version. It’s even got a fun moment where the instruments cut out and everybody gets to jump in and shout “Ghouls, ghouls, ghoul’s night out!” It’s perfect Halloween party fodder – upbeat but with a creepy subject matter.

“Pet Sematary”, The Ramones


Steven King, a big Ramones fan, approached the band about contributing a title track for the film based on his novel; the result is one of the Ramones’ most melodic singles. “Pet Semetary” has everything you need for a great Rock Band track: a driving guitar riff, relentless drums, and droning, memorable vocals. The Groovin’ Ghoulies’ cover would be a good alternative – it’s slightly faster and has a more prominent solo.

”Halloween”, Dream Syndicate


The first of four (!) tracks on this list titled simply “Halloween”, Dream Syndicate’s mellow, otherworldly sound hides a deceptively tricky, technical guitar solo that lasts more than two minutes. Solid drums and bass back up the catchy lyrics, which on closer inspection appear to be about a stalker closing in on his prey with nefarious intent.

“Paint It Black”, Gob

(Try to ignore the fact that they look like goofy frat house rejects.)

Little-known punk outfit Gob did this cover for 1999’s Stir of Echoes soundtrack, and it’s got a crisp, varied guitar line and fast drums with a great military-snare break. The vocals are pretty good, though they don’t live up to Mick Jagger’s performance. Of course, the Rolling Stones’ original is even greater, but I think this version is more Halloweeny. Could just be me. Either one would be awesome.

“Halloween”, AFI


Yup, another Misfits cover. Once again, the Misfits wrote a great Halloween song, only to have somebody else record a superior (for purposes of Rock Band, anyway) version. AFI’s cover is tighter, faster, and more intricate than the original, and the sing-along finale will have everyone in the room screaming “Hallowee~ee~ee~een”. Of course it goes without saying that they’d have to edit out the two minutes of discordant piano at the end.

“Dead Man’s Party”, Oingo Boingo


Before Danny Elfman was the king of creepy/catchy movie soundtracks, he (and his band Oingo Boingo) was king of creepy/catchy new wave rock. This one’s been a Halloween party classic since the 80s, and it’s easy enough to sing along to, even for inebriated partiers. The song’s got a great deep bass line, which plays off the little riffs the guitarist drops after every sung line. This one’s pop appeal guarantees it to energize any Rock Band session.

“Halloween”, Dead Kennedys


A fast, thrashy track from the punk pioneers. As with DK’s other Rock Band tracks, the song requires a lot of energy no matter which part you’re tackling. Sure, the lyrics are more about mocking uptight American culture than Halloween itself, but it ends with the phrase “Why don’t you take your social regulations, shove ‘em up your ass”, so it’s okay in my book.

“Die, Monster, Die”, The Misfits

(The only video I could find has multiple songs in a row – “Die Monster Die” runs from 5:26 until the end)

Finally, a track from the horror-punk legends themselves. Sure, it’s the band’s latter-day incarnation, but that chunky guitar riff would just be too much fun to play in Rock Band.
Stick somebody on vocals who’s drunk enough to croon like an undead ‘50s idol and you’re good to go.

“Superbeast”, Rob Zombie

(No, I have no idea why the song is playing over an ATV jumping a ravine. Just go with it.)

There’s always been a criminal lack of Rob Zombie in Rock Band, and Halloween’s the perfect time to remedy that. Back when Mr. Zombie wore creepy makeup onstage, most of his lyrics were inspired by classic horror movies – you could grab any random track off his ‘Hellbilly Deluxe’ album and it’d be perfect Halloween music. But “Superbeast” is my pick: every instrument’s got fun stuff to do, and the singer’s got to switch back and forth between violent growling and throat-shredding screams.

“Halloween”, Siouxie Sioux and the Banshees

(The only video on YouTube that had the original studio version in it is this one, which is the last 10 minutes of the movie “Monster House” – the song plays over the credits. Song starts at about 6:23, tons of “Monster House” spoilers before that.)

My personal favorite from this list. Siouxsie and the Banshees helped define the punk and goth scenes in the late 70s and early 80s; “Halloween” comes from their 1981 album ‘Juju’. I don’t know where to start on this one – it’s got a stabbing guitar part that plays up and down the neck, fast pounding drums, and of course Siouxsie’s haunting vocals. It’s my favorite Halloween song ever, and every time I hear it I curse the fact that I don’t have a plastic guitar in my hands.

So the ball’s in your court now, Harmonix. Don’t let Activision steal the holiday-specific track pack crown. Put some of these songs in Rock Band, so that I can make my Halloween party that much more rockin’.   read

1:39 PM on 09.11.2009

Some Thoughts on the Emotion of Beatles Rock Band, and Why Joystiq’s Justin McElroy is Dead Wrong

A few months back, various previews and interviews put out the claim that Beatles Rock Band was an emotional experience for its players – even to the point of inducing tears.

“Hmm, that’s interesting,” said I at the time. “We’ll see.”

Last night, the wife and I wrapped up Story Mode, and while I wasn’t brought to tears, it came closer than I’d like to admit. As indicated, the game packs a genuine emotional impact for those who are willing to find it. Even as I played, I tried to pin down the source. After all, this is Rock Band! CG guys dancing around on stage! Falling gem gameplay! What could be sob-inducing there?

It’s not the visuals. Don’t get me wrong, Harmonix did an amazing job at capturing but also the mood and imagery of their work. The little details, like the screaming girls in the stands at Shea Stadium or the confused accidental audience members on the streets below the rooftop concert, are spot on. As a big Yellow Submarine fan, I was ecstatic to see a guest appearance by Jeremy aka the Nowhere Man. And of course, the Beatles themselves, halfway between accurate depiction and caricature, are precisely replicated, no matter the era, outfit, or hairstyle. No doubt about it, the Harmonix Art team deserves massive credit for delivering one of the most visually stunning games of this generation.

Still, the visuals aren’t what brought the emotion. Obviously, it isn’t the gameplay either, or I’d be sobbing my eyes out every time I rocked alongside Timmy and the Lords of the Underworld. So what is it?

In hindsight, it’s obvious. It’s the only two things left, once you’ve removed graphics and gameplay from the mix: the music and the band itself.

Clearly, the music of the Beatles has elicited an emotional response in listeners since its original release. When put in this context, though, where you as a player are able to feel like an active participant in that music’s creation, the effect is significantly magnified. Songs like “Dear Prudence” and “Here Comes The Sun” are powerful if you catch them on the radio, but when you inhabit them the way Rock Band allows it’s hard not to be overcome.

But even more than that, for me at least, was having their story told in this way. Everyone’s heard about the band’s incredible rise to unimaginable success, and of course their subsequent collapse, but it’s never been presented in a way that really made me feel it – until now, that is.

In the game’s first few chapters, there’s nothing but unbridled vigor and enthusiasm. The fans are screaming, the Beatles are smiling, and the songs (more often than not) are on the topic of pure, innocent teenage romance. As time marches on, the songs become sadder, angrier, or psychedelic. Gone are the goofball grins, replaced with pensive expressions (and rampant facial hair).

You see these four boys, full of the silly eager energy of youth, disappear right before your eyes – replaced with a group of sometimes cynical, sometimes contemplative, but rarely joyous men. Of course it elicits an emotional response – because, well, that’s life, isn’t it?

By the time you get to the rooftop concert, you see them trying to return to their roots. Just the four of them, playing music together for people who enjoy it. But it’s still not the same – the crowd full of girls is now a group of anyone who happened to be walking down the street that day; instead of screaming, a subdued applause finishes each song. You hear John and Paul sing “Get back, get back to where you once belonged”, but it’s obvious there is no going back. Life has moved on.

Which brings me to Justin McElroy. In his review, Justin says “…the end of the foursome's career together doesn't make for a very good ending to a game.” While I’m not attacking him or his review, I disagree emphatically with that quote.

The end of a game doesn’t always have to be an epic fight, or an exciting climactic action sequence. It doesn’t even have to be the most challenging, gameplay-wise. As with books, movies, or any other form of art, sometimes ending on a subtle, melancholy note is the only way that makes sense.   read

4:11 PM on 09.08.2009

My Introduction to the World of Survival Horror, or Desperately Seeking RE2

(This may become apparent upon reading, but this post is my entry in Colette's Survival Horror contest. It's long and there aren't any pictures, so the TL;DR crowd might want to save themselves some time and get out now.)

I was thirteen in 1997. Up till then I'd been pretty much a chicken when it came to anything horror related - If somebody put on a scary movie I'd go hide in my bedroom and crank up the volume on Super Mario RPG or something. I'd even duck out on non-horror movies with scary scenes in them - if anybody put on Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, I knew to leave the room well before the Large Marge scene.

But by age thirteen I was starting to dip my toes in the world of horror. I'd soldiered through my first Steven King novel (The Shining, still one of his best) and managed to sit through Night of the Living Dead, Alien, and Evil Dead. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that, once I didn't totally wuss out, I actually enjoyed being scared vicariously – whether it was on celluloid or the written word, I became a horror junkie.

So naturally, as a gamer I began to look into the recently-created survival-horror genre. I'd heard tell of Resident Evil from my Uncle Brian, who told stories of watching a guy he worked with play it. Just hearing him tell about the dogs crashing through the window, or the cold reptilian breathing of a Hunter on the prowl, sent chills down my spine (Uncle Brian's a very good storyteller). I’d been fascinated by the battle scenes in Night of the Living Dead – desperate good guys with a quickly-dwindling supply of ammunition fighting off a seemingly endless stream of staggering living corpses – and this Resident Evil game seemed like the perfect way to experience that feeling for myself.

When I brought it up with my parents, my Mom strictly forbade me from buying or even playing such an awful game. Usually Mom and Dad were pretty lenient with letting us kids watch R-rated movies (after all, they’d let me watch Evil Dead, etc) but the fact that you controlled the character caught in that horrifying situation somehow made it much, much worse in her mind. She was convinced that if I played a violent horror game I’d either A) be traumatized beyond all belief, or B) be inspired to commit violent acts in real life.

At first I was pretty bummed. I thought about trying to sneak it home past them somehow, but they had a habit of popping in my room every so often to see what I was up to. Not that they didn’t trust me, they were actually genuinely interested in the video games that so captured my heart and mind. Besides, I was the kind of kid who pretty much followed what they said – if they told me not to play it, I thought I’d better not play it.

But that didn’t mean I couldn’t sneakily bend the rules a little bit. A few months later, my new issues of EGM and PSM started talking about Resident Evil 2 – bigger, better, and best of all, scarier. And while Resident Evil was off-limits, my parents had no idea a sequel was coming, and I wasn’t stupid enough to tell them about it. What they don’t know, I reasoned with a pre-teen’s logic, they can’t forbid me to play.

So the question became how to get my hands on it. As the youngest kid in a poor family I never had an allowance, and middle-schoolers in rural Kentucky don’t have a lot of options as far as raising some cash goes. Christmas was past and my birthday was still ages away, and either of those still would have forced me to admit the game’s existence to my folks. The game’s release date, January 21, 1998, came and went, and I was no closer to getting a copy than I’d been three months before.

Usually, if I wanted to play a new game I had to either rent it or borrow it. On the way to our local video rental place, I concocted an elaborate scheme that would, if executed properly, result in my walking out with a copy of Resident Evil 2, my parents none the wiser. The plan was far too complex and doubtlessly would have failed regardless, but it became a moot point when I saw that the mom-and-pop place we rented at didn’t even have a copy on the shelf. “Title” Wave (written just like that on the sign, quotes and everything) had a pretty respectable PlayStation selection, thanks to the idiosyncratic tastes of the proprietor’s son – it’s thanks to him I discovered games like Symphony of the Night, Tail of the Sun, and Revelations: Persona – but apparently his interests didn’t extend to zombie epics.

So I realized that if I was ever going to get to play the game, I was going to have to do it at a friend’s house. Only three of my buddies had PlayStations (almost everyone I knew had remained loyal to the house of Mario’s 64-bit wonder), and I approached them each in turn with a plan for a weekend-long sleepover, a 48-hour Resident Evil 2 marathon. I became more and more disheartened as each one shot me down.

One of them, like me, was frothing at the mouth to get his hands on it, but had a mother way more overbearing than my own; she’d no sooner let her son play such a game as she would streak her frequently-attended church. The next guy did invite me over, but insisted he had no interest in anything horror; his suggestion for activities (a Pauly Shore marathon) caused me to suddenly “remember” that I had a project due on Monday, so sorry, maybe next time. With more than a little desperation I laid out my plan for the third guy. I can only imagine how hard my face fell when I heard him say “Dude, I already played that game. It totally sucks.”

I was out of ideas. Like a beaten dog, I hung my head and resigned myself to a future completely devoid of apocalyptic undead survival scenarios.

More time passed, and life went on. May saw the end of my eighth grade school year, and a three-month vacation stretched out in front of me. Summer camp was out of the realm of financial possibility, so I passed the days like I had many summers before: alternately hanging out at home and going with my parents to work. Mom and Dad were both self-employed (Mom cleaned houses, Dad ran his own little construction company) so sometimes they’d take me and my sister with them rather than worrying about what kind of trouble we were getting into at home by ourselves.

I can’t remember where my sister was, only that she wasn’t there the day Mom took me with her to the Ford’s house. I liked their house the best of all the ones Mom worked at – their two sons were pretty cool, and when they weren’t home I was given free reign of their extensive video game collections. The younger son, Andrew, had an N64 in his upstairs bedroom, and I’d spent many hours there dogfighting with Star Wolf or guiding Dash Rendar through the battle of Hoth. That day, though, my immediate destination was the basement. This served as a bedroom to their older son Neil, but more importantly, housed his PlayStation. Neil was a hardcore gamer and could be counted on to own the newest games; it was inevitable, I feverishly tried to convince myself, that he had a copy of Resident Evil 2.

I took the rickety wooden steps two at a time as my heart thumped. The basement was pretty standard, cold concrete on all sides, but with some thrift store furniture and blankets hung for privacy nineteen-year-old Neil had made it into an awesome (well, to a thirteen-year-old, anyway) hang-out spot. I made a beeline for his shelf of games, scanning the titles for the one I so desperately wanted to see. I looked through them so quickly that when I’d reached the end without seeing it, I convinced myself I’d overlooked it in my haste. A second, more thorough search confirmed my fears: there wasn’t a copy of Resident Evil 2 in sight.

Intellectually, I understood that this wasn’t such a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but that didn’t change how disappointed I felt. I’d so completely convinced myself that he would have it that I hadn’t stopped to think how I’d react if he didn’t. Knowing me, I was probably blinking back tears as I went through his collection a third time, looking for something to play to take my mind off the crushing let-down. Eventually I pulled out his copy of FF7, took out disc 1, and walked over to put it in the system.

When I popped the disc tray open, Leon Kennedy stared back at me. I froze. I rubbed my eyes, sure they were playing tricks on me – but it was real. After what seemed like an eternity, I had six hours ahead of me with nothing to do but play Resident Evil 2.

I powered up the system (pausing only to very carefully replace the FF7 disc) and savored every second of the start-up screens. I stared in awe as the teaser cinematic quickly flashed shots of action and horror, ending on a huge reptilian eye staring back at me. When I pressed start at the main menu and heard a deep voice growl “Resident Evil…2”, I got chills. The opening cinematic drew me in with a level of visual realism I’d never seen before. I grew more and more excited as Leon met Claire, gasped in horror as I realized the trucker was going to turn undead, jumped and shouted when a zombie popped out of the backseat. Then the cinematic was over, and suddenly Leon was under my control.

The burning tanker loomed large in the background, and zombies converged from every direction. I sought to make a quick escape and pressed Down to run toward the camera, toward safety. Confusion set in as I saw Leon back up, closer to danger on all sides. He exclaimed in pain as he stepped into the flames, and I became panicked as the undead grabbed him and pulled him down. Frantic button-mashing did nothing to stop the horror, and before I knew it, blood spatters on the screen told me in no uncertain terms: You Died.

A quick search uncovered the game’s case under a shirt on the table, and I scoured the instruction manual for some kind of answer to the game’s seemingly backwards controls. Once I’d read enough to understand the game’s infamous tank-style control system, I restarted, somewhat embarrassed by my incredibly poor initial performance.

The next six hours passed in a terrifying, yet indescribably joyful blur. All I really remember from that first extended playthrough are little moments, scenes that imprinted themselves instantly into my memory. The gun shop owner, eaten as I stood watching. Three zombies falling as I unloaded the sawed-off pump action I took off the poor man’s corpse. The haunting silence that covered the empty Police Station lobby like a blanket. The doomed cop, handing off a keycard at gunpoint. The quick snatches of movement outside a window that foreshadowed the pants-wetting reveal of the Licker, in all its skinless glory.

I don’t remember how far through the game I made it in that first day. I don’t remember dying at any point past that first shameful attempt (though that could be my memory playing tricks) but I didn’t beat the game, either. I do remember the sinking feeling I got when Mom shouted down the stairs that it was time to go home. I rode home in silence, replaying the day’s events in my head.

Over the course of that summer, I played through Leon’s quest, then Claire’s, in Neil’s dank basement bedroom. I struggled through difficult sections, like the pulse-pounding boss fight against the giant sewer alligator (having not seen Jaws, I didn’t guess the gimmick solution to that fight until my fifth try). I laughed out loud at the sheer awesomeness of Ben the reporter getting torn in half, length-wise. When Mr. X’s giant trench-coated frame crashed through a brick wall, I screamed so loud that my Mom came down to investigate, and I only just managed to shut the TV off and pick up a book before she saw what I was playing. By the time fall set in I had managed to see Leon, Claire, and Sherry to safety, after a dramatic train escape from the exploding laboratory under the Raccoon City Police precinct. I’d become a survival horror fanatic and a Resident Evil fan for life.

When I strode into school on the first day of my freshman year, I held my head high. After all, what scares could high school possibly hold once you’ve single-handedly survived the zombie apocalypse?   read

2:28 PM on 08.05.2009

In Defense of Short Games

It seems like there’s been a lot of gamer angst lately directed at games that are considered too short. “8-12 hours is just not long enough to justify the $60 price tag,” says the collective internet. “We want value for our money, and if we can beat a game in less than a week then it’s worthless.”

Some have defended (apologized for?) these length games, saying that a modern AAA-title requires more people working longer to produce the level of depth and quality that gamers demand, therefore the length of the game is going to suffer. Still, conventional wisdom seems to be that 60-hour epics are somehow “better” than a game that can be beaten in two or three gaming sessions.

I’ve got a confession to make: I love short games.

Not just tolerate them, or put up with them; I love them. Most modern AAA action/adventure/shooters that fall in that magic 8-12 hour range? That’s great. A game like Portal, one that I can actually beat in a single sitting? Even better.

So why? There are a couple of reasons.

1. Short games are easier to get your head around.

Maybe this is just me, but I like knowing pretty much all there is to know about a certain game. If me and my friends are having a conversation about Ghostbusters and I’ve put in the requisite 6 or so hours to finish the storyline, I’ve seen all the same stuff they did. We can talk about specific parts and compare experiences, because we’ve both been through the same places and events.

Now, put that up against something like Fallout 3. You could put hundreds of hours into this game and still have whole giant sections of the map you’ve never stepped foot in. Having a conversation about this kind of game often requires you to describe stuff the other guy hasn’t seen yet. While this is a different kind of fun, I enjoy being able to compare notes more directly.

And it’s not just when you’re talking games with your buds. Every time I sit down to watch a movie I don’t fire up Return of the King Extended Edition, even though it’s great. Why not? Because sometimes you don’t want to commit the time and mental energy to something that huge. It’s the same with a game like Fallout: these games take a huge mental commitment, and sometimes that’s not what I’m in the mood for.

2. I can run through them again and again.

I’m the kind of guy who likes to revisit works of entertainment that I enjoy over and over again. Just like some people have favorite books they’ve read a hundred times, or movies they’ve watched until they know every line, I’ve got games I play over and over, sometimes multiple times a year, through to completion.

A lot of long games take a while to get going though, and even after that it can take forever to get to the good parts. Am I gonna start a new game of FF7 from scratch every time I want to see the Midgar motorcycle escape cinematic? Of course not. (That’s why I still have a save file somewhere that puts you right there. But I digress.) If I get an itch to show GLaDOS exactly what I think of her test program, I can start fresh, get the full experience, and not blow more than a few hours doing it.

3. Quality over quantity.

I’d much rather spend 3 hours to finish a game like Wanted: Weapons of Fate, one that presents interesting and unique areas to explore and scenarios to take part in, than 50 or more hours of the same old thing, over and over.

Let’s not kid ourselves: most gigantic games are full of filler content and repetition, both in terms of visuals (the same corridor copy-and-pasted to make a level, or a “crowd of people” made up of the same three character models over and over) and goals and objectives (anybody who played Spiderman 2, how many times did you save that kid’s balloon?). All games only have so many fresh ideas, and I’d rather the game end when its designers have run out of ideas, rather than them recycle ad nauseum what they’ve already done.

Look at it this way: would Braid have been just as great if he’d used every puzzle idea, slightly changed, a couple more times? Conversely, take a bloated longer game – something that wasn’t bad, but just kind of started to lose steam when you realized you were doing the same thing over and over – like, say, Assassin’s Creed. Wouldn’t it be a tighter, better paced experience if it showed you all the cool stuff it had to offer, let you play around with its systems for a while, then ended? Don’t you think more people would have at least played it to the end, instead of abandoning it when they got bored, as so many did?

4. While price does matter, it shouldn’t affect review scores.

I can hear a lot of you saying right now, “It’s a money thing! Short games cost the same as long ones, but don’t give you the same amount of entertainment for the money.” Which is certainly true. I know as well as anybody that there’s nothing worse than dropping sixty hard-earned dollars on something you’re done with later on that afternoon.

But that doesn’t affect the quality of the game itself. If a DVD of The Dark Knight cost 50 bucks, would that mean that the movie wasn’t worth watching? Of course not. Fewer copies might be sold, but the quality of the movie itself is the same whether it costs nothing or a lot. The same is true of games.

Besides, everybody knows there are plenty of ways to get games without paying full, day-one price for them. You can rent it. You can borrow it from a buddy. You can wait a few months until it gets cheap. You can trade some stuff on Goozex for it. And while I certainly don’t condone or endorse it, there’s no denying that plenty of gamers are willing to pirate games. So the “getting your money’s worth” argument doesn’t really hold water.

The idea that price is somehow relevant to a game’s review score comes from the fact that when gaming was in its infancy games were viewed more like toys than anything else, and reviews were approached from a “Consumer Report” standpoint – is this product worth the money? Since then, it’s become apparent that games have more in common with books, movies, and music than they do with toys. Like reviews for these types of entertainment, game reviews should focus on the, for lack of a better term, artistic merits of the work – the visuals, music, story, gameplay, and how these factors combine to create something that’s entertaining and aesthetically pleasing. So while the length of a game should absolutely affect your decision to purchase a game, it in no way affects the game’s quality, and that’s what a review should be measuring.

5. When real life starts, games take the hit.

Now we’re getting to the biggest reason for me personally. I’m a gamer through and through, but sometimes real life gets in the way of playing as much as you’d like. Spouse. Job. Pets. Kids. Housework. Yard work. Social life. All of these things take huge chunks of your time and sometimes that doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for gaming.

On average, I’d say I have about an hour and a half, daily, that I can dedicate to gaming. For handheld stuff I can swing a little more (through cleverly using smoke, lunch, and bathroom breaks to put another few minutes into the game de jour), but usually I can guarantee no more than 15 hours playing games in any given week.

I’m a game collector and I’m constantly buying new stuff. With my gaming time so tightly allocated, though, I’m always being forced to choose which of a dozen or more games deserves my attention. Right now I’ve probably got at least 20 games on my shelf that haven’t even been put inside a console yet, and each and every one of them makes me feel guilty.

“Someday,” I think. “Someday, I’ll have more free time, and I’ll go back and finish Shadow of the Colossus.” Or Final Fantasy XII. Or Mass Effect. Or Persona 3. Even relatively short stuff like Fable II or Prince of Persia gets left behind after a couple of gaming sessions, because there’s always something new and interesting to get to.

But short games…short games I can feel satisfied about. I know that I’ve finished it, and when I see it sitting on my shelf it doesn’t feel like a missed opportunity.

Now, the obvious disclaimer: I’m not saying long games suck, or aren’t worthwhile, and I’m certainly not trying to impugn any of the longer games I’ve mentioned here – these and a dozen more epics are some of my favorite games of all time. It’s the very fact that they are so good that makes it so painful when I don’t have time to really play them as much as they deserve. I’m also not saying that all short games are perfect, or even good for that matter – there are plenty of games that aren’t worth spending even a few hours on.

So the next time you finish a game within hours of putting the disc in the tray, don’t rush off to the message boards to trash it. Instead remember that there’s room for both, the hundred-hour epics and the more compact experiences. Because, as Goldilocks taught us, sometime one person’s “not enough” is someone else’s “just right”.

PS. If you’d like to read more on the subject, take a look at Clive Thompson’s defense of The Maw’s 3-hour completion time, Dana Jongewaard’s opinion on the subject, or the always-entertaining TV Tropes’ entry on game length as it relates to quality.   read

2:37 PM on 07.28.2009

Top 9 Import-Worthy European DS Games

One of the many great things about the DS is that it’s inherently region-free; that is, can play games from any country, no modding required. There are some Japanese DS games that have practically become required playing for true fans of the system – Ouendan, Taiko DS, and Jump Ultimate Stars just to name a few.

Yet for all the attention that’s been paid to Japanese DS games, no one’s pointed out all the great games the system has in Europe that we haven’t seen here in America. Sometimes Europe gets great Japanese games localized that don’t come to the States for one reason or another, others are made in Europe for that market. So, here are my picks for the 9 best games worth dropping a few Euros on.

9. Giana Sisters DS

If you were a Commodore 64 aficionado in the late 80s you’re probably familiar with this obscure series. Personally, I’d never heard of it until I found the DS edition, so for the rest of us, these games are known for totally and utterly ripping off the Mario platforming games. Seriously, the original Giana Sisters is little more than a sprite-swap of the original Super Mario Bros, and the DS version has a very similar play style.

But since when is that play style a bad thing? Gamers praised New Super Mario Bros for bringing classic sidescroller gameplay to the DS, and this is the same sort of thing: very solid, old-school run and jump action. Sure, it doesn’t have the fancy 2.5D visuals of NSMB, but it’s got a lot of parallax scrolling, which is nice in a different way (even if the titular characters are, in a word, butt-ugly). It’s simplistic enough that it’s not worth paying a whole lot for, but it is worth playing.

8. B-Team: Metal Cartoon Squad

Sometimes, all you want from a video game is the ability to guide a small band of mercenaries around an enemy encampment, using heavy weaponry to demolish everything in your path. It’s for times like these that games like B-Team were created.

It’s an old-school top-down shooter, with shooting and moving controlled separately. Think Smash TV, or more recently Geometry Wars – except add in a Team America-style parody of over-the-top military action. Your team comes into each level with all barrels blazing, and while the gameplay plays out on the bottom screen, the top screen is dedicated to massive close-ups of your characters’ intense expressions and ammo-guzzling automatic weapons. Add in an extremely destructable environment – you can explode buildings, supplies, even wildlife with sustained fire – and you’ve got a game that might not be original, but sure lets you relieve some stress.

7. Doodle Hex

There was some talk a while back about this game coming to the US, but so far no dice. It’s a shame, too: Doodle Hex isn’t mind-blowing, but it’s a fun different take on the traditional fighting game.

Doodle Hex puts you in control of a wizard, going up against other wizards in one-on-one duels. Spell casting is done by drawing runes on the touchscreen, but there’s more strategy to it than just sending out the most powerful damage spell over and over. You’ve got to worry about stuff like defense, healing, mana recharge rates, elemental statuses, and so on. It’s got a cute art style that looks a little too Saturday morning, but the touchscreen gameplay is unique and fun, and you can play two players for head-to-head duels.

6. 100 Classic Book Collection

I know, I know. “Oh, wow, a virtual public-domain library! How exciting! Let me fire the DS right up for that one!” So yeah, okay, it’s not going to be the flashiest, most impressive import in your collection.

What it is going to do is keep you from ever being bored again. Let’s face it: these books are classic for a reason. While there are certainly some stinkers on the cart (and enough Shakespeare to make you feel like you’re back in Sophmore English), there are also some truly badass books: Treasure Island, Call of the Wild, Last of the Mohicans, a couple of Sherlock Holmes collections, Turn of the Screw, and Lewis Caroll’s Alice books, just to name a few.

It’s also got that trademark Nintendo level of polish, with enough great features (bookmarks, a wide selection of background music and noises to simulate reading on the beach, in a café, on a train, and so on, even a quiz that picks what book you should read based on your mood and interests) to make you never want to go back to actual novels. Bonus: If you’re in high school or college and you show this to your teacher, they very well might let you play DS in class! (Disclaimer: don’t blame me if this doesn’t work.)

5. Guru Guru

Remember when I said sometimes Europe gets obscure Japanese games we never see here in the US? Consider Guru Guru Exhibit A. Based on a comedy anime series that is known for parodying RPG clichés, you might think Guru Guru is an RPG of some kind.

But while stats like strength, speed, and so on do come into play, the game itself is more like a cross between golf, bowling, and shot-put, if both the player and the ball (it’s a little round rabbit-like creature) had magical powers. By throwing or rolling you’ve got to get your chubby rabbit to the end of the course. The game plays entirely with the touchscreen, and there are lots of courses to challenge in the game’s story mode.

This one’s pretty hard to find even in Europe, with only a few European sites selling it or even giving information on it, so it’s only for the dedicated Japanese weirdness fans. Of course, you could always settle for the easier-to-find Japanese version, but the language barrier is tough to surpass (not to mention, that would destroy the point of this article).

4. Chronos Twin: One Hero, Two Worlds

Did anybody play Little Red Riding Hood’s Zombie BBQ when it released last fall? If not, shame on you; it was awesome and you’re the reason it flopped commercially. Anyway, before developers brought us that helping of awesome, they made another one just for Europe, called Chronos Twin.

The basic gameplay is classic 2D sidescrolling action, similar to the Mega Man games (visually the game has a lot in common with the GBA Mega Man Zero series). The gimmick, though, is that you control the same character in two separate time periods, one shown on each screen. Different obstacles in each time require you to be keeping a constant eye on each screen, often having to solve a puzzle on one screen to clear the path on the other. Yeah, the story’s pretty much worthless, but the mind-bending simultaneous action is pretty fun and different.

3. Spectral Force Genesis

The Spectral Force series hasn’t seen a lot of love in the US, but it’s a well-known series in Japan. Genesis is the latest installment, which saw a European release this past spring. Set in the fantasy world of Neverland (no relation to Peter Pan’s home), Genesis puts you in control of a nation, then lets you interact with the rest of the world as you see fit: alliances, trade agreements, and all-out war are just some of your options.

Combat’s handled in an interesting way: your troops rush the battlefield on the top screen, while you direct the combat on the touchscreen like a football commentator, drawing paths and selecting targets for your various armies. There are lots of troop types available, each with special moves and attacks, and if you use them cleverly you can conquer the world.

True, Ignition Entertainment is bringing this one out in the US sometime in the second half of 2009, but for those who don’t mind importing the European version it’s available in English today.

2. Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Sacrifice

Okay, this one’s a qualified recommendation. Sure, this Europe-only action game based on Joss Whedon’s classic series isn’t really that great. Truth be told, it plays a lot like what you’d expect if you gave the characters from the PS1-era Resident Evil games karate powers.

But it’s Buffy, damnit. The story’s written with a fair amount of wit, and though it doesn’t mesh with the canon “Season 8” comic series, it tells a decent story set after the end of the show. The gameplay’s decently fun if you don’t mind some backtrack-heavy puzzles, and the combat’s exciting in a button-mashy kind of way. Buffy fans, it’s worth a look. Everybody else, move on to number 1.

1. Freshly-Picked Tingle’s Rosy Rupeeland

More than likely you’ve heard of this one, which stars bizarre man-elf Tingle (from the Legend of Zelda series) in some kind of weird action-RPG. Maybe you’ve thought about tracking down a copy, but you haven’t because you’re not that big a Tingle fan, or it just looks too strange.

Well, I’ve never been a big Zelda fan (Link’s Awakening is the only one I’ve ever even finished) and I loved this game. And yes, while it is very strange, it’s also one of the most unique and fun action-RPGs you’re going to find on the DS, or any other system for that matter.

Don’t worry about the story, which is nonsense. The game is brilliant for the way it takes every RPG stat (strength, health, money, experience) and merging it into one number to keep track of: Rupees. Tingle is obsessed with the valuable gems, so much so that they’re used for literally everything in the game. Take damage in combat? Lose some Rupees. Need to buy something from the shop? Spend your Rupees. Need to befriend someone before they’ll give you the info you need to continue your quest? Grease their palms with some Rupees.

There’s tons of stuff to do in the game (fight monsters, solve quests, explore dungeons, cook new items, map uncharted territory) so you’ll never be bored. Combine that with the extremely innovative gameplay and some great 2D sprite-based artwork, and you have the must-play European DS game.

Hopefully you’ve seen something here that caught your attention. US gamers, when you think you’ve played all the great stuff Nintendo’s little two-screened handheld has to offer, don’t forget about all the great games you can find just across the Atlantic.   read

3:22 AM on 07.22.2009

Screw the Desert Island: My Post-Apocalyptic Vault Picks

Everybody always talks about their “desert island” picks – you know, the whatever-certain-number of entertainment products you could take with you if you were gonna be stranded on a desert island. The implication, of course, being that these would be the only entertainment you’d have access to ever again, so you better pick something you really like.

This scenario doesn’t really hold water when you stop and think about it, especially when it comes to video games. Ignoring, for the moment, the fact that you’d have no idea you were about to be indefinitely marooned (and therefore have no reason to pack your ultimate entertainment package), there’s the little matter of electricity to consider. What, are you gonna be powering your games with coconut juice?

So, as an alternative, slightly more realistic set-up for what is really just a way to force people to pick an arbitrary number of their favorite things, I’m going with the post-apocalyptic underground vault instead. This handily solves both logistical problems (if you’re planning well enough to have an underground vault you obviously have advanced warning, and you’d better have electricity unless you plan on devolving into a bat-like creature) and is video-game-appropriate, as the Fallout series has kept bomb shelters pop-culturally relevant.

Still, this isn’t any fun without any pointless rules and stipulations, so here goes:

1. Only one (1) console allowed. You can bring all necessary cords, controllers, etc, but no more than one system. This includes handhelds.
2. Only five (5) physical games are allowed. You can count multiple discs as one, but only if they originally came in one case, sold as one product.
3. As a concession to the modern age of digital distribution, you can pick one downloadable game as a bonus freebie, on the assumption that it was already on the hard drive when Skynet fought back.

With the ground rules established, it becomes a question of what do we pick, and why. Obviously we want games with plenty of replay value, as these are going to keep us entertained for the rest of our lives. You’d also want your picks to be diverse, genre-wise, so you’d be covered no matter what type of gameplay you were wanting.

So, without further ado, here are my Post-Apocalyptic Vault video game picks.

60 Gb PlayStation 3

In real life I’m not a PS3 owner, but for purposes of this question, it’s the only system that lets me take both current-gen titles and my much-beloved PS2 games. Plus, there’s bound to be a lot of dust and grit in a bomb shelter, so the incredible durability of Blu-Ray discs will definitely come in handy.

1. Fallout 3
This might seem like a cheap choice given the vault thing, but taking Fallout 3 would actually make sense for a couple of reasons. First, the amount of time you can put into this game is truly ridiculous (especially if you grant that the nuclear war won’t come between now and October, and let this be the GOTY edition with all DLC included), so it’s definitely going to keep you busy for a while.

Second, the gruesome slow-mo kills of the VATS system would give me a safe way to get out all the anger and frustration that’s bound to arise from being stuck in a concrete basement from now till Judgement Day.

Third, and most importantly, everyone knows that Fallout 3 is an intricately researched, infallibly accurate, almost documentary-esque depiction of exactly what would happen in the aftermath of a nuclear exchange. Having the game in the vault with me would give me the ultimate “cheat sheet” to living in the irradiated wastes, so I could practice and plan to my heart’s content before venturing out into the danger first-hand.

2. The Orange Box
Orange Box gets picked just on sheer diversity alone. For starters, you’ve got Portal, one of the cleverest, most-replayable games of all time. The fact that most of the game’s puzzles have multiple solutions will keep it from getting as old, and worse comes to worst we could just play around with the mind-bending portal physics. Plus, you can’t over-estimate the humor value, as I bet laughs will be few and far between down there.

Half-Life 2 and its Episodes deliver some of the best story-based shooter action ever, so it’s hard to discount them. They also change up the gameplay style so often that I can count it as covering multiple genres at once: survival horror (Ravenholm), squad tactics (Follow Freeman), and physics-based sandbox fun (pretty much the whole thing, but especially once your Gravity Gun can pick up people).

Team Fortress 2 is kind of dead weight in a scenario that precludes an internet connection, but the value the other four games on the disc bring to the table cements a place for Orange Box in my picks.

3. Rock Band 2
Life’s gonna be hard after the bombs fall. Stuck down in our concrete home, I’m sure there’ll be times when it all feels futile, like life’s just too depressing to go on. At times like these, there’s nothing like cranking Motley Crue’s “Kickstart My Heart” up to maximum volume and nailing the solo on Expert.

It’s a social game that’ll keep my neighbors happy too (remember, I said you could bring all the controllers you needed – even if they’re drum kit-shaped), and more importantly, it’ll remind us of the power of music when life seems as bleak as possible. And perhaps most importantly, far in the future, when mankind’s very continuation seems in question, this might be the only way to preserve The Presidents’ “Lump” for future generations, and if that’s not a goal worth fighting for then I don’t know what is.

4. We <3 Katamari
This was a tough choice: the original Katamari Damacy, or the sequel, We <3 Katamari? Both would deliver a lifetime supply of bright, colorful, Japanese-style wackiness, which you’d definitely want as the days, months, and years started to blur together into a slate-grey waking nightmare.

While the first one was more unique and definitely wins in the soundtrack department (which almost clinched it), in the end I went with the sequel, for its much more diverse levels and objectives. Plus, the game’s snowy stage will be crucial for teaching our children the difference between regular winter and nuclear winter.

5. Persona 4
So far my genre diversity is pretty good, at least as far as my personal favorite genres are concerned. I’ve got FPS, horror, puzzle, rhythm, Japanese insanity, and morally-ambiguous Western-style RPGs all covered. The only real gaping hole there is the good old fashioned JRPG, and I can’t think of one I’d rather play forever than Persona 4.

It’s a great game on so many levels (combat, story, music), but the biggest factor that made me pick it is the huge amount of freedom the game allows in terms of developing your character’s personality and relationships. I could easily play through the game a dozen times or more, with different choices and different outcomes each time. Bonus: the game would remind me what it was like to meet new people and slowly develop a close bond with them, instead of having to deal with the same handful of people I’ve lived with since the vault sealed.

Bonus: Final Fantasy VII
If there’s one thing I anticipate being in short supply in the vault, it’s comfort. All these games will fight off the melancholy that’s bound to arise sooner or later, but sometimes you want to play a game that feels like wrapping up in a thick warm blanket. A game that’s so buried in the nostalgia centers of your brain that just seeing the opening cinematic is like getting a hug from your mom. That game is, of course, FFVII.

Never mind the fact that it’s been beaten to death by the industry, both by Square themselves (with the disastrously-received “Anthology of FFVII”) and by the legion of fans, journalists, and industry insiders who have discussed it ad naseum over dozen years since it first released.

Despite all this, it still gives me the deep-down tinglies to boot up and run through the adventures of Cloud and Co. Any game that can give me that feeling in the face of the apocalypse is worth having on the hard drive.

So there it is, the game collection I’d be grabbing for when I heard the air-raid sirens start going off (Ooh, air raid sirens! I forgot Silent Hill! Oh well, too late now). Now I put the challenge to you, good Destructoidians: what games would you want to play for the rest of your lives?   read

1:45 PM on 06.09.2009

My Introduction, or: Who Is This Guy, And What's He Doing On My Destructoid?

What’s going on, everybody! I’m Dylan, aka DeathoftheDead, and I’m a new…

Destructoidite? Destructoider?

I’m new to the site, and thought it was about time I introduced myself to all the lovely people at what’s undoubtedly the greatest gaming community on these fine Internets. I’ve been lurking for a while and starting to feel like I know you guys, so I thought it was only fair to give you all some info on me.

Who are you? What’s your deal?

Like I said, my name’s Dylan. I’ve been on this planet for one and a quarter score (which is 25 years, if that sixth-grade Abe Lincoln report taught me anything) and I live in Central Kentucky. I’ve been gaming since I was six, when my Grandma went against my parent’s wishes and bought me an NES for Christmas. I haven’t been able to get games out of my head since. I’ve been writing about games for almost four years now, and desperately hope to get paid for it someday.

Here's me. I look angry, but really I'm sleepy. Trivia: that shirt has fit me since 1996, suggesting that I stopped growing when I was twelve!

What kind of games do you like?

My gaming preferences run toward RPGs and action/adventure, but I really just like great stories and those are usually the best places to find them. I have a taste for the bizarre and the obscure, and any game of a particularly Japanese nature will more than likely capture my attention. I tend to get addicted to immersive single-player experiences more easily than anything with a focus on multiplayer. If you need anything more specific, might I direct you to my Profile sidebar, where I’ve listed some of my all-time favorites.

Yes, I was once nerdy enough to assemble a Cloud costume. In my defense, it was Halloween. Aeris is my wife Anna.

What the hell does your screen-name mean?

Death of the Dead was to be the title of an abandoned horror film my friends and I tried to make in high school. When the project disintegrated I adapted the title as my internet handle and have been using it since. The phrase originated from Mr. Bruce Campbell’s autobiography, If Chins Could Kill. It was one of the titles considered for the film that would eventually be known as Evil Dead.

Share a humiliating memory with us, so we may mock you more efficiently.

Okay, can do. Um, humiliating memory…well, I was saddled with the nickname “Dyldo” for much of middle and high school, does that count?

Good enough. What are you going to on Destructoid?

Well, I’ve got a few ideas for some articles I want to write, and I’ll always speak my mind about whatever the gaming topic at hand is. And I promise to always try my best to not suck.

Also, cocks.

Thank you and good night!   read

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