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7:25 PM on 09.25.2009

The Forgotten: Pokemon Trading Card Game

Being a child of the Pokemon generation, I of course collected Pokemon cards. Being one of the geekier of my circle of friends, I actually liked playing the Pokemon Trading Card game. While everyone else was busy in trading circles on the playground (massive numbers of kids huddled in groups, completely ignoring the basketball courts and jungle gyms immediately come to mind), I was busy formulating strategies with any newly acquired cards. I had decks upon decks of specific types, readily equipped to handle any situation that should come my way. I was well on my way to becoming a Pokemon Master. Unfortunately, the other kids on the playground were too caught up in the actual process of collecting, and never bothered to actually see what those cards were for. I was a lonely Pokemon Master. Enter Pokemon Trading Card Game for Gameboy.

Having this game presented to me on a cool Christmas morning in the year 2000 (no doubt a product of my parent's worry that all my TCG skillz would go to waste), I was ecstatic. I played the game (based on a card game which is based on a game) all morning. I chose a starter deck, and began to build my collection.

Basically, this game was Pokemon, except in trading card game form. You battled 8 gyms with specific Pokemon types (along with their specific weaknesses) and collected cards along the way. There were options to trade with your friends (which, obviously, I had none) and options to trade with in-game NPCs. I amassed a collection on Gameboy that was larger than my collection in real life, until those pesky expansion sets came out to ruin my strategies and allowance.

I learned more tricks of the trade, and built invincible decks on the game that, with the help of my trust Gameboy printer, transferred into my real life decks. Eventually I became champion of my local Toys R Us league, (I like to think) but that's a story for another blog entry.

One of the coolest things about having this game and a Gameboy Color was Card Pop. If you had friends, you could align the infrared port and receive a single, random card would appear. The only caveat was that you had to have A LOT of friends because you could only do it with an individual once. I never got some of the more rare cards, because they were only available in this fashion.

The Pokemon Trading Card Game was a huge success worldwide, while the TCG game didn't even sell enough to warrant a sequel. A Pokemon game didn't warrant a sequel, at least not in the US. I pray that this blog post incites a revival of the TCG so that others can learn the tricks of the trade and become Pokemon Masters themselves.   read

1:47 AM on 08.20.2009

Stuck in the Past: The PS3 and its Lack of Time Machine.

So the PS3 Slim was just recently announced with much fanfare. Two of the main reasons someone wouldn’t want to buy a PS3 have been remedied. Number one, the cost of the machine has gone down. This is important because the PS3 is only now reaching the price point that Microsoft and Nintendo have sat at for three or four years. Secondly, it’s slimmer. It’s not much smaller, but it is welcome, for sure.

Now let me tell you the reason I still won’t be buying a PS3: Backward compatibility. I’ve seen blog postings about how “who plays old games anymore?” and things like that. I play old games. They’re often better than the new ones. I know there’s a few great PS3 exclusives, and I’d love to take advantage of that. Those who bought launch 20GB and 60GB consoles were treated to full backwards compatibility, and the later 40GB model was also compatible, at least partially. So it was there, and Sony decided to take it out.

Comparing the big three consoles (as fanboys often do) shows us that the Wii has full GameCube compatibility. This is mainly because it’s just a higher clocked version, but the point still stands. It’s there. The Xbox 360 has a level of BC, and Microsoft hasn’t taken it out to reduce costs.

Let’s be frank here, the PS3 is arguably the most powerful console of this generation. The PS2 is the least powerful console of the previous generation, Dreamcast excluded. How is it that a less powerful system (Xbox 360) can emulate the most powerful system of the previous generation, but the latest version of the most powerful console can’t emulate in software its older brother’s vastly inferior hardware? Something here doesn’t fit.

The argument of “who plays old games anymore?” doesn’t fly. Obviously the people who are complaining about it do. There’s a gigantic library of PS2 games, both old and new, that newcomers to Sony’s brand would love to play. The Persona series is a great example of games that were produced in the PS3’s lifespan that many PS3 players won’t be able to play, because they bought new hardware instead of old hardware. They shouldn’t be punished like that, mostly because the Persona series rocks and nobody should be unable to play it.

Playing games on PS2 vs. the PS3 has certain disadvantages: Lower resolution and wired controllers. The maximum resolution offered on the PS2 was 480p. Not even all games supported it. On the PS3, games can be upscaled to 720p or 1080p. This doesn’t make the textures or anything look better, but definitely gets rid of a lot of the jaggies that a PS2 game being played on an HDTV is often plagued by.

The bottom line is, the PS3 used to have BC. The Wii and Xbox 360 have it, and in order to be competitive, Sony needs to step up on that level. We know the system is powerful enough to do it, so they need to do it. Right now, BC is the main reason I’m not getting a slim PS3. Now, when the choice between buying the new hardware comes down to whether or not it can play the old hardware’s games, what does that say about Sony’s current software lineup? It’s not substantially different enough from the backward compatible Xbox 360. Microsoft has this checkmark checked, and Sony doesn’t. Guess who gets my cash?   read

4:12 AM on 07.30.2009

Persona Run Number Seven: Fabulous Vacations, and Plot Revelations.

When we last left our hero, Steve Tomson, we had three days left until the full moon. As we all know by now, full moon means shit's getting real. This month, we went to a Japanese Love Hotel in order to cleanse it of the large shadow inhabiting it (though I'm sure it could use cleansing of another kind, as well). Some stuff happened, and soon people's minds were being manipulated into doing things they wouldn't normally do. Like, for instance, Yukari taking a shower. Our protagonist was totally about to get in there with her too, until the spell was broken.

Academically, we excelled (of course, we gotta boost that popularity up) and got all of the answers right in class, further boosting our grades. This week was finals week, which meant that we had to study pretty hard, since Steve wants to get in Mitsuru's pants by the end of this. We Googled our way through the finals questions, but I don't recall if we ever actually checked what the grades were. Regardless, I'm sure they were awesome.

Next in line came some pretty startling plot revelations: Apparently, Gekkoukan High School was the scene of an accident ten years prior, in which all involved were promptly dispatched by the explosion. This explosion was the result of an evil corporation (of course, this is a JRPG that isn't complete without an evil corporation) doing experiements on Shadows. It also just so happens that almost everyone in our party has family that was involved in the accident. Hmm, this is very interesting. Yukari throws a bitch fit because Mitsuru knew all along and kept it from us, but Fuuka didn't seem to mind. As usual, Steve was ambivalent, and Junpei just didn't seem to care.

Speaking of Junpei, he was a real dick this time around. After defeating the big Shadow at the Love Hotel, he decided he was suddenly going to get jealous. He was being very short with us, and that was lame. He later apologized, and since Steve is such a cool guy, he totally forgave Junpei for being a douchebag.

Since finals were over, it's now summer vacation time! Since Mitsuru's family is super rich, she just so happens to have a house on the beach that she brings her friends to. Junpei was very excited (as he should be, the beach is home to many hot babes.) and couldn't wait to go. Steve played along as usual, putting up with Stupei's usual crap.

Eventually, we got to a point where Akihiko and Junpei wanted to go "babe hunting." With a battlecry of "Look at those babes! Let's hit on them!" Junpei led the pack, getting shot down by a total of three women in the first round. Spearheading a sarge towards another group (I believe it was a lovely two-set), Akihiko was also shot down. Before Junpei could pull his ADD out and suggest another activity, we saw her.

A beautiful girl, sitting on the dock. Quiet, but nice, Akihiko and Junpei both approached her and were shot down with a "You aren't the person I'm looking for." Ouch. That's the way to the friendzone. Of course, when approached by Steve, our fair maiden instantly took a liking to him. A very robotic liking. It's later revealed that she is, in fact, a robot, and belongs to the leader of our shadow fighting group.

We ended back in the dorms after a nice week long vacation. It was hinted that there could be a possibility to build a social bond with this robot girl, but she'd need to learn more about being human. At this point, we saved and quit. Most of today's run was plot exposition about the accident causing the release of shadows and being the root of the Dark Hour as well. Twelve big Shadows were released (one for every full moon in a year) and I'm assuming our story will end when all twelve are defeated. So far, we've defeated three, leaving nine big shadows left.

I'm sorry for the poor writing of this blog post, it's late at night and I seem to have misplaced my notes as to what went on today, so this is all the best I can remember. Stay tuned to this spot and Teknodwarf's blog, because tomorrow we'll be embarking on yet another foray into Tartarus, and perhaps we'll find out even more about this mysterious accident at Gekkoukan High.   read

7:23 PM on 07.13.2009

Persona 3 FES run: Day four. Or Five. Or something.

In another of what seems to be an unending supply of updates regarding our progress through Persona 3 FES, we’ll take a thrilling look at the character Steve Tomson and his tag-alongs in Tartarus. We played for a good five hours this time, accomplishing much in that timespan. Aided by Diet Coke and a sweet fan to cool down the sweltering heat in my upstairs game room.

This time we see the stunning conclusion to our current BFFL Kenji’s story of love and forbiddances. While at the mall, we noticed that Kenji’s lover, Emiri, was standing at the stairs with another guy. We overheard her conversation with him about leaving the school and running off to marry him. A brokenhearted Kenji was consoled by Steve Tomson, and our social link for the Magician Arcana was complete, though with an unhappy ending for our friend Kenji.

With that social link complete, we began on a quest to become Best Friends Forever ™ with the manager of the swim team, Yuko. At first she seemed a little reluctant to engage in any sort of flirtatious activity, but after some careful poking and prodding (and possibly a little stalking) she gave in to our “would you please walk home with me and stop and get something to eat” request. Also, we hung out with the swim team captain, so we’re quickly on the road to becoming best friends with that guy too. All in all, a pretty successful run as far as friendships go.

Earlier in the game there was mention of a character named Fuuka. She came back into play this time, as someone who’s been captured. Well, we managed to save her (she was trapped inside Tartarus due to a prank played on her. Not very nice.) and she joined our team, taking the place of Mitsuru as the spotter. This gave us with five characters, and only four slots to place them in. Junpei fans will be angered to hear that we did in fact replace him with the newly combat ready Mitsuru. Sorry, dude. Yukari was making fun of him anyway, calling him “Stupei, Ace Defective” when he insisted he be called “Junpei, Ace Detective.”

As far as stats go, we boosted our charm level to “Confident,” and our academics to “Above Average,” assuring our place as the coolest kid in school. After seeing a few Steven Segal and Jean Claude-Van Damme movies, we managed to get courage to a level defined as “Ordinary.” Not too bad, and we’re definitely on the road to improving all three of those.

We gained many levels and fused many Personas in this time. The Jack Brothers spell proved devastatingly effective when used on man enemies at once, since it knocks them all down and leaves them vulnerable to an all-out attack.

Our epic play session came to a close as once again, real life came into play. We’ll be back shortly though, after these messages.   read

9:33 PM on 06.16.2009

Persona 3 FES Playthrough with Teknodwarf and SneakerElph, Part two!

Click Here for part one!

Continuing our Persona trek from Teknodwarf, it’s my turn to take control of the controller and keyboard.
We picked up right where we left off (funny how that happens after using a save point) and headed back into the real world, where, just like real Japanese high schoolers, we had to go to high school. It’s weird how this game can make going to school enjoyable. It was here we would begin to forge our friendship with Kenji, the teacher loving ramen connoisseur.

At first, Kenji appeared to be pursuing Yukari, better known as “the girl who’s pants we’re totally getting in by the end of this game.” Not wanting to draw TOO much attention to the fact that we're going to put the moves on Yukari, we tried not to let him know that there was definitely something going on. Once we were assured that this cougar chaser wasn’t competition for Yukari, he began to fill us in on his “master plan” to sweep one of the teachers (who’s name I can’t recall) off of her feet. Surprisingly, his plan went well. She asked him to come to her house for a private lesson (more like lesson on privates amirite?) and last we heard, he was doing fairly well. We’ll see if that holds up.

Our forays into Tartarus proved fruitful, and allowed us to progress in the game. Besides the passing of days, progress can be easily measured by how far into Tartarus we get. The highest floor we got to was the 11th, fighting a few bosses along the way. We haven’t died yet, which is nice. This can probably be easily attributed to the fact that we’re playing on easy mode. Nevertheless, our abilities have been sufficient enough to keep us from faltering.

We acquired two more Personas (of which I can’t recall the names. Japanese names are hard to remember.) and many stat boosts along the way. We’re now able to summon Personas up to level five! We also acquired a magic spell that fuses two personas together in order to heal the party for 50% of it's health as well as raise evasion.

Joining student council was something that was seemingly forced upon us, but we haven't done much there yet. We also haven't joined any other clubs or sports teams. Because we're cool like that.

We studied every night except for the night we were sick, so our academics skill has increased to Average. I don’t know about you, but I’d say the average student doesn’t study every single night. Nevertheless, we were assured in the beginning that people who pay attention and get good grades are cool. Since this didn’t work for either of us in real life, we’re determined to see it work in Japan, where everything is backwards.
After our last adventure into Tartarus, real life again fell between world domination and us. Using the same save point we used last time, we saved our progress and departed.

Keep watching this spot and Teknodwarfs spot for more updates on the ongoing Persona 3 playthrough. Find out what happens to Steve Tomson, not to mention the ongoing saga with Kenji and his teacher, next time!   read

3:06 AM on 03.18.2009

50 Cent: Blood on the Sand Review

50 Cent: Bulletproof was awful. Supposedly based on Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson's life, the game was a horrible montage of crappy AI, crappy gameplay, and overall general crappiness. So when glimmers of a sequel started shining out of the rumor mill, I had to wonder: Who the eff bought the original game to warrant a godforsaken sequel? Either Fiddy's got some real hardcore fans, or him and his G-Unit posse ponied up the cash to buy all of the copies that were (and are still) sitting on store shelves. Either way, I couldn't believe it, but like any good reviewer, I went into this game with an open mind. What surprised me was that this game, while by no means spectacular, is actually a fairly solid third person shooter, and is a pretty fun experience.

The game starts out with G-Unit finishing up a concert in some unnamed Middle Eastern country. As Fiddy and the crew walk off the stage (complete with bulletproof vests and grenades at the ready, presumably for defense against unruly concert-goers and weapon wielding helicopters) they mean business. It's payday, and if the show promoter doesn't cough up the dough, then he'll be sleeping six feet deep tonight. As expected, the promoter doesn't have the $10,000,000 promised to G-Unit. Probably not more than 15 or 20 seconds in, and Fiddy has already pulled a shotgun on the man. This sets a precedent for the entire game, as neither 50 Cent nor his G-unit cohorts set the guns down for the rest of the experience. The promoter offers up a diamond encrusted crystal skull as collateral while promising to get the performers their cashola soon. Of course, the skull is stolen, and Fiddy, along with a member of G-Unit traverse across a "diverse" landscape of the middle east in a campaign of bloodshed and bullets in order to get this skull back. It's a little ridiculous, but I might argue that the story is the best part of this game, as long as you don't take it too seriously.

You can just tell that 50 Cent played Gears of War for a few minutes and decided that this game would be much better with a little G-Unit flair. A rule of thirds inspired over-the-shoulder camera places 50 (or a member of G-Unit) in the left hand side of the screen. Pulling the left trigger brings up the aiming mode so you can better put a bullet through the enemy's head. Pulling right trigger fires the weapon, and the right bumper throws grenades. The D-pad switches between four types of weapons: pistol, assault rifle, close-range weapon, and special weapon. Each of these weapon slots have upgraded weapons that can be purchased by talking to an arms dealer (a not-so-cool version of Drebin from Metal Gear Solid 4) on a phone that rings off the hook whenever you're near it.

Being near an enemy brings up the option to Counter-Kill. Pressing the B button sends you into a quick time event which has you pressing a whole one button over and over in order to take the enemy out. You ALWAYS press the B button during these events. More Counter-Kills are available to buy at the payphone, but I don't see any way to use them. Even adding the new purchases to the Counter-Kill list still sees Fiddy doing the same two or three over and over. While they're pretty cool ways to kill people, it's gets boring seeing the same knee to the face or knife in the chest schtick time after time.

Pressing the Y button activates "Gangsta fire mode," a sort of bullet-time that slows everything down for you and your partner allowing shots to more easily be lined up. It's ripped straight out of F.E.A.R, and doesn't do nearly as good of a job making you feel just like Neo.

One of the cooler parts of Blood on the Sand is the inclusion of a co-op partner. There are a lot of games coming out that use this mechanic of getting a friend in on the action, and BotS delivers only a bit of mediocrity in this area. The main player is always 50 Cent, while an Xbox Live equipped homie is a member of G-Unit preselected by the game's host. Tony Yayo, Lloyd Banks, and DJ Whoo Kid all return from Bulletproof, and they're largely the same as 50 Cent. Same weapons and controls, the only difference is their taunts. The co-op is drop in and drop out, so if you're running an open game on Xbox Live you'll occasionally see a gamertag above your G-Unit pals. However, if you're in the middle of a heart wrenching, tear jerking cutscene and someone joins, you skip right to the gameplay. Come on, Fiddy doesn't cry in front of people!

All of your kills are racked up in a global score and bonuses are given for headshots and explosions. Similar to Gears of War but a little bit more annoying is the cover system that has been implemented. Pressing the A button will either have Fiddy dive roll or stick to a wall, and it can be hard at times to tell which he's going to do. Unsticking from a wall can be just as hard, causing problems at times for major firefights. Taking cover isn't even necessary, nay, you're given points for being exposed! While this seems like a cool way to show off your skills as a gangsta, it really just makes the cover system almost irrelevant.

50 Cent's visuals are standard for this generation and type of game it is. Character models are detailed and do a great job of showing off Fiddy's muscular physique. It also appears that the actors have been motion captured to provide accurate movements during firefights and cutscenes. Textures are fairly good, except in the beginning of levels and after loading a checkpoint. There's some pretty nasty pop-in going on here, and it's very noticeable. I suspect installing the game to the hard drive alleviates some of these problems, but they shouldn't be there in the first place. Explosions are pretty cool, and the developers love to throw them in and make them as over the top as possible. Bottom line: BotS isn't winning any graphics awards, but everything is as it should be for a game like this.

If you're a 50 Cent fan (and who else is picking up this game, honestly?) then the soundtrack leaves nothing to be desired. Over 18 never before heard tracks make their way into the playlist, along with most of 50 Cent and G-Unit's hits. There's a playlist editor located in the pause menu for lining up your favorite tracks to pop caps to, though, like the Counter-Kill list, it doesn't seem to do much. No matter how many tracks were added to the list, I couldn't get it to play more than five or six of them in a row. So hearing all these new tracks while playing the game could be a little bit hard to do.

50 Cent: Blood on the Sand boldly goes where every other third person shooter has gone before it. The storyline is awful (at times it's so awful it's amazing) and the gameplay is fairly mediocre to match. It's not a terrible game by any means, but for the $59.99 price tag it's fetching at retail, there are plenty of other games that would be much more enjoyable. The campaign is short at only 5-6 hours long, without much replay value unless you're looking to get all the achievements. Even then, it's only recommended as a rental. The third person firefights are occasionally broken up by vehicle and helicopter levels, but it's easily apparent that these levels are just tacked on to add some variety. Bottom line: if you're a fan of 50 Cent and Gears of War and you'd just love to see a game combining the two, give Blood on the Sand a rental.   read

2:45 PM on 12.08.2008

Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode Two: Review

The concept of episodic gaming promises this: more (shorter) games, in less time. This gives the developer the ability to make a full game, but release it in short, frequent spurts, fixing the problems and adding things that were asked for in the first game. By the time you’ve reached the final game in the series, you have a polished, hopefully more perfect experience than if the whole game had been released at once. It’s a wonderful idea, as long as the main benefit of speedier releases actually happens (I’m looking at you, Valve.). Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain Slick Precipice of Darkness Episode Two delivers on both fronts for an above average, if not downright quirky traditional RPG.

The storyline picks up a few months after the first episode. Gabe and Tycho, on their quest to discover the origins of Fruit Fucker Prime, a mechanical steam punk version of the Fruit Fuckers from the Penny Arcade comic. Since the bastard destroyed your house (again), you set off with the duo to get to the bottom of this crazy comic conundrum. Speaking of comics, the humor (which is rampant throughout both episodes thus far) is definitely geared towards fans of the comic, but play enough of this game and you’ll be laughing right along with the Penny Arcade veterans.

The game overworld takes place from an isometric viewpoint, akin to traditional RPG’s of yore. Controlling is easy and intuitive, but it’s hard to screw that up in a game like this. Battles take place in the same areas you traverse, and (thankfully) aren’t random. There are a limited number of enemies in the game, and by the time you’ve killed them all you’ll have just barely reached the games level cap of 30 (up from 15 in the previous game). Listening to fans wishes, the second episode in what I assume to be a quardrilogy (is that a word?) includes more hilarious voice acting from the narrator, and more of the great comic book like cut-scenes that were loved in the first game.

In standard RPG fare (sans random run-ins with the enemy), battle takes place in turns. It’s a lot like Final Fantasy in that respect, with attacks charging up before you can use them. The first action that becomes available is item usage. Here you’ll find all of the staple RPG items, with fancy-schmancy names like “White Christmas” for a bomb that does a lot of damage, or “Dr. Hardd’s Liquid armor.”

The next action to power up is your normal attack. The main character attacks with some kind of lawn utility of the garden hoe variety (which has a damage improvement over the rake in the previous game), Gabe attacks with his fists, and Tycho attacks with a shotgun. This action is what you’ll be using the most. All of these weapons can be upgraded with the right amount of Fruit Fucker parts, ending in epic weapons for all three party members, especially the main characters Blue-Fire-Magic-Holy-Crap-I’m-Going-To-Plow-The-Snot-Out-of-You Hoe of Destiny +2. This mechanic gets the job done without much difficulty (which is either a plus or a minus, depending on your viewpoint).

Finally, the trio’s special attacks become available. Conjuring an attack of this magnitude must require a ridiculous mini-game, and PA:A delivers in spades. Each character has their own mini game to play, and they’re all fairly simple reaction time games. What’s really cool about these attacks is the way the characters can team up. Once you’ve waited a few weeks (read: a long time) for all three special attacks to charge up, you can perform a mini-gameless superattack with two or three of the party members. It works well, and delivers a metric ton of damage.

The game’s cartoony style is just par for the course, considering the source material. The cel-shaded graphics look just fine, and get the job done handily. It’s not winning any Crysis level awards of graphics, but then again you’re not playing this game to max out your brand new ultra hyper monster gaming PC of doom, are you? The cut-scenes look really good, and are funny almost in a Lego Star Wars kind of way. Even though there’s no voice acting or dialog to speak of in these animated videos, they manage to draw a laugh or two with no problem.

Epic music is rampant throughout RPG’s, and this game is no different. It has a fairly good soundtrack, one that does the trick but never manages to stand out much. Sound effects are fine, and do the job. I did particularly like the epic chimes that sound out after leaving the pause menu. It was… energizing, I guess.
The main draw of this game is the humor. True to the comic in every fashion, this level of comedy quite LOLworthy, assuming you're familiar with the source material (which, admittedly is an acquired taste. Like fine wine.) The climactic battle in and of itself is sure to draw enough laughs to make the entire game worthwhile (though there are plenty of laughs along the way).

One of the major drawbacks to episodic gaming (at least for developers, not consumers) is it doesn’t necessarily translate into more sales. Theoretically, the first episode would sell the most, because subsequent entries into the series would cater only to fans of previous revisions. Penny Arcade isn’t an exception. There’s nothing new in this game that would change the mind of someone who didn’t like the original. The improvements are evolutionary, and not revolutionary. If you loved, or even liked the first game, there’s plenty new in the second to keep you interested. And at only $15 (which I believe is down from the originals $20) there isn’t much of a reason to not pick this up, if only for it’s traditional RPG nature and unique humor style.
Rating: 7/10.   read

8:36 PM on 12.02.2008

Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts Review

It’s been more than 10 years since the original Banjo-Kazooie arrived in my grubby little 8-year old hands. More than 8 years since the last true sequel to the game. Amidst a few GBA spinoffs I was beginning to wonder when the next true addition to my beloved franchise would be available to quench my nostalgic thirst. Rest assured, Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts is not the sequel us Banjo fans have been waiting for, but for what it’s worth, it’s a damn fine game on the Xbox 360.

The storyline is classic Banjo with a little different spin on it: LOG, the creator of all video games (including, as Kazooie points out early on, crappy ones like Grabbed by the Ghoulies). He’s sick and tired of Banjo-Kazooie (the collective term for the pair) and Gruntilda constantly battling it out over control of Spiral Mountain, the duo’s home. He’s set up a series of vehicular challenges throughout five wolds (plus the hub world and the location for the final showdown) and once the bear and bird can get enough Jiggies from these challenges, they’re able to face Gruntilda for the showdown of all showdowns, and this decides whom the rightful owner of Spiral Mountain is. It’s as good of a storyline as one can expect from this type of game, but hey, Dan Brown has been pretty busy lately I hear.

Rare's trademark sense of humor makes a wonderful comeback in Nuts and Bolts.

A bit of a departure from previous Banjo outings, Nuts and Bolts focuses on vehicular play. The good Shaman Mumbo Jumbo has opened shop in the main hub -Showdown Town - and allows you to use his facilities free of charge for building your own crazy contraptions. The building mechanics work pretty well, and there’s a genuine sense of progression as you build your parts library to include better and more robust components. A lot of time will be spent in this mode, so it’s a good thing that it works pretty well. It even has a Test-o-Track for testing your vehicles in a variety of conditions. I have to say though, the tweaking your vehicles to the sterile and mostly pristine Test-o-Track can sometimes not be indicative of real game performance. This is especially apparent in the final boss fight, I felt that the game’s physics were being made even more ridiculous to artificially inflate the difficulty at the end.

The series retains Rare’s quirky sense of humor. I wish more games could be like this. It’s practically a parody of videogames, and the industry politics in general. Even to the point of self-parody, the game is hilarious, and fits just right with fans of the series. It’s also gotten rid of (for the most part) the potty humor that was sprinkled in the original games, and this is a good thing. This is easily one of the funniest games I’ve played in a long time.

The gameplay is split about 90/10: Platforming on foot takes a backseat to the vehicle mechanics, and it’s not always a welcome change. The vehicle physics are at once pure and realistic, and at the same time incredibly frustrating. Vehicles feel like their tires are full of helium (even the vehicles without wheels!) and it makes it hard to steer around and over the various obstacles that will inevitably block your path. Overall though, the vehicle mechanics tend to work pretty well since the game worlds give a little bit of leeway to the floaty physics in the way they’re designed.

The main hub Showdown Town has many vehicular and platforming opportunities

Despite all of Kazooie’s moves being taken by LOG, the platforming is very tight, if sparse. The only places any semblance of traditional BK gameplay is present are in the hub world Showdown Town. You’ll have to master the jump, as it’s the only thing Banjo can do. No Flap flip jumps, Talon Trots, Wonderwings, or anything of that nature here. With her trusty wrench (which can pretty much pick up anything), Kazooie can attack foes, though it’s not very accurate or powerful. Showdown town has various places with secret vehicle-parts-filled boxes that will require your adept platforming skills, but for the most part you can get away without much in this regard.

Visually stunning, Nuts and Bolts can be considered among the best looking games available on any platform. It’s rendered in 720p but as with all Xbox 360 games, can be scaled up to 1080p. And you’d better hope you have an HDTV because the game is nigh unplayable without it. The text for the dialogue is almost completely unreadable on a standard def television. This is a pretty important detail because the dialogue is often the only way you know exactly what to do in the challenges. It’s also the only way to experience the amazing sense of humor this game has. The best part, though, is the water rendering. It’s the best of any game I’ve seen to date. The waves rise and fall, affecting any floating crafts you might be racing in the sea. It has a sprawling draw distance that seems limited only by the size of the levels (which is nothing to be ashamed of, the areas are quite large in their own right).

The game's massive draw distance is limited only by the massive worlds it depicts

I’ve always been a fan of music in Rare games. The Donkey Kong Country series on the SNES has arguably the greatest soundtrack of any game series ever. This tradition of great music was transferred into the original Banjo-Kazooie games, and makes a full and remade return to Nuts and Bolts. Most of the series staples are here in full next-gen glory. This is especially evident in the Banjoland level, which has a montage of all the original themes of the worlds featured. Word cannot describe the wave of nostalgia that gripped me in it’s wake. The rest of the sound is up to snuff as well. Even on my crappy two-speaker setup everything was clear and crisp, and sound effects were right on the money.

I have to admit, Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts was a little bit of a mixed bag when I first heard of the vehicle mechanics being added in. On the one hand, the innovation it promised seemed like a good thing for the industry, but on the other hand I wondered if it could keep the same Banjo feel as the previous games. This seemed nearly impossible, and while Rare didn’t do a perfect job, the game is still a must play. The vehicle aspect is nearly flawless, save for some floaty physics. I feel like this game could have been made on an entirely new IP for Rare, but at the same time I like that they’re testing the waters for another Banjo game. At only $40, it’s worth it just to show Rare that we want a true Banjo sequel. It fits right in with the series trademark humor, right down to the ending trivia quiz. It’s not Banjo-Threeie, but it’s a solid entry into the series, and it’s enough to tide the fans over.

Rating: 7.5/10   read

1:00 PM on 11.18.2008

Are gamers losing their sense of exploration? A nostalgia piece by Tyler.

As a child growing up in the 90’s, I got a chance to witness some of gaming’s finest breakthroughs through the eyes of a child. Magnificent 3D worlds were introduced with the Nintendo 64/Playstation era, and I was hooked. I had a Super NES, and I was one of the kids who played the crap out of Donkey Kong Country, Super Mario World, and Toy Story (No laughing, that game was EXCELLENT). On my eighth birthday, I was awarded with a copy of Mario Kart 64. I didn’t have a Nintendo 64 at the time, so I knew exactly what was in the next box. It was just big enough to be an N64, and as it turns out, it totally was. I couldn’t contain myself. I yelled with excitement as my sister and I clawed at the box. “NINTENDO 64! OH MY GAWD!”

Ok, that wasn’t me (I don’t even have a sister), but my reaction was similar to the classic YouTube meme.

Of course, the one of the advantages to being a child is never being able to point out the flaws in something. One with such an underdeveloped brain prone to repetition and bright colors couldn’t possibly see any problems in the games that he holds so dear to his heart. You could have given me any game, ANY game, and I probably would have played it until the cartridge melted in a heap of molten plastic and good memories.

It’s funny how you can go back to things you once held in such high regard and not recognize the faults. Anybody who’s over 15 years old and has never seen The Goonies should go and watch it with some friends who have. It’s a totally different experience than if you see it as a child.

The Game of my childhood (there were many, but one sticks out among the rest) was Banjo-Kazooie for the Nintendo 64. With the release of it’s newest installment and the subsequent re-release of the spectacular original on the Xbox Live Arcade just over the horizon, I began to think about the differences in games then, and games now. Are they different now simply because I’m seeing them with the hardened eyes of a veteran gamer, or were the games of yore just well done (or, as they say, Rare. No pun intended).

The world of Banjo-Kazooie contained 9 levels. If you’d asked me when I was 10 years old how many levels were in BK, I would have probably told you 15-20. It seemed like there were so many levels it was hard to keep track of how many notes, Jiggies, Jinjos, and any other of the million and a half different items you had to collect.

The Ratchet and Jak series of games have mission lists that keep you to the goals rather than encourage exploration

Back in those days, I didn’t have much comprehension of “progressing” in a game. The game was there to be played, and I played it. If I got to a door I couldn’t get through, I’d just go the other way. Even back to levels I’d already played just to get as much fun out of them as possible. Exploring was something I’d do often, and not just to see what secrets there were. Just because it was all so interesting, I’d go into every nook and cranny of every level. If it got to a point where I wanted to start collecting notes or Jiggies again, I’d just start the game over. I had no problems with losing my progress in the game. I’d hit the reset button and play Mumbos Mountain, Treasure Trove Cove, Clankers Cavern, and other alternative alliterated areas.

But somewhere in the two or three years I played this game religiously, something changed. I started actually wanting to see what was behind these note doors. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my game playing was becoming more goal-oriented. This was something that would carry on into the rest of my gaming career. I blame Grand Theft Auto and these newfangled mission-based games. They just hand you a checklist to get through in order to finish a game, and exploring yields little if any real results.

I reserved Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts and received my early copy of the Banjo-Kazooie re-release on XBLA. I fired up the game, and most of it (save for obvious changes for the Xbox 360) was exactly how I remembered it. I had never finished the game in it’s entirety as a kid, but on this second play through of about 10 hours I managed to collect every Jiggy, Note, and Honeycomb piece in the entire game. I didn’t explore the areas that brought me so much joy as a child. I played through the game methodically and finished it. I almost got every achievement, except for those damn Bottles puzzles. I thought that I had lost the sense of exploration, that games became just another chore. Something with a list of things to do, and once they were done there was no more.

But when I popped Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts into my Xbox, I was immediately thrown into the wave of nostalgia that I thought I was going to get when I started playing the original again. Remixed themes and characters, along with the series signature self-parodying style made me feel just like a child again. I found my sense of exploration, thanks to my old friends from Spiral Mountain. The new vehicle mechanics and building things is really cool, but what I’m going to remember this game for it’s sense of exploration, and reward for it. I found myself using the excellent physics engine to build stairs out of boxes and reach places (I assume) aren’t supposed to be reachable.

I’m only a little ways into the actual game, but the sense of exploration I got from the original seems to be there and intact, and it’s something that seems to be missing from modern games. I’ll admit that I’m still a much more methodical person now than I was when I was playing Banjo-Kazooie, an 8-year old without the concept of a game being “finished.”

It’s been getting better recently, but that last generation of consoles really sucked away my exploration sense. It’s making strides into fixing this lately with the newest BK, and other games like GTA IV to some extent. It just seems like we’re always going from point A to point B without too much thought as to what goes on in between. What do you guys think?   read

11:40 PM on 11.17.2008

NXE Impressions

Having been accepted into the early preview of the Next Xbox Experience in the third wave, I was really excited to try it out. I’m a pretty optimistic guy, and when companies say they’re going to change things for the better, I tend to believe them. So when Microsoft announced a complete overhaul of the current dashboard (something I didn’t already think needed an overhaul) I kind of went to my happy place.

I turned on my Xbox at 10am, despite being told it would come at or around 1pm. A friendly update screen greeted me, and I began the download a few hours early! Early download of an early preview dashboard! Success! It was a quick download and my final glimpses of the old dashboard we whisked away as the console rebooted.

Upon restart, another update screen appeared. But this was unlike any update screen I’d seen before on my Xbox. It was part of the NXE! While nothing of use was shown on this screen, I knew my old dashboard was gone and I was never getting it back. After another 5 minute or so download (I’m at university so I have a phat pipe) the console rebooted once more. I was in New Xbox Experience land. A sweet opening animation illuminated my screen before dropping me into the new “Avatar” creator. It’s pretty obvious that this is ripping off Nintendo’s Mii’s, but I gave it a go anyhow.

The choices are fairly stark at the moment but that’s to be expected since the thing isn’t even released yet. I created an avatar as close to myself as possible (or rather what I would dress like if I had these clothes put in front of me to choose from) and I was then thrown head first into – Ads.

The new interface is organized by “Channels,” a sort of reverse XrossMediaBar. The first channel I was dropped on was the “Spotlight” channel. The only thing I can see this channel being good for is ads, because that’s all it is. The My Xbox channel was much less cluttered, and is probably where the majority of gamers will spend most of their time. The friends list isn’t well suited for this view though because all of the avatars of the friends take up quite a bit of space. It’s a pain to find the one you’re looking for, especially right now since none of them have avatars. I suspect in time these things will get better.

The video, music, and game marketplaces have ads for different things in between the actual things you’ll probably clicking on – Your library and the marketplaces. Your library is on the far end of the ads, but this isn’t ‘much of a problem as all of the library’s are organized neatly in the My Xbox channel.

The My Xbox channel contains links to the game in the drive (giving you the option of installing it), your avatar/gamercard, and your game, video, music, and picture library, as well as Windows Media Center extender and the system settings. This channel is where the majority of the time will be spent, and it is very well done without any obtrusive ads.

One channel I really like is the Events channel. In the old dashboard finding out about the “Game With Fame” events and other cool things going on on Xbox live was kind of hard to do, and I’ll admit to not even trying to look when it was so out of the way. Having them all neatly organized into one channel is really great and will help ensure that more people get involved in some of the cool things that Xbox Live has to offer.

I didn’t get a chance to try out the hard drive installs, as my sparse 20 GB drive is nearly full to the brim of demos and videos. Perhaps in the near future (read: Christmas) I can procure a 60 or 120 GB hard drive.
The Netflix feature is something I intend to be using A LOT. Thanks to my aforementioned phat pipe to the internet, most of what’s available to be streamed to my Xbox can be displayed in glorious high definition. I’m not sure if it’s 720p or 1080p since my monitor is only 1680x1050 (which is a newly supported resolution, though selecting it just seems to give me black bars on the top and bottom). Netflix’s entire library is available and as long as you have one of their plans for unlimited rentals your streaming is unlimited as well. I’ll be using this to catch up on back seasons of 30 Rock.

The NXE is really well done, save for a few things (Massive ads, friends list clutter) but these things are easy to get around by hitting the Guide button, which brings up a condensed version of the old X360 blades. This mini dashboard works really well and gets a lot more done that the old guide did. You can access your game library, videos, and even change some settings in here, right in game. Most options require you to quit your current game, however, so it merely serves as a shortcut to the main dashboard rather than the in-game dashboard it seemed like it would be.

I’m really excited for this to hit the mainstream and for more people to have avatars. I think avatars are cool, even if it is blatantly Xeroxed from straight from the Wii. If Microsoft can fix a few of the gripes that people including myself have, I think that the overall Xbox experience can be enhanced by the latest update from our friends in Redmond.   read

3:46 PM on 11.16.2008

Mirror's Edge Review

It’s hard to not put “shooter” on the end of a genre falling into the first-person category. Nintendo tried to tell us that Metroid Prime wasn’t a first person shooter, but rather a first person adventure game. The gun was still in the forefront, and while it was a solid game, Metroid Prime still falls under most people’s “first-person shooter” category. So why not get rid of the gun (almost) altogether? The latest from DICE and EA attempts to do just that.

At first glance, Mirror’s Edge looks unlike what anybody has ever seen. Jumping from rooftop to rooftop, scaling building pipes and wallrunning right into a swift kick in the face for the po-po are regular occurrences in this game. It almost feels like it could be too good to be true. Upon deeper digging into the game, though, it’s very intuitive, and while it doesn’t feel like any other FPS, I definitely felt at home playing it.

The premise is this: The sterile, futuristic cityscape of an as-yet unnamed metropolis has fallen under the control of a totalitarian regime. Since the government monitors all communication, those who want to keep out of the eye of the fuzz have to employ “runners,” couriers who will use mad parkour skills to deliver the messages and packages. You control Faith, a runner on a mission for more than just secret parcel deliveries. She’s out to save her sister from being framed by a corrupt government. It’s a story that’s just good enough to set the game up. After that, the story fails to be too interesting. Of course, there are twists and turns, friends become foes and backstabbing is par for the course. But somewhere in a tale that tries to be as epic as it’s premise would suggest it is, it falls short. There’s a lack of character development, to say the least. I found myself not caring about all the different things going on. The game’s few heartfelt moments failed to keep me interested, much less jerk tears from my eyes.

But for how much the story lacks, it makes up for in gameplay ten-fold. The game subscribes to a “minimum input, maximum output” form of gameplay. The left bumper is used for all “up” actions: jumping, vaulting, pulling up from a climb, etc.” The left trigger is used for all “down” actions, including crouches, slides, rolls, and drops. Climbing and jumping almost feels like conducting a symphony. Perfect timing and quick wits are required to make this orchestra play. Much like conducting, one fail and the whole piece can quickly fall apart.

And fall apart they will. You will die in this game. You will die a lot. You will die so many times you’ll be paying out the nose in grim reaper fees. Trial and error is the name of the game, and Mirror’s Edge makes an emphasis on the error part. The good thing is, you never have to go back too far. Being unlimited in lives gives you unlimited chances to try things a different way. Generally speaking, there’s multiple ways to get from point A to point B, but only one is highlighted in what’s called “Runner Vision.” This is usually the easiest and most obvious way to get from place to place. It’s a welcome feature, especially earlier in the game when you’re not as used to finding an appropriate pathway. If ever you’re lost, pressing B will point Faith’s field of view into the correct direction. Overall, the control scheme and gameplay works, and does it very well.

Combat is where the gameplay collapses. While Faith is highly trained in the art of parkour, her skills in the martial arts are lacking. Of course you’re able to kick and punch. You’re also able to use your jumping and wallrunning skills to set yourself up for a large blow to an enemy. The problem comes when you put guns into the mix. Police generally have them, you generally don’t. This presents you with a feeling of hopelessness at some points in the game. You are able to disarm a foe with a well timed button press when their gun turns red (with a scripted but very nicely animated take down motion), but more often than not you’ll go fumble around, grasping at air while the police are readying a finishing blow for you. For the most part, you get one chance at this. That’s where the “Reaction Time” comes into play. Generated by sprinting, and activated by pressing X, this power can be used at any point in the game to slow time down a la F.E.A.R. This allows you ample time to disarm an enemy and use their gun on any of their cohorts. This weapon comes at the cost of mobility. Larger weapons hinder you more. You can only use the weapon until the clip is empty, as there’s no way of reloading a weapon.

The visuals don’t leave much to be desired. Outdoor areas are very bright. Almost too bright, until you figure out that it’s not the HDR lighting doing this, but the actual paint on the buildings isn’t the usual grey or light grey, but almost a pure white. Sometimes it’s a welcome departure from the usual browns and dark greys that have painted recent games, but other times it’s a blinding light that gets in your way. Once you make it indoors though, this all changes. Inside areas are bathed on brilliant colors that at once stick out at you and guide you on your way. Each room or section of a building tends to be color coded differently from the sections preceding it. This allows you to see all of the different colors and the way DICE’s custom lighting engine makes them shine. Character models don’t seem to have the same treatment, however. They look good, but they aren’t anything you’re going to remember once you’re finished with the game.

The cut-scenes are used sparingly, and only between chapters. They are presented in a beautiful 2D animation that feels like an E-Surance commercial. The in-game cut-scenes are completely first person, like in Half-Life, but unlike Valve’s game, the player doesn’t have any control over Faith. These are also well done, and help give you a sense of where to head next.

Aurally, the game is well done. Steps on the ground increase with intensity as Faith moves faster and faster. Grabbing and hitting different items make the appropriate sounds, and the ambience never feels out of place. The firing of guns leaves a bit to be desired, but this game is no Battlefield (though it does share the same developers), and guns and combat have really taken a backseat to everything else. The most interesting sound, however, is Faith’s breathing. It gets more labored as your start to pick up speed. As soon as you hit a full on dead sprint, her breathing is very loud and the sound of wind whizzing through her ears can easily be heard. It’s not Battlefield: Bad Company, but the sounds still get the job done with ease.

I won’t lie to you. I liked this game. A lot. But it ‘s not without its flaws. The story is as short as it is interesting. Though the levels are expansive and cover the territory of other games that could be compared to this one, the fact that you move so quickly through them makes the game’s length sub-par. A skilled gamer can finish it in 6-8 hours, while less experienced players may take about 10 hours to complete the storyline. This short length hardly justifies a $60 price tag. After that’s done, there isn’t much left. The speed run feature is nice, but once you’ve made it through a level there’s little incentive other than achievements to try and better your time. I’m sure there will be people out there who make it their life’s work to have the best score on this game, but for the average Joe there isn’t too much to be offered here. It would be nice if a free-running roam-the-city mode were incorporated. It would be a blast to just run around without having a goal bogging you down every step of the way.

This game is an impressive effort. It makes strides into the first-person perspective unlike any other game. The characters often talk about “The Flow,” an invisible force that drives the runners towards their goal. This feeling is quite apparent as you jump, swing, tuck, roll, and slide your way through the city. Though often frustrating to the point of property damage, when you finally knock out those police, or string together that combo, there’s quite a feeling of accomplishment. The game has a very good sense of progression, which is one of the reasons I was able to finish this game in about two sittings (that’s also because of the short length). This game is worth buying, if only to show the developers that we need more games like this: games that push the boundaries and define progression. No matter how you slice it, despite its flaws, this is a solid game. This is a game that will help put the industry on the edge: The Mirror’s Edge.

Rating: 8/10 for short length and combat problems.   read

2:47 AM on 09.07.2008

Top five things I'd like to see in the next Sonic game

Over the past few years (ok, almost decades) Sega has been putting out crap. Crap hardware (32x, Sega CD) which caused them to fail. When they finally came back and said “Look guys, we’re good for it, we promised! We delivered!” (Dreamcast) Nobody bought it. Sega had fallen, and couldn't get up.

So they dropped the hardware business, and focused on making great software. Lately, they’ve been failing in that respect, too. Their strongest property, Sonic The Hedgehog, hasn’t had a decent game in years! The next installment, Sonic Unleashed, doesn’t look like it's about to change anyone's mind soon. Just like screwing them over with crap hardware, when you deal crap software, they’re not going to buy it when you actually come out with something good.

So, without further ado, here’s a top five list of what most gamers would like to see in order for Sonic to make a full comeback.

1. Dump the cheesy characters
Sega, nobody cares about any characters introduced to the series after the Genesis days. This includes the 32x, so leave the crap characters that were in Knuckles Chaotix out. Charmy the Bee, Silver the Hedgehog? What the hell, Sega? This is Sonic The Hedgehog. Nobody cares about anyone else. Tails is cute, and Knuckles provides a good anti-hero to Sonic. The only character that you are allowed to bring back is Shadow. He’s kind of cool, as long as he doesn’t steal the show. Other than that, leave the rest out. They aren’t necessary.

2. Dump the cheesy storyline!
Nobody ever played a platformer for the storyline. Beyond defeat the bad guy, nothing else matters. I don’t need motivation to run to the other side of the screen, jumping over the various obstacles. That’s enough of a game for me, really. I don't care that there's some bestiality crap going on with Sonic and some human. I don't even want to know about Sonic's love life, because it's irrelevant.

3. Bring back Robotnik!
Notice how I didn’t say Eggman. I realize that it other territories he may have been known as Eggman, but to the people who want to see another good Sonic game, he will always be known as Dr. Robotnik. Eggman just doesn’t have the same sinisterness as Robotnik. He will always be a favorite villain of mine, but I’ll never refer to him as Eggman, unless he’s impersonating John Lennon.

4. Back to the roots
Sonic Adventure was ok, and Sonic Adventure 2 was a little better. Sonic Heroes was crap, and the latest Sonic game isn’t even worthy of the title of a game. Face it, Sega, you suck at making usable cameras. The 3D platformer has been around how long? More than 10 years? If you haven’t got it by now, you never will. Bring Sonic back to his roots with only two dimensions to screw up. Leave out Chaos (the monster) and all the Chaos (the cute Pokemon rip-offs) and leave Emerald collections to optional. Use the original 3 Acts and then a Boss fight against Robotnik and call it good. We really don’t ask for much.

5. Ditch the underwater levels
Ok, this one is a personal one for me. It’s the only thing about the original Sonic games that I thought was a flaw. The underwater levels are tedious, take away from the sense of speed, and they’re downright hard for no reason! If you really want to make the claim that you’re better than Mario, at LEAST give Sonic the same ability to swim and to breathe underwater. Stopping what I’m doing to look for a freaking air bubble to breathe from is not my idea of fun, Sega.

So there you have it. The top 5 things I think should be in the next Sonic game. Really, all I want is a retread back to what gave Sonic his name: the sense of speed, the fluidity of the levels, and most importantly, a good platformer. If you spent half as much time on the actual game as you did on the storyline in the newer Sonic games, you’d have a pretty good game on your hands! Just the 2D sense you get from the original games, with updated visuals and sounds to match. The last thing I want to see is Sonic in a commercial for LifeAlert.   read

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