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3:06 PM on 03.25.2012

How GameStop Can Beat Online Passes

I had an idea the other day about how GameStop could beat publishers at their own game. This isn’t fully fleshed out or anything, and who knows, it might be feasible at all. Well, here goes. Here’s how GameStop can beat online passes: they create a ReNewed games program.

Alright, let’s break down what this “ReNewed” pun actually means. We all know that GameStop is massively profitable enterprise. From their Q3 2011 earnings call, their pre-owned program grew by 3%. This was slower than the previous two quarters, but given the strength of the games that came out in October through December 2011, it makes sense that a lot of customers bought new.

From their 2010 earnings report, GameStop’s business goals included “expanding our sales of used video game products and capitalizing on the growth in demand [of used games]” and “[increasing] GameStop brand awareness and loyalty membership” which includes their PowerUp Rewards program. My proposed ReNew program would go hand in hand with those stated goals.

To counteract GameStop’s influence and the allure of used games, publishers have been utilizing online passes. Recent games like Batman: Arkham City, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, and others from publishers EA, THQ, Ubisoft have all had either singleplayer content or multiplayer modes locked behind online passes. Online passes force you to either buy the game new or purchase the pass separately on PSN or Xbox Live to access these locked away content nuggets.

On the surface these passes block GameStop from relying so heavily on used game sales because nobody wants to buy an incomplete game (and if you do, I don’t want to even know you). Well with ReNewed games, scrappy underdog (/sarcasm) GameStop can fight the power. Basically all they have to do is buy a bunch of the standalone online passes and bundle them with their used games.

How does this help GameStop with sales? Even though they buy the online passes for full price, they bundle them with the used copy of the game at a discount price. Say Awesome Game 2 has its multiplayer locked behind an online pass. The game is still retailing at $59.99. GameStop buys back used copies of the game from their customers for $14 and sells them for $30. That’s just the Pre-Owned copy of the game. If you want the ReNewed copy, it’ll cost you $38. Even though GameStop bought the pass for $10 and is selling it at a loss, the markup they put on used copies more than makes up for that.

By implementing some sort of program like this they can make it so people will still go to them for used copies even when a traditional used copy of that game needs an online pass.

Again, GameStop might already do something like this. I saw on their website they had a DLC section (but it was down so I couldn’t investigate it). Also another potential problem would be, how many codes do they download for each game that has an online pass? Obviously some games are going to sell more than others, and they wouldn’t want to get stuck with a bunch of online passes for games that consumers aren’t trading in or buying used.

I’m not saying this system is a good solution to the “used game problem” that publishers are always complaining about. Online passes and the fight against used game sales are both bullshit in my opinion. This is just a semi-sleazy tactic I could see GameStop implementing in the future. And if they do, customers are going to be the ones getting the shaft. Publishers will then try to come up with other ways to stop used games. Right now the situation is something of an arms race where the losers are average gamers who are just trying to save some money.   read

2:13 PM on 03.12.2012

Dread Space: Survival Horror Games aren't Horror

Games like Resident Evil and Dead Space aren’t horror. Now that I’ve got your attention, let me clarify that statement. Sure those games are classified as “survival horror” games, but they don’t represent horror to me, and it has nothing to do with the more action-oriented flavor these games have adopted recently. So what do I consider horror? The answer might surprise you.

Surprise hugs! But not truly horrifying

Even though I say games like RE and Dead Space aren’t horror, they’re still scary. How does that make sense? Simple. These kinds of games scare me when I play them because I know that something is going to jump out of an air vent or through a window at me. (Sorry for the stupid voice over in that video). I’m afraid of the surprise, that “Ah ha! Gotcha!” moment but nothing else. Sure those moments cause my heart rate to spike and maybe a small trickle of urine to escape down my leg, but they don’t inspire that lay-awake-at-night-type dread real horror does.

I’ve found that true kind of horror in the most unlikely of places: in space combat simulators.

Games like Tachyon: The Fringe and Freelancer are horror games. They might be dressed up like space sims with some trading elements and such, but they terrified me more than any zombie or Necromorph could ever dream of.

Why did these two games scare me that much? There’s no extreme graphic violence in either game. All of the combat takes place in space ships where killing enemies results in impersonal explosions. So if it’s not the violence that did it, what did?

Space did it. There’s that phrase that “in space no one can hear you scream”, but it should really be, “in space no one can hear you scream, and space is so goddamn big that no one will see you either, and nothing around you cares you’re screaming.” Space terrified my kid brain when I first played Tachyon, and then Freelancer a few years later made it worse.

So pretty, and yet so terrifying

In Tachyon you play down on his luck and wrongly exiled pilot Jake Logan (voiced by the one and only Bruce Campbell), and you end up choosing to side with a group of ragtag colonists and miners or the massively rich GalSpan corporation as they fight over a region of semi-colonized space known as the Fringe.

There’s one mission--Hell, I don’t even remember what it’s called or whose side it’s for--where you have to go escort some convoy from one star system to another. Anyway I’d been playing the game for a while at that point and jumped through the Tachyon Gate with no second thoughts. As soon as my ship arrived, a wave of panic came over me. In front of me, taking up almost my entire screen was a ringed gas giant, kind of like Saturn. It was drawn to scale, so it dwarfed my ship and the other ships in the convoy. It was the biggest planet I’d seen in the entire game so far. It didn’t do anything but just chill there in space. It wasn’t part of the mission. No enemies came out from its rings to ambush me. It did nothing, but still the thing scared me so badly I had to quit the game.

Scariest planet ever

The planet was just so big compared to all the other ships around it. All it did was remind me of how small I was, both my ship avatar and me as a person. That planet made me realize how small I was, just a simple kid playing a video game. Eventually, I got over that dread, went back, and finished the mission, but I had to force myself not to look at that planet or dwell on it during the mission.

A few years later, a similar thing happened with Freelancer. I loved playing the game so much that I cheated so I could just explore without consequences. I didn’t want to have to deal with pirate raids, enemy fleets, or just any damage at all. But while I might have avoided game overs, I encountered something far worse--that same paralyzing fear of being small and alone.

Other survival horror games try to make you feel that same trapped loneliness, but you’re never truly alone. There are usually always enemies around. While Dead Space had stretches where it was just me, some hallways, and brilliant sound design, I knew that at any moment I could be thrust into a fight with some slicey-dicey Necromorphs. In Freelancer you’re truly alone. You’re just a ship flying around in the darkness.

Flying into a gas cloud in Freelancer is fucking terrifying, especially in the outlying star systems on the edges of the game’s map. There’s just radiation, some space rocks, and a whole lot of nothing. Because unlike Tachyon, Freelancer is a more open game that allows you to explore. So that means certain areas have only a few enemy encounters and a whole lot of nothing. The backdrops may look pretty, but they just hide the existential horribleness that lurks underneath.

In TV shows, movies, and other games that deal with space, you or the characters always have companions. Han Solo has Chewie to keep him company when they’re out doing smuggler things. The Serenity has an entire crew. The Galactica even has a whole fleet around it that provides human contact. But in these kinds of space sims, it’s just you out there in your ship.

Sometimes in Freelancer there would be no banter or anything resembling human contact, just the sounds of the engines and the radiation alarms as you plunged into the depths of that radioactive gas cloud. It’s so terrifying on a deep personal level that I hate it. I love the games for their mechanics and space combat action, but I hate them for the soul-crushing dread they made me feel.

That’s true horror. A zombie dog jumping through a window is just an unpleasant surprise.

What about you guys? Does anyone else have stories like this where an ostensibly non-horror game scared you more than a “dedicated” horror game?   read

2:14 PM on 12.06.2011

Xenophilia: More Dragons than Skyrim

So there’s this little game that came out a few a weeks ago. You might’ve heard of it. It’s called Skyrim and Dtoid’s own Jim Sterling thought it was pretty good. I mean you can fight dragons in it. Awesome, right? Well what if I told you about a game where you can fight dragons with other dragons! Welcome to the wonderful, pixilated world of Bahamut Lagoon.

Bahamut Lagoon is a Japanese tactical roleplaying game by Square that came out in that mythical golden age of SNES RPGs. Sadly, it never made its way to American shores. I only heard about it by chance when I was surfing the Internet in college. I acquired the unofficial English translation and began an adventure that would make the Dragonborn envious.

Being a Square game, it looks gorgeous. The sprites look just as good as those in Final Fantasy III and all of the different types of dragons look different from each other. But gorgeous sprite-based artwork isn’t enough. Luckily, I found the gameplay just as awesome.

The little dragon sprites are so cute! Also deadly. But then they come back around to cute.

Unlike Square’s other games, in Bahamut Lagoon battles are fought on grid-based environments, like a dragon-flavored Fire Emblem or the more modern Advance Wars. While the cast of characters all have different classes and abilities, the dragons are what steal the show. Each party has their own dragon attached to it that can level up, use abilities, and learn new ones. While you can’t control them directly, you can give them commands like “Come!” to set how aggressive they are. It was such a joy to soften an enemy up with my troops and know that as soon as my turn ended my dragons were going to swoop in and finish things off.

Now enemy forces also get their own dragons, so it’s imperative that you keep yours in top fighting shape. And that’s where the game’s coolest mechanic comes in. Dragons are big, yes? Big things need lots of food. And apparently, according to Bahamut Lagoon dragons will eat goddamn anything. Got some extra swords and armor? Feed ‘em to Smoky, your firebreather. Oh you have some poisonous mushrooms, give ‘em to Jeff, the dark dragon. No need to worry about counting calories in this game!

By feeding your dragons equipment, books, items, literally anything, their stats go up. And then once you hit certain benchmarks they will evolve into other forms. Pokemon, who? Bahamut Lagoon’s got you beat (by like two and a half weeks). It was a lot of fun to experiment with feeding my dragons and seeing what they would evolve into. Granted it’s possible to just play random skirmish battles over and over, by certain items, and then make your dragons completely overpowered, but who cares?

To be honest, I don’t remember a lot about the story. There was something about a group of rebels led by a spunky youth with a destiny trying to save the world from an evil empire. Typical JRPG fare, but it definitely didn’t detract from my enjoyment. I mean it’s not like other dragon-based games are known for their earth-shattering main quests.

If you’re a fan of dragons, Square, or strategy RPGs from the SNES’s Golden Years, you gotta play Bahamut Lagoon. You’re all Internet-savvy people, I’m sure you know how to find a copy. It just goes to show that pretty much any videogame genre would benefit from a healthy infusion of dragons.   read

9:12 PM on 11.10.2011

First Times: Rayman Origins Demo Impressions

Confession time: I’ve never played a Rayman game. In fact I only vaguely associate Rayman with his own series. The first things that come to mind are those Rabbit-thing mini-game collections on the Wii. But I’ve heard a lot of good things about Rayman Origins so I decided to check out the demo. Read on for the impressions of a first time Rayman-er…Raymanist? I’ll figure it out later.

Who are these people...things?

First things first. Holy 2D graphics, Batman! The game looks amazing. I love the art direction and the colors. Despite lacking that (essential to some people) third dimension, everything looks crisp and colorful .And this is just the opening stages. The names of the stages and the locations mean nothing to me, but they sure look pretty!

Still on the topic of graphics and art, I really like the creature design. Everything looks like they belong to the same universe. It doesn’t matter that Rayman has floating hands and feet with no limbs (kind of like an Anti-Homestar Runner). His strange deformities (if they are truly that) come across as commonplace in this universe. I have no idea what kind of creatures I’m fighting, what the hell those things I’m collecting are--bugs of some kind, maybe--but they’re all unique looking.

However I did find some graphical and stylistic issues. In the beginning of the first level I couldn’t tell if there were different branching paths with one being “closer” to the screen. But then I realized what I was seeing was just part of the foreground. The problem showed up again in the third level when I was being chased by some giant eel monster thing. It was one of those classic Big Monster Chases You From The Left While The Level Collapses Around You sequences, but again at times I couldn’t tell what was on my plane and what was just set dressing. I died a few times just because I wasn’t sure what I could jump on and another time when I got squished by falling debris I thought was in the background. I don’t know if this will continue to be a problem in later levels after I get accustomed to Rayman Origins’ style, but it is a little worrying.

This frickin' guy, right?

So yeah the demo looks great, but how does it play? Here’s where my initial enthusiasm started to wear off. The game takes a very old school approach. Very minimal tutorials to start with. I didn’t know I could double jump and hover using my hair/head-parts (a little like Dixie Kong) until halfway through the first level. Also the decision to put the sprint button on the trigger and shoulder buttons seems a little strange. I’m sure I’d get used to it eventually, but it felt awkward holding down R2 or R1 to sprint. I’d take the classic Y to sprint, B to jump combination any day.

Like I said before, I never played a Rayman game before, so I don’t know his precise physics. Still something felt a little “off” during my time with the demo. Sometimes my jumps--especially when jumping off a vine--would go much farther than I expected and other times I’d fall short. This could just be part of the learning curve associated with playing a new platformer.

My time with Rayman Origins was short, but I walked away having seen some brilliant graphical touches and adorable sound effects. Each level looks like it’ll have some replayability as players can try to collect enough “yellow things” or free some trapped “pink” things to 100% the level. No idea what beating these challenges gets you. I also saw hints that the game isn’t going to pull any punches later on. I have a feeling this is going to be a difficult game. Whether or not that’s your thing, well…I couldn’t tell you that.

The question is: do I want to spend $60 on what, to me, is essentially a brand new IP? I don’t want to come across as one of those people moaning, “Ugh this game needs to be priced at $40 ‘cause it’s 2D” but at the same time I know I’d be more willing to take a chance on it if it was cheaper—not because of the graphics, just because I’m not the biggest platformer fan. Still every “new” IP deserves a chance, right?   read

1:51 PM on 09.07.2011

The Best Moustaches In Gaming

Last time I wrote an article like this it was full of well-deserved vitriol and hate toward some of gaming’s worst feathered fiends. Well to prove I’m not just a Negative Nancy, this article will celebrate one of humanity’s greatest achievements: the moustache.

The moustache is the pinnacle of evolution, science, and art. It is a majestic, almost-sentient creature that covers the upper lips of worthy men (and some women--hey, that’s cool too). So without further ado, join me in celebrating the greatest moustaches in gaming!


First of all, I know many of you are saying, “Mario! Mario has the best moustache!” Well, you’re wrong. Sure Mario’s furry lip-warmer is a classic, but Wario has him beat when it comes to sheer moustacheitude. Look at those harsh angles. Do you know how much effort it would take to create a moustache that wonderful? Lots.

Solid Snake

When Snake showed up in Metal Gear Sold 4: Guns of the Patriots he was sporting two apparent changes. One, he was old. Two, he had a moustache. Like his still muscled body, Snake’s moustache is sculpted with care and precision. Only a true, top tier commando could pull it off with such panache.


Class, grace, and elegance. These three words describe both Dudley and his fabulous moustache. Dudley could beat you to a pulp and still make you want to say, “Why thank you, my good sir!” as he’s doing it. I’ve never played Street Fighter III, but I think I might have to just to marvel at Dudley’s facial hair.

A special shout out goes to Mike Haggar from Final Fight. He’s a mustachioed mayor who fights crime. I think he and Dudley should star in a co-op beat ‘em up together.

Dr. Robotnik

He will never be Eggman to me. Sorry, I’m just not having it. What I will have is some of his ridiculous moustache. There’s at least enough hair there for two moustaches. I mean it perfectly completes his ensemble and just screams, “Evil scientist…with style!”


How do you think Blaine controls his Pokemon? His Volcano Badge? Please. It’s clearly his awe-inspiring moustache. When you start to go bald what do you do? It’s one of those old lemons to lemonade things. Grow a moustache. Blaine’s glorluxuriant (that’s glorious and luxuriant combined) moustache clearly makes him a leader among men, well…Pokemon.


I don’t know what a “Tekken” is. I’ve never played one. But I want to now! I don’t care that Jinpachi’s moustache also has a beard component because daaaaaaamn. That is a moustache among moustaches. I imagine it being really sharp, and I hope one of his special moves is stabbing somebody in the chest, stomach, and/or groin with it.

So there you have: my list of the most prodigious pushbrooms, stupendous soup strainers, and spectacular ‘staches. Not everyone made the cut, there were many honorable mentions, and I’m sure there are ones I missed. Let me know your favorites in the comments.   read

1:59 PM on 07.28.2011

Motion Controls: Nostalgia Killers

Dtoid, have I told you how much I love the Donkey Kong series? Well let’s just say I’m bananas over the franchise. Okay, that was awful. I promise there will be no more monkey-based puns in this blog. Back to the matter at hand, I love Donkey Kong. This is a tale of a young man’s nostalgia being crushed by imposition of motion controls.

My brothers and I got an SNES for Christmas in 1994 with two games: Super Mario World and Donkey Kong Country. Mario holds a special place in my heart, but it’s a tight fit because good ol’ DK is right there next to him.

I spent countless hours playing the original DKC with my brothers. I learned all the tricks and secrets, including cheat codes. Then a couple of years later Donkey Kong Country 2. emerged onto the scene.[I could go on for pages about how much I love that game. Then came the not-as-good-but-still-damn-good Donkey Kong Country 3 during the SNES’ waning years.

Over my roughly twenty years of gaming I’ve owned and played: the 3 DKC games mentioned above, the Donkey Kong Land Gameboy games, the collect-a-thon [i]Donkey Kong 64, Diddy Kong Racing, and the GBA remakes of the DKC trilogy. At one point I also owned the Donkey Kong books for kids that were based off the Gameboy games.

Yes this is a thing that exists. But not even Amazon had a pic of the cover.

So imagine my delight when Donkey Kong Country Returns was announced for the Wii. The setting looked gorgeous. There was retro-remixed-throwback music. There was Rambi! Yeah there weren’t any Kremlings, but I was okay with that. Then of course, the catch. The proverbial turd in my nostalgia punch bowl: motion controls.

On the surface, the motion controls in DKCR don’t seem like such a big deal. You can play the game with a Wiimote or with the Nunchuck. However, the problem is that you have to shake the Wiimote in order to get Donkey to roll or pound the ground. Veteran DK players know that a well-timed roll/cartwheel jump can make or break many levels and tricky sections. The fact that this integral part of the game got mapped to a motion rather than a simple button press worried me. But, still I was enthusiastic. I wagered I could look past the motion controls and enjoy the game just like the DK games of old.

Nope. I was so wrong. People have made comments how DKCR is a challenging game. Yeah it’s challenging--in a completely bullshit way. I swear I’ve died more times from having DK not roll when I want him to than from actual enemies. I made it to the end of World 5 before I had to give up.

This is an instance where motion controls do far more harm than good. Imagine how amazing the game would be if you could play it with a Gamecube controller or a Classic controller. I would’ve done that in a heartbeat. Instead Nintendo and Retro Studios shoehorned motion controls into a game, and technically a genre, that didn’t need them. They turned simple mechanics tied to precise button presses into a garbled mess of me waving my Wiimote around in the air like I’m trying to shake a baby to death.*

*It disturbs me that that was the best analogy I could come up with

I’m not a motion controls hater--at least not completely. If implemented properly and in genres that work well with them, then motion controls can be great. I just dislike being forced to deal with suboptimal control schemes. For me Donkey Kong Country Returns is a failure. I’m probably not going to go back to it. Instead of waggling my Wiimote, I think I’ll fire up DKC2 on the VC and bask in my untarnished nostalgia.   read

9:03 PM on 07.08.2011

The Worst Birds in Gaming

I’m playing through Prince of Persia: Sands of Time for the first time, and I’m at a really annoying part. I have to cross some balance beams while those goddamn birds keep attacking me. You know what replaying this section three times already has taught me? Birds suck.

“I hate birds. They’re so useless,” to quote a character from one of my favorite childhood (well early teenage years) TV shows Ed, Edd n Eddy. But seriously, fuck birds. So without further ado, here’s my personal list of the worst birds in gaming.

The birds in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time

Of course these are going to be on my list. They look freaky as shit with their glowing chest spot things and skeletal-like appearance. Plus they’re annoying and the prince sometimes doesn’t want to go into his blocking motion unless they’re just close enough. Fuck these demon birds.

Pidgey (and other normal-type flying Pokemon)

“Tiny bird Pokemon?” More like useless bird Pokemon, am I right? How many times are you wandering through the tall grass minding your own business or searching for a kickass Pikachu or something when bam! it's another goddamn Pidgey. Well at least you can teach these feathered sons of bitches Fly. That’s about all they’re good for. Honorable Mentions: Zubat because fuck those guys. They’re just cave-Pidgey’s.


“But Falco flies an Arwing which is totally rad!” you say. Yeah, but he’s also a giant ass. Seriously if I have to listen to one more of his smartass comments, I’m going to shoot him down myself. He guesses he should be thankful? Who the fuck says that instead of showing some gratitude? Giant, blue talking birds. That’s who.


Now there’s no way any of you can disagree with this one. Well you can…but you’d be wrong! Is a new bottle really worth the trouble of trying to catch all those mothercluckers? No. Plus these little guys are vengeful. Just try hitting them a few times with your sword and see what happens. Cuccopocalypse.

Angry Birds

What right do these guys have to be angry all the time? It’s not healthy. Not only do they make annoying sounds but they’re pig killers, and pigs are way cooler than birds. Not to mention more delicious. Which would you rather have: bird or delicious bacon? Plus Angry Birds is super popular, so it’s got to suck, right?

Ducks from Duck Hunt

You think the dog is the biggest asshole on the planet? Wrong. It’s the birds. They think they’re so high and mighty flying around, taunting you into taking ill advised shots. These ducks reek of sheer arrogance. Ugh. It’s making me sick just thinking about them.

The above just represent just a small example of the fowl foulness that exists in video games. Let me know about ones I missed in the comments. Like I said before, fuck birds.   read

7:33 PM on 07.06.2011

Freedom: Freedom To or Freedom From?

I’ve seen a lot of blogs lately talking about open-world games and how they give players freedom to do an almost dizzying amount of stuff. These great blogs have addressed only one side of freedom, but what about the other side? What about freedom from?

Open-world games like the Grand Theft Auto series or Fallout and Oblivion give players tremendous amounts of choices. Do I want to do side quests, level up some obscure sub-skill, or do I want to progress the main story? The amount of stuff you can do in these games is staggering. Sometimes it’s too much.

I can go pick some herbs, do side quests galore, try to finish the main quest... Too many choices!

Some gamers look at linearity as if it’s a disease. Well if that’s the case, I don’t want to be inoculated it against it. Or something like that. Lemme ditch the strained metaphor and say that sometimes I want a game to offer me the freedom from having to decide which of the numerous side quests and activities to undertake.

When I first played Fallout 3 I made it through the relatively linear opening sequence in the Vault with no problem. But then something peculiar happened when the glare faded from my never-seen-real-sunlight-before eyes. I was paralyzed. The pure freedom the game shoved in my face made me unable to do anything. The game sat on my shelf for six months after that until I finally forced myself to play it again. That was two years ago, and now history repeated itself when I tried to play New Vegas two weeks ago. Guess how much time I put into it? Not much.

My first taste of freedom from Vault 101. Now what?

Open-world games have their place, and I enjoyed my time with Oblivion and even Fallout 3 when I finally got into it. Sometimes I want Big Brother Game Developer holding my hand. A guided experience (when done well) can be more intense than a diffuse one riddled with endless freedom.

That’s the real trick isn’t it? How are games supposed to create guided experiences while still offering some illusion of freedom and choice? Because even though I want the freedom from being paralyzed by choice, I still want the freedom to have some choice. Contradictory? Absolutely. Do I have any concrete suggestions on what games could attempt? Not right now, no.

Picture is unrelated.

Gaming is a unique hobby because it gives us the opportunity to take in all these different types of experiences. Some people want games with more freedom to, and others want games with the other kind. The truly amazing thing is that all of us have the freedom to play what we want.

That veered somewhere cheesy. Cock. Balls. Okay things are back to normal now.   read

12:55 PM on 05.04.2011

How Pokemon is Broken

How Pokemon is Broken

I borrowed Pokemon HeartGold from my brother to see if I could relive those carefree days I spent in Johto as a child. Sadly, those days are gone forever. My 60+ hours spent with HeartGold taught me one thing: Pokemon is broken.

Pictured: Pikachu, cool lightning. Not pictured: broken mechanics

There’s always controversy every time a new Pokemon game comes out. People complain that the series doesn’t innovate enough. They bemoan that each game is basically just like the one before it with maybe a new coat of paint and a tweak or two here and there. I’m not going to delve into those complaints. That’s not where I think the Pokemon series has problems. I want to delve deeper into the actual, somewhat bullshit, gameplay mechanics.

Maybe it was the innocence of youth that blinded me to Pokemon’s faults. But after 60 hours with HeartGold, I’m not sure I’m going to play another Pokemon game ever again. Here’s a couple of reasons why:

The endless grind – As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized I have less and less patience for grinding, and Pokemon is all about the grind. This isn’t a trait that’s unique to Pokemon; many JRPGs suffer from the need for almost incessant grinding.

Price of admission: one soul

Pokemon wants you to “catch ‘em all,” but what they don’t tell you is that once you catch ‘em you have to raise ‘em to high enough levels to fit in with the rest of your team. And that takes forever. Battling wild Pokemon and battling other Pokemon trainers are the two ways you earn experience. But the problem is you never seem to earn enough.

Por ejemplo: I was going to tackle one of the gyms in HeartGold. The gym leader’s Pokemon were all in the mid to upper 30’s. I needed to level up a few members of my team so they could hold their own in the coming battle. However the wild Pokemon available to me at the time were only level 25, and I was out of other trainers to battle. The game forced me to spend hours battling weaker Pokemon just to scrape a few level ups together. It was soul crushingly monotonous. And it happened all the damn time throughout the course of the game.

I hope you all lose your jobs

Healing – The second problem I see with Pokemon is related to the first one. Undoubtedly your Pokemon are going to get hurt during all that time spent grinding. You have two options for healing them: take them to a PokeCenter or use an item. PokeCenters are free, but they’re only located in cities. It’s a huge pain in the ass when you have to race back to the nearest town after every fight to heal your team. Items really aren’t a better option either. Wild Pokemon don’t drop potions or other healing items like in other RPGs, nor do they drop money. You only earn money from battling that finite number of trainers. There’s a finite amount of money you can earn in the game. Therefore your ability to purchase healing items is severely limited.

The fact that healing your team is such a hassle only makes the grinding that much worse. While Dragon Age II was criticized for aspects of its battle system, I think that the auto-heal after a battle mechanic would work wonders within the Pokemon universe. Sure it’d put PokeCenters and all those identical looking Nurse Joy’s out of work, but I can live with that. If I never had to hear that “healing melody” ever again I could die a happy man.

I just thought this picture was funny. That is a truthfact.

Without addressing the overarching complaints that surround Pokemon – the lack of innovation – the issues I talked about above are the two biggest ones that break the Pokemon games. Maybe I’m not hardcore enough to slog through the games without complaining. While I love the fact that Pokemon is a surprisingly deep series – I don’t go near the breeding and EV stuff – I think it would take a turn for the awesome if it showed just a little more accessibility. If that happened then my time spent training my critters wouldn’t feel like such a dreary, mind numbing chore. So come on Game Freak and Nintendo, forget about creating new batches of Pokemon. Fix your gameplay mechanics and I’ll be first in line to throw more money at you.   read

2:14 PM on 04.26.2011

Under the Radar: Darkwatch

On this week’s edition of Under the Radar I want to once again venture back in time to 2005. However we’re moving away from the action RPG genre and into the Wild Wild West of FPS games. Combining the Wild West, vampires before they were cliché, and FPS action, Darkwatch is a game that slipped under the radar for me. Of course, the question remains: was it worth my time to play it?

Title: Darkwatch
Developer: High Moon Studios
Publisher: Capcom
Release Date & Platforms: August, 2005 (PS2 played, Xbox)


Disclaimer: I wasn’t able to finish Darkwatch because the game kept freezing at the end of the eighth chapter, “Baptism of Fire.” It froze during the loading screen between chapters eight and nine. Then it froze again every time I tried to load my saved game. Still I got a little less than halfway through the story, so I feel like I got a pretty good grasp on what the game had to offer.

Darkwatch is a FPS game set in the 1870’s and has the player step into the spurs of outlaw Jericho Cross. The first mission has Jericho robbing what he believes is a treasure train. Instead of finding gold inside the vault, he inadvertently frees an evil vampire named Lazarus and unleashes him upon the West. However instead of killing Jericho, Lazarus decides to bite him. We all know where this is going; Jericho starts to turn into a vampire and develops some interesting powers as well as an affinity for blood. Jericho joins the Darkwatch, a centuries old organization that protects humanity from vampires and the like, in order to help take down Lazarus.

When viewed from 2011, it looks like Darkwatch is full of every horror movie/novel cliché out there. But at the same time, it came out in 2005, long before things like Twilight (both the novels and movies) and True Blood made vampires un-cool. So taking that into consideration I just had to roll with the game’s campiness, and strangely it works for the most part. I mean Undead Nightmare wouldn’t have worked if people didn’t have some desire to shoot zombies in the head while on horseback.

The game is available on PS2 and Xbox, and while I haven’t played the Xbox version, I doubt there’s a big difference between the two versions in terms of graphics. Darkwatch looks like a pretty high end PS2 game, not on the same level as say Final Fantasy X but not terrible either.

The controls were among the biggest issues I had with the game. I found the default setting, 5, to be way too sensitive. I ended up turning it down to 2, but I never felt like I truly got a handle on the aiming. I’m not a FPS noob or anything. I went into the game expecting to be able to handle myself without too much effort.

The button configurations were strange too. I messed around with the control schemes, but couldn’t find one I was completely satisfied with. One had reload in a weird spot while another would move melee to somewhere inconvenient. The original Halo came out in 2001, and I have to think that it helped codify a somewhat “standard” set of FPS button configurations. Why a game in 2005 wouldn’t offer something resembling a “standard” set is kind of strange.

The other biggest issue I had (aside from the freezing and not loading my saves) was the characters themselves. Jericho never speaks, but I dug it. He’s supposed to be the stoic gunslinger type character. But the rest were just a walking mess of clichés. Your partner Tala is hilarious with how stereotypical she is. Apparently she’s Native American so she wore a feather in her hair. Plus I knew she’d end up evil; no “good” character is able to pull off that “leather and tits” look quite right. Shameless is the perfect word for her character design. (Don’t even get me started on the Playboy spread.)

I didn’t attempt the competitive multiplayer because I figured that a) the service wouldn’t be available, or b) nobody would be playing it anymore. The game does have a co-op mode too, but I didn’t have anybody to test it out with. My girlfriend isn’t very big on FPS games.

I can’t help but walk away from Darkwatch feeling unfulfilled. The game is serviceable, and if you’re looking for a quick PS2 era run and gun shooter you could do a lot worse. Darkwatch also did the whole undead West thing before Undead Nightmare so it gets some points there. However the weird controls and constant use of arena sections where you have to fight off waves of enemies really slowed down the game’s flow and sapped its energy. I can’t say I’m truly sad that Darkwatch flew under the radar for me.

Next up on Under the Radar: I had to scratch Dead Space off my list because I wasn’t enjoying it. It felt like a chore to play. C’est la vie right? Instead I’ve been playing Pokémon HeartGold and I got some things to say about it. Stay tuned!   read

1:21 PM on 04.19.2011

Under The Radar: Jade Empire

This is the start of a new series I'm experimenting with. I can’t promise that it’ll be a weekly, biweekly, or even a monthly series; it all depends on when I can get games for it and when I finish them.

Tons of new games come out every month, and after a while some rise to the top and others fly under the radar either due to a lack of sales or because simply they aren’t very good. This feature will celebrate, for better or worse, these kinds of games, the ones that I’ve passed by until now. Some of them may or may not be well known, but that’s not the point. The point is to give these “under the radar” games a chance. If you think I’m crazy for not playing some of these sooner, then let me know in the comments.

Title: Jade Empire
Developer: BioWare
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Release Date & Platforms: April, 2005 (Xbox, played), February, 2007 (PC)


First up on my list is Jade Empire, an action RPG developed by BioWare for the original Xbox and released in 2005. Does this semi-critical darling still hold up just over six years later? No, but Jade Empire is worth a try because it’s useful for showing how far BioWare have come in recent years.

Jade Empire is set in a fictional world heavily inspired by Asian martial arts. Think along the lines of Avatar: The Last Airbender and you’ll kind of get the picture. The player chooses one of the preset characters and embarks along an “epic” journey to discover their destiny and stop the evil spirits that are plaguing the Jade Empire.

Suitable fighting attire? Not so much.

I put epic in quotes because unlike some of BioWare’s other RPGs, I can’t say that Jade Empire’s story is that engrossing. Maybe it’s because I have very little experience with wuxia style fiction. I couldn’t get into the story and again unlike other BioWare games—Mass Effect, Dragon Age II—I didn’t care about any of the supporting characters at all, which incidentally made it easy to play as an “evil” or Way of the Closed Fist character.

Combat is handled in a third person action game style, but there were issues with the camera—mainly in the fact that it was hard to keep track of enemies sometimes. Players utilize normal attacks, charge attacks, magic attacks, and attacks enhanced with chi, but rarely did the fights require much strategy. I was able to use my long sword or my basic martial arts style to get through most of the game without problems.

As the game goes on, you leave the small hamlet of Two Rivers and venture out into the kingdom. In traditional RPG fashion, you arrive at a larger town and are given the opportunity to partake in a variety of side quests in order to gain gold, XP, and karma points. While the cities of Tien’s Landing and Imperial City (chapters two and three respectively) have a bunch of side quests, starting with chapter four, the game takes a turn for the linear.

I’m not complaining about linearity just for the sake of complaining. It just felt like Jade Empire wanted it both ways. It felt like BioWare wanted to have a sprawling RPG, started to run out of time and/or money halfway through, and then had to scale back their ambitions. The problem is for the most part the story isn’t interesting enough to carry the game without some of the freedom the earlier chapters provided.

Towards the end of the game I was confronted with the game’s “big choice,” you know that one big decision that can completely change your karmic alignment? I stuck with the evil route, and that was the only time Jade Empire’s story felt engrossing. My character’s actions and the reactions of my party members were fascinating. I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite as “evil” before.

Hint: it involves this guy.

As might be the case with this series, it could be that I’m looking back too harshly on a game that came out years ago. Maybe in 2005, Jade Empire was considered cutting edge with a riveting story. Maybe I just don’t “get it.” However, I can’t help but think that’s not the case, especially considering Knights of the Old Republic came out two years earlier (there will be an article dedicated to KotOR in the future—once I actually play it).

For better or worse, Jade Empire flew under the radar for me. I remember hearing about it, but I never gave it a second thought until a couple of weeks ago. Still despite the missteps with the story, the slightly lackluster combat, and the sudden shift toward a linear gameplay experience, Jade Empire illuminates how far BioWare has come as a crafter of top-notch RPGs in the past six years.

Next up on Under the Radar: depending on when I finish it, Dead Space. While it’s a mainstream game that’s only a few years old, it flew under my radar because I was too scared to try and play it…until now.   read

3:11 PM on 03.28.2011

In Pursuit of Platinum: My Journey Through Dragon Age II

On March 8, my copy of Dragon Age II arrived. Little did I know that this title was going to change my life.

Dragon Age II is not a perfect game. It’s not even close to perfect. But since it came out, I haven’t taken it out of my PS3’s disc tray. I’ve sunk hour after hour into Hawke’s story and the city of Kirkwall. And as I continued to play, something peculiar happened. My trophy count went higher and higher. Then I realized what was happening. I was on my way to earning 100% of the trophies. Before I knew it I was in pursuit of platinum.

Ellie Hawke--the most badass 2-handed warrior Kirkwall has ever seen

Right off the bat, I have to say that I don’t care about gamer scores or trophies that much. I know how other Destructoid writers feel about them and that's fine. I like earning the points/icons/what have you, but in no way do I think that they mark me as a better gamer. If somebody has more points than me, it just means that he or she has probably played more games than me. Simple as that. My gamer score is not how I measure my e-penis. (True story: I do that with an e-yardstick, ‘cause it’s e-normous.)

I enjoy getting trophies and achievements because I treat them as little extra challenges the games throw at me. Beat a level and find all the little collectibles hidden inside it? Okay, will do. I’m a completionist anyway, so these kinds of tasks appeal to me.

Dragon Age II wove a spell over me (Chantry approved of course. No blood magic here). Unlike Mass Effect 2, which I believe to be a superior game, it forced me to role play. I wasn’t choosing dialogue choices because I wanted to max out my Paragon or Renegade scores. I was choosing the dialogue options that I wanted, usually the “smartass” responses because that’s how I respond in a lot of situations. Say what you want about Bioware “dumbing” down the game and the conversation choices, but I had to think more about what I was going to say in this game than I did in both Mass Effect’s.

Towards the end of the game I did a brutal companion quest for Merrill. Not because it was hard, but because of what was happening on the screen—things my character, my Hawke was doing because of my actions. I couldn’t change them. Merrill had decided her fate, and for better or worse, I was a part of it. Hawke had to reap what she sowed, and by extension so did I.

I’d never felt like that from a game before. I’ve seen things from all ends of the spectrum—from touching to horrifying. For example, the twist in Bioshock really hit me because even though I played it for the first time in 2009 I managed to avoid spoilers. Dragon Age II actually forced me to feel for the characters and experience the consequences of my actions.

After I beat it for the first time, I willingly dove back into the rapidly deteriorating city of Kirkwall for a second playthrough. I wanted to do things differently. It was only by accident that I saw that I was only a handful of trophies away from obtaining the platinum.

I’ve gotten close to platinum before, once with inFamous and once with Assassin’s Creed II. But I really only kept playing those games to satisfy my completionist tendencies. Dragon Age II is a game I wanted to play again so I could experience everything. And if doing everything gets me a platinum trophy, then I had to go for it. This flawed, rushed game compelled me to conquer it. This wasn’t a chore like some other games I’ve played. This pursuit of platinum was a joy.

(Note: I’m 80% of the way there, but I only have 6 trophies left to get. I’m in Act III right now and will easily get them before I beat the game again.)

(Note 2: As of 1:02 am on Saturday I beat the game for a second time. The trophy is mine. Now hopefully I remembered to keep saves for both sets of clear data.)

Addendum: Apparently this is not meant to be. The trophy “Epic” is known to have bugs. There are other threads where people are having the same problem. You’re supposed to get it if you either: beat the game once and import a save from Origins or just beat the game twice. Since I don’t have Dragon Age Origins, I went the beat the game twice route. I guess I’ll have to wait for a patch. It really doesn’t matter in the long run. I know that I got 100% of the achievements. I know that I squeezed every single drop of entertainment from the game. That’s what matters more than a little icon in my trophy list. I just would’ve liked to see the little thing pop up, but that’s life.   read

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