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11:59 PM on 02.04.2015

DDI & The Curious Case of Ninjabread Man

The introduction of the original Wii was particularily exciting for our industry. Though it may be difficult to remember, there was a time when each new release for the platform was seen as an opporunity to make good on Nintendo's promise of truly changing the way we play games. Instead, publishers were frantically releasing anything and everything they could get their hands on as to quickly cash-in on the rapidly fading motion controller phenomenon. Perhaps no single title is more infamous for ushering in this era of shovelware dreck than 2007's Ninjabread Man. Far more interesting than the game itself is the story behind it and one of the more shameless development studios in modern game design.

Ninjabread Man originally began development as a modern re-imagining of the Amiga classic Zool. Data Design Interactive secured the rights and started work on a new entry in the series with a projected release of 2004/05 (see original intro cinematic above). Unfortunately for DDI, Zool's rights holders were thoroughly unimpressed with their offerings, forcing the studio to replace the Ninja of the Nth Dimension with their own original character. The design of the titular Ninja was a perfunctory but fitting design that easily meshed with Zool's world and the new game saw release in 2005 for the PS2/PC in europe and worldwide for Nintendo's Wii in 2007. For development, DDI utilized their own in-house game engine. While far from impressive, the "GODS" engine (for Game Oriented Development System) was unique in that it wasn't reliant on any single platform's machine code or development kit. As sort of a predecessor to the Unity engine it's focus was instead on ease of porting from one console to the next. However, this had the nasty side-effect of leaving games developed with GODS woefully unoptimized for any device.

Ninjabread Man is in and of itself a very derivitave work with gameplay that would be more at home on early 5th generation platforms like the Jaguar or 3DO. Character movement has more in common with the likes of Bubsy 3D than more modern platformers. In that way, I found a modicum of fun in the game as sort of an unintentional throwback title. It was like going back to a time before the release of Tomb Raider or Super Mario 64 cemented the basics of 3D running and jumping. I've always loved going back to the Sega Saturn or Playstation and playing older 3D platformers to see how developers grappled with camera control and 360 degree movement. But in 2007, such a lack of understanding for the genre's fundemental's is unacceptable. Control is sloppy, unrespnsive and the game lacks variety of any kind offering only a bare bones experience. Enemies are easily dispatched and combat is all around thoroughly uninspired. There are only a total of three levels (four if you count the tutorial) and the entire game can be completed in roughly 45 minutes.

Ultimately, I find the whole thing more than a little frustrating because I see so much potential here. As a $20 budget release it utterly fails, but with a little more content and polish it could have succeeded as a $5 WiiWare release. The versatility of the GODS engine could have given DDI a real edge if they used it's penchant for rapid development to allow them to focus on design and mechanics. Instead they used these short cycles to churn out below mediocre titles again and again. Infact, they released 62 different Wii games that year alone, with three of them being little more than reskins of Ninjabread Man. It was estimated in 2008 that DDI was responsible for 40% of the Wii's value software library in Europe. Now, they're relegated to being a work-for-hire studio, having since closed their headquarters in the UK. Had their mission been to make quality software instead of flooding the market with shovelware, the Wii's library as a whole may be seen differently today.

As a personal note, I'd like to state that I had vehemently avoided purchasing this game for years. It wasn't until learning about it's origins as a Zool title and finding it on sale for $2 that I changed my mind.


1:27 PM on 01.08.2015

For Your Re-Consideration: Buster Douglas Knockout Boxing

The competition between Sony and Microsoft this generation has been sporting, friendly and downright civil. A far cry from the bloodthirsty, kill or be killed corporate attitudes of the past. While most industry observers have likely welcomed this shift in attitudes, I can't help but find myself needlessly nostalgic for the console races of yesteryear. When Sega introduced the Genesis in 1989 they poised themselves as the David ready to take down a Goliath. Infact, you would've been forgiven for thinking that Nintendo's market dominance couldn't be threatened by anyone. Unfortunately for them, Sega was ready to present themselves as the antithesis to Nintendo while slinging mud in their direction anytime an opportunity to do so presented itself. This lead to what may be the most famous marketing blitz this industry has ever seen. Sega had made a name for themselves as leaders in the coin-op space, so the first wave of software for their new console would consist of nearly 1:1 ports of their best arcade games. However, with too few recognizable franchises they decided to compliment their initial offerings with celebrity endorsed titles that were accompanied by the slogan: "Genesis Does What Nintendon't!". I don't think any game better exemplifies this segment of their earliest offerings better than James "Buster" Douglas' Knockout Boxing.

In 1990, the world of Championship Boxing saw arguably it's biggest upset in the history of the sport when the previously undefeated champ Mike Tyson was KO'ed by relative newcomer Buster Douglas. With Iron Mike's defeat came an opportunity for Sega to repurpose Taito's Final Blow arcade title as a game starring Mr. Douglas when publishing it for the Genesis here in the west. The result of the ensuing licensing deal between Douglas and Sega was James "Buster" Douglas' Knockout Boxing, a game that was both a near perfect arcade port and a celebrity endorsed title. The game would also simultaneously serve as a symbol of Sega's intent to one up their competition (Nintendo), who had signed Tyson for a similar deal to market their arcade-to-home conversion of Punch-Out!! only a few years earlier. Buster Douglas himself could even be seen in early Genesis adverts shouting "Does!" in time with the console's slogan.

The game offers players the chance to take on the role of Douglas while working their way to the championship title bout. You'll encounter a small roster of ficticious opponents representing a variety of nationalities until you're granted the opportunity to go up against Iron Mike Head himself. However, that's where the similarities to Nintendo's Punch-Out franchise end. The game uses large detailed sprites that take up two thirds the height of the screen to showcase the power the Genesis offered over it's 8-bit predecessors. Taito has decided to eschew the simon-says gameplay of the Punch-Out series in favour of more reflex oriented gameplay. Adversaries forego telegraphing their movements in advance, requiring players to be light on their feet and use a strong offense to win a match. It's this different play style with it's emphasis on movement that I find most appealing. You simply don't know how a match is going to play out beforehand plus the action on display is fast and frantic. 

Control is simple, as you would likely expect from an arcade title. Left and right on the directional pad controls your movement while up and down positions your arms high or low. The A and B buttons punch with either arm and the C button allows you to duck to quickly evade. Likewise you can also double tap backwards to quickly hop away from your opponent. Whether your arms are high or low will dictate if you throw a jab or a hook but this movement is also used to block. Pressing both A and B simultaneously will execute a power puch that can KO the other boxer if it connects. The controls are elegant and responsive, making it easy to jump into the game immediately. This low barrier to entry makes the game very approachable and it features a finely tuned difficulty curve to keep the game flowing. It won't be long before you find yourself infront of Iron Head... only to be promptly disposed of because he's nigh impossible to defeat. To this day I still haven't beaten Iron Head.

Knockout Boxing is very much a product of it's time, a remnant of Sega's past marketing strategy that boarders on advertainment. But, it's exciting arcade action delivers an alternative to Nintendo's offerings. It's larger-than-life animated characters marry a stunning presentation with exhilerating reflex based gameplay. In many ways it's the antithesis to Punch-Out!!, perhaps deliberately so and a move Sega would repeat when marketing their blue hedgehog a year later. While it doesn't have the depth or complexity of other boxing games of the time, it still stands as my go to version of the game. And perhaps one day, I'll be good enough to take on the champ.


2:05 AM on 12.07.2014

Topical Thought: Critique Parroting

With the recent release of Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric on the Wii U we've seen a slew of reviews come and go, all united under a banner of disappointment. As a longtime Sonic fan I've seen a fair share of low review scores attached to the hedgehog's name and all the hubbub surrounding the title did little to stir the electrons in my noggin. However, there is a trend in the online space (particularly when it comes to YouTube's gaming community) I wanted to discuss in regards to echoing sentiments revolving around reviews. I've settled on naming these occurrences "Critique Parroting". Lately, I've been rediscovering my treasured Sega Genesis library and having a ball while doing so. I decided to give Strider Returns a chance since I've been a fan of the original since youth. I was treated to a thoroughly mediocre but admittedly mildly enjoyable romp of a sequel. Whenever I finish with a title for the first time, I make a point to do some research on the game in question. I look for interviews, development diaries and of course, reviews. In the case of Strider Returns, I was only able to come across minimal snippets of development history and one brief but interesting interview. When it comes to reviews, I try to find multiple reviews for both sides but with a game like Strider Returns, that can be a tall order. On YouTube I could find only one critic who found positive aspects about the game to talk about. In response to every other review of Strider Returns, he made this following video:

While I don't think as highly of Strider Returns as this particular critic does, I do appreciate his full review for offering up a different look at it. Now, whenever I discuss games with others online, be it in this blog or on a forum I try to remember the old adage: "Not every game is a masterpiece, but every game is somebody's favourite". I don't tell myself this before writing because I'm trying to avoid hurting someone's feelings in regards to a game they may enjoy, but instead I find it's a great way to remind myself to try and look at the product from all sides to present others with much more constructive feedback. The problem of Critique Parroting is symptomatic of a much larger issue in the YouTube community, and that's a distinct lack of originality. Much like the games industry itself, most YouTubers aren't brave enough to forge their own path or craft a unique identity for themselves. Instead they settle for replicating the most successful formula seen thus far, which means we can expect another twelve dozen hundred copies like The Irate Gamer in our future. And with every copy made, the quality usually decreases.

That brings me back to Sonic Boom, because it shares a lot in common with Strider Returns. Both titles are western developed spin-offs of popular Japanese games. Both were poorly optimized due to inexperience. Both strayed significantly from their source material and both were panned by critics following their respective releases. And yet, I enjoyed both for what they were despite what they weren't. The games in question took their series' in new directions and offered something original. I'm certainly not delusional enough to think that either is a masterpiece or a landmark title for it's platform but I am intelligent enough to find some merit in these games without too much effort and I think that's something a complete overview of any product needs. Unfortunately, it's becoming more and more difficult to find a middle road these days. Anytime I scour YouTube for some retro reviews I'm generally greeted with "angry" critics shouting into their microphones before they've even come to any logical conclusions. If I've found something fun in these games, I can't be the only one.

With all of the controversies surrounding reviews we've seen this year, I've been looking for more alternative sources for information. However, it's become apparent to me that no source is entirely free of it's own unique pitfalls. I should note that when it comes to amateur content like this, creators don't have any responsibility to anyone, except themselves. If they want to follow the trends and regurgitate the same thoughts as everyone else, they should feel free to. But isn't anything worth doing, worth doing well? And if you're just going to say the same thing as everyone else without adding anything new, what's the point? What's the point if the only thing making your review unique is the awful capture quality and a weak microphone?


4:41 AM on 10.12.2014

For Your Re-Consideration: Double Dragon V

To be a Dragon you've gotta be strong. Humble, never braggin'!

Cross promotion used to play a much bigger role in video games when I was younger. It wasn't entirely uncommon to see cereal, toys or even cartoons based on video game characters. Case in point, in the early 90s DiC made several cartoon series based on popular franchises to limited success, one such series was Double Dragon. The television series itself was a mixed bag. The show was offered as a loose adaptation of the plot from the original home console port on the NES. Ultimately, I feel the show was big on ideas but low on the funds to properly execute them. Regardless, the show was popluar enough to be renewed for a second season and it even saw a video game tie-in on home consoles. That's right, the television series based on a video game was to recieve it's own video game adaptation. What a world we live in. As if to further compound the silliness, the game wouldn't be a side-scrolling brawler, instead it was decided to be turned into a one-on-one tournament fighter in the hopes of cashing in on Street Fighter II's recent success. TradeWest, who had published most home versions of the original games in America, would hand development for this new title off to their newly founded and short-lived internal development studio, Leland Interactive Media.


The 90s certainly wasn't suffering from a lack of fighting games. Following the release of Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat, 16-bit consoles saw an influx of tournament fighters all hoping for a fraction of their success. It's no wonder then, that Double Dragon V would be viewed with some much deserved cynicism. Afterall, this game is one of the most transparent corporate cash grabs of it's time. This falls into the same boat as other shameless endeavours like Primal Rage, Cosmic Carnage or Clayfighter. However, for what it is, Double Dragon V is pretty darn good. For one, the controls are spot on. It's easy to pick up for the first time and executing special attacks is relatively straightforward. It's easy to discover special moves without too much trouble and the designers have strayed away from cryptic commands. Also, the AI offers a challenge without being as relentless as Eternal Champions or Mortal Kombat II. It's not impossible to complete the game's modes with just a little effort.


It should be said, despite all it's flaws, I really enjoy the cartoon series. I'm certain that your mileage with this title will vary depending on how much you enjoy the show as well. The game offers painstakingly recreated locales from the series. The environments are colourful, animated and populated with familiar toys vehicles. The cast of characters is also populated with the brothers' rogues gallery and special mention has to be given to their fluid animation. It feels like you're playing the cartoon and it feels great to play as Billy or Jimmy and make short work of these thugs. The game also features a "quest mode" that plays like an abridged episode. A few plot points have been taken from the show and it's a lot of fun slowly working your way towards the Shadow Dojo to defeat the Shadow Master. I do wish however, that characters like Abobo and Machine Gun Willy made an appearance. Admitedly they only had a brief presence in the show but it would have gone a long way to connect this game to the past ones. Even the dominatrix-esque character Dominique feels like a missed opportunity as the developers could have simply named her Linda.

Regardless, Double Dragon V manages to avoid many pitfalls commonly seen in the "me too" fighter crowd. The game is full of colour and plays surprisingly well. It's an obvious copy-cat but it's and obvious copy-cat that had some serious effort go into it. The designers clearly spent a lot of time on this project and it would be a shame to have all that work be forgotten simply because it's something different in the series. More work could have been done to better connect this title to it's roots but as it stands, Double Dragon V is a great fighting game, especially if you've played the classics to death. Lately, I've been feeling particularily nostalgic for those halcyon days when your favourite video games were simply everywhere. It was nice to go back for a while with this relic from the past.

Double Dragon V: The Shadow Falls is available on Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo Entertainment System & Atari Jaguar. This overview was written after completing the game again on Sega Genesis.


6:34 PM on 10.08.2014

Genesis does what other Plug & Plays don't

It should come as a surprise to no one when I say that I grew up with the Sega Genesis. It would be accurate to describe the console as my first love in gaming. Even as the years have passed and other consoles have come and gone, the Sega Genesis marks the beginning for me. That's why it delights me that the console has enjoyed such longevity over ther years. But did you know that the Genesis/Mega Drive still has newer iterations being manufactured to this day? We're all familiar with clone consoles, their relative popularity with hobbyists and the slowly increasing market revolving around them. One need only to enter their local flea market or independant game store to find a small selection of them readily available. But what makes the Sega Genesis different is that their have been officially lisenced iterations of these clones available in North America.

The first series of these officially licensed clones was made available in 2004. Designed & sold by Radica Games, these microconsoles were to compete with the recent influx of similar devices from Jakks Pacific. I remember seeing these readily available at the likes of Walmart and Futureshop when I was in highschool. My family had since sold our Sega Genesis and I was interested in purchasing one only to be disappointed when I returned with the necessary funds, they sold rather quickly. What makes these units unique when compared to the subsequent consoles I'm going to discuss today is that they ran on actual Genesis hardware shrunk down to a single chip, much like the Famiclones that are all too common in China. Because of this, they are incredibly customizable with a brief search showing that they can be modded to output S-Videoaccept cartridges and even have authentic audio quality. It's a shame that units like these aren't available anymore.

That brings me to the main focus of this article and the current manufacturer of official Sega hardware, AtGames. There is an astonishingly limited amount of information regarding their partnership with Sega and these units themselves but I'll impart with you what little I've been able to discover. It seems AtGames began circulating their version of the Mega Drive in China somewhere in the mid 2000s. Later in the decade Sega began to officially endorse their products and license their games for sale with them in North America and you can find them available in big department stores and toy stores around the holidays. AtGames version of the Genesis doesn't run on a new iteration of the original hardware but instead runs on a 32-bit chip called the Firecore. Their consoles are typically sold with 15-40 games installed on them with the deluxe models actually including a cartridge slot. Sega must have been impressed with something about the hardware (probably how inexpensive it is) because these units are still being produced.

The Firecore itself is where most criticism against the units is levied. Afterall, AtGames' build quality is acceptable, the game selection always includes great Sega titles, many of these units include expandability in one form or another (more on that later) and they're widely available at a very low price. But the console's Achillies' heel will always lie in it's emulation. In proper Sega fashion, this new version of the Sega Genesis (sometimes referred to as the "model 4") has inferior audio compared to all prior models of the Genesis. In a move I suspect has been done to keep emulation at full speed, the audio has been downsampled. When playing a variety of different games the results can vary from indistinquishable from the original to downright awful, but typically the difference isn't too bad and that's coming from someone who played a lot of Genesis in the 90s. However, this difference is what keeps these consoles from being widely adopted by collectors and purists, who would (understandably) want no difference. Otherwise, emulation is excellent, seemingly running at full speed with a clean video out and responsive controls. I'm personally delighted that these are as widely available as they are and this clip from Annoyed Gamer sort of sums it all up pretty well.

Like I said, these are available in a wide variety of different versions. There's the deluxe model with two wireless 6-button controllers and a cartridge slot. There are at least two versions with motion controllers and faux-Wii games (shudder) in addition to a collection of Genesis games. And there's the one I settled on (pictured above) that is an arcade stick with 26 Genesis games and an SD card slot dubbed the "Arcade Master". And yes, the SD card is for exactly what you think it is. The included games are an excellent cross-section of Sega arcade games (Altered Beast, Golden Axe, Shadow Dancer, Virtua Fighter 2) arcade-style games (Arrow Flash, Eternal Champions, Streets of Rage) and a few others that nicely fit the theme (Kid Chameleon, Sonic Spinball). I also made a point of thoroughly testing the SD card support and encountered no problems among the 100+ games I tested on it. I chose this version because the arcade games have always been my favourite part of Sega's library and I prefer playing old games with an arcade stick. The controller itself is surprisingly well built and the stick/buttons feel authentic and responsive through the use of microswitches.

These aren't going to set the world on fire and they're not going to replace anyone's genuine Genesis. They're not even likely to replace your Hyperkin Retron. But they are pretty nifty and inexpensive, and for my money they'll work in a pinch. These toys are a cool novelty and a great conversation piece when you have your other gamer friends over and anyone who grew up with the Genesis is likely to appreciate that it's still available in one form or another.


10:48 AM on 09.11.2014

Brutal Honesty: How Doom made me love shooters again

About a year ago YouTuber TotalBiscuit created a video asking "Have single-player FPS gone backwards?" and his premise caused me to take pause. The first-person shooter genre is one that I had largely ignored in recent years despite their dominant presence in the industry. However, there was a time when I enjoyed shooters as much as any other game on my PC and I can even remember being excited when high-profile shooters were announced. I've spent the past year playing a large variety of classic FPS titles I remember from my childhood. Games like Wolfenstein 3D, Rise of the Triad, Quake & Half-Life. However, none of the games I played completely rekindled my love for the genre quite like Brutal Doom.

For those not in the know, Brutal Doom is a modification for the Doom series that decidedly cranks all of the game's best elements up to eleven. It's an assuredly juvenile good time that revels in copious amounts of testosterone-fueled violence & gruesomely depraved gore. Brutal Doom has been making it's rounds on the internet for a while now and has seen a level of unprecedented popularity in the Doom community. After recently gathering my collection of iD Software games I decided to finally see what all the fuss was about and I was more than pleasantly surprised. After installing the mod with my copy of Ultimate Doom I made short work of that title's four episodes, then I installed Doom II, followed by the Master Levels for Doom II and then Final Doom. I was abolutely hooked, Brutal Doom isn't simply the best FPS I've played in recent memory, it's the best FPS I've ever played.

This is, in part, due to the mod's 90s sensibilities. Doom is, at it's core, the antithesis of the modern shooter and Brutal Doom successfully upgrades all aspects of the game's core mechanics. The mod's new features compliment the original design without detracting from what makes Doom so great in the first place, all while slightly modernizing the experience (for the better). In short, Brutal Doom is a gore mod but leaving it at that would do a major disservice to all the hard work that's gone into the project. Do not write it off as a simple novelty, Brutal Doom also increases the number of monsters, the game's speed, difficulty and adds new melee attacks. However, it would be impossible to convey just how much of an improvement it actually is by simply listing it's new features because so much of what it adds is in the smaller touches. Like how the new weapon effects make your attacks feel more powerful or how monster blood, guts & flesh cast across the walls & ceilings of the corridors. The end result is a more visceral game that aims to be everything Doom can be without betraying what it actually already is.

I believe much of what TotalBiscuit mentions in his video is true. FPS games from their golden days in the 90s expected more from the player. Even without a modification like this you could still expect yourself to be surrounded by more enemies than you would in a newer release and with fewer supplies. You needed to minimize the damage you took because there was a limited amount of health packs but there isn't any cover around. Levels weren't linear, instead the player is faced with a labyrinth of corridors and passageways. It all adds up to make a gameplay experience I find to be much more engaging. And now, after having played through the entire original Doom collection I have sunk more time into this game than any other released in the past five years, and I've already played through these levels in my childhood. It stands as a testement to the original's excellent design that Doom can still manage to be this engaging after all these years.


7:01 PM on 08.30.2014

Surviving Sierra: A Beginners Guide to Adventure

This year I've been taking the opportunity to replay all of my favourite Sierra On-Line adventure games. Sierra is likely responsible for the inception of graphic adventures and they certainly did a great deal in terms of creating some of the most memorable entries in the genre. I began playing Sierra adventures when I was still in elementary school and they still stand as my favourite PC games. Fortunately for me, I was playing my father's extensive collection of Sierra adventures and had the benefit of his hand-written notes, hint books and personal guidance to act as something of a tutorial. These games are many great things, but they're certainly not easy for beginners to pick-up & play. With the recent announcement that the Sierra brand would be making a comeback with a brand new King's Quest release, I thought it may be prudent to write down some basic rules of play when it comes to enjoying these digital antiquities.

Rule #1: Save your game early, and save frequently

It may seem strange but I'm not joking when I tell you that you need to learn how to properly save your game when playing any of these titles. With most PC games your instinct would be to keep a small handful of saved games while you play, this would be a recipe for disaster when playing Sierra adventures. Instead, your collection of saved games should function as something of a timeline for each title. Anytime you arrive in a new location, make a new save. For example, if you entered a cave with a dragon, make a saved game called "Dragon's Cave" (always find a word to describe the location in further detail, this may not be the only cave you encounter of your quest). Then, if you find anything or do anything of significance (you'll know when your score increases), overwrite that save. However if you were to leave the location and return later it would be extremely important that you don't overwrite your original save file for this area, instead create a brand new save (in this case, "Dragon's Cave 2"). That way, you can always return to that previous instance. Just because you can return to most locations later in the game doesn't mean everything will be as it originally was. You'll need an effective timeline of everywhere you've been during your adventure and that will likely mean dozens if not a hundred separate saves.

Rule #2: Observation is key

Whenever entering a new scene it's important to look over every pixel on screen. The first thing you should do after saving your game is to liberally use the look command. Players can type 'look around' anytime to get a basic description of their surroundings (when playing the point & click games use the "eye" icon on the background). Read the description carefully as it will direct your attention to points of interest in the room. Likewise be sure to use to the look command to examine anything you find in more detail. Anything written in the game could be a clue to solving a puzzle, so it's important to read as much as possible. Not everything of importance will be mentioned in these descriptions so be sure to use your eyes as well to scan the screen for anything of interest. Sometimes important items can also be obscured by objects in the foreground as well, so leave no rock unturned.

Rule #3: Pick up everything that isn't nailed down. If it is, solve the puzzle of getting the nail out

As an adventure game protagonist the only weapon at your disposal is the collection of an endless myriad of seemingly useless junk cluttering your pockets. If it can be picked up, it's likely necessary to completing the game so you'll save yourself a lot of frustration if you pick everything up your first time around. Even the most mundane object will hold some value to you later and it's only under the rarest circumstance that you'll want to leave an object behind. If an item is irretrievable in someway it's important that you eventually figure out how to take it with you.

Rule #4: Remember to use commonsense

Sierra adventures operate on simple logic-based puzzles. That is, most of the time, commonsense is all you need. Whenever you're stuck be sure to ask yourself what you would do if this was real life. Be sure to take note of everything you've collected so far, what can you use to get yourself out of this scenario? Many times there are multiple solutions to a single obstacle, get creative and see what you can come up with. Even failed attempts can lead to helpful hints. Try everything you can think of before resorting to a hint book or FAQ.

Rule #5: Read the manual before playing

It may seem like a strange thing to mention but you should familiarize yourself with the game's manual before playing any Sierra adventure. Within the game's documentation could be several vital clues that will help you along your way or even copy-protection that the game may reference later. Parts of the manual's written narrative may even reference people or places you'll encounter in your travels. The game may expect you to know what's written in the manual to get through certain sections.

And lastly, there's something I like to tell all newcomers to these games and the adventure genre in general. Do not pick up anyone of these titles with the intent of finishing them. Play these games with the intent of experiencing them. It's easy to get frustrated when you're not making progress but the enjoyment these titles have to offer come from the puzzles, characters and environments. Really take in every moment, stop to appreciate the scenery and play at a slower, more deliberate pace. Boot up each game knowing that the odds are likely stacked against you, and for my money I wouldn't have it any other way.   read

10:56 PM on 08.23.2014

Simplifying Syndicate: A Missed Opportunity for EA

A recent venture to the local dollar store yielded a small surprise for me. Amongst the eclectic selection of public domain films and K-Tel CDs I found a copy of 2012's Syndicate, appropriately priced at only one Canadian dollar. While only vaguely familiar with the series I couldn't resist promptly purchasing the oddity, if only to satiate my curiosity. I hurried home to begrudgingly install Origin (and I was successful after only two failed attempts) and after squashing a runtime error I was finally granted access to the world of Syndicate. Three hours later as the credits rolled I couldn't help but feel like the entire game could have been so much more. I'd like to preface this overview by stating that I have never played an entry in this series before, but I am aware that this iteration is a major departure from the originals. With that out of the way, let's take a look at Syndicate.

The game has an interesting premise, one that is becoming more and more relevant with each passing year. In Syndicate, the world is controlled entirely by large corporations and the majority of the populace is augmented with cranial implants. You play as Kilo (kilobyte?), a corporate raider/hired gun who fights for the large conglomerate EuroCorp's interests. You've just been implanted with the company's latest prototype chip to make you a more efficient killer and when one of EuroCorp's rivals readies to unveil a similar product you're sent in to stop them. One of the conceivable advantages to shifting the series' focus from isometric strategy to first-person action could be to tell a more personal story while letting the player explore this interesting future firsthand. Unfortunately Syndicate accomplishes neither, you're never given more than surface level details regarding Kilo and the moments when you're allowed to simply look around and explore are too few and far between. I wasn't expecting the same level of exploration seen in titles like Deus Ex, but Syndicate doesn't even offer you a guided tour like the BioShock series would.

The story is also woefully underdeveloped. Without pouring through data logs players will understand only the basics of their surroundings. Starbreeze Studios have engineered an attractive soapbox to discuss issues of globalisation or transhumanism and the opportunity has been completely squandered. Also, at only three hours long, the entire campaign feels like the first entry in an episodic series instead of a full fledged retail release. Kilo can't even be considered a hero for a majority of the game because he doesn't have his obligatory change of heart until you're two thirds of the way through the story. It's too bad because the game's presentation is top-notch with a competent voice cast and style to burn.

All of this would be excusable if actually playing Syndicate was fun & exciting. While the gunplay is fast & frantic it never manages to reach the absurd heights of Rise of the Triad or Bulletstorm leaving it largely forgettable. And while you have access to special abilities allowing you to hack enemies and environments you'll rarely need to make use of them. Halfway through the campaign I was having difficulty finding the motivation necessary to continue. My feeling of ennui is an unfortunate side effect to the development team's unfocused talent. Syndicate can sometimes be a feast for the eyes despite it's modest system requirements, it's just a shame that the game's large budget was wasted on such a disposable experience. It's certainly worth the price of a gas-station cup of coffee, but not much more.   read

3:17 PM on 08.04.2014

For Your Re-Consideration: Crystal Monsters

Gameloft has a dubious standing in the game's industry. While they're known for almost consistently delivering a respectable level of quality with their efforts, the studio is almost universally looked down upon for what most feel to be an uncomfortable level of unoriginality or even downright plagiarism. However, littered throughout their catalogue are some of the best efforts the handheld scene has ever received, especially in regards to mobile phones. That of course brings me to the subject of my article today, Crystal Monsters. A brief examination of the game's promotional material would lead even the most casual of gamers to conclude it was simply a Pokémon rip-off of sorts. They'd be correct, at least, mostly.

Crystal Monsters is a curious release, initially made only available to Japan in 2008 for mobile phones under the title Monster Chronicles. Crystal Monsters was then ported to Nintendo DS in 2010 and released by way of the now almost irrelevant DSiWare service. It's not that I can't understand Gameloft's choice to make the title available for DSi, it's an inherently natural fit. What I can't understand is why they would choose to release it exclusively on DSiWare in our territory and entirely forego a release on Google Play or the iTunes App Store. On the Nintendo DS, Crystal Monsters would essentially have to compete for players' attention with the perpetually red-hot Pokémon franchise. On the mobile market, they would have almost no competition. Especially back in 2010, it had the opportunity to print money. Instead, Crystal Monsters will have to settle for being a largely forgotten footnote in the history of video games.

The game opens with a short text crawl explaining that there are many different realities and that in this story two separate realities have come closer together. One is a world much like ours and the other is a world inhabited by monsters. Your character is something called a "Neo-Seed", a genetic mutation that can see these creatures as they naturally roam the countryside. These monsters are otherwise invisible to normal people who call themselves "Pure Breeds". Many Pure Breeds blame the recent appearance of monsters and Neo-Seeds for much of the world's problems and some radicals have formed a political organization called the Pure Faction to lobby for the control of breeders and their companions. When your home town's celebrity breeder is injured before a regional monster tournament you're given one of three monsters to start your own career as a breeder and are promptly sent in his place to compete. However, it isn't long before you're swept up in an adventure to save the world from certain doom.

In short, the story is a bit ridiculous. But it is, at the very least, somewhat original and a great starting point for a series of interesting events. It's easy to imagine this as the set-up for a children's animé series. The game's presentation has taken significant inspiration from Pokémon but the gameplay has more in common with the Dragon Quest Monsters series with a greater emphasis on breeding and three vs. three combat. The differences persist as Crystal Monsters features a much more involved capture process. The game's creatures are effectively divided into nine elements and each requires a unique stone to capture. Later in the game, a crystal will prove to be quite ineffective when used by itself and capture will require the use of other items in conjunction with them. Also, you'll rarely find yourself in competition with other breeders, instead most battles will be with wild monsters or boss monsters. That's not to say that other breeders will never challenge you to a fight (Pure Faction will challenge you themselves in regular Team Plasma fashion), they simply do not make up the bulk of your obstacles.

Speaking of combat, that's where Crystal Monsters truly excels. Players need to exploit type advantages to chain together attacks much in the same way the Shin Megami Tensei series requires. Successful chain attacks are accomplished with on screen button prompts akin to Super Mario RPG. And your plan of attack will have to be thought out beforehand because you're limited to a team of three monsters and you can only have a grand total of twenty captured monsters. Your inventory requires similar scrutiny as you're limited to carrying a grand total of only fifty items including consumables used in battle. Halfway through the game, my inventory was always full and I was forced to carefully weigh the pros and cons of discarding any item in favour of another.

The systems in place are different enough to make the game feel fresh and playing Crystal Monsters for the first time was invigorating as I was flying blind (there is little to no information available online regarding this title outside of a half-dozen reviews and some dead forum threads). The creature designs are also similarly praiseworthy as they manage to be original, distinct and visually appealing. This game had been in the corner of my mind since first seeing it on the eShop and I'm glad I finally took a chance on it. At only $5 USD it comes highly recommended and I hope that it's sequel is eventually ported as well.
Crystal Monsters is available now on the DSi Shop for 500 Nintendo Points   read

9:32 PM on 03.09.2014

Let's talk about Ouya!

There comes a time where, as a consumer, I feel it's necessary to put up or shut up. Among gaming circles throughout the internet it's become a widely adopted philosophy to vote with your dollars to see the change you want in the industry, to show financial support for enjoyable and innovative ideas. For example, I adamantly refused to pay for cable television until the provider in my area offered the chance to pay only for the channels I wanted. When I received a flyer in my mailbox advertising just such a service, I felt the need to put my money where my mouth was and pony up the dough. I wasn't actually shopping around for cable providers at the time but it was a service I had always wanted nonetheless.

During Christmas I found myself in a similar scenario. While I had intended on supporting Ouya since it's inception a year and a half ago, I had been unable to pledge my support due to owning an SD television. Everything about the product and Ouya's philosophies regarding indie development, game distribution and a low-barrier open platform deserved my support but I was unwilling to upgrade my television to do so. However, my father gave me the gift of a brand-spanking new 42" HDTV and I felt it was once again time to put up or shut up and I found myself purchasing an Ouya the very next day. I was planning on writing this blog shortly after but I've been (surprisingly) too busy actually playing the damn thing to find the time. I didn't want to write a hardware review for the device until I was convinced I had played all the top-shelf games available for the console. Now that I feel I have, I'd like to share my experience with the Ouya.

The hardware itself is rather unassuming. Looking about as small as a Rubix Cube, the Ouya will have no trouble finding a place among your home entertainment system. The console sports a Tegra 3 chipset, 1GB of RAM and 8GB of storage (16GB in the most recent revision). Most commentators have lamented Ouya's implementation of the Tegra 3 over it's successor, but the inexpensive chipset allows for a small price point and significant performance for your dollar. Much has been said about the Ouya's controller, and while I can't say I've experienced any of it's well documented shortcomings, I do feel like I should point out that a firmware update was released the day I hooked up my console that supposedly addresses these issues. Installation is about as simple as a modern-day console can get and setup is similarly a breeze. In no time you'll be browsing the Dicover store and trying out new software.

Likely, the Ouya's greatest standout feature is the implementation of the Apogee software model across the entire platform. Everything is free to try and while it may seem like such a small point, it's particularly empowering once you realize that all of these developers have to prove themselves to you before they can see a dime of your hard earned cash. In practice, you'll find yourself trying out games you probably wouldn't have otherwise and skipping titles that you may have thought would've been a good buy in a more traditional retail environment. The console already has a wide variety of games (almost 700 different games at the time of writing this article) covering a wide variety of genres and while Ouya suffers from one of the worst good:bad ratios in hardware history, it's small selection of standout titles really shine on the platform.

A common misconception regarding the console is that it's library consists almost entirely of mobile ports. While a few of the Ouya's titles were originally released on iOS and Android devices, the bulk of the Discover store's selection is much different than you would expect. In fact, the selection is wide and diverse enough that I believe there would be a little something for every type of gamer. Whether or not the Ouya (or any microconsole for that matter) is a good fit for you will depend entirely on what kind of experience you're looking for. The games available for the Ouya right now are largely proportionate to the size and cost of the console itself. I'm of the opinion that a console like Ouya would greatly complement anyone's console collection.


12:53 PM on 11.26.2013

For Your Re-Consideration: ObScure - The Aftermath

It's no secret that the internet can be an overtly negative place to hang out sometimes and when it comes to bloggers and journalists, there's certainly no shortage of the angry critic. While several internet personalities are quite talented at implementing their perceived rage when approaching a review or retrospective I see no point in trying to do something that has been done before on countless prior occasions. Instead, I'd like to try things a little differently and speak up for the underdogs out there. For Your Re-Consideration is a series of overviews that highlights the brighter aspects of games, hardware and other things in nerd culture that seem to be the whipping boys in their respective fandoms. To be clear, these articles are not meant to be unbiased critiques, many of the negative attributes surrounding these subjects are well-known popular opinion. Instead, this is just an encouragement to give something another look.

The original ObsCure has become something of a cult classic amongst my fellow gamer friends. While the series has never enjoyed any sort of wide spread acclaim the first entry in this little known franchise seems to be regarded as an interesting experiment in the Survival Horror genre, an interesting experiment that deserved a second attempt by series' studio Hydravision Entertainment. I'm a huge fan of Survival Horror and Obscure had been recommended to me by my friends at least a dozen times before but whenever I asked about the game's sequel everyone I knew seemed to hold it in low regard. It's a shame really, because ObsCure: The Aftermath is one of the finest examples of Survival Horror I've seen on the Wii.

The atmosphere in ObsCure 2 is reminiscent of other classic horror titles

This game really seems to be a celebration of what made the horror genre so fun and unique in the mid 90s. Keeping the game's tone in the realm of the ridiculous, ObsCure 2 seems to have found the inspiration for it's plot in teen slasher films. You'll control a whole cast of college-age stereotypes as they fight desperately to survive when the school's populace is infected by a parasitic black flower. What makes ObsCure 2 unique today is it's strict adherence to Survival Horror conventions. You'll have severely limited supplies, infrequent save points, threatening enemies and restricted cameras that feel like they're right out of a PSX game.

A big part of the game's appeal to me is just how well Hydravision utilized the Wii remote. The motions used make sense and feel very responsive. Firearms are used in conjunction with the pointer and reloading is done by shaking the Nunchuk. Melee attacks are accomplished by swinging the Wii remote and surprisingly enough the game can differentiate between vertical and horizontal swings. All other motions are contextual but they're all very well implemented without any of them feeling gimmicky. It's a shame that more developers couldn't competently apply motion controls to their games like this during the Wii's heyday but it's always refreshing to see when somebody out there seemingly "gets it".

Also worth noting is ObsCure 2's environments. All levels are logically laid out with traditional Adventure puzzles impeding your progress. Thankfully all puzzles are relatively logic based and can be figured out pretty easily if you're paying attention. The game's cast each have separate special abilities that you'll need to utilize to advance in certain situations. During some of ObsCure 2's more clever puzzles you'll need to take advantage of two specific characters' abilities simultaneously in tandem to progress. This interesting dichotomy stands out as being unique in the genre and allows for some really stand out co-op moments without ever devolving the experience into a 2-player shooter.

Co-op is especially well implemented

That's right, the game features 2-player drop-in, drop-out co-op. Normally such a statement would be a death sentence for a horror game but ObsCure 2 manages to present a multiplayer experience without sacrificing good scares. And the title has it's fair share of good scares, really building up tension with it's moody atmosphere and excellent sound design. Often you'll be given a preview of the horrors you'll face much later by hearing monsters shambling around elsewhere in the building. Finally, the story is just plain silly fun. Much like a Resident Evil title the cause of this nightmare is absolutely ludicrous but played with enough sincerity to keep the game from slipping into parody.

The supposed disappearance of Survival Horror in our industry is easy to understand. The very things that make these games nerve racking are the common complaints associated with this title. Combat is difficult, supplies are limited and one or two enemies can feel over-powered enough to defeat you in an instant. But taken for what it is and given the opportunity ObsCure: The Aftermath has the potential to be a really captivating game. I was glued to my television start-to-finish and I suspect many other fans of 90s horror games will have a similar experience if they show it a little Re-Consideration.

ObsCure: The Aftermath is available on PS2, PSP, PC & Wii. This overview was written after having completed the game on Wii.   read

12:28 PM on 05.08.2013

For Your Re-Consideration: Sonic Unleashed

It's no secret that the internet can be an overtly negative place to hang out sometimes and when it comes to bloggers and journalists, there's certainly no shortage of the angry critic. While several internet personalities are quite talented at implementing their perceived rage when approaching a review or retrospective I see no point in trying to do something that has been done before on countless prior occasions. Instead, I'd like to try things a little differently and speak up for the underdogs out there. For Your Re-Consideration is a series of overviews that highlights the brighter aspects of games, hardware and other things in nerd culture that seem to be the whipping boys in their respective fandoms. To be clear, these articles are not meant to be unbiased critiques, many of the negative attributes surrounding these subjects are well-known popular opinion. Instead, this is just an encouragement to give something another look.

I wasn't planning on talking about another Sonic title so early in this series but since I've been playing Sonic Unleashed again for the umpteenth time and I decided now would be the perfect time to talk about my absolute favourite title in my absolute favourite game series. Sonic Unleashed is, for a myriad of reasons, a game that noticeably divided the Sonic community right down the middle. Fans were divided much like the dual nature of the game itself with many fans saying it was, at long last, Sonic's return to his former glory. Others had decided it was further evidence that SEGA had lost it's way or simply didn't know what to do with the brand anymore. However, in spite of all that's been said of the game before I think Sonic Unleashed is simply misunderstood.

To understand my story with this particular game we're going to have to go all the way back to March of 2008 when a large assortment of materials for the latest installment of Sonic the Hedgehog were "leaked" online. Fans have since speculated that SEGA purposely left the back door to their corporate FTP server open for us to find these images and hype the game up for them, but that's neither here nor there. Key amongst these resources was a single gameplay trailer and soon after it's discovery every Sonic message board lit up like wildfire. Rumors were flying left right and center regarding the mysterious new entry in the series but we wouldn't get the real scoop until E3 and that's when the proverbial shit hit the fan.

The 2008 E3 Trailer for Sonic Unleashed

After having seen the E3 previews I was sold, I must have watched that trailer on continuous loop for at least an hour and in the following months SEGA revealed more and more details about the game accompanied by a slew of gameplay trailers showing off the new zones and game mechanics. Unfortunately for SEGA many didn't share my enthusiasm. Questions were raised regarding Sonic's new form, the Werehog, and why the decision to give the game two separate gameplay styles was made. The game's lead designer and then head of Sonic Team Yoshihisa Hashimoto explained that it was his intention to give the game a proper tempo. Instead of giving the player all speed, all the time he would instead complement Sonic's traditional running gameplay with it's antithesis. And if Sonic's game design was built around the use of his legs, then the Werehog's play style would be built around the use of Sonic's arms. Hashimoto believed that the variety introduced into the game by this initiative would keep players from feeling fatigued and capable of playing longer sessions. Looking back at the original Sonic the Hedgehog on Genesis it's easy to see where he got this philosophy. After all, even that title was split between fast zones the player could dash through without stopping and zones that forced the player to slow down and carefully traverse the environment at a deliberate pace. Yoshihisa Hashimoto's departure from Sonic Team is a loss SEGA cannot overestimate, possibly their biggest since losing Tom Kalinske. It's obvious the young designer understood the franchise better than most and it's his influence on the series that led to success stories like Generations and Colors.

What's immediately apparant from booting up Sonic Unleashed is the level of quality shown in the game's presentation, in what's probably SEGA's most earnest attempt to revitalize the brand to date they spared no expense. Sonic Unleashed began development as Sonic Adventure 3 and was even released as Sonic World Adventure in Japan. This time Sonic is on a globetrotting adventure visiting continents based on real world locales. Sonic Team put a lot of care and attention into the design of these new zones and the effect is stunning. All of the places Sonic visits feel like living, breathing cities that mesh well with Sonic's already established aesthetic design. It all has the effect of really fleshing out Sonic's world, moreso than any previous effort, it's a more concentrated effort that put's Sonic's world on par with the Mushroom Kingdom.

You have an entire planet to save and Robotnik's ambitions have finally been realized with the construction of Eggmanland. The stakes have never been higher and there's a real sense of urgency to the entire matter. When I played Sonic Unleashed for the first time in 2008 I was completely blown away by just how fast Sonic could go and how easy it was to maneuver through each act. It was the first time I was really impressed by a game this generation. Sonic's skillset has been completely reworked with with the intention of allowing the player to play through his stages without stopping. New moves like drifting and wall jumping can be utilized throughout the game's levels to maintain your momentum. On the flipside you have the Werehog, the subject of much debate since Sonic Unleashed's unveiling. The Werehog's levels play much more like a traditional platformer in the same vein as Crash Bandicoot or Donkey Kong Country. You'll climb, swing, jump, fight and even solve rudimentary puzzles. It's all very good and I don't understand why it's the cause of such scorn. I can't help but think that a radical change like the Werehog would have been better received in the 90s.

While we wait for the reveal of a new Sonic title from SEGA maybe it's time to give Sonic Unleashed some Re-Consideration. I think everybody would be surprised at just how enjoyable the game is when judged on it's own merits.

Sonic Unleashed is available in stores everywhere for Xbox 360, PS3, Wii and PS2. Sonic Unleashed can also be found on Xbox Live Games on Demand. This overview was written after having replayed the game again on Wii.


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