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Fantastic Arcade

Preview: PixelJunk SideScroller

Sep 29 // Allistair Pinsof
[embed]212612:41076[/embed] PixelJunk SideScroller (PlayStation Network)Developer: Q-GamesPublisher: Sony Computer EntertainmentTo be released: TBA 2011 Konami’s late-80s shmup-sidecrollers (Salamander, Gradius) are the most pronounced influences on Q-Games’ latest, but if you dig deeper you may be surprised by what else you’ll find. The first comparison my mind made was one to Harmful Park. I’ve gushed about that game elsewhere on the site, so I won’t go into too much detail on its history. Like the weapon system in Harmful Park, SideScroller gives you unlimited access to four primary weapons which you level-up individually. This is one of my favorite touches in Harmful Park since it opens the doors to strategic play. It also keeps you from feeling the frustration of accidentally touching the laser power-up and losing your current powered weapon -- Man, do I hate that! In SideScroller, you have lasers, a rapid-fire peashooter and bombs that shoot up and down. Just like Harmful Park, you switch between them with the triggers so you always have immediate access to them. Finally there is the charge attack: By holding down the back left-trigger for a couple seconds, you can send your ship spiraling toward enemies, destroying them, at hyperspeed (not sure if this can be powered-up). When SideScroller was shown at E3 earlier this year, the art direction looked surprisingly lazy for the graphical masterminds at PixelJunk. The game was clearly an early-prototype, reusing Shooter 2’s assets. As you can see in these screens, the current build of SideScroller has much more of a Tron/neon-colored vector-graphics look which suits the game really well. Not only do the visuals pop, but the new look help keeps the bullets distinguished from the backdrops. When you are racing to drop some lava on the ground or are making your way through a narrow tunnel amidst gunfire, you’ll appreciate this new change.The same chemical elements of Shooter are at play in SideScroller but it hardly feels like a puzzle. Though, the game finds ways to keep the player thinking and fighting strategically. You’ll frequently come across environmental hazards that can only be destroyed with certain weapons. The same is true of some enemies and bosses, so you’ll have to spread your power-ups across your arsenal if you want to get very far. Once you have played the game through and have the levels memorized, it probably won’t provide much of a challenge. But, it makes for some tense encounters on the first playthrough, especially during bosses when you scramble to find the right weapon. Although I walked away from SideScroller feeling mostly glee, I have a couple reservations that I hope will be addressed before its release. For a PixelJunk game, the music seemed a bit buried in the mix; it wasn’t up front and thumping like it should have been, especially for this type of game. Also, the constant checkpoints diminished some of the challenge that the game is trying to capture. Gradius and Gradius II are insanely difficult so I wouldn’t expect something like that -- supposedly SideScroller was this hard during its early stages -- but constant checkpoints in a shmup just rub me the wrong way. I rather have lives that let me respawn, even if that isn’t how Gradius did it.Along with Sine More and Jamestown, SideScroller is helping bring shmups back to the masses while giving it a new paintjob. As a fan of the genre, I see nothing wrong with that.
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The title of PixelJunk Shooter was a bit misleading. It was much more of an exploration and puzzle game than an actual shooter. It was a great game (along with its sequel), but not exactly what genre fans wanted. Sidecroll...

Fantastic Arcade: Serious Sam 3 may be the best one yet

Sep 27 // Allistair Pinsof
Serious Sam 3: BFE (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC [Previewed])Developer: CroteamPublisher: Revolver DigitalTo be released: October 18, 2011Serious Sam games always seem to overstay their welcome. They are fun at first but become repetitive and tiresome. Yet, I find myself revisiting Doom and Quake every year, despite id Software’s classics being based on the same format: In/Arena/Out. What makes those games so timeless is the level design, an element that always felt disregarded in the Serious Sam series. Serious Sam 3 feels like it's taking great strides to change that -- to the point where I may no longer think of it as Painkiller’s inferior companion.After getting a good hour sample of the game, including a look at some new levels and its balls-crazy final stage, I am taken aback at how this series has found a way to excite me again. The game is still full of sprawling outdoor arenas, but they are are filled with alleyways, walls and indoor areas. This makes crowd control feel interesting and challenging, in a way that id Software games did back in the day. My favorite mission had to be one partway through the game that felt like you were playing in a bombed out Middle Eastern village. The game does feel a bit too much like Modern Warfare, but since this level recalled obsessively playing the favela level in Special Ops, I won’t hold it against Croteam. In past Serious Sam games, you’d just stand in an open area and fire away. In Serious Sam 3, you’ll evade enemies by running down alleyways, taunt them into a closed room and rip their heads off if you are feeling brave. The game is still built upon the repitition of killing hordes of enemies, but there are so many variables that the levels and rebuilt combat system offer this time. As long as you are still up to shooting things in the face, the game will give you enough tools to keep it fun. The melee weapons in this outing are made to be used as secondary weapons, not last resorts. Your fists won’t do you much good, but swinging your giant hammer in a 360-arc will. The game’s weapon load-out might be a bit daunting at first, but you’ll soon find yourself comfortably switching weapons to match your enemy. Fans will be happy to hear that the classic laser gun is in the final game and it's as great as it ever was.There are some things that concern me about Serious Sam 3, however. Although the game only has 10 minutes of cutscenes, it does have some levels that slow down the pace a bit more than I liked. One found Sam walking through a dimly lit museum filled with alien eggs, when he should have been busting ass through a crowd of demons.  I’ll give the game the benefit of the doubt that these slower scenes will make for an interesting change of pace when played within context. However, everything else about Serious Sam 3 looks like a great addition or welcome return of a past feature in the series. You’ll still have your insane 16-player co-op (along with a very rare 4-player split-screen option), point system, and memorable weapons (THE CANON!) On the other hand, you also get new features like destructible environments, sand storms that limit your vision and a terrifying, Tremors-looking Sand Whale that keeps you within the level’s parameters (kind of like the shark in Jak and Daxter). I’m especially fond of the new enemy Scrap Jack that looks a direct throwback to Doom II’s Mancubus with its sagging gut and guns for hands.Based on what I previously saw and heard, I expected Serious Sam 3 to be a half-hearted sequel that tried its best to fit in with all the military shooters that currently populate the market. While I am disappointed the game’s levels don’t have the visual variety of Serious Sam 2, I am pleased to see that the game makes the most of its Egyptian setting. The changes to combat, level design, and other aspects are enough to keep me invested, however. It seems those four years Croteam spent developing this sequel were put to good use. I can't wait to shoot crazy numbers of demons with 15 friends when the game drops October 18.
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[All this week, I'll be bringing game coverage from indie game festival Fantastic Arcade in Austin, TX. Be sure to check Flixist for my coverage of film festival companion Fantastic Fest.] A Serious Sam 3 ...

Fantastic Arcade: Serious Sam + JRPG = Random Encounter

Sep 27 // Allistair Pinsof
The closest thing I’ve played that compares to The Random Encounter would have to be Half-Minute Hero or Final Fantasy XIII but even those feel like a stretch. The idea behind Vlambeer’s bizarre crossover is to cut all the fat in a JRPG, leaving nothing but combat and very minimal exploration. Dialogue between characters are nothing more than cheesy one-liners, gaining weapons and equipment takes the place of leveling, and there are no towns or cutscenes to get in the way of combat.After watching a presentation of the game, I thought to myself, “Gee, that looks boring.” Thankfully I sat down and played The Random Encounter, finding myself becoming addicted to the game’s silly, simple, yet completely ingenious combat. Much like the FPS games, The Random Encounter is all about running backwards while emptying your entire arsenal on a massive horde of enemies. In an effort to avoid the 'ole “attack, wait, attack”-routine, Vlambeer have implemented some unique mechanics into the game. Every five seconds the player has the ability to attack, use an item or swap weapons. Weapons are equipped mid-combat and are thrown away once used or swapped for another. In other words, you always have a wide arsenal of weapons you are blowing through, but the shotgun will always be the same shotgun. Each weapon has its own unique spread and features: revolvers automatically aim but have weak firepower, shotguns are powerful but only hit enemies surrounding the player, and sniper rifles form a deadly line that can be directed with ‘up’ and ‘down’. Along with constantly swapping weapons for certain enemy types, you’ll also need to dodge incoming enemies and projectiles with the directional buttons. You’ll often find yourself shaving bullets like a shmup, which is awesome. The game has some serious tweaking to be done, between items that kill bosses in nearly one-hit and the frustration of losing items after death. For such a slapdash concept, The Random Encounter is a unique, no-nonsense RPG from two guys that really don’t know shit about RPGs. Who knew such a combination could make for such a unique, addicting game?You can get your puzzle-free absurd D(utch)RPG action on mid-October for the very reasonable price of $5 via Steam. Here's hoping Vlambeer put out an iOS release in due time.
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[All this week, I'll be bringing game coverage from indie game festival Fantastic Arcade in Austin, TX. Be sure to check Flixist for my coverage of film festival companion Fantastic Fest.] No, Serious Sam:...


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Fez wins over the audience at Fantastic Arcade


Sep 25
// Allistair Pinsof
Another year of Austin's annual videogame festival Fantastic Arcade has come to an end, but not without a couple winners, losers (haha!), and pissed-off Norwegians. Seriously, don't make eye-contact with them. They will mess ...
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Fantastic Arcade: Closure is kind of like Limbo but good


Sep 24
// Allistair Pinsof
[All this week, I'll be bringing game coverage from indie game festival Fantastic Arcade in Austin, TX. Be sure to check Flixist for my coverage of film festival companion Fantastic Fest.] I really didn&rs...

Fantastic Arcade: Retro/Grade is a blast in the pants

Sep 24 // Allistair Pinsof
[embed]212133:41003[/embed] Retro/Grade (PlayStation Network)Developers: 24 Caret GamesPublisher: 24 Caret GamesTo be released: Fall 2011  24 Caret Games’ debut has been in the works for a while. After gaining steam at the Independent Games Festival in 2009 and being featured at IndieCade in 2010, the developer gathered the resources to spruce up Retro/Grade and ready it for release on PlayStation Network later this year.  Good thing too because you and I may have missed it otherwise. The game opens with protagonist Rick Rocket defeating the final boss, cueing the end credits. If the long list  of names doesn't make it obvious enough – this is a game made by three guys – it’s an elaborate gag that introduces the player to the main premise of the game. After saving the day, a space anomaly reverses the flow of time. In order to survive your return back to square one, you must dodge bullets backwards and position yourself to shoot the bullets you previously fired. This doesn’t really tie all that much into the rhythm action, since the game would play the same if it were progressing forward. It’s a neat touch though. The mission descriptions also add character to the game, but it’s the fantastic soundtrack by Austin electronic artist Skyler McGlothlin (a.k.a. Nautilis), laser beam eye-candy and addictive action that makes the game standout. While the demo only let me play level 10 through eight (remember, you are beating the game in reverse),  I got a pretty good feel for movement and rhythm in Retro/Grade. The first stage throws only simple bullet patterns at you that are easy to read. Since the game is modeled after a shmup, it’s very easy to manueaver your ship based on visuals alone. Once you lock into the groove of a song, you’ll find that the music will help you a lot more with timing those button presses. Since you are traveling backwards in time, the goal is to dodge enemy fire while shooting your bullets in the exact place you originally were. This might sound like a confusing concept, but it works because the game is so simple in execution that you don’t need to know any of this. It’s basically Rock Band with a spaceship (you can even use a guitar controller): You move your ship into the lane of incoming notes and hit a single button in-time to the notes/fire positions. If you screw up, you can rewind time. Another nice touch is that even if you fail to act upon it and find yourself staring at the “game over” menu, you’ll still be able to rewind back to earlier and change your fate. However, warping time is a limited resource like your health. Once you start dodging enemy bullets from the left, while hovering over your previous bullet positions to the right, you’ll find yourself in some tough situations where you’ll need that double-take. Retro/Grade feels like the missing link between Amplitude and Guitar Hero. It gives the player the accessible rhythm gameplay of the latter, while remaining abstract enough in concept to throw in new elements as the game progresses. For example, you’ll face off against different weapon types that will require you to spam the fire button or hold it down and trace a line that extends vertically and horizontally. I can’t wait to see what surprises will be in the final release.
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[All this week, I'll be bringing game coverage from indie game festival Fantastic Arcade in Austin, TX. Be sure to check Flixist for my coverage of film festival companion Fantastic Fest.] At first glance, Retro/Grade looks l...

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Beware: A Fantastic Arcade approaches!


Sep 20
// Allistair Pinsof
Do you live in the South and love video games? Do you hate that we don't have a PAX or anything other than QuakeCon?  Well then you should come down to Fantastic Arcade in Austin, Texas at The Highball this wee...

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