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Monday, Apr 14, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-04-14...

In summary:


Three systems (the PS2, PSP, and Xbox 360) have absolutely nothing coming out this week, other than whatever not-yet-announced games will be occupying the weekly downloadable slots.  The PS3’s only release is a game that’s not finished yet, released so that gamers can be offered the “privilege” of playing 1/3 of a game for 2/3 of the price (a detail that will not at all deter the fans of the admittedly killer Gran Turismo series).  The DS features three games that actually feature exclamation points as part of their titles.  The PC mostly gets games that console players have picked up, played through, and forgotten about at this point, along with some expansion sets.  And the Wii…well…


The Wii version of Okami

The Wii version of Okami


My game of the week last week was a re-release, too, so I hesitate to do this, but no matter how many times I look over this list, nothing sticks out like Okami does.


Yes, it’s been out for a year and a half.  Yes, it was all over the best of ‘06 lists when it came to awards and all that.  Still, it’s impossible to ignore a game that many said outshined The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess when it came out, and was certainly pulled off with more originality.  Anyone who loves the Zelda series is nuts if they haven’t tried Okami yet, and now it’s appearing for a system that it seems all but made for, what with the painting dynamic that drives so much of its gameplay.  Add in enhanced visuals (Okami in 16:9 does sound appealing) and a reduced price ($39.99), and you have one of the most appealing Wii purchases yet seen on the system.


Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis for the PC

Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis for the PC


In other games, the newly-enabled capability of the Wii’s Virtual Console to handle Sega Master System titles means that Fantasy Zone can actually be released, so now I may actually play it in a form that goes beyond the easter egg in Arnold Palmer Tournament Golf.  Also, for you puzzle-solving types, Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis on the PC looks like it has some serious potential as well, and you probably won’t need a graphics card update to play it.


The rest of the week’s releases…after the break:


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Text:AAA
Friday, Apr 11, 2008
Google unwittingly sent me to PETA this week. I have to admit -- I was surprised at what I found...

Here’s why Google is great, and their advertising scheme works:


Just last week, I was sending an e-mail to somebody about Super Mario something-or-other (I think it was an Ebay seller about a copy of Super Mario Bros. 3 or something, but that’s not all that relevant here).  I couldn’t help but notice that, after I sent the mail from my Gmail account, one of those little one-line text ads popped up at the top, saying something like “Like Super Mario Bros.?  Try Super Chick Sisters!”  What kind of responsible journalist would I be if I didn’t click on that link?


Hovering over the link, I couldn’t help but notice that I was on my way to PETA’s website, but I clicked anyway.  There’s a certain sleaziness about PETA that’s hard to shake, in that what they’re doing tends to be motivated by good (or at least understandable) causes, but their methods tend to be a bit, well, questionable.


Super Chick Sisters has actually been around for almost a year now, as it turns out, and it’s easy to see why it continues to draw visitors:  For a piddly little Flash game, its production values are quite high, and its presentation pretty slick.  Pamela Anderson has been kidnapped, you see (just before she was about to break the story that KFC’s methods are, um, unsavory, to put it lightly), and it’s up to Mario & Luigi

Nugget & Chickette to save the day from the evil corporate KFC warlords who have kidnapped her!  As is told in a variety of cute little cutscenes between levels, Mario & Luigi have been afflicted with “Wiitis”, which I think roughly translates to Wii Sports: Tennis elbow.


It’s not just the cutscenes that are “cute”, either; the entire game has a gloss and a happy feel to it that’s entirely at odds with the information being presented.  It’s classic let-down-your-guard kind of stuff, presenting a Mario-esque functionality and power-up system with a Sonic the Hedgehog Green Hill Zone sort of happy shinyness to it (the first level is most reminiscent of the latter, but the happy shinyness never really lets up).  As you run around stomping on Colonel-bots and whatnot, you also get information from randomly scattered people as to the specifics regarding KFC’s cruelty.  Example: They cut off the beaks while the chickens are still alive.  It’s a terribly gruesome thought, and the juxtaposition of this sort of education with the primary-colored glare that comes off of the game is difficult to resolve.


The difficult thing about Super Chick Sisters is that it’s actually sort of fun as far as Flash games go.  Not only that, but the presence of actual unlockables (in a Flash game!) and an ever-changing landscape is enough to keep you going.  The thing is, the propaganda never, ever lets up.  You see tale after tale about the overcrowded, crippling conditions, and you become either an activist or an accomplice; there’s really no in between once the game beats you over the head with its message long enough.


As such, as much as I’m loathe to allow a game to muck with my psyche as much as this one does, I think it’s a brilliantly executed stunt on PETA’s part.  They have actually managed to tread the line that makes a game casual enough to draw you in and absorbing enough, once you’re in, to keep you for the long haul (something that far too many big name developers have been trying and failing at for years).  As long as they keep you, then, they can slowly wear down your defenses, to the point where you’re putting Pamela Anderson in your MySpace top 8, dousing yourself in sheep’s blood and yelling things outside KFC’s corporate headquarters.  This is brainwashing at its most subversive, and as such, it’s really rather brilliant.


Since the release of Super Chick Sisters, PETA has actually released another game, called Bloody Burberry: The Fur Fighters.  While it appears to use the same color palette, its PETA-specific activities, bleak tone, and questionable attempts at humor (models are stupid, tee hee!) don’t capture the imagination nearly to the extent that something like Super Chick Sisters can.  If you haven’t before, go give Super Chick Sisters a try, and let me know how you feel once you’re done.  Are you comfortable with getting preached at while you’re trying to enjoy a game?  Was the message easy to ignore in the name of silly fun?  How did this survive the legal hand of the mighty N?  Drop your thoughts in the comment box, and, of course, enjoy your weekend.


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Text:AAA
Thursday, Apr 10, 2008
The release of Rock Band in Europe has finally been announced, but the price announced with it has some recoiling in horror.

It’s bad enough that European gamers have to wait longer than gamers in the States for consoles and games.  But the recent Rock Band pricing announcement for Europe really sticks it in and breaks it off.  In the UK, the cost for the whole thing will be roughly $350 in American dollars, and the rest of the continent has to pay around $375 American.  While the VAT tax is being used, at least partially, to defend the price hike, that tax is around 17.5%, which doesn’t really translate to doubling the price.


One of the most ridiculous defenses comes directly from Rob Kay, director of design at Harmonix.  In an interview with videogamer.com, he said: “This is a different experience. You cannot have a multi-player, multi-peripheral game be in the same price point as a regular game. What it delivers is so much bigger and so much better. We understand that people are going to feel a little bit aggrieved about it but we hope that playing the game will override that feeling.”  I’m having trouble understanding how this “different experience” is different from the “different experience” that was released in the US last year for half the price.


I can’t justify spending the price of a console for a game, particularly one where the high price comes from peripherals.  Steel Batallion, anyone?  You almost had to buy the second game in that series to justify having blown $100 on the first one.  I guess it remains to be seen if the money I’ve spent on the Rock Band peripherals will be a decent investment.  Harmonix is starting to have a history of not supporting interoperability between the peripherals it produces and the various games for which they probably should work.  I had trouble deciding to whether to purchase Rock Band, even living in the States.  If I lived in Europe, I’d almost certainly just have to play at a rich friend’s house.


Tagged as: eurogaming, rock band
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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Apr 9, 2008
A giant box from Rockstar leads to a brief reflection on the context that swag can provide.

One of the nice byproducts of having a gaming-centric blog here at PopMatters is that we are now able to preview games, rather than just review them.  As such, there’s actually some incentive for PR to send us stuff before it actually comes out.


Today, I got some stuff.


Granted, when you get a giant box at your doorstep from Rockstar three weeks before Grand Theft Auto IV comes out, you hope there’s going to be a little, DVD-size box inside, but hey, beggars can’t be choosers.  Instead, we get:


This is the stuff.  Please ignore the berber.

This is the stuff.  Please ignore the berber.


- A giant, black and white foam hand, emblazoned with the GTAIV logo, doing the “shocker
- A crayola yellow Burgershot T-shirt
- A GTAIV sticker


You can tell a lot about a game by the swag that gets sent with it.  Hudson sent a bright green and yellow headband to promote the upcoming Deca Sports, Sony sent a funky little black necklace with an Omega charm with God of War: Chains of Olympus (which also came with some copies of the Chains of Olympus demo disc back when that was a big deal).  Both of those were subtle little touches, trinkets whose primary purpose is to evoke a mindset rather than to serve any actual tangible purpose.


There’s nothing subtle about the GTAIV promotional items, yet another sign that Rockstar is looking to hit like an 18-wheeler come April 29th.


The funny thing is, I’m a father of three.  I own a minivan.  What am I going to do with a giant foam shocker?  Give it to my kid to bring to school?


What Rockstar seems to be saying here is that GTAIV is not for people like me.  It’s not for grandmas.  It’s not for girls.  It’s for a certain audience that will appreciate the GTA brand of humor: macho, college-age boys, preferably ones that pound beers and incessantly quote raunchy comedies.


The problem, then, is that the appeal of Grand Theft Auto goes beyond that crowd, important as it may be to Rockstar’s numbers.  Grand Theft Auto III first appeared nearly seven years ago, meaning that even if everyone who played that game is in Rockstar’s apparent target demographic, those are the folks who have now moved on to SUVs and jobs and changing diapers.  Granted, that’s an awfully broad generality, but there are plenty of people with fond memories of GTAIII who could well be turned off by a giant foam shocker.  This isn’t by any means a complaint, but I hope for their sake that Rockstar’s marketing scheme stretches beyond the demographic indicated by this particular round of stuff.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Apr 7, 2008
L.B. Jeffries kicks off his ambitious series on the state of gaming with the question of how a game can develop its own unique identity.


As the need for a critical language in assessing the art of video games becomes tantamount, the most logical place to start looking for such a language is by addressing the question of what defines the essence of a video game. What makes a video game different from a movie or a book? Player input. The interactive nature of video games is what defines them as different from other mediums, and thus arguably it defines what a game is about as well. The story and game design are certainly factors, but they are both portions of a whole. Despite the claims of wanting video games to have more sophisticated stories, good stories in games only solve half of the problem. You’d need to adapt the game design to the topic as well. Put another way, no amount of renaming the chess pieces on a game board after my childhood friends is going to make the game about my childhood. No amount of saying there are political overtones in your FPS title is going to change the fact that your game design is still just shooting people. Staging Hamlet in a game with giant mechs probably isn’t going to capture the essence of the play (but it’d be awesome if someone tried). A game’s identity is not a matter of the plot or design, it is a matter of what the player is doing.

So what then do we have the player do? How does that relate to the plot and game design as they apply to a game’s identity?


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