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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Nov 19, 2008
A look at the latest iteration of Tetris via Nintendo's WiiWare.

Tetris is a difficult game to screw up. A certified classic, it’s gripping in its ease of play and demands thumb-numbing madness because of its no-two-snowflakes-are-alike conception and ever-increasing difficulty. There’s little that hasn’t already been written about or executed in the puzzler, which was originally released in 1985 and has seen countless new incarnations and spinoffs, and just when you think you’ve seen everything, the WiiWare-released Tetris Party finds a way to add more to the discussion.


Tetris Party‘s main selling point—besides the fact that it’s, ya know, Tetris—is its mass of new features, which includes a co-op mode, online battle, field climber, stage racer, and a fill-in-the-blanks-style puzzle. Many of these spinoffs are Wii-exclusive and haven’t been seen in the Tetris lexicon in the past. But for all of the ingenuity in these new formats, Tetris Party is worth little more than its already-proven foundation.


The most useful function of Tetris Party is the online play. An obvious addition to any game at this point, it was just the sort of thing that would’ve been forgotten, making this game almost completely useless. What’s most innovative about this mod, however—and this is true of the regular battle mode as well—is the addition of a Mario Kart-esque weapons system. By eliminating specific blocks, players are afforded a number of different weapons ranging from time attacks (stop the other players or make their pieces come extraordinarily fast), who-is-that-little-dude attacks (taken from the field climber mode), and attacks that allow you to utilize the Wii’s point-and-shoot controls.


Outside of the battle and traditional marathon modes, Tetris Party offers little in the way of enticing incentives. In stage racer, you’re given a single block that you have to navigate through a scrolling level, making sure you don’t fall too far behind. It’s a good idea but its execution becomes increasingly simplistic when you realize you can basically just mash the turn buttons until your piece craftily moves its way through the seemingly dead end puzzle.


Field climber features a tiny man that climbs up the blocks you’ve already placed, in order to make his way to the top of the screen. It’s an interesting idea, placing the focus on the negative space of Tetris rather than the space you fill, but it offers little in the way of replay value—once you meet your goal the first time, it’s not a very captivating play. The other negative-space-related mode is one in which you use custom pieces to fill such shapes as letters and apples.


The worst part about Tetris Party? 1,200 Wii points. For what you’re getting, it’s pretty hard to justify spending more than most Virtual Console/WiiWare games because ultimately, you’re just getting online Tetris in return. So if you’re a huge puzzle gaming fan or have just been jonesing for some new Tetris mods, this is right up your alley. If you’re like everyone else, however, Tetris Party is very hit or miss.


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Oct 29, 2008
Arun Subramanian looks at the purest bit of nostalgia yet released for the modern consoles.

It’s not difficult to imagine who the target audience for Mega Man 9 is.  A good number of gamers came of age during the heyday of the NES, when both challenge and level design encouraged multiple playthroughs of titles.  These qualities were particularly important considering both how much more $50 was then than it is now, and how many fewer people were playing video games to begin with, indicating a much more hardcore fanbase.  It doesn’t seem likely that newcomers to Mega Man will have any interest in Mega Man 9.  However, gamers who spent a good deal of time with Mega Man 1 and 2 in their formative years will very likely find the prospect of purchasing a new 8-bit Mega Man for $9.99 irresistible.


That said, it’s somewhat interesting to try and determine who will actually complete the game, given its level of difficulty.  From top to bottom, Mega Man 9 is a throwback to an another time in gaming.  The audiovisual presentation aims to match that of the earliest 8-bit titles to a fault.  Between that and the challenge presented, Mega Man 9 is strikingly content to present itself as though the last 20 years of gaming never happened.


As with the classic titles in the series, memorization, trial and error, and pure platforming ability are crucial to success in Mega Man 9.  Experimentation is also required in order to determine the most efficient order in which to defeat the bosses.  Again, Mega Man 9 is reminiscent of a time when beating the game was only the beginning of actually getting good at it, and punishing difficulty was welcomed, because level design and predictable enemy patterns meant that after the initial learning curve, dying was the player’s fault.


Normally, it might be difficult to argue that the “lost game”, retro feel that Mega Man 9 achieves was especially necessary in order to evoke nostalgia.  Indeed, games like Bionic Commando: Rearmed have demonstrated that the reboot of a long dormant franchise itself is likely to ensure decent enough sales among those that remember the original.  What makes Mega Man 9 unique is how active the franchise, or at least the protagonist, has been for many years regardless of the quality of individual titles.  Revisiting the early days of Mega Man when the series was at its strongest, then, is what makes the design of Mega Man 9 particularly notable. 


Although it makes perfect sense for Mega Man 9 to be distributed digitally (regardless of the brilliant limited edition physical packaging), it does seem somewhat at odds with the rest of the game’s aesthetics for there to be downloadable content and achievements for the Xbox 360 version.  But beyond that, Mega Man 9 does an admirable job of revisiting a classic gaming franchise, leaving the original presentation untouched, while offering brand new content.  For fans of the series, it offers a large amount of replay value for its relatively low price, though its retro brand of difficulty may prove too much for some.


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Aug 13, 2008
Capcom's 1942: Joint Strike gets the Checkpoints treatment, courtesy of Arun Subramanian.

The 194x series of games were some of the earliest successful vertical scrolling shooters.  They were also one of the few examples of the genre not steeped in a sci-fi mythos.  1942: Joint Strike plays like a long lost entry in the series, though it’s interesting to note that despite the success of titles like Pacman: Championship Edition and Space Invaders Extreme, Joint Strike plays it comparatively safe.  Certainly, what made those reimaginings successful was the way they modernized gameplay concepts while leaving the core mechanics untouched.  Joint Strike, on the other hand, is largely content to present itself as a graphical update.  This is not inherently bad, particularly considering that scrolling shooters are fairly timeless, and that by and large Joint Strike is presentationally top-notch.  Finally, the electronica-inspired aesthetics of Pac Man: CE and Space Invaders Extreme would certainly be out of place in the context of 1942.


While not quite difficult enough to earn the description of a “bullet-hell” shooter, there is more than enough challenge in avoiding enemies and fire.  There are three available planes that vary in key statistics, any of which can take more than one standard enemy shot without exploding, but it’s probably best to behave as though any shot can take your plane down.  The three weapon types are standard, and it’s easy to imagine players will have different favorites.  The reality is that much of what makes Joint Strike enjoyable is what has always made it so.  The widescreen support is welcome, since it gives the game the opportunity to present more enemies, at the same time as it gives the player more room to maneuver.  This is especially noticeable in cooperative play.


Although they have very recently undergone something of a renaissance, scrolling shooters have certainly waned in popularity with the demise of the arcade.  Along with traditional beat-‘em-ups, arcade shooters had the quality of essentially being beatable by anyone willing to continue paying money when they died.  Because adding another credit traditionally just topped off your health and lives precisely at the point where you perished, it was generally possible to simply buy your way to the ending.  That’s not to say skill wasn’t rewarded, but the reward had to do with the monetization of that talent as measured by money saved.  This is something of a different idea than that of a pinball master getting endless replays or a fighting game wizard taking on the competition for hours on a single quarter, in that those game situations don’t really have discrete endings. 


In their transition to home consoles, then, with no money leaving the pockets of the player once the game has been purchased, many shooters have instituted much more stringent life and continue policies.  Certainly, in the arcade, there is more money to be made by allowing less skilled players to continually buy their way back in, but in the absence of this pay-to-play environment, there is a tendency to impose restrictions on the player in the home console versions, essentially limiting the number of virtual quarters the player has.  This necessarily removes some of the accessibility of these titles in favor of an artificial difficulty, but is likely the best compromise available.  Joint Strike is no exception to this, and in order to unlock level selects and continues, you must beat the game straight through.


In many ways, Joint Strike is a prime example of what’s good about downloadable games from the perspective of an established company, revisiting a classic franchise.  While it certainly doesn’t contain enough content to warrant a purchase as a full priced game published on physical media, a quality common to many classic arcade games, it works perfectly as something downloadable on a whim, imbued with both modern graphics and classic gameplay.


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Text:AAA
Thursday, Jul 31, 2008
Capcom's shoot 'em up Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando 3 is oddly reminiscent of another recent Capcom game...

Picking up Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando 3 for a playthrough, I was struck with an unflinching sense of déja vu.  “Schiller, you idiot, of course you’re feeling déja vu,” you say, “it’s the third game in a series.  Chances are, it has something in common with the first two Commando games, yes?” 


Well, yes, but those games are oddly not what Commando 3 reminds me of.


In fact, by the time Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando 3 came out, I had all but forgotten about the first two Commando games, and why not?  They were released in 1985 and 1991 (as Commando and Mercs in America, and as Wolf of the Battlefield and Wolf of the Battlefield 2 in Japan), which means I’ve had plenty of time for my TV and game-addled brain to forget they ever existed as anything but a footnote to Bionic Commando, perhaps my favorite game of all time.  No, what Wolf of the Battlefield immediately evokes is a different Capcom franchise, one more recent, more immediate, and more…mediocre.


That franchise would be the Rocketmen franchise.


Obviously, it hasn’t been that long since I put down Rocketmen: Axis of Evil (probably) for good, which was fine with me given that its distinct (read: awkward) art style and oddly cumbersome shoot-everything-that-moves action were starting to grate on me a bit.  As such, it was an utter shock to find Commando 3 with a very similar, though thankfully devoted to two dimensions, art style in the cutscenes and a play style highly reminiscent of that belonging to Rocketmen.  You choose one of three different characters with varying attributes, and then proceed to run around with one analog stick and shoot in every direction with the other analog stick.  Along the way you pick up prisoners, hop into various vehicles, and cause a whole lot of mayhem.


On one hand, this sort of gameplay is a perfect fit for the style of those old overhead Commando games—the number of times I used to wish there was an easy way to run in one direction and shoot in another in Commando and Mercs is pretty much uncountable.  On the other hand, it feels like folly to release this thing so close to the release of Rocketmen.  All that’s going to happen is that people who consider themselves fans of this sort of game are simply going to get burned out on it.  Who’s going to want to play another overhead run ‘n gun after this?  Anyone?


On the bright side, the play mechanics in Commando 3 are a marked improvement on the Rocketmen style.  For one, it plays much faster—the control is crisp and the action is fast.  I’m also simultaneously overjoyed and frustrated by the fact that Capcom saw fit to bring back the original Commando‘s idea that putting secret areas in random places would be a good idea.  That’s right, in order to find all of the secret areas in the game, you pretty much have to toss grenades at every square inch of the map.  There are some clues floating around that mark certain spots as more likely to have a secret area hidden beneath them, but some of them just feel utterly random in their placement.  While I can appreciate the retro value of the randomly placed secrets, I can’t help but wonder if something involving a puzzle or a clever clue would be a more satisfying way to hide a secret.


Fans of this type of game who haven’t given Rocketmen: Axis of Evil a look yet will be in luck—Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando 3 is better, for a number of quantifiable reasons.  Still, Rocketmen wore out its welcome a little bit quicker than I’d hoped, and I imagine that Commando 3 will do the same.  Of course, downloading Commando 3 offers access to the Street Fighter 2 HD open beta, so there’s value added on top of the fact that it’s a better, if still flawed, game.  If you’re a fan of Commando and/or Mercs, you’ll probably have a good time with the third entry in the series; if you’re simply an overhead run ‘n gunner who’s starting to get a little burned out on your genre of choice, do yourself a favor and avoid it.  You’ll thank yourself later.


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Arun Subramanian takes a look at the recent Wii release of the Dreamcast/arcade fishing sim Sega Bass Fishing.

Both fishing and golf games hold a strange fascination for me.  I don’t have an affinity for the real world counterparts of either, and yet, I really do get a kick out of the digital versions.  To my mind, the best golf video games come from the Golden Tee franchise, which, due to its loose trackball control scheme, has never really been represented well on home consoles.  Ten years ago Sega Bass Fishing made its debut in the arcades,  setting the bar for arcadey fishing games.  Unlike Golden Tee, however, Sega Bass Fishing was able to be recreated reasonably well on a home console, namely the Dreamcast, with the Sega Fishing Controller.  Now, it has been re-released on the Wii.


One of the nice things about the Wiimote is that it’s pretty multipurpose, which means that despite Nintendo’s efforts to dump various plastic shells on us, it can stand in for a number of different kinds of controllers just fine on its own.  Sega Bass Fishing is no exception.  The Wiimote substitutes well for either the original arcade controller or the Sega Fishing Controller.


But the problem with Sega Bass Fishing isn’t the control.  Rather, it simply has to do with how much time has passed since its original release.  This is essentially the same game from ten years ago, and it both looks and sounds like it.  Further, as a purely arcade title, there’s no depth to it.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, of course.  In fact, old games, arcade or not, seem to be undergoing a bit of a renaissance in this generation of consoles, with the increased popularity of downloadable titles.  From that perspective, it totally makes sense to bring back Sega Bass Fishing now.


However, this is one of those games that makes me wish the Wii had some legitimate storage capacity.  The kind of nostalgia it’s banking on seems like it would be most profitable if its purchase could be made impulsively and nearly immediately.  Sega has to understand the limited appeal of Sega Bass Fishing for the Wii, or else they wouldn’t be selling it at a $29.99 price point.  But even at that price, it’s a somewhat difficult purchase to justify.  Further, given that in the last ten years, fishing minigames have become more common in larger titles (Okami and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, for example) an extremely similar, if not uniquely Sega, experience can be had much more cost effectively.


It’s hard not to have some fun with Sega Bass Fishing, particularly if you have any fond memories of the arcade or Dreamcast versions.  But the gaming landscape has changed in the last ten years, and this version of Sega Bass Fishing doesn’t reflect that whatsoever.  It just seems to me that mining this sort of material sounds better on paper than it will probably turn out, even though admittedly there’s something appealing about it.  I’d certainly be excited if they decided to bring back Daytona USA, though I’m sure I’d be disappointed by the result.


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