Sunday, July 30, 2006


Break 'Em All

I almost missed out on Break 'Em All. Although it fills a very specific void in a gamer's library, I don't want a single member of its target audience to be left in the dark about it.

Break 'Em Out

It's a Breakout clone. Not quite as good as Arkanoid, but still quite charming. The biggest draw is the fact that it's on the Nintendo DS and you use the touch screen to manipulate your paddle. For the first time since the Atari 2600, we have a Breakout game with perfect analog control.

It's almost everything a Breakout (or Arkanoid) fan could want. You have blocks on the screen. You use a paddle at the bottom of the screen to bounce the ball into the blocks. Some blocks can only be hit from a certain side, some blocks take multiple hits to destroy, and some blocks cannot be broken. The object is to clear all of the blocks away.

I cannot stress enough what a joy it is to control this game. The touchscreen control is so responsive that it makes you wonder how Breakout games have ever gotten along without it. Once you get the hang of how the ball handles, it's very easy to manipulate it into hitting those last surviving blocks hiding on the edges of the boards. No more "random angle" frustrations -- this game's a joy to control.

Super Paddle Powers

The powerup system is pretty all right. Before you begin each game, you can select which kinds of powerups you want to have access to. Usually, the choice is between a very useful powerup (Slow the ball down, Wide paddle, Catch paddle) and a less useful powerup (Speed the ball up, Narrow paddle). In this way, you can set up how difficult you want your game to be.

Instead of having to catch falling icons (as in games like Arkanoid and Off the Wall), your power-up meter increases every time the ball bounces. When it levels up, you get the first level powerup. If you don't use it, the meter increases until you're granted a second level powerup, and so on. Naturally, the longer you wait, the better the powerup you can have.

The powerups available are pretty decent. You've got the slow and fast ball, the narrow and wide paddle, the catch paddle, two variations of multiball, and the most powerful of all, Laser, which gives you a "Breakthrough" effect. Sadly missing is a powerup that lets you fire at the blocks with your paddle (as with the Laser powerup in Arkanoid), but I can live without it. I guess.

Game Modes

The highlights of the game are Tokoton Standard, Tokoton Random, and Quest modes. Tokoton Standard is a collection of fifty levels. If you make it through all of them, you start over from the beginning and continue until you lose. Tokoton Random boasts over three million randomly-generated level designs, but if you play it long enough, you start to recognize that the generation is done with pre-made levels where the types of blocks used have been randomly determined.

Quest mode is slightly different from the typical Breakout game. Every board has an exit on the top of the screen, and the object is simply to get the ball through that exit. This means getting rid of some blocks, but sometimes it also means solving some simple switch-based puzzles. Hit a switch, and some indestructible blocks disappear. Hit it again, and they reappear. After three levels, you face a boss, which you have to destroy with your paddle and ball skills. None of them are too bad, it's mostly a matter of maneuvering your ball into its weak point for massive damage.

It's fun, it's addictive, and it's got exactly the right number of bells and whistles -- not too many, not too few, and plenty of options to make exactly the sort of Breakout experience that you want. If you've ever loved a paddle and ball game, this one's totally worth it -- and for only $20.


Thursday, July 20, 2006


Better Living Through Video Games

I'm fascinated by the idea of video games with real-world benefits.

The poster child, of course, is Dance Dance Revolution, a video game that people are using to lose weight. I've experienced this first-hand. A few years ago, I graduated from college and discovered that I'd put on well over forty pounds through four years of living off snack machines and sitting around in computer labs. Getting a PSOne and a copy of Dance Dance Revolution really helped to kick-start my weight loss program. I eventually slacked off and the weight came back, but now I'm back on it with DDR Mario Mix. Although I sometimes question the calorie counting system, I can't deny the real-world results. If I play half an hour a day for a week, my body just feels lighter and more flexible. I breathe easier, I circulate better.

Another little gadget (and another example of the things Pokemon did right with the Gold/Silver/Crystal editions) was the Pocket Pikachu 2. I scoffed at it during its initial release because the virtual pet fad had come half circle to the "saturation and backlash" phase of its existance. But when I found out that it wasn't a virtual pet in the traditional sense -- no real care needed, works more like a pedometer that gives you a window to Pikachu's world -- I decided to start carrying one around. So when I heard that the average person needed to walk 10,000 steps a day to maintain a healthy lifestyle, I was ready. Thanks to Pocket Pikachu, not only did I meet my goal for month after month, but I was rewarded for my hard work with items that I could use in the Pokemon games. Now that's clever.

And now we have Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day. This one's a bit of a pickle. I like the fact that it was based on research into what sorts of activities stimulate the brain and keep it active and healthy -- the "games" revolve around mental arithmetic, memorization, and reading out loud. There's a "Brain Age" test that's meant to chart your progress, but as my brain age improves, I have to wonder to what extent my brain is actually sharpening and to what extent I'm simply becoming more familiar with the activities that are used to calculate my score. It's a little more difficult to feel the effects of playing this one; I did it for a good month, and I can't say I've noticed any significant improvement in my cognition. Still, if Dr. Kawashima's research is to be believed, just playing the game every day will give me some sort of benefit, regardless of how well I do. And it only takes a few minutes a day.

Someone at GameFAQs once jokingly suggested that we're going to have a "self-help" genre in video game stores now. And I say, why not? A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. Dressing up a workout with music and pretty colors makes it not only easier to endure but fun and addictive. Who can say no to something that's fun and good for you?


Monday, July 03, 2006



From time to time, it occurs to me how incredibly spoiled I am. Lately, I've been spending most of my video gaming time playing Activision Anthology on Game Boy Advance and dipping into that great big grab bag that came with my Flashback 2. Between the two, I have access to fully 96 Atari 2600 games, crossing just about every genre I'd ever care to play, and most of which are pretty good in their own right.

Sometimes, I really wonder why I continue to purchase new games. I haven't counted recently, but it wouldn't surprise me to discover that I have over a thousand individual games ready to play. Certainly I have multiple hundreds. The odds are becoming slimmer and slimmer that any new video game on the market is going to be appreciably different from anything I already own. How many platformers do I need before they all start looking the same? How many adventure games, how many RPGs?

In spite of giant processors, optical media, three-dimensional graphics, voice acting, analog control, and online gameplay the fundamental architecture of video games hasn't changed very much in the last two generations. If anything, it's become homogenized. I guess it's okay that game developers don't have to reinvent the wheel, but it'd be great if we got more developers trying to invent the internal combustion engine, if you know what I mean. When I look through my various Atari and Intellivision collections, I see a lot of genre-busters. Not so in this day and age, especially among the major companies.

See, there was a time when new game consoles were necessary because certain types of gameplay just weren't feasible on limited hardware. Now, I suspect that we're far, far past the point where gameplay options are constrained by the hardware; whenever I hear about hardware upgrades, it's all about how it's going to make things look and sound more realistic. It's like saying that we're going to improve the game of chess by replacing the playing pieces with tiny robots that will move and attack all on their own. All of the rules will be exactly the same, but now it'll look so much cooler, with realistic physics as the pieces collide with each other and knock each other down.

Sony and Microsoft have done nothing to suggest that they have a problem with this. Nintendo claims to be trying to shake up the game design world, but I have a sinking feeling that the Wii is going to turn out to be a bunch of smoke and mirrors.

I hold no illusions. I'm a video game addict. I'll go into withdrawl if I stop buying video games. Even in a month where I claimed there was nothing that tickled my fancy and my spending money tighter than usual, I still managed to buy two Nintendo DS games, Over the Hedge and Big Brain Academy. I simply have no willpower.

But there's nothing so far in the next generation that whets my appetite. So I wonder -- how long will I be able to last? Will it be like the Nintendo DS, where I didn't much care about it in the months leading up, then the day after launch I blow some perfectly good money on a system and a retread of Super Mario 64?

I'm going to see how long I can last before I jump into the next generation of video games. I hope it's at least until I see something that's both new and exciting, but I know I can't keep that promise.


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