Monday, February 28, 2011


Retro Game Challenge

It's hard to think that there can be anything wrong with a world where I can reach into my pocket, pull out a plastic rectangle, flip it open, and play Robot Ninja Haggleman whenever I want. I can't remember the last time I anticipated a video game so much for so long and been so very, very satisfied with the results.

It's a small miracle that this game even got a western release, being based on a Japanese TV show and featuring such an oddball premise. And yet, here we are.

Life is pretty damned good.

Retro Game Challenge is a great game. And it works on three different levels.

It Works as a Home Version of Game Center CX

Game Center CX is, as far as I know, a sort of Japanese reality TV show about a guy named Shinya Arino and his efforts to complete difficult challenges in a host of old Famicom games. Someone out there thought, hey, let's make a video game about that.

So the premise is that you've been sent back in time to 1984, and you've been transformed into a ten-year-old kid. To return to your proper place in the space-time continuum, you have to pair up with ten-year-old Arino and complete challenges set by a digitalized, marginally demonic version of modern-day Arino. Maybe you'll have to reach a certain level without dying or complete a level in a certain time limit or find a certain bonus item -- whatever. Each game has four challenges, and when you've completed them all, you unlock the next game.

So this is already a lot more interesting than most retro game packs. It may sound like a pain in the ass to have to complete challenges in games you don't like to reach games that interest you more, but this is mitigated by two facts:

1) Every game is awesome.

2) The challenges are easy enough that you'll probably get them on your first try, and most of them can be done in just a couple minutes.

Let's face it -- there wasn't a hell of a lot going on in older video games. While it's nice enough to play a game like Pac-Man "just because", it's really a lot more satisfying when you have concrete goals to shoot for. And the fanfare that plays when you accomplish a goal will make you feel like the king of the world.

It Works as a Microcosm of 80's Game Culture

The most celebrated feature of Retro Game Challenge is, of course, its presentation. A lot of care has been taken to make sure that you're not just playing the games it presents, but that you've actually been transported to this place where you are playing video games.

The bottom screen shows Arino's living room, where Arino sits side by side with your character. The top screen shows a view of Arino's TV. The touch screen has power and reset controls for the Game Computer. These are exactly the sort of little touches I like to see in something like this.

And when you play a game, Arino talks over it, reacting to what you're doing. He's got a wealth of voice clips at his disposal, and they're used to surprisingly good effect; they don't sound repetitive at all, and the system is generally intelligent about when they should be used. Arino cheers, groans, and yawns right along with you. And just like that, you feel like you're a kid again, over at a friend's house, trying out a new video game he got while he sits next to you and watches. That's something that most retro video game collections just won't give you -- a ten-year-old that'll sit next to you and freak out over how awesome you are at a game.

A lot of the atmosphere of the game comes from your conversations with Arino. He'll have something to say before and after every challenge, and you can strike up a conversation with him whenever you want. He'll share his opinions about the most recent game he got, or he'll share some video game rumors he heard on the playground, or he'll just share his thoughts and opinions about how the video game industry is booming right before your eyes. And every once in a while, his mom will call from the other room to tell you to stop playing and do some chores, and you'll ignore her.

But everyone's favorite part is the magazines. They're brief -- typically about 12 screens of text each. Mostly you'll be reading them for cheats that you can use to get through your challenges more easily, but they contain a couple fun snippets of peripheral material too -- letters from the editor, reader mail, sales charts.

As in real life, the magazines also serve the function of telling you about what's coming up. And in my opinion, this just may be the most important part. Like it or not, but preview hype can make a big difference when it comes to how much you enjoy a video game. Games exist in a certain place in time, and they're greatly influenced by the expectations of gaming culture at that time. And that's another thing that most retro video game collections won't give you -- the frame of mind of someone living inside a culture that's seeing things like Robot Ninja Haggleman and Guadia Quest for the first time.

And my favorite thing about this 80's simulation? You spend five years playing side by side with Arino. In that time, his library only amounts to 8 games. Reminds me of when I was a kid, and games only came on birthdays and Christmas, so every single one of them was played to death.

It Works as a Collection of Excellent Games

This is the most important thing. If the games were bad, nothing else would've mattered. Luckily, the games are very good. Yes, even Rally King.

The games are small compared to their real-world counterparts, but they all feel surprisingly complete. They could have made a Game Center CX game by tossing together a handful of fake levels, and they could've ended up with a sort of Wario Ware kinda game, but they went the extra mile. Every single game in the set looks and feels like a standalone release, complete with title and ending screens, cheats, secrets -- so much effort has been put into every individual game that you may forget that you're playing "mini-games".

The thing is, these aren't really retro games. They look retro, and they have a few scoring and gameplay elements that recall the games of yore, but they play in a much more modern way. Controls are tight, color palettes are vibrant throughout, there's no deliberate flickering or slowdown, and, perhaps most importantly of all, the games are easy enough that you can finish them without too much hassle.

Let's have a spoilery look!

Cosmic Gate

This is your "static screen" spaceship shooter. It's basically Galaga, except that I'm good at it. It helps that you get a powerup that can destroy an entire column of enemies in one shot. The game alternates between your typical spaceship shooting gallery and "Asteroid Zones". Early in the game, Asteroid Zones are basically bonus levels where you can rack up lots of extra points, but as they start moving faster, it becomes a challenge just to stay alive.

Robot Ninja Haggleman

Oh hell yeah. This game is sort of an arcade platformer (as opposed to an adventure platformer, like Super Mario Brothers). You've got these smallish levels that are only about three screens wide, and they scroll left and right and wrap around when you go too far, and the object is to kill a boss character. There are two ways to make the boss appear: either you can kill all of the enemies in a stage, or you can find the door it's hiding behind. You can stun most enemies with ninja stars and you can jump on their heads to kill them. There are also colored doors littered through the levels, and when you hide behind one, all of the like-colored doors on the screen also flip, harming any enemies that are close by. There are eight levels, and then a "second quest" where you replay the levels with tougher enemies.

This is my favorite game in the set, the one I keep coming back to. It's short enough that it fits into any block of time you might have, and it's just endlessly fun.

Rally King

A lot of people are hard on Rally King, which is sort of an overhead racing game, but I quite like it. I think it's disliked because there's sort of a learning curve; the steering takes some getting used to, and you'll crash a lot until you get a feel for the different courses and you learn how to use your speed.

Star Prince

This is your "bullet hell" vertical scrolling shooter. There's things to shoot at, things shooting at you, lots of powerups, the whole deal. The neat thing about this game is that you can hold down a button to activate a shield which absorbs most kinds of enemy bullets, then shoots out a super-charged pulse that devastates most enemies.

The most interesting thing about this game is the way it introduces rapid-fire. For the first two challenges, you just use your normal controller, tapping a button to shoot. But once you pass those challenges, the game offers you a rapid-fire button which you can hold down to shoot repeatedly. This is a really interesting history lesson. See, I never played shooting games back in the 80s, so I never understood the appeal of rapid-fire controllers. But when you go from hammering A as fast as you can to unleashing a solid stream of destruction just by holding down a button, it really makes you feel like a proper badass.

Rally King SP

This is sort of a Japanese inside joke. I guess it was a practice in Japan to release special promotional versions of video games with different graphics to promote various non-game products and such. One real life example is All Night Nippon Super Mario Brothers.

So yeah. Young Arino wins a contest in Game Fan magazine and gets a copy of the rare and highly collectible Rally King SP, which is a slightly rearranged version of Rally King that includes ads for Game Fan magazine and Inokichi instant noodles. Now all of the gamers who've always wanted to get their hands on a special edition game can discover... it's really not that interesting.

Robot Ninja Haggleman 2

This game is to the first Haggleman what the Japanese Super Mario Brothers 2 is to the first Super Mario Brothers. It's basically the same game engine, but the graphics have been overhauled and the stages are a lot more difficult. Technically, you could say it's the superior game, but when I just want to kick back and play, I just prefer the easier original.

Guadia Quest

Yes indeed, it's an RPG, in the style of Dragon Quest. You roam dungeons, kill monsters, collect treasure, the whole deal. I really, really appreciate the work that's gone into this game. If you just wanted to demonstrate what 8-bit RPGs were like, you could make a single dungeon with a single boss and a simple "rescue the princess" plot, and that'd be enough to support the gameplay. And while this is a pretty short adventure, there are multiple bosses to fight and a plot with a pretty decent twist.

There's actually some consternation among fans of Retro Game Challenge over the length of Guadia Quest, and it's somewhat justifiable. Most of the games, you can clear all four challenges in half an hour or less. When you get to Guadia Quest, the pace of the game just hits a wall, and it becomes a slow, meticulous grind. The challenges only cover as far as the first boss, but that's still enough dungeon crawling to really slow the game down. Me, I don't mind. If anything, I see Guadia Quest as a great way to get my RPG fix without sinking the kind of time that you'd need to complete, say, Final Fantasy on the NES.

Robot Ninja Haggleman 3

Completing the Super Mario Brothers analogy, Robot Ninja Haggleman 3 is a quantum leap for the series. The game has become a proper adventure platforming game, with huge levels and completely reworked gameplay. It really does a great job of recalling the giant sidescrolling adventures that the NES had.

It Just Works

Retro Game Challenge is just completely excellent. It's quite a pity that it didn't catch on better than it did, but hey, it's still kind of a miracle that it came out in the west at all. I've gone through this game over and over again just to play through the story and all of the challenges and read the magazines and play Haggleman. Best favorite forever.


Sunday, February 27, 2011


Retro Fever... IN MY PANTS!!!

Ah, the 80s. That's when games were games, man. They had entire buildings just for people to walk in and play video games! If you wanted to play video games at home, you could buy a box that hooked up to your TV and display maybe one or two sprites at the same time. If you wanted a video game in your pocket, you could get this thin thing the size of a credit card that had two buttons, played one game, and doubled as a digital clock.

This is a great time to love retro games. Our portable entertainment computers are sophisticated enough to hold literally the entire libraries of companies who made these games back in the 80s. And the fact that retro compilations don't require as much of an investment as a brand new game -- not to mention the fact that they're at a disadvantage in today's market when they're put side by side with much cooler-looking games -- you can pick up a whole lot of really good games for pretty damned cheap.

So here's a look at some of my favorite portable retro sets, with a closer look at the individual games that make them worth picking up.

Atari's Greatest Hits Volume 1

It's amazing the lasting appeal the Atari 2600 has, considering it was designed to play Pong, Combat, and not much else. Sure, Atari came out with some better consoles -- the 5200, the 7800 -- but the 2600 is the one that seems to stick with people. If you say, "I had an Atari", this is the one that comes to mind.

Atari's Greatest Hits Volume 1 has forty Atari 2600 games, from the big name arcade classics like Missile Command and Centipede to the forgettable shovelware like Slot Machine and Fun With Numbers. The emulation is perfect, and all of the console switches are right on the touch screen, to use at any time. They even went so far as to implement a hotseat multiplayer, so that you can pass a single DS back and forth to play any two-player game where the players took turns.

Personally, the only Atari game on the 2600 that I really care about is Adventure. Sure, it's nice to have 3D Tic Tac Toe, Flag Capture, and so forth, but why settle for anything less than the magic of an adventure game that's different every single time you play it? Even if you play Mode 2, where everything always starts in the same place, that damned bat is sure to shuffle things around enough to keep any of your plans from going smoothly. And Mode 3? Where you don't know what's going to be around the next turn, where the magic sword is, or when a dragon is going to ambush you out of nowhere? That's exciting. Adventure is worth the cost of the package all by itself.

There are also 10 arcade games, including my very favorite of all: Pong. Yeah, laugh if you want, but this is still an awesome game of skill. But don't think you can get away with making me play with a D-pad; the true joy of Pong is the precision you get from playing with the original dial controller. The DS version lacks this, but they make up for it by giving you a slider control on the touch screen. If you're a paddle fan, this is as good as it gets.

Activision Anthology

Activision goes down as being the first third party developer in history. And boy did they have to fight for it! It's kind of funny, in this age where Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft fall all over themselves to woo third party support, to think that Activision had to go to court against Atari for the right to make 2600 games.

And their games rocked.

The GBA version of Activision Anthology may run a little slower, and changes may have been made to allow for the different resolution, but damn do a lot of these games still hold up. Enduro is a marathon racing game where you drive day and night through all sorts of road and visibility conditions to try and pass a quota of cars in a short span of time. Pressure Cooker challenges you to catch burger toppings as they fly across the screen to fill customer orders. Pitfall and Pitfall II are engaging treasure-hunting platformers. And Space Shuttle: A Journey Into Space is a fully-functional space shuttle flight simulator.

On a system with 128 bytes of memory.

Stick Greatest Hits and Anthology in the opposite ends of your DS Lite, and you've created the Voltron of handheld Atari gaming.

Pac Man Collection

Pac Man was the game of the day. The name was synonymous with video games. Everyone played it, and every company imitated it. It's basically the quintessential video game. Run through a funky glowing maze, collect all the dots, avoid the brightly-colored monsters, and grab the special items to get temporary super powers. Namco tried over and over to carry Pac Man's fame into new territories, but they never really surpassed the popularity and appeal of the original.

Pac Man Collection on GBA is a collection of three different versions of Pac Man and also a Tetris-like game called Pac Attack. But the highlights of the package are the original Pac Man (playable in fullscreen or scrolling modes) and its arcade successor, Pac Mania. The 3D isometric view and the ability to jump over ghosts, while adhering to the basic gameplay of the original, makes Pac Mania one of the most memorable games from my childhood.

Dragon's Lair

Not really part of a portable collection, but Dragon's Lair gets an honorable mention in the list, because I just love it to pieces. The DSiWare version recreates the arcade experience like no version before it by offering a complete attract mode, a HUD for your score on the second screen, and an "Arcade Mode" that eliminates several seconds of video for complete authenticity. ("Home Mode" lets you see the complete video and also includes the opening Drawbridge scene.) It's really like having the arcade machine in your pocket.

Game & Watch

I've already said my piece about the Game & Watch experience as a whole and my favorite games in particular. But in addition to the Game & Watch Gallery series, you can now download several titles as DSiWare. The games look great with the DSi's sharper resolution. A feature has been included that lets you start from any score that you had previously earned -- no more long, tedious waiting for the challenge to kick in. And as a cute touch, all of the games feature a "watch" mode so you can turn your DSi into a clock. At only 200 points apiece and taking up very little memory, it's awfully tempting just to download them all.

Intellivision Lives!

The Intellivision folks have been courting the DS practically since it first came on the market. With a second, touch-sensitive screen, it seemed like it was custom-made to emulate the ridiculously complicated, overlay-enabled control scheme of the Intellivision. And yet, it was a real struggle to make this game happen. Publishers turned them down. Nintendo refused to distribute it as DSiWare. So when this collection finally became a real thing that you can put in your DS, it felt like a monumental victory for the underdogs.

It's too bad the games are crap.

Even overlooking the bugs left in some of these games -- Minotaur doesn't display inventory items correctly, Space Spartans has issues with some of the voice prompts -- they just aren't a lot of fun. It's often really difficult to figure out how you're supposed to play these games. There are too many buttons, and the instructions don't do a good enough job of explaining what's going on. It doesn't help that so many games in the collection are just electronic recreations of sports and tabletop games. And the games that are interesting and decipherable -- Astrosmash, Shark! Shark!, Thunder Castle -- just feel really slow-paced. They drag on and on, and wear out their welcome long before you lose.

I guess I appreciate this one more for the fact that it managed to exist than as something to put in my DS and play with.

Classic NES Series

Okay, so this isn't really a compilation so much as a series of reprints, and at $20 apiece, this was the most expensive way to get your nostalgia fix. Maybe the biggest appeal was to collectors who wanted something to waste their money on. On the other hand, isn't Super Mario Brothers worth it? Isn't The Legend of Zelda worth it? And isn't it just a little bit cool to get a GBA version of the original game box and a reprint of the original manual? Sure, the resolution fudging left a bit to be desired, but there's still something magical about being able to turn on a GBA (that looks like an NES, incidentally), stomp that first goomba, and nab that first Super Mushroom.

Retro Game Challenge

Okay, so none of these games were actually made in the 80s. But this game emulates something much more potently nostalgic than any of the other sets in this list ever could -- my childhood. Playing a game while a friend watches on and reacts, looking up cheat codes and reading about amazing upcoming games, watching as technology progresses from Space Invaders to Dragon Quest -- this is the whole experience of growing up gaming in the 80s, distilled into a single DS card. And that's what retro is all about.


Saturday, February 26, 2011


Video Games Are Still A Thing, Eh?

Well LOOK WHO WAS COMPLETELY WRONG. Well, okay, half wrong. I've continued to buy video games in 2010, despite my every prediction to the contrary. But there's only been one game that I've really really enjoyed, and that was Ghost Trick. I tried Sleep Is Death, but I really couldn't get into it. I bought Minecraft and... while I understand the appeal of it, I'm just terrible at it. I want to learn and experience this sense of discovery that everybody always talks about playing the game, but if I play with monsters, I just die all the time, and if I don't, I feel like I'm not playing it the way it was meant to be played. Yeah, thanks, sorry, no. I bought Epic Mickey because I wanted to experience a Warren Spencer game design, and... as much as he's lauded for his approach to giving players interesting and meaningful moral choices, that particular game just felt kind of flat. And I guess I got the Atari and Intellivision collections for DS, and those are nice little trophies, despite the fact that I'm trying to move away from that sort of behavior.

I guess I liked Poker Night at the Inventory. And I made the upgrade to Rock Band 3.

But the general idea behind the sentiment hasn't changed much. There's not a lot coming out anymore that I really care about. And that's been reflected in this here blog thingy for the past couple years I think. When there's nothing new to stir my mind up, there's really not a lot to write about.

I keep thinking back to this excellent piece Patrick Alexander wrote about how fed up he is with the game industry and how it only takes a small handful of really good games to satisfy him. I can really relate to that. I mean, even after selling off all of my DS games except the ones I'm absolutely certain I'll ever play again, I can whittle down the ones I play regularly to a pretty short list.

When I was really little, my brother and I pooled our allowance and saved up for an NES. And the big thing at the time was Super Mario Brothers 3, and we loved it, and we played it over and over and over again. It's just such a good game that it lends itself to being played repeatedly. I just played it again half an hour ago, as a matter of fact, and I enjoyed it as much as one can enjoy a game that's become a matter of muscle memory more than anything.

Of course, that wasn't the only game that we got. We asked for games for birthday presents and Christmas presents, and we were fortunate enough to get a number of them, and we pooled our allowance for new games, and so on. And I remember games like The Legend of Zelda and Excitebike and Simon's Quest and Double Dragon II, but of all the NES games we owned back then, the only one that I really still want to play is Super Mario Brothers 3. Well, maybe a little Legend of Zelda.

My point is, when you have a lot of video games, you find that there aren't a lot you need to own. Maybe if Super Mario Brothers 3 was the only game we owned, we would have gotten sick of it, but I somehow doubt it. It seems like, when you have a game system, you have the couple of games that you really really like that you could play over and over again, then maybe something new comes out that steals your attention for a bit, but once that passes over you remember it's been a while since you've played your favorite game and you go back to it. And then when you get a new system, you keep your old one hooked up until the new one has a sufficient supply of games that you can go back to over and over again. And maybe someday, you buy a whole compilation of games from that system so that you don't even need your old system anymore, but the only games you play on it are those handful you remember, because maybe those were the only games you wanted on that system to begin with. Like, with the Wii Virtual Console, I thought, hey, here's all of these classic games I never played from all of these systems and they're really cheap, what a great way to experience new video games. But it turns out that I just downloaded the games I was already familiar with because, by and large, the ones that I missed out on were games that never interested me to begin with.

But I think there's something in human nature where we constantly crave new experiences. I watch game news sites all the time, hoping to find out about something new and great that's going to come out, and it's great when I do find out about something like Ghost Trick or Retro Game Challenge, but the problem with news sites is that there is, obviously, a focus on what's new. For months or years, you're fed tiny details about these games -- a screenshot here, a video there -- then it comes out, and there's maybe a week of excitement about it as everyone gets to play it for the first time, and then... dead silence. Like it doesn't exist anymore.

So there's this sort of preoccupation in gamer consciousness with what's coming next, what we don't yet own. And I really think it fuels this sort of sense of dissatisfaction that we feel with video games. There's never time to sit down and really play the games that you own to exhaustion when all you're thinking about is what comes next. It's criminal, especially in this age when so much money has to go into all of the art and scoring and voice acting and everything for these huge games, to be replacing things so rapidly. Gamers these days complain about having a "backlog", the games they bought just to have them, never mind where they'll find the time to play them. There's so much to get out of games nowadays, but we always want something else.

What would be great -- what I'm craving -- is some sort of stimulus to keep me interested in what I already have. But I'm sure that couldn't take the form of a message board or a website with daily updates. After all, how much can you say about the same game? One reason I'm sort of reluctant to post reviews around Electric Dilintia these days is that writing it down almost feels like putting in the final word, like I'm done with the game and I don't have anything else to think about it. And in a way, it's true. I picked up Shiren the Wanderer the other day, and it was wonderful, but it was wonderful in all the ways that I've already explained. I could do a blog with updates like, "Yeah, played Smash Brothers again today, turns out it's still really great," but would that even be interesting? (I ask that question fully aware that I'm the only person who reads this shit.)

Playing and writing about video games seemed really, really interesting for the last month or so. Maybe I'm so desperate for something new and so disinterested in what's coming next that I'm starting to return to my remaining library as a sort of last resort. I'm finding pleasure where I thought I no longer could.

I can't shake this feeling that video games would be a lot more interesting if I could figure out the correct way to relate to them. If I was better at making purchasing decisions, maybe I wouldn't waste so much money on the kinds of games that are only interesting once. If I wasn't so hyperactively aware of what's coming out in the near future, I wouldn't be as tempted to grab new games every month. If I didn't spend so much time playing them, I would enjoy the time when I did play them even more.

The nice thing is, the changing of the seasons seems to give me some impetus. Like, spring has been in the air recently, and that's reminded me of what the weather was like when I bought games like Siren the Wanderer and Wario Ware DIY and Retro Game Challenge, so I've just sort of naturally been drawn back to them. In the summer, I'll probably find myself thinking about my Wii games again, and so on.

I guess my whole point is, I've been sick of video games for the longest time, but now they seem fun again. So I'm going to keep writing as long as that lasts.


Tuesday, February 22, 2011


I Dreamt About Portal Last Night

Last night, I dreamt I was Chell, battling GLaDOS. My portal gun was a Wii Zapper. B trigger for blue portals, Z trigger for orange.

Would it really be impossible to port that game to the Wii with Zapper controls? Control stick to move forward, back, and strafe, cursor to look and aim, C to pick up and drop... shake to jump?


Monday, February 21, 2011


DS Desert Island Games

The DS has come a long way and taken on many forms since it debuted in 2004 next to, what, a remake of Super Mario 64, a cloud-drawing minigame, and a game about making silhouettes vomit goldfish? It's had some impressive and unconventional competition in the form of the PSP and the iPhone. But the platform did eventually prove itself, playing host to the birth of Nintendo's casual-friendly philosophy, the renaissance of 2D Super Mario Brothers games, and an awful lot of bitching about people cheating in Super Mario Kart.

It seems too early to be closing the book on the DS. Indeed, we're probably going to continue to see support for it as the 3DS takes its baby steps. But this feels like as good a time as any to take a look back at my favorite DS games. And not just the ones that I've liked, but the ones that validate the idea of owning a DS in their own right. These are the ones I've loved over and over again, and which I'll never stop being fond of. These are my Desert Island DS games.

It'd be nice and elegant if I could say that, out of the dozens of DS games I've played, that I could name a Top Ten list of essential games, but I can't. I can't even make a Top Five. So this'll have to do.

Shiren the Wanderer

Much as I loved Pokemon Mystery Dungeon, there was just no going back once I met Shiren the Wanderer. For a game where it's possible to go from start to finish in a single sitting, my goodness does this game feel bottomless. The randomized layouts, the crazy enemies, and the varied magical items come together to make this an adventure that's different every time.

Retro Game Challenge

I wonder when this game will get old. There's still something magical about playing through this game's narrative, anticipating and unlocking these amazing little games one by one, reading magazines, chatting with Arino... It's a magic door to your childhood that fits in your pocket. Listen to Arino's gasps of amazement as you bounce around on the heads of robotic ninja drones, and suddenly you're a kid again.

Wario Ware DIY

The driving philosophy behind the Wario Ware games has always seemed to be "simple fun". It completely amazes me that they've managed to take video game development and turn it into something that's so simple, so powerful, and so much fun to use. I remember playing with Mario Paint back in the day and drawing my own Mario levels and what not because those were the assets they gave you to use, and then I would wish that I could actually play them. And now that vision is realized -- the games I design in my head actually come to life now, and I can play them. And the games it comes with are excellent. And the comics are excellent. And the music is excellent. It's a creativity studio, but it's also an entertainment package. I love it so much forever.

Anything with "Ace Attorney" or "Ghost Trick" in the title

Okay, I'm kind of fudging this one, but I don't care. The first Phoenix Wright game enchanted me from the start, and the first trilogy left me with a completely satisfied feeling. So what if the gameplay was essentially the same between them? The stories were fun to follow, and the puzzles were a hoot to unravel. And yeah, maybe Apollo Justice and Miles Edgeworth fell a little short of my expectations, but I'll take 'em anyway. Ghost Trick is a different beast entirely, but the association is close enough to fall under this heading. And even though these games can really only be a "challenge" the first time you play them, they're just so much fun to watch and read that I'll return to them over and over again. It's as "challenging" as reading a book, and just as entertaining. It's just that you're keying in puzzle solutions instead of turning pages.

So, by year:

2005: 1
2006: 1
2007: 3
2008: 1
2009: 2
2010: 1

Nice to know that my favorite games fall all along the lifespan of the system, rather than being bunched up toward the end. Even if this is it for the DS, it's been a good run.



Wii Fit Plus

There's not a lot to say about Wii Fit Plus that hasn't already been said. It's basically an expansion pack for the original software.

There are some new exercises and activities, including a whole bunch of new balance board mini-games that have been lumped together in a new category, "Training Plus". These games are considerably more "gamey" than the set that came with the original software, my favorite being the Obstacle Course game. The press description is pretty accurate -- it's like a Mario game, where you're running and jumping and avoiding obstacles, but you control it with your feet, walking in place to move forward and bending your knees a bit to jump. It's not a particularly energetic activity, but it's a fun way to relax and wind down at the end of a workout.

But for the most part, the real benefit of Wii Fit Plus isn't the new activities it brings to the table, but the way it arranges and streamlines what was already there. All of the basic functionality of Wii Fit is still there, and if you want to use it the way it originally worked, you're completely welcome to do it, but once you've seen what it can do, you might not want to look back.

Here's an example. After picking your Mii, there's a big "Start" button. And if you press that, you go through this dialog with the Balance Board where it gives you your tip of the day and all that. Then you select your body test, where you get your weight and it remarks on your center of balance, and then it asks you if you want to play some mini-games to get your Wii Fit age. When you're done with all that rigamarole, you can finally get on to the exercises. But in Wii Fit Plus, they've added a "Simple Test" button next to the Start button. It skips all of the expository dialogue, gives you your weight and center of balance, and then you're done. Simple and to the point.

Then on the next screen, you can select the Training button, which allows you to browse the categories and select an exercise as you've always done. But there's also a shortcut button that takes you to "My Wii Fit Plus", which is basically a new interface for everything related to the game. This is where you'll create workout routines. And there's a lot of options available.

First, there's routines recommended by the system. There are fifteen categories, including warm-ups, fat-burning, back and shoulders, and so on. Each system routine has three activities. You can string together as many of these routines as you like, tell the system how many exercises you want to do from each routine (if you only want one or two, they're chosen for you randomly), keep track of about how long your routine is going to be, and then do it. This is kind of a nice feature -- it gives you recommendations for areas that you might like to focus on, and it does the work of shuffling the deck around so that it's a little different every day.

Secondly, there's custom routines. You can string together your own set of exercises, pulling from the Strength and Yoga categories, and then you'll work through them one after the other with only a minimal break between exercises. You can also specify how many minutes you have available for exercise, and the system will come up with something. This is another great feature -- it's like building your own workout video. And without having to go back to the remote to move from one activity to the next, you don't have to spend so much time cooling down between exercises.

I really like Wii Fit Plus. It's helped to rekindle my interest in the software. The only real complaint is that it's kind of like they're patching the original software with things that they realize they had left out, but you get the feeling that they're really not doing it to gouge you -- the disc by itself sold for only $20, which is basically rock-bottom for a new Wii disc. I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoyed the original Wii Fit but got bored of it or felt that it could use a little more polish.


Thursday, February 17, 2011


New Super Mario Brothers Wii

You have to understand -- Super Mario Brothers 3 was a phenomenon.

Even when you get past the marketing blitz that propelled it to larger than life proportions -- McDonald's toys, a Saturday morning cartoon, an appearance in The Wizard -- it's just a really amazing game. The fact that it still holds up today as one of my favorite video games of all time speaks to how far ahead of its time it really was. There's an overworld map, complete with wandering Hammer Brothers; there's themed worlds like Water Land and Sky Land and Giant Land; there's an inventory of items to save and use as you see fit; there's dozens of new enemies, including the Koopalings; there's all kinds of crazy power ups, including items that allow you to fly -- it's just amazing. The Super Mario Brothers 3 strategy guide was my reading material of choice in sixth grade. I just loved reading it over and over again, memorizing where all of the power ups were, where the secret passages were in each level, and on and on.

I remember looking forward to the Super NES because it was going to come with a new Mario game! And... Super Mario World was good and all, and it looked amazing and Yoshi was a lot of fun to play with but... it really didn't give me the same feeling that I had playing Super Mario Brothers 3. And Nintendo's gone on to make a lot of Mario games and other sidescrolling games set in the same universe -- Yoshi's Island, the Warioland games, the 3D games, New Super Mario Brothers on the DS -- and while they've all been good and fun and everything, none of them ever really surpassed my memories of playing Super Mario Brothers 3.

So understand that I'm awarding the highest praise possible when I say that New Super Mario Brothers Wii is the clear, true successor to Super Mario Brothers 3.

I mean, the game just gets everything exactly right. Every single level is unique. They all have some sort of gimmick or quirk that sets them apart from all the rest. Even when a level has some sort of mechanic that you've seen in another Mario game, it's twisted just a bit to make it feel totally new.

The powerups are excellent. It's hard to pick a clear favorite because they all have something to recommend them. Even the flying item isn't necessarily a front-runner this time around because your power of flight is slightly limited, and the offensive abilities of the fire and ice flowers are very helpful. And I kind of like the way they handled Yoshi, where he's only available in certain levels that were designed with him in mind. Using Yoshi feels a lot like using the Kuribo Shoe in SMB3.

The game has the same themed worlds that the DS game had, but they're presented in a slightly different order, and you go through all of them. I really disliked the "hidden" access to Worlds 4 and 7 in the DS game; I'm glad you just get to do all of them this time around.

And I love all of the little bits of fan service that are everywhere in this game. They did a really good job of bringing back all of our favorite stuff, but putting a new spin on it. Like, the Koopalings are back. Every Koopaling is in charge of one world. You face a Koopaling as a mini-boss in the World's fortress, and then as the end boss at the castle, but in the castle fight, Kamek shows up and uses his magic in some way to make the fight more unique. All of the Koopalings retain the special powers they had in SMB3 -- Wendy O. fires candy rings, Lemmy rides a bouncing ball, Roy shakes the ground when he jumps -- and the ones that didn't really stand out originally have had a little more work put into them so that it doesn't completely feel like they're just re-skinning the boss fights. And Bowser Junior also returns, for all of those fans who wondered if he was there to replace the Koopalings or if they were working together or what. There are a few moments in the game where you catch up with the Airship and you have to battle Bowser Junior, who's piloting a junior-sized Koopa Clown Car, but obviously his attacks are different from the ones in Super Mario World. There's just all of these little things that reference old Mario games while feeling completely new, and it just makes you feel all kinds of joy to see them again.

But the best part is the multiplayer. I mean, this is the thing that everyone's been wishing for ever since the first Super Mario Brothers -- the days of having a friend over to play, but then one of you just ends up sitting there and watching because the other one never dies. At long long last, here is a Mario game that everyone can truly play together, and it's worth every minute we've waited for it. You help each other, you screw each other over, you laugh because everyone went into their protective bubble at the same time and the level ended, you panic because you're getting in each other's way, you fight over who gets the powerups -- it's everything that you always thought a multiplayer Mario game would be.

This game has stuck with me for so long and I've come back to it so often and it's just continued to make me so happy that I really feel confident in making a call here. This is the new Super Mario Brothers 3. It's a classic that's bound to endure. It sets a new high water mark for what you can do in a Mario game or in a 2D platformer in general. And it's just completely, amazingly fun. If you have a Wii, you should buy it.


Sunday, February 13, 2011


Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective


The first comparison that people make is to the Ace Attorney games. They were created by the same person, they're both murder mystery "point and click" adventure games with fantastic characters and an amazing storyline, filled with humor and drama and completely insane and satisfying twists. And while the gameplay is completely different, it's similar to Ace Attorney in the sense that the main gameplay mechanic is something that I've never really seen done before.

The basic idea is that you're a ghost, you were recently killed, you've lost your memory, and you're trying to figure out who you are and why you died. You have four basic spiritual powers at your command. First, you can possess just about any inanimate object as long as it's close enough to you. Second, you have a limited ability to manipulate those objects -- you can make a wheel roll or a door open, and so on. Third, you can travel from place to place through phone lines. And finally, when you possess someone's corpse, you can travel back in time to four minutes before they died and change the course of destiny.

And despite the inevitable comparisons to Ace Attorney, the two games are really different. Ghost Trick doesn't ask the player to take evidence and piece together the story. The story just happens, and it's up to you to complete smaller objectives that keep it moving -- finding information, traveling to important locations, saving people's lives, and so on. But the player is really limited to how he can move and what he can do, which turns seemingly simple tasks into complicated logic problems. There are five objects in the room that you can reach, and two of them can do something. With this information, how are you going to move where you need to go, and how are you going to do what you need to do? The puzzles are really well thought out and the solutions are really satisfying, especially as you get later into the game and you have to deal with all of these weird Rube Goldberg situations.

The most interesting aspect of the game is timing. All of the levels have a ridiculous number of moving parts -- things that roll back and forth, things that spin, things that knock into other things and tumble around, to say nothing of the human characters who move things around of their own volition. So it's often not just a matter of knowing what to do, but also doing it at the right point. Especially when you're playing through the four minutes leading up to someone's death, you may find that there's not much you can do when you first arrive on a scene, and you just have to wait for the right opportunity to hitch a ride on something someone's carrying around or telling a ball to roll so that it can get someone's attention, and so on. These aren't static scenes that will wait all day for you to do something with them -- everything's always in motion.

Now, I'm not fond of overly particular timing puzzles in adventure games, so if you're of a similar mind, I want to assure you that such things aren't much of a problem in Ghost Trick. The timing is mitigated by two factors. First, you can freeze time whenever you want, and you move from place to place when time is frozen. So even when you're in a situation where it's down to the wire and you only have seconds left to save someone's life, you can take all the time you need. Secondly, if you miss a critical moment, you can rewind time as much as you need. It kind of feels like a time travel story, because you're constantly rewinding and fixing the timeline over and over again as you play.

All in all, the game is just a complete joy to play. It tickles the logic centers in your brain with its unique puzzles, it's a joy to look at with its amazing animation and art style, and the story really lives up to the standard set by the Ace Attorney games with its jaw-dropping revelations and its satisfying conclusion. The only real trouble is that describing what makes it great would spoil the surprise, so you're just going to have to take my word for it and play it yourself. It's all about exploration and discovery, and it's wonderful from start to finish.


Friday, February 04, 2011


Nintendo Abandons the Casual!

When details behind the Wii were being hammered out, as the legend goes, Nintendo's developers all got together and started brainstorming ideas for what to do with the platform. These ideas became Nintendo's famous line of "casual-friendly" software: Wii Sports, Wii Play, Wii Fit, and Wii Music. Sports was a system-seller. Play enjoyed the benefit of sneaking in with a second controller. Fit flew off the shelves for basically the same reason as anything else that seems to offer a shortcut to weight loss. Nintendo was on a roll. The story was that Wii Music was the last idea to come out of that fabled brainstorming session. Critical and financial failure aside, this led to a rather natural question: what's next?

Well, next was Wii Motion Plus and a sequel to Wii Sports. Well, okay, fair enough. Wii Sports is practically synonymous with the system itself. Even though the store shelves are choked with sports games put out by third party developers trying to catch Nintendo's coattails, it's still kinda nice to see an official sequel, especially since it helped to solidify Wuhu Island as a recurring setting for Nintendo's games. The hardware that it came packed with was kind of hard to get excited about.

"The controller can tell how you're moving it!"

"... Doesn't the controller already do that?"

"Yeah, but this is better!"

Then we got... Wii Fit Plus! No new hardware this time, just an expansion pack for the original software. And... to be fair, it's a great upgrade. There's new games, pre-built routines, custom routines, a streamlined interface, and a lot more Wuhu Island. And it was polite of them to release the standalone disc at a rock-bottom $20. Still, it made one wonder if Nintendo was just going to keep rehashing their proven ideas. Was that really it?

And then came... the Vitality Sensor! It was revealed at E3 with the promise of software that could help you to relax. Here's the Nintendo I want to see -- crazy gadgets and crazier games. Well done, can't wait to see what you're doing with it.

Then 2010 rolled around.

Arguably, it was a pretty good year for Nintendo fans. New Metroid game, new Mario Galaxy, new Kirby game. Here's classic Nintendo, rolling out new chapters in all of the classic franchises. But something felt missing.

We haven't heard a single peep about the Vitality Sensor since that quick look at E3. The only Wii-branded game was Wii Party, a game that felt like sort of an off-handed afterthought among the 2010 lineup. It hardly received the sort of hoopla that Nintendo lavished upon Sports, Fit, or Music. Possibly it's because Nintendo themselves didn't develop it. Possibly it's because the game doesn't really stand out in any way. I haven't played the game, but it looks like Mario Party with Miis. Besides that, you can't throw a rock at a discount rack without knocking over about twenty "party games" for the Wii that nobody's really interested in buying anymore -- if, indeed, they ever were. Wii owners aren't exactly hurting for a new pack of minigames these days.

I dunno. It's possible that Nintendo backed off on the novelty games because they wanted to differentiate themselves from Sony and Microsoft as they started pushing the Move and Kinect. The problem is, I bought my Wii for the novelty games. I like the bright, happy cartoon worlds and the silly caricature people. I like the idea of turning exercise, music, and tropical resorts into video games. I want to see how they plan to make software that can change your mood. I want to see this little white box do things that video games have never done before.

Of course, only time will tell. Maybe this time next year I'll be eating my words.


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