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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

See What Condition My Gameworks' Condition Was In

posted by on October 29 at 10:59 AM

Why do I keep going back to the Gameworks downtown? The place is a dead zone. The arcade games are ancient--most so old, their screens are burnt in. The staff seems to outnumber patrons on a given night. All but one of the bar areas are typically roped off, making the place feel even creepier.

I like Gameworks' Thursday night special--pay $10, get all-you-can-play access from 10 p.m. on--but the rest of the week gets nothing. Per-game prices have dropped, but mostly for older games that you can play on an Xbox by now. I haven't noticed any drink specials. And about two months ago, a Gameworks room was cleared out to make a dining hall with an eye toward (relative) elegance and a sign asking for companies to rent the space for their next major luncheon. Trouble is, that fancy room is pushed up against the shoot-basketballs kiosks. Who are you targeting, the PR department for Gymboree?

But I have reason to return, beyond my stupid arcade nostalgia: I'm still rolling with $60-ish in credit on their proprietary swipe-cards. Fricking drunken birthday party... So I stopped by last night on my way back home and noticed, again, the place looked barren. But the dozen people last night weren't spread thinly over the place's zillions of square feet. They weren't spazzing on the DDR machines. They had piled upon a Street Fighter 4 cabinet.

Sadly, this photo is not of Seattle's Gameworks

Big deal? The new game's Japan-only right now... and is ridiculously fun. I had been planning a pilgrimage to Tacoma to play SF4 with friends, as some bowling alley owner down there had imported the game a few months ago (just in time for PAX), but scratch that.

Street Fighter has been redone in 3D to look like a living cartoon, and the mix of 3D models and paint-brush effects is striking. More importantly, SF4 takes out the clutter of the zillions of Street Fighter clones, returning to the series' simpler fightin' glory. Tighter pacing; fewer moves; rebalanced characters; blah blah. The important thing was the feeling: its gravity, speed, and whallop of hits had a believably cartoony quality that was welcoming and instantly fun.

But the best part was the line. Players old and new to this version rapped about tweaks to moves, SF4 changes they liked, the way they were gonna get each other next round, and on and on. Mixed into that conversation was old-school arcade admiration; whether a guy was racking up a seven-win streak or finally getting his after a newbie's ridiculous comeback, I couldn't help but get into the game by proxy as this scraggly gang of 20-somethings cheered each other on. This is how Street Fighter 4 should be consumed; don't wait for the 2009 Xbox version.

I should also mention Rambo. There's a new Rambo gun game from Sega at Gameworks, and it puts you in charge of an oversized machine gun with nearly endless ammo that rattles like a bastard. Clips from the original movies pop up between hundred-man murder sprees for good measure--and just like the movies, somehow Rambo barely ever gets shot. America!

Those were the only new machines I saw in my full venue run-through, sadly. But it's a good start--those two serve up more fun than a lot of stuff around Pacific Place. Now, can we get more new cabinets, Gameworks? Or at least some drink specials?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Digital! Poking! Game!

posted by on October 27 at 1:55 PM

Presenting the world's first "digital poking game," Tuttuki Bako. The device reads the angle and depth of your finger in its little hole, then renders it on-screen so you can fool around with mini-games and virtual pets--this video shows the girl petting and squishing an 8-bit slug. Amazing new twist on video games, or potential winner of HUMP! 2009?

(ht: pixelsumo)

Friday, October 24, 2008

Wii Music Review (Sort Of)

posted by on October 24 at 1:33 PM

German glitch-rock band The Notwist has made Nintendo Wii remotes part of their on-stage rig for their American tour, which stopped at Neumo's last night. I compare that to the crap that is Wii Music in my Line Out concert review.

You can tell they're German because they spell it komputer:


Monday, October 20, 2008

Sensitive or Cowardly?

posted by on October 20 at 3:00 PM

A distilled version from the BBC:

Copies of LittleBigPlanet are being recalled from shops worldwide after it emerged that a background music track contained two phrases from the Koran.
The music in question comes from a Grammy award-winning Somali artist and is known to have been available through online music stores for months.
In an e-mail the [Muslim] gamer who spotted the Koranic phrases warned that mixing music and words from Islam's most holy text could be considered deeply offensive by Muslims. He suggested producing a software patch to remove the music.

Media Molecule said it did produce a patch but, following consultation with Sony, decided to go further.

"We decided to do a global recall to ensure that there was no possible way anyone may be offended by the music in the game," said a Sony spokesman.
In June 2007, Sony apologised to the Church of England after setting scenes in a violent video game inside Manchester Cathedral. On that occasion the game was not withdrawn.

So what's behind this story? Is Sony afraid of violent Muslim radicals? Or a boycott? (Does the Muslim world really make up that much of their sales percentage?) Or is it just a case of someone being so open-minded that his brains fell out?

And a couple lines in a song by a Grammy-winning singer is nothing compared to, say, setting violent scenes inside Mecca. (Which, at least, would be historically accurate.) So why the disproportionate response from Sony?

This recall doesn't smell like sensitivity—it smells like fear.

Rock Band 2 Review

posted by on October 20 at 2:55 PM


Rock Band 2
Harmonix/EA/MTV Games (Xbox 360, PS3, Wii)

While trying out Rock Band 2, I've enjoyed not having to review it. It's the same basic concept as Rock Band 1, which was already Guitar Hero on steroids--two people on fake guitar/bass, one on a USB microphone, and one on a four-pad drum kit play along to popular rock songs from the '60s to today. Play songs to unlock more songs, along with trinkets for your virtual egotists.

There are improvements, and I'll get to those, but by nature, RB2 is decidedly similar. New songs, same play. So I've paid more attention to the way people digest it.

Perhaps you have a posse who loves the game, and your dedicated foursome racks up RB scores by memorizing complicated song passages. That's a different review. My experience has been mostly with people who stumble upon the game—showing up at the wee hours with a buzz, seeing plastic instruments strewn about, and figuring they may as well give 'em a shot.

For these players, it's a rush to the drum set, which plays 1:1 with the music. You are banging along to a real beat; even if it's on a plastic kit, it's still the most successful portion of the "be a rocker" experience. Then somebody grabs the microphone—they're drunk, they wanna sing along with the Go-Gos or Journey. Whatever. The mic picks up your pitch, but not your words, so you can mumble-hum your way through songs. The plastic guitars get picked last, which control the same as they did in 2005—so they still don't control like real guitars. With five buttons, rather than a real guitar's endless array of notes and chords, the play becomes percussive (though certainly less intimidating for a party's sake).

In a perfect session, everybody's taking turns and trying it all. It's not typical. Somebody doesn't want to sing. Sometimes, they're insecure. Most of the time, they've run out of songs they're comfortable singing--this is not a karaoke kind of selection, which means less Neil Diamond, more Sonic Youth and Grateful Dead. Casual singers have been underwhelmed after burning through the game's obvious hits.

Meanwhile, other people hate playing the fake guitars--either the feeling of them or the whole "press a button, then strum" mechanic. Even with the new, welcome no-fail mode, and even with intoxication in the mix, some people do not budge in the face of RB's party potential.

On the other hand, when you have a group that's on a roll, the play turns mechanical. Not so much laughing at bad singers and people faux-strutting with their stupid guitars. Instead, everyone stares at the screen to keep up with constant note patterns. You shouldn't pay $190 for four people to gang up and ignore each other--why not make interaction more inherent with this new iteration?

I did find the sweet spot for some of my play. With the right mix of experts and novices, we laughed it up, made fun of each other, got the hang of the fake-rock system, and found ways to interact even when the game didn't make that inherent. The song selection is pretty broad, balancing its duds with party-perfect fare (and you can borrow someone else's RB1 disc and, for a $5 fee, pump those songs into the new game, which doubles the game for newcomers). RB2 has enough tweaks, if not massive changes, to make this near-essential for anybody who already blew cash on the old instruments last time—slicker interface, 84 new songs, new online modes. Hell, what else are you going to do with those old instruments?

But the full instrument+game pack is $190, as is the same pack from Guitar Hero World Tour, seeing release in a week or so. People will soon nitpick over which fake band setup is better—GHWT has slightly better drums and a make-your-own-song studio, while RB2's new wireless gear is quite solid, and its song selection is larger (though before dropping cash, hit Wikipedia to compare the games' song lists). Flip a coin if you're concerned about the slight differences; I'm more interested in when the virtual-rock bell curve will start dipping. With so few new features here—and nothing to compel players to interact with each other in-game—I'm guessing sooner than later.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Offense Alert

posted by on October 17 at 10:26 AM


Sony announced today that they've begun a worldwide recall of their fall blockbuster game LittleBigPlanet. This "platformer 2.0" game, loaded with tons of user-made content and Pixar-esque art design, was set to hit stores one week from today--and is sitting in a lot of stores right now--but they'll all have to come back to Sony while new discs are made.

Reason? A song by the Mali group Toumani Diabate's Symmetrical Orchestra is in the game, and its lyrics contain lines from the Qu'ran. In spite of the same song seeing release by Nonesuch Records in 2006 with no complaints, Sony has chosen to recall all discs to stop this song from reaching our ears. Apparently the transfer of a Qu'ran-quoting song from a CD to a video game crosses an ironclad line in Islam. You know, the one that was created when Muhammad first went to that cave with a Game Boy in hand.

Or maybe Sony was concerned about the content of the quotes getting into the game, which translate to "Every soul shall have the taste of death" and "All that is on Earth will perish." Because if it's sung in Arabic, it must be a threat, rather than a contemplation on an eventual downfall and rebirth of all life. Good thing Sony took aggressive recall action before our PlayStation 3s became tools of Islam. Thanks, culture of fear!

In other gaming news, Nintendo's cult smash series Mother (known here as Earthbound) saw an English release this morning. The third, Japan-only entry in the series has been translated by a small group of fans without Nintendo's consent. This hack has been in the works for over two years, though, so if Nintendo was going to throw a legal hissyfit, chances are this thing never would've been released. (I'd know; I've been checking the fansub site four times a week since 2006.) If you have a soft spot for RPGs that slyly insult Western culture--AND WON'T GET OFFENDED--then click here.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Impressions: Cubello (Wii Ware)

posted by on October 14 at 1:18 PM

Remember Tetrisphere? They called it 3D Tetris, because the word "Tetris" will sell anything, but this N64 game played more like a jigsaw puzzle on a sphere. Instead of fitting every piece together perfectly, you connected like-shaped pieces to make them vanish, eventually clearing off the game board.

I'm a puzzle-game freak, so I enjoyed it, but like most Tetris retreads, it never approached the original in mass popularity. The biggest reason I lost interest was that it didn't make the most of its 3D aspects. You played on top of a sphere, but control was limited to a 2D plane.


I can't help but think of Tetrisphere when I find myself enjoying Cubello, the second in Nintendo's new Art Style series on the Wii. A few weeks ago, this downloadable series debuted with a re-release of an obscure Japanese game, but it looks like the series will also host new, experimental titles like this one.

The screen displays a tower of colored cubes, and you're told to clear them all out. Instead of knocking them down a la Boom Blox, you aim with the Wii remote and shoot colors at the stack to create four-of-a-kind chunks, which then vanish.

The catch, and what distinguishes this from other "match-the-color" puzzle games that have been around for decades, is that this tower rotates in 3D. What's more, you cannot push a joystick to move the tower around; instead, your shots make the tower spin.

At the beginning, this spin-and-wait is an enjoyable sensation as you wait for the next shot to show itself in the busy playfield. Doesn't hurt that aiming shots with the Wii pointer is more precise than should probably be expected. Then as the game gets harder, you're not just aiming to clear the stack; you're also aiming to line up your next shot as quickly as possible. It's a welcome, er, twist.

The rotational effect reminds me of why Tetrisphere seemed so cool in the mid-90s. This time, there's an engaging 3D puzzle experience embedded in the effect, as maneuvering through a 3D tower and lining up perfect shots--and eventually combos--is a rare breath of new in an ancient genre.

Perhaps the game's most compelling fact is that Nintendo doesn't ease players into Cubello. The music and sounds are grating, future-synth stuff, complete with a creepy robo-voice announcing the action. The challenge ramps up immediately after a brief tutorial. And the bombardment of visual elements can be confusing even after learning the game's rules. Compared to Nintendo's recent roster of safe, Mario-loaded games, Cubello feels decidedly experimental. Like an indie garage game.

And at the price of $6, Nintendo can afford to put out bizarre, experimental titles. It probably costs them peanuts to have a small team develop something like Cubello; they don't have to pay for advertising or publishing, either. Just toss it up on Wii Ware, price it at $6, and see if lightning strikes.

It may not strike with this game, genius as its concept is. There's no two-player mode, which Cubello's begging for; I dream of a battle mode where you attack your opponent by freezing his tower-spin for a few seconds. Brutal. Also, like Snood, you can get stuck at a puzzle's end with garbage colors that no longer have a match since you've cleared the board. This wouldn't be so bad if the game didn't tend to reduce its timer like crazy when you reach this point. It feels cheap.

Nintendo could fix these issues with a patch. They could even release a retail version, complete with extra modes and an option to turn off the robo-voice (oh, Jesus, please do this). But even if not, Nintendo's on to something with these Art Style games. Keep giving your developers an outlet to try crazy shit. I'd much rather pay for eight of these, gems and bombs alike, than another Metroid game.

Friday, October 10, 2008

IndieCade is Live

posted by on October 10 at 6:15 PM

The IndieCade International Festival of Independent Games is afoot in Bellevue right now. For today and tomorrow, the show caters only to game makers (seminars, round-table chats, and so on). If you make games, you need to attend this--over a dozen international nerd geniuses are talking shop and waiting for budding developers (or major publishers searching for the next Portal) to pick their brains.

Not a dev? Starting Sunday, the fest transforms into a public, all-you-can-play show for $10 entry. And for the first day of this switch, if you're a teenager, you can attend and play for free.

I love that they're encouraging teens to come to an exhibit with the Dark Room Sex Game, which proved far more fun than I'd expected during my playtest today. Turns out the thing is a four-player game, in which your "partner" is a surprise every round, and you work to out-hump your competition by waving Wii remotes at each other at the perfect tempo (and hearing aural moans to confirm you're doing it right). The developers are still wrapping their heads around what they can do with the Wii remote--I asked if they might add some ass-slapping motions to the game, and they didn't rule the idea out.

It proved to be a developer favorite--and a loud audio distraction in the small gallery--but it couldn't outdo the wow factor of levelHead. This demo footage I shot explains things better than I ever could, though skip ahead 20 seconds to get past some glitches:

Rotate the cube in real-life, and the computer camera at the base of the table turns it into a gaming snowglobe. Then tilt to help the little man walk around in there; when he reaches a door, rotate the cube some more to find him again, and repeat. It's still a little wonky, but this experience alone was worth the drive to Bellevue.

Some of the dozen-plus games on display are just as phenomenal to witness, like a stop-motion Myst-alike that would get Tim Burton wet. And Yet It Moves is another treat, a hand-drawn side-scroller game where you rotate the world 90 degrees at a time to get from place to place. Unfortunately, other games on display are too complex for a crowded, public showing, like Democracy 2, a civil engineering sim--complete with a real-time terror-watch matrix--that only freaks like Jon Golob could appreciate.

Don't attend this expecting something akin to GameWorks. Many of these are more interesting in concept than in complete gameplay. The Unfinished Swan is decidedly unfinished, though its mindblowing "paint to see" mechanic is fun to toy with. Or there's the one where you make an old lady walk slowly in a straight line, have her sit down, and then walk her back the other way. Just call that one "interactive art" and move along.

But the good at IndieCade totally outweighs the bad (though I can only hope they switch out their awful, one-foot-tall table setups). The fact that so many of the titles are done by one-man teams--and often in as few as seven days--is something to behold.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

bit Generations = Art Style

posted by on September 30 at 3:54 PM

I've gone Microsoft-heavy with my gaming lately, and for good reason: the Wii's release calendar for the foreseeable future is a motion-controlled mess. Other than this fall's Mushroom Men--a decent-looking Mario clone, but still not that original--it's looking like another year of cheaply made family games that mimic the best of Wii 2006.

The exception, I suppose, is the online Wii Ware store, where the past few weeks have seen fanboy fare like a new Mega Man and some Homestar Runner point-and-click adventures. Fine on both of those--and their respective fanbases have been served solid, authentic fare at a nice price, based on my playtime--but it's hard to get excited about yet another Trogdor joke.


Then yesterday, the Art Style series landed with no advance notice or hype. Not sure why they were so silent; I would've piled on the hype. Nintendo called it bit Generations in Japan, and I fucking loved it. It's as if Nintendo hired some garage developers to make stylish, thoughtful games that could hold their own without having Mario awkwardly slapped on the box--incredibly refined Flash games that even Mom could dig.

From the sound of Nintendo's press blast, they're releasing three of the seven bG titles on Wii Ware by the end of October. No word on the final two yet, but first up yesterday was Orbient, in which you use only two buttons--attract and repel--to pilot a little star around a bunch of other stars, each with their own orbit. The push-pull system becomes imprecise as the game chugs along, but with zillions of easy retry chances and a relaxing, spacey presentation, there's charm in floating around in this one--like a cosmic version of the PS3's flOw. And at $6, it's a steal compared to the older--and simpler--import version. The loving care given to this Wii update bodes well for the rest of these bG-into-AS titles; fingers are crossed for a 2-player version of the bizarre Digidrive.

Up next either this week or early next: Rock Band 2. The game and the updated "instruments" showed up earlier today, and I'll wear 'em out to learn whether or not pretending to be in a band has gotten any better this year.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Indie Gaming and Seattle

posted by on September 24 at 12:15 PM

Wii Sex? We're getting there:

The Dark Room Sex Game is a rhythm game of sorts--shake your Wii Remote with the second player with a sense of mutual rhythm, and you win. No graphics--only horny audio cues indicate whether you're "thrusting" at the right pace or not. Though it's silly, it's actually a genius twist on rhythm games--rather than steadily pressing buttons, you're forced to invent your own rhythm and then dynamically change it alongside another player. Makes Rock Band look pedestrian. (By the way, this game's not for the Wii; you have to trick your PC into recognizing your Wii controllers for this to work. Sorry, grandma.)

Though this game is available as a free download, you might prefer to wait until October 10th to see a crowd embarrass themselves with it. The game will be publicly demoed with 24 other indie-gaming contest finalists at the IndieCade International Festival of Independent Games, held this year at Bellevue's Open Satellite gallery space. The main festival lasts two days, while the indie game competition will stay at the space until October 17th.

Sadly, the festival is pricing its panels and talks out of mainstream attendance--$250 for a full pass? Yeesh. But the week-long game showcase will be open for only $10/day, which is perfect. It costs that much to play for maybe ten minutes at GameWorks--and the games here will be infinitely cooler. In the past year, IndieCade has vetted recent indie hits like Braid, N+, and Everyday Shooter before the rest of us caught on, so there should be at least a couple of soon-to-be-smashes at Open Satellite's showcase just down the block. In a few minutes of perusing the competitors, I've already been blown away by The Unfinished Swan, in which you have to paint the world in front of you to reveal your path and solve puzzles. Might not be refined as a full game yet, but their proof of concept is dazzling.

IndieCade hasn't yet posted the full list of competitors, but gaming blog Joystiq apparently has the list, as they're posting impressions of the games every day this week. I'll be sure to get my grubby hands on the games next month as well.

This is the second big indie-games competition around town in as many months--the other one, the PAX 10, finally announced its winner this week. No shocker to me, The Maw took top honors. This cartoony delight will see retail release in the first half of 2009 on downloadable services like Xbox Live. Other runners-up at the PAX 10, particularly the genius magnet-puzzler Polarity, will be showcased at IndieCade as well.

PAX was swept under the rug by outlets and people alike as a niche festival, but the event's focus on indie gaming was quite telling. If IndieCade can follow up on the momentum, who's to say Seattle won't look more attractive as a region that appreciates and encourages the next wave of small game developers--the ones who take chances with ideas like multi-touch Tetris and journalists embedded in Palestine?

The market's changing because of downloadable games--from games on mobile phones to money-sucking MMOs that are flattening the rest of the market. Cheaper, humbler, and smarter games will be the inevitable future. Fests like this give our city a chance to claim dibs on this new kind of "indie." Or, at the very least, to shake Wii remotes and moan in public.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Overstimulation Roundup

posted by on September 18 at 4:23 PM


The year's best "crash-to-win" racing game just got painfully better today. Like, "tear ass down a highway and launch into the most ridiculous motorcycle jump to win a race" better. See the above glee noise.

For whatever reason, EA is giving away a Burnout Paradise expansion rather than charging for it--see? The people behind Spore's DRM ain't so bad. Anyway. This pack adds motorcycles to the game's original car/bus/four-wheel fleet; big whoop, right? Thing is, bike mode's tiny tweaks double the gameplay in BP's massive network of roads and highways. Welcome to turbo.

Less traffic to contend with. Higher acceleration. No need to build up nitro powers or crap to reach top speed. Even when you crash, your driving resumes more quickly than before. Every tweak big and small leads to less wait, more WAAAAAAA... People like to talk a lot about open-ended games, but BP's aimless driving was already more thrilling than anything GTA IV served up. Now that the racer has added bikes, it's officially the coolest virtual take on a Hot Wheels loop-de-loop in your living room--and there are still more expansions to come.

If you've got a jones for dirtbikes or ATVs, another new game this month, Pure, is pretty compelling as well. Its gameworld is nothing like BP's city, but it has lots of hills and big-air jumps. Plus, you can do stunts... I think people still like stunts and X-Games shit, right?


Warhammer Online (PC) -- Also seeing release today is an MMO with orcs, dwarves, elves, and knights. Sound familiar? There's already World of Warcraft, and Lord of the Rings Online, and Everquest, and... did Age of Conan have any dwarves? Dunno, don't care.

So why cough up another $15 a month to play with more people named "Khyghlar" and "Memnemnemnom"? Simply put, because you'll actually play with them.

Continue reading "Overstimulation Roundup" »

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Spore Review

posted by on September 9 at 2:02 PM



It's not until I abandon my city of monsters that Spore finally feels right. I'm in a spaceship, zipping across a Milky Way-sized galaxy and managing an empire with equal parts diplomacy and combat. My six-legged creations are light years away, and the distance is doing me some good.

It's because by then, Spore has given up on evolution-based gameplay. Growing from a single-cell organism to a space-crazy empire sounded intriguing when Sim-lord Will Wright announced the video game years ago, but he never made it clear how it'd be converted to something worth playing.

There's little evidence that his team figured that out, yet the issue isn't the game's ambitious sprawl between single cells and spaceships. Rather, Spore suffers from a disconnect between its brilliant creation system and the gameplay duct-taped to the back of it.

I'd do a disservice if I didn't rave about the game's organic Lego kit. Understand that Wright and his crew have made a system where you can mix and match hundreds of body parts in highly unsustainable ways, and yet the game will take your seven-arm, three-leg, four-vagina bastard and convert it to a lively, sentient being. Natural, procedural animations; emotional responses; maybe even realistic Kegel exercises (I didn't check).

You can make something in ten minutes that looks and acts more alive than most game characters.

The pre-space chunk of Spore keeps these creations busy in four development stages: single-cell, creature, tribe, and civilization. The hope is that you'd create something and, through the game's evolutionary system, feel connected to it through the growth process. With real-time adaptation, the game would always feel fresh.

Spore has no interest in this idea. By the time you take your critter to land, you're confronted with the game's hard-fast rule of advancement: either eat other species, or befriend them.

Your constructions can be abstract and bizarre, but their actions don't have that luxury. Couldn't I appease a more powerful beast by bringing it food? Befriend a brainy creature by serving as its sharp-toothed protector? Make myself look like a leaf and poison deer that bite me?

Continue reading "Spore Review" »

Friday, September 5, 2008

Are You Ready For Some Xbox?

posted by on September 5 at 1:59 PM

As the real NFL season kicks off this weekend, I have bad news for fans of the fake season (and I don't mean fantasy, Jonah). Currently, if sports gamers want to simulate Julius Jones' bumps into the line of scrimmage and gains of only two yards a carry, their options are as limited as the Seahawks' pool of running backs.

Used to be, a new football season meant heated competition in the virtual pigskin category--two, maybe up to four, franchises vying for your buck. A few years ago, Electronic Arts changed that, snapping up exclusive rights to the NFL. It's alllll Madden these days, unless you want to play the dated Blitz: The League series (tip: don't) or consider the forthcoming Madden en Español an actual alternative ("¡El boom!").

But with Brad gone and Jonah sick, somebody's gotta pipe up about the NFL's opening weekend around here. May as well do so with a nerdy Madden NFL '09 vs. Madden NFL '09 wrapup.

Madden NFL '09 (Wii): This is the keynote game in EA Sports' new "All-Play" series. Translation: they want the Wii Sports crowd. Seems like there's hope; fewer buttons, simpler plays, and party modes? I'll bite.

Like other Wii Madden games, you use the motion-sensitive remote to hike the ball, throw the ball, throw up stiff-arms, tackle, and so on. It's a fun twist at first, but this gets old fast, especially once you realize the "motion sensitivity" doesn't exist. You can wave the thing up, down, sideways, or like you're sawing something in half, and it'll trigger the same move in a given instance. Kinda takes away from the feeling that you're in the game, and worse, if you're defending a pass, you can't choose whether your waggle dives at the receiver or jumps to swat the ball. It picks for you.

What's changed this year is a relative reduction in button presses. Assuming your wrist isn't as decrepit as mine, this works out well, with one exception--on default controls, aiming at a receiver in a pass play is impossible. Do you hold the control stick in the direction of your fave receiver? Point the remote at the screen? Stick the remote up your ass? I could never figure it out; the game always chose for me. There's an "advanced" control set that fixes this to save you an interception or seven, thank God.

What else? The game's highly touted five-on-five mode tries to be like Tecmo Bowl, with only four plays per team and a lot of ridiculous deep-ball throws. My nostalgic juices were flowing, I'll admit. But the mode instead plays like a super-simple Blitz (which is simple to begin with). I really wanted this to be a four-player winner, but my groups of friends tired of it quickly; we preferred the two-on-two mode which, for whatever reason, is deeply buried in the game's menus.

You can create your own plays by pointing at the screen and drawing receiver routes. This would be an awesome thing, and would greatly improve five-on-five mode, except you can't design plays outside of an actual game. How, then, do you surprise your buddy on the couch next to you? Fail.

The party games blow. There's NFL trivia, which is robust but won't win over any casual Wii Sports fans, and there are a ton of dud mini-games like "see who can punt the ball furthest!" A punt-fest where everyone has to wait to take turns? Meh.

But what about the basic, core play?

(jump for the Xbox 360 edition's review)

Continue reading "Are You Ready For Some Xbox?" »

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Post PAXdom Depression

posted by on September 2 at 3:24 PM

The biggest surprise at the weekend's Penny Arcade Expo wasn't the popularity or the fun. It was the age. Turns out the 15-and-under crowd and PAX are like PB&J.


Most were running around the Expo's main exhibition hall, trying out new video games that typically aren't rated higher than T for Teen. Some plunked down in PAX's Sumo beanbags and played DS games with their parents. Others hit the tabletop annex wielding either Pokemon cards or a level 11 dragonborn mage. And tons were going toe-to-toe with gamers twice their age in the zillions of video game rooms--the retro centers, the cavernous computer lab, the public Rock Band sessions, the hundreds of free-play consoles. While not the majority at PAX, kids held a larger percentage this year than any other.

Really? At PAX? Its namesake comic strip is cartoony F-bomb city. In case the Fruit Fucker character didn't clue you in, this year's draw-a-comic panel involved a strip about gettin' it on with band groupies. Midway through the comic's creation, the PA creators unveiled their "new favorite" curse word by drawing it on the screen for all to see: "twatvomit."

At this point, both guys' wives had to cover their kids' eyes.

So it's shocking to think that kids are fine in most of PAX's rooms and halls. But, really, they are. On a basic level, older attendees aren't cussing non-stop or talking about "mature" subjects--certainly nothing worse than a middle-school cafeteria. And most of the panels were mindful of kids in the crowd (except for Ken Levine's keynote, admittedly). But even more interesting is a higher-level idea--PAX as refuge for a growing geek.

Dunno about you guys, but when I was little, I would've killed for a place where I could say the word "graphics" out loud without fear of wedgie. A place where all of my peers--and all of the intimidating people older than me--were crazy about the same hobbies. No bullies. No social stigma. There are people like me out there--with girlfriends and jobs and nerdy T-shirts! My god, there's hope.

(As a bonus, idiot kids who've grown up on Xbox Live could come to PAX and see adults who play video games without spouting racist epithets between rounds of Halo.)

Chances are, grown-up gamers had similar nerd-refuge thoughts pass through their heads--lord knows I did. The gaming stigma is evaporating as the NES generation grows into ownership of America, yet it's hard to deny the nerdy comfort of a huge PAX crowd.

(FYI, PAX'08 topped off at 58,500 attendees. Let that sink in. It's barely a thousand or so short of the population of Renton.)

Seattle can now claim ownership to the biggest public gaming show in the nation, if not the world. The major reason? Because it's nothing like the previous king, E3, an expo that glorified press people and PR hype. Nothing at PAX is hands-off, look-don't-touch, and the majority of PAX's content is free of corporate sponsorship. While the exhibition hall is a huge exception, it still has tons of small-fry participants (particularly the PAX 10) showing off homegrown games and merchandise.

Better still, the rest of the fest is what gamers make of it. Bring your own DS, join the largest LAN party you've ever seen, bust out the D20s. Even Folklife and Bumbershoot can't match the sheer 2.0-ness of PAX.

A few fixes for next year's will help preserve that spirit. Panel sessions (speeches, Q&As) need to be held in larger rooms, since lots of people were left in the cold after waiting in long lines. And, yeah, PAX could use newbie-friendly tweaks so that folks can better acclimate to the "build your own fest" spirit. More explicit instructions and information would help. People expect their entertainment thrown at them a la Bumbershoot; the freedom to make the PAX you want is so novel, it's almost intimidating.

And people will complain about the growth of the fest, about newbies and line-waits and cost and lack of DDR machines. But this PAX was a success--a huge fest with minimal corporate burdens, an all-volunteer core of friendly, passionate people working the floors, and an ultimate getaway for kids and grownups alike. I look forward to having fun with all ages of gamer next year.

(If you missed our daily coverage this weekend, relive the fun here.)

Sunday, August 31, 2008

PAX Day Three - Megathread

posted by on August 31 at 8:24 PM

6:30 p.m.: The show is over. I need to go on nerd detox overnight to reflect, sort through photos, and write something with a few more hours of sleep under my belt. Will post final impressions tomorrow.

3:00 p.m.: G4's Adam Sessler just walked in front of me in the press room, talking to his friends about the birthday party he's having in Seattle tonight. "You sure you wanna have it in Seattle?" one friend asked. Sessler responded by slapping his wrist in mock-heroin addict fashion, laughed, and left. I would've spoken up, but Morgan Webb was nowhere to be seen, so I lost interest quickly.

2:30 p.m.: Jazz loves the Penny Arcade Expo. That's her name; Jazz is a young native of BC attending her first-ever PAX. She's standing outside of a panel, talking to random passersby about her favorite games; when I meet her, she's asking me about Psychonauts. I indulge her some chat about the game (wonky but brilliant, if you must know). Then I ask her why she came all this way, and her first answer is that she came with a boyfriend. I dig a bit, to see whether she was dragged or came willing, and she puts her hand on my shoulder.

"All he had to tell me was, when you come to PAX..." She grips my shoulder. "You're home."

Indeed, home is where the Jazz is. She goes on about her cosplaying fun from yesterday ("my Rosalina outfit only took a month to make"), her gameplay moments with friends old and new, and her favorite moment so far ("breakdancing with the devil;" or at least a guy dressed up as such). All grins and good stories; except for complaints about long lines throughout the Expo, this girl is in her natural habitat and glowing for it.

This conversation has been typical of the strangers I've approached for the past three days. Lots of out-of-towners have come for their first-ever PAX, and few have said their purpose was to try out new games or dive head-first into Penny Arcade comics and panels. Plainly, simply, and proudly, they've come from miles around to find their home. Hopefully, home will have fewer lines and full-capacity panels next year, but that's not stopping these people from randomly bombarding anyone they see about their favorite eras of 3D platforming games--or going to a free-play room and loading 'em up.

2:00 p.m.: The "girlfriend into gaming" panel was comedic to some extent; much of the Q&A session felt like therapy for confused dorks with girlfriends. "Relationships are about compromise." "You should be thankful she plays games at all." "Attract her to gaming by leading a responsible gaming example." Seems the panel expected this barrage of questions, and to their credit, you couldn't have asked for a more accommodating panel--nothing mean or condescending was directed to these guys with apparent struggles.

Thankfully, the five women heading the panel--all webmasters, writers, and community leaders--rose above the advice portion by offering a lot of perspective and character to the crowded panel session. They were interested in games aimed at young girls; while initially offended by Barbie/Hannah Montana fare, one panelist realized that young girls can't get into gaming if moms aren't willing to purchase it. "If it has to be pink, so be it"; they saw Barbie as a gradual segue to Call of Duty 4. Take that as you will. Still, the five panel speakers warned parents to be as concerned about GTA IV's influence on younger gamers as the over-materalistic "girly game" fare.

3:00 a.m.: I'd write about the friendliness of PAX crowds, but it's hard to make that description interesting. The sky's blue. D&D has geeky fans. The PAX crowd is a fun-loving group with absolutely no troublemakers. Last year, the character of the crowd was striking; this year, it was expected.

But concert etiquette isn't a PAX crowd's forte. Midway through the final show of the expo concert series, roughly 2,000 fans were screaming song titles in unison--occasionally joining forces to shout their pleas as a mob. Normally, this is my fingers-on-chalkboard. But when the band is The Minibosses, and the song requests are names of video games, I instead felt like I'd been dropped into a real-life Internet flame war.

"METROID!" "ZELDA!" The closest this crowd got to shouting for a deep cut was a mass request for cult NES hit Rygar.

Continue reading "PAX Day Three - Megathread" »

Saturday, August 30, 2008

PAX Day Two - Megathread

posted by on August 30 at 4:25 PM

4:00 p.m.: Turns out I was able to sneak into the "Democratizing Game Development" panel after all (see 3:40 p.m.). Good thing, too; the four developers on hand spoke to the adoring crowd of budding developers by talking as little about games as possible. This was most apparent when the panel had book recommendations for the crowd--very few about coding or gaming. The Origin of Brands, and other books about emotional design and creative inspirations, spoke to a greater purpose--and a willingness to make biz risks--that might help a little developer compete.

Beyond that, the panel spoke to the difficulties game makers face versus, say, screenwriters or YouTube amateurs. Individual authorship doesn't work in the traditional game world, where people usually expect a full team of coders, artists, modelers, etc. But that may soon change. Microsoft's XNA program lets solo artists make full, robust titles for PC and consoles. Flash gaming is a real business, attracting moms and casual gamers by the truckload. And as Best Buy and Gamestop are replaced by online game shops and Xbox Live, publishing and marketing budgets will stop walling new game makers in.

Of course, the guys didn't have answers about rising above the noise and the fray of an ever-expanding Internet of content. Nobody really does. But seeking greater inspirations for a project can't hurt.

3:40 p.m.: First PAX complaint: The official panels are held in eensy teensy rooms at an expo with thousands of attendants. Sad, really, because I'm missing the "Democratizing Game Development" panel, the one I wanted to see the most. I miscalculated and spent too long playing more of the PAX 10 games before reaching the panel. Weird, actually, that I spent too long playing independent games to go and talk about them with official panelists and interested citizens for an hour. Well, that's PAX for ya.

I did attend a games journalism panel an hour ago or so, which, sadly, was overrun with concerns about 10-point scales for measuring games. Maybe the issue isn't how the games are scored, but how the games are chosen? Shouldn't games journalism move beyond the Maddens and Halos, the ones that don't necessarily need the attention, and perhaps break ground with a few discoveries? Not much commentary on that, sadly.

11:00 a.m.: Okay, Slog gamers. You never shut up about Spore (the latest title from SimCity/Sims maven Will Wright), so I played half an hour of Spore. For you.

Here's the sad thing--I'd signed up in advance to play the game through an invite from EA's PR army. I assumed they'd set aside separate press kiosks. Turns out the demos were held on the showroom floor--that's fine, I don't need privacy or fancy treatment. BUT. As I approached, a developer kicked a teenager off a demo rig so I could play. Chances are, this kid was the ultimate PAX attendant--waiting in line for hours this morning, rushing into the exhibition hall at the 10 a.m. whistle blow, making a beeline for Spore. His dreamy, dreamy Spore.

Jesus. This broke my nerd heart.

[Long thread, so I'll jump older posts through the day.]

Continue reading "PAX Day Two - Megathread" »

Friday, August 29, 2008

PAX Day One - Megathread

posted by on August 29 at 7:15 PM

7:00 p.m.: What's a guy to do as keynote speaker at a gaming convention? Out himself, of course. Doesn't seem like a big stretch for Ken Levine, the creative director of last year's arty blockbuster Bioshock. Uh, he makes games. Epic games with long scripts about underwater empires and the crazed 1920s mobsters who love them. Geek? SHOCKER.

Sorry, my photos from the keynote were awful. To make up for it, here's a short video:

But like Wil Wheaton's call-to-geek-arms speech last year, Levine took today's opportunity to recount his own reluctant descent into comics, D&D, and all matter of video games. It was a late '70s story straight out of TV show Freaks & Geeks: "When my parents rolled for my character, they didn't get any 18s," he said, and the crowd roared for the D&D joke. The rest of his upbringing story was Spiderman, an Atari 2600 as a Channukah gift, salivating over comic book heroines, getting in a tizzy over Logan's Run, and publicly hiding his nerdiness for fear of retribution. It took an accidental stumble into a D&D posse for the guy to finally accept his lot ("I was worried I'd walked into some Gygax-ian gingerbread house").

It wasn't as exhilirating and shameless a speech as Wheaton's from last year, but it didn't mince words, either: "What brings us together at PAX is, we're a giant bunch of fucking nerds." This, and his series of witty in-jokes, elicited roars from the crowd. It's almost disconcerting the way the mass cheered and clapped--for a brief moment, it felt like they were a tiny pack of right-wing, gun-loving nuts trapped in San Francisco. But, to be fair, it wasn't quite that extreme. And the opportunity to let your social guard down and applaud/grin along is too thick to pass up--so what if the PAX scene was a bit jubilant? Besides, Levine's story of childhood ostracization was touching even outside the corridors of geekdom--anybody can identify with being on the outside to some extent.

Penny Arcade's creators followed this keynote with their annual Q&A session. Funny, certainly, though this is where the crowd began to fragment. No biggie for creators Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik. Like they've said all along, this is a gaming expo, not a comic strip expo. The authors are happy merely being a conduit through which their brethren may gather.

And now, for the rest of the evening, I'm off to do just that. To sit down when I see an open chair at a fighting game booth. To make friends with DS-wielding Tetris addicts. To see if somebody will teach me what the heck is new in D&D 4th Edition. And, seriously, to make a friend or two. (I'm always on the lookout for a gaming posse.) Tomorrow is a busier "official" day; lots of panels with industry folks about the modern state of games development. I look forward to reporting the heck out of that. Until then, geeks ahoy.

2:55 p.m.: A few hours in, I can already proclaim the winner of the PAX 10 indie competition: The Maw. You run around like a 3D Mario game, but the only thing you can do is use an electric leash and lug around this stupidly goofy blob-thing (or the things that you want to feed it). The joy here is in the lively main character, pumped full of quirks and personality. The total product is charming, hilarious, and pleasing to figure out as a game. And only eight people made it. That's, like, 1/50th of the people who made Halo 2.5 3. The Maw should see release on Xbox Live soon. I look forward to raving about it.

Not that the rest of the PAX 10 is a snore. Turns out the one-man team making Sushi Bar Samurai is a hometown native, and his title probably best embodies the spirit of this off-kilter competition. I love the concept--you are a sushi chef in the afterlife, and you assemble souls' "final meals." It's the perfect kind of challenge for challenge-averse gamers; you can very simply arrange sushi rolls, or you can come up with recipe combos. It starts off ridiculously simple, but the presentation lulls you into enjoying the game's virtual bonsai arrangements. Of raw fish.

Other PAX 10 dandies, my fest experience so far, and big names like Gears of War 2:

(Jump to read the entire rest of the day's coverage.)

Continue reading "PAX Day One - Megathread" »

PAX In Photos

posted by on August 29 at 4:41 PM

Who says PAX isn't about politics?


I didn't have time to confirm whether Obama can use "race cards" like throwing stars or not. Will check on that one later.

Photos of proud gamers and costumed fools after the jump:

Continue reading "PAX In Photos" »

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Video Game Nerd Powers Activate!

posted by on August 28 at 2:08 PM

My nerd brethren, while we didn't write anything about the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) in this week's paper, that doesn't mean we completely forgot about it.

Now in its fifth year, PAX—which was spawned by a videogame blog and webcomic—has grown into the biggest goddamn video game convention on the planet, and tons of gaming companies will be at the show with shiny new toys for you to play with.Rumor has it Gears of War 2 will be playable at PAX!

There'll be plenty of games to play, but there are also a number of seminars and workshops like:

So, You Want to Pitch A Game

Writing For Video Games


Losing Your Virginity: A How-to For Beginners

Slog gaming wunderkind Sam Machkovech will be in attendance, posting updates whenever he can tear his sweaty palms away from Barbie's Horse Adventure 2 or whatever.

You can also check out Sam's interview with Penny Arcade's creators here.

The Sun Sets Upon the Summer of Arcade

posted by on August 28 at 12:56 PM

For the past five weeks, Xbox Live's download service has pumped out a gem of a cheap video game every Wednesday, assumedly to make up for yet another half-baked retail summer. As expected, this season has seen a dump of games deemed too meager to compete during Christmas. Perfect time, then, to hip the kids to some brilliant $10 and $15 games that are fun, quick to learn, and easy to put down in case gamers actually go outside this summer.

I already reviewed the first two from this Summer of Arcade series, Geometry Wars 2 and Braid. Now that the series is complete, it's time to catch up with the rest.


Bionic Commando: Rearmed
(Xbox Live, also available on PS3/PSN and PC)

1987's Bionic Commando never quite took off in the Mario era--probably cuz the game's hero couldn't jump. (Back then, kids, virtual jumping was a technological achievement.) Instead, the guy had a grab-arm which let him swing over obstacles and chasms. Cyborg Tarzan with a bazooka... it made sense in the year of Robocop.

The unique twist of robo-swinging made the game a cult classic, which is probably why BC is being revisited as a big-budget, 3D adventure later this year. To promote that release, Capcom has given the original 2D game the spit-shine treatment. Holy crap, is it nice.

Pace yourselves; it's not an epic reimagining of the core game. Still the same series of side-scrolling levels. Still no jump button. Still a few aggravating, scream-worthy swing puzzles (devs, why not edit these so that when you fail 'em over and over, there's less time to get back into the damn game?).

But the liberties taken in this remake should shame anybody who's made a lazy, retro cash-in. Boss battles have been reimagined from the ground up, full of hulking robots that are satisfying to take down. The massive series of challenge rooms, reminiscent of Metal Gear Solid's wireframe "training" levels, are alone worth the $10 tag. Multiplayer feels like an afterthought, but allowing up to four people to robo-arm together is better than nothing. And the presentation is stunning, from the remixed '80s soundtrack and the freshly redrawn baddies to the ridiculous coat of high-def paint.

Nitpicks: no level editor? Why not let people whip up their own Bionic Commando worlds and trade them online? Also, the grab-arm controls are awkward for 2008. Capcom should've mapped the all-direction aim to the Xbox's second analog stick.

Otherwise, it's a lot of retro for $10. Assumedly, the low price is because this game is itself kind of an ad for the "new" Bionic Commando coming in October. Otherwise, there's no reason for Capcom to price so much game for so little cash.

Jump with me for takes on Galaga Legions and Castle Crashers, along with some Penny Arcade Expo banter.

Continue reading "The Sun Sets Upon the Summer of Arcade" »

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Getting Ready For PAX

posted by on August 27 at 5:22 PM

Blissfully ignoring this week's politics and protests? Charging your DS and PSP batteries? Waxing your "PWNED" Washington State license plate? You must be going the same place I am on Friday.

Every day this weekend, I'll be at the convention center to cover the hell out of the Penny Arcade Expo. The big announcements, the PAX10 indie games exhibit, the industry panels, the kinda-decent concerts, the Jenga competition, the thousands of penises drawn on Pictochat--no virtual stone will go unturned at America's largest public gaming expo. There is talk that I may dress up as an underappreciated gaming icon for one of the three days.

To get in the mood for the show, do check out my exhaustive Q&A with Penny Arcade's hometown creators, Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, over at It has everything the other outlets didn’t dig up, including dirt on the Penny Arcade Adventures game series, the drama behind PAX07’s Halo 3 reveal, and the “fucking barbs” that fuel the duo's tension. And if you're really stoked about the show, knock yourself out with my Live-Slogging from last year's Expo.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Here Goes the Rest of Jonah's Life

posted by on August 21 at 2:00 PM

Annie, I know that you're probably still upset over Scrabulous, but perhaps you should expand your horizons: has announced that Dungeons and Dragons has just issued a Facebook application.

Welcome to Dungeons & Dragons: Tiny Adventures! Choose a hero to send on epic adventures. Be your hero's guide through encounters with menacing monsters and dangerous traps. Equip your hero with magical weapons and armor. Get an RPG experience on Facebook without having to play for hours at a time!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Too Human Review

posted by on August 19 at 3:43 PM


Too Human
(Xbox 360)

Two of gaming's oldest archetypes collide in Too Human: the stupidity of the Van Damme genre and the timesuck of amassing RPG crap like experience points and treasure. Not my dream blueprint for a game, but I did reserve a little hope, as TH's designers were responsible for 2002's Eternal Darkness, the first really good 3D scare game by a Western studio. (That game would throw up fake Blue Screens of Death. The hell is scarier than that?)

Sadly, the creative folks at Silicon Knights didn't know when to pull the plug on TH, finally released today after a decade of development. This game would've been a dandy on its original destination, the Playstation 1, and that's a good way to put it, because the game feels dated—as if a lost PS1 game by some forward-thinking developer was unearthed 10 years later.

Credit's due here. For starters, in the world of clichéd gaming themes, there's something, er, unique about this one: Norse mythology colliding with plasma rifles and rocket-launching robots. (Steam-narök, maybe?) Might sound cheesy, but the art team here sure ran with the idea. If the game feels old, it sure doesn't look it—while rough around the edges, TH's set designs and architecture rank up there with the immaculate God of War.

That mythology core takes its toll on the plot. TH is too full of stereotypes and one-liners to be taken as seriously as Silicon Knights so desperately wants us to (and geez, are there a lot of cut-scenes and town-crawls). At the same time, there are too many shades of gray to determine who's worth liking in this tedious story. Worst of both worlds.

The core battling has its moments. In earlier stages, your gun-n-slash hero can whip through a chain of 30 baddies at once, and maneuvering these kill-combos has a certain Viking grace. You'll slash one dude, throw another one in the air, hold that mid-air guy up with a cloud of gunfire, then “slide” with your sword in a bee-line to the next foe, only to slam your fists to the ground and fell a mass of six critters simultaneously.

Like in Diablo, this mindless baddy-genocide is fun with a friend. Loot sharing and co-op moves are well done here; certainly better than last year's Army of Two. But that mode is online-only, and without a friend to talk to and kill with, the game's shortcomings are more oppressive. Missions run in a straight line; all killing, no puzzles. Since all enemies look pretty much the same, monotony sets in quickly. The game tries to hook players with Diablo-style treasure (all the swords you could want, nerds!), but Diablo beefed up its virtual treasure hunts with winding, crazy dungeons and a ridiculous variety of creepy crawlies. Not so much here.

I could describe other issues in detail: awkward controls, wonky cameras, clumsy item management, wonky fricking cameras. Those are all annoying, if not deal breakers. But more than any of that, Silicon Knights has no clue what the word “difficulty” means. In TH, you will die. Often. Over and over. Holy crap, are you going to die. Not that it matters, though—your character comes back to life after every death in the same spot with barely any penalty for it.

I'm fine with the free revival concept, but not the execution. It's only there because TH gives players no other solid way to stay alive. New weapons and armor don't help; the enemies scale up automatically, so you rarely feel like a total badass. And healing and dodging are nerfed. Once the difficulty very suddenly ramps up, you will spend more time dying and waiting for revivals than playing the damned thing.

Again, muffle the criticisms if you've got a pal to tear through this with. Co-op doesn't so much save the game as flatten out the complaints (for one, you'll die a lot less). But that's not a ringing endorsement. Fanboys who love virtual treasure have too many hurdles between them and their gold, while if you were hoping for a great story, quality acting, or a new echelon of action gaming, better luck next time.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Soul Calibur 4 Review

posted by on August 16 at 9:55 AM


Soul Calibur 4
(Xbox 360)

The Xbox 360 edition of Soul Calibur 4 adds Yoda to the fighting, and the marketing tie-in seems tacky at first. Even kinda cheap--uh, you can't throw Yoda, and in Soul Calibur, that's 1/4 of the 3D battle. But I've come to appreciate the grammatically challenged half-pint.

Tiny is he. Hops around all over the place. Is weaker. Can summon the force. Why, that sure seems different for Soul Calibur, doesn't it? In a fighting game where many Euro-centric characters swing their oversized swords/hammers/axes the same way they did in 1999, Yoda forces a strategy reboot. Maybe a healthy dose of the supernatural could do this ancient series some good.

Sadly, that's as far as Soul Calibur 4 gets in upgrading a core fight that was already phenomenal in the 1999 original. Back then, it was the first good 3D fighting game with weapons. The second and third versions lost that luster by adding mere tweaks; this one sees more tweaks, HD graphics, and online play.

Continue reading "Soul Calibur 4 Review" »

Friday, August 15, 2008

Friday Afternoon Time Suck

posted by on August 15 at 4:13 PM

You be the sun! You control planets with your massive gravitational field!

It is FUN!


Monday, August 11, 2008

Braid Review

posted by on August 11 at 1:39 PM


(Xbox Live)

Not often do you see a video game both thank Italo Calvino in the credits and pay tribute to the author's time-toying books, but such is Braid. The chief twist in this Mario-esque side-scroller is time manipulation. At first, it's simply a convenient button-press to reverse death or a missed jump; rewind time a bit, try again. Soon, you can't get anywhere without bending time.

An example: You'll see a critter in a later level that glows green. Even when you hit the “rewind” button, this thing keeps moving forward in a backwards world, and you have to use its immunity to finish a puzzle. Later, your footsteps will make time go forward or backward, or you'll have a ghost that moves forwards while you go back in time. Stuff like that.

Each level's time twist comes with a story about memory, perspective, and broken relationships. The writing can get away from the author at times—just because it's confusing doesn't make it brilliant—but the story's mix with the gameplay has weight, adding a pleasant layer of “ohhhhhh”/closure to the puzzles' conclusion.

Braid has that going for it, along with some brilliant puzzles and great turns in both art direction (watercolors that melt with the passing of time) and music (tasteful classical and Irish folk). It's a fiercely independent game--coded almost entirely by one guy--and while that helps, the game's stumbles seem to come from a lack of group review. There's no instruction manual--seems at first like "learn by playing" design. But some of the challenge just comes from answering the question of how the game works. A basic instruction set would actually answer a few hard puzzles, and once you realize that, they're less satisfying. This isn't a dominant flaw, but since the game's short (I'll get to that), offenders stand out and feel cheap.

Also, for all this game does to blow away the Mario standard, it still adheres to it. Braid has lots—and I mean LOTS—of precise jump challenges. Personally, I think the “rewind” feature makes this okay. But if you're not a fan of pixel-perfect jumps and pogo-hops off of enemies' backs, like in super-hard NES games of old, then prepare to get needlessly pissed.

And, yeah, the price--$15 for roughly four hours of play. That's about a week and a half of a game rental, but to be fair, it's also five bucks cheaper and two hours less than the best game of 2007, Portal. Is Braid in the same league as Portal? Close. The aforementioned cheapo challenges are a drag, and the plot isn't as magically crafted as fanboys have been saying. Portal's better—more accessible, superior pacing, more emotional response with its dark humor.

But when Braid gets things right, its puzzle/plot combo delivers an intangible level of satisfaction that you don't often find in the stimulus-response world of most boring video games. At the very least, get the demo. Think about it.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Geometry Wars 2 Review

posted by on August 4 at 2:49 PM

Geometry Wars 2
Bizarre Creations (Xbox Live Arcade)


Lots of arcade-style games in recent years have aped Geometry Wars: Top-down, simplified design, emphasis on audio, shoot everything that moves. But in the case of GW, it's not so much the gameplay as the rush that keeps it at the top of this arcade-blaster renaissance. Your little 2D ship is trapped in a wireframe, TRON-esque space, chased endlessly by neon shapes—each class of shape having its own movement pattern. Destroying these things turns the screen into a beautiful mess of broken neon lines and dots, and the waves of baddies ramp up perfectly, culminating in your inevitable death—and your slap of the “retry” button.

But the original GW, the surprise hit that launched Microsoft's nascent Xbox Arcade service, is broken at its very core. Once you learn the game's chase dynamic, there's only one way to play—pilot your ship in an oval around the rectangular space, and aim your shots forward and backward intermittently to blast following shapes. This isn't a chase--it's a well-lit NASCAR event. Geometry Wars 2 gets a thumbs-up from the get-go by tweaking the game to kill the Jeff Gordon approach. New rocket shapes move in static lines, and these often appear with a solid, parallel wave of their buddies. If you try the oval trick, you're apt to crash into a bright mass of death. Combine that change with other tweaks—from AI to a reward system that requires retracing your steps—and the series' gameplay reverts back to a chaotic, reactive state.

And that's just one of the six modes.

GW tried branching out last Christmas on Wii and DS with “levels,” but that attempt to stretch the game's length instead watered down the original thrill. Here, the basic experience is hard-modded to great effect. Best one's probably “King,” in which shots will only fire when your ship's in a safety bubble. Each bubble pops after two seconds, so you have to keep hopping to the next bubbles, unable to shoot while you're en route. The feeling is something else; you're stuck in a bubble, completely surrounded by creatures just waiting to get in. You have to blast your way out as if these things were zombies in a Romero flick, and then you can only hope they don't tackle and eat you by the time you reach the next safe, abandoned house.

“Pacifist” is a trip, as well, because your guns don't work. Instead, you have to lure shapes behind you, then trip the level's bomb lines that blow up everything in your vicinity. The original format—just move and kill as enemies grow crazier—returns in “Evolved” mode with the aforementioned tweaks, while “Deadline” is a three-minute version of this with unlimited lives (the rub being that your score won't be as high if you lose precious seconds coming back to life). Less fun are the “Waves” mode (those new straight-line shapes bombard you) and “Sequence” (20 pre-determined waves of enemies meant for the hardest of hardcore players), but that's just because those don't change the core play so much. Still plenty blasty -- and for the same $10 price as the first game, the price-to-fun ratio of these six modes is through the roof.

Sadly, the multiplayer modes don't transform this game so much. Keeping up with four spaceships on the busy screen at once is too much to ask of anybody with standard rods and cones (and lack of online play is sad, even if this game is too crazy-fast to work online). Still, the core mechanics, control, and (of course) rush of Geometry Wars 2 are enough. The tweaks work, and GW2 is now more about reaction speed and paddling through a bucket of technicolor vomit to make sense of the neon-loaded action. But that's not even the best part. Nothing trumps this game's high score tables. Every time you load a new game, your friends' top scores in each mode taunt you in corner-arcade fashion. Most Xbox Arcade games have scoreboards, but few thrust your friends' scores into your face so brazenly, and the effect is greater than I expected. I've spent the past four days in a back-and-forth battle with an old friend across the country, fighting for score supremacy. The learning curve is perfect for this kind of obsession—you gradually learn the ins and outs with each play, and your score ramps up accordingly, ensuring that you and your friends will progress pretty much in parallel. When I started writing this review, I was on top. By the time I got to the end, my friend had topped my every score. If this review seems to be petering out because I want so badly to return to the Xbox and put my friend in his place, then

Thursday, July 31, 2008

To Everyone Who Keeps Emailing Me

posted by on July 31 at 1:00 PM

This is not an acceptable substitute for Scrabulous. People play Scrabulous because they like Scrabble and want to be able to play it online with the same rules with their same friends over an indefinite period of time. People like to brag about scores that correspond to scores people understand from Scrabble. People like to brag about their bingos, just like those which one might achieve in a game of Scrabble. Yes, I realize this is clear copyright infringement, but I honestly don't understand why Hasbro would care. Playing Scrabble online, whether a company-approved version or no, will make people more likely to buy official dictionaries, study official word lists, purchase game sets, join Scrabble clubs, etc. It would have—and I'm sure already has—made Hasbro money. Driving them to this imitation game will do nothing of the kind.

In any case, though, people do not want to play some lame imitation word game with completely different strategic implications and an overabundance of bonus squares.

People want Scrabble. No frills, no animation, no unfamiliar colors. Just Scrabble.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Re: Reading Tonight

posted by on July 30 at 12:42 PM


(Paul, I'll assume you were referring to me, not Annie.)

Probably wouldn't be so illuminating to attend tonight's reading of Video Games & Your Kids. Let's take a look at the book's description on an anonymous Internet retailer's site:

Other [gamers] have grown so dependent on these games that they are abandoning their lives to pursue this activity, which they seem to prefer above all others. Video Games & Your Kids: How Parents Stay in Control is for parents who are worried that their children may be spending too much time playing video games.

When we get past the cloud of parents throwing their arms up and crying their eyes out--the thick cloud that apparently necessitates hundreds of pages in this book--there's an easy question that follows. How are kids and teens getting their hands on video games? Up until roughly the age of 14, the answer is almost universally that they're purchased by parents and family members--or enabled by rich parents who give ridiculous allowances. And by 15, when a kid can get his/her own job and start racking up enough to buy hundreds of dollars of games systems, parents still have a responsibility in teaching their kids to spend/save/invest wisely. I'll agree with these authors that gaming impacts kids in ways different than a lot of other habits, but that doesn't change the issue of a swingin' gate at the homestead. Parents "stay in control" by--whoa now--asserting control in the first place.

Really, the stupidity of this kind of cash-in book is most apparent when you tweak the title; try "Music & Your Kids" or "Movies & Your Kids." Those would be boring books, and for good fucking reason. But let's say the wheels have rolled off and your kid's a total 1337 asshole. Solution? Euthanasia Shut off your home Internet service. Online gaming can be so unbelievably bad for a growing kid--and don't let him/her BS you into thinking they're building teamwork skills while growing a WoW guild or leading a Capture the Flag team in Call of Duty 4. They're just learning creative ways to combine the words nigger, fag, and Jew.

Gaming has its ups and downs for kids--creative, exploratory games like Zelda that encourage map-making, puzzle-solving, and general whimsy; and adult/immature fare that encourages killing dudes in a straight line. Either way, a kid with their head screwed-on straight can usually cipher out fantasy from reality and come out as unscathed as, say, watching violence on TV. But invite that kid to persistent online games, and you've combined the visceral glee of a game with the hyperized social atmosphere of an anonymous Internet. I'm not entirely against kids socializing with strangers online--though that's hairy territory already--but insecure teens aren't doing themselves favors when their social development is hampered by hours and hours and hours with a headset and a trigger finger. Maybe they're trading slurs with the country's next generation of Neo-Nazis, or maybe they're being sucked into the mob mentality of hours-long raids in 3D dungeons every night. Sorry to sound like an old man, but the 12-16 year-old mind just isn't as good at ciphering out the crap in those socially loaded scenarios.

When you unplug the Internet, you keep the fun, simple nature of games in check--let parenting and reasonable guidance take over from that point. And really, what's the worst that'll happen? Your kid might sneak over to a friend's house to play online. At least he/she will now have to play that game with other friends face-to-face, where they can't get away with slagging each other without someone getting punched in the shoulder. It's not ideal, but if your kid's so far gone that he/she has to sneak out the window for a Counter Strike fix, your dumb parenting ass should take what it can get.

Oh, I just noticed this bit in the book description:

The authors give gaming advice on each stage of life; birth-2 years, ages 2-6, elementary school years, adolescence, and adult children still living at home.

Adults who still with their parents? It happens. But if you're a concerned parent by that stage, maybe you should look into a different kind of book.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Games Catchup

posted by on July 29 at 1:35 PM

As expected, the summer has slowed to a near-crawl for games. But that doesn't mean I'm going to go outdoors bullshit the games fans at Slog with hyped-up previews of games coming this fall, not even with Golob's nerd fatwa up in the air. Well... except for this crazy-looking demo video of Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, I guess:

There's no telling whether this game will play as well as it looks. Mortal Kombat, for years, has been the sloppy, fun-to-watch stepchild of Japanese fighting games--amusing and bloody, but awkward and tiring after roughly 14 minutes. (Gaming's Jerry Springer.) But you can't say enough about the way Superman beats that dude down--the looks and sounds of it sure are satisfying. Jonah and I will run this game into the ground come November.

Speaking of redundant fighting games, Soul Calibur 4 launches this week for PS3 and Xbox 360. Attempts to flag down a review copy haven't gone well, but I'm not too sad about that. This series was already perfect on the Dreamcast in 1999; the original still looks and plays smoothly, and it was the first big fighting game to make the whole attack/reversal shtick really accessible. But sequels never added to the formula, simply throwing more stupid characters into the Tekken-with-swords mix (and the new one makes a big deal about featuring Darth Vader on one console, Yoda on the other, so methinks Namco is sticking to the trend).

Not sure why the fighting genre is so scared to try anything new. Strangely, Ultimate Fighting Championship had the right idea back in 2000, marrying the then-nascent hetero love-fest with the feeling of a true fight--awkward, careful, and hinging almost entirely on breaks in momentum. Much like a bar fight, that game was all clumsy grappling, duos tangled up for seconds at a time to push, pummel, and find a rare break in defense. And that was before game controllers generally employed two thumbsticks. When's a game going to use the dual-stick setup as a pair of fists (or legs) and make a game that feels as realistic as it looks? It's 2008; if I can't have my hover-skateboard, at least give me my bizarrely authentic bar-fighting sim, complete with broken bottle clip-on for my Wii remote. (Full disclosure: the first UFC video game since the '00 version will be out this Christmas season, but sadly, it appears to have eschewed the chess-like give-and-take of its original version; dumbed down for the league's rising TV audiences.)

Better "coming soon" news--the Xbox Live Arcade is going bonkers for the next 30 days, unleashing cheap delights like Geometry Wars R.E. 2, Bionic Commando Rearmed, and Castle Crashers every Wednesday until the end of August. Roughly $10 a pop, though not all game prices have been announced yet. No lifechangers in this batch of games--they're shameless throwbacks to '80s arcade classics--but these three are easily the most action-packed multiplayer onslaughts of Live's Arcade catalog in recent memory. In particular, the four-player Castle Crashers (from the dudes who made Alien Hominid years ago) will repaint your fondest Golden Axe memories in bloody technicolor. I'll probably hop on tomorrow to gush about Geometry Wars 2.

If I can be pulled away from my DS, anyway. Good stuff on the portable system this week... in Japan. Now there's a KORG-licensed synthesizer program (see above), which not only saves up to six compositions but allows multiple DSes to link up and perform together in sync. The results range from impressive to... Jesus, already? The sound of this thing is a bit too compressed for my tastes, but it sure beats DJ'ing with an iPod.

Since I'm clueless about KORG synths, I've spent more time with Rhythm Tengoku Gold this week. I've previously written about Rhythm Tengoku, Nintendo's marriage of Wario Ware and Parappa the Rapper, and its DS sequel adds touch control to the series' cheeky J-pop mini-games. This recent demo clip shows the basics--either flick or press/release on the screen to match the percussion of a particular challenge. Fortunately, Nintendo is bringing this one stateside, supposedly by the end of 2008, though the Japanese version isn't hard to figure out if you're as impatient as me. (The Korg DS-10 is also set for American release, though its Japanese version is already completely in English.)

Obligatory Penny Arcade news update: the Penny Arcade Expo's pre-registration discount period ends Thursday. If you have any interest in attending the Expo this August 29-31, buy a ticket now and save five bucks. How else are you and I going to play Calling All Cars in a Washington State Convention Center meeting room?

And in Wii news... nothing. If you were dumb enough to pay higher than retail cost for a Wii, don't be dumb enough to look at the system's Christmas release schedule. The "innovative" system's catalog looks like a 3rd grader's Scholastic book sales pamphlet--all cheap cash-ins and sequels to Carnival Games. The future of gaming is throwing more tennis balls at towers of milk bottles? Holy moly. I'd rather go outdoors.

Tried to Play Scrabulous Today?

posted by on July 29 at 12:15 PM


MSNBC has the pitiful story. You can still play Scrabulous for the time being at the Scrabulous site, apparently. But all my hard-earned statistics are no more. Why did I join Facebook again? Sure wasn't cause I wanted to receive pictures of eggs that would eventually turn into pictures of animals that don't grow in eggs.

And don't even bother with the official Scrabble app on Facebook. You could pack up a board and a dictionary and head to a friend's house in the time it takes to load that stupid thing.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

E3 Lite, Day Two

posted by on July 15 at 3:08 PM

Nintendo didn't trot out any tired, rehash games at their Electronic Entertainment Expo press conference today. That should be good news -- enough of the old Mario/Zelda/Donkey Kong guard. Let's try something new with the Wii already. But then this happened:

Thanks to for the video, titled on their site "The Worst Moment in Nintendo History." And sure enough, Wii Music's public debut landed this morning with a poopy squish. Wii Music is described as a music game designed for people who don't like challenge. Sounds like a decent idea in theory, compared to the sometimes-intimidating play of Guitar Hero. But from the look of this game, people are tapping a single button and moving their arms to the rhythm to play dinky-sounding MIDI tracks. If you're under five, this could somehow be awesome. Then again, if you're under five, you like The Wiggles and climbing into boxes.

Seriously, look at those dorks swaying in the video! And Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto's on the right, too, hopping around and reinforcing all stereotypes about Asians and their rhythm. Damned shame.

The little bit of good news: There's another Wii Sports game coming next year, this time with a "summer resort" theme. It'll be powered with that WiiMotion dongle announced yesterday, meaning the game will recognize many more realistic gestures--wasn't that the point of the Wii in the first place?--but Nintendo was mum on most of the game's content (though it will have sword fights, so if this Christmas' Star Wars light saber game sucks, there's still hope for nerds). Grand Theft Auto will come out on the DS "this winter" (read: probably March 2009) with a "Chinatown Wars" theme. And Rayman Raving Rabbids TV Party is a rare high point for the Wii, mixing the Wii Fit balance board with a bunch of silly mini-games.

Otherwise, there's a ton of crappy family games coming, just like last Christmas. The "new" Animal Crossing game (think The Sims gone cute) doesn't look any more interesting than the DS version from a few years ago. Unless Nintendo's hiding a whopper of an announcement, they're putting all their chips on Wii Music until the end of this year. Considering that the music game genre is already flooded with fare for both adults and kids, Nintendo better hope their brand name is enough to sell this mess of a title.

Sony coasted through their conference with few big surprises (but nothing as bad as Nintendo, either). This fall's Resistance 2 looks like a fine first-person shooter, and it'll probably sell well, but that doesn't make it seem like a worthwhile break from decades of the same kind of shooting game. And other than Little Big Planet, which has been showcased for nearly two years now, I wasn't thrilled by any of their showcased stuff--even their media center announcements paled compared to the Xbox/Netflix deal from yesterday. A lot of the titles announced won't be out for at least a year, so it's hard to get stoked for those (though Infamous looks like an even crazier version of the Xbox 360's Crackdown, and that kind of open-world game always catches my eye). Price drop coming in a few months, though. Those are always fun.

Monday, July 14, 2008

E3 Lite, Day One

posted by on July 14 at 1:40 PM

Microsoft has tried for decades to take over the living room, starting with the turd known as WebTV. Result? Four thousand grandmas are still using the thing to forward Christian redemption chain e-mails. Nice work, MS. They've done better as video game makers, at least in the States, but their secondary goal of hawking movies and TV shows--a huge part of the Xbox 360--has been somewhat muted. TV episodes at $2 a pop? No thanks, and movie rentals, while comparably priced with PPV, are difficult to navigate with the 360's clumsy interface.

If Microsoft wants to outdo the Wii, it shouldn't try with weird games with add-ons (like You're In The Movies [requires a camera] and Lips [requires a microphone], both announced today at their Electronic Entertainment Expo press conference). The novelty of gizmo-games like Wii Sports and Guitar Hero must wane at some point, so it's good to see Microsoft try a parallel route--make the Xbox a dominant digital media center before anybody else gets there. Say hello to the first great blows in that direction: Starting this fall, NetFlix users will stream movies off their Xboxes, done with a new interface that will make navigating long lists of TV shows and movies much simpler. Seems fair to expect a neutered NetFlix film selection on the game console--much like the selection you can currently stream to a laptop--but it's a huge step in the right direction, and it's Xbox-exclusive. Sony can tout Blu-ray high-def movies on its systems, but if digital distribution is the future, Microsoft has just taken the lead.

Other announcements: Xbox 360 is gonna get the next Final Fantasy game, an announcement nobody predicted--and I could care less. Look at the title of the game: Final Fantasy 13. Thirteen? What else can the game do that it hasn't done 12 times before? I know, people in Japan go ape for anything with an "FF" attached, and Microsoft could use a sales boost there (Sony's had the lock on that series for years), but Final Fantasy games represent everything I get tired of as a grown-ass gamer: long grinds of quests, dialogue that is "good enough," melodrama, birds that are ridden as horses, etc etc. Every time fanboys go on about how games are maturing and becoming art, I point at this series' human characters with cat-ears and make a fart noise.

Speaking of gizmo-games, Nintendo's announced a Wii add-on for motion control. Say what? This Wii MotionPlus add-on will apparently improve the motion sensing--or, I should say, make the Wii Remote actually work for anything other than Wii Bowling. You ever play a game other than Wii Sports and been asked to "turn a key" or something? The key will never turn. Nintendo will announce tomorrow what new games this gizmo will support. I'm crossing my fingers for Punch-Out Wii, but it'll probably just be Brain Training Wii with support for scratching your forehead.

Oh, and let's earn that "Nerd" tag:

(PS: Xbox players might've heard that a demo for the long-awaited Too Human is now online. I played two minutes of it and turned it off. Talk about an ugly, hard-to-control, harder-to-see game. Should've held off on releasing that demo, MS.)

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Games Catchup

posted by on July 6 at 12:57 AM

Have you played Space Invaders Extreme yet? Possibly not, since summer's a good time for nerd detox. Months past Grand Theft Auto 4, months before the Christmas rush of big games, months during which the sun stays out until 10 p.m. But this new Space Invaders is something else. Something worth returning to the dark corridors in which you can actually see a Nintendo DS screen.

The old Space Invaders was a slow one, and various remakes have stuck pretty close to the formula; aliens descend slooowly, and you attack them by shooting behind shields. This one, a 30th anniversary edition, takes away the shields and the slow. Now, it's a snappy shooting game that does a great job letting people play as they please. Memorize waves of enemies and make the most of the game's new combo system, which has you kill critters of the same color or shape for bonuses. Or, mindlessly shoot everything with a perfect difficulty curve that'll keep casual, bus-DS folks as entertained as the hardcore crowd. The art direction reeks of Lumines in all of the right ways--pictures and sounds match up in psych-disco fashion, and every time you shoot something, the sound fits into the music's rhythm. And in the online mode, you and an opponent tear through your own single-player games, and the better you do, the more you muck up your foe's game (and vice versa).

For way too much blather about other recent games (Boom Blox, LOL, Ninja Gaiden II, Diablo II, and more), let's play catch-up after the jump. But really, Space Invaders Extreme, in spite of the stupid title, is where it's at.

Continue reading "Games Catchup" »

Monday, June 30, 2008

Mario Will Never Look Cool

posted by on June 30 at 3:50 PM

I walked through the University of Washington campus on Saturday--past sunbathing co-eds, shirtless Frisbee boys, and a wedding procession--to get to Kane Hall. It was dark upon entry; some sunlight, but otherwise, the rods and cones had to swap. A few guys smacked packs of cigarettes against their palms as I climbed some stairs. A whiteboard ahead listed rules for a tournament. And when I finally reached the Walker-Ames room, I noticed a slight breeze coming from a door to the outside world. But it wasn't enough to keep the current winner of a King of Fighters '98 match cool. He turned when I approached, almost whipping me with the sweat streaking his already-thinning head of chin-length hair, and asked if I want next.

This is not the way people are supposed to spend a beautiful Saturday afternoon. But my Street Fighter hankering had grown like crazy since I'd raved about the good ol' days of corner arcades, so I couldn't help but accept an invite to check out the Pacific Northwest Majors gaming tourney. Dozens of people with the same fighting-game jones as me? Social gaming? Awesome.

Er, sorta. There were bursts of my favorite arcade days, when a particularly good match drew a crowd to cheer on the fighters. But most of the time, everybody--mostly UW students, though out-of-towners from as far as Portland registered--was face-deep in a TV set, staring silently, hammering away at customized, arcade-quality controllers. I was only there for an hour or so, so maybe the social element exploded once I left, but there was little in the way of even a "good game" statement when I got my ass handed to me a number of times. Of course, this was an extreme slice of the gaming pie, a bunch of guys (all male, shocker) who troll Internet forums to talk strategies for E. Honda or M. Bison this many years after 1992.

My favorite of these hardcore players was a dude with a thick, curly mohawk, like Tunde Adebimpe from TV On The Radio, tearing people apart in Marvel Vs Capcom 2. He'd have his trio of fighters team up over and over, creating a seizure-worthy overload of lasers and explosions, to destroy his every foe. He got up a little later to jabber on the Bluetooth headset on his ear, and that's when I saw his outfit--marijuana leaf proudly sewn into his jeans, and a long, drooping tee on which Super Mario was dressed to look ghetto-fab. Hate to break it to you, Marvel Vs. Capcom champ, but Mario will never look cool.


Admittedly, the only thing consistent with my nostalgia was the smell: nothing reeks like an arcade. In spite of that slight breeze, the air was stagnant, heavy with the odors of nicotine and Sun Chips. But mocking gaming addicts is easy, and in all honesty, the event was still pretty worthwhile. I'm all for open, public gaming exhibitions--even on nice days--and I'm surprised someone at UW hasn't taken the initiative to get a monthly shindig going. Free play, a few competitions, some kiosks open with easier games for outsiders to get into... if this exists, someone please tip me.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


posted by on June 25 at 1:48 PM

Last week, the folks at Capcom sent along a downloadable copy of Commando 3, the never-awaited sequel to their '80s top-down arcade shooter (think Ikari Warriors or Smash TV). For $10, you get roughly an hour and a half of mindless dudes to shoot guns at. The demo got me excited, but the full game loses steam really quickly.

So why mention it? The game also includes a preview bonus for the online Street Fighter II remake coming later this year. That bonus was unlocked this morning, and since I'm a goddamned Street Fighter freak, I've since wasted a sunny Seattle morning getting beaten down by fireball-throwing 12-year-olds.

Previews for this game have emphasized the HD part of the game's stupidly long title ("Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix," choke). The whole game's been redrawn to fill every overpriced dot on a 1080p display, and apparently, those new pixels are dedicated to man-muscle:


Giambi Fighter? Grody. But the exaggerated style works in motion, and SSF2THDR (sheez) winds up looking and playing fluidly, especially compared to preview versions that looked herky-jerky. An even bigger deal is that this is the smoothest online fighting game I've ever played. Weird that it's taken 'til 2008 to get this right, but fighting games can't get away with the online tricks that World of Warcraft or even online shooters can. Nuts and bolts: Most other games guess what you're doing between the milliseconds that go by with natural Internet latency. Fighting games are too twitchy for that, which means they often freeze to allow catch-up. Not here. I had nobody to blame but myself when I got my ass handed to me five times in a row this morning. For a "beta" test version of the game, this already runs quite well.

Also cool is the game's online matchmaking. You typically land in a mini-lobby where two people are already playing, and a few contenders line up behind them. Everyone can hear each other's microphone chatter. The winner of a given match then sticks around to take on the folks in line. It's this sensation that got me antsy to write about the game. Just add the heavy aroma of greasy pizza, and you've got the corner-shop arcade experience that made Street Fighter II such a social gaming phenomenon in the '90s--stacking quarters on the cabinet to wait your turn, cheering on the kid who was the corner shop's champ, rooting for the eventual underdog victory. Arcades are a dying breed, so even though the base game is ancient, the authenticity makes this a worthy retread.

The full version doesn't have a set release date; "before 2009" is the current claim. There's also a 3D Street Fighter IV in the works, which is supposed to be a simple, "back to the roots" game with its own multiplayer modes, so I'm not sure why this one's coming out, too. (Perhaps they felt like Street Fighter fans didn't have enough options?) Still, for what this beta test gets right, I say bring on the ethnic stereotype fighting bonanza.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

My Spiky-Sacked Dragon

posted by on June 19 at 3:28 PM

I just got back from a beautiful road trip down the Oregon coast and all the way into the Redwood National Forest in northern CA. First thing I do when I load the computer on my return? No, not load the zillions of amazing dune/forest/coast photos into Flickr. Didn't answer a bunch of e-mails, either. Instead, I had to design critters on my computer.


This little dude is my first creation in the Spore Character Creator--note the spiky balls. You might've heard of Spore--the "Sims meets evolution" game from Sims creator Will Wright, set for release in September, that has been as hyped as it's been lamented. You follow a creature's entire existence--from its cellular stage all the way to where it, ahem, hops in a UFO and dominates the galaxy. I think. Still trying to make sense of the thing. Some worry that the game's evolution concept won't sell the way The Sims' dollhouse play did; I was in that camp as well, but this teaser Character Creator thing has been amusing enough. Think digital Play-Doh that animates with realistic skeletal physics.

Whether or not this tinkering will amount to a great game is anybody's guess. In the meantime, the free teaser is undoubtedly recommended. Snakes with feet? Blue monkeys with eight arms and no legs? Go to town by downloading the demo here. To unlock more creature "parts," you can pony up $10, but I managed to create genitalia with the free version, so I'm gonna save my cash. Now it's time to work up Spiky's poor, poor mating partner.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Are You Ready For Some Pinball?

posted by on June 12 at 1:44 PM

To get everyone in the mood for tonight's Slog Happy at pinball bar Shorty's, here's video of other people playing pinball last week at the NW Pinball Show. And Steve Wiebe.

Thanks to Kelly O for filming and posting this.


Monday, June 9, 2008

Dungeons & Pinball

posted by on June 9 at 12:39 PM

Let's compare examples of fandom in downtown Seattle from Saturday. If you walked by the Paramount in the afternoon, you would have passed a line of maybe 25 people--mostly teen girls with too much makeup--staking their claim on the front row for that night's Panic at the Disco concert. If you'd happened upon Neumo's at 9 a.m., you would've seen a line over 70 deep. So what band was getting more people riled up so early in the morning? A band of warriors and thieves.

The Dungeons and Dragons Fourth Edition launch party saw about 500 visitors on Saturday, according to reps from game makers Wizards of the Coast. From the look of it, they didn't expect nearly that many; the round tables on Neumo's floor were crammed full of DMs and players, and the wait to join a game ran up to an hour. What's interesting is how little the event fueled a reason to show up. No huge giveaways, unless you count a shit-ton of free Doritos baggies (which I guess work like gold or mana for D&D addicts). And D&D4E technically launched the day before (according to Wizards, has sold their entire allocation of the release's first editions). So why the crowd? There's something to be said about the game's makers hanging out and running fans old and new through zillions of rule changes. There's also something to be said for nerd sanctuary.

I'm not a D&D guy, and I regret not making more time to hang out at Neumo's on Saturday to learn the new system, so I can't exactly pass judgment. Still, I talked to a few people who expressed a unified D&D4E sentiment--it's fun, it's faster, it's more streamlined... but "it's not D&D." One person compared it to World of Warcraft, another to Final Fantasy Tactics--funny that D&D, whose every bit and detail was mimicked in the original video game RPGs, is now accused of turning the tables. I'm hoping to get some time with the system in coming weeks and talk about it; at the very least, I created a character on Saturday: an ice-breathing dragon-man. The dude needs to freeze a dwarf or something.

The main reason I didn't stick around wasn't the same as Paul's geekphobia (since when is D&D too nerdy for a book addict, anyway?). It was the utter opposite: I had to feed my arcade jones and attend the Northwest Pinball and Gameroom Show. These two events weren't really that different, celebrating archaic forms of gaming that are nowhere near the Xboxen and Wiis of the world, yet still draw crowds of hundreds that wait in lines to play. Highlights from the show were a Guns 'N Roses table (complete with half-naked groupies drawn on the table) and a bizarre thing called Hyperball, in which you shoot pinballs out of turrets to spell words... but it looks like it's from Blade Runner, so it doesn't feel educational. I'd babble more about awesome tables--and even an Asteroids cabinet that entranced me somehow--but I may as well shut up and wait for Kelly O's video of the day to go online in the next week or so.

Also in attendance was Steve Wiebe, the Redmond native from the documentary King of Kong, who did an hour-long Q&A session. Though he seemed bewildered that so many people were interested in his quest for the Donkey Kong world record (and no, he's currently #2), he was pretty gracious and humble about the attention. I don't think there's an unlikeable bone in that guy's body. What was weird was that his wife (featured in the flick as well) sat at the very front corner of the room on a table, almost as if she were on display. I couldn't help but glance at her emotionless face as her husband answered endless gaming questions--particularly his affirmative answer when asked if Billy Mitchell, the crazy pro gamer he has competed against, was one of the best things to ever happen to him. From the look on her face, it's almost as if she had to freeze her every muscle so she wouldn't shake her head in response, grab a mallet, and obliterate the marriage-decimating Donkey Kong cabinet that stood to Wiebe's left.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Donate to Get Beaten in Guitar Hero

posted by on June 6 at 1:12 PM

Ever wanted to get obliterated by Guitar Hero addicts for a good cause? 826 Seattle hosts an all-ages charity GH tournament this Sunday afternoon at its Greenwood Space Travel Supply Co location. [Address is 8414 Greenwood Ave N; go here for directions.] Show up around 1 p.m. to register, hang out, and maybe practice before the competition starts at 2. (There might be a Rock Band setup as well, Jonah.) Entry fee is $5 for under 13, $10 for over, and the proceeds all go toward 826's zillions of free programs for helping Seattle students. Prizes will be given to winners and runners-up from folks like VAIN, The Sneakery, The Vera Project, Archie McPhee, and Everyday Music.

Unlike GH nights at bars, this one should be all about the insane talent of young people who wield plastic guitars. I've already resigned myself to not winning this, but if I have any shot, it'll only be because the competition is separated into under-13 and over-13 camps:

See you there.