30 January 2010

Parsec - TI99

It's a throw back game, and probably not available anymore. I played this game in 1982 on a Texas Instruments TI99 computer console plugged into a Quasar television set.
Around the same vintage as the Atari 2600, the TI personal computer had a few cartridge games. Parsec was their flagship game and I think it shipped with the system.
At first glance, Parsec is basically a horizontal Galaga, or Vanguard. But unlike those arcade games, you could play it at home, and it was beatable with 16 levels of increasing difficulty. Your 2D spaceship battles UFOs with a sensitive laser blaster. The TI99 had a decent joystick. It was similar to the Atari 2600 remote, with just the stick and a single fire button, but lighter, more responsive, and the red fire button was wide like a (soon to be) Mac mouse clicker.
At each level you need to refuel and to clear the level you have to navigate the asteroid belt. To accomplish this, you need to switch gears. It's a cool feature. The default is 3, and your ship bounces around nicely to combat the alien vessels, but you need to slow down your horizontal movement to 2 in order to navigate the asteroids, and down to speed 1 to crawl through the refueling station.
Great game, wish I still had it in the attic.
By Matthew Zuchowski

Scribblenauts - Nintendo DS

When I was a kid I spent a lot of time engaged in one of the greatest debates in all of childhood: Who would win in a fight?
Superman or The Hulk?
The Hulk.
Godzilla or a T-Rex?
My dad or your dad?
My dad.
You get the idea. My next-door-neighbor and I would waste summer afternoons in our Baltimore suburb playing this silly game before we got bored and, of course, got into mischief. (Later in life I killed some time by throwing a tub of BBQ sauce at some dude's garage. I'm ashamed to say how old I was at the time. Let's just say I almost missed the prom because I was grounded.)
Perhaps kids of this generation will be spared the shame of youth with Scribblenauts, a game that lets you do almost anything in its virtual world. If you want to see if God is more powerful than Godzilla, go for it. If you want to see if a vampire can beat a wolfman, have at it. This is not the purpose of the game, however, but it's a plus.
The goal of this ingenious game is simple: Help Maxwell (you) solve challenge after challenge in a game world that you control. The trick here is that you choose what to put in the game world to help complete each task. For instance, let’s say there is a challenge in which you have to rescue a kitten from a tree. Using the Nintendo DS touch screen to insert objects into the game world, you could arm yourself with a hatchet and chop the tree down. Or you could write in a fireman and let him do the work for you. Or you could get a little nasty and use a slingshot to shoot the cat out of the tree (although points are awarded for avoiding violence).
The challenges in Scribblenauts range from the simple cat-caught-in-tree example to helping sea captains avoid ice bergs.
If you can think it, you can probably write it into the game world. The game recognizes some 10,000 words and translates them into characters and objects. And if you don’t feel like a challenge, you can simply write goofy stuff into the game world and see how they interact. I recommend the following: God and Satan; a vampire and garlic; a cop and a crook; Bigfoot and a dragon.
This is easily one of the best games I’ve played on my DS. If I would have had a game like this when I was young, perhaps I wouldn't have been so easily distracted and some poor man's garage door wouldn't smell like ribs.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

29 January 2010

Resident Evil 5 - Xbox 360, PS3

Summing up the experience of playing “Resident Evil 5” is just that simple. It is awesome in nearly every way. Sadly, that word is so overused that most people have forgotten it should be reserved for things that truly inspire awe – an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration and even fear.
It is the rare game that has you sitting back a bit on your couch so there is enough room for it to exist in your living room. You feel a need to be respectful of its place in the world. All the hallmarks of a first class game are here: Solid story, jaw-dropping graphics, excellent pacing, etc. It’s games like this that remind us why we play games in the first place. “Resident Evil 5” is among the handful of stellar games from this generation that will be remembered forever, such as “Bioshock” and “Fallout 3.”
Considering that the same could be said of its predecessor, “Resident Evil 4,” I think someone at Capcom knows what they’re doing.
You probably already know the major talking points about the game.
There is co-op play (it’s excellent).
The graphics are as good as we’ve ever seen in a game (they are).
It takes place in Africa (and, in my humble opinion, the game is not racist - but it's a good debate.)
The gameplay is similar to that of “Resident Evil 4” (getting a little long in the tooth, but works perfectly).
What else do you need to know? Well, as you once again take control of beefy commando Chris Redfield you are joined by a partner named Sheva Alomar in a mission to take on a bioterrorism threat infecting a fictional African country. I never realized how alone I felt in RE4 until I played through this one with Sheva. It’s nice having someone else around when it’s raining zombies; even if that someone is under AI control.
The game boasts impressive online components, an improved inventory system that is enhanced by the co-op sharing options, and enough thrills to keep you busy playing until the very end. Some say it’s not as scary as other installments. They’re right, but the intensity is so high that you may not notice.
Two minor but frustrating things to mention:
1. Despite the attention to detail and the stunning environments, for some reason a line of clothes hanging in a village will stop you in your tracks. Seriously. The first time I tried to walk through a few towels hanging on a line and was rebuffed as if it were a brick wall I was a little disappointed. I know it’s a small detail, but it immediately took my head out of the game.
2. Sheva, despite being a fine warrior and companion, is a mannequin the rest of the time. At one point I shot a gas canister and the explosion was amazing. Sheva, however, remained stonefaced as if nothing had happened.
Are these small points? Absolutely. In fact, if this game wasn’t so amazing I wouldn’t even bring them up. But it is the intense attention to detail and quality that is evident throughout the game that makes these little bits of silliness stand out.
And this title truly is a stand out title.
I'm not even a survival horror fan. I'm not a big country music fan either, but I love Johnny Cash. That's because the best demands respect.
And this game is one of the best ever.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

27 January 2010

Resident Evil - Playstation

I remember it clear as day.
It was just after Christmas and I had to be about 12 or so. This kid who lived in my neighborhood, who was spoiled rotten by his parents grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and anyone who had anything to do with him, had just gotten the original Playstation. He also got an X-Games title to go with it and this other game that I thought had a stupid name.
It may seem like a video game standard today but the first time I heard “Resident Evil” I laughed out loud. I mean, seriously, it sounds like some type of direct-to-video horror movie some guy shot with a video camera in his basement and some I-Party supplies. And to think, somebody, somewhere was the first person to think of this. Sitting in their cubicle at Capcom someone went “Hey! Resident Evil! I’ve got to be onto something here!” and then, adding insult to injury, hundreds of people involved in the development process signed onto the name before slapping it on the box and throwing it out into the world.
It was a dumb name then and it’s a dumb name now.
But people forget that because the game is awesome.
I remember we were about 10 minutes into playing it when a huge spider lept through a window and we had to take it out with a shotgun. It was awesome and brutal. For the next couple months, me and two friends made our way through the game.
This was before the Internet was a big thing, mind you. I still had dial-up AOL that wouldn’t let me on during snow days because the lines were busy so finding plot spoilers online wasn’t like it is today.
Nah, you had to play the game. You had to earn it. Which is what was great about Resident Evil. The reward for surviving each task made you want to continue. The new rooms, the new creatures, the new weapons, the alleged cheatcode that supposedly let you play the game as Jill naked, it was all to be gained by playing the game.
So yeah, the quality of Resident Evil titles may be a no-brainer nowadays, but you can’t overlook how important the first title was … even if it has one of the worst names in video game history.
Personally, I think “Trapped in a Mansion Zombie and Creature Killing Spree” is just as catchy.
By George Morse

Video Pinball - Atari 2600

Before I was tall enough to play real pinball I was obsessed with this simple pinball game for the original Atari. Complete with bumbers, tilt action, spinners and specials, Video Pinball was – and still is – a great and simple game that can be enjoyed casually or fanatically.
What I mean by fanatically is that, if you want to, you can have this virtual piball table do your bidding for incredibly high schores. The tilt feature – which allows you to sort of steer the ball around the board – is primitive. However, without it this game woud be about as fun as playing Combat by yourself. I spent hours in front of the cathode ray tube carefully adjusting my tilt skills to get the ball to go where I want, when I wanted.
Oh, and by "ball" I mean the tiny square that was supposed to be the pinball.
The approximation of real world physics in the game is primitive as well, but it works. The ball either floats softly or rockets around the table. It also boats a rollover bonus – getting the ball to roll over an Atari logo.
There are some good pinball gmaes on the market these days – we'll eventually get to some of them on this list – but most of them suffer from the same problem: Pinball is supposed to be played on a pinball machine. The mini-video games that modern pinball games incorporate into their gameplay are usually weak. The same goes for most pinball games played on a TV. It's hard to replicate the pinball experiecne with a game pad and a television.
Luckily, Video Pinball on the Atari 2600 was so primitive and limited in its abilities that it entirely skipped this problem. My older brother bought this game for me and he and I played it for hours. Next time I see him, I think we'll fire this one up.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

26 January 2010

Mercenaries – Xbox, PS2

Known best for its go anywhere, commandeer anything gameplay, the original Mercenaries was a standout sandbox game at a time when everyone was jumping into the sandbox genre. It managed to be political and (contextually) realistic while not taking itself too seriously.
And it featured voice work by Carl Weathers.
That’s right. Apollo Creed himself.
Is there anyone cooler than Carl Weathers? In the Rocky movies he was always the coolest guy. He had style, he had charisma, and he could act. (Sorry, Sly.) Then he starred in a movie called “Action Jackson.”
That’s almost as cool as being named Max Power.
He followed that goofy - but still cool - action flick with a great performance in Predator and then a surprisingly hilarious turn in Happy Gilmore. They don’t make them any cooler than Carl Weathers. If there was any justice in the world, the Chick Norris phenomenon would belong to Carl Weathers.
Oh, and the game is a blast. You choose from three mercenaries - the chick, the black dude and the white guy with the ‘extreme’ haircut – and proceed to tear through a warzone while taking missions from a variety of political and underworld factions. Your mission is to kill or capture each of the bad guys on the notorious Deck of 52. In between there are enough side missions to keep you busy for months. You’ll drive tanks, fly choppers, unleash air strikes and plant C4 all over the place. It’s a little like playing GTA without feeling bad about accidentally running over pedestrians and cops.
Mercenaries was unfortunately followed up by a lackluster sequel. However, the original is one of the better games of the last generation. Considering a used Xbox is about $20 and you can get the game for $5, it’s well worth it. (Side note: I know the 360 is backwards compatible with most Xbox games, but I prefer the big black box whenever I have an excuse to fire it up.)
By Victor Paul Alvarez

25 January 2010

Super Mario Galaxy - Nintendo Wii

Super Mario has always been awesome. I'm pretty sure it was the first console video game I ever played. I played everything from Kingdom Hearts on the PS2 to Skate on the Xbox 360 … and Mario has kept me a Nintendo man. Jumping around in world 1-1 and racing on the Rainbow Road has given me confidence that the Mario franchise is one of the best video game series in the world. In one of his newer adventures, Mario gets to kick goomba butt in space! Super Mario Galaxy makes you freak out on physics and lets you swipe coins on the ceiling.
Collect power stars by beating Bowser's minions, fly to the center of the universe and save the princess. I'd say that's a pretty simple storyline … with a couple of twists along the way. A friend will help you on your way by giving you hints on the level or just flat out telling you what to do. You'll surf manta rays and float around in giant bubbles to almost unreachable stars. Collect the elusive green stars and unlock an extra hard galaxy meant for the best gamers (as stated by the little green guys themselves).
Beat Bowser and you unlock your brother Luigi as a playable character. The game was awesome and kept me distracted for almost the whole summer. I rate the game an 8 out of 10 because the camera would screw around every once in a while … but all in all it was pretty great. I guess I'm saying you should play it if you like alternative platformers.
One more thing: Avoid the black holes. They're bad.
By Sebastian Rodriguez Lawton

23 January 2010

Unreal Tournament III - PS3, Xbox 360

I got into gaming journalism because I believe games are the most influential new storytelling medium of my generation (that’s Generation X if you need to know). But I also got into it because I love a great game. Readers of this blog understand our definition of a great game boils down to one simple question: Did you have a great time playing it?
By that standard, I’m here to tell you that Unreal Tournament III is a great game.
I was new to the series when I played this one. As I hunkered down with my XBOX 360 copy, I didn’t know what I was getting into. The main character looks like he could be Dom’s brother (“Gears of War”) and the opening “story” was a little light on details. Then I was dropped into the first mission of the campaign. It’s not really a campaign as much as it is a series of training missions to familiarize you with the real meat of the game — the online mode. Everyone knows this game is all about online frag fests. I’ll get to that later.
But let me tell you first how nice it was to be dropped into a map with decent AI opponents and tons of weapons and power-ups at my disposal. Back in the days before online console gaming was common I would play games like Perfect Dark on the N64 and rejoice in the “bot mode” when I couldn’t get the boys together for a game. Sure, it’s nothing like playing against a human being. But it’s a nice touch, one I wish more FPS games would carry over from the old days.
In UT3, these bots are far superior to those on the N64 classic. They’re nothing compared to the warriors who await you online, but the deeper you get into the campaign mode the more satisfied you will become when your team wins. This is especially true in Warfare mode, which requires a sophisticated amount of AI bot coordination and offers a ton of satisfaction with victory, even when you’re the only human being in the room.
I know a lot of you skipped right over the campaign to go online for blood, and I don’t blame you. The action online is lightning fast — no lag here — and filled with variety. Again, the Warfare mode I mentioned above is particularly satisfying — especially when you’re playing with friends.
As for the graphics and overall presentation, this is what we’ve come to expect from the franchise. The game is beautifully crisp and the level design is fantastic. Characters have the telltale thickness that has become a hallmark of these games, vehicles look appropriately cool and the campaign cutscenes are as good as it gets. For a game that moves this fast and has this much going on, everything looks and plays beautifully.
You’ve got a lot of options when it comes to FPS games. Don't miss this one. It flawlessly executes its mission in a way that few games can match. It knows exactly what it wants to be and it succeeds. The 360 version includes split-screen mode for co-op play, new characters and five additional maps.
And it was published by Midway, our old departed friend.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

Smackdown vs Raw 2010 - Xbox 360, PS3

Finally … the champ is here.
I’ve been a longtime wrestling fan for many years and played my share of wrestling games. I’ve been to plenty of events, met wrestlers and heck, I’ve even gone to wrestling school. Hopefully that qualifies me enough to be a wrestling fan and give me opinion on THQ’s grappler. I shell out my cash every year to pick up the latest copy of SVR with great anticipation for it to be the better than that last. That is usually the case, but with the good always comes the bad. Not this time. Smackdown vs Raw 2010 is the best wrestling game yet. It’s beautiful, deep and will satisfy even the most judgmental wrestling fanatic.
From the blood, sweat and tears to the long golden locks of HHH, THQ captures the detail and presentation of the WWE. If anything, presentation really puts you in the game and makes you feel like you’ve laced up the boots of your favorite superstar. You would swear you’re watching a pay-per-view event right in your living room. Some great examples are the in-depth instructions and presentation before the 30-man Royal Rumble. It is exactly like ordering the PPV on TV as you watch the announcer informing all wrestlers and fans exactly what to expect for this match. The game gets so detailed that you’ll see a wrestlers feet barely miss the floor before sneaking back in under the bottom rope ready to go another round in the rumble.
As far as the gameplay, fans of the franchise will feel right at home.
Every SVR game comes packed with match types and this one is no slouch. THQ added a few extras like the Championship Scramble and some brand new back stage brawls. With so much content you won’t find yourself running out of matches but instead spending more time thinking of what the match will be and the stipulations. One thing I did notice was the removal of the Casket Match which has always been a lot of fun to play but with the amount of extras it’s not that hard to forgive. Another personal favorite was the fact that all arenas are unlocked straight out of the case. No more battling crazy tasks to unlock the ECW arena or Saturday Night’s Main Event. They are all there as soon as you pick up the controller to play with a buddy. Each arena is also equipped with all the logos and stages that you would find at the actual event right down to the entrance graphics and brand name announcers. Presentation is everything and having the WWE Live logo pop up before each match and then ending with the WWE credits is down right fantastic. You really cannot ask for more for a total broadcast experience.
Smackdown vs Raw 2010 packs a knockout punch. With an overwhelming amount of content the replay value for this game is through the roof. Any wrestling fan will find it hard to put the game down whether playing online, with friends or in one of the many single player careers. There's even a “Build your own story” mode where you can create your own storyline that you have been dying to see on Monday Night Raw.
This is a game you can always put down and then pick right back up again for some of the finest sports entertainment you’ll ever find on a video game system. It’ll be a long time before this game is topped.
I’m headed back to the ring for my shot at being the undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the world. All challenges welcome.
By Stephen O'Blenis

Bayonetta – Xbox 360, PS3

"Action-packed, non-stop, heart-pumping, edge of your seat action." These are common words used to describe any summertime blockbuster movie. These buzz words have become associated to action movies for years but don't rush down to your local theater just yet. I'm talking about a video game.
Yes, a video game. This game embodies every one of those words and then some. Never have I played a game that doesn't give you a break. There is pure and constant action. The only break you'll have is a saucy cinematic that ties the story together and, trust me, you'll be hoping for these breaks. Welcome to the world of "Bayonetta."
"Bayonetta" is simply the most action I have ever experienced in a video game. To borrow a common phrase, it's like "being on a non-stop roller coaster" of action. The story is basically about a witch who has been asleep for over 500 years and now she has awakened and cannot remember her past. She seems to be caught in the battle between heaven and hell and uses her extraordinary skills to blast and slash her enemies to bits. Bayonetta is not a woman to mess with. She has shotguns on her legs. Need I say more? The bosses in this game are like nothing you have ever seen. Yes, "God of War" does a sensational job but "Bayonetta" has just about the largest boss battles ever. Every time you think you've seen the unreal, it just gets crazier. I won't even mention the final battle. This game should come with a warning label. It contains so many "look at that!" moments you don't want to play alone. I literally would look around and wish someone was in the room with me to see what I just did. Incredible.
The gameplay is top-notch, the controls tight and the graphics are outstanding. Everything that makes a game great. The amount of weapons and moves cannot be obtained with only one play through – and trust me when I say that the first play through on normal is no walk in the park. You'll be pushing 15-17 hours of action. There were sometimes that I wanted to pick up and play but I just couldn't because I knew I was just too tired to continue. You need energy for this game. How many games can you say that about?
"Bayonetta" is large on all scales. Her arsenal is huge, her move set just seems to continue to grow and the items you pick up along the way never seem to stop astonishing. The game is simply great. So I guess the question remains, "Can a brand new game be one of the greatest of all time?" Keep in mind that the main character is also female and, other than Lara Croft, female characters don't get much love from the video game world. I say, absolutely. This game is something I will always remember. That is what makes a game great. The story, the characters, the action. Everything you would find in a blockbuster movie is in a blockbuster game. Just because a game is new doesn't mean it isn't able to sit among the greatest of all time. So strap yourself in and hold on; you're about to fall under the spell of "Bayonetta."
By Stephen O'Blenis

21 January 2010

Duck Hunt - NES

Yeah, Duck Hunt.
If you bought a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in the early 1980s these are the first two things you did – you played Mario, then you got frustrated because the game was remarkably difficult so you eventually grabbed the little plastic gun that came with your system and played Duck Hunt.
The concept of the game was, and still is, incredibly simple. You shoot ducks or you shoot skeet with a little plastic gun that clicks worse than a Guitar Hero controller. You would get three bullets at each level and after you had made your virtual kill a happy hunting dog would jump into the high grass and retrieve your trophy.
If you missed, this same dog would laugh at you and no matter how many times you tried to do it in the past you would pull the plastic trigger dozens of time while aiming the device straight at the smart-assed dog.
What’s impressive about this title, however, is that in all the years that have followed it no game has replicated the Duck Hunt shooting experience with a similar type of plastic gun. Yes, the first person shooter market is bigger than ever. But my mom and my girlfriend could play Duck Hunt and I don’t think either one of them would last two seconds in a Call of Duty multiplayer game on Xbox Live.
In later years the Sega Genesis would release it’s own plastic gun title known as Mad Dog McCree, but it flopped and if you remember the title it’s probably because you remember how bad it was. The Super Nintendo also took a shot at the genre with a mini-plastic bazooka, but that was quickly forgotten.
But I have never and I will never forget Duck Hunt.

20 January 2010

Worms Armageddon - Nintendo 64

Ever play with worms? I have. Usually in my backyard when I was a young boy but I never dreamed I would still be doing it as an adult. I love it. It's an addiction. And it's even more fun with friends. Obviously I'm talking about a game called "Worms." If you've never heard of it I'm not surprised. It has a small following but this is a game that I love to introduce people to because it's just so much fun to play that it's turned so many others into believers. My first encounter with this classic little game came when I was in college. I remember being bored in one of my computer classes and I began to download this game suggesting the idea of a war-time strategy with worm soldiers. I couldn't pass it up. So simple it's genius. A 2D generated landscape with a team of worms scattered throughout the warzone. A turn based game that allows you to eliminate your opponent in so many ways until the last man, err, worm is standing. Brilliant.
It wasn't until the N64 that Worms really skyrocketed with its rendition of Worms Armageddon. One of the best multiplayer games to date that I bet you've never played. You name your worms. Pick a nationality; yes they talk. Then blow your opponent sky high with a rocket launcher. I cannot convey to you the pure fun this game can be with three other friends. It's stressful, funny, and strategic. Think about it. It's your move, you maneuver your worm via ninja rope into better position of the enemy. Then you cycle through your weapons for the perfect choice. Bazooka? Nah. Shotgun? Nope. Grenade? No way. Holy hand grenade? Oh yes. You then heave back and launch your angelic friend bouncing off 2D landscapes and lands directly beside your enemy. Perfect. You fist pump in the air (you actually will) as you see the enemy worm's eyes enlarge to the size of light bulbs: "Oh no!"
The last thing they will hear is a choir sing "Hallelujah" as the grenade blows apart half the map sending the worm skyrocketing into the watery depths below. Your worms cheer, but you have a long way to go to win the war.
All of that was just one move. Now you can imagine what the rest of the game is like. Swatting worms with baseball bats, uzis, shotguns, exploding sheep; yes, I said exploding sheep. This game is a blast. Literally. If you have never played this game then you are missing out on what multiplayer fun is all about. Find an N64 and grab your friends because war is not always hell, here it's heaven. Suit up soldier.
By Stephen O'Blenis

19 January 2010

Halo 3 - Xbox 360

On the week of The Halo 3 launch my mother called and asked me the following question:
“When will you play Halo 3, Hon?”
You know you’ve crossed into a new entertainment phenomenon if a 72-year-old woman from East Baltimore knows when a video game is hitting the shelves. She even knew that some people were lining up at midnight to buy the game the moment it was released.
I’ve spent the past decade heralding the coming onslaught of the video game medium. The industry eclipsed Hollywood in sales a long time ago. No one really believed me when I used to tell them that more money is spent annually on games than movies. No one believed me when I’d defend my hobby by saying your average game player is around 30 years old. And no one even wanted to talk with me about gaming’s eventual crossover from “Asteroids” to art form.
Now that’s all anyone is talking about. These topics are on the lips of TV talking heads, politicians and mothers in East Baltimore.
Now they’re starting to believe.
As a game, Halo 3 managed to exceed the hype juggernaut. It was as great as you wanted it to be. The added features to multiplayer and campaign mode were all excellent. You played as the Master Chief from beginning to end – no offense to the Arbiter of Halo 2, but that was a gimmick I never liked much. The story – twisted and confounding as ever - was tied up. And the graphics were astounding. A lot of people hate on the Halo graphics and I've never understood it. From Master Chief's dramatic crash landing that opens the game through the varied levels and firefights that follow, I found Halo 3 to be a refreshingly bright landscape of impressive graphics (though I agree the faces often look terrible.) Perhaps the original Halo was so groundbreaking in the graphics department that people were expecting photo-realism and were disappointed when all they got were stellar visuals.
In Halo 3 you finish the fight you started in the first game. That reference is obvious. I was more intrigued by the “Believe” tagline. I think it’s a bold way of saying: “Yes. There’s a lot of hype surrounding this game and things rarely, if ever, live up to their hype. This will. Believe it.”
And it did.
Even before the game was released to the masses, critics from gaming magazines and elsewhere in the media hailed it as a triumph. It was not the best game of all time but it was unanimously regarded as an excellent game and a fitting end to the Halo trilogy.
But is it art?
A lot of ink has been (and will be) spilled on the topic of video games as art. I will humbly submit that the question is so subjective as to be nearly irrelevant. The better questions are: Is it fun? Is it well done? Does it spark the imagination? Does it stay with you?
Do you want more?
Here’s my take. If you believe that storytelling is art than it stands to reason that Halo 3 is art. When I first popped it into my XBOX 360 and started finishing the fight, I was certainly impressed by the graphics and the gameplay. The game looks fantastic and is as much fun to play as any game out there. But what kept me in front of the television, what drove me to charge through the game’s many battlefields and challenges without looking back, what sent me through the game as fast as I could with guns blazing is that I wanted to see what happened in the end.
I was happy to finish the fight (because the game is all about fighting) but after getting hooked on the first Halo game seven years ago I was ready to find out what happens at the end of this story. What happens to the many characters who, just like in the movies or in a book, have become familiar and important to me? Who wins the war? What happens to the most important character — me? For this is what the truly great games do for us. Master Chief isn’t just a cyborg space marine — he’s you while you’re playing the game. He is an empty husk in which we place ourselves as we’re running through mission after mission and saving the lives of those characters around us who we’ve grown to love.
Any good movie or book keeps you interested long enough to see what happens in the end. Halo 3 isn’t the first video game to do this, but it does it well.
The video game medium may only be scratching the surface of compelling storytelling, but it’s there.
And it’s art.
Victor Paul Alvarez

18 January 2010

Adventure - Atari 2600

Adventure is probably best known for being the first video game with an Easter Egg. Adventure’s Easter Egg is a secret room where the programmer wrote “Created by Warren Robinett.” Atari did not credit its programmers at the time.
Adventure’s Easter Egg was Mr. Robinett’s revenge.
The game was released when my friends and I were deep in the grip of Dungeons & Dragons paper and pencil games. To be able to play a similar – but primitive – version on our Atari was cool.
As the story goes, once upon a time an evil magician stole an enchanted goblet and hid it somewhere in the kingdom. You have to find it. Along the way you will fight and outsmart three deadly dragons and a pesky black bat. You’ll use a bridge, a magnet, keys and a sword to complete your quest. You’ll also need to master some maddening mazes.
Most Atari 2600 games required the gamer to suspend disbelief and employ their imagination to fill in the details that the modest technology could not display. Adventure is among the best examples. The gameplay is solid and challenging, but it was up to the gamer to imagine that the quest was more than the sum of its parts. Adventure displayed rudimentary graphics and characters, but every kid who played it imagined they were more than just a block zipping around in the simple levels. You were an adventurer on a quest. Just look at the box art that accompanies this essay. While you played through the game’s blocky graphics, you imagined you were actually battling that cool dragon in the forbidden castles. This is another great example of the imaginative Atari box art that filled the gap between the player’s imagination and the graphics the console could actually produce.
Just like playing D&D, the game didn’t work if it didn’t spark your imagination. It did, and it will forever be the console game that inspired all the adventure and RPG games that followed.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

Tecmo Super Bowl III - Super Nintendo

Player trades, upgradeable created players and cumulative franchise modes.
For today’s Madden gamer, all of these features have become standard practice. When you shell out $60 every August for the new version of Madden, being able to craft your franchise with front office expertise is something that gamers have to come expect.
But these features weren’t so routine in 1994. In the days of Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, re-arranging your roster or creating a new running back out of thin air wasn’t something you even considered as a possibility. In the days of 16 bit graphics, football games were football games and arm-chair general managers simply didn’t exist.
Yes, there were season modes where you could try and run the table from September into January but after The Super Bowl your roster remained the same. There were no opportunities for trades and players who had a great season weren’t about to see any increase to their speed or tackle break ratings.
At least not before Tecmo Super Bowl III (TSB3) came out.
Building on one of the most historic sports game franchises of all time, TSB3 was the first release that ever allowed gamers to make off-season trades. While trading for draft picks or sending multiple players away wasn’t an option, fair trades were something the computer recognized.
For example, I can still remember trying to repeatedly trade Marshall Faulk (still on the Colts) for Natrone Means (he played for the Chargers) and getting shot down every time because while Faulk is an historically better player, Means was the man in mid-90s.
Outside of trades, TSB3 was also the first game where you could design a player, with a name, number and everything else. If he was a running back and had a 100-yard rushing game, you could expect to have some points waiting after the game to level him up, like an RPG character.
And on top of all this, if you won The Super Bowl three years in a row you unlocked a slew of Hall of Fame players. You couldn’t sign all of them, however, because each one had a certain number of required points for acquisition, like a free agent salary negotiation without dollars.
It’s for all of these reasons that I can say with complete confidence that TSB3 is the greatest football video ever made. This may seem like a silly statement with the sheer beauty and depth put out by Madden games today, but TSB3 didn’t have an Xbox 360 engine. It had SNES capabilities so trying to compare the two side-by-side wouldn’t be fair.
Instead, you have to look at what gamers expected to get at the time. When I cracked open "Madden 10" this summer, I expected it to be visually appealing with smooth player mechanics and, of course, off season roster building capabilities. When I played TSB3 for the first time, I expected it to be Tecmo Bowl, which it was. What I didn’t expect was that after years of crying to the Video Game Gods for some front office control my prayers would finally be answered. What I didn’t expect was that me and my friends would obsessively spend months and even years building and re-building our franchises.
What I didn’t expect was that everything I always wanted out of a football game would actually come to fruition.
By George Morse

Asteroids - Atari 2600

In Asteroids you pilot a small spaceship through waves of asteroid belts and attacks from UFOs. When you shoot an asteroid it breaks into small, fast-moving pieces that scatter in all directions. UFOs appear frequently to zip across the screen and shoot at your ship. If you get into trouble you can either hyperspace to a random part of the game screen - which could put you in the path of more danger – or use the shield function which allows asteroids and enemies to pass through you for a moment.
Hardcore players use hyperspace. I used the shield, beginning my longstanding habit of taking the easy way out in games whenever possible. When all the asteroids are destroyed it starts over again with a new screen. Like most games of the era the gameplay remains the same but the difficulty ratchets up in speed and enemy frequency.
The arcade version of “Asteroids,” with its vector graphics and cool cabinet, is the superior game. But the Atari 2600 version is the one that got me. It is simple and elegant and challenging. There is no “beating” the game, but getting the score to “flip” was a major accomplishment when I was a kid.
Asteroids is a classic game by any standard, but the real beauty is its ability to create tension and entertainment at the same time. This seemingly simple game uses primitive sound effects to elicit real emotions of fear and suspense. How will that asteroid break? Where will the next UFO come from? Where will the hyperspace drop you in the battle field?
The background soundtrack is reminiscent of the “Jaws” theme. Its throbbing menace speeds up as things get hairy, and the mood is pierced relentlessly by the sound of crashing asteroids and enemy gunfire.
Much praise has been heaped upon the early game programmers and their ability to make fun games with primitive technology. “Asteroids” is a prime example. Blocky graphics, a handful of simple sounds and flawlessly basic gameplay puts “Asteroids” in the canon of great games.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

15 January 2010

ICO - Playstation 2

"The game that was meant to be a book."
Well that is what the salesperson said when I bought the game years ago and I still remember his words to this day. I knew very little about this game when I walked into the store but I took a chance. That chance turned into one of the best games I have ever played. Ico was a more than just a game, it really was an adventure. A fantastic story, stunning visuals and unreal animation. During this period, Prince of Persia really cornered then market on video game character animation. Characters never really moved so fluid; almost lifelike. Then I played Ico and learned that the Prince wasn't the only one able to scale walls with grace and ease. There was a new character; a rather unusual character. Ico was a young boy who was born with horns, an outcast. Maybe a metaphor for some of us growing up - an outcast who would become a hero.
Ico was a story about a boy who meets a princess and has to save her from the clutches of an evil witch. Been there, done that? Well you're wrong. You've never seen anything like Ico before. It's a good while before Ico meets the princess, scaling walls and solving puzzles to avoid being trapped for eternity. The princess really has no skills. She's a princess. What do you expect? The most shocking and innovative part of this game was being able to take hold of the princess' hand and lead her through the dungeon to safety. I've never seen anything like that before. With a touch of a button, Ico would reach out and grab the princess by her hand and give her a yank as she stumbled in his direction just as a little boy would do to his sister. Amazing.
Ico possessed the skills to carry himself out of the dark places but now he had to figure out a way to get the not-so-skilled princess out as well. Perhaps moving a box for her to stand on as he then climbed up the wall himself, turning and lending a hand to hoist her up to the next level. Ico now had to take care of his new friend. Not to mention battling the witch's shadow beasts which would attempt to drag her back to her prison. A young boy with only a piece of wood battling the beasts and then dragging the princess to safety. I remember finding ways to bring the princess up to a tower and then once on top just gazed down to the world below where you once were and just thinking how amazing that was. I actually just did that? Relief.
You really will feel for both characters as they try to escape right up to the shocking ending. Ico is one of those games that received great praise but was missed by many. It is one of the best games I have ever played. So good that I played through the entire game five times. If I can do that, I urge you to do it at least once. You won't be sorry.
By Stephen O'Blenis

14 January 2010

I’m not a happily married man just yet, but I am a guy who has been with the same girl for the last four years and can say with complete honesty she’s the one for me.
It didn’t take long for me to realize it either.
The epiphany that I’d met my future wife came in two separate parts, about a year separated from each other. The first half came when she knew what the oranges in The Godfather mean.
The second half came when she told me she used to play Sonic the Hedgehog.
As a child of the late 80s and early 90s, the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo consoles will forever define my childhood video game experience. Yes, I had an NES, but I was only in kindergarten. I also had N64, but I was a teenager by then. When I was 8, 9, 10 years old, however, the 16-bit galaxy was everything I needed.
And few games, if any, are more iconic of this generation than the first Sonic the Hedgehog title. After all, it came with the Sega Genesis, back when video game consoles came with games. So the first Genesis game I ever played was Sonic.
And it was awesome.
There was nothing revolutionary about Sonic, or the game. He was blue and pointy and could spin into a ball and you had to collect coins and dodge obstacles and eventually fight Dr. Robotnik and you couldn’t save the game halfway through. It was like Mario, but on Sega.
The game was also remarkably charming. The graphics were solid and the music was catchy. All the levels were also fun and the increasing level of difficulty made beating the game feel like a real achievement.
Of course, there was a cheat code that could take you right to the end, but going this route really wasn’t satisfying.
In later years, subsequent Sonic games would always be fun, especially when you could play as Knuckles, but the first Sonic game will always remain an unforgettable classic.
Oh, and if you don’t know about the oranges in The Godfather, it’s time to grow up.
By George Morse

13 January 2010

Gears of War - Xbox 360

You know that feeling you get when you play a game that makes you happy you bought the system it's on?
That's Gears of War.
Even though the Xbox 360 launch titles looked great, it was Gears that made people go out and buy HDTVs. The graphics are fantastic, everyone knows that now, but they truly ushered in the next generation when the game was originally released. The gameplay is tricky at first but you will find it smooth in no time. There’s a ton of tough-guy dialogue to wade through but the story is compelling. I have always thought that the characters got a bad shake when the game was initially reviewed. They’re not as deep as the cast of a Spike Lee Joint. However, the voice acting was excellent. I think Game Informer called it "dude-speak."
A few words about story and setting: You can go a long way pleasing gamers with titles set in post-apocalyptic, sci-fi nightmare worlds where aliens are bent on crushing humans. Gears of War wisely follows this path. However, Epic Games was smart to create a world that is haunting and unfamiliar. There are heavy influences from European architecture and lush settings that take the edge off the typical “world in chaos” themes. There’s a nice balance here that keeps your aesthetic eye pleased beyond the simple fact that the graphics are awesome. Sure, they look good. But they’re also unique and interesting.
Gears of War is an easy pick for the canon. It's a game you must own. Even now that the sequel is out and it does everything better – and prettier – than the first one, I still find myself playing this game. And if you're thinking co-op, you're thinking Gears. One final note: Of course, the game is brutal. I was playing it one day as my wife walked by to catch me using my chainsaw to saw an enemy in half.
"That's completely unnecessary," she said.
"Well," I replied, "that's why it's not called Gears of Peace."

By Victor Paul Alvarez

12 January 2010

Stuntman: Ignition - Xbox 360, PS3

There was a game for the Atari 2600 called Human Cannonball. In it, you tried to launch a dude into a safety net. Of course, the "dude" was a blocky stick figure and the "safety net" looked like a highway traffic sign. This game was joined by other titles of the era that tried to put the player into a scenario that was plausible if not probable. Playing "Human Cannonball" as a kid was probably as close as I was going to get to being in the circus.
Stuntman: Ignition is a great game because it captures that childhood fascination of growing up and having a cool job. What kid wouldn't want to be a stuntman? And now my thoughts turn to the late, great Evel Knievel. He was like a super hero when I was a kid. As I grew older, I viewed him more as a punk rock redneck. He did whatever the hell he wanted and didn’t care what people thought.
Even though he sounded like a barroom blowhard in most interviews, the man got up on that Harley Davidson dressed like a Las Vegas Captain America and he really jumped. No computers. No “trick photography” as they used to say. He really did it. No one can take that away from him.
If you asked him, he was a daredevil. That’s fine. Stuntman is another word for it. Playing this game I thought of him often. Also, I thought about some of my favorite movies from that era in the late 1970s and early 1980s that relied heavily on stunts instead of special effects. Just about any movie with Burt Reynolds, every episode of “The Dukes of Hazzard,” and many more. I won’t argue their merits as classic cinema, but they were fun.
So is this game. If you’re patient and persistent, you’ll like this game. And if you’re paying attention, you’ll understand two things: Being a stuntman takes precision, and stuntmen/stuntwomen are cool.
In Stuntman: Ignition you are the stuntman. You will perform six stunt sequences in six films along with a host of other side missions and game modes. You will drive a variety of vehicles that all handle well and are fun to drive. As you drive each vehicle through a series of progressively complicated sequences, a director will call out stunts for you to perform on the fly. Some are easy (jumps) some are hard (two-wheeling).
And sometimes it just doesn’t feel fair.
The icons that show you where to perform your next stunt often pop up too late or are hard to spot. The director’s timing is also questionable. There will be a lot of trial and error before you nail most of the sequences. If you like the game — and I loved it — you won’t mind. If you don’t have a lot of patience for getting things just right, this is not your game.
One thing I didn’t expect: The game is funny. Each movie in the game is a spoof of a Hollywood blockbuster genre. The solid voice acting is as good as any other game I’ve played and the extra features — a level editor and fun (if a bit vacant) online component round it out.
Stuntman: Ignition is a real treat that didn't get the attention it deserved. If you like movies, cool stunts and a challenge, this is the game for you.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

11 January 2010

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars - Nintendo DS

The Grand Theft Auto franchise hijacked the Nintendo DS at a time when I was tiring of the franchise. Returning to a top-down view reminiscent of the pre-”GTA III” style, the game gives players the deep story and variety they have come to expect from Rockstar games by using everything the DS has to offer. First and foremost is the artwork. Cutscenes play out like a hip adult crime comic book and gameplay graphics are surprisingly cool given the limitations of the DS.
One of the most impressive features, however, is the clever use of the DS touch screen. You’ll find yourself using the screen and stylus to hot-wire cars, navigate a parade dragon (with flames), kick out windshields and lob grenades. I’d be hard-pressed to think of another game that so cleverly uses the touchscreen.
Fans of classic GTA gameplay will be pleased to find a fully-modeled Liberty City in 3D with changing weather effects and a 24-hour day/night cycle, tons of vehicles — including cars, trucks, vans, buses, boats and motorcycles, classic odd job and rampage missions, unique stunt jumps, and random pedestrian missions.
WiFi fans will also enjoy the multiplayer modes which include racing, Liberty City Survivor and a co-op base defense game.
Rockstar even fit in five in-game radio stations. There’s no vocals, but the variety is there — from Hip Hop to Rock. (I do miss the always hilarious talk radio stations.)
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars was a much-needed addition to the DS library. Now if only I could drive four blocks without getting the cops on my tail ...
By Victor Paul Alvarez

10 January 2010

Timeshift - Xbox 360, PS3, PC

If I had a great time playing a game, does that make it a great game?
I think so.
That's why Timeshift, and many other forgotten titles, has a place on this list.
Back when “bullet time” was just a cool idea in The Matrix, the original Max Payne came along and implemented it perfectly into a solid shooter. Since then we’ve played through a variety of time-altering games with mixed results (Blinx anyone?).
TimeShift, a good game on the brink of being forgotten after its release into a flooded FPS market, gets it right. For a somewhat simple shooter, TimeShift takes one gameplay gimmick and hammers it home. The time manipulation works flawlessly and adds just enough variety to make this game a standout despite its high-profile competition.
TimeShift allows you to slow down, reverse and stop time briefly enough to gain a variety of advantages on the battlefield and in the game’s many problem-solving elements. Some of these benefits are obvious: Stopping time allows you to walk up to an enemy and take his weapon. Start time again and he’ll be standing there, defenseless. This may take the sport out of the inevitable kill that follows, but it never gets old. Another trick that runs the risk of being too easy after awhile involves stopping or slowing time long enough for you to aim at an enemy with the crossbow and let the exploding bolt find its doomed target. This also rarely gets old and is a blessing when confronted with a swarm of enemies. The game offers you plenty of places to duck and cover so you can pop up and plug your foes one by one.
Your time-altering abilities also come into play in a variety of nifty problem-solving areas. None of these will give you a headache, but they will provide the satisfaction you’re looking for after you solve them.
It’s always tricky to build a genre game around a new gameplay gimmick, but TimeShift pulls it off where others have failed. I enjoyed the game enough that I would have played through without the time angle. Having it seamlessly implemented into the game is pure gravy.
The story takes you from war-torn cities to vast wastelands to a variety of enormous structures such as wind-tunnel facilities and zeppelin hangars. All are rendered and detailed beautifully. While the character models aren’t going to change the gaming world, they are equally impressive. More impressive are some of the artistic choices sprinkled throughout the game. The zeppelin and dropship design are unique in a way that is rarely seen in shooters.
If you strip away the time-altering gimmick you'd have an above average FPS here. But the little things that stand out, such as ammo boxes that refill ALL of your weapons at one time or an Uzi-like weapon that shoots flaming bullets and doubles as an effective flame thrower (a weapon that rarely works well in FPS games).
In the end, TimeShift got lost in the sauce of a busy FPS season and that’s a damn shame. The game is fun throughout and even manages to properly implement its time-altering techniques in the robust multiplayer mode.
Go back in time and pick up this FPS gem. You won’t be disappointed.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

09 January 2010

Half Life 2 - Xbox 360, PS3, PC

There’s something Half Life 2 does effortlessly that few games do well: It marries tenderness with technology.
In the movies this is nothing new. George Lucas once made us care about real characters struggling for freedom in a fantasy world with his first trilogy. Even the beauty-and-the-beast love story in the original King Kong was as impressive as the ape effects.
These are special effects movies that make us feel something more than excitement. It has long been a criticism of video games that they look great, but they typically don’t have the ability to make us feel anything. “Half-Life 2” and its subsequent episodes are among a new generation of titles that are changing how we feel about video games. It is not only among the best games I’ve ever played, but it is touching as well. There are moments of pure, character-driven drama. Since the drama unfolds in-game (not in cut-scenes) you’re always watching it unfold as a character in the scene. When one character hugs another in the middle of the game you can walk around them and watch from all angles. When a character is in distress or pain you can zoom in on their faces and watch them feel these emotions. It’s hard not to feel it, too. For this, I consider these games monumental achievements.
Aside from making you feel something for a change they are exciting and beautiful, to be sure, with plenty of action and physics-based puzzles to keep even expert gamers busy. I’ve always been a fan of this series for its intelligent sensibilities and complete lack of ego. The two extra episodes go a long way to propel the art of gaming both in play and narrative.
If you don’t feel something while you’re playing through the Half-Life 2 saga, maybe you should see a therapist (or a priest), because this game has a lot of heart.
You’d have to be a zombie not to notice.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

07 January 2010

Super Mario Land - Nintendo Game Boy

I think I was six years old when my father bought me my first game console, the Nintendo Game Boy. While browsing the game store for my very first video game, I was overwhelmed by the huge selection. I chose to play it safe and went with a big name title: Super Mario Land. Maybe this is a phenomenon of every kid’s first video game, but I played this game to death. I must have beaten the game at least a hundred times and I challenge anyone to show me a secret passage or a hidden block that I have not yet uncovered. And after all this, I still find myself occasionally dusting off the old Game Boy Advanced (my original console has since died) to play this classic.
In this 2-D platformer, our lone hero Mario must travel through the four regions of Sarasaland to save Princess Daisy from the evil alien Tatanga. Each region is divided into three parts for a total of twelve levels. After defeating the boss at the end of a region, there is a cutscene where it appears that our hero has rescued Daisy. I was always confused as to why Daisy would then transform into a monster and hop away. I figured out later on that what was actually being depicted was Daisy being kidnapped by the monster. But hey, at that age, storyline took a back seat — I was more concerned about kicking 8-bit minion butt.
One of my favorite things about this game is the distinct flavors of each region in Sarasaland. Mario’s adventures take him to a spider-infested cave and an Egyptian pyramid complete with fire-breathing lions and booby traps. He travels underwater in a submarine and traverses the sky in a plane. One of the more outlandish levels is when Mario goes to Easton which resembles East Asia. The background is pasted with bamboo and the soundtrack is distinctly Chinese. In that level, Mario must face off against vampires, although they are not the vampires that Westerners are familiar with. Instead these are the zombie-like vampires of East Asian folklore that hop around and suck people’s life essences instead of their blood. It’s amazing to me that the developers at the time were able to come up with such eclectic characters and colorful worlds for a monochromatic game.
As technology advances, gamers will be treated to more eye candy and increasingly creative ways to play. But we must remember that gaming is an evolutionary process and today’s bleeding edge titles owe much to their pixelated ancestors. I can tell you that I derived as much, if not more, joy from playing Super Mario Land as I have from playing some of today’s best titles.
By Pei Xiong Liu

Conan – Xbox 360, PS3

The nice thing about writing a daily column about great games for an entire year is that it gives you the freedom to include some games that may not have made a tougher selection criteria. Readers of this blog know our criteria is simple: If the author thinks it's a great came and can support that belief, than it is a great game.
Conan is a game I found great and I know I'm in the minority. I'm hoping this column changes some minds.
Before I graduated to Hemingway and Bukowski, my introduction to macho literature was Robert E. Howard. The prolific writer’s most famous creation is Conan, a barbarian thief and conqueror. His god is Crom. His sword is his sidekick. He despises magic and he loves women. Many women.
Howard killed himself at the age of 30 in 1936 after hearing that his dying mother would never recover. He walked out to his car and shot himself in the head. His mother died the following day.
Some 70 years later his most famous creation continues to captivate. Howard would likely approve of the game’s faithfulness to Hyboria, the fantasy world he created for Conan. From the opening screen the game world looks and sounds just right. Though I prefer the musical score from the “Conan the Barbarian” film, the music in the game is spot on. (However, Howard would be furious to find that halfway through the game Conan starts wielding magic. Conan doesn’t do magic. He hates it, fears it, swears against it. By Crom I tell you Howard would not like the game developer’s inclusion of magic abilities to diversify the gameplay. They do their best to weave a story that has Conan using magic against his better judgment, but still …)
The magic heresy aside, the gameplay in Conan is surprisingly deep for what is essentially eight hours of cutting bad guys in half with a variety of swords and axes. This is not new territory. Anyone who has played the fantastic God of War games will be quick to point out that Conan is a distant second in this genre. However, the Conan canon is simple and the game is faithful to that simplicity. You will kill thousands of henchmen in this game and fight an interesting variety of beautifully rendered — and sometimes impossibly frustrating — level bosses. You are rewarded for your hack and slash handiwork with new combos and moves. With a ton of attacks at my disposal, I still managed to stick with a handful of trusty moves. My favorite plan of attack was to throw barrels and objects at the bad guys and then use dual swords to hack repeatedly at their torsos until limbs and heads were severed.
Surprisingly, it doesn’t get old (probably because the game is relatively short.)
Oh, and the game is packed with naked women. When you discover an abandoned slave girl chained to a tree you can either free her or simply leave her there. Free her and you are rewarded with a little nudity and horrible one-liners from the vixens — such as: “Now crush me with your love.”
Of course, this game is not for kids.
It’s violent, mindless and (probably) sexist. But, in my opinion, having young girls play games such as “Barbie: Mermaid Adventure” is likely more damaging to them than having little boys wield swords and see breasts.
The game is challenging enough that hardcore gamers will want to plod on and win the final (and most frustrating) boss battle. But it also has the “pick up and play” appeal that many gamers appreciate. For me, I was happy to visit Hyboria, embody a childhood hero and turn off that part of my brain that tells me diversions such as this are not propelling me forward as a decent human being. (Those may have been my wife’s exact words.)
So much mediocre sword and sorcery stuff is floating in the popular culture pool that people are often quick to dismiss Conan – the books and the fantastic first film – as more of the same. But Conan is one of the great ones, and I believe the game suits him perfectly.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

05 January 2010

No Mercy - Nintendo 64

It’s been years since I watched professional wrestling. I had a passing interest in it during the late 90s when I had no girlfriend and plenty of time on my hands. The guys I once mocked for watching grown men slap each other around became close friends I still know today. My epiphany came one evening when I stopped by Steve O’s house (he’s a diehard, lifelong fan). I caught a few minutes of a monologue by The Rock. It was hilarious and I was hooked.
For awhile.
I don’t watch anymore but I have saved one integral piece of that time in my life: No Mercy for the N64.
No other game tops No Mercy in the fun category. Of course other games are as fun as No Mercy, but I doubt that any of them can top it. The computer AI is excellent, but nothing beats slugging it out with a few friends of similar skills. The character customization is primitive but deep, so you can easily fill the ring with four avatars that look like you and your buddies. The moves available are extensive and the “pick up and play” nature of the game allows even newbies a shot at the title. I never took to any of the wrestling games that have been released since No Mercy. I’m told that some of them are excellent, but I’ve got the only grappler I need.
Check it out. You will not be disappointed.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

Retro Game Challenge - Nintendo DS

An 80s love letter to retro gamers and anyone who likes a challenge, Retro Game Challenge was a delightful surprise. When you use words like “sweet” or “thoughtful” to describe a video game it’s usually for titles that feature ponies or Italian plumbers who save princesses. When talking about XSEED’s Retro Gaming Challenge, these words refer to the game’s personality and sensibilities as much as its characters.
It may be because I’m a child of the Atari 2600 and NES, but I found the overall attitude of this game refreshingly warm and thoughtful. It is a power ballad written to 8-bit gamers like myself who long for the days when high scores were everything and extra lives made a difference.
Older gamers often defend the early games for their brilliant use of innovative gameplay in the absence of mindblowing graphics and memory. We say those things, then we let our NES and Genesis gather dust in the shadow of our new consoles. We may miss the simplicity of game’s past, but we rarely go back and visit them. That’s where Retro Gaming Challenge is brilliant. Instead of licensing a bunch of 8-bit classics and bundling them with a goofy storyline, XSEED has managed to produce faithful – and deep – clones of classic 8-bit genres and presented them in a compelling way that begs to be played.
Retro Game Challenge is based on the original Japanese TV series, Retro Game Master. The game takes you back to the 1980s, where you play as a young boy forced by the evil “Game Master” Arino to test your gaming skills in a variety of retro-style video games including shooters, racing games, platformers and an epic role-playing game. Once you master Arino’s challenges, you can return to the beginning to play any of the eight games in their entirety.
The interface – which has you sitting in front of a TV and picking games (and magazines filled with cheats and tips) from the living room bookshelf – is cool and nostalgic. The in-game magazines provide cheat codes to help you warp through complicated levels, but they also offer a virtual history lesson on the video game industry. The fake ‘80s news stories cover actual trends and milestones in the industry from the ‘80s, including the meteoric rise and fall of new game releases.
It is the clever presentation and the game’s ability to take you back in time to your misspent youth jamming cartridges into a game console that sets the game apart from the simple retro release compilation games.
But it’s all about the games in the end. If they were no fun to play, the charm would wear thin quickly. Luckily, the games are fun and the charm doesn’t fade.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

04 January 2010

Dead Space - Xbox 360, PS3, PC

From the creepy atmosphere to the engrossing story, Dead Space will hook you as soon as you press start. Not only does the game provide a refreshing new franchise in a sea of sequels, it’s also an absolute blast to play. Nearly everything about the game works, from the strong story to the creepy atmosphere and over-the-top gore, Dead Space is a well-conceived hybrid of what gamers have come to love about action games.
Dead Space is a third person shooter that relies on a dismemberment mechanic to take down foes.
The story is quite good, but it’s up to the player to flesh it out. The emphasis on atmosphere lends itself to creating an organic and engrossing story that rewards the gamer based on their involvement with the world around them. There are a number of audio clips that can be found scattered throughout the infested ship, which help players piece together the mystery of what happened on the doomed Ishimura.
In his quest to rescue a loved one, Isaac (you) will do whatever it takes to bring down the alien infestation and save those in danger. Isaac is a mining engineer with an unconventional arsenal. Instead of standard guns you will have saw and bolt guns at your disposal, among others. And your enemies aren’t the typical target practice you’ve come to expect from shooters. While your character controls much like Leon from Resident Evil 4, a simple shot in the head won’t do it this time around. You must dismember your opponents, which adds to the gory and adrenaline-filled experience. There is no HUD (heads up display) creating a truly cinematic experience. Isaac’s health is displayed on his back in the spine of his space suit and any menu is displayed as a hologram projection in front of your character. You are never pulled out of the action and that sense of urgency in battle situations adds to the horror.
Dead Space may not be on par with the superb Bioshock, but it’s close. Hopefully this game can be an inspiration to other developers to create something new that pushes the envelope in both gameplay and story.
By Alex Osborn

03 January 2010

Warlords - Atari 2600

Think about this the next time you’re crushing the Chimera or halving the Horde: Warlords did it first.
Well, not first. Not even best. But to the people who remember waiting in line for machines to open up in arcades Warlords was one of the visionary games that brought people together before the word “multiplayer” was ubiquitous. A lot of games in the golden age were multiplayer. Pong could not be played without an opponent when it was first released as a bar novelty. Through the years kids would gather around cabinets such as Gauntlet and TMNT along with a ton of side-scrolling beat-em-ups and lose quarters together. But it was the 1981 release of Warlords for the Atari 2600 that got people together in front of the TV for 4-player action. Other multiplayer games came before it, but none of them hold up as well. Instead of beating a buddy in Combat or besting one person’s score in Pac Man, Warlords let you lay the smackdown on three people sitting right next to you.
And it was fun.
In the game you defend yourself from three other players - preferably human. Each player occupies a castle that they defend with a shield. It’s been a long time since I read the instruction manual for the Atari 2600 version, but I believe each character represents one of four brothers fighting endlessly over the fortune of their dead father, the king. Cool. The object is to chip away at your opponents’ castle until you can strike them dead. When this happens, their “ghost” can be seen wandering the fortress.
None of the upgrades or Atari classic compilations have really done justice to the game. To be played right, you need an Atari 2600, a copy of “Warlords” and two sets of working paddles. Luckily, all those things will cost you around $50 on eBay.
Believe me, it’s worth it. The sad truth is that many classic games are simply not fun to play anymore. Our memories of most games are often better than the games themselves. But as we get farther away from the classic era of gaming, I think it’s important to remember not only the games that made a difference, but the ones that are still fun to play.
Warlords is just such a game.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

02 January 2010

Pure - Xbox 360/Playstation 3

Pure filled a gap that had been vacant for too long. It’s a fun racer – an absolute blast of a game that takes itself just seriously enough to be a first class title but not so serious that it gets mired in too many technical details. It’s an arcade racer, yes, but it has a ton of customization and options that elevate it way above some of the previous entries in the genre.
The name says it all: Pure is pure fun and excitement and should not be missed.
But how about some details, yes?
Once fired up Pure will want you to build your own ATV. There’s a “quick-build” option, which tempted my lazy nature. I’m glad I decided to build it myself. I typically bore of endless customization options in racers, but Pure is straight forward and enjoyable. I put together and crimson and gold beauty that I called “Stark 1,” sealing my geek reputation once and for all.
Then I was off to the races.
“Pure” allows you to pull off some great tricks without much difficulty but demands serious skills to reach the higher levels of trick insanity. It also forces you to balance your desire to pull of super-human moves with your taste for victory. Pull off some nice tricks and you’ll be rewarded with the boost you need to win the race. Use the boost and your trick set will be limited. Boost sure makes winning easier – but the more you risk, the greater your reward.
You decide.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

01 January 2010

God of War - Playstation 2

Some books keep you up at night. You plan to just read a few pages, or finish a chapter, but you end up reading into the early morning because you must know what happens next. This is also true of only the greatest of video games, and few compare to God of War.
You are enchanted from the beginning. The menu screen turns into the opening cinematic - Kratos committing suicide by jumping off a cliff into the Aegean Sea - as soon as you press play. This always impressed me. You knew right away you were playing a quality title, one that took everything - presentation included - seriously.
There's been as much ink spilled about this game as Kratos has spilled the blood of his enemies. If you're reading this you probably know the game beautifully blends intense action and fighting with puzzles, platforming and character building. The story is that of Kratos, a former captain in the Spartan army who sets out to kill Ares after the god tricks him into killing his own family. I won't pretend to be able to add some new wrinkly to the legend.
But I can tell you this:
I missed the PS2's lifespan almost completely. (I'll admit it, I'm just not a Sony guy.) But I knew I was missing out on some of the best titles ever made and decided to buy a used PS2. My wife and I had just bought our first house. The basement, or cellar, was an unfinished dungeon with cement floors and walls. I promptly placed an old couch down there along with a 10-year-old television and my Atari 2600. It seemed a perfect place for the PS2 (the big version) when I picked one up. God of War was the first game I bought. Despite having a shiny new Xbox 360 hooked up to a massive HDTV upstairs, I found myself spending the next week in the basement playing God of War. How could a game this good be on a system this old? How did they make the controls so intuitive, the fighting so deep and simple at the same time? Who wrote this terrific story and who are the voices behind these compelling characters?
The blood of my enemies splashed across the screen as I mulled these questions in the back of my mind. When I finished the game it struck me that God of War will likely remain one of the finest representations of what this medium has to offer. It has the courage to showcase relentless violence with no apologies. It features as compelling a story as you will find in popular fiction or film. Finally, it is presented as a piece of art built from the ground up by people who care.
God of War is what the Phoenix Games Project is all about. It is part of the canon of gaming.
By Victor Paul Alvarez