28 February 2010

Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire - N64

Jeff was a bartender at the restaurant down the street. When I moved to Providence he and I became fast friends. It was a nice joint with good food and live jazz on the weekends. When I wasn't drinking there, writing stories for the newspaper or kicking around my new city, I was researching this new Nintendo system that was boasting true 3D graphics. I had been out of the gaming culture for a long time. I assumed that a system this impressive could produce only the best games. I didn't know - or maybe I chose to ignore - the fact that every great system plays host to tons of crappy games. I learned that lesson the hard way as I searched for a decent fighting game for the system.
No dice.
Luckily one of the first games I bought was Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire. When Jeff the bartender came by to check it out I was playing the Battle of Hoth section (little did I know how many more times I'd play that battle in future games).
"It looks just like the movie," he said, and I agreed.
Of course it looked nothing like the movie. But the 3D jump was so huge on the N64 - and particularly that game - that we were convinced games would never look any better.
I played that game all the way through in just a few sittings. The Hoth battle may be the best part of the game, but the third-person action/shooting and the always popular Star Wars space battle sections were excellent.
There's a lot of buyer's remorse in the gaming world. I've dropped more money on more crappy games than I care to remember. But this one was different. It was a perfect introduction to this new generation of gaming and the fun I would have with that system. The N64 is still among my favorite systems if only for the reason that – despite a plethora of bad games – the games that were great on that console were truly great.
To wit:
Goldeneye, Super Mario 64, Ocarina of Time, Wave Race 64 and Star Fox 64 … to name just a few. The passage of time may have diminished the once awe-inspiring graphics of these titles, but they're still as much fun today as the day they were released.
This excellent Star Wars title deserves to be among them.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

27 February 2010

Street Fighter II - SNES

Man I suck at this game. But that doesn't mean I don't have fond memories in which it played a major part.
I was a sophomore at Towson State at the time. I lived on campus with a dude who made Captain America look like a degenerate. He was a nice guy but not a lot of fun. I spent most of my sophomore year with a group of guys who, like me, had about as many female prospects as the nerd character in a John Hughes movie.
But we had beer and video games.
Dave had a SNES and lived off campus. Dave was – and still is – a cool guy. He's also the kind of guy who is good at games. Cards. Risk. Basketball. You name it, he can probably pick it up and master it quickly. I don't think Dave ever practiced playing Street Fighter II, but I know he could kick my ass at it every time. He always picked the sumo dude. I picked Ryu because I figured a karate stereotype would have the advantage. I kept thinking that as Dave repeatedly launched that fat bastard into the air and slammed me down over and over again. I never won.
Not once.
Luckily this was right about the time when I discovered scotch and Tom Waits. We'd play that game - and others - into the wee hours while sipping cocktails and listening to "Small Change" or "Rain Dogs." Sooner or later we'd put the controls down - or someone else would finally beat Dave and pick a different game - and we'd just listen to the music.
I know you super video game geeks out there revere Street Fighter II and I have no intention of cheapening its legacy with this boozy essay. But whenever I see that fat dude – his name is E. Honda - I get thirsty for a scotch and a little Tom Waits.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

26 February 2010

Mortal Kombat - SEGA Genesis

In 1994 I move to Charlotte, NC to intern at The Charlotte Observer for the summer. I was 21. It was my first time away from my hometown of Baltimore and I didn't know a soul.
The pay was good and the city was filled with pretty women and good restaurants. Another reporter intern and I shared a $500 apartment in a faceless subdivision. We didn't get paid until two weeks in and, since we both blew our cash supply just to get there, we ate a lot of fried bologna sandwiches. I can remember eating one with him while watching OJ's Bronco on TV.
Yes, it was that summer.
I learned a lot that summer, a lot of which was good. My roommate was the first black kid my age I really got to know as a friend. Charlotte is an interesting city and a perfect place for a 21-year-old reporter to discover if he's got what it takes to do the job. And, as I mentioned before, there are a lot of beautiful women in that town.
On the other hand, I struggled to find a voice there. I was unsure of myself in the beginning, feeling as if I had left all my talent in a suitcase back home that I forgot to bring with me. My mentor - the staff reporter who was supposed to show me the ropes - was a tired man with little enthusiasm for shepherding a punk around the city.
And sometime in July a large, painful cyst developed on my lower back - way down on my lower back.
Yeah, right there.
I had to have the thing lanced by some doctor I had never met and then explain to my editor why I had to miss damn near a week of work because I could barely walk, much less sit in front of a computer.
Man, that sucked.
It was during this week that I ate a lot of Pizza Hut delivery pies and played the hell out of my roommate's copy of Mortal Kombat on the venerable SEGA Genesis.
I'm not much for fighting games - especially if there's any blocking involved - but I could play Mortal Kombat on the Genesis. And I did. A lot. Back then the game's gore content was literally off the charts. I remember the commercial that built up the hype for the game's home console port - some joker yelling MORTAL KOMBAT! and thousands of kids running through the streets.
I wasn't doing much running that week, but I jumped around a lot and sent fireballs into the faces of may an opponent with Liu Kang. I still play the game today - either on my Genesis or on the surprisingly good Game Gear version.
It says a lot about a game that can bring a smile to a man who is literally out on his ass.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

25 February 2010

Wii Fit - Nintendo Wii

Getting my wife to play a video game is about as easy as getting the Pope to cook breakfast for Satan.
I’ve tried and tried, but she just doesn’t care for them. So when the Nintendo Wii came into my life I knew it was my last shot. Be careful what you wish for.
I’d like to officially thank the good people at Nintendo for making a “game” that my wife enjoys so much that I may finally have to wait my turn for a chance to play. (And this comes on the heels of my mother’s now infamous Christmas Eve Wii Bowling massacre.)
Wii Fit is actually more of a game than I originally thought. It has all the classic hallmarks of a good game: Challenges, score keeping, goals, a learning curve. However, it is the game’s other qualities that drew my wife’s attention. As a pediatric health care provider, she is suspect of gaming from a health perspective. She is also — like most medical professionals — skeptical of any product that promises health benefits.
She was impressed by the approach and science behind Wii Fit. The game goes into a surprising amount of detail — but not too much — regarding your health and how it is judging you. Its science seems sound and its ability to gauge your physical ability is impressive. (But don’t get carried away. It’s no substitute for your annual physical.)
It’s a useful tool — as a working mother, my wife doesn’t get to enjoy yoga classes as much as she used to. Wii Fit can help. And it’s fun.
After some quick BMI and wellness goal business is over, Wii Fit goes straight into Nintendo’s trademark approach of using fun to entertain, teach and (sometimes) enlighten.
The balance board is incredibly sensitive, not to mention heavy and sturdy. Although she focused her time on the yoga, the game also sports a variety of strength, aerobics and balance-based games that are a lot of fun and get the job done.
If you want to work up a sweat, you will.
And that’s the idea, right? Working up a sweat for an extended period of time while having just enough fun to forget you’re working out is probably just what Doctor Mario ordered to get you gamers (and non-gamers) in shape. Just to make sure the balance board doesn’t gather dust, the game will track your BMI daily and help you stay on track to achieve your goals.
Wii Fit is not the answer to a personal trainer, but it is a fun way to get exercise and plot a course to better health. As other games start to take advantage of the exceptional balance board peripheral, I think you’ll find this is an excellent addition to the growing amount of Wii stuff accumulating in your living room.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

24 February 2010


Was it Arthur C. Clarke who posited, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic?"
I was a little surprised when Victor first suggested I submit the occasional guest posting to his video game blog. I'm not much of a gamer. I'm a digital immigrant, but I was born on the cutting edge of the generation shift. I'm old enough to remember playing Pong. Yes, Pong: the simplistic simulation of table tennis. And yes, I sucked at that game too.
Now, many of you may think NES is the Prehistoric Era. So let me peek through the mists of history and legend and try to describe Pong for you.
In terms of hardware, Pong was one box, a bunch of wires, and two knob controllers. There was no cartridge. The software for the game was inside the box. I can only assume it was on some chip, but for all I know, it could've been even more primitive. I was too young to know the actual price, but I know it was expensive, probably at least as great in late 1970's dollars as the latest and greatest gaming system today. And remember, all you got was one game.
Visually, Pong left much to be desired. It was a black screen, a white bouncing cursor, and two mobile, white bars at either side of the television screen. I don't think there was any kind of music, only the tinny sound of "bip" when the cursor bounced off a bar or the side of the screen. Still, this was amazing to us. We could interact with the TV; like magic.
I won't say Pong truly entertained us for hours. It had its place in our play rotation, but in the carefree youth of the 1970's we still ran around the neighborhood; sometimes we even rode our bikes out of the sight of our parents! My friend – who actually owned the only Pong system in the neighborhood – and I liked to build forts in his living room and pretend they were spaceships. Pong, and later his Atari system, filled the role of our mission controls. Using our imaginations, the game systems took us to far away worlds where we battled space aliens.
Sure it seems silly now. But remember, this was also the time when Commodore Vic 20's managed the flight systems of the entire Battlestar Galactica (the original model, under Lorne Greene's reliable command). Primitive computer line animation was cutting edge. A few years later, Disney's Tron really blew our minds with bleeding edge computer generated graphics like the light cycles. "Whoa!" as Tron's distant relative Neo might say.
The world's all changed now. I see preview trailers for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, or the brand new Heavy Rain, or even the new Aliens vs. Predators games, and I sit stunned. It's hard to imagine these are the evolution of Pong. Today's games have complex stories, near-photo realistic graphics, and full-fledged soundtracks. You can walk around a fully realized world, and interact with it. Heck, Pong's program could probably easily fit on my smart phone and still leave enough computing power to play a high fidelity ringtone of Beethoven's 5th Symphony when my VoIP call comes in.
That's 30 years of progress, it's magic, and people just take it for granted.
By John Fitzpatrick

23 February 2010

Borderlands - Xbox 360

I've spent my entire gaming life avoiding Role Playing Games. Mostly because I'm lazy and not fond of reading things on a TV screen. Also, I find most of the Japanese RPGs a bit unapproachable. Realizing this is a gaping hole in my video game enjoyment, I'm working to change it. I'm even considering giving the Final Fantasy games a try.
One of the (perhaps) unintended results of the success of Bioshock is that it introduced shooter fans to some simple RPG elements. I liked the game so much that I gave Fallout 3 a try - a game I wouldn't have touched a few years ago.
Which led me to Borderlands.
Of all the games I played in 2009, Borderlands is the one I can’t stop playing.
First, the game is a bit of a surprise. Blending a first-person-shooter with role playing elements in a post-apocalyptic wasteland sounded a lot like Fallout 3. I was doubtful that Gearbox Studios would pull it off. They did, beautifully. In the game you play as one of four deadly scavengers searching for The Vault – which promises loot beyond your wildest dreams – in a bombed out wasteland that is as colorful as it is bleak. In this open world you can stay the path by taking mission after mission that will lead you to the prize, or you can wander through the wasteland looking for adventure or loot. You’ll likely do both. Either way, you’re going to have a good time. You’ll have an even better time if you bring along some friends. The multiplayer package in this game sets the bar for casual co-op.
The shooting is as good as any first-class FPS and the role playing elements keep you coming back. Also, even though this game is set in a desolate land of death it manages to be funny and satiric while never taking itself too seriously.
A steady release of quality downloadable content means this game will stay popular until its inevitable sequel is released.
In 2009 everyone was heaping praise on Uncharted 2. I disagree. I think Borderlands was the best game of the year, and it continues to enchant.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

22 February 2010

NFL Fever - Xbox

I met my wife while I was tending bar at a dive in Baltimore. We had live rockabilly music on Thursday nights. Other than that, the place limped along on a thriving KENO business and the hipster drunks I was able to attract on most nights. My wife would be uncomfortable walking into a TGIFridays by herself. The fact that she walked into this joint on her own was one of many signs that let me know she was the one for me. She was to meet a friend of hers there but her friend was late.
She sat at the bar and I fell in love.
A few months later I moved into her Charles Village apartment. On my first night I brought a bottle of Makers Mark and my Xbox.
She should have known what she was getting into, but she stuck with me anyway.
She worked with special needs ESL families during the day and I made cocktails all night. I'd wake up late, have a little coffee, walk the dog and then come home and take the Baltimore Ravens to the Super Bowl over and over again on Microsoft's launch football title.
Anyone who knows anything about football and football games knows NFL Fever was no Madden. But it's no NFL Blitz either. The game was deep enough to not feel like an arcade button masher and accessible enough for folks who don't have playbooks memorized.
Which means it was perfect for me.
Monday nights at the bar were always slow, so we decided to start showing movies on the half-dozen TV screens that hung above the bar. I used the Xbox since we had no DVD player there. When everyone left for last call I'd pop in NFL Fever and the cook and I would play a few games. He wasn't much of a sports gamer and neither was I.
But no one looking at those TVs would have known any better.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

21 February 2010

War Games - Colecovision

My appendix exploded the day before I was to fly to Orlando with my girlfriend and another couple. I was misdiagnosed in the ER and almost died. It was a nasty little emergency operation that did not go well. A ruptured appendix is no joke. I was out of work for a month and spent most of my time on the couch. Moving was difficult. A nurse dropped by every few days to change the dressing on the wound in my gut.
Oddly, what I remember most about this period in my life (1998) are the games I played while laid up on the couch for a month.
The best of these was War Games.
The girlfriend was kind enough to bring me her brother's old Colecovision (I never had one as a kid). After putting in a ton of time with Donkey Kong - what a mother that game is - I stuck in the War Games cartridge with low expectations. I was happily surprised to find a deep, challenging war simulator that is still one of the best move tie-in games I have ever played. Not only do the sharp graphics do justice to the iconic war room in the film, but the gameplay is tense and exciting. It's a little bit Risk, a little bit Missile Command and a whole lot of fun.
I was on some powerful pain meds back then so my memories of the game are spotty - as was my time with the Colecovision. But the impression was strong enough that I've been trolling the auction sites lately looking for a working Colecovision (they break easy) so I can play the game again.
Would you like to play a game?
Yes Joshua.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

20 February 2010

Perfect Dark - N64

I learned to love Perfect Dark when I began hiding in my parents' basement.
I was 28 years old when I took a break from journalism and moved home to Baltimore.
By "home" I mean my parents' home. Not content to merely be a Gen-X cliche I decided to work full time at a busy bar and pay down some debt before making my next move. I wasn't sure what that next move would be, but I managed to make a decent buck slinging drinks and got to spend some quality time with my folks after six years of living in another state. To be sure, I cherished the luxury of seeing them every day.
But living with two inquisitive senior citizens does have its challenges. With a lot of time on their hands they began to take extreme interest in my life. They both run on different schedules. My mother sleeps about two hours a day and spends the rest of the hours "occupying" her time. My father awakes around 8 a.m., has his coffee and then stretches the morning paper out over the next 3 to 6 hours. This means the questions my mother would ask me when I came home at 3 a.m. would also be asked by the old man when I'd join him for coffee around 9 a.m. As if operating from a fragmented hive mind, they each asked the same questions but didn't know that their counterpart was also doing the same. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions:
1. Did you earn a lot of tips last night?
2. How's the car running?
3. Are you sending out any resumes?
4. What do you want for breakfast?
5. What do you want for lunch?
6. What do you want for dinner?
7. What are you in the mood to eat tomorrow?
I had an N64 set up in the basement with a few games. I eventually realized there were only two things I could do in peace in their house: Use the bathroom and play video games.
I did a lot of reading in the bathroom, and my gaming became the habit that eventually led to the obsession it is today. One game I can thank for this obsession is Perfect Dark. I don't need to spill a lot of ink over how good this game is. If you're reading this chances are you know that Perfect Dark is (gasp!) better than Goldeneye in every way. I played this game daily, right up until the day I went to Gamestop to buy an Xbox at launch. Perfect Dark looked great, was packed with innovations – especially the cool weapons – and had the perfect foil for a guy trying to find ways to extend his gaming time indefinitely - bots. You don't see bots in games much these days. Game developers must think we're all online all the time and don't need virtual friends to slay in deathmatches.
The bots in Perfect Dark were good enough to keep me playing long after I had beaten the stellar campaign. I can only hope they're included in the upcoming XBLA release of this classic title. The N64 controller, once revered as a breakthrough, is still great - but I'm looking forward to playing the XBLA Perfect Dark with Halo controls.
Now if only my wife would let me play for more than 10 minutes without asking me what I'm cooking for dinner . . .
By Victor Paul Alvarez

18 February 2010

Wii Bowling - Nintendo Wii

For most of my life Christmas Eve was the most important day of the year. My entire family would gather in my mother's basement for a feast inspired by our Italian heritage but flavored heavily with our Spanish and Polish roots. The table would buckle under the weight of paella, fried squid, perogis (a Polish dumpling), raviolis, fish empanada and more. When I was a kid and my parents were younger it was quite a party. Sangria would flow during the meal and anisette was sipped with coffee for dessert. The kids went to Midnight Mass and came home and opened one present. One year a couple dressed as Santa and Ms. Claus broke down in front of our house. They were hustled into the basement and fed immediately.
When I got older I was allowed to invite friends to come by after the meal. We stayed up all night and left late to play pool at the local hall that was open on Christmas Eve.
As the years rolled on it became clear that my mother could no longer handle the huge meal and all of the responsibility that came with it. On the last Christmas Eve in my parents' basement my brothers and I helped with the cooking. After that, my brother Danny started hosting it at his house.
It's still a fantastic evening.
But it's not the same.
A few years ago I brought my wife and our first child back home to Baltimore for Christmas. I don't know why I decided to bring along the Wii, but I did. After we left Danny's a few of my nieces and nephews came back to the house in which I grew up and we set up the Wii downstairs. We hastily threw together some sangria and started bowling. My mother, already in one of her flannel nightgowns and exhausted, came down to watch.
Then she blew my mind:
"Can I try it?"
Her first ball was a strike.
My mother held the Wiimote like her mother once held bingo markers – waiting for numbers to be called. Before each roll she'd nervously walk in place a little bit, her slippered feet poking out from under the long night gown.
Then she'd roll.
Three strikes and one humiliating game later, my 74-year-old mother had handily beaten the son who writes about video games and two of her college-aged grandchildren.
And once again, there was a party in the basement on Christmas Eve.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

17 February 2010

Horse Racing – Intellivision

Ladies and gentlemen, may I call your attention to the young man holding the mysterious rectangular device! Draw closer and notice that it is unlike anything you have seen before. Such exotic technology can only be called a wonder.
But wait, does the room begin to fall away? Do you begin to question your senses? My friends, you are no longer the drab urbanites that you imagined yourselves to be, clad in corduroy and stiff, plaid shirts from Sears. You, my friends, are the elite! Cash overflows from your pockets! Your top hats cast shadows on those rabble in the cheap seats. You, my friends, are high-stakes gamblers in the sport of kings, and tonight the rumble of hooves around the track promises glory to the luckiest few — or to those who have a discerning eye for a winning thoroughbred.
It was 1979, and I was 7 years old. With its 12 buttons on the front, two buttons on each side and a magical, silver wheel at the thumb, I held the most astonishing gaming controller ever made – the Intellivision controller. It put the Atari’s single joystick and red button to shame. And I, in my thick nerd glasses and aqua corduroys, was using this magical device to draw a crowd of actual grownups – probably half in the bag from several hours of partying – to play a game with me.
A game. With a child. In the midst of a grownup party. This had never happened before. And it was all through the magic of one of the least-sexy games ever created: Intellivision Horse Racing.
The game itself was simple even by Intellivision standards. Four horses started out of the gate. Two of them could be controlled by players, who raced them against each other and the computer-controlled steeds. The controls consisted of the dial to move up or down, one button for “coax” and another for “whip.” The horses would get tired quickly; you could usually get away with two coaxes and one whip. Any more shenanigans from the jockey would cause your horse to rupture something or other, leaving you to slog mournfully around the track while everyone else was watering their horses and tipping mint juleps.
As a mano-a-mano affair, Horse Racing was a miserable failure. But the real magic of the game came in the betting. You see, while only two players could actually control horses, up to six players could participate in the betting. Before each of the 10 consecutive races, the game was a round-robin affair where each person in the room weighed the odds, sized up the ponies based on past races and decided whether to choose an easy favorite to win or pick the exacta for big money. The green horse looks like the clear favorite, but his last win was a six-furlong race with a dry track. Can he go the distance for 12 furlongs in the mud? How sharp are these gamblers I’m betting against? Should I play it safe with the easy odds that pay low, or go for broke with the longshot? I don’t know, they've been drinking Stroh's all night – they don't seem to be very focused.
And of course, they weren't. At least not as much as I was. But this was the chemistry that brought a crowd of grownups into the living room to play a game with a 7-year-old. As the whiz kid running the show with this rare, new "family entertainment system," I felt like a million bucks. It’s a scene I wouldn’t witness again until the invention of Wii bowling. But corduroy doesn't come in that color anymore, and now I’m one of the grownups.
By Shane Hoffman

15 February 2010

Left 4 Dead - Xbox 360

Zombies, zombies, zombies. Everywhere you look these days you’re almost guaranteed to find something zombie related. People fear that one day there will be a zombie apocalypse where we’ll find ourselves standing together, whether in a mall or local gun shop, and fending for our lives in hopes of a rescue. For years, movies have dramatized our demise by zombies with fun, no brainer action flicks but it wasn’t until Left 4 Dead on Xbox 360 did I realize how much fun it would really be if it did happen.
Left 4 Dead is basically every climatic moment of all your favorite zombie movies rolled into one. You and three other teammates are stranded in four different scenarios and have to band together to make it to the “finale” and escape the zombie ridden escapade. Left 4 Dead is really the first game for me that really embodies survival; and when I say survive I mean teamwork. If you don’t work together as a team then you might as well forget about getting to the chopper. But with every game, there is a twist. You may struggle together, heal each other, even defend your friend from the zombie horde but then it happens: How will you act when you are running to the boat and your friend goes down? Will you attempt to rescue him and put yourself in jeopardy? (Think of everything you’ve been through together.) Or do you selfishly turn away and run saving your own life?
This is what makes Left 4 Dead so genius. For approximately an hour, you and your buddies have been blasting zombies into next week on your journey for survival in hopes of a rescue. The next thing you know you are holed up inside an old farmhouse, cornered in a bathroom, low on ammo and finally the rescue vehicle pulls up. Then it’s decided. Go! Everyone makes a break for it. Jumping out windows, down broken stairs, covering as much ground as possible. Who will survive?.
I have spent countless hours with my friends blasting zombies for pure fun while wondering along the way “will I make it?” It’s the concept that makes this game one of the best I have ever played. You really care about your teammates when you’re playing and if one goes down, you make sure to get them back up. Left 4 Dead may not look like that pretty shiny gem but it’s so much more than eye candy. You won’t find graphics like a Gears of War or Modern Warfare but it doesn’t have to be. The gameplay brings this platinum title to glory. But the best thing about this game is that fact that if you don’t survive; you had a heck of a ride getting there and you can’t wait to do it all over again. That is what makes this game great. The replay value is endless.
In my personal opinion, Left 4 Dead is the greatest survival/teamwork game ever made. Strong words but I’ll let the game do the talking for me. If you haven’t played Left 4 Dead then I highly recommend you get yourself a copy. Even if you don’t have any friends to play with you’ll have no problem hooking up with three strangers and trying your luck at survival. Kind of ironic, isn’t it? Four strangers banding together, fighting for survival. Wonder where they got that idea from? Join the fight against the zombie apocalypse. It’ll be the most fun you’ll ever have fighting for your life.
By Stephen O'Blenis

Mechassault – Xbox

`"It's like the best arcade game you've ever played."
Those words of praise came from the man who would one day marry my oldest niece. He's a photographer, a gamer, and a hell of good guy all around. He's the kind of guy whose recommendations you take to heart.
And his last name is Champion. So he's got that going for him. Which is nice.
Without his recommendation I may have never picked up Mechassault. I had been burned by bad mech games before. I've found them either too complicated or almost unplayable.
Mechassault is simple, to be sure, but it's one of those games that is nearly impossible to put down once you get into it. I found myself thinking about this game all the time, planning my strategy for my return to the planet where me and my colleagues crash landed and encountered the Word of Blake cult.
Mechassault boils down the awesome power of huge mechs to a twitchy shooter that is like Halo in its simplicity. Smooth controls make it so your mech always does what you want it to do. Changing weapons is easier than blinking your eyes. Defensive maneuvers – such as jumpjets and cloaking – are useful and intuitive. And finding your way around the world is easy.
All this would mean nothing if you didn't have a cool world to tool around in and some decent enemies.
No problems there.
Everything in this world is destructible. A lot of games make that claim, but Mech Assault does it so well that you'll find yourself hanging back in some stages just so you can level entire cities. The enemies – from lowly grunts and tanks to towering mechs – are just challenging enough to keep you coming back. (And when you manage to kill those mechs, the explosion and sound effects that accompany the accomplishment are fantastic.) Being an original Xbox game means the graphics are excellent - they still hold up well.
When the game came out I didn't have Xbox Live, so I missed out on the thrills of playing this game online. With those servers shutting down any day now, I know it was not meant to be.
Maybe I'll get lucky in the future, because there are two games from the original Xbox that absolutely demand sequels. Crimson Skies is one of them – this is the other.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

14 February 2010

Operation Wolf - Nintendo Entertainment System

It was the late Eighties. My matinee heroes were Sly Stallone, Arnold Schwarzeneggar, and Bruce Willis. And there in the arcade stood a cabinet with an Uzi sticking up in place of a joystick. Ah, the lovely sidescrolling action unfolded as a cast of thousands of swarthy, Hispanics from some unnamed Central American country (Val Verde, perhaps?) popped up ready for me to cut down in a hail of simulated gunfire. How could any red-blooded, jingoistic, American boy fail to love Operation Wolf?
Of course, the problem was that arcade games cost quarters. And being something of a cheap bastard, I never liked plugging quarters into those machines. Still, Operation Wolf called to me. My brother saved up his quarters to buy a Nintendo. I remember the box of grey and taupe plastic and the rectangle controllers. The system also came with a gun-shaped controller for Duck Hunt. Point and pull the trigger. Could it be any more simple? I played a few rounds of Duck Hunt in my day, but I was never a big gamer.
Then Operation Wolf came out for Nintendo, and I shelled out the $50 for it. I missed the simulated blowback Uzi, but I was happy. The amazing thing for me was how close to the cabinet game it looked. No longer did I have to plug quarters into the machine. I played for hours until one day, I beat the game. As I recall, the ending had my first-person shooter character rescue some hostages, shepherd them through another round, and then jump onto a transport plane out of that pixilated green hell-hole
I went to college about that time. One Friday night I went down to the rathskellar and saw another cabinet game standing there. It was Operation Thunderbolt: the sequel to Operation Wolf. This was a two player version and had two MAC-10 submachine guns sticking up from the cabinet. I sidled up next to the crewcut fellow freshman playing the game and plunked my quarters in to take control of Player 2. Together, he and I blasted away at the African hostage takers (really, could you make such a politically incorrect game these days?) until these newest hostages were saved. And between us, it didn’t take as many quarters as I feared. All that home practice paid off. My wingman was an ROTC cadet. He and I became fast friends and shared a dorm room the next year as well as assorted other adventures.
After graduation, he got commissioned as an Army infantry officer and – soberly -- shot things for real. Sadly, I haven’t talked to him in far too long. He’s been a little busy these past nine years. I google his name sometimes; you’d be surprised what you can find online. He was part of the Army 1st Infantry Division task force that supported the Marines during the Battle of Fallujah in Iraq. He was widely quoted out of context in the media on the use of white phosphorus incendiary rounds during that battle. But knowing him, he’s probably prouder of his efforts to organize his area of operations for the first free election in Iraq in decades. That was also reported – but not as widely.
By John Fitzpatrick

13 February 2010

Virtua Fighter – SEGA 32X

I've always been a sucker for underdog products.
When everyone else was playing with Star Wars figures, I was still playing Army men.
When my best friends were collecting all those cool He-Man action figures, I was kicking it with Crystar: The Crystal Warrior (Never heard of him? You're not alone.)
And when the gaming world scoffed at the SEGA 32X and looked ahead to the superiority of other machines, I marched right out and bought one.
I've never regretted it.
At the time I was a cub reporter with the Providence Journal – living in a large house with grad students and restaurant workers. We stayed up late, had lots of parties and pretended we were still undergraduates. When I first brought home the 32X it was a revelation. We didn't know it was a poorly marketed albatross for the venerable SEGA Genesis. We just knew it came with a lot of extra wires, looked pretty high tech and allowed us to play the best fighting game ever made for people who don't know how to play fighting games: Virtua Fighter.
We spent many evenings passing around the controller in makeshift tournaments. We marveled when Pai's little hat would get knocked off by a kick to the face. We cheered when one of us would pull off a flawless victory - a "perfect" – against an opponent.
We drank beer and mashed buttons.
It was not an elegant way to spend our evenings, but it was not an elegant game. Even someone who had never played before could hack their way to victory if their timing was right.
Or if they chose to play as Pai. Easily the best fighter of the bunch, her victories mounted like so many quarters at the bottom of an arcade cabinet. Until one day, a roommate with too much time on his hands was able to utter these now-famous words:
"I beat Pai with Mau today."
And what a day it was.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

12 February 2010

The Club - Xbox 360, PS3

Is it my dedication to heralding forgotten titles that drives me or is it the fact that I am woefully behind in my gaming because I can only play for so long before my wife and child reclaim me for their own selfish agenda (such as parenting, being a good husband and cooking things on the grill for them)? Who knows?
What matters is The Club, despite being quickly forgotten last year, is a fun game from SEGA that I don't want you to miss.
What if a developer known for racing games made a shooter? The answer is The Club. Bizarre Creations, the Project Gotham folks, apply the seat-of-the-pants racing sensibilities to this shooter and the result is a game unlike any other I've played. It rewards quick reflexes and gives new meaning to the term "twitchy" gameplay. There is no time to stop and think, no time to hide and snipe, and no time for love, Dr. Jones.
You gotta run and gun in this game, and even that time-honored expression doesn't fully embody the gameplay of The Club. (A side note: Anyone who has played the Project Gotham games is familiar with attention to detail and the clean graphical style for which Bizarre Creations is known. This is also evident in The Club. The opening cut-scenes – in which the characters are introduced – are excellent. The crisp graphics and lighting effects are also a joy to behold. What's best is that the graphics – while excellent – don't get in the way. Since this is not a game in which you are rewarded for stopping to smell the roses, that's a good thing.)
Once you choose a character – I recommend one that's fast – you are put through a series of shooting galleries in elaborate settings with a varying set of rules. There is some variety here, but every game involves you quickly killing as many enemies as possible in a timely manner. You are rewarded for creative kills and encouraged to kill quickly and repeatedly by a combo meter that keeps filling up as long as you're dishing out the death. If you let too much time pass without a kill – or by shooting one of the many "skull shots" littered around the game arena – your combo meter will drop. It drops fast and it's one of the features that keeps the adrenaline pumping while you play. (It's like trying to keep your line tight while you head to the next checkpoint in a racing game.)
There's a skeleton of a story here but that's not why you're playing The Club. You're playing it because it's a fine test of speed and accuracy that rewards folks who like to retry a mission until they nail it. For the rest of us – casual killers, if you will – The Club is a fun pick-up-and-play game that offers a nice diversion from the typical shooter.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

11 February 2010

Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball – Super Nintendo

In the mid 1990s there were few athletes, if any, more famous and seemingly superhuman than Ken Griffey Jr. Long before Mark McGwire ate steroids by the handful (not that it helped him hit homers) and Barry Bonds’ head grew to hippopotamus-like proportions, Griffey Jr. was the great American hope to smash Roger Maris’ famed home run record.
He was also the only real person in Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball. Though the title had a MLB license, it didn’t have licensing from the players’ union, which meant real stadiums and teams with imaginary players. One of the best parts of the game was how these “fake” players would be given nicknames so anyone with half a brain could figure out who they were really supposed to be.
Long before anyone used a joystick to determine the downward action of a 12-6 curveball, baseball video games were simple and repetitive affairs. In Griffey’s baseball game, pitches were either fast or slow, strikes or balls. Hitting was also simple. You pressed a button and you swung the bat.
If a batter struck out, they would either sigh and put their head down, yell at the umpire or my personal favorite, snap a bat over their knee. All-in-all, the game was simple and charming.
Including me, there were four boys who grew up in my neighborhood within two years of each other. Every one of us owned this game.
The home run derby was fun and the season modes let you go from something like 20 games all the way to a full season of 162 games. No matter how many games you played or how many times the same music looped over and over again it never got old.
Oh, and you could hit 575– home runs. Maybe the imaginary players in this game were on imaginary steroids too.
By George Morse

10 February 2010

Final Fantasy Tactics - Playstation

Mediocre graphics, stupid music and super repetitive gameplay.
At a glance, that’s a brief summary of the 1997 Square Enix release Final Fantasy Tactics (FFT). A spin-off of the Final Fantasy franchise (one of the most successful franchise in video game history) for the original Playstation, this game was released in-between the main title’s seventh and eighth installments.
Despite some of its obvious shortcomings, however, FFT is easily one of my favorite games of all time. Why? Because no title released on any console ever has done such a remarkable job of fusing the RPG and RTS genres. While you can level up your character and open up different abilities and spells based on experience, the in-battle fighting system only allows so much energy per character for each turn, creating a strategic element not seen in many RPGs.
The game also allows you to wander back and forth between areas picking fights with random villains for an infinite period of time without having to advance the story. What this means is you can get your team to a God-like level of power before even embarking on the second mission, making the main story line a cake walk covered in carnage and the bones of your enemies.
Yeah, that’s what I liked about it. Forget the main story. It’s something to do with medieval knights or something. I don’t even remember it. But I don’t care about it now and I didn’t care about it then. All I cared about was running over gangs of thugs with my wizard and a monk who could shoot shockwaves from his fists. When I was a younger fella, I lived in a house down in Providence with a few friends. By the time we moved out, I had played the game so much and annoyed my roommates so extensively that one of them hid the game from me.
To this day, none of them have admitted to doing it, but I know at least one of them reads this blog and buddy, I know the truth.
FFT is awesome and while many franchises release spin-off titles that flop miserably, this release is a valuable addition to the Final Fantasy universe. You can play it for months or even years and never get bored, at least I didn’t.
By George Morse

09 February 2010

Pac-Man - Atari 400

When I was a kid all I wanted more than anything was an Atari 2600, just like the one my best friend had hooked up to the one television they had in their house. Unfortunately for me, Rachel lived further away than I was allowed to ride on my pink Huffy, so it was only about every other weekend when we'd hunker down in front of the state-of-the-art 20-inch screen playing Combat until her parents came down the split-level stairs to catch Barbara Walters and Hugh Downs on 20/20. Alas, my dreams were thwarted when one Christmas my dad presented my sister and me with our big shared gift that year: An Atari 400 computer. A COMPUTER. Because he wanted us to learn something about this upcoming home computing revolution he'd read about in Popular Science. The computer came with some kind of drawing program that my dad referred to as a "game," and I dutifully occupied my Christmas drawing multi-colored circles. As much as I tried to hate that computer, I will confess that I did learn a thing or two about programming, mainly because I enjoyed making the computer respond with obscenities whenever I typed the right BASIC command.
I had the sense to save my Christmas money that year and head on down to the videogame kiosk in the local Sears, where I was delighted to find that I could, in fact, buy games for my nerd machine. The first game I plunked down about $50 for (keeping in mind this was some time around 1983 - in today's dollars, that's what, like $750?) was Pac-Man. The ride home in the front seat (this was also before seat belts and kids riding in the back until they're eligible for the draft) of dad's blue AMC Hornet was torture. I think I even asked to jump out of the car at the traffic light 6 blocks from home because I knew I could run home between the neighbor's yards faster than dad could get there on solid pavement. My plea fell on deaf ears and I had to wait out those last few blocks before I hopped out of the car in the gravel driveway, cleared the chain-link fence, and sprinted up the stairs to the attic playroom.
The best part about the fact that the Atari was a "shared' gift was that though my sister was only about a year older than me, her interests skewed toward boys and makeup, whereas my interests were of the ilk to position me for the It's Academic team I would compete on 5 years down the road. That is to say, the Atari was mine alone. This became especially important after I slammed the cartridge into the slot and discovered that this version was BETTER than the system at Rachel's! This Pac-Man wasn't a washed-out blob on a pastel background! The colors were vibrant. The dots were nearly round (round dots - a revolution in home computing, indeed!). There was music, just like the Pac-Man at the arcade up the street that I wasn't allowed to visit because that's where the less-respectable girls in the neighborhood went to smoke with the 20-year-old counter jockeys.
I can't say I know how long I played that day, but I do know it was dark when mom called me down for dinner and I couldn't move my thumbs for most of that night thanks to the joystick cramp I'd grown to ignore. And I doubt I ever got off the first screen. But I was hooked. I played probably the entirety of the next day, and every day thereafter before AND after school, stopping only to eat and throw something together each night and call it homework. It was around this time that Rachel started figuring out that boys existed and that the way to hang out with them wasn't to sit in an attic staring at a 15-inch tv screen with poor horizontal hold. But I continued saving every dollar I could get my hands on and soon had a fairly decent collection of now-classic games: Asteroids, Galaxian, even Centipede (with the roller-ball joystick that I think my dad finally chipped in for one day at Sears after he saw how crestfallen I was upon learning that you had to buy it separately). I never was really especially good at any of them (a pinball wizard, I wasn't), but I could beat my own high scores fairly reliably and that was enough to keep me coming back for a time. Some time over the next few years, I must have figured out that boys weren't entirely gross and I started kinda wanting to hang out with them too, which meant less time spent in the dusty attic playing Breakout. Which was probably not an entirely bad thing. It also meant that the precious twenties from Grandma's birthday cards were destined more and more for the Fashion Bug rip-off up the street. The 400 was at some point upgraded to an 800, and finally replaced by a ColecoVision (a real videogame console, finally!). There was an all-too-brief period in which a boy who actually enjoyed spending time with me also enjoyed playing Jeopardy! on the Coleco (which held what we believed to be the best Easter egg of all time, wherein "Schwarzenegger" was an acceptable answer to all Final Jeopardy questions, as long as you spelled it correctly). Thereafter, the sum total of my gaming experience over the next 20 years consisted almost entirely of watching a succession of significant others unlock all the cheats for the NHL series on PlayStation.
This year, the big family present I picked up was a Wii system, with a 4 and 5 year-old in mind. I was almost nervous about Christmas morning, when the kids awoke to find a Wii controller in each stocking, remembering back to my own thinly-veiled disappointment on that Christmas nearly 30 years prior. I thought for certain that my daughter would cry out that all she wanted was a Snuggie blanket. (A big thank you to the incessant marketing machine that is the Sprout channel; thanks to them she also desperately needs Wonder Hangers.) But after spending a little time designing our personalized Miis, we all discovered that the preschool set likes to box. And play tennis. And do yoga (the Wii Fit was SUPPOSED to be for me, but I find myself waiting in line for it at the end of the day). It's fun, and probably somewhat good for all of us too. And maybe someday, my daughter will wait on the porch to meet the UPS truck carrying her hot-off-the-presses copy of Wii jai-alai that was advance ordered on Amazon. But for me, that first "running through the neighbor's yard to get home that much faster and start playing" honor will always belong to a little yellow semi-circle and a few computer-generated ghosts.
By Jo-Ann Kriebel

08 February 2010

XIII - Xbox, PS2, Gamecube

I was living in Philadelphia, running the bar at a Greek restaurant in a ritzy neighborhood called Manayunk. Actually, just the main street in Manayunk was ritzy - Manhattan salons, upscale restaurants, expensive boutiques. A few blocks up the road where I lived with my wife (then girlfriend) was a working class neighborhood with narrow streets and a lot of churches. (The part in the movie Unbreakable where the kid is playing football in the park was filmed there.)
I'd come home at 3 a.m. after closing the bar and get in some gaming before passing out. One of the games I remember fondly from this period was XIII. If Manayunk was a working class neighborhood fronting a fancy facade, XIII was a B-list shooter fronting a spectacular veneer.
Sometimes style is enough to trump substance.
It's rare, but it happens.
In XIII, a daring title from the previous console generation, the attention to style overwhelmed everything else. For me it was an obvious buy: I love first person shooters and I'm a big fan of cell-shaded graphics. XIII had both, and it played out like a 1960s espionage film.
You wake up on a desolate strip of New England beach. The near-fatal impact of a bullet has left your head pounding, and your memory erased. And you've got the number XIII tattooed on your chest. A pretty lifeguard in a red swimsuit helps you along. In your pocket is a key to a New York City bank box. You struggle to your feet and get assaulted again. You're shocked with how easily you're able to dispatch the bad guys.
It's not the most original beginning to a thriller (game, film or novel) but it's intriguing and it gets better.
And the game features Adam West in what was probably his last serious role before playing the mayor on Family Guy. (Come to think of it, it may be his only serious role. Ever.)
XIII took a lot of criticism for having more style than substance. I can't argue that. But I can say that at 3 a.m. when I would come home from work it was nice to have a game with a great story, good looks and gameplay that I could easily master before my eyes fell shut under the weight of the day.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

07 February 2010

Spider-Man - Nintendo 64

In the year 2000 I turned 28, took on a second newspaper as editor and rented a one-room apartment across from the newsroom. With the extra responsibility at the paper came a few extra dollars in my paycheck. I treated myself to a new TV and a copy of Spider-Man for the N64.
I never once regretted choosing the N64 over the Playstation. For all the raving about Sony's first console (and, I admit, it was a revolutionary console) I will still take the N64's best titles over the PS1's any day.
Spider-Man, which came out on both platforms, is no exception.
You should know, however, that I'm a Spidey geek. I've got a sleeve tattoo of Spidey and my favorite villains as well as a life-sized statue of him in my den.
One of the greatest moments of my journalism career came when I got to interview Stan Lee. I was writing a profile of a local comic books store - trying to get at what kept them afloat in the age of eBay and kids' waning interest in reading comics. I got it in my head that I had to interview Stan Lee for what was, at best, a local human interest story. After much wrangling with his PR flack I finally got the interview.
"Please hold for Mr. Lee," his secretary said.
Ten seconds passed like ten days.
And then:
"Is this the valorous Victor?"
Then I gushed over the phone for about 5 minutes and did the least objective interview of my life.
"You have been to the mountain," said fellow reporter, the late, great Arthur Turgeon.
He was right.
So imagine my delight when I began playing Spider-Man and was greeted by Stan Lee's narration in the game's opening. I knew right away that this was going to be a quality title that would do the hero justice. It certainly did. (I still love the Spider-Man game form the Atari 2600 just as much. You can bet that one will make this list as well.)
Some things define us. For me one of those things has always been Spider-Man. I've loved him since I was a little kid. My brother once took me to a face-painting booth at a carnival and I made the lady paint my face like Spidey's mask. My 2-year-old daughter knows more about Spidey than she does about Elmo. And on the first date I ever had with the wonderful woman who is now my wife, I laid out the (abbreviated) mythology of a character who has resonated with me for as long as I can remember. I knew I loved her the minute I set eyes on her so I wanted to lay it all out there right at the beginning.
I guess it worked.
This game honors each and every memory I have of the web-slinger.
Rare is the game that can top that.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

06 February 2010

Grand Prix - Atari 2600

One warm summer morning in 1982 found me in the basement, joystick in hand. I was already deep into my Atari addiction when Activision released Grand Prix. A 10-year-old kid living in a Baltimore suburb, I had played Asteroids and Adventure to death. Those games were great, but they lacked the polish and vivid colors of Activision titles. Grand Prix was no exception, and I knew this was true that morning as my mother watched me play. I was going for a record.
Not to brag about it on the internet or to unlock a new track; but to beat a track in a certain amount of time so I could send in a photo of my TV screen for a special Activision iron-on patch. (Note to Activision: Bring back the patches.)
As mom watched me fail over and over again I noticed she didn't seem as bored as she usually did when watching me play a video game.
"They should make you play this game before you get a driver's license," she said.
Today the game looks like it was created by a kindergarten class, but in 1982 the vibrant graphics and realistic sound effects were total racing immersion. The simple gameplay - race to the finish line, avoiding obstacles and other cars, as fast as possible - forced you to memorize patterns and pull off maneuvers with zero room for error.
That summer was two years before everything would change for my family. It was two years before my father got laid off from the tugboats and my mother rejoined the workforce after decades of being a stellar housewife. The days of her watching me play some stupid game in the basement would soon be over. I wasn't growing up hard, to be sure, but I grew up a little faster.
But on that summer morning with my mother watching I beat that track and she took the picture.
Of course, we left the lights on and the picture never came out. All you could see was me sitting next to a white screen. I've always wondered how many more kids would have patches now if they were better photographers. (And what did the folks at Activision do with all those pictures anyway?)
Grand Prix is a great game on its own merits, but it also a catalyst for fond memories of my youth.
You can't ask for much more than that.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

05 February 2010

Super Mario Kart - Super Nintendo

Around the same time that my brother left for college, my mom got rid of our cable. My brother, always an avid gamer, took most of his newer gaming systems with him to the University of Delaware. I was going into my junior year of high school. Though once I beat Mindsweeper in eight seconds and went through the typical obsession with Snood in middle school - computer and video games weren't really my thing. But now my brother was gone, it was only my mother and me in the house and we had no TV! How was I going to procrastinate on doing my US History homework with so few distractions? Then I found my brother's Super Nintendo had been left behind in the basement, and with it - Super Mario Kart.
I always loved Super Mario Kart and it had always belonged to my brother, meaning I only ever played with him where his superior gaming skills left me out of most of the harder rounds or in Eighth place (the lowest of the game) where he would spin laps around me. And now here it was - forgotten - it was mine!
Obsession ensued. I usually chose to drive with Toad - the mushroom player with a red and white cap. I could have picked Toad because he was light, because he took turns easily and had decent acceleration. But no, really I think I picked him because he was small and so was I. Why didn't I choose Princess Toadstool - the only female character? Because, come on - that's just too obvious. My brother, in fact, often played with Princess because she did have the best acceleration in the game. I remember Donkey Kong being very heavy and I wasn't used to a lot of extra weight. Mario was boring - what's the fun of Mario coming in first place - his name is on the box. Luigi was just kind of there, a sub par Mario. Yoshi was my second choice, or was it Koopa Troopa? I don't remember but in racing games it's usually best to choose a supporting character.
I am now 25 and have not played SMK in many years but recently my brother came to visit me in Brooklyn and reminded me of my brief obsession with the game in the Fall of 2002. He told a story I'd never heard about how one of his most crestfallen moments was when he returned home for Thanksgiving break and his little sister could beat him at Super Mario Kart. That's when I remembered - I had been good. Really, really good. I could swerve quickly around Rainbow Road without falling off the sides, I knew you needed to break when going around a turn, and I could skid over mud or ice without drowning. I have no idea if my skills still remain but a friend just got the new MarioKart for Wii. Time for round two?
By Fia Alvarez

04 February 2010

Shadow Complex - XBLA

Downloadable content is a hallmark of this console generation. Some critics say the proliferation of game add-ons and arcade titles is picking the pockets of gamers. I'm not one of those critics. No one is holding a gun to your head demanding you buy that Gears of War armor for your avatar.
The truth is this console generation has featured the best gaming bargains of all time. What began with The Orange Box continued in The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena. Shadow Complex is a downloadable game that offers more thrills than many recent full releases. Anyone who has ever spent $60 for 7 hours of gaming (I'm looking at you Wolverine) will happily drop $15 on this excellent title.
The game clocks in at about 7 hours, depending on how thorough you are. After that you will likely start over from the beginning to see how quickly you can beat the game. There's also a Proving Ground option that offers timed challenges. That's a lot of gaming for a little price.
The side-scrolling shooter (think Metroid) honors the old-school style of gameplay while offering a truly next-gen presentation. The graphics are first class. The level design is excellent. The gameplay - save for some slight targeting issues – is rock solid. It's no surprise that Epic Games has released yet another excellent title for the Xbox 360 - they're made for each other. What is surprising is how much quality is packed into this little download. You start with only a flashlight and a pistol, but you'll be a cyborg killing machine by the end of the game. The weapons are ingenious and fun, but they don't overshadow the exploration angle. Your flashlight will reveal tons of secret passageways, weapons and gadgets.
You'll have a hard time putting this title down. I've got a stack of games I'm trying to get through right now but I put them all aside when I downloaded "Shadow Complex." There's something to be said for a rock solid game that offers players a decent story and an end in sight. I am reminded of the old days when you would be rewarded for finishing a game with the simple satisfaction of knowing you did it. "Shadow Complex" is such a game. It will not bore you. It will challenge you. And, once you beat it, you'll probably come back again.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

03 February 2010

Frontlines: Fuel of War - Xbox 360

Somewhere in the timeline between DOOM and Halo first person shooters got a reputation as being senseless endeavors with little substance. It’s true that cookie-cutter titles exist in the market, but that’s true of any genre. Especially in this glorious console generation — where A-list titles pop up year-round for all systems — there has been a backlash against what some people perceive as stupid shooters.
Into the flooded market appeared Frontlines: Fuel of War. It had neither the hype of Halo 3 or the depth of Bioshock.
But guess what?
It’s fun.
I mean really fun. I mean “keep it in the console until you’ve beaten it and then take it online immediately” kind of fun. Does it have to be anything else? Does it have to aspire to touch the heart and bridge the gap between film and first person shooter? Does it have to make a difference in my life on a personal, private level?
No. It has to be fun. And it is.
This is not to say that Kaos Studios didn’t round out the game with a decent, timely story about our energy crisis and one possible future. They did. They even included a journalist embedded with the soldiers that I obviously found endearing. But while the story in Frontlines is a fine skeleton, the meat on the bones is the fun factor.
You’ll feel it the minute you fire your first weapon. I don’t think I’ve seen tighter gunplay in a shooter. It’s not just that targeting and hits are done flawlessly; it’s that the guns feel amazing. They’re tight, responsive and satisfying. And they sound fantastic. I bought this game when my wife and I had our first kid. With a newborn at home I played all my games with a set of Sennheiser RS130 Wireless RF Headphones. These are serious headphones, and they came in handy with Frontlines because the sound is so good. (It’s probably better that I didn’t play the game with my surround sound system because the two women who walk their dogs by my house 38 times a day would likely think there was a firefight going on in my living room.)
FPS fans will be able to pick up and play this title easily. When you do you’ll quickly find that the war zone is littered with not only weapons and warriors, but tons of hardware. You’ll pilot a variety of vehicles in this game — which all handle satisfactorily — but the real fun starts when you stumble across the game’s many drones. These are remote-controlled, scale-model helicopters, tanks and other weapons of war that you can safely send into battle while you hide in the distance. I especially liked the helicopters, which pack an amazingly destructive arsenal of weaponry on their tiny frames.
In closing, allow me to explain it like this: When I got my copy of Frontlines I took it to a friend’s house where a poker game was to commence. I figured we’d check it out after we played cards. He was anxious to try the game so I fired it up and handed him the controller.
“This is awesome,” he said after a few minutes.
He was right. (And we never managed to put it down long enough to play cards.)
Frontlines: Fuel of War was not the defining moment that heralded the future of shooters. But it’s fun; a lot of fun.
And that’s awesome.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

02 February 2010

Personal Trainer: Cooking - Nintendo DS

I’ve worked in my share of decent restaurant kitchens and I’m here to tell you: This “game’s” demonstration for filleting anchovies (among other fine tutorials) is as good as I’ve seen anywhere.
Personal Trainer: Cooking not only makes planning and creating meals easy and fun, it makes you want to cook. That’s an impressive accomplishment for this unassuming little non-game. That’s right. This is not a game. Not even close. As Nintendo continues to redefine what a gaming console (or handheld, in this case) can do, they struck gold with Personal Trainer: Cooking.
Evidence of this is not only in the fact that the software is successful in helping people of all skills turn out fine meals, but that it has the one quality all good cookbooks have: You can’t put it down. Like a good cookbook that is fun to read even when you’re not cooking, Personal Trainer: Cooking is fun to explore any time. I found myself searching the globe with its cool country-by-country recipe finder looking for exotic dishes. Or I’d set a calorie limit (or just punch in the staples I had in the pantry) and see what I could come up with. If that’s not enough, the training videos included are excellent.
One small but important feature: Voice activation. Once you get cooking you don’t have to touch the DS again. You can tell the DS to repeat a prior step or continue on and it will recognize your voice. This beats thumbing through a cookbook with panko bread crumbs pasted onto your hands or fumbling with your remote control to pause that episode of Molto Mario you recorded.
The title boasts well over 200 recipes from around the globe. A calendar feature keeps track of the recipes you’ve cooked. The ingredient manager makes this an easy way to go shopping. There’s even a handy onboard calculator to keep your spending in check at the market.
I’m not about to give up on my obsession with collecting and reading cookbooks, but I will say this is easily the best $20 you’ll spend on any cooking gadget or book in your life.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

01 February 2010

Ninja Blade - Xbox 360

My room is dark and my headphones are snug. Ninja Blade opens before me and I am ready to give this title my undivided attention. A dramatic opening on the drop ship leads to a surprisingly fast quick time sequence (hitting the right button when prompted to let the cinematic action unfold) and then I crash through a skyscraper window and prepare to dispatch some hideous bad guys.
Not bad.
Much sooner than I expect a mini-boss climbs up the side of the building and onto the killing floor. More hack and slash, more button sequences, more bad guys.
I’m into this game only five minutes and I’m already doing a lot more than the typical tutorial and backstory that slows too many games down from the start.
And that’s how it goes with Ninja Blade, a fast and fun game by From Software that successfully brings a variety of gameplay elements to the XBOX 360 with polish and excitement. Having a darkened room and good headphones help — as they would with any game. Immersion is a guarantee with this set up. And the game deserves it. The graphics are crisp and the sound rocks.
It’s easy to compare the gameplay to other titles, so that’s what I’ll do. First you’re given a little God of War with the button timing. Then it’s more Kratos — or Conan, I’ve always thought the Conan slasher was underrated — with the swordplay. A bit of Prince of Persia comes in with some wall runs and jumps and then the sequence repeats. Haters will point to these other games as superior examples for their respective gameplay elements.
But haters always hate. Why there are so many haters in the gaming community is a topic for another column, but I’m not one of them. I’ll take a game on its own terms and its ability to bring a good time to my console.
By Victor Paul Alvarez