31 March 2010

Star Raiders - Atari 800 Computer

My Dad's best friend was named "Bad" Francis.
Even when I was a kid, I knew what this meant. I knew he wasn't a bad man. I knew it meant he liked a good time.
So does my old man, but nobody ever called him "Bad" Manuel. Like many close friends these guys were a lot alike, but a bit of an Odd Couple as well. My Dad tends to play it safe, even when he was young. As a child I could tell that Mr. Francis was the kind of guy who took chances – risks – that my dad probably didn't take. If the Rolling Stones needed a ride across town to a gig, I'm betting my dad would have driven and Mr. Francis would have been in the back seat, partying with The Stones.
You know?
I idolized Mr. Francis when I was a kid. He was the captain of the tugboat on which my dad was the chief engineer. He lived down the street in a nice house with a pool and two pretty daughters who were around my age. His wife was beautiful and they were always nice to me. He was also a gadget guy. He had the first VCR – I remember him taping the news coverage of the Reagan shooting – and he had the first computers. He would give me his Byte magazines when he was done with them.
It was at his computer desk – tucked into a corner of a room filled with nautical stuff – where I first played Star Raiders.
This game owned me in the summer of my tenth year. I've put off writing about it because I hold the game in such high regard that I'm afraid I won't do it justice.
Played in a first person perspective, Star Raiders was admired for its graphics and relatively deep gameplay. You played a space pilot in hot pursuit of enemy Zylons. They looked a lot like Tie Fighters, and that's just fine. On the Atari 800 computer version of the game you used the keypad to enter coordinates from the map screen. Then you'd warp to the combat area and start blasting.
But when I finally convinced my folks to buy me the Atari 2600 version, I was delighted to see that it came with a special key pad peripheral for the intergalactic map stages. With the lights off and a little imagination, I was that pilot entering coordinates and flying around outer space shooting Zylons.
That's what this blog is all about. Star Raiders, even with its primitive technology, put you in the game.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

30 March 2010

Gorf - Colecovision

Nostalgia can play tricks on you. Some movies aren't as good as you remember. Some of your high school buddies, the ones you thought were hilarious back in the day, are actually jerks.
And vintage video games rarely stand the test of time. Some of the games mentioned on this blog are the exceptions to the rule, but for the most part only the die-hard golden age nerds are playing Stellar Track on an Atari 2600 right now.
Gorf – the Black Sabbath of classic video games - kicks that convention in the teeth.
I come to this after today's purchase of a working Colecovision (for only $40!) completed my collection. There are some obscure systems and handhelds I'd like to add, but I'm going to lay low for awhile. While I revel in the collection I have assembled, I'll be playing Gorf.
I have absolutely no memories of playing this game as a child. I don't know how I missed it – perhaps the heavy metal sound of the arcade machine saying "My name is Gorf!" turned me off. Or maybe it was the name. Gorf? Really?
How sad for me.
I just played it for the first time and (at $7) it's some of the best video game cash I have ever spent. Gorf is four games in one, and they're all basically clones of other space games. The first stage is a Space Invaders clone that is cooler than space Invaders. The second stage is a Galaga clone that is not nearly as good as Galaga but still plenty of fun. The third stage sucks (think a weak Tempest) and the last stage, in which you attack the mother ship, is short and deceptively simple. Hit the reactor or else.
I spent the past two years casually looking for a Colecovision in good working order. They are notorious for breaking easily and most of the ones I found were very pricey. Today's purchase – from the good people at Time Capsule Comics – is the perfect classic purchase. So many times I've secured a classic console and games only to be happy to have them but sorry that they suck (Atari 7800).
Not this time.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

Metal Arms: A Glitch in the System – Multiplatform

We're getting more rain today than anyone can ever remember. Playgrounds are flooded up to the tops of swings. Our staff photographer almost stripped down to his underwear since he was soaked through from a morning of covering the storm. The sound of rain hitting a tin roof next door is my soundtrack.
What a great day to be playing a game.
I'm not playing a game right now, of course, I'm writing and editing news stories and trying to come up with a few editorials. But the rain is distracting me. I want to be home playing games.
More specifically, I want to be on a comfortable couch – or splayed flat on my stomach on a shag carpet in front of the TV – in shorts and a T-Shirt with adequate snacks and beverages at my disposal for some binge gaming. I'm talking about an all-day, all-night marathon with a one-player game that rewards exploration, ingenuity and a twitchy trigger at the same time.
In this case, I'm talking about an often overlooked gem called Metal Arms: A Glitch in the System.
I played the hell out of this game on my original Xbox back when I lived in Philadelphia. At the time I was suffering from Playstation envy. It was not easy to be an Xbox guy back in the day. After Halo and a few other exclusives we were usually treated to late ports of games my PS2 friends had been playing for months. The fact that these Xbox ports were usually superior to their PS2 counterparts (Hello GTA) was of little comfort while I played through "Assault on the Control Room" for the umpteenth time.
Metal Arms may have been multi-platform, but it felt like an Xbox exclusive to me. (Maybe that's because no one else I knew was playing it.) It was a blast to play. The shooting was excellent, the story was fun, the writing was funny and the blend of action and platforming was perfect. To be sure, the game was all about cool weapons – such as one that let you shoot saw blades at your enemies, literally picking them apart limb by limb. It also featured vehicles and multiplayer.
You could make the argument that any good game is even better on a rainy day. I think Metal Arms stands out because it's such a fun world to get lost in and that, unlike RPGs or sims, you don't have to think too hard to enjoy it.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

29 March 2010

Peggle - Xbox Live Arcade/PSN

The kids next door had a Pachinko machine. Or at least they did until we stuffed it full of broken candy canes and their parents chucked it. (Why broken candy canes? Why not? Kids are stupid.)
I haven't seen one in years but I was always enamored with them. Maybe that's why I dig Peggle so much. It's a little more chaotic than pinball and a little more controlled at the same time. It also could be the first game I ever convince my wife to play for more than 6 minutes.
My hope is that the illusion of simplicity and the goofy characters will draw her in at first. Then I'm counting on the game's crack cocaine-like addictiveness to keep her on the couch. Still, this won't be easy. My wife isn't a gamer. She makes Tipper Gore look like an Arcade rat. She doesn't like the violence or the inactivity that is championed by many aspects of my hobby.
And her sense of its cultural relevance is not sharp. Last weekend when I arrived at the PAX East gaming convention in Boston I called her to let her know how it was going.
Me: "There's a guy standing next to me dressed like Mario."
Her: "Mario Batali?"
Me: "No, Mario. Luigi's brother. Savior of princesses. King of the platformer."
Her: " Is he cooking anything?
(It occurs to me now that someone dressed as Mario Batali at a gaming conference would be putting the I back in irony. I bet it happens at E3.)
One Tuesday night soon I'm going to hatch my plan to get my wife to play a video game with me.
Why Tuesday?
Because Tuesday is "Lost." It's the only piece of sci/fi media she's ever truly enjoyed. Since she'll be in the mood to get her geek on, I figure that's when I'll strike. Maybe a quick game before "Lost" starts. Maybe she'll get hooked? Maybe we'll skip "Lost" to keep playing Peggle?
Probably not. But you can be damn sure that I'm going to spend the next few months trying to get one of my gaming colleagues to dress as Mario Batali at E3 this year.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

27 March 2010

Star Fox 64 - Nintendo 64

I used to call it Parent Appreciation Day. Since they weren't charging me rent at the time I figured I'd make it up to the finest human beings in the world by cooking them lavish meals from time to time.
But wait, I'm getting ahead of myself.
Today was my second day at the PAX East gaming convention in Boston. Yesterday I went from booth to booth checking out new games. I was dazzled. But today I began at the top floor in the last room on the left. It was the classic console room, and they had nearly every vintage console you can imagine ready to be played for free.
I wanted to play Panzer Dragoon on the Saturn but someone was already on it. I looked at the list of available games, flipping the pages like some karaoke hopeful looking for just the right title to knock out of the park.
Star Fox 64 spoke my name.
This game debuted with the first rumble pack back when people were jumping ship from Nintendo to Sony. It also happened to be when I left journalism to tend bar and live at home with my parents at age 28. I was burned out with newspaper editing, homesick and in debt. The Gen-X cliche was actually happening in real life. I didn't have to do it, I could have stuck it out at the solid job I had and find ways to renew my interest. But it would have happened eventually. I was tired and the work was suffering. Going home to regroup and get to know my folks again was the right thing to do. And, not surprisingly, bartending is a lot more lucrative than journalism. So I had that going for me.
On my days off I'd take walks with the Old Man at Fort McHenry and play my N64 while anxiously awaiting the debut of the Xbox. Star Fox and Perfect Dark were my favorite games. Star Fox was, and is, one of the best of its kind. From its mind-blowing debut on the SNES to the superb N64 version, the game was Nintendo quality all the way. Playing it today reminded me that I need to find a copy and play it through again when I get home.
It also reminded me of the dinners I would make for my folks on Parent Appreciation Day. it was usually tapas: Clams in garlic sauce, grilled shrimp, tenderloin seared with a wild mushroom sauce. My folks can cook but they love to be cooked for as well. They're also among my favorite dining partners.
Now that my wife and I live away from our hometown and my folks are hundreds of miles away, I think often of those nice dinners we used to have. They'll be visiting us this summer.
You can be sure there will be shellfish and tenderloin on the menu.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

26 March 2010

Mafia II - Xbox 360

I hadn't been on a train since I took one home to Baltimore to see my grandmother before she died. I was living in Rhode Island, working my first real newspaper job at the age of 22. I called her one morning to chat and she didn't sound right. She was laying on the couch in her "parlor," as she might call it. It was just a tiny living room in her East Baltimore rowhome where she taught me how to play poker, drink coffee and eat eggs with ketchup. As a child on Saturday nights when I would stay with her we'd watch Fantasy Island and The Love Boat. My fond memories of that parlor were replaced by one somber afternoon not long after the train arrived home. She was dead by the time the train arrived. My brother Danny met me at the station, his eyes red and wet. The wake was held in her parlor a few days later.
All of this came rushing back to me this morning as I took the train from Providence to Boston to attend the PAX East gaming conference. I'd like to think she'd be proud of me. At the age of 37 I'm trying to carve out another chapter in my career as a journalist by writing about the gaming world. She bought me more Atari 2600 games than I can count, so this one's for her.
Her memory was still with me when I walked into the 2K booth to check out Mafia II. It has all the markings of a great game: Excellent voice acting, beautiful graphics and a storyline about post World War II America than she lived through and I've only seen in movies. I played the demo and then chatted with the PR folks when I was done. They carefully took down my opinions of the game. They peppered me with questions and seemed to want to know exactly what I did and did not like about the game they've been working on for seven years.
As I told them I thought of her.
Anyone can write a gaming blog and lots of people are in the gaming press. We all have our reasons for doing this. Outside of my fascination with this new medium and the worlds it creates, this blog has been a daily exercise in self discovery for me and the other authors here to try and find the links between games and the memories they create for us. More and more as I walked around the convention today and thought about riding that train and playing that demo, I thought of my grandmother.
We called her Bushie (Boo-she). My mother has taken that title now that I have children of my own. Every day she does or says something to let us know she loves those little kids, just like her mother did for me.
It would be a stretch to say that I wouldn't be a gamer if not for the generosity of my grandmother and her willingness to drop $30 on games for me way back when.
But it's true to say my fondness for them would not be as sweet without her.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

25 March 2010

The Legend of Zelda - NES

Link owned my childhood.
I realize I am showing my age here, but I can recall a childhood free of the Internet, online play, or achievement points. My childhood was defined by two buttons only, A and B, no X, Y, LB, or RB. There were no vibrating controllers, HD, or surround sound, and motion control meant the Nintendo power pad, which was a lot more exercise than any Wii-mote. It was a time when you actually had to read the instruction manual, for both the story behind the game and to learn how to play. There were no cinematic cut scenes or in game tutorials. It was in this eight bit world that The Legend of Zelda would come to define so much of my early videogame experience and make me the gamer I am today.
There were so many things that Zelda did first that we have come to expect in videogames. It was the first game that you could save without a password. For those of you too young to remember, before Zelda if you wanted to save your game you had to write down a 20 digit line of code then plug the code back in to restart your game from that point. We lived in constant fear of missing a digit, losing a code, or just forgetting which code was the right one written on a tiny scrap of paper littered with older codes. Some games didn’t even have that; you simply had to beat the game in one sitting. Anyone remember Rygar? I beat the game once, played it all day to do so. The only other time I came close the game froze up on me during the final boss.
The game, despite the limitations of the eight bit Nintendo, felt epic. The music, which I am sure is playing in your head right now, was ahead of anything else at the time. The game had a multitude of different enemies and unique bosses, each one requiring a different strategy or item to defeat. Dungeons had secret rooms that had us dropping bombs on every wall to discover, and when we found one it usually contained nothing more than a riddle that we hoped would make sense at some point.
Perhaps most important, and often overlooked, were the heart pieces. In a time before achievement points, heart pieces were like videogame currency. The first question one gamer asked another in regards to Zelda was, “What dungeon are you on?” but the second was invariably, “How many heart pieces do you have?” Heart pieces became the barometer with which one gamer measured up against another.
Now if you were lucky, and your parents really loved you, you may have had a subscription to Nintendo Power magazine. Every month you would pray the “tips and tricks” section would have something on one of those elusive heart pieces. If you were like me and you were not so lucky (or so loved) you would spend hours, days, burning every bush, pushing every boulder and Armos in the hopes of discovering a hidden heart piece. It is true that you could beat the game without every piece of heart, but everyone knew there was a difference between the gamer who beat the game with 11 pieces and the gamer who beat it with all sixteen.
The Legend of Zelda is the reason I am, what I call, a completionist gamer. It is not enough to merely beat the game, but I must find every item, every hidden room, every secret in a game to be happy. That is why Link will always own my childhood.
By John Schaedler

24 March 2010

Army of Two – Xbox 360

The idea was to play cards and drink vodka tonics. Instead, we wound up playing this game well into the night. It was a weekend night and I had just received this game and Frontlines: Fuel of War for review purposes. I figured we'd check them out for a few minutes and then me and the fellas would play poker. We never go to the poker because both games were pretty compelling – and, in the case of Army of Two, were perfect for co-op play.
Then we got to talking about games and films and the process of critiquing each.
For instance: What if I told you that “Predator” was as fine a film as “Casablanca?”
The hell you say?
Hell yes, I say.
“Predator” does what it sets out to do as well as any film in that genre. In the late 1980s when we were growing tired of cookie cutter action films, “Predator” came out of nowhere with a great science fiction story based on Earth and a ton of pre-CGI action filled with impressive stunts, clever dialogue and a tight story. “Casablanca” is just as flawless in its execution. So, if you judge a piece of art on its ambition, you see that they’re both masterpieces.
In Army of Two, the ambition is to bring the highest caliber of buddy film dynamics to a video game console. The result is a co-op masterpiece. Like films, games should be judged on what they set out to accomplish. This game is meant to be played with another human being – either on your couch or online – and the results are as good as any other co-op game this side of Gears of War. When played this way the game shines. Unlike the original Gears of War – which has a “when you’re dead, you’re dead” philosophy – Army of Two allows your buddy time to find and heal you when you go down. After spending hour after hour saving Dom’s ass in Gears, it was nice to finally have someone come and cover me when I got into trouble in Army of Two.
I remember at the time wishing that improvements for the sequel would focus entirely on the writing and story. Buddy films live and die by the quality of the relationship between the two buddies. Army of Two makes some progress here, but it could certainly be improved.
Sadly, it wasn't.
Army of Two will likely be forgotten by future generations, but I'll always remember it as a game good enough to get a bunch of guys to forget about drinking and gambling for at least one evening.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

23 March 2010

Pinball Hall of Fame: The Gottlieb Collection - Wii

Our wireless connection is down so for the past week or so I've been writing on the floor of my basement man-cave. I pulled the Ethernet cable out of the PS2 slim (why is there even one plugged in?) and connected it to our badly beaten iBook G4, now approaching its 6th birthday. All of the gaming stuff is kept down here. One of every Atari system console ever made – likewise for Sega, Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony. A Magnavox Odyssey II; various Pong consoles. Of course I have an Intellivision, a Vectrex, and forgotten peripherals such as the Menacer for the Genesis and the ill-advised Tony Hawk RIDE skateboard. Like books on the bookshelves upstairs there are games down here I have never played - and just as many I have never finished. When friends come over to play games you would think the options would mean for limitless fun, but it typically involves limitless decisions. Like navigating a Chinese restaurant menu, sometimes too much is too much.
Not for me, of course, because I'll eventually play them all.
When faced with the physical timeline of an entire medium I typically choose to play something obscure. There are games I have to play (for the reviews in the paper and our web site, eastbayri.com), and there I games I want to play – such as the original Halo, which I could play over and over again until my eyes bled. But then there are games - like some books - that I want to want to play.
This collection of pinball classics is just such a game. It represents a flaw I explored briefly in my blog entry on Atari's Video Pinball. The technology of the Wii, while underpowered compared to the 360 and PS3, is still not enough - or maybe too much - to do justice to a pinball game. It simply can't be done. Playing pinball is playing pinball. You can't replicate it any other way. It's interesting that video games, a medium that strives to replicate everything from sports to driving to murder, seems to struggle the most when it tries to replicate one of its own.
This is not to say that it's not fun playing this game. It is. In fact, even more than some of my older titles from forgotten systems this game reminds me why I ever walked into an arcade in the first place.
Gottlieb is no Williams. The tables you play in this game are a bit obscure - Play Boy from 1937 and Ace High from 1957 are among the selections. But the fun is there.
Even in a basement filled with distractions and evidence of my obsession as a gamer, pinball is primal enough to be the one thing that reminds me why this medium is important, where it came from and where (I hope) it will take me.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

22 March 2010

Top Spin - Xbox

Eric is at once my best and worse friend. If I was rotting away in a Singapore jail and managed to get him on the phone, he'd come and get me out. But if I want to make plans for drinks on any given weekend evening, he'll say "yes" and then (often) not show up.
He's done work on my home. He was there when I married my wife. He is even thoughtful on occasion, but he's completely unreliable when it comes to making plans.
However, if you nail him down he's always up for a good time.
More often than not that means having a few cocktails at a local watering hole and then coming home to listen to The Pixies and play "Top Spin" on the Xbox. The fact that Eric's Xbox still works is a miracle. It is often forgotten and left on for days at a time, covered in dust and spilled vodka. But it fires up, every time. And we use the big, original Xbox controller. Lovingly referred to as the Duke inside Microsoft circles, the original controllers is huge. If they would have stuck with that controller there wouldn't be a kid under the age of 12 who could play an Xbox game unless they had freakishly large hands. Microsoft came to their senses and released a smaller controller a short time after the release of the original Xbox, but I still think playing with the Duke is the way to go.
Eric's not a gamer, but he's always up for a game of "Top Spin," which is a testament to the universal appeal of this excellent tennis game. Anyone can pick up and play this game. The controls are intuitive and tight and the graphics are surprisingly good considering its age. It's certainly a game that can be mastered by better players than I. I found this out the hard way when I took it online one day and got shellacked by some kid who didn't give up one point. But it's just fine for a couple of guys who want to listen to good music and chat with something to occupy their time between the silences.
Who knows when I'll see Eric again. But when I do, I'll bet we'll play "Top Spin."
By Victor Paul Alvarez

21 March 2010

Football - Atari 2600

The guy next door worked at Westinghouse. He was an engineer. I've known him my whole life. I can remember when I was a kid thinking he looked like the guys at mission command watching rockets blast off. When an astronaut said "Houston, we have a problem," the guy they were talking to looked a lot like this guy. Black glasses, salt and pepper hair cut short, short-sleeved white dress shirts with no-nonsense ties.
And he was smart. In between building bombs or whatever it was he built all day he and his engineering buddies figured out how to hack an Atari 2600. They built this metal box that connected to the cartridge slot. On top of the metal box were two slots for computer chips and tiny levers that locked them in place. As soon as a new game came out, somehow he would come home with the chips. It was brilliant. Looking back now I realize it was illegal and probably the wrong message to send to the neighborhood kids.
But back then I was happy to be one of the neighborhood kids who got to play new Atari games as soon as they came out. His youngest son was my best pal.
And we loved to play Atari Football.
This is at once the worst sports game ever made and the best. It is ugly, clunky and about as realistic as the football game you played in school with the triangle made of paper. But it's also an absolute blast to play. Richie and I played this game for hours while the summer sun rose and fell outside. To our credit, we also played outside. But many an afternoon was spent choosing to pass or run with the three lunchbox-shaped players on the flickering screen of the giant Zenith in his living room.
Madden is the undisputed king of virtual football these days, and it deserves its success. But you didn't need an encyclopedic knowledge of professional football to enjoy a gridiron match-up when I was a kid. All you needed was the ability to decide whether to pass or throw. And if your best friend's dad was an early hacker, all the better.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

20 March 2010

Mine Storm - Vectrex

I went to an all-boys Catholic high school in Baltimore, MD. It's called Mt. St. Joseph college and it has educated a few generations of Alvarez boys (or Mount Men, as my father says).
The all-boys drawback was balanced by the fact that one of my best friends, Chris, went to a public school in a waterfront community that was teeming with beautiful girls. It was also home to a fair number of rich kids with their own sailboats and expensive cars. I was no pauper, but I knew the tags on my clothes came from Sears and theirs did not. One of those kids, his name escapes me now, was right out of the rich side of a John Hughes movie.
And he had a Vectrex.
The Vectrex is a self-contained gaming system with its own screen that uses sharp vector graphics. It was a bit of a status symbol back then. Rich kids with important parents had the Vectrex. (The same seemed to be true of the Intellivision.)
While this kid's parents were in Rome for a holiday he had a party and I saw it cast aside in his bedroom. It was dusty and unused. It was forgotten.
I fired it up while the jocks did keg stands downstairs. The Vectrex comes with the game Mine Storm built in. It's an Asteroids clone that is every bit as exciting as the game on which it is based. It is crisp, difficult and rewarding.
And after I passed out that night (Mickey's Malt Liquor if memory serves) I never played it again until earlier this year. Some guy was selling a Vectrex in perfect working order for $60 online. I pounced on it.
And now it sits in the gaming museum I have constructed in the cellar. Like that rich kid from decades ago, I rarely play it. It's as if it is almost too precious to use.
But when I do I am reminded of a time in my life when I was discovering wine and women while still rooted in the arcade mentality of my adolescence.
That's $60 well spent.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

19 March 2010

Galaga - Atari 400

I used tho think my brother's friend Ricky was one of the coolest guys in the world. I was probably 8 at the time, and he and my brother were in their 20s. They had cool old cars. They had pretty girlfriends. And Ricky had an Atari 400 computer hooked up to an old color TV in his bedroom. My brother was cool enough to take me over there one night. In fact, my brother Danny was always great about taking me with him when he was doing something fun.
He took me to Skateland with his girlfriend. (One night they wouldn't let him in because he had a Heineken tank top on. I thought he was a badass.)
He took me to my first arcade.
He took me to see movies and, unlike my brother Ralph, he actually paid for the tickets instead of shaking me down for the money Mom gave me for the day.
Danny was, and is, a cool guy. He introduced me to the Atari 2600 when I was a kid. This whole blog might as well be dedicated to him.
I don't know if he still talks to Ricky - if memory serves Ricky was the kind of guy who often was in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong stuff - but I remember the night Ricky let me play Galaga on his Atari 400.
Galaga is to gamers what rice is to a sushi chef. If you can't hack it, you might as well find something else to do. This is not to say that I'm a master, but I can get my money's worth out of a quarter.
It's also the kind of game that haunts gamers of a certain age (30s). It pops up throughout your life. When I was a kid and Ricky let me play it while he and my brother were partying, it was a perfectly translated arcade game played on a home console. Back then, that was the highest praise you could give a game.
Years later when it was tucked into a corner of the college game room it was an old school title that was certain to attract people who knew what they were doing. When I graduated and a friend of mine bought a Galaga cabinet for his basement office, I knew it was one of a handful of games – Mrs. Pac Man, Missile Command, Donkey Kong – that would truly last forever.
But the one thing I think about more than any other when I see an old Galaga cabinet in a hot dog joint or tavern is my brother, Danny.
It's a cool game. He's a cool guy. And I was a lucky kid.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

18 March 2010

God of War III - PS3

It's my night with the kids. My wife works night shifts at the ER so I have supper and bedtime duty on my own when she's working. Supper is fun. Getting both of them to fall asleep on my own can be tricky.
Tonight was warm - near 70 degrees in the middle of March in Rhode Island. When I came home from work the kids were playing in the back yard with the sitter. Henry, just 5 months, was outside playing for the first time in his life. He wore a denim hat. Charlotte - just over 2 - giggled as she slid down her little plastic slide only to run around to the back of it, climb up and do it again over and over.
The dog chased the cat.
You know what I mean?
It was perfect.
I gave Charlotte her favorite dinner - rotini pasta with dad's sauce. She always helps me make the sauce. She adds a little sugar at the end, her little hand able to grasp the perfect portion. Henry sat in his bouncy seat and giggled while I pretended his bare feet were stinky. Charlotte couldn't take it. Every time I sniffed the little guy's feet and made an exaggerated face of disgust she laughed so hard that rotini bits flew onto her plate.
Good stuff.
They both went down easy tonight. (As I wrote that last line he started crying. Damn.) While I watched her pull the covers up I thought of the new game I have waiting for me downstairs. It's God of War III. I've played the demo and beat the two previous installments. I've read nothing but stellar reviews so far and I'm sure I will not be disappointed. The God of War series offers some of the best of what gaming has to offer: Near perfect gameplay and level design, stunning graphics, a story rooted in something the whole world can relate to (Greek mythology) and, basically, an insistence on excellence in every way.
As a sworn gamer I should be flying down the steps right now to play this game until my eyes bleed. Instead, I'm here writing this blog entry, and I'm cheating.
Well … This blog has been going strong since Jan. 1, 2010. I've managed to file an entry every day for 75 days. I've written most of them, but I've had help from some stellar writers who believe in gaming and the memories it creates. I am humbled and honored by their contributions and by the readers I know (or hope) are out there. It's not easy coming up with one essay a day about a game that moved you but we've managed to do it. So tonight, as I write about my kids and the little piece of perfection I found when I came home from work to see them enjoying their young lives, I am cheating a little bit. The only way this is about a game is because I will absolutely play God of War III for hours as soon as I file this entry.
Which means I will forever associate God of War III with this perfect day in March.
Which means, I guess, I'm not cheating after all.
See you tomorrow.
Kratos awaits.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

17 March 2010

Wrestlemania Challenge - NES

For most Americans, Super Bowl Sunday is the biggest weekend event of the year. In this instance, I’m not most of America. While I love Super Bowl Sunday (due in no small part to the fact my mother annually makes at least a week’s worth of lasagna) there is another one-Sunday-a-year tradition that has defined my entire life.
After all, me and the event, we’re the same age. On May, 14, 1985, I turned one full-year old. I don’t remember it, obviously, but about six weeks before this an entire billion-dollar industry was about to explode into popular culture. The days of bingo halls and smoky basements weren’t gone, not for a couple years, but things were changing and looking back, it really is remarkable how far we’ve come.
It’s been called a lot of things. “The grandaddy of them all” is one of my personal favorites. When it (and I) turned three and I had formed the ability to assemble sentences it set the record for the largest attendance to an indoor sporting. Ever.
I’m talking about Wrestlemania – an event that created an industry. An event that used to cost $30 on pay per view and now costs more than $60 in HD. An event that pulls in celebrities and celebrates the magnificent spectacle that is pro wrestling.
A lot of people, they have this stereotype of wrestling fans. Guys in their 40s, living in their parents’ basements, collecting action figures (they’re not dolls) and of course, living a painfully solitary life. But like most stereotypes, there are a million exceptions to this rule. Like me, I’m a college educated guy who spends his days serving The Fourth Estate and reading Melville. I stopped collecting action figures when I was 12, but I still get excited when someone takes a good, clean chair shot to the face. I get even more excited when it’s a barb-wire bat but ECW as we used to know it is gone.
I always did too. Which is why, when I found myself inside Seekonk Lechmere (yeah, Lechmere. It was that long ago) two days before Christmas 1990, I instantly spotted the new Wrestlemania Challenge video game on display.
I ran to my mother, I ran to my father, I don’t remember what I said but I made it clear I needed, not wanted, this game. My mom, I remember what she said. It was two days before Christmas. Way too late to get my message to Santa Claus. Sleigh was packed, reindeer gassed-up. Try again next year.
So, I did what most six-year-old kids would do. I asked my mother to buy it. It’s 20 years later and I still remember her response.
“We can’t buy that for you,” my mother said. “It’s thirty dollars.”
To a kid my age, 30 dollars was the equivalent of entire United States Treasury. Making matters worse, I had also spotted a copy of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II the Arcade Game. The price? You guessed it. Thirty Washingtons.
I was crushed, quite simply. There’s not a lot going on in the world of a six-year-old and learning the one thing you want has come to your attention after Santa has gathered up all your free toys for the year...my God. Give me the Flinstone shaped, chewable anti-depressants.
There was just one, minor thing. For my entire life, I been blessed the two best parents I could ever ask for. In 1989, they bought the house I still live in today. At the time, it was something like $100,000 but my mom, she was the manager of a local Mom and Pop video store and my dad, he was still making his way up the ranks at a local costume jewelry manufacturer. When minimum wage was about five bucks an hour, $30 bought a week’s worth of food. On the type of money my parents were making, a $100,000 house was everything they could afford but everything we needed. It wasn’t much, but it was absolutely perfect for the growing Morse family and my parents, they worked day-in and day-out to make me and my sister as happy and comfortable as possible.
And leaving their son, their first born child, the family namesake without Wrestlemania Challenge on Christmas morning, well, my parents weren’t about to let that happen.
So after I had torn through all my gifts from Santa, which in retrospect probably totalled about a month-and-a-half of my parents combined salaries, my mother brought me one last box.
My hands, they trembled. This one, it didn’t say Santa on it. This one, it didn’t come with some “you better leave me milk-and-cookies” provision. Nah, this one said “Love: Mom and Dad.”
I knew what was in it before I tore a millimeter of wrapping paper and sure enough, there they were – both TMNT II and Wrestlemania Challenge.
And you know how I reacted? I threw both arms up in the air, a game in each hand and I exclaimed “Two thirty dollar video games!!!”
To be honest, there wasn’t a lot memorable about the game itself. It was hard like most NES games and eventually it got replaced with newer, fancier looking wrestling titles on newer, fancier looking systems.
But that Christmas, that moment of my life, I’ll never forget it. Ever. One of my only hopes in life is that sometime in the not-too-distant future, I can get my kid to throw up his arms like an Emmy statue, a film of total happiness on his face.
In the meantime, however, I’ll going to keep getting Wrestlemania every year on pay-per-view. This year, it’s on March 28. HBK versus Undetaker II.
Yeah baby. Maybe I can get my mom to make some lasagna.
By George Morse

16 March 2010

Streets of Rage - Sega Genesis

Heather was beautiful. Stunning, actually. If I could post a picture of her instead of a game for this entry I would. I was a 20-year-old junior at Towson State University at the time and she was a redheaded poet a few years older and a ton wiser. She sat to my right in a film class I took for the hell of it. Each day I would wait for the teacher to call her name so I could hear her voice say "here."
It was well into the semester before I got up the courage to ask her out, and even then it was one of those non-dates that cowards like me go for so as to not put ourselves under the swinging dagger of rejection.
She went for it and, eventually, things went well. So well, in fact, that I spent one Christmas with her family. The evening prior I had said something so monumentally stupid and childish that I was surprised she didn't drop me on the spot. She forgave - but never forgot - and I was let back in. Still smarting from my dumb statement I felt uncomfortable in her mother's house. Moms had always been my strong suit. I fancied myself a bit of a charmer back then and I felt I could be endearing to a girl's mom without coming off like a jackass.
Not this time. I felt slow-witted and foolish. The words did not come. I was Samson with a haircut.
Then I heard her adolescent brother playing with his Christmas gift downstairs. It was a Sega Genesis.
Here was my life raft.
"Mind if I go play a few games with your brother?"
Permission granted. I can't remember the kid's name but he was polite and seemingly cool with having to share his Sega with his sister's boyfriend.
We played Streets of Rage. Any kid who liked Streets of Rage was OK in my book.
Suddenly the tightness I had felt all day washed away. There's no tension when you're beating up bad guys with the kid brother of your hot girlfriend. Just Christmas bliss. And I can think of no better game to play in this situation. We fought side-by-side against the dregs of a forgotten city. We laughed and cheered. Good defeated evil and, I think, I was forgiven by the end of it all.
Heather is someone I will always remember fondly. She has found love and success in this world and I am honored to consider her a friend. I could say the same of Streets of Rage. It was a beautiful game then and it's still a beautiful game now.
And, like a good friend, it will always be there whenever I need it no matter what's happened since the last time we were together.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

15 March 2010

Star Wars Arcade - Sega 32X

Everything is better in the first person. How could it not be? You're the person, after all, so why not come first? Writing in the first person comes easier, talking in the first person is a given (unless you're Bob Dole) and gaming in the first person is my personal favorite.
I doubt this was what George Lucas had in mind when he decided to have Luke Skywalker destroy the Death Star in the now famous sequence in Episode IV. Not only did that sequence spawn dozens of Star Wars video games in which you do exactly that, but hundreds more just like it that replicate the sequence in some way or another. It's old hat now, but as a pre-teen climbing into the Star Wars arcade cabinet it was as if someone had built an X-Wing just for me. The vector-based graphics were more than sufficient to up the realism and the first-person perspective was convincing enough to allow me to ignore the half-dozen little bastards lined up behind me waiting for their chance.
Many of the classic arcade racing and flying games adopted the cabinet approach, hoping to up the realism. I never bought it in games like Outrun – just because I'm moving doesn't mean I'm moved.
But Star Wars Arcade nailed it.
Much to my surprise, so did the Sega 32X version of the game. The much-maligned 32X had some quality titles during its short run, and this was one of the best. You'll have dog fights with Tie Fighters, war against Star Destroyers and, of course, deal with the Death Star yet again. The sound is excellent, especially the telltale scream of Tie Fighters zipping by you – and the explosions are first class. Few titles show off the power of the 32X as well as this, and there's even a decent co-op component.
My favorite feature? The cantina music plays while you're putting in your initials for the high score. Nice touch.
There are a ton of fine space shooters released since – many of them based on the Star Wars universe – but this 32X gem is the only one that reminds me of the lure of the video arcade in the early 80s and the feeling, for the first time, of seeing a game through my own eyes.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

14 March 2010

Tatsunoko vs. Capcom - Wii

"Like going to a Japanimation convention while drunk"
- The Author
Even being the Nintendo chump that I am, I had regrets about owning a Gamecube rather than an X-box or a PS2. The biggest of these was missing out on the Marvel vs. Capcom games. Megaman, the Street Fighters, even Jill from Resident Evil squaring off against the best characters out of Marvel Comics (with the notable exclusion of Ghost Rider). It’s the type of battle royal that’s normally only discussed in comics shops by overweight bearded guys.
Better late than never the Capcom Vs. series finally makes it to Nintendo with Tatsunoko vs. Capcom for the Wii. Wait a minute… Tatsunoko? To save you the trouble of Wikipediaing it yourself I’ll summarize. Founded in 1962 and mainly focused on producing animated television series, Tatsunoko is pretty much the Japanese Hanna-Barbara. Had anyone made a game where Yogi Bear and Chun-Li could steal pick-a-nik baskets from Dr. Wiley it couldn’t possibly be any stranger than this one.
The most normal characters Tatsunoko has to offer look like Mighty Morphin Power Rangers if they’d been designed during the Kennedy Administration. Sliding further into the madness that is Japanese childrens television are two separate fighters with attacks using robot dogs and a masked femme fatale whose henchmen pop out of underground tunnels to assault you with exploding palm trees. My favorite of the Tatsunoko roster is the gold Zippo lighter that transforms into a giant robot. You can guess how little Tatsunoko cares about subtlety by his name, Gold Lightan.
Cheek to jowl with this motley crew Capcom has seemingly delighted in offering up a parade of its second string properties. Sure, you can pick Ryu or Zero but why would you want to when you could play as Megaman’s sister, the star of a zombie survival game that IS NOT Resident Evil or some girl originally out of a Japanese dating simulation quiz game. What the hell is a Japanese dating quiz simulation game? Also pulled from Capcom’s freak stable is the game’s final boss which appears to be some type of demonic Faberge Egg.
Gameplay is no less bewildering with a plethora of flashing power bars, a complex move/counter attack system and the lightest punch doing several billion points of damage. Once I recovered from sensory overload and learned a few basics I was struck that if anyone devoted enough time to plumbing this game’s secrets they could become really good. No, not good like good at a normal video game. Crazy good. Line around the arcade good. I doubt I’ll ever get the opportunity but I’d be very interested to see two master players facing off, artfully trading combos and counters like a game of neon chess clocked to the nanosecond.
For those of us who don’t care about humiliating alpha nerds and obsessive teenagers at whatever multiplex or Chucky Cheese still has arcade machines the designers added a feature far more satisfying than an “easy” mode. In addition to being able to play the game with the multi-button “classic” controller, there is a simplified control scheme usable with the Wii remote turned sideways. Playing this way, with one button each for attack, special attack and call partner, the controls become as simple as those for Super Smash Brothers. While I’m sure if I’d fought an experienced player with the Wiimote method I’m sure one of us would have felt cheated it was perfectly fair for matches against the computer or my equally clueless friends.
The game’s crowning insanity is that it, taken as a whole, actually works really well. Regardless of where they came from the characters are colorful and entertaining with highly individual fighting styles. The simplified control system made the game playable without giving me the feeling that I was just mashing buttons. There’s an ocean of depth to Tatsunoko vs. Capcom if you want it but pains have been taken to ensure the game is not frustrating to the casual gamer. It’s a rare title that manages that balancing act successfully. Personally, I’m never going to Netflix the first 8 seasons of “Gatchmen” or learn the button sequence that performs a “baroque cancel” but I just may keep the game rented for a few longer days than I intended to.
By M. Jacob Alvarez

13 March 2010

36 Great Holes Starring Fred Couples - Sega 32X

As I continued my efforts to make my post-college life as collegiate as possible, I found myself living in a house with other like-minded folks right around the time that The Sopranos debuted on HBO. Johnny and I shared the top apartment, which was little more than a flophouse for our 20-something exploits in the restaurant/bar scene in Providence. I worked at the newspaper and tended bar at his restaurant on the weekends. Good times were had. Hangovers were the norm.
But Sundays were sacred.
There was a little BBQ place on Hope Street called The Pitmaster. Pretty stupid name, but the guy lived up to it. On Sunday's we'd get a few racks and sides and watch this new show on HBO about a guy named Tony and the ducks in his Jersey swimming pool. If you were not on board with The Sopranos from the beginning it's hard to explain how magical that first season was to watch. Especially the pilot episode. Pilot episodes typically suck. A new show needs time to grow and develop. Not so here. The pilot was phenomenal.
So were the ribs.
After The Sopranos there was golf. Sega golf. John and his brother, Phil, are both fine golfers. Me, not so much. But we were equals on the Sega and equally enamored with this excellent game.
Even now that the Wii Motion Plus makes it easier to pretend you're actually golfing and EA's Tiger Woods series boasts near photo-realism, this old school golf game holds up well. It's is easy to pick up and play and sophisticated enough to be a challenge. I still own it and I still play it. The game represents a style of play that was fun first and realistic second. With no analog stick or motion controls, it relied on a time-tested button press mechanic for the swing and simple grids and gauges for the greens. It was much more accessible than today's golf games - save for maybe Wii golf - and, like the Pitmaster and The Sopranos, it's days are over.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

12 March 2010

Baseball Stars – NES

It’s been a long time since I’ve played video games with my dad.
When I was a kid, my family was the first one that I knew to own a Nintendo. In retrospect, I’m sure the system coming into our house was my dad’s doing because when we got the thing, I was way too young to have even known what it was, my mother had no interest in it and my sister was about three-and-a-half days old.
By the time I was got to four or five though, I spent more time on the thing than anyone. I was a kid, it was the late 1980s and we owned a Nintendo. It was perfect. In the mix of hours upon hours spent in front of the TV playing Super Mario Brothers, my dad and I would share the thing every now and again.
We started with Contra, the classic side-scroller shoot-em-up title. We’d usually get a level or two in and then get really frustrated and turn it off. Sports games were a different story. There were some epic match-ups we had that would span the NES and SNES generations. At the time, I needed, not wanted, to win every match-up. You see when I hit my teenage years I gave up on any dreams I had of being a pro baseball player or basketball player, but when I was a kid, all I wanted to be was Tom Glavine.
I wasn’t ever very good at athletics. I wasn’t bad, I was never picked last, but I was never picked first either. In a baseball line-up, I usually hit sixth. My dad, however, he was one of those guys who made it look effortless. He played softball and basketball and volleyball and everything he did just looked like the right way to do it. I couldn’t hit the ball as far as he did, throw it as hard as he did or make the catches he could and to be honest I still can’t.
But man I could kick his ass on video games. Especially with titles like Madden, I would beat him down every time … unmercifully. I’m talking 11 rushing touchdowns in a single game with Emmitt Smith. I’m talking about a glitch that made sure the fake field goal play work every time.
But baseball games were a little different. Yes, I won probably 90 percent of time, but it was never a blow out. Always a close game. Back then, there wasn’t a lot of nuance to baseball titles. You pressed A to swing. You pressed A to pitch. You pressed A to run. So regardless of how much time I spent playing the thing the relatively non-existent learning curve made baseball match-ups between me and Pop an evenly matched affair.
For awhile, we played Bases Loaded. Then we got Baseball Stars, which is considered by many to be the best NES sports title ever.
And for good reason.
As an avid sports gamer, there’s a lot me and my brethren take for granted today. You know, things like create-a-team and season mode. But in 1989, these things were other-wordly. Not only was Baseball Stars easy to play, the new features of trading players and season modes made it fun to play over and over again.
Which is probably why my dad and I played it so much.
But much, much more important than game modes or graphics, Baseball Stars has a direct tie to one of the most vivid memories of my entire life. I had to be six or seven tops. Me and my dad, we’re in my room playing a game of Baseball Stars. My dad pauses the game, asks me if I hear “that.” I ask him if I heard “what.” He said it must be nothing. We go back to the game. Play for a few more seconds. Then he stops the game again. Gets up and leaves the room. I follow him.
When you walk into our kitchen, you can see down a few steps to a landing by our back door. When we come around the corner, there’s a guy dressed all in black running out the door from our basement.
Its 7 o’clock at night and every light in the house is on. Me and my dad, we were talking so loud the neighbors could hear us, but apparently it didn’t stop some idiot from propping open our back door with a bucket and sneaking into our basement.
So my dad, he takes off after the guy. He would have caught him too, except he remembered I was in the house and who knows if there’s anyone else in the basement. So he comes back inside. Takes a look into the basement from atop the stairs.
And then it happened. A moment that has been repeated and a story that has been re-told at Thanksgivings and Christmas dinners for the last decade-and-a-half. Trying to scare the unknown thug who could still be lurching in our basement, my dad looks at me.
He says: “GJ. Get my gun.”
And me, the bright, earnest, good-hearted seven-year-old I was, I respond honestly.
I say: “Dad. You don’t have a gun!”
I said it because the fact of the matter was my dad did not own a gun. Never has. But now, not only did me and my dad know it, the unknown lunatic creeping around downstairs did now too. So my dad descends into the basement, unarmed but unafraid and thankfully, there was no one down there. After a quick inspection, we found nothing was taken. I still live in the same house now and while no one has broken in since, I’ll never forget that game of Baseball Stars.
Especially since after we checked the house one more time, I won.
by George Morse

11 March 2010

Donkey Kong Country - SNES

There are very few people, if any, who will argue that Donkey Kong is one of the single most important franchises in video game history. Not only has “DK” been successful in both arcades and on home consoles through a variety of generations and titles, the character of Donkey Kong is one of the most iconic ever, right up there with Link and Mario.
They even made a documentary about two guys basing their lives on holding the Donkey Kong arcade record.
When I was a kid, with my Nintendo, I was never a big fan of the classic Donkey Kong-style of game. You know, the ones where you play as Mario, leap over barrels and climb up ladders to save Princess Peach. They were repetitive and graphically unimpressive and horrifically difficult. But then 1994 came and courtesy of developer Rare and publisher Nintendo, I was able to become the ape. It would end up selling more than eight million copies. It would also become one of the most famous side-scrolling game evers. There were rhinos and crocodiles and a whole assortment of other beasts.
It was called Donkey Kong Country (DKC).
The first time I played DKC, I was in a department store about a week before Christmas. My mother, she was off looking at curtains or something but me, I was watching some kid take Donkey Kong and his buddy Diddy riding around some snowy wilderness, blasting out of buckets. The kid eventually got called away and I took over. I jumped on an ostrich and instantly, I was hooked.
Within minutes I was pulling my mother away from her curtain browsing. It was the week of Christmas and I was going to be damned if DKC wasn’t one of the first presents I opened. She didn’t buy it for me, not that day. Meanwhile, this kid who lived across the street from me (spoiled rotten by a wealthy grandmother) he had DKC. He was the first one in the neighborhood to have it so in the days before Santa came me and the other two boys from the neighborhood crowded round his TV, waiting to see what levels came next.
Then Christmas came and we all got a copy and we didn’t see each other for a few weeks. I ended beating the game over and over again for as long as I played Super Nintendo. My sister also got in on the action, beating it a couple times herself.
Hoping to cash in the success of DKC, Nintendo released DKC2 a couple years later. It wasn’t bad, but like most sequels, it failed to capture the magic of its predecessor. The same thing can be said for Donkey Kong 64. Not a bad game but not a great one either.
Even with these lackluster subsequent releases and the clunker that was Donkey Konga, however, DKC is a title that will always live on as one-of-a-kind.
By George Morse

10 March 2010

NBA Jam - Sega Genesis

Do you, dear reader, remember that fantastic scene in "Swingers" where Vince Vaughn's character is playing NHL 94 against the boy named Sue using the Chicago Blackhawks' superstar center Jeremy Roenick? If not, here's another reminder. "I'm gonna make Wayne Gretzky's head bleed!" That scene was my favorite from the film at that time. It encompassed my way of life as a freshmen/sophomore in college. My group of close friends and I played NBA Jam while getting our pre-party on before going out on the town or hitting up whatever party was going to have the hottest college ladies in attendance. I first learned of the game when I worked in an arcade fresh out of high school. At this arcade, there were three huge games. Each one had its own big screen and each one always attracted a crowd. Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat and NBA Jam. Eventually NBA Jam made its way onto Sega Genesis and that's where my buddies and I played the hell out of it. There were a few obvious omissions from the game, like Michael Jordan and Shaq, but the game consisted of some really good twosomes from all of the NBA teams. Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning on the Charlotte Hornets, Patrick Ewing and John Starks on the New York Knicks, but for me, the fearsome duo of Horace Grant and Scott Pippen of Chicago Bulls fame were my team of choice. That's not an easy thing for me to say considering I am a lifelong Los Angeles Lakers fan. But, the Lakers on NBA Jam were more like the real life Clippers, just plain terrible. The Bulls team was awesome. Scott was the best all around player in the game. He could bomb threes and dunk on most players. Horace was big enough to block most dunk attempts and he could dunk. I always felt that the best combination of players/teams in the game consisted of one outstanding offensive player who was still big enough to buck smaller players and one defensive stud that could block shots. I think NBA Jam stressed defense more than offense. NBA Jam allowed goal tending as well as gave players the ability physically knock and manhandle your opponent while stealing the ball, an act we lovingly referred to as buck or bucking. The game also dictated defensive style, depending on which direction you played. You could goal tend almost every shot thrown up if you played in one direction while the opposite direction made you rely upon bucking. Of course, you did both defensive actions regardless of direction, but it was sort of like home court advantage (it might have been actually, though I am not sure). If you defended the basket going in one direction, you had the advantage. To score, you had to play creatively on offense. You couldn't go up and dunk the ball or stand beyond the arc to shoot threes. You had to pass the ball, look for you AI team mate, hit the outlet passes and rain home a quick three or fake your defender into jumping too early or late and then bang on him with a massive dunk. When we played it wasn't unusual to see a final score of 15 to 14 or a 21 to 18 game. The way we played NBA Jam - defense ruled over offense. To play against us, you either played great defense and took advantage of mistakes or you got shellacked.
What I also loved about the game was that it lent itself to taunting. With our scores being so low, if you were able to go on a run and score three baskets and hear those glorious words strung together – "He's on fire!" – it was a badge of honor. It was even better if you could get at least one bucket while you were flaming hot. If you had thrown down several seriously massive dunks you might be able to simultaneously back your opponent's virtual backboard and his morale at the same time in the 4th quarter. If you could hold your opponent to zero points in one quarter and you didn't even have to say a word.
Years later, there was a failed attempt at a franchise revival, and I played it on the PS2, but the game had lost something. Or maybe I had grown up and wasn't in the same carefree time (college) to enjoy it, plus I no longer was surrounded by the same great bunch of guys, but the original NBA Jam will always be my favorite game ever.
By Jim Redner

09 March 2010

Black - Multi

There's talk that the creator of Black is working on another shooter. Why it's not Black II I have no idea.
With games such as Borderlands and Bioshock leading the charge towards more intelligent shooters, it's nice to dust off a title such as Black and revel in how ridiculously fun and stupid it is.
I played Black like a fiend on my original Xbox about five years ago. I vividly remember my wife (then girlfriend) talking to me about a serious problem one of her family members was facing while I was plodding through the middle of the game. Her voice was like a bird chirping next to a leaf blower. The game was so loud, so enamored with guns and bullets that it was all I could do to turn away. I'm sure I eventually gave her the attention she deserved (she must have made me turn the game off over dinner or something) but while I was playing the game I just couldn't be bothered. It came out near the end of the road for the big black box and was just the sort of swan song the system needed. I know it was a PS2 game as well, but Black seemed right at home on the Xbox. It was big and powerful and looked like it meant business.
The story was laughable, especially the live-action cinematics with cigarettes dangling and tough guys talking about hot spots in the mystery-laden world of military operations. I still have no idea what the story was about, but I remember the guns were given the same treatment cars receive in racing games and the gameplay, while woefully lacking a multiplayer component, was tight.
I've tried to play it a few times since. It has not aged well. The inability to skip past the terrible cinematics make it hard to stick with it, as do the ten dozen other fine shooters that have been released since.
But back at the end of the Xbox lifespan, when I was sick of killing the Covenant, Black made for a fantastic week of mindless gaming.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

08 March 2010

Resistance: Fall of Man - Playstation 3

I brought home my Playstation 3 on a sunny afternoon while my wife was at work. I knew I had at least three consecutive hours of gaming bliss ahead of me before she got home. Gamers with no children or spouses don't know what this feels like. The more hectic your life becomes the less time you have for gaming (naturally). But the unexpected benefit is that you cherish your precious gaming hours even more than you used to. Three hours alone with a brand new console was much appreciated. The windows were up in our home and the breeze was soft.
Confidence was high.
And then I spent an hour fiddling with the interface and downloading a bunch of required garbage (little did I know this would happen all the time). The cord to juice up the wireless controller is about as long as a spaghetti strand so I sat right in front of the TV like a kid. Some of the games I brought home were weak – what can I say, I'm not much of a Heavenly Sword fan. Sadness was setting in.
Then I tried Resistance: fall of Man.
If it was a book I'd read it.
If it was a painting I'd stare at it.
This launch title has a fantastic story based on an alternate reality on Earth that is as gripping as the rock solid gameplay. It's a difficult game that manages to stay challenging, not frustrating. It's not the prettiest game ever made, but it certainly made for an impressive launch title for the most powerful gaming console ever made.
And it finally gave Sony a weapon in their Halo war.
My wife got home right on time and I was back in the real world, cooking dinner and then introducing her to the beauty of Blu-Ray technology. When she fell asleep I was back in the game. It's one of those rare games that you need to play until you beat with no other gaming distractions.
It took awhile (free time is at a premium) but it was worth it.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

07 March 2010

Missile Command - Multi

I spent a lot of time at pool halls when I was in high school. When I finally got my license there seemed to be no better place to spend a weekend evening. Playing pool and putting quarters in the jukebox was cheap and fun. Short of getting a fake ID and making a fool of myself in a bar this was as close as a teenager could get to doing "adult" stuff.
But we were definitely still kids.
My friend Geoff and I spent a lot of time at the Blue Jay pool hall in Catonsville, MD. Geoff is one of the finest human beings I know. He's a family man, a good friend and a kind soul. I've known him since high school and I don't believe the day will come when I don't call him one of my closest friends.
Even though he's living in London now I still feel close to him.
And back in the day when Missile Command was the coolest game at the pool hall, no one was better than Geoff.
I always looked at Missile Command as such an "adult" game. Not only was it crushingly difficult, but it was about planetary destruction - something that was on the tip of the tongue back in the days of Regan and the movie "War Games." Given its serious tone and steep difficulty I rarely played it, but I always admired it.
A few years ago I stumbled across an Atari 5200 in mint condition with a trackball controller that was still in its box. I got it home and started looking through the games. Aside from the fact that it looks cool and it's from Atari, there are few things to endear the 5200 to most gamers. It's widely considered a failure. However, playing Missile Command on the 5200 with the excellent trackball controller is fabulous. Memories of Geoff beating his own high scores and a young John Connor watching the end screen in the arcade scene in "Terminator 2" come rushing back to me each time I play. It's one of those games that makes a case for the system. If all you ever did with a 5200 and the trackball was play Missile Command, it would be worth it. It's not the finest version of the game available, and it doesn't even look that good.
But the trackball controller is absolutely perfect, and an old Atari needs all the love it can get these days.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

04 March 2010

Spider-Man - Atari 2600

Even when I was a kid I never understood why Halloween costumes were typically adorned with a picture of the dude you were supposed to be. Why can't I just wear a Darth Vadar costume? Why am I stuck in this plastic fire hazard with a picture of Darth Vadar on the front while my cheap, itchy, sweat-laden Darth Vadar mask keeps slipping off my face? (And what parent lets their kid go as Darth Vadar? Sure, he was the coolest. But he was also murderous bastard bent on genocide.)
The same goes for Spider-Man. It's the greatest superhero costume of all time. There's nothing a young boy would rather walk around in than a full-on Spider-Man costume. But, back in the 1970s, those costumes sucked too. Even Underoos wouldn't cut it because people didn't want to see kids walking around in their underwear. (Just ask my parents. They were summoned to my elementary school to be told I had a habit of showing off my Spider-Man Underoos to the girls during gym class.)
The closest I came to feeling like Spidey when I was a kid was while I played the excellent Parker Brothers video game for the Atari 2600.
This iconic game still holds up well today. Spider-Man is rendered nicely in blue and red with black webs that carry him up a building filled with bomb-wielding thugs. The gameplay is easy to pick up but difficult to master. Unlike a lot of early games, failure is not met with immediate death. If a bad guy breaks your web some quick slinging can get you back on the building.
Waiting for you on top of the building is The Green Goblin himself - and he looks good, too.
When it comes to video games, Spidey has been luckier than most of his crime-fighting colleagues. On average he easily gets the best video games. And he had a great start.
Even his primitively-rendered 8-bit costume looks better in this game than the garbage I was forced to wear when I was a kid.
By Victor Paul Alvarez

02 March 2010

The Bigs 2 – Multiple platforms

America’s national pastime - freshly cut grass, the crack of the bat, the smell of hot dogs at the ballpark. The sacrifice fly, the strikeout, the suicide squeeze, and the long ball. It’s the love of the game. The ambiance of what makes baseball so great. The plays that make you leap out of your seat with your heart racing, filled with goose bumps as your team wins the game. Those are the special moments that people remember which bring them back to the ballpark again and again. But what about the other stuff? The eleven foul balls during an at bat, the constant delays between pitcher and catcher, manager visits to the mound that drag the game out just a bit too long.
Don’t get me wrong; I love baseball. I love everything that makes baseball the great game that it is, but yes, there are the times where even I wish I was tuning into SportsCenter to catch just the highlights. So I guess the question is: Can you mess with the formula of baseball?
Most definitely.
Think about a baseball game that focuses on only the highlights of a game. Let’s lose all the stuff in between and concentrate on the high impact and excitement. Lets call it The Bigs 2. The Bigs 2 captures every over-the-top moment in baseball that you love with a twist. How about the dynamic catches? The true speed of a fastball? Or the shear power of the long ball? The Bigs 2 has it all. With oversized, exaggerated players and enormous ballparks that come to life, The Bigs 2 gives you all the drama you want in a baseball game. Yes, I do enjoy a simulation baseball game. I like being able to warm up my pitchers in the bullpen or shift my outfielders depending on who is at the plate but games like that really don’t translate well into local multiplayer action. If you have ever read anything I have written in the past, you know my opinion on how important it is for games to have a great local multiplayer value. Sure you have your online games but there has to be room for games that oblige to multiple gamers who play together locally. The shear enjoyment you get playing with your buddies while in the same room is priceless. The look on there face, the tension in the room and the pressure from onlookers are all quality gaming elements that you can’t experience by playing online.
The Bigs 2 accommodates up to four players to experience the high powered baseball action of your favorite sports teams. I've never played a baseball game that is simply as fun as this game. No down times or pausing for station identification, just baseball at its finest. And when I say finest, I mean over the top. When you have a speed baller on the mound you'd better expect an 109mph fastball cruising through your wheelhouse. Or maybe your slugger is up at the plate and finally connects on the pitch he's been waiting for and launches it into another time zone. I'm talking about big time, right out of "The Natural" drama. Lights will explode, signs will fall, basically you will remodel ballparks with a swing of your bat. But don't get too carried away just yet because you may just see a fielder scale the outfield wall like a mountain goat and rob you of your glory in front of your hometown. It works both ways. Third basemen will barrel into the stands for a foul ball. Talk about catcher/runner collisions at the plate? You better be wearing your helmet. This is baseball on the juice and that's a good thing. Even though it may sound like a different kind of baseball, it's hands down the best baseball game I've ever played. The over-the-top action and multiplayer that The Bigs offers simply screams replay value. This is a game worthy of your money and a space in your library; a perfect example of why we buy video games.
You haven't seen anything like this since the Mighty Casey struck out in Mudville but this is far from a strikeout, it's a grand slam.
By Stephen O'Blenis

01 March 2010

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time - Xbox, PS3, Gamecube

The tagline for "Superman: The Movie" said "You will believe a man can fly."
And we did. Decades later this is still the comic book film against which all others should be compared. They simply nailed it.
I could say the same for Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. The tagline should read: "You will believe YOU can run on walls." The game so effortlessly hands over the controls to the player, so perfectly intuits man and machine, that you can believe in the moment that it's you soaring around the ruins, reversing time and careening off walls and poles with ease.
If not for the recommendation of a good friend and beloved Philadelphia bartender (yes, I know a lot of bartenders) I might have missed this title. I'm typically not much for platformers of any kind. But John - who claims he will write for this blog one day - told me this game was perfect. Unlike me, John will not waste time with a bad game. John won't let a game's flaws slide. Suffice to say, if John is playing it it's a great game in every way.
So, you know, I took his advice.
And I still play this game today. It is the best of the last-gen trilogy and far better than the last installment. Even with it's often infuriating difficulty and painful trial and error, the game set the right tone. It knows just when to give the platforming a break and let you kill some bad guys. And when that nearly gets tedious, you'll find yourself putting Spider-Man to shame with some acrobatic feats and clever puzzle-solving.
There are hundreds of great games in the history of this medium, but not all of them elicit the sort of universal praise and respect you hear about this one.
It stands - or sands - the test of time.
By Victor Paul Alvarez