07 January 2010

Super Mario Land - Nintendo Game Boy

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

Conan – Xbox 360, PS3

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