Posts from January, February, and March of 2008.

March 30, 2008... Winds of Change (plus, Xbox Live no longer as lively)

This is a test of the emergency broadcast system.  This is only a test.

Don't worry, I've still got an Awesome NES update planned for today.  Right now, though, I'm more interested in updating the layout of the site.  All the Nintendo pages have been switched to the new two column format, with tech specs and brief histories of each system on the left and the actual reviews on the right.

There's one other relatively minor formatting change.  See those blue dots at the top of some reviews?  These indicate that the reviewed game can be downloaded from Nintendo's Virtual Console service.  Similar icons will be added to games available on Xbox Live Arcade and possibly PSN in the future.

All right, without further ado, here are the freshly formatted pages!  If there are any problems with them, like broken links and such, be sure to let me know!

Nintendo NES
Super Nintendo
Nintendo 64
Nintendo DS
And now, the moment you've all been waiting for... the Awesome NES update has gone live!  This time, we're breaking out the big guns with Contra and its dubious spin-off Contra Force.  We've also got the Goemon-esque Cowboy Kid and Crash 'n the Boys: Street Challenge for your viewing pleasure... as well as Conan: The Mysteries of Time for all you closet masochists out there.  The real mystery is how this piece of crap wound up on the NES in the first place!
There's one other thing worth mentioning before I go... Microsoft has turned into a bunch of buttholes.  If you were thinking about getting Dodonpachi: Dai Oh Jou for your Xbox 360, you'd better think again, because it ain't happenin'.  Microsoft has decided that there were too many "faithful arcade ports" on the Xbox Live Arcade service, and is shutting off the tap for thisty shooter fans.  Thanks, guys!  So it's just going to be boring, fundamentally flawed casual games like TiQal from now on, huh?  All righty then.  Now I remember why I bought that Wii...
March 27, 2008... Blood in the Sand, Head in my Hands 

ANOTHER 50 Cent game?  Wasn't the first one more than enough?  At least this new title, Blood in the Sand, takes place in the Middle East, so we might see some yellows in addition to the drab browns and greys of the original.

Oh yeah, there's a new Awesome NES update in addition to the one I posted (but didn't announce) last Sunday.  This time, the sensational Cobra Triangle takes the spotlight, along with Codename: Viper (a blatant rip-off that's actually BETTER than the real thing?  Inconceivable!) and the considerably less exciting Color A Dinosaur.  Thanks for that one, Tommy...

All right, I've got to start working on the site's layout again.  I didn't realize that so many of the pages on the Blitz still used the crusty old design from 2005!  Arrgh, I'm so lazy!

March 20, 2008... Hit the Road, Jack

It may be March, but with all the good news we've been getting lately, it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas!  Let's take a look at the week's past events...

* After two decades of ineffectual slaps on the wrist, the Florida Bar Association has finally, mercifully dropped the hammer on anti-fun lawyer Jack Thompson.  The organization has determined that Thompson has failed to justify his frequent legal filings, and has taken away his right to file more without a signature from another (presumably more competant) lawyer.  It's the next best thing to a disbarment, which could also happen in the bar trial that will determine Thompson's fate as a lawyer.

* A half-dozen fantastic Nintendo DS games have been released in Japan, with a majority of these titles coming to the United States later this year.  In addition to remakes of the first two Ys games, there's a sequel to the quirky Dreamcast shooter Bangai-O, a spinoff of that beautiful but brutally difficult Xbox classic Ninja Gaiden, and a new Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles without all that poison fog.  Goodbye urn, hello unrestricted exploration!  Finally, there's Super Dodgeball Brawlers, which takes the hard-hitting sports game and injects features from another NES favorite, River City Ransom.  Talk about your two great tastes that taste great together!

* Finally, there's another Awesome NES update!  Actually, it's been up since yesterday, but for those of you who missed it, we're taking a crack at the Castlevania series along with a lot of other games with the word "Castle" in their names.

March 16, 2008... More Awesome NES, Whether You Like It or Not! 

The latest Awesome NES is ready, if you're so inclined to read it.  We're covering the Cs now, starting with reviews of Cabal and a number of games with the word "Captain" in the title.  Rounding things out are a few casino simulations, including Caesar's Palace and Sofel's Casino Kid series.

I need to branch out from these Awesome NES updates... maybe review a few Nintendo DS games for a change.  I suppose I could also detail my misadventures with Wii homebrew, but I might wait until they iron out all the kinks in the Twilight Princess exploit.  There's news that the developers responsible for the exploit are working on a channel accessible from the Wii's main menu.  This would grant gamers instant access to their favorite homebrew applications, but only time will tell how well this will work, if at all.

March 13, 2008... Big-buh Bills-buh Bar-buh-cue-buh

It's that time again, folks!  In this installment of Awesome NES, we're closing out the Bs with reviews of arcade hits like Bubble Bobble, Burgertime, and Bump 'n Jump.

March 9, 2008... Will Blog for Food

This Awesome NES update is the bomb... and the sequel to the bomb!  Yep, we're covering Bomberman, its greatly improved sequel, and a bunch of other games that aren't Bomberman.

Also, I've applied for jobs with several blogs, ranging from DS Fanboy to Kotaku.  Wish me luck, folks... I could really use the work!

March 7, 2008... Spin Trek, Deep Spin Nine

Oh crap!  I was so busy working on my spinner that I completely forgot to upload the latest installment of Awesome NES!  My apologies, folks.  There are a lot of classics in this update, ranging from the innovative action/adventure title Blaster Master to the soon-to-be-remade Bionic Commando.  And for all you sports fans out there, your Stanley Cup floweth over with Blades of Steel and the surprisingly good Bo Jackson Baseball.  Who knew he knew video games?

All right, back to this spinner.  I'm trying to add a joystick to the housing and wire up a few more buttons... that way, I can play games like Special Criminal Investigation and Tron without having to reach for the keyboard.  Wish me luck!

March 4, 2008... Spin Trek, the Next Generation

I may have been a little hasty in my judgment of that spinner.  After tweaking it a bit, I gave it one more test... then spent hours playing everything from Typhoon 2001 to Tac/Scan.  I still wish it were USB compatible, but what the heck... I'll bring my old PS/2 compatible desktop out of hibernation if it means I can play a few arcade-perfect games of Major Havoc.

March 2, 2008... Spin Trek

Not much to report at the moment, aside from a fresh update to Awesome NES.  This time, it's a grab bag of random titles, ranging from two games starring those slippery superheroes the Battletoads to a video game adaptation of the film Beetlejuice.  Tim Burton's macabre masterpiece isn't done justice on the NES, but that's not much of a surprise considering that it was an LJN release.  What is kind of shocking is that half the games on this page were developed by Rare.  Damn, those guys were prolific in the 1980's!  These days, you're lucky to get more than one game a year out of them.

Before I go, I've got some advice for all you old-school gamers out there.  If you're thinking of building a spinner for your home computer to get the most possible enjoyment out of Arkanoid, Space Duel, and Tempest (or even better, Typhoon 2001!), save yourself the headaches and just get one of these.  I tried going the homemade route and got nothing but frustration out of the deal.  The cruelest irony of all is that I spent enough money on parts for my own crappy spinner to buy one from EZ Arcade Solutions!  Blast, foiled again!

February 28, 2008... It Was a Teeny Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Tumiki

There's a lot of juicy news to report in this update.  First, Majesco has revealed that its upcoming Wii translation of Tumiki Fighters will include not only the original game, but three others by prolific freeware developer Kenta Cho.  Before you say something annoying like "But if they're free, why buy them?", there's more to this story.  Blast Works will also let you create your own characters and stages, and on top of all that, the graphics are signficantly improved over its rather simplistic PC counterpart.  Throw in the option to send stages to your friends over the Internet and the ability to store power-ups inside your ship for safe keeping, and you've got a game that makes it easy to forget all the crap that's being released for the Nintendo Wii.  You know, crap like this.

Two games that Majesco WON'T be publishing in the United States are Space Invaders Extreme and Arkanoid DS.  Taito's parent company, Square-Enix, will be bringing these classic remakes to our shores instead.  This may leave you worried about the price of these two titles, but fear not... they'll still cost $19.99 each when they're brought to America later this year.  Will we get the optional dial controller as well?  I'm not betting on it, but it'd be a sweet bonus!

The news isn't all good for Nintendo, though.  For instance, the upcoming Wii version of Super Mario Kart has a rather detached online mode.  There's no voice chat, no text chat of any real consequence (unless you consider canned catchphrases stimulating conversation), and no way to interact with other players unless they're in the same room as you.  I don't like making accusations of Nintendo games being too "kiddie," but in this case, they really ought to think about taking off the training wheels and letting players get the full online experience.  You shouldn't have to set up a friggin' conference call to play this game with your out-of-state friends!

Then there's talk of motion control being taken to the next level on the Playstation 3.  Someone experimented with head tracking on the Nintendo Wii, but the PS3 takes the silly headgear out of the question, replacing it with a camera that tracks the motion of the player's eyes.  That could be a real problem for Nintendo... if the Playstation 3 drops $200 in price, anyway.

Finally, there's an Awesome NES update waiting for you.  This time, the batboys of Bases Loaded are teaming up with the batmen of, er, Batman.  Now that's why I call a dynamic duo!

February 24, 2008... Spin the Black Circle

We're taking you out to the ballgame in this installment of Awesome NES... everything from the futuriffic Base Wars to the first Bases Loaded are covered on this page.  Don't worry, non-sports fans... we've got you covered as well, with reviews of Barker Bill's Trick Shooting and The Bard's Tale.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to figure out a way to turn these old hard drive parts and this PowerAde cap into a proper arcade spinner.  I just can't play Tempest without one!

February 21, 2008... Giving You the (Monkey) Business

Time for an Awesome NES update!  We're moving onto the Bs, starting with Back to the Future and ending with... uh... Barbie?  It's a good thing we're also reviewing the exceptional Bad News Baseball to bring up the average!

With that out of the way, it's time to play Now... or Then!  It's a little like the Price is Right version of the game, except the cranky fat guy doesn't wear glasses or make wisecracks about the sponsors.  Anyway, we're going to look at two different games... the first is still in development but already very promising, while the second was released over a decade ago, but is still as addictive as it was in the 1990's.

NOW:  Between its admission of sucking the creativity out of its subsidiaries and making titles like Boom Blox and the tentatively titled Monkey Business, Electronic Arts seems intent on shaking its reputation as the world's most evil game developer.  We're all familiar with the Spielburg-produced Boom Blox, but what about Monkey Business?  Well, from what I've seen so far, this DS game is the perfect hybrid of 1960's aesthetics, 1980's gaming conventions, and 21st century technology.  As the intrepid British explorer Professor Hatsby, you'll trek through the heart of Africa, bounding over craggy cliffs straight out of an episode of George of the Jungle and matching wits with everything from abstractly drawn monkeys to brawny opera singers. 

Sometimes you'll need an added boost to get you through the game's most punishing trials, and that's when the sliding puzzle on the bottom screen comes in handy.  You can triple the professor's strength by switching to the puzzle mode, making a few quick matches, then switching back to the main game before time runs out.  A video on the DS Fanboy web site illustrates that the puzzle mode can be used to give ordinary bombs a nuclear-powered punch, but only EA knows what else it will bring to the gameplay.  However, there's no mystery at all about the quality of the Henry Mancini-inspired soundtrack and the expressive animation... it's almost like playing an episode of the Pink Panther cartoon!

THEN:  Gamers running the Macintosh operating system don't get a lot of breaks, but they did have one advantage over their PC owning friends back in the early 1990's... Ambrosia Software's Maelstrom.  Released in 1992, Maelstrom borrows heavily from the Atari classic Asteroids, while adding all the luxuries people had come to expect from the Nintendo age.  First aid capsules, allies in need of rescue, and point multipliers join the aimlessly floating chunks of rock and give the player added incentive to fight to the next stage.  Maelstrom is also pretty cutting-edge for its time, with simple yet attractive computer rendered graphics and soundbites culled from old Ren and Stimpy episodes.  Remember, this was back in the multimedia age, when it was fashionable to cram games full of digitized voices even if it didn't make much sense for them to be in there!

Fifteen years later, Maelstrom is now available on Windows and Linux, with most of the charm still intact.  Sure, the game looks almost as plain now as the original Asteroids did back in 1992, but it's nevertheless very playable, with customizable controls and a shield button that saves your bacon when the screen is thick with meteor fragments.  There are a few features the game could have done without, like the black holes that suck with the force of ten thousand Deal or No Deal episodes, but overall it's one of the best games of Asteroids I've ever played, ranking right up there with Owen Thomas' Astro Fire trilogy.

February 17, 2008... Super Sessler Fighter II Turbo

It's funny how Street Fighter IV gets less and less exciting each time Capcom adds a new character to its roster.  First, they gave us the Baroness from the G.I. Joe cartoon, and now we've got this guy...

Unless all his opponents are parasitic Florida lawyers, this dude is totally screwed.

The King of Fighters is also being pulled out of the mothballs, with more lively character artwork than in previous installments of the long-running series.  Hair flows like water, clothing ripples with every leap, and there's a sense of exaggeration in the animation that was largely missing from the last game.  There's a YouTube video that makes the differences between King of Fighters XII and its predecessor more clear... just click on this link, then fast-forward to 1:11 for the good stuff.

There's just one more thing I wanted to give you before I go... oh yeah, the latest page of Awesome NES!  We're finishing up the As with Athletic World and Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.  We'll be tackling the Bs shortly, so keep watching!

February 13, 2008... Demo May Cry

I've got a lot to do at college today, so I'm going to give you the latest Awesome NES update early.  This time, the spandex-clad superstars of American Gladiators are taking on the belligerant b-ballers of Arch Rivals.  We'll also take a step back in time to ancient Greece and check out the mediocre side-scrolling action games Astyanax and Athena.  As the great Archimedes might say, "They Reek-A!"

So, how's about that Devil May Cry 4?  I played the demo on Xbox Live Arcade this morning, and was really impressed with the graphics.  It's hard not to be after you've seen the exquisitely detailed buildings towering over you and the massive bosses tearing through ramshackle villages in the hopes of crushing you under their flaming heels.  However, the rest of the game doesn't seem to have evolved along with the visuals.  The camera angles are still distressingly schizophrenic; an unwelcome throwback to the early days of Resident Evil.  Also, the control is a little clumsy thanks to the right shoulder button, which you're frequently forced to press along with the controller's face buttons to perform some attacks.

I can't complain too much... at least this feels like a Devil May Cry game, instead of the closed-quarters clusterfuck that was Devil May Cry 3.  However, I can't help but think that the Xbox 360 would be better served with a sequel to Legacy of Kain: Defiance, the overlooked action/adventure game that does everything Devil May Cry did, but with more class.

February 10, 2008... The Dawn of Awesome NES

Hey, check it out!  After years of hard work and frustrating dead ends, I'm publishing that NES book after all.  I'm making one tiny change, though... it's no longer a book, but a section of this web site.  I'll be uploading pages of Awesome NES on a bi-weekly basis, and you can access the first two by clicking on the logo shown above.  Enjoy!

February 4, 2008... EEE-discovery (plus a brief Wii controller review) 

I tell 'ya, I'm really starting to warm up to this EEE.  Games aren't always easy to get running on this system, but when they finally do, it's a beautiful thing.  I just tried a German remake of Tempest 2000 that's as impressive now as the original game was in 1994.  It makes me feel even more foolish for buying Space Giraffe when I could have had this for free!  The Linux conversion of Cave Story is also pretty solid... it's no better than the Windows version and maybe even a little worse thanks to the distorted sound, but it just feels right on a computer as small as the EEE. 

I've even got a few more emulators running on the machine, including Yabause, XMESS, and Mednafen.  As expected, Yabause was slower than slow, but XMESS does justice to my favorite systems from the late 70's and early 80's, and Mednafen handles the later 8-bit consoles pretty well, going so far as to let you run Supergrafx and TurboDuo titles in addition to the standard Turbografx-16 HuCards.  I do wish the emulators were more user-friendly... in fact, the Linux experience as a whole could stand to be a lot less obstinate.  Frustration aside, I've got the EEE running the software I want to use, so I can't complain too much.

With that bit of self-indulgence out of the way, let's take a look at some of the latest news from the video game industry:

* Guillemot's Thrustmaster T-Wireless controller is finally starting to find its way to retailers throughout the United States.  I bought this Wii controller last week from and find myself torn between its incredibly awesome features and its incredibly questionable design.  First, the good news... the wireless performance is nearly flawless, as good as the Wavebird's but without the immense size or the funky button shapes.  There's also a mapping function which addresses the lack of controller customization options in many Virtual Console titles.  Hate the control setup in Sin and Punishment?  In less than a minute, you can assign character movement to the left stick and aiming to the right, making the game infinitely more enjoyable. 

Now comes the bad news.  There's a battery pack on the back that makes holding the controller uncomfortable, and the D-pad is lousy, with each direction joined together by ugly contoured plastic.  Ooh, so close!  The T-Wireless is still worth the modest price- I can't play Sin and Punishment or King of Fighters '94 without it!- but I'm hoping another company will come along to perfect its promising design in the near future.  Could you imagine a Sega Saturn pad with wireless connectivity and button mapping?  I could, and it shifts my saliva glands into overdrive just thinking about it.

* Nintendo recently patented a bunch of Wiimote peripherals that nobody in their right minds would use.  Some of the most memorable (but not in a good way) concepts include a skateboard with a Wiimote slot in the rear wheel axle, a headset with safety goggles, and a teddy bear.  You don't want to know where you're supposed to insert the Wiimote in that last one...

* World-famous console modder Ben Heckendorn has taken an Xbox 360 and turned it into a camo-painted, battle-ready laptop.  What's most impressive about this project is the slimline design, making me wonder when Microsoft is going to shrink the size of its official Xbox 360 systems.  Surely the success of the Wii has taught you guys by now that when it comes to game systems, thin is in!

* A sealed copy of Chrono Trigger, the beloved role-playing game for the Super NES, was sold on eBay for over twelve hundred dollars!  Yowza, that's too rich for my blood!  I have this game on one of those Final Fantasy collections for the original Playstation, but still haven't gotten around to actually playing it.  I guess I just don't have the patience for story-driven turn-based RPGs in my old age.

That's about it from me.  I'll be back... uh, probably not soon, but the next time I feel like posting.  Maybe someday I'll even upload a new video!

January 31, 2008... Don't Know Much About Geometry (Wars)

Reviewers have been comparing Geometry Wars Galaxies to rich, decadent chocolate... absolutely scrumptious at first, but less and less divine with each subsequent bite.  I would take that analogy even further and compare the game to that episode of The Twilight Zone where the gambler is trapped in a cruelly ironic reality where every pull of the slot machine handle results in a jackpot.  Then he sees a gremlin on the wing of a plane, turns into Adolph Hitler, and discovers that his wife is a giant bug.  Wait, maybe that was that an episode of Futurama...

Anyway, my point is that the developers have taken a game that's meant to be enjoyed in ten minute spurts and turned it into twenty straight hours of monotony.  There are countless stages in the game, but each one has as much impact on the gameplay as the 128 variations in an Atari 2600 release from the late 1970's.  Sure, the stage layout changes a bit, and there are a few new enemies here and there, but it's still Geometry Wars, which means driving back a swarm of progressively annoying enemies until their backstabbing goodness exhausts your supply of lives. 

The introduction of geoms, medals, and a level up system for your AI droid needlessly draws out the game and burdens the player with a grim sense of obligation.  Practically everything in the game must be purchased with the floating currency gathered in each stage, you'll have to rack up a score that rivals the national debt to earn the gold medals, and it takes hours of grinding to graduate your computer-controlled partners from "pathetic" to "borderline helpful."  This all adds up to a massive time investment without an adequate payoff... or in keeping with the theme of the aforementioned Twilight Zone episode, an inexhaustible payoff that's ultimately not worth much.

January 24, 2008... Emulate EEE, Animate EEE

After hours of work, I've finally cracked the (Linux) shell of the Asus EEE and snuck a few emulators past its iron defenses.  Here's the score so far...








Needs BIOS; not sure where to put it




Runs quickly but window is very small

FCE Ultra



Runs wonderfully; optional frontend won't work




Runs quickly, lots of options, lower compatibility




XGnGeo installs; the emulator itself is missing




Blanks screen and crashes spectacularly




SNES9x port.  The frontend comes separately




Multi-system emulator.  Needs frontend badly!




Almost as slow as VBA, but it certainly works




Light version of the Win emulator.  Works well

VB Advance



The slowest slow that ever slowed a slow




Plays tons of stuff, all at a reasonable speed




Plays the waiting game, then just stops




Spins its wheels for a while before stopping




Autopackage installs but program vanishes




Looks just like the Win version, but poor sound

There were a few emulators that I couldn't get on their feet.  Some won't be missed all that much, and others were just asking too much of the system.  If my home laptop can't run this Saturn emulator at full speed, the chances of a runt like the EEE running it at all were slim to none!  However, it's much harder to accept the loss of XMESS, as it can run software for dozens of computers and game systems.  With any luck, a little tweaking will be just the jolt of electricity it needs to bring it to life.  In the meantime, I'll have to settle for Mednafen, which emulates a handful of the more popular consoles with varying degrees of success.  NES games fill the screen and sound just like the real thing, but Turbografx titles are blurry (hey, just like on the Wii!) and spill outside the system's display.

I really can't complain, though, as I've got all the major food groups of emulation covered.  Stella and FCE Ultra let me recapture my childhood, and I can fondly look back on my teen years with Generator and GSnes9X.  Plus, there's MAME, which runs everything from Asteroids to The King of Fighters '99 with ease.  That's in sharp contrast to my last handheld computer, a MobilePro 770, which ran exactly one emulator and did it with all the speed of a comatose slug.

I guess the bottom line is that I'm a lot happier with the Asus EEE now that I've got it running games that have nothing to do with penguins.  For what it's worth, it handles the more important stuff pretty well too... pre-installed programs like OpenOffice, Pidgen, and Firefox all run as quickly as they do on my Windows machines at home, and without the aggravation of occasional crashes.  I have a funny feeling that once I get the hang of installing third party programs and learn a little more about the underlying operating system, I'll be quite satisfied with my investment.

January 19, 2008... Adventures with Manboobs the Penguin

I had my first taste of Linux this weekend, and let me tell you, this stuff bites back!  There's nothing this operating system can't overcomplicate, which I quickly discovered when I tried to install emulators on my new Asus EEE.  On Windows, you'd just download a file, unzip it into a folder, add the BIOS, and click the program icon to start the festivities, but nothing is ever that easy in Linux!

After switching on the EEE's hidden advanced mode, I tried to download software using a peculiar command line program called Aptitude.  Wait, this is the 21st century, right?  When that didn't work, I switched to a more user-friendly, but still unfamiliar utility called the Synaptic Response Tool.  The concept behind this one is actually pretty cool... instead of hunting down files on the Internet, it offers a vast library of them, arranged by category.  Once you find the software you need, you just click the box next to it and click install.  Then wonder where the hell the programs you installed went.

Like I said, nothing is ever that easy with Linux.  It turns out that the programs I installed vanished into a USR folder, scattered throughout a handful of subfolders.  Stella and Atari 800 went in with the rest of the binaries, while the others were unceremoniously dumped into the games folder along with The Adventures of Manboobs the Penguin, or whatever they call that racing game that was included with the system.

Oh, but I haven't even gotten to the best part!  After assigning the programs to the launch button (a task even Hercules would fear), I discovered that the lion's share of the emulators I downloaded had no front ends.  This makes playing NES games an agonizing carrot and stick experience.  They look stunning on the EEE's seven inch display, but trying to get them started is often more of a challenge than the games themselves.  What's the deal, guys?  This isn't 1996.  An emulator without a user interface is like a slingshot without a rubber band... in other words, practically useless.

Anyway, there's some new stuff on the site, including the second half of the Saturn Winter Special and some Atari 5200 game reviews.  Now if you'll excuse me, I need to scream at my EEE for the next three hours.

January 14, 2008... Turning Point

People have been incredibly enthusiastic about the past year, claiming that there's never been a better time to be a fan of video games.  After thinking about it for a while, I'd have to agree.  Not since the salad days of the Saturn and Dreamcast have I enjoyed the hobby this much, and it's been that way for nearly three years.  However, the three years that came before it weren't nearly as pleasant, representing a low point for the industry.

It all started at the tail end of 2001.  Sega dropped support for the Dreamcast, and the video game industry became the exclusive domain of the Playstation 2.  Microsoft and Nintendo offered consoles of their own, but they lagged well behind the leader of the pack in market penetration, and weren't markedly different from the system they hoped to dethrone.   

Sure, the Xbox had Halo, and the GameCube rose from its mediocrity on rare occasions with exclusives like Zelda: Wind Waker.  Past these anomalies, the systems were carbon copies of the Playstation 2, offering the same software and roughly the same gaming experience.  It's no wonder the two consoles didn't sell particularly well... if you already owned a Playstation 2, purchasing a GameCube or Xbox was redundant at best and a waste of money at worst.


The software available for all three consoles made gaming in the first half of the decade all the more monotonous.  Sony narrowed its focus to a small group of "hardcore" gamers, with its competitors and third parties quickly following suit.  The few companies who refused to obey the status quo were pushed to the back of the bus as niche developers, and in the case of Working Designs, driven out of business.


The end result of this cynical market saturation could be seen on store shelves and in rental stores.  What was once a multicolored patchwork of the industry's most creative ideas quickly became an oppressive wall of Grand Theft Auto, Madden, and Unreal Tournament.  Finding something, anything, that distanced itself from the crowd was as refreshing- yet also as unlikely- as discovering an oasis in the middle of a parched desert.


For years, that wall held fast.  Then, as suddenly as it was built, the structure collapsed, reduced to a pile of drab grey and brown rubble.  What happened to bring this awful chapter of gaming history to an end?  Competition happened.  Innovation happened.  Disruption happened.


The rebellion began on shaky feet at first, with the release of the Nintendo DS in late 2004.  People weren't sure what to make of this oddball handheld, but were sure that it would be utterly crushed by Sony's more powerful PSP.  Months later, Majesco Entertainment and Double Fine took a chance of their own with Psychonauts, an old-fashioned platformer with a playful sense of humor far removed from the angry satire of Grand Theft Auto.


Psychonauts didn't sell well, and at first, the Nintendo DS looked like it was headed for the same fate.  However, Japanese developers liked what they saw and risked it all on the quirky unit, creating games that took full advantage of its touchscreen and other defining features.  The fruits of their labor were original titles like Trauma Center and Brain Age that left the PSP's retread offerings (sequels to the ten year old Wipeout and Twisted Metal) feeling stale by comparison.


Then along came the Xbox 360.  Microsoft rushed to bring the system to market, ignoring the lessons of the 3DO and Saturn.  However, the risky move that put Panasonic and Sega in a world of hurt paid off for the software manufacturer.  Microsoft had a year to build a strong foundation of games and improve the system's media playback, leaving its two competitors at a distinct disadvantage.


Sony expected total domination of the console market with the Playstation 3 in late 2006... only to watch in stunned surprise as the Xbox 360 held its ground and the Wii surged past them both.  The Wii took an entirely different path from its rivals, sacrificing performance for motion-sensitive controls that drew players of all ages into the action.  The Playstation 3, on the other hand, had a huge price tag and few games that justified it, along with a manufacturer who refused to acknowledge its shortcomings.


With Sony's stranglehold of the video game industry broken and developers awakened to new audiences, games became more diverse and enjoyable than ever.  Old school fans long denied their fix were given all the retro releases they could handle on the Xbox Live Arcade service.  The first family-friendly console in nearly a decade was opening doors that were once shut to young players and their parents.  And even the well-worn genres of games were given a boost in creativity, as Portal and Crackdown both demonstrate.


For the first time since the battle between the Sega Genesis and Super NES in 1992, the video game industry is split between console manufacturers.  Nintendo has this console generation all locked up with the Wii, and its DS is still selling strong in the East and West.  Microsoft holds second place with the Xbox 360, and is building brand loyalty with an excellent online service.  Finally, Sony is still making millions from its economically priced Playstation 2, and gaining ground in the handheld market with the PSP.  All three companies are fighting hard to keep their share of the market, but in a console war where every contestant is evenly matched, it's the fans that ultimately emerge victorious.


It's why I'm mystified by the suggestion from God of War lead designer David Jaffe that there should be an industry standard, with every developer throwing their weight behind a single console.  We tried that before, Dave.  It was called the Playstation 2, and one look at the games available in 2003 should tell you that it didn't work.


January 9, 2008... Omega Five: Not Just An Essential Fatty Acid


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All right, Valve.  I bought The Orange Box.  Now will you PLEASE show me some mercy and stop with the obnoxious Internet memes?  I'm so sick of fabricated pastries that I may never not have dessert again.  Anyway, I spent thirty minutes with Portal this morning, just to discover what got everyone talking (or just mindlessly parroting lines from the game) in 2007. 


The first thing I'll say is that Portal is an extremely disorienting experience at first.  You'll often see mirror images of your alter ego, which can stretch out to infinity if you stick your head through the right portal.  The game toys with your already blown mind by offering advice that may not actually be of much use.  Thanks to the constant mental abuse of GlaDOS (no, not the scented candle from S.C. Johnson Wax; the creepy computer in the game), Portal seems less like a puzzle game and more like a psychological experiment, with you as an unwitting test subject.


Don't let the sadist with the Steven Hawking accent distract you, though... the only mind game you need to concern yourself with is finding your way to the exit in each room.  Like any good puzzler, Portal starts out simple but sets more weight on your shoulders as you progress, introducing elements like floating platforms, deadly water, and attack drones in each new room.  Did I mention that the portal generator was the only "weapon" at your disposal?  You'd better make the most of it!




If Portal's pacifism has got you feeling a little gun-deprived, Omega Five's got the cure.  This flashy shooter combines elements of R-Type and Forgotten Worlds for double the intensity.  The R-Type influence is especially apparent while playing as Ruby... her orbital satellite can be launched at enemies, briefly sacrificing wide-range firepower for intense damage to a single foe.  The alternate character, Tempest, uses a more defensive approach, catching bullets in a hyperspace field that renders them harmless while hosing down his adversaries with sprays of acid, napalm, or molten metal.  Oh solder, is there anything you CAN'T do?


The graphics in Omega Five are sensational, bearing a faint resemblance to R-Type Final but cranking up the resolution and detail to next-gen levels.  Massive worms wind themselves around the screen in an effort to crush you, and bulbous organs weave themselves together into a grotesque, pulsating mass.  The use of neon colors and shiny metallic surfaces makes the game even more fetching, and is a welcome act of rebellion against the current industry trend of drab browns and greys.  The sound doesn't carry nearly as much impact, with the piercing scream of your hero breaking up a forgettable assortment of muffled explosions and futuristic techno tracks.  Fortunately, you'll be too busy weaving through waves of bullets and blowing up massive enemies to notice.


Then there's the gameplay.  I never got a feel for Tempest's hyperspace field, and his liquid weapons all seem pretty toothless.  You can focus the spray of the acid gun to intensify its effect, but even at maximum strength, the chemicals just drip harmlessly from the bodies of the later bosses.  C'mon, this is acid, not Johnson's Extra Gentle Baby Shampoo!  Despite her petite size, Ruby packs a much bigger punch, with a screen-choking vulcan cannon and a satellite that brings down even the most stubborn opponents.  On top of all that, she just looks more attractive... I still haven't figured out what Tempest is supposed to be, but I sure as hell don't want to be it!




You know what I hate?  That's right, a whole lot of things.  However, games that focus on a storyline at the cost of practically everything else is way on the top of my list of grievances.  With that in mind, it's not too surprising that I'd be disappointed with Yakuza, which isn't so much a video game as it is a feature-length motion picture with little bits of game sprinkled on top.  In the grand tradition of Final Fantasy VII and other self-proclaimed masterpieces, you get two minutes of cut scene and a half minute of access time for every minute you actually fight.


That's great if you came for the life story of hired goon turned one-man prison riot turned ex-con Kazuma.  That story is fairly compelling, with a insider's view of the Japanese mafia written by a famous crime author from the Far East.  The dark underbelly of Tokyo just seems more thrilling and exotic than the back alleys of Brooklyn, especially after six seasons of The Sopranos!  Unfortunately, the dialog hit a few snags on its way to the United States.  The writing is stilted and awkward, an earmark of hasty English localizations, and the voice actors deliver their lines with all the passion of Al Gore after an evening of Ny-Quil shooters.


However, those flaws are pretty minor compared to what little action the game offers.  The fighting in Yakuza is simplistic, with a whole lot of button mashing and not a lot of technique.  You do earn new attacks as you progress, but you'll have to sit through unskippable full-motion video sequences before you can get the goods.  Instead of spending all that time twiddling your thumbs, I'd recommend that you put them to work on a few rounds of Urban Reign.  Sure, the storyline in that game is completely brain dead, but if you wanted an engrossing plot, you should be watching a movie instead of playing a game pretending to be one.


January 4, 2008... Putting the Smackdown On Crackdown

Sure hate to start the new year with one of these, but I've just got to say it.  The ending for Crackdown not only sucks, but it leaves me with a not-so-fresh feeling that makes me want to unspend all the time I invested in it.  What the hell, Realtime Worlds?  It's not cool to make me feel like a chump after waging a day-long war against the forces of what I thought was evil.

This would hardly be the first crappy ending I've seen in a video game, but at least Karnov's conclusion on the NES was a crime of omission, rather than an outright slap in the face.  With "CONGRATULATION," you can at least fill in the blanks to your liking.  Let's see... the fat Russian circus performer is financially secure and can retire until 1993, when he's thrown back into the spotlight with a fighting game that was every bit as dumb as his debut.  Hey, works for me! 

However, Crackdown not only takes away any sense of accomplishment you may have felt after defeating the final boss, but punishes you for your efforts.  Yeah, screw you too, Voice of the Agency!  After listening to hours of your nagging and insults, delivered in an accent only Optimus Prime could love, my reward is a bullet in the brain?  I'm telling you, Realtime Worlds, if you're even thinking of making a sequel, you had damn well better rebuild the bridges you burned in the first Crackdown.  I'm not paying sixty dollars for another helping of backstabbin' goodness.