FALL 2009

Posts from October, November, and December 2009.

December 31, 2009... New Year, New Decade

Well, that's it for Awesome NES.  Every licensed NES game released in the United States is included on the list now, from A to Z and beyond.  I may move on to the small handful of European exclusives or start posting Ross Wooddard's unlicensed game reviews, but the bulk of my work is over... and just in time for the 20th anniversary of the moment when the system hit the peak of its popularity!

With the end of Awesome NES comes the end of the year, as well as an era of gaming.  Much has changed in the industry over the last ten years.  Internet compatibility has gone from a quirky, rarely used novelty in the Dreamcast to an expected and tightly integrated feature in nearly every game console.  Systems have grown vastly more powerful, with development costs for high-profile games rising into the stratosphere to take full advantage of that extra horsepower.  Industry fixtures like Namco, Sega, and Sierra have merged with toy manufacturers, casinos, and even other game companies to stay afloat in an increasingly costly and competitive market.  Finally, brave new concepts from industry underdogs have turned the medium on its head, leaving companies who've grown dangerously complacent scrambling to offer their own alternatives.

What will the next decade bring?  Will the motion control of the Wii push the industry toward true virtual reality?  Will the downfall of Tiger Woods and the increasingly stagnant and exploitative Madden series spell trouble for Electronic Arts?  Or is Activision's own golden goose cooked after releasing one too many games packed with pricey plastic peripherals?  Will corporate consolidation leave us with just a half-dozen key game developers, or will more rise from obscurity to take the place of fallen giants like Acclaim and Data East?  Can we expect a longer shelf life from the Playstation 3, Xbox 360, and Wii than their respective predecessors?  Most importantly, will we be much too old to care about video games at all?

I guess we'll know the answers by December 31, 2019.

December 25, 2009... Holiday Rush

Oh man, I completely forgot about Awesome NES!  There's going to be one heck of a rush to complete the feature before the end of the year, but I do have three pages of NES reviews ready for those interested.  Some of the games in this super-sized Christmas update include Toki (soon to be released in updated form on the Xbox Live Arcade service), Track & Field and its sophisticated sequel, the considerably less sophisticated Tom & Jerry, and the not sophisticated at all Total Recall.

All right gang, I guess I'd better jump back into Assassin's Creed II.  Knowing that game, I probably won't so much jump back into it as jump off to the side slightly and off a three story roof.  This game is so good in so many ways, but control is most assuredly not one of them.

December 22, 2009... Psycho Santa, Ho Ho Ho!

It's high time I unveiled the Christmas banner for the site.  There were two things you could always count on from Data East... completely ridiculous fighting games, and cameo appearances from the most dangerously unstable Saint Nick this side of a Weird Al Yankovic song.  The Psycho Santas from Two Crude Dudes are just straight up nasty, but this statue of the jolly old elf, from the Christmas stage in Boogie Wings, rapidly alternates between doling out gifts and delivering pain to players, swapping faces with every violent mood swing.  When you sink that last bullet into his bowl full of jelly, he explodes, leaving you with a headless clockwork Nick as the real deal and his eight tiny reindeer fly past in the distance.  Yeah, it was that kind of game.

December 19, 2009... InHeinous

Twenty five years ago, the very idea of a game like Fable II would have been met with skepticism and mockery.  The kindest response you would have received from gamers would have been, "Hmm, sounds like an interesting text adventure."  These days, the far-reaching depth of Fable II is still not commonplace, but happens often enough that the average player wouldn't bat an eye over the ability to purchase and maintain a house, or wear condoms to prevent a pregnancy.  It shocks the hell out of me, though.

I'll let you know what I think of the game once I've finished the daunting manual and actually pop the disc into my Xbox 360.  In the meantime, let's have a look at the two games I received earlier in the week, shall we?  First up is InFamous, from Sly Cooper creators Sucker Punch.  Quirky but endlessly playable video games have been this team's calling card since the release of Rocket: Robot on Wheels over ten years ago, but this time, I'm only seeing the quirks.  The animation is a real sore spot for me... the techniques that Sucker Punch used to bring talking raccoons and turtles to life don't work so well for Infamous' cast of grim humans.  Gestures and expressions are uncomfortably stiff or distractingly comical, but either way, they never seem natural.  It's obvious that Sucker Punch had significantly more trouble making the transition from silly to serious than its second party peers Naughty Dog and Insomniac.

The action in inFamous mirrors recent sandbox games Assassin's Creed II and Prototype, with open environments and the ability to climb towering skyscrapers with ease.  The control doesn't have the offputting slot car feel of Assassin's Creed II, but then again, I don't remember getting shot in the back from long distances in ACII either.  This leads me to my second complaint... the enemies here are the most aggressively, annoyingly tenacious I've seen in a video game since the birds and bats in the NES version of Ninja Gaiden.  You'll be constantly fired upon by the drug-addled, hood-veiled Reapers, often from such distances that you'll never find the source of the onslaught until the screen is splattered with your blood (life bars, who needs 'em?).  Even when you do find your enemies, they're so wily that it's damned near impossible to lock onto them with your inaccurate bolts of lightning and wimpy, wimpy, wimpy light grenades.

People often complain that my view of gaming is too pessimistic, but it's really, really hard to see the positives in this release.  Even the cast of characters is a downer, with the Clorox-gargling hero accompanied by a bossy government agent, bitch-a-matic ex-girlfriend, and a southern-fried sidekick so slimy and opportunistic, it's a monumental test of your patience and willpower to keep from putting a few volts in him.  Sorry, Sucker Punch, but maybe you ought to stick with Sly Cooper sequels.

Fortunately, PURE's around to keep me from ending this update on a sour note.  You might be tempted to dismiss this extreme racing game as a cheap Disney cash-in, but you'd be oh-so-very wrong.  First, Disney owns ESPN2, so they have a little street cred with the extreme sports crowd.  Second, the game is actually very well designed... perhaps a little too complicated for its own good, but visually striking and at least as fun to play as Excitetruck or Motorstorm. 

There's a clever symbiosis between the racing and tricks... a clean jump over a hill lets you perform wild stunts, which fills up a boost meter that lets you streak past competitors in the straightaways.  Alternately, you can hold onto this energy and use it to gain access to even sweeter stunts, including a set of top-tier tricks that excellent players can perform in perpetuity.  Pulling off tricks is never as smooth as it was in the early Tony Hawk games (read: not RIDE), but it adds spice to an already solid racer, and could blossom into something truly fantastic after a couple sequels of refinement.  However, since they were giving this away with Xbox 360 systems and I bought mine for about six bucks, maybe I shouldn't hold my breath for Extra PURE...

December 17, 2009... A Day That Will Live in Infamy

Infamous has arrived at JessCREATIONS*, Co. Studios, along with the promising off-road racing game PURE.  It's not hard to figure out what I'll be doing later this evening!

Come to think of it, I'll have plenty of time for gaming now that this semester is over.  Maybe this will also result in more content for the site, or perhaps even- dare I say it?- a new video review after a year long hiatus.  Hey, anything's possible!

December 14, 2009... The Heat is On

When Stevie Wonder made the case on the VGA Awards that video game designers should do more to accommodate the needs of the disabled, many laughed.  However, I see it as an intriguing challenge.  How would you adapt a medium dependent on sight for those who do not possess it?

The answer lies in "heat pixels."  Inventor Cesar Austudillo suggested this for an oven of the future, using a matrix of hexagonal heating elements coupled with a touch-sensitive stovetop for even cooking regardless of the pan's size and shape.  It's a clever idea that could easily be adapted for a sightless video game.  Imagine if you will a blanket, perhaps one square foot in size, with a matrix of tiny heating elements woven through it.  The blanket is worn on the back, perhaps held in place with a specially designed shirt, and the elements are warmed according to the position of characters and objects in the game. 

We'll use Pac-Man as an example.  As the most important character in the game, Pac-Man would be the warmest heat pixel in the blanket.  As Pac-Man moves, the heat in one element is shut off and an adjacent element is switched on.  Slightly cooler are the monsters, which patrol the maze in search of our hungry hero.  Cooler still are the walls of the maze, and barely producing heat at all are the tiny dots Pac-Man must gobble to finish the stage.  There's enough distinction between the heat levels for the player to know the position of every important object in the game, and wearing the blanket on the back means that movement would correspond precisely to a standard game controller, with no mirroring.

The applications of this "Virtual Vision" heat panel could extend well beyond a simple game of Pac-Man.  It could also be used as a sort of radar for games like the recently released Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, giving the player a sense of his onscreen position and his proximity to enemies.  Using the Pac-Man model, other players could be panel hot spots, while the absence of heat could indicate safe zones, places where the player can freely walk.  These tactile clues, coupled with a good surround stereo system, could get a sight-deficient player through the story mode and maybe even a few multiplayer games.

There are some issues with the design, of course.  The intensity of the heating elements would have to be adjusted at least thirty times a second to keep up with the onscreen action, which may necessitate a switch to Braille pins or tiny vibration motors.  Also, it's hard to say if even a blind individual's heightened sense of touch would be enough to differentiate the levels of heat in the elements.  The pad may have to be worn as a glove around the extremely sensitive skin of the palm for it to be useful.

The concept's not perfect, but accommodations for blind gamers are still in the stone age, and practically anything would be an improvement over what they've currently got.  I'm going to run this by Ben Heckendorn and see what he thinks of the idea.

December 10, 2009... Mega Man 10! (and oh yeah, some other stuff)

I'm sure you've heard the news already, but a sequel to Mega Man 9 will be released next year for Nintendo's WiiWare service.  Not much have been revealed about the game, aside from the usual flimsy pretense for Mega Man's latest skirmish with the nefarious Dr. Wily (it's a robot virus this time... perhaps a foreshadowing of the Mavericks in Mega Man X?) and a single robot master, Sheep Man.  The small handful of screenshots printed in Nintendo Power already fill me with dread... really, how are you supposed to survive this?!

In other, less important news, NPD projects that over 800,000 copies of Assassin's Creed II were sold for the Xbox 360.  That's very good news indeed... after some initial frustration with the control, the game really grew on me.  Just as encouraging are the dismal projected sales of Tony Hawk Ride and Band Hero.  With just 13,000 units of the former and 28,000 of the latter sold in November, there's a good chance Activision will think long and hard before releasing yet another game with a behemoth plastic controller.

What else?  Shadow Complex, the merger of Metroid's play mechanics and modern day gaming trends, will be available at a sharp discount during the Christmas week.  That makes me feel a little stupid for purchasing the game a week ago, but for those of you who haven't yet taken the plunge... score!

Also, the upcoming sequel to Mass Effect will feature a cornucopia of classic cartoon voice overs.  This includes not only the magnificent Keith David of Gargoyles fame, but Seth Green (Robot Chicken), Michael Dorn (I. M. Weasel...?), and Jennifer Hale (name an animated series, and she was probably in it) as well.  I never finished the first game, but perhaps I'll give it another shot, taking care to pick the better of the two Shepards this time.  How was I supposed to know that the guy was the lame one?

Well, that's it from me.  Back to the messy business of finishing this term paper...

December 5, 2009... Assassin's Creed II: A Tale of Near Triumph

The most agonizing video game experiences don't come from purely awful games, but rather those titles that come within inches of perfection, only to let it slip through their grasp with some ill-advised aspect of the design.  Assassin's Creed II is the latest example... this virtual recreation of renaissance Italy has style, atmosphere, and personality to spare, but the context-sensitive movement rips the control from the player's hands and takes a few fingers in the process. 

When I watched footage of the game on YouTube and witnessed players make boneheaded moves while in pursuit of their latest target, I naturally assumed that their questionable skills were to blame.  That couldn't be further from the truth.  The reality is that these players were sabotaged by the awkward control, which tries to fill in the blanks for you and often misses the entire page.  After the absolute precision of Uncharted, I was expecting better from Assassin's Creed II than unexpected plunges off three story buildings and sluggish climbs up the sides of buildings.

I haven't gotten very far yet, so there's still plenty of time for me to adapt to the control scheme.  I'm just asking myself why I should have to when Uncharted and Crackdown came so naturally to me.

December 2, 2009... The Beginning of the End (of the year)

Christmas has crept up on us once again.  Shocking how quickly it arrives every year, isn't it?  Either that or I'm getting older and the world around me has sped up accordingly.  The strange thing is that even in bitterly cold Michigan, we still have yet to see a flake of snow.  We've got the freezing winds, yes, but none of the white stuff.

Anyway, I just thought I'd mention that a copy of Assassin's Creed II will be heading its way to JessCREATIONS*, Co. Studios, thanks in large part to a generous donation from Tips and Tricks editor Chris Bieniek.  I've been watching the videos on YouTube and the game looks incredible... the only thing I'm not sold on are the jarring transitions to a Holodeck evidently designed by Steve Jobs.  I have seen the future, ladies and gentlemen, and it is whiter than a Klansman's laundry basket.

Goozex also owes me a game, but I haven't decided which one I'll take.  I'm leaning toward InFamous (and friends are pushing me in that direction), but there's also Borderlands and Prototype and at least a dozen Playstation 3 exclusives I missed.  It just seems wrong that we're four years into this console cycle and I still haven't played any next generation Ratchet and Clank games beyond the agonizingly brief Quest for Booty.

There's one other thing worth mentioning before I go.  Apparently, Microsoft is selling avatar pets for the not-so-low price of three dollars.  These capitalist critters include the increasingly-popular-although-God-only-knows-why Chinese pug, the Jerry Bruckheimer (and Richard Gere) approved guinea pig, and a goldfish, for those of you who want your video game persona to be as boring as you are in real life.  Personally, I'm considering the long-haired cat, since it would go beautifully with my avatar's monocle and secret plans for world domination.  "No, Mr. Gates.  This is the part where you die..."

November 30, 2009... Housecleaning

Don't mind me, I'm just adding some banners to the site.  Not much else to say, really.

November 19, 2009... Die-A-Rama

After countless months of letting the site go to pot, I've written a full-sized game review, and of a recent release, no less!  Head over to the freshly created Playstation 3 page to check out my opinion of Demon's Souls, the hair-pullingly frustrating action RPG from the guys who brought you, uh, Spud's Adventure and Rockin' Kats.  And if you're a "hardcore" gamer who's about to tell me that I'm a "noob" and that the game "pwned" me, please also feel free to visit the complaint department, conveniently located in the Perineum Mall between my asshole and nutsack.

November 14, 2009... Take a Wild Guess

Word from the grapevine is that there will be a Volume Zero of SNK's Arcade Classics series, packed with twenty games developed before the company released its famed Neo-Geo arcade jukebox.  Which games, you ask?  Only the extremely obscure Search and Rescue has been confirmed, with the ESRB giving only vague hints about the identities of the remaining titles.  However, if the collection will only contain arcade games (as opposed to NES titles like Crystalis and Baseball Stars), it's probably safe to assume that most of the following will be included:

Alpha Mission:  An early vertically scrolling shooter that, along with the lesser known HAL 21, was SNK's answer to the Japanese megahit Xevious.  What set Alpha Mission apart was a huge assortment of impressive wing arms that the player could assemble from pieces hidden in each stage.  The game was a minor success on the NES, but much more impressive in arcades thanks to crisp graphics and faster acccess to the auxillary weapons.

Athena:  This early SNK release borrowed heavily from Super Mario Bros., but swapped the Mushroom Kingdom with a psychadelic Greek fantasy motif, and piled on the power-ups.  The lead character could wear armor and wield weapons ranging from crude clubs to the mighty morning star, which crushed enemies and turned mountains into rubble.  Unfortunately, SNK forgot to add the fun, but the game's historical significance (Athena would later become an important character in the King of Fighters) practically guarantees that it will be included in the collection.

Bermuda Triangle:  A distant cousin of Alpha Mission, which Alpha Mission would probably like to keep as distant as possible.  This game suffers from all kinds of ill-advised play mechanics, like a dial similar to the one in Ikari Warriors (fine there, but not in a forced-scrolling shoot 'em up) and a power up gauge that frequently transforms the player's already oversized ship into a screen-filling monstrocity.  Nevertheless, this game was moderately successful and has a pretty good chance of finding its way on SNK Classics Collection Zero.

Fantasy:  Also known as Pioneer Balloon, this infuriating action game is split into four different stages, each different from and even harder than the last.  The continue feature ensured that gamers of the time would keep feeding quarters into the machine until rescuing the damsel waiting in the final stage.  The graphics are more primitive than some cave paintings and the gameplay is the stuff of shattered controllers and television sets, but the game will be included anyway for the sake of variety.

Fighting Golf:  The game will be stripped of its Lee Travino endorsement when it's put on this collection, but everything else will remain the same.  That includes the split-screen view of the course, caddies with names like "Super Mex," and of course, the frustration of aiming for the green and winding up in a sand trap or pond.  Mark Twain was right... it really is a good walk spoiled!

Gold Medalist:  Similar to Konami's Track 'n Field series, with the pudgy characters replaced by more realistic and detailed athletes.  This was very nearly confirmed by the ESRB, which didn't refer to it specifically but mentioned that an Olympic sports game was one of the titles on the disc.  I can't think of any other world sporting event simulations released by SNK in the 1980s, so this is probably the one.

Guerrilla War:  This military shooter was faster and more exciting than Ikari Warriors, but the storyline was a little too hot for Americans to handle.  Originally, the game was called Guevara, and starred Cuban revolutionaries Che Guavara and Fidel Castro battling to overthrow the Batista empire.  When the game arrived here on these shores, the gameplay remained the same, but the backstory got a lot more vague.  Nobody even knew who these guys were supposed to be until the 1990s, when the internet spilled the beans on their identities.

Ikari Warriors:  The original, but no longer the best.  Actually, it's not even that original, since Taito's Front Line came first.  Ikari Warriors makes big improvements to the formula, however... the bow-legged private from Taito's game is replaced with a pair of buff soldiers, the weapons pack a lot more punch, and there's more variety in both the enemies and terrain.  It didn't take long for SNK to eclipse Ikari Warriors with spinoffs like the aforementioned Guerrilla War, but strangely, the game is a lot more entertaining than the two sequels that were released years later.  It's for this reason that I believe Ikari Warriors will be on this collection, but the bizarre Victory Road and incredibly awkward Ikari III will not.

Marvin's Maze:  Practically every game company has made a Pac-Man clone, and SNK is no exception.  However, Marvin's Maze gives the concept a twist only MC Escher could love... instead of a maze, the game takes place on scaffolding seen from an isometric viewpoint.  Geeky water droplet Marvin must pick up pulsing dots while staying one step ahead of the Robonoids patrolling the building.  Like most games with an isometric view, Marvin's Maze was impressive for the time but incredibly awkward to play.  Nevertheless, this has a good chance of being on the collection because it's so different from SNK's war-centric late 1980s output.

Mad Crasher:  A futuristic take on racing games like Spy Hunter and Bump 'n Jump, seen once again from an isometric perspective.  It seems SNK really seemed to dig that look back in the early 1980s.  Anyway, the object is to keep your vehicle, evidently stolen from the impound lot of the Master Control Program, on the road as long as possible, gunning down other futuristic cars and launching off ramps.  You actually receive points for staying aloft as long as possible after a ramp jump, giving the player added incentive to time the leap just right.  This is a pretty clever game with a convincing sense of speed, which will get it onto the collection in spite of its rough graphics and slightly awkward control.

Munchmobile:  Here's a game with so much potential for greatness, that blows it all on terrible graphics and clumsy gameplay.  You're an animated car with a really long arm who grabs fruit, eats it, then discards the cores in trash cans for bonus points.  The problem is that you're struggling to stay on the world's thinnest road while doing all this.  It's impossible to maintain a balane between the two... either you'll break off your painfully slow Dhalsim arm on the scenery or veer off into the world's deadliest grass, leaving you a crumpled heap on the side of the road.  Mark my words, though... it'll be in the collection, whether you want it there or not.

P.O.W.:  What happens when you cross the military theme of Ikari Warriors with the hard-hitting martial arts action of Double Dragon?  You'd probably get something like P.O.W., starring two soldiers who've broken out of an enemy prison camp and must fight tooth and nail to return to friendly territory.  There are more angry guerrillas here than a game of Donkey Kong, but a solid punch to the jaw is all it takes to send them flying across the screen.  P.O.W. was never as good as Double Dragon or Final Fight, but it gets credit for a unique setting as well as the most satisfying fist-to-face sound effect ever heard in a video game.  It'd be hard to imagine SNK Playmore leaving this out of this collection... but then again, who would have guessed a year ago that King of Fighters XII would suck so much?

Prehistoric Isle in 1930:  This was one of the very last games SNK released before putting its full weight behind the Neo-Geo, although a sequel did appear on the arcade jukebox nearly ten years later.  Anyway, in Prehistoric Isle, you'll pilot a biplane through a Lost World filled with an anachronistic grab bag of giant insects, dinosaurs, and cavemen.  Fortunately, you're armed with a rotating cannon which fires different weapons depending on where it's set.  Position it diagonally and it will drop bombs, set it straight down and it will spray your enemies with sheets of napalm, or just put it ahead of you for good old fashioned laser blasts!  It's no classic, but there's enough entertainment here to justify its inclusion in the collection.

Psycho Soldier:  SNK's habit of ripping off Capcom started right here in Psycho Soldier, a pretty blatant clone of Son Son with more polished visuals and an incessant j-pop soundtrack.  That was pretty impressive for the time, yes, but pretty obnoxious these days!  Anyway, it'll be included on the collection for its historical significance... after all, Psycho Soldier stars both Athena and Kensou, who would later be teamed up with a farting old fogey in the King of Fighters series.

Sky Adventure:  One of the early releases by SNK subsidiary Alpha Denshi, this vertically scrolling shooter pits you against a fiendish Nazi commander and his considerable army, large enough to conquer the world three times over.  If you can cut a path through the massive fleet of Axis aircraft, you'll face off against Colonel Claud himself, who taunts you with arrogant laughter and insults like "You fight like a kid."  Truth be told, this game isn't going to blow anyone's mind... shooters have evolved so much in the years since Sky Adventure was released that it will seem as much a relic as the World War II-era ships you'll pilot.  Consider this filler.

Street Smart:  The predecessor to Fatal Fury, which feels a bit more like Pit Fighter thanks to the elevated side-view perspective and ability to take down opponents with a friend.  The physics are really strange in this release... the player's tendency to slide forward with every punch and kick makes each stage feel more like a hockey rink than a sidewalk surrounded by cheering fans.  Most SNK fans will play this once to point out all the ties to the South Town series, then move on with their lives.

T.N.K. III:  Also known as Iron Tank, this takes the best part of Ikari Warriors and expands it into a game of its own.  Yes, instead of crossing your fingers and hoping that an unoccupied tank is just over the horizon, now you can drive around in an armored vehicle from the very start, flattening soldiers under your mighty treads and turning rival tanks into scrap metal with cannon fire.  Life just doesn't get any better than this!  If T.N.K. III doesn't make it onto this collection, it'll be a grave oversight on the part of the developers.

Time Soldiers:  Another Alpha Denshi release, which cribs from Ikari Warriors but adds more anime-like characters and a time traveling storyline that would later appear in Ninja Commando and the World Heroes series.  You'll fight your way through history, rescuing fellow soldiers captured by a mysterious foe named Gylend.  This game manages to be even more ludicrous than other military shooters, which is no small feat... you'll discover marching trilobytes in the prehistoric era, fight Ghidorah in ancient Rome, vaporize soldiers from World War II with a shoulder mounted laser cannon, and grow to twice your original size by swallowing radioactive gel capsules the size of your head.  There's so much weirdness here that SNK practically has to add it to the collection for the camp value alone.

Touchdown Fever:
  It's a football game, with the added "bonus" of SNK's dial joystick.  Sure, it made sense in Ikari Warriors, but why a football game?  Anyway, the game looks a lot better than its NES counterpart thanks to more realistic players, but if you've already got a Madden game (and there are like, a billion of them now), why bother?

Vanguard:  An early shooter, not far removed from Konami's Super Cobra but with both vertically and horizontally scrolling stages.  Also, instead of bullets and bombs, the player can fire lasers in four different directions, giving him better protection against the waves of ships, flying saucers, and alien snakes (!) standing between him and the collosal cosmic force Gond.  Fun fact... this game was actually designed by TOSE, responsible for Super Princess Peach and the Legend of Starfy series!

Wow, I feel like I've reviewed the game already, and it isn't even out yet!  I can't guarantee that all of these games will be included in Arcade Classics Zero, but it's safe to assume that a significant majority of them will be.

Before I go, I should probably mention that the latest installment of Awesome NES is finished and up for grabs at the usual place.  This time, the Tiny Toons get nearly half the page, with some space left over for Times of Lore and Thundercade, two games that are more whack than wacky.

November 8, 2009... The DS You Won't Find on Nintendo

Oh yeah, I'm supposed to be updating a web site or something, aren't I?  Sorry, I've been playing Demon's Souls, and the time got away from me.  Demon's Souls is the latest from, uh, From Software, the folks responsible for the long-running Armored Core and King's Field series.  While this hard-as-nails action/RPG has been compared to the latter games, it's so far beyond them visually that it would take days to describe all the improvements.  While even Eternal Ring for the Playstation 2 was an endless expanse of blocky gray walls, set on a flat brown texture and populated with vaguely recognizable monsters, Demon's Souls features picturesque environments, packed with exquisite detail and creatures large enough to pick their teeth with the player.

You can expect that to be a regular occurance too, because this game is vicious.  Your character is quickly surrounded and easily dispatched by the crazed residents of Boletaria, and the closest thing to an Easy Mode you'll find is the option to play as a "Royal," with rings that bestow abilities that were given to you by default in Oblivion.  This means you'll have to advance cautiously through each mission, picking off dreglings one by one while keeping your shield close at hand for those unexpected moments, which happen with alarming frequency.  This place is filled with more booby traps and nasty surprises than the Temple of Doom, and one false step (be it in the path of a rolling boulder, on a bridge guarded by a cranky dragon, or off the edge of a spiralling flight of stairs) will send you right back to game's hub, minus all of the souls you've gathered.  Souls are everything in this game, and being left with nothing after thirty minutes of grueling gameplay can be agonizing.

Demon's Souls further turns the screws on players by getting harder with every loss.  It's an aspect of the game's design that seems needlessly sadistic... it would be like going to the dentist for a root canal, and getting a shot of IntensiPain™ stuck in your jaw rather than the Novocaine you really wanted.  Abusive as the game can be, it's still pretty enjoyable once you've learned the ropes.  It's not as open-ended as Oblivion, but there's enough stuff hidden in the nooks and crannies to keep you exploring stages even after you've beaten them.  Also, the linearity and focus on action keeps Demon's Souls from becoming as monotonous and plodding as Oblivion could often be.  I liked that game, but after fifty hours of play without much to show for it I'm not sure if I could ever go back...

I'd give Demon's Souls a reserved recommendation.  If you've got a short temper and are prone to fits of disc-snapping, save your money because it will only go to waste here.  However, if you don't mind taking a slow and steady path through your games and don't take a humiliating challenge too personally, you'll find much to like here.

Before I go, I should probably mention that I've uploaded a new Awesome NES page.  This time, Tetris gets its chance to bask in the spotlight, along with lesser known titles like Terra Cresta (best described as the lovechild of Xevious and old episodes of Voltron) and The Three Stooges.  That's not the greatest license for a video game, but the folks at Cinematronics and Activision somehow made it work.  More or less.

November 2, 2009... Stick It to 'Em

Earlier today, I checked out some of the wares at an independent bargain store on the verge of going out of business.  One of the items that caught my eye was a Saitek controller very similar to the one you see below.

Research on Amazon reveals that the joystick was designed for flight simulators, but with its intimidating array of buttons, dials, toggle switches, and point of view hats, you start to think that it would be easier to fly a real aircraft.  There's even a plastic guard on the top of the stick, covering an ominous red button.  Being the mischevious little imp I am, I just couldn't resist pushing it, but it didn't launch any missiles at a rival superpower or summon a bald Jewish comedian with a silver briefcase tucked under his arm.  Huh, I guess you've got to connect it to a computer first!

Ultimately, I didn't purchase the stick, but I did pick up a copy of Guitar Hero III at a nearby Family Dollar, confirming my suspicions that the series has hit its market saturation breaking point.  When they're selling the game and guitar for just twenty bucks at a dollar store, you have to believe that the music game fad has run its course.  Yes, yes, I realize that Guitar Hero III is long past its expiration date, having been obsoleted twice over by sequels.  However, Electronic Arts has been just as desperate to unload its own Rock Band, selling the original game and its sequel and a guitar and a drum set and a microphone all for eighty clams.  Both games have been incredibly successful over the past four years, but I can't shake the feeling that it all goes downhill from here.

Oh, before I go, I should probably point out that I've put a brief Twitter feed in the sidebar.  That way, it'll look like I'm updating the site regularly even when I'm not!  Oh, automation... you truly are the salvation of lazy website editors.

October 28, 2009... Third Time's The Charm (the editor fixes a Playstation 3)

There's nothing more satisfying to a penny-pinching hacker than to revive a broken and discarded device he couldn't possibly afford to buy in stores.  That's just what I did yesterday with a Playstation 3 I had purchased from eBay for about $90.  After determining that the problem with the system's malfunctioning drive was mechanical, I ordered replacement parts, and installed them as they arrived.  Weeks later, I had my very own working PS3, for nearly a third of the price of a new system in stores!

I put the machine through its paces last night, throwing nearly every type of disc I had its way, and here are my first impressions.

* DVD PLAYBACK: It's hard to tell without making a direct comparison, but I played a couple episodes of Batman Beyond (Meltdown and the Justice League Unlimited crossover Epilogue), and the picture seemed crisper than it had on my Xbox 360 and dedicated DVD player.  It's not worth the price of admission, but it's a nice bonus.  On the downside, it's tough to access specific functions using a Playstation controller, just as it was with the previous system.  You'll have a hell of a time accessing the pop-up menu and its icons are as vague and confusing as ever.

* CD PLAYBACK: Again, this isn't a selling point for the system, but music nevertheless sounds full and rich on the Playstation 3.  The built-in visualizer is more understated than the chaotic kalidoscope on the Xbox 360, with a camera racing over a flat land that changes its topography in time with the tunes you're playing.  Not too shabby, but my all-time favorite remains the spaceship lazily floating through space on the Sega Saturn.

* GAMING: I bought two games for the PS3 in anticipation of its eventual repair.  The first, Motorstorm, was purchased to test the hardware, but the other, Uncharted, was just for fun.  And what fun it is!  It's the first game I've played in years with photorealistic characters who aren't complete tools.  Seriously, think back to all the video games you've played over the past three years.  Were there any with a human cast who you didn't want to throw over a cliff?  If your answer was "yes," then the next word out of your mouth was probably "Uncharted."  The intuitive control, lush visuals, and intense gun fights make this not only a charming game, but an excellent one.

* BACKWARD COMPATIBILITY: I have an eighty gig system, which means that I'll never play a single PS2 game on my PS3.  Chalk that up to poor planning on my part.  However, the machine offers compatibility with the original Playstation as a puzzling consolation prize.  The system runs these games about as well as the real thing, with options to smooth and stretch the dated graphics, but it lacks the Playstation 2's fast loading feature... an omission that's greatly felt when you play golden oldies like Street Fighter EX + Alpha.  Characters also "stripe" when they dart across the screen with the stretching option turned on, which means that I didn't keep it on for very long.

* USB PORTS: Unlike some other game systems, the ports on the Playstation 3 really are universal, accepting controllers that weren't explicitly designed for the system.  This includes Sega's sublime USB Saturn controller, which makes old-school gaming a lot more comfortable than it is on the Xbox 360.  A search through the system's cross bar menu reveals that the Playstation 3 can communicate with all kinds of peripherals, from flash drives to... printers?  That'd come in handy for Linux, I suppose, but who uses their Playstation 3 as a personal computer?  (Nobody who owns the slim model, that's for sure.)

* START UP SOUND:  Since the advent of disc-based media, every game system has its own start up sound, a musical greeting that helps define the console's identity.  The Neo-Geo Pocket, for instance, has a chirpy little tune that prepares the player for the lighthearted fun of its games.  The Saturn has its cacaphony of gentle wind chimes, while the energy spikes of the Western-designed Xbox are considerably more threatening.  As a long-time gamer, I've heard dozens of these jingles, and the orchestral warm-up that begins every Playstation 3 session is easily the most insufferably pretentious of the lot.  It fits with Sony's marketing strategies and general arrogance, but it's still obnoxious.

* HOME BUTTON:  Like the Xbox 360's Guide Button, the Home Button in the center of the Dual Shock 3 lets you jump out of a game in progress and return to the main menu, giving you total control over your entertainment experience.  However, what if you don't have a Home button on your controller?  Then you, my friend, are screwed.  There's no way to reset the machine without it, so when you're done with a game, all you can do is shut off the machine, switch it back on, then go through the boot-up sequence, start up sound and all.  Did I mention that it's really obnoxious?  Well, it's worth mentioning twice.

Oh yes, there's one more thing... a new Awesome NES update.  It's a little late, but not five months late like the last one!  This installment is dominated by Tecmo sports titles (including a bizarre turn-based soccer game) and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles beat 'em ups.  There's not much variety, but the quality of the selection is hard to dispute.

October 21, 2009... Death Doesn't Become You

Recently, there's been an epidemic of game systems dying well before their time.  The Xbox 360 is most famous (or rather, infamous) for its red ring of death, but Playstation 3 owners are starting to find that their once reliable systems have fallen silent, flashing a yellow distress signal before shutting down permanently.  All of these malfunctions over the past four years can be traced to the same source... the lead-free solder used in the circuitry of today's game systems.  The low melting point of this solder isn't an issue for the low-octane Wii, but the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 generate a great deal more heat to produce their lifelike graphics, turning the metal on the motherboard into soup and causing it to flow away from important components.

All the fixes you've read about online, like wrapping a towel around an Xbox 360 and leaving it on overnight, or taking a heatgun to the Playstation 3 circuit board, offer a temporary solution to this problem; one that only lasts as long as the solder remains solid.  However, the only permanent fix is for console manufacturers to return to the lead-based solder that made systems from the 1970s and 1980s so reliable.  The environmentalists may squawk about this, but they need to keep in mind that a single console with a little lead inside does a lot less harm to the planet than three in a landfill.

All right, now that I've gotten that off my chest, it's time for an Awesome NES update.  And it's only five months late!  In this installment, we catch a wave with T&C Surf Designs, hit the skies of Cape Suzette with Talespin, and dabble in the dark arts with Taboo: The Sixth Sense.  The only mystery greater than why this game was made is how it got past Nintendo's notoriously stuffy content restrictions...

October 17, 2009... IGN Warms Up The Crack Pipe

It's a huge cliche to ask someone what they were smoking after they come up with an especially hairbrained idea.  Fortunately, IGN has made that question completely unnecessary with their recent feature on the Top 100 games released for the Nintendo Entertainment System.  After reading the article, anyone could see that their poison of preference is good old fashioned crack, glazed in LSD and served with a side order of hallucinogenic mushrooms.

Was that too harsh?  Well, after you see the list, maybe you'll think it wasn't harsh enough.  I'll spare you IGN's blather and the avalanche of ads that come with it and just leave you with the hard numbers.  The extra crazy entries will be highlighted in red.  Conversely, the excellent games that by some miracle found their way on this list but weren't given enough credit will be marked in blue... you know, like how I felt when I found this stupid list.

100 Ice Hockey 75 The Goonies II 50 Shadowgate 25 Castlevania II
99 Rush 'n Attack 74 Boy & His Blob 49 Kid Niki 24 Blades of Steel
98 TMNT 1 73 Spy Hunter 48 Tengen Tetris 23 Bubble Bobble
97 Astaynax 72 Ikari Warriors 47 Vice: P. Doom 22 Blaster Master
96 DragonWarrior 3 71 Chip 'n Dale 46 Metal Storm 21 Zelda II
95 Mega Man 4 70 LegendaryWings 45 Fester's Quest 20 Kid Icarus
94 Kickle Cubicle 69 TecmoWrestling 44 Klax 19 Castlevania
93 Little Samson 68 Little Nemo 43 Ninja Gaiden II 18 Super Mario 2
92 Skate or Die 2 67 Qix 42 Crystalis 17 Ninja Gaiden
91 Mario Bros. 66 Cobra Triangle 41 TMNT II 16 Mega Man 3
90 Section Z 65 Stinger 40 Battletoads 15 River City Rans.
89 Willow 64 Ironsword 39 DragonWarrior4 14 Excitebike
88 Zombie Nation 63 Gargoyles Q 2 38 Life Force 13 R.C. Pro Am
87 Guard'n Legend 62 Kung Fu 37 Jackal 12 Contra
86 Mickey Mouse 61 Maniac Mansion 36 Faxanadu 11 Final Fantasy
85 Lode Runner 60 Super C 35 StarTropics 10 Duck Tales
84 Mega Man 5 59 Rygar 34 Gradius 9 BionicCommando
83 Double Dragon 2 58 Mega Man 6 33 Batman 8 Drgn Warrior
82 Power Blade 57 Rad Racer 32 Snake Rattle... 7 MT's Punch Out
81 Journey to Silius 56 Wiz. & Warriors 31 Micro Machines 6 Metroid
80 Demon Sword 55 D. Dragon 3 30 Mega Man 5 Castlevania III
79 Ice Climber 54 G. 'n Goblins 29 Adv. Island II 4 Mega Man 2
78 Ring King 53 T. Super Bowl 28 Baseball Stars 3 Super Mario
77 Duck Hunt 52 Adv. of Lolo 3 27 Kirby's Adv. 2 Leg'n of Zelda
76 Btoads/Ddragon 51 Dr. Mario 26 Metal Gear 1 Super Mario 3

Let's start at the bottom of the list and work toward the top, shall we?  I'll give Ice Hockey a pass... I've never been a fan of sports games, but I remember my friends having a ton of fun with this one back in high school.  Rush 'n Attack is a little sketchier, but it does improve on the arcade version with hidden areas and a hard-hitting Konami brand soundtrack. 

The first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game and Astaynax, however, are taking things much too far.  "Crushing disappointment" doesn't even begin to describe how I felt after taking this home from a rental store and popping it into my NES, expecting the same exhilaration that I got from the coin-op.  TMNT was the nadir of Nintendo-ized arcade conversions; a game so bland and formulaic that the backlash from fans forced Konami to go back to the drawing board and release an honest port.  I don't have too many kind words for Nasty-Axe, either... it's a stiff, frustrating side-scroller that obsesses over the size of the characters while completely forgetting about the quality of the gameplay.  If "Sword of Sodan" is the first thing to come to mind when you read that description, you're on the right track.

Skate or Die 2 was worth exactly three minutes of your time.  You put in the cartridge, listened to the staticy growl of "Skate or Die!  Die die die die!" at the title screen, watched the hilarious introduction, then took it back to the rental store.  Any attempt to actually play the game was rewarded with boundless frustration and the worst graphics this side of a Color Dreams release.  Mario Bros. was a little better, but still lackluster enough to convince Nintendo to give the European and Japanese markets an improved version of the game years later.

IGN had the good sense to put The Guardian Legend on their list, but its low position is an insult to fans of this ingenious shooter/adventure hybrid.  It's part Golvellius and part Zanac... how can you go wrong with a combination like that?  Just below it is Zombie Nation, the utterly horrible Meldac release starring a bloated samurai head that takes more abuse than Bill Gates in a Linux forum.  The only explanation for its inclusion on the list is that the IGN staff ran out of crack and tried snorting lines of Ajax for a while.  Just above The Guardian Legend is Mickey Mousecapades, best described as Hudson's Adventure Island with Disney characters stapled onto it.  That's every bit as appealing as it sounds, by the way.

One of the most perplexing entries in the list is Double Dragon II.  It deserves to be there, certainly, but at number 83?  Riding high in 55th place, where Double Dragon II should have been, is the miserable sequel, which was released for every game console imaginable and stunk on all of them.  Hell, even the arcade game was terrible... not only was it outsourced to a fly-by-night development team, but it forced players to unlock new characters and power-ups by purchasing them with quarters.  Electronic Arts could take notes from these guys.

On the heels of Double Dragon 2 are the craptastic combo of Demon Sword, Ice Climber, and Ring King.  Some people may defend Ice Climber, but I've always hated the characters' horizontally-impaired jumps and a mallet that's not fit for breaking walnuts, let alone the hungry yetis and polar bears patrolling each level.  Flanking Ice Climber are Demon Sword, the sequel to Legend of Kage that nobody wanted, and Ring King, famous on the internet for its depiction of post-fight fellatio and absolutely nothing else.

Following close behind are another trio of "winners;" A Boy and His Blob, Spy Hunter, and Ikari Warriors.  A Boy and His Blob has been given new life with the Wii remake by Wayforward, but trust me, there was nothing special about the original game on the NES.  Its quirky physics and rough graphics make it an anomaly among the more polished NES games that received Nintendo's coveted seal of quality.  Spy Hunter was a lackluster port of an arcade game that didn't lend itself well to home conversions... only the ColecoVision seemed to get it right, and that was after making drastic changes to the control of the player's car.  Super Spy Hunter would have been a much better choice, but it's nowhere to be found on the list.  Ikari Warriors is there, however, which is... wow, people.  Why not Guerrilla War?  Why not Iron Tank?  Why not consider rehab?

Qix is a little more reasonable, but it was kind of a fugly port, with muddy textures replacing the sharp orange and blue color fills from the arcade game.  IGN would have been better off choosing Galaga, which was as faithful an arcade translation as the NES hardware could muster.  I can't even fathom how Cobra Triangle wound up in 66th place, well behind other Rare releases like Battletoads, R.C. Pro-Am, and... wait, Ironsword?  You mean the same Ironsword that had stage layouts straight out of an M.C. Escher drawing?  I think I'm going to need an aspirin...

I don't even like the Contra series that much and I wonder how Super C could have gotten such a subpar score.  The same goes for Gargoyle's Quest 2, a fun spin-off of the murderously hard Ghouls 'n Ghosts series which has taken a backseat to the first game in that series.  The arcade version of Ghosts 'n Goblins was all right, if you're the masochistic type, but nobody's willing to endure the kind of punishment the crappy NES conversion is eager to dish out.  That makes two Micronics/Pony Canyon titles that made the list, which speaks volumes about its credibility (or lack of it).

Oh yes, then there's Dr. Mario.  The game received some flack in an issue of Video Games & Computer Entertainment... its editor Andy Eddy complained that it could give small children the wrong idea about playing with medication.  I'm not sure if the game was ultimately responsible for any tragic poisonings, but I do know that it nearly bored me to death.

Thankfully, the list gets a lot more sane about halfway through.  IGN gives the Tengen version of Tetris its rightfully earned props, along with the overlooked Vice: Project Doom, Jackal, and Faxanadu.  Still, there's the matter of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II in 41st place, and Kirby's Adventure in the 27th spot.  The fact that Kirby just barely edged out the competent but creatively bankrupt Hudson's Adventure Island II leaves me scratching my head so much that the friction could set my hair ablaze.

I take personal issue with Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, the endlessly drawn out and dull adventure game that will forever remain a blight on the good name of the franchise.  Zelda II and Kid Icarus almost seem included by default, but neither of them are, how do I put this... good?  Zelda II has precious little in common with the first game, and Kid Icarus is a total bait and switch.  Hopeful players went in expecting a sprawling adventure in the vein of Gumpei Yokoi's other NES hit Metroid, then came out scowling at the linear level design and instantly fatal pits.

Excitebike wasn't terrible, but it was a launch title without the scope of later NES games.  I could very easily see it being replaced with Eliminator Boat Duel, a rare gem from Electrobrain with all the depth and variety that Excitebike lacks in spades.  The decision to put dull as dirt Dragon Warrior ahead of Final flippin' Fantasy on this list is just mystifying.  Nintendo had to give away copies of Dragon Warrior with a subscription to Nintendo Power, because it was too boring to sell.  That's in contrast to Final Fantasy, which was loaded with depth and gorgeous graphics.

Finally, there's the safe choice of Legend of Zelda for the number two spot.  It ain't safe from me, though... I never found the game particularly compelling in 1988, and it's aged so very badly in the twenty plus years since its release.  The vague objectives and dearth of dialog conspire to make this game frustratingly cryptic and much, much longer than it had to be.  Using every item on every object in every room stretches the game out to infinity, unless you've got a strategy guide handy, or in the dark ages before the internet, an open line to a Nintendo game counselor.  I'm not disputing that the game should be somewhere on the list, but number two?  No.

"What games should they have chosen instead?," I'll pretend you asked.  Well, how about Solomon's Key?  That was a brilliant puzzle game that borrowed heavily from Super Mario Bros., yet managed to be entirely different from its inspiration.  There's also 1943, an enhanced conversion of Capcom's World War II-themed shoot 'em up, and Rollerball, the best game of pinball you're likely to find on an 8-bit game system, and Clash at Demonhead, the quirky blend of Metroid's vast playfields and Mega Man's intense boss battles... the list goes on. 

Heck, I would have been impressed if the editors had made some daring choices, like Solstice.  You either loved this mammoth adventure game or you hated it, but you couldn't criticize it for a lack of ambition or originality.  Instead, it just seems like the folks at IGN covered all the usual bases for NES fans, then chose a few titles based solely on name recognition to round out the list.  Or, to quote a member of the GameSpite message board, this is "IGN's list of 100 NES games they could actually think of."

October 14, 2009... Hack 'n Slash

First the hack part... there's a mod for the Xbox 360 that lets you raise the size of its hard drive to 120GB, without spending big bucks on Microsoft's official high-capacity drive.  After being stuck with 20GB of storage for over three years, I'm certainly considering this option... but I want to get my Playstation 3 on its feet first.

Now for the slashes; specifically, the price slashes at both Toys 'R Us and Amazon.  For the next few days, Amazon is offering a buy two, get one free deal on certain games.  TRU's deal is even more generous, letting customers buy games, accessories, and even point cards for the Wii and Xbox 360.  If you were interested in loading up for Christmas, now would be the time!

October 7, 2009... Three's Company

I'm chomping at the bit waiting for my Playstation 3 to arrive.  Granted, since it can't play discs and I don't have a proper internet connection for online gaming, I won't be doing much ELSE with it, but hey, it's always fun to dink with new hardware.  Besides, since it's one of the old George Foreman grills, I can always install Linux, the preferred operating system of overweight, socially inept nerds.

Anyway, down to business.  These past two weeks, my cup's runneth over with industry news that even I find exciting.  Where do I begin?

* ROCKET KNIGHT RETURNS:  After a fifteen year hiatus, everyone's favorite opossum (no you boob, that's everyone's LEAST favorite opossum!) is back in a new adventure.  This time, Sparkster's world is rendered in crisp, if not especially impressive, 3D graphics that bring to mind the later entries in Namco's Klonoa series.  Some people have taken offense to the Brit-tastic art direction, but I'm personally more irritating by the fact that this release is exclusive to the more powerful game consoles, without a Wii release in sight.  Trust me, I've seen the pictures, and there ain't nothin' about this game that couldn't be done on Nintendo's extremely popular yet extremely undersupported system.

* JACK TRETTON REVILES:  The man who promised a $1200 bounty for every unsold Playstation 3 is back, running his yap about how the industry would be much better off with Sony behind the wheel and its competitors getting crushed under it.  Yeah, we tried that in 2003, and I'm not eager to go back.  I much prefer walking into a store and walking out with a game that doesn't have the words "Grand Theft" in the title.

* DAVID BOWIE RESURFACES:  David Bowie's no stranger to video games... he played a key role in a futuristic adventure title for the Dreamcast called Omikron, and there was an NES game in Japan based on the quickly forgotten film Labyrinth.  This time, the thin white duke adopts a pudgier, more plasticine physique for the Electronic Arts release Lego Rock Band, along with his good buddy Iggy Pop and other music legends.  I'm not sure if this bizarre hybrid represents a shark-jumping moment for Rock Band or the Lego gaming franchise...

* MICKEY REIMAGINED:  Let's face it, Mickey Mouse is old news.  He's almost as relevant in today's culture as Betty Boop, but Disney Interactive is hoping to change that with Epic Mickey.  The developers have redesigned the chipper rodent as an ink-dripping shadow armed with a paintbrush, fighting his way through the decayed ruins of Disneyland.  Looks like it's the crappiest place on Earth now!  Happily, the concept art for this game is anything but, with so much color and intricate detail that it's hard to imagine how the developers will pull it off on the humble Wii hardware.

* JESS RETHINKS:  You know, now that GORF is finished (for good this time, seriously), I'm thinking about turning my attention toward Awesome NES, which hasn't been updated in a dog's age.  I'm not sure what a dog's age is, exactly, but let's say for the sake of argument that it's about four months and some change.  I also should look into keeping at least a few of the promises I made earlier in the year.  Since this is 2009, just a hair's breadth away from the next decade, there's really no point in procrastinating on an Assault of the Invaders update.