A collection of the latest reviews published on The Gameroom Blitz.



Pinched by a tough economy and keenly aware of their increasingly disillusioned fans, game publishers are working hard to restore the reputations of their most valuable franchises.  Sega's effort to redeem Sonic the Hedgehog in the eyes of gamers after a half dozen stinkers has been the most publicized of these attempts to win back a scorned audience.  However, SNK has a lot of its own bridge building to do after burning its fans with the highly anticipated, massively disappointing King of Fighters XII.  It'll take more than just one game to mend those wounds, but King of Fighters 2002 Ultimate Match is definitely a step in the right direction.

You'd expect from the title that this is a remake of the game Eolith developed nearly a decade ago for the Neo-Geo.  While much has changed, it does has the same goal of giving the player a fighting experience that's both comprehensive yet comfortingly nostalgic.  Much of the fat from previous KOF games has been trimmed away... there are no strikers, no tagging in teammates, and no critical counters, keeping the focus squarely on the player and his opponents.  What's offered instead are over fifty fighters, with nearly every cast member from the long-running King of Fighters series in attendance.  A few of the less popular brawlers were kept out of this battle royale, but even they're on the sidelines, cheering on the competitors in some of the most gorgeous backgrounds yet seen in the franchise.

What separates King of Fighters 2002 UM from the original is the level of polish in its design.  It's got an entirely new science-fiction aesthetic, bringing back fond memories of the underappreciated King of Fighters '99 while taking advantage of the Xbox 360's high resolution.  The characters haven't been touched up beyond an optional blur filter (especially annoying for Whip, whose eponymous weapon was blocky even by the modest standards of the Neo-Geo!), but the title screen animations and the brief intermissions between fights all look fantastic.  It's also worth mentioning the heavy metal soundtrack, which takes old favorites from the King of Fighters music library and cranks up the volume and intensity 'till the dial breaks off!  Bring headphones.  Hell, get the compact disc if you can find it.

If there was any complaint that could be made about the game (aside from its relative antiquity compared to, say, Street Fighter IV or BlazBlue), it's that some of the characters are absurdly difficult to use.  The King of Fighters has never been friendly to novices, but late additions to the series like Ramon and Angel will tie even seasoned players' fingers into knots with their lengthy chain attacks.  Nearly every strike in Angel's bag of tricks have to be set up with an opening blow that's hard to land and must be delivered at point-blank range.  In the hands of an expert, this angel of death delivers graceful retribution to her adversaries, but to anyone else, she's practically worthless.

Even with the handful of oddballs in the cast, including more Kyo clones than anyone could possibly want, King of Fighters 2002 UM is the best game the series has seen in years; more satisfying than the pretty but hollow King of Fighters XII and more professionally designed than King of Fighters 1998 UM.  Each battle is a thing of beauty with the right controller (not the one that came with your Xbox 360, of course) and there are unlockable bosses for players of every skill level, encouraging practice and repeated playthroughs to sharpen your gameplay to a razor's edge.  All is not forgiven yet, SNK, but give us five more games like this and we'll talk.

Super Fighter Team/Penguinet


Here's the good news... Zaku is the best shooter on the Atari Lynx.  Here's the bad news... it's not in esteemed company.  Nearly every one of the small handful of shoot 'em ups on the system missed the bullseye because they turned their backs on the target.  The games were designed by American programmers who didn't have a clue what made the genre work, and it shows in the dull, repetitive stage layouts of Gates of Zendocon and the ghastly visuals in Zarlor Mercenary.  The Lynx hardware didn't do these sorry shmups any favors, as its coarse resolution left the player precious little room to dodge incoming bullets.  The best Lynx owners could hope for was Telegames' conversion of Raiden, and that came years after the system was discontinued by Atari!

Fortunately for those gamers who still carry a torch for the once-cutting edge handheld, homebrew designer Osman Celimli has raised the bar for Lynx shooters considerably with Zaku.  The game takes most of its inspiration from the Turbografx-16 release Air Zonk, but heavily seasons the recipe with surreal, nerd-centric humor.  On your way to recovering five stolen floppy discs, you'll clash with forgotten video game mascots, white-collar fish with fin-mounted lasers, and a flying toaster that looks like it escaped from a Junior/Senior music video.  Even the title character reflects the game's merger of East and West; a scrawny mix of Sonic the Hedgehog and the tightly-wound chihuahua from Ren and Stimpy.

Much like Air Zonk (and much unlike other shooters on the Lynx), Zaku makes the most of its console with bright, rich colors, as much detail as that tiny screen can hold, and impressive special effects.  Parallax scrolling lends depth to the playfields, fiery explosions consume fallen foes, and the system's hardware scaling gets a constant workout, with Zaku unleashing massive charge shots and rocketing off into the horizon after some boss battles.  The game plants a flag on the peak of Lynx graphics, bested only by Atari's fantastic arcade translations.  On the other hand, the sound makes more modest demands of the system's hardware, with primitive two channel music that's routinely drowned out by the high-pitched chirp of gunfire and explosions that will dazzle your eyes more than your ears.

That brings us to the gameplay, which is solid.  Unfortunately, the shooter is a genre that demands more than mere competence, and there are several issues which betray Zaku's Western roots and shoestring budget.  The level designs tend to be repetitive and the enemy patterns simplistic, a far cry from the technical mastery of even early Japanese shooters like Gradius.  The more inspired moments are reserved for the bosses, but they absorb damage like a sponge, making the battles frustratingly long and redundant.  Sure, they're usually pretty amusing, but those sight gags won't seem nearly as clever after you've pumped lead into them for a minute and a half.

The power-up system hurts the game's appeal as well.  Actually, that's the problem... there are no power-ups.  You can launch charge shots that cut cleanly through minor enemies and do slightly more damage than usual to the large ones, but Zaku's base weapon will never be more than a peashooter, and you can't team up with partners to double your firepower.  Some of Air Zonk's best moments came from merging with friends and transforming into zany hybrids!  Without that feature or a similarly brilliant one to take its place, Zaku feels unambitious, like the student who could have strived for high marks but settled for a B instead.

So that's exactly what Zaku will get.  It's unquestionably the best game of its kind on the shooter-starved Lynx library, but it's still a little disappointing that Osman didn't go for the gold and make Zaku one of the best Lynx games, period.  Then again, even silver is precious in a world of aluminum foil...

Disney/Black Rock

Split/Second likes to think of itself as a reality show, but it’s about as divorced from reality as it can get.  Produced by Black Rock Studios, the developers of the underappreciated PURE, this racing game puts you in a twelve episode long competition where each car is armed with a detonator.  Sliding through corners, drafting behind rival cars, and launching off hills juices up the device.  Once it’s charged, you can squeeze the trigger to unleash all manner of hell on your adversaries, from rock slides to way-too-close encounters with gigantic cruise ships.  If your car happens to become a sardine can with you trapped inside it, don’t worry… the producers will bring you back to life and set you back on the road in a fresh ride.  Forget NBC… now that’s a powerful network!

Critics have compared this game to the Burnout series, and in many ways, it’s an accurate description.  Many of the modes in Split/Second, from the races to the elimination rounds to the detonator time trial, are lifted straight from Burnout, with the addition of traps spread throughout the track.  Springing these traps (referred to as Power Plays) gives the action the same spirit of aggressive competition as Burnout, but this time from a distance… shoving the other racers into guard rails won’t result in anything but disappointment and a scratched paint job.  Split/Second also takes inspiration from Ridge Racer in its heavy emphasis on drifting.  Mastery of the power slide is your only hope of victory in the later episodes, and the sports cars with a light, slippery frame have a huge advantage against the sturdier but less maneuverable trucks.

Split/Second gets all the basics right… the graphics are gorgeous, as you’d expect from the current generation of game systems, the soundtrack has that slam-bang action film vibe that perfectly fits the explosive arcade gameplay, and the control is serviceable, if biased toward drifters.  However, the problem with Split/Second is that the play mechanic its framework is built around just doesn’t work.  While it took deliberate skill and effort to shove other drivers off the road or into oncoming traffic in the Burnout series, Split/Second’s Power Plays are unpredictable and largely out of the player’s control.  You just taps the button and you takes your chances.  When these attacks send your opponents to the scrap heap, it’s a beautiful thing, but just as often you’ll see them zip right past the traps you’ve triggered, or run face first into them yourself.  With rare exceptions, it’s impossible to know where the sweet spot for a Power Play is set, making them a double-edged sword without a hilt.

Another serious issue with the game is that once a contestant (typically the computer) is in first place and gains a strong lead, they’ll keep it for the rest of the race.  The meter at the bottom of the screen is reserved solely for Power Plays and the occasional shortcut… unlike Burnout, it can’t be used as nitro.  Since you can’t close the gap with a burst of speed and you can’t attack what you can’t see, your only hope is that the leader of the pack makes a mistake that costs him the lead.  Unfortunately, the computer, being a computer and knowing each course like the back of its circuit board, rarely makes errors when it’s in pole position.  You, on the other hand, are quite vulnerable to dropping to the back of the pack after being surprised with a boulder to the face or a bridge that was pulled out from under your wheels.  Remember the rabid fury you felt when you were thrown from your bike just inches from the finish line in Road Rash?  That feeling is back, and it’s a part of your childhood you’ll wish you could leave in the past.

Split/Second is full of infuriating moments like this, and they’re as much the result of designer error as the regular player kind.  Take the Survival challenges, for instance.  This battle of wits against a series of semi trailers loaded with explosive barrels burdens you with low visibility and barrel drops that are just as unpredictable as the rest of the game.  The blue barrels won’t kill you outright, but they will fill the screen with smoke and debris, setting you up for an instant death by one of the red barrels that the semi has an uncanny habit of unloading just in front of your bumper.  When you’re driving through the heart of Armageddon itself, being able to see past the fire and brimstone to the road ahead is a constant worry.  It’s even more stressful when you’re not sure where the road ends and a momentum-killing crash begins.  Burnout showed players the way with handy navigation arrows… in Split/Second, trial and error is the only way you’ll find the safest path through each course.

Despite it all- the small pool of constantly recycled tracks, the pared down driving controls (there’s a button to watch crashes during the game but no hand brake?!), and the gleeful sadism oozing out of every pore of the design team- you’ll have to admit that you enjoyed Split/Second, if only for as long as the title suggests.  It’s a worthwhile rental, but the bombastic approach that helps it stand out from other racing titles holds it back from the greatness of the Burnout series.  Maybe a second season of the Split/Second series, with the difficulty toned down and more bumper-to-bumper combat, will bring it up to those standards.


Today's gamers are quick to dismiss Sega as withered and irrelevant; a former giant eroded by a series of reckless mistakes and claimed as a trophy by a corporation on the fringes of the video game industry. All this may be true, but there are still traces of the old Sega buried under all those terrible Sonic sequels... the Sega that did what Nintendon't, even if it couldn't match Nintendo's polish. The Sega that took risks on new ideas and crazy peripherals, years before the Wii was a twinkle in Shigeru Miyamoto's eye. The Sega that took those first timid steps into online gaming with Phantasy Star Online, and into total player freedom with Shenmue. That crazy diamond has lost most of its shine in recent years, but still catches the occasional glint of light from games like Yakuza 3.

Like its predecessors, Yakuza 3 carries on the tradition of the Shenmue series as a narrative-driven adventure fully immersed in Japanese culture.  After spending the first two games busting heads, lead character Kazuma Kiryu has sworn off organized crime, retiring to the sleepy island of Okinawa to manage an orphanage.  Those carefree days of kissing boo-boos and playing stickball with the kids don't last long, however... a crime boss has his eyes on Kazuma's property, and attempts to force him out so the whole neighborhood can be bulldozed and replaced with a military base.  After a few hours of wading through tutorials and dealing with petty preteen issues, our hero boards a plane to Tokyo and the game gets serious, making a sudden shift in tone from "very special episode of Full House" to "season finale of The Sopranos."

Much of your time in Yakuza 3 will be spent watching cut scenes, engaging in lengthy conversations, and stocking up on items in the city stores.  When you're not knee deep in plot outlining or buying enough energy drinks to keep Lance Armstrong on his bike for days, you'll break out the brass knuckles and mix it up with thugs on every rung of the criminal ladder.  Fights are most fun against young, inexperienced street gangs with no hope of beating Kazuma, because you have the freedom to improvise.  The crowds of mostly harmless foes let you charge up your Heat meter quickly, granting you access to the game's delightfully savage finishers.  There's nothing quite like throwing a thug over the railing of a two-story building, or hobbling him with a flagpole!  Unfortunately, all the fun of fighting goes out the window when Kazuma locks horns with a boss. These bruisers have three life bars, the most impenetrable defense this side of Fort Knox, and a temper that flares when they're near defeat, turning them into adrenaline-fueled killing machines. Before you even think of picking a fight with these guys, you'd better bring along a whole lot of power-ups. And weapons. And an exorcist, just to be sure.

What's even more frustrating is that out of the dozens of shops lining the streets of both Okinawa and Tokyo's Kamarocho district, only a small handful are open for business. So many of the doors are welded shut that the cities start to feel like a movie set in a cheap western, with each living, breathing building separated by dozens of flat cardboard facades. Granted, a lot of content was removed from the Western release, but even the mahjong parlors without mahjong in them have doors. This leads to the uncomfortable conclusion that even the Japanese game has a lot less to offer the player than the colorful downtown scenery would suggest.  What Sega has done is stretch the cozy towns of Shenmue out to a more realistic size without broadening the experience accordingly. It's the kind of deceptive shell game that players have come to expect from the Sega of today, rather than the brave ambition that defined the company in the Dreamcast days.

Honestly, there's a lot about Yakuza 3 that could stand to be improved.  The escape sequences which force you to chase after your enemies, or run from them, are a clumsy means of advancing the plot and not much fun to play.  The graphics are inconsistent, alternating between realistic environments and long strings of boxy buildings with textures slapped on the sides.  Finally, the mini-games are kind of crummy... why settle for three frames of bowling when you can play the whole game with motion controls in Wii Sports?

Yakuza 3's shortcomings keep the game from reaching its full potential, but at the same time, it just feels right that they're here.  Even in its best moments, Sega was never perfect, but its willingness to reach for the stars and pull back a hand full of tempered brilliance was what made the company a legend in the 1990s.  Yakuza 3 is a return to those days of high aspirations and unrestrained- if undisciplined- creativity, and a welcome break from Sega's current modus operendi of half-hearted spin-offs.


You know, I should be angry that Capcom released Super Street Fighter IV.  The new moves, improved online experience, and expanded cast of characters in this update instantly turned the original Street Fighter IV into a drink coaster and made me feel profoundly stupid that I paid sixty dollars for it.  Despite all that, I can't hold a grudge.  If Capcom had given 110% with Street Fighter IV, it's worked itself to exhaustion with the Super edition, which proudly observes the history of the long-running series while crushing the last five years of fighters under its heel.  This is the peak for the genre on modern consoles... and if we're all very lucky, Capcom won't be tempted to outdo itself in the near future.

Street Fighter IV was a visual powerhouse in 2009, and although not much has been done to improve the graphics in this update, it still has the edge over the competition with its brawny yet endearingly comical characters and luscious, color-drenched backgrounds.  Capcom had expressed concern in the past that polygons just couldn't capture the personality of the Street Fighter cast, but it's clear after ten years of technological advancement that they've put that fear far behind them.  The stars of Super Street Fighter IV have it all, moving as fluidly as they did in Street Fighter III and showing more expression than they ever had in their sprite-based days.  Each character's attitude is artfully expressed in win poses, from Dudley's classic British sensibilities to Dan's misplaced sense of arrogance, and your rivals bulge their eyes and drop their jaws in disbelief as you warm up that outrageous knock-out blow that will send them bouncing around the playfield.

The gameplay is a blend of past Street Fighter releases, with the crisp feel of Street Fighter Alpha but some stray features from Street Fighter III and the largely forgotten Street Fighter EX.  Each character has two super meters, with the first growing with each successful strike and the second rising along with the fighter's frustration from being attacked.  Like Street Fighter III, the first meter can be used to double the strength of special moves, with an especially powerful super move available once the bar is filled.  The second meter is reserved for the ultra moves; flashy finishers that are the closest thing Street Fighter will ever get to fatalities.  Super Street Fighter IV adds a second ultra move to everyone's repetoire, but in another, less welcome tip of the hat to Street Fighter III, these must be selected at the beginning of the match rather than chosen on the fly.  Finally, there are the focus attacks, a holdover from Street Fighter EX.  Hold medium punch and kick together and your character is able to shake off one hit from an opponent, then return fire with a bone-shattering blow which leaves the poor sap gasping for air and open to even more punishment.

New ultra moves are among the handful of minor improvements offered in Super Street Fighter IV.  Keen-eyed players will also notice that the difficulty settings are more honest and that the playing field has been leveled for most characters, encouraging diversity in online fights.  Speaking of the online mode, there are more options there as well, including a Replay Channel that lets you watch previously recorded fights and an Endless Battle where a small pool of players can compete against each other until they pass out in front of their television sets.  Bonus stages from Street Fighter II are also thrown in for nostalgia's sake, but playing them makes you realize why they were eventually dropped from the series... and why you can shut them off in the options screen.

The new features are gravy, but the real draw for Super Street Fighter IV is the expanded cast of characters.  There are ten fresh faces in this update, including two completely original fighters and eight brawlers taken from past games.  The newcomers in the original Street Fighter IV were largely lackluster... or both large AND lackluster, in the case of Rufus.  However, Dimps stepped up its game for the update, adding Juri, a sultry sadist with a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and Hakan, a Mediterranean wrestler who's always served extra greasy.  The other eight fighters run the gamut from supremely cool (Dudley) to amazingly versatile (Ibuki) to nearly worthless (Makoto, who makes Dan look like Akuma).  There's even representation from the twenty year old Final Fight thanks to Guy and Cody, making this the most well-rounded cast you'll find in a recent Capcom fighting game.

Is there any reason to own both Street Fighter IV and its supercharged pseudo-sequel?  Well, a game save from the original release will unlock two custom colors in the update, with the first laying on a thick coat of ink from a Japanese calligrapher's paintbrush and the second reproducing the colored pencil sketches used in the introduction.  You also get a chance to double up on your achievement points, if you're willing to do twice the work.  Past that... no, not really.  That's the rub, though, isn't it?  If you're a fan of the series, you've probably already bought the original... and it goes without saying that you'll get Super Street Fighter IV as well.  You know it, I know it, and Capcom knows it, which is why they're able to get away with this re-release.  However, less devoted players have a golden opportunity to skip the dress rehearsal and head straight for the best Street Fighter game released in years... perhaps even decades!

Square-Enix Europe/Avalanche

Meet Rico Rodriguez.  He leaps tall buildings in a single bound... before blowing them to bits.  When he goes fly fishing, he throws back anything smaller than a military helicopter.  His favorite bar hovers five thousand feet above the Earth.  He's the most interesting man in Panau... although there won't be much left of it by the time he leaves.

So, what's a cranky Scarface wannabee like Rico doing in a tyrannically ruled island paradise like this?  He's been hired to bring down a rogue agent, but after locating the target, his mission expands to tearing down the pillars of the Panuan leadership, allying himself with three factions all opposed to the country's self-serving dictator.  He'll raid strongholds, gun down high-ranking military officers, and turn valuable resources into smoldering craters, all to break Baby Panay's stranglehold on the country and pave the way for an American-friendly replacement.

Rico's armed with all the usual tools of the mercenary trade, from the handy, high-capacity pistol to heavy-duty weapons like assault rifles and missile launchers.  However, his bread and butter are the parachute in his backpack and the grappling hook mounted on his wrist.  These serve as his main mode of transportation, with the latter pulling double duty as an especially sadistic weapon.  Having trouble with that pesky soldier?  Hang him from the ceiling and fill 'em with lead... or lead him to the edge of a twenty story building and flip him over the side... or pin him to a propane tank and puncture it with a bullet to send the poor sap on the (last) trip of his life!  There are a dozen ways to use the hook on Panay's men, but don't expect any of them to be humane!

Thanks to the grappling hook and a "heat" system that turns up the intensity as you pick off targets, each mission can be a lot of frantic fun.  There's certainly nothing wrong with the visuals, either... they're a step up from the already impressive first game, with a greater variety of scenery and less of that artificial plastic sheen.  However, even the stunning graphics can't make the trips to each new trouble spot in Panau enjoyable.  You'll either have to glide your way to the location with the parachute, hijack a vehicle to speed up the journey, or call for an extraction... but only to a town you've already visited.  The nation of Panau is enormous, even large beyond reason, making travel painfully time-consuming regardless of how you get from point A to point B.  Worse yet, if you attempt a side mission and die, you're dragged all the way back to a safehouse located several miles away, forcing you to repeat a trip you didn't want to take in the first place.

The writing and voice acting aren't exactly a treat, either.  Rico's gruff, flippant attitude was easier to swallow back in 2006, when every video game character was a macho jerk, but after two Uncharted games, players have come to expect a higher standard from their action heroes.  Unfortunately, there's nothing to like about the entire cast of Just Cause 2.  Rico's a dick, his fellow agents are dicks, the faction leaders are dicks... everyone with a speaking role is the kind of arch-douchebag that will shake your faith in humanity.  Just to make sure you completely hate them, the characters have been given accents that run the gamut from borderline insulting (there's a mission in the game called "Fry me to the moon," suggesting that even the designers realized this) to mystifyingly absurd.  I don't know what Bela Santosi's native language is, but it can't be anything that came from this planet.

From No More Heroes 2 to Mass Effect 2, many recent sequels have distanced themselves from the meandering sandbox gameplay so common in modern video games.  Perhaps Just Cause 2 should have followed their lead, or at least tightened the gaps between hot spots on its needlessly oversized map.  There's just too much dead space separating players from the action, taking much of the thrill out of this thrill ride.


"I've always loved this series and had wanted this installment to excel on the Playstation 2 in the same way that its predecessors had dominated arcades.  Sadly, there's still a lot of room for improvement... so much, in fact, that Maximum Impact feels like rough framework, a skeletal structure onto which a more complete game can be built." - excerpt from a review of King of Fighters: Maximum Impact, written in 2004.

...here we go again.  Five years after Maximum Impact, SNK is repeating all the same mistakes with another next-generation revival of its King of Fighters series that feels half-finished.  However, unlike past efforts to modernize the franchise, the problem with King of Fighters XII isn't a lack of ambition, but ambition poorly invested.  The graphics are nearly everything SNK promised, but the underlying game is so shallow and undeveloped that it can barely keep pace with fighters released over fifteen years ago.

Sure, the gameplay works, but it's missing something.  Actually, make that a whole lot of things.  The play mechanics have been stripped to the bone, with all the features you've come to expect from King of Fighters quietly swept under the rug.  The Advanced and Extra fighting styles are gone, the segmented super meter is gone, and the controversial strikers from King of Fighters '99 are gone.  What you get instead is a lame Critical Counter system that works a little like the V-combos in Street Fighter Alpha 3.  Block an enemy's attack and land a heavy punch immediately afterward and he'll be briefly stunned by a flash of light, letting you hammer him with punches and kicks until his vision returns.  It boils down to a lot of mindless button mashing, and feels tacked on to give the simplistic game engine some faint illusion of depth.

Even the characters have been lobotomized to lessen the burden on the artists; often dragged back to the days of King of Fighters '94 with just three special attacks and one super move.  The Ikari Warriors who gradually developed their own fighting styles over the course of the first four games are back to square one, with Clark and Ralf losing signature moves that distinguished them as individuals.  Flame-haired David Bowie look-alike Iori Yagami has it even worse, with a completely redesigned move list that will leave fans of the flamboyant fighter confused and despondent.  Finally, longtime members of the cast have been pulled from the tournament entirely.  Mai's disappearance made fans fume the most, but hardcore players will be furious to discover that King, the wily lady kickboxer who was the backbone of their teams in past KOF games, has vanished as well.  Filling the void are contrived late additions to the series like Duo Lon, Shen Wu, and Ash Crimson, which are neither particularly useful nor have the personality of the heroes they replaced.

The graphics were clearly the focal point for the design team, but surprisingly, even the artwork comes up short next to the competition.  Although the cavalcade of ethnic stereotypes offered as backgrounds are razor sharp, the chunky character models aren't as sleek or dynamic as the heroes from Arc System Works' BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger, looking like more fitting competition for the five year old Guilty Gear XX.  There's also a lack of sincerity in the artwork that leaves the fighters too polished, too processed, too... artificial.  Some research reveals why... the characters were all traced from rendered models, a process similar to what was used in The Art of Fighting 3 in 1996.  Back when the world was dazzled by computer rendered graphics, this was a pretty slick trick, but now it just seems like a cop-out.  What part of hand-drawn don't you understand?

SNK was given some margin for error with Maximum Impact, but they'll get no such charity for King of Fighters XII.  It's the most unfinished and lopsided game to ever hit a console, retailing at the same price of two vastly superior competitors.  It's not as beautiful as BlazBlue, it's not as meaty as Street Fighter IV, and with the graphics stripped away it doesn't compare to games released ten years ago, from its own series.  SNK can do better than this... and so can you.

Light Gun

One of the preferred complaints of the Wii's self-entitled crybabies detractors is that most of the system's top-shelf titles are light gun games.  I don't see the problem, though, because I happen to love them.  From my earliest memories with the Coleco Telstar's massive rifle to picking off ducks with the Zapper to clearing a path through hostile jungle battlefields with Operation Wolf's machine gun, I've been staring through a crosshair for as long as I've played video games.  Light guns were motion control before anyone had a name for it, offering a level of precision, ease of use, and visceral satisfaction unrivaled by any other input device.  You just aim and shoot.  It doesn't get any easier than that... and it doesn't get any better than the first time you disarm a thug in Virtua Cop, or behead a zombie in The House of the Dead.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that there's nothing like a well-designed light gun game.  And good lord, Resident Evil: The Darkside Chronicles is nothing like one.

I came in with the highest expectations... and why shouldn't I?  Sega had perfected the light gun shooter with House of the Dead over a decade ago.  That trail was blazed long before Capcom had gotten to it... all they would have needed to do to make Darkside Chronicles a success was take the Resident Evil brand down the same path, bringing the graphics up to 21st century standards and making the voice acting less horrible.

Admittedly, Capcom did meet both of those requirements.  The script and acting are hugely improved over the early House of the Dead games, with dialog that makes sense and skilled voice actors who can sell it to an audience.  You'll never catch a character saying something unintentionally hilarious ("Don't come!") or putting intonation on the wrong word of a sentence ("No, help ME!"), because this is 2010. With the video game industry firmly under America's thumb, Japanese game publishers know better than to half-ass a localization... and the ones that don't are no longer in business.

There's certainly nothing wrong with the graphics, either.  Critics have praised this as one of the best looking games on the Nintendo Wii, and if you favor realism over creativity, that statement is hard to dispute.  The opening scene does an admirable job of mimicking the first ten minutes of Resident Evil 5, with a brightly lit, sun-scorched town teeming with the undead.  A later stage sends the cast on a midnight tour through Raccoon City, with flaming cars littering the streets and a police station that's been turned into an all-the-brains-you-can-eat buffet for the zombie horde.  While it may not meet the standards set by the fifth or even the fourth game in the flagship series, the lifelike animation, effective lighting, and wealth of breakable objects in Darkside Chronicles make it more than acceptable as a spin-off on the red-headed stepchild of game consoles.

So the game looks good and sounds good, but that's just window dressing.  What matters most is the core gameplay, and that's where Darkside Chronicles fails miserably.  The first issue with the game is a camera apparently held by that cracked out chihuahua of film directors, Quentin Tarantino.  It's impossible to draw a bead on targets because the lens refuses to stay focused on any subject for more than a couple of seconds.  It sways, it shakes, it spins... it does everything within its power to interfere with your aim and make you lose your lunch in the process.  What's most galling is that an on-rails game like this one should take camera issues out of the picture entirely, offering only the choicest angles for your shooting pleasure.  Taking what has always worked in light gun games and breaking it is not the right way to stand out from the crowd.

The next major malfunction on Capcom's part is senseless inventory management.  This was clearly done to strengthen the bond between Darkside Chronicles and the standard Resident Evil series, but while customizing items adds depth to a lengthy action-adventure title, it makes a lot less sense here.  Weapons start off wimpy, and only improve through a tedious process of mining each stage for gold and using it to purchase upgrades.  This not only takes the fun out of playing a mission once, but forces you to repeat it multiple times to bring your firearms up to speed.  Even after several upgrades, your guns still don't tear through zombies the way they had in House of the Dead 2.  Each enemy has just one weak point that's hard to target- even with a shotgun!- and does little to reward the effort.

Then there are the boss fights... the horrible, horrible boss fights.  Each of these battles has a climax triggered by some action that makes sense only to the developers.  It doesn't matter if you've completely drained the life bar of that giant squid... the only way you can finish the fight is by dropping a church on him.  The biggest slap in the face is that adversaries you've beaten will come back for more punishment, regardless of what you did to them in the previous mission.  Even the Terminator couldn't survive a fall into molten metal... you're going to tell me that the Tyrant can just shake it off like hot coffee spilled on the crotch?  No.  He's dead, dead, DEAD, and fuck you for saying otherwise.  Don't insult my intelligence.

The tug of war between two conflicting genres is what ultimately drives a stake through the heart of Darkside Chronicles.  Light gun games are designed to empower the player with a truckload of devastating weapons, while Resident Evil and other survival horror titles take that power away with a pervasive sense of dread and hopelessness.  House of the Dead worked because despite outward appearances, it was a light gun game at its core, with all the brainless fun that comes with the territory.  Darkside Chronicles won't commit to either style of gameplay, and the player suffers immensely for it.

Electronic Arts/BioWare

Yes, that's a ten.  You didn't think this site was even capable of giving ratings higher than an eight, did you?  It is possible, but just not likely.  The Gameroom Blitz grades on a cliff wall instead of a curve, and only the best of the best can scale that mountain of cynicism and earn a perfect score.  Such a game would have to set new standards for its genre, and probably some other genres as well.  It would need to shatter expectations with Emmy-worthy acting and writing in an industry where storylines are usually the kindergarten paste that holds the action together.  It must have the unlikely combination of diverse gameplay and a tight, user-friendly design.  Most importantly, it would have to keep the editor up through the night and well into the next day, unwilling to step away from the controller and get a few damned hours of sleep.

The frustratingly flawed Mass Effect was not that game, but its sequel sure as hell is.  It's the game of the month, the game of the year, the best Xbox 360 exclusive so far, and quite possibly the best game of this console generation.  The Playstation 3 can't touch it.  The Wii can't touch it.  Even top-quality cross-platform titles like Assassin's Creed II and Street Fighter IV can't reach its level of excellence.  Mass Effect 2 takes all the promise of the previous game and distills it down to a perfect drug that will leave gamers sleepwalking through work and school for the week they'll need to complete it.  It will consume you... and you'll happily dive head first into its jaws.

Mass Effect 2 benefits most from BioWare's decision to throw out the sandbox gameplay of the original and replace it with a "quality over quantity" approach.  While freedom of choice is abundant in the conversations, galactic exploration, and optional missions, the levels are kept linear, with only a handful of hidden paths and few alternate routes.  This allows for a tightly focused and extremely polished design that just wasn't possible in the previous game.  Every space port you'll visit seems both distinct and tangible, with a wealth of little details adding to the illusion of reality.  You'll know from the minute you step off the ship that Omega is the armpit of the galaxy, a dreary city bathed in red lights and littered with garbage and humanoid debris.  By contrast, Illium is a capitalist paradise, with visitors surrounded by stock market kiosks and bombarded with tacky advertisements.  The action scenes are less memorable, alternating between serpentine corridors and slightly wider battlefields, but the driving rain in the abandoned research facility and the lush scenery of the uncharted jungle planet still make an impact.

Although there's a stronger emphasis on action than in the original, character development and interaction is what gives Mass Effect 2 its RPG street cred.  After every mission, you'll have a chance to talk with every active member of your crew, and it won't take long before you'll relish the opportunity.  Characters who originally seem distant and even obnoxious begin to reveal themselves in unexpected ways, forcing you to see them in an entirely different light.  As you progress, you'll engage in heated ethical debates, settle fights between crewmates, and learn about alien customs while sharing a few of your own.  The game's mythology won't surprise most science-fiction fans... the Geth are Star Trek's Borg after a sleek iPod makeover, and the hulking Krogans (sorry) are so much like Klingons that Michael Dorn himself was hired to play a few of them.  It's familiar territory, but the writing is so clever and the characters so packed with personality that these well-worn roads are worth revisiting.

Like most BioWare titles, the conversations in Mass Effect 2 are interactive, with the left joystick used to pick dialog options.  Typically, you can either do the right thing and offer words of comfort, succumb to the guilty pleasure of being a total bastard, or try to be diplomatic and lose both friends and conversation options in the future.  (There's just no room for a Captain Picard in the world of Mass Effect, it seems.)  However, there's a new wrinkle in the form of reflex actions.  Occasionally a red or blue icon will briefly flash during a cut scene... tapping a shoulder button on the controller will make Shepard derail the event with a dramatic action that either heals wounds or pours salt on them.  This adds a sense of urgency to the normally hands-off cut scenes, but has the unfortunate side effect of prompting twitch reactions from gamers who may not be too happy with the results!

Combat in the original Mass Effect, like everything else about the game, was dull and aimless.  However, the sequel borrows the framework of immensely popular cover shooters like Gears of War and Uncharted, then builds on it with its own unique ideas and style.  The basics of hiding behind waist-high obstructions and popping up just long enough to pick off enemies remains the same.  However, the action can be paused to select powers for each member of your squad, ranging from gun enhancements to "biotics" that spindle, fold, and mutilate enemies with all the brutal flair of a Sith Lord.  Throw in heavy weapons like ice grenades and a screen clearing nuclear strike and you've got a game that satisfies from every angle.  The grown up will appreciate the sophisticated storyline, but the kid in you will love breaking out the particle beam and melting mercenaries like so many ants under a magnifying glass!

There are a few flaws... very few, and mostly inconsequential.  BioWare has gone a long way toward cleaning up the cluttered interface of its games, but every once in a while, the company will slip back into its old habits.  One mission requires you to navigate a maze of catwalks to keep tabs on a crooked politician, but since the target is difficult to see and the helpful navigation arrow has been disabled, it feels more like a blind stumble to the finish line than a legitimate challenge.

The level designs in the action scenes lean toward the contrived, although this may be more a fault of the cover shooter genre than this game in particular.  It's rare to be surprised by an enemy attack, because an open area with stacks of boxes is an unmistakable tip-off that a squadron of Geth troopers is just around the corner.  The only thing missing is a flashing neon sign at the entrance that reads "BAD GUYS AHEAD! PROCEED WITH CAUTION!"  There's a lack of spontaneity that makes the gun battles less thrilling than they could be, and the code breaking mini-games, while mildly diverting, do little to hide this.

Finally, Mark Meer is a dark spot in an otherwise shining cast of experienced voice actors.  Unfortunately, he's also in the lead role.  You'll be hearing his dry Chuck Norris impression a lot unless you swallow your pride and play as the female Shepard instead.  Jennifer Hale does a hell of a job as the hard-nosed space captain, bringing a touch of humanity and sensuality to the role, so you'll ultimately be glad you put her in the driver's seat and your male ego in the trunk.

These are minor issues in a carefully crafted masterpiece.  Since the introduction of the CD-ROM format, there's been a push in the video game industry to bring a more cinematic quality to the gaming experience.  However, Mass Effect 2 one of the rare titles that brings the aspects of film and game together without letting one eclipse the other.  Cut scenes are staged with all the careful attention you would expect from an award-winning film director, while the gameplay is compelling enough to keep you hunting for missions, mining for minerals, and unlocking gun upgrades for hours on end... even at the cost of more pressing obligations.  This is a game that offers everything while compromising nothing; a rare master of all trades.  The question you'll have to ask yourself isn't if you should buy Mass Effect 2, but how long you should kick yourself for not buying it earlier.

Sony/Level 5

White Knight Chronicles is a hard game to rate. It's tough because most of the game will be spent playing the underwhelming story mode offline.  However, the online functionality is the best part of the game and ultimately redeems it. It was a tough decision to make, but overall I can squeeze White Knight Chronicles into the "worth the $60 purchase" category, provided you have online access.
If you enjoy RPGs for fantastic plots with memorable scenes and epic moments, don't bother with White Knight Chronicles. Despite a few plot twists, there's absolutely nothing here that anyone who has ever played an RPG in the past twenty years wouldn't be able to see coming. The main character is a young boy named Leonard who, for reasons that are inadequately explored, falls in love with Princess Cisna, because he saw her once when they were children many years ago.  He has taken it upon himself to save her from a group known as the "Magi," who wish to use her to awaken the powers of the "knights," large body armor suits a'la Escaflowne.

Of course, "because I saw her once a few years ago" hardly justifies involving yourself in such important matters.  In any realistic scenario, the Princess would be more likely to issue a restraining order than wait to be saved by her shining "prince" Leonard.  Anyway... along the way you'll meet the usual ragtag cast of heroes, most of whom just tag along "just because."  The only truly interesting supporting characters are Kara and Eldore, whose mysterious personalities barely hold the plot above water during your quest.
The terrible pacing of an already humdrum, paper-thin plot only compounds matters. Once the party arrives at the city of Greede about halfway into the game, I nearly quit as the storyline comes crashing to a screeching halt and the game enters "fetch quest hell."  Four or five hours of the game are spent backtracking to previous areas to find a plethora of items the party must obtain before finally progressing to the next chapter of the story. This wouldn't be such a problem if the storyline budged even a little while hunting down these trinkets. There's no character development, no new areas to explore, no meaningful backstories revealed.  This seemingly endless scavenger hunt exists only to pad the length of the game.  Once it finally comes to a merciful end, the plot does pick up, but the threadbare middle of the game will have many less patient players crying foul.
Fetch quests are nothing new to RPGs, but they're especially bothersome in this game due to its length, or the lack thereof. The main quest takes no more than twenty hours to complete, so when nearly a quarter of a game's plot is relegated to fetch quests, it's impossible not to notice.  Once it’s finished the game feels like a TV dinner for starved RPG fans. It briefly satiates those looking for a next generation RPG, but they'll quickly hunger for a more satisfying storyline.  The story ends on a cliffhanger, which hopefully will lead to a more intriguing plot in future installments. Sadly, what's offered here in the first installment of the game was a complete waste of time as the only worthwhile moments could be summed up in about five hours.
Fortunately, the gameplay is vastly more interesting than the scenario. Once the game begins the player must create an avatar for both the story mode and online play. This is an exciting feature that is sadly underutilized by Level 5.  Often times during scenes the avatar is barely seen in the background and has virtually no involvement with the plot whatsoever. The idea of the avatar being not the main character but rather an "onlooker" to the events unfolding isn't a particularly bad one, but the problem lies in the fact that the other characters in the story never acknowledge the avatar’s presence. The avatar never expresses any kind of emotion and is just a doll that happens to pop up in a frame from time to time.
The structure of White Knight Chronicles is similar to that of Final Fantasy XII, with combat offering both free-roaming and turn based elements.  When a timer on the screen is filled, the player can execute a variety of commands previously assigned in the menu screen. Unfortunately, the battles are merely a poor man's version of the ones in Final Fantasy XII, without its refinement or challenge.  A simple task like changing targets is made ridiculously cumbersome as it requires a few seconds of fumbling around in the menu systems to find the right command.  A "hot key" that instantly allows you to switch targets would have been much preferred.  On the plus side, the amount of customization available is extremely impressive.  You can build your party members however you like as you earn ability points to spend on various skills and magic.  Weapons each have their own class and abilities, allowing for a large amount of flexibility and strategy.  You can even create and name your own combos by stringing together abilities and assigning them to command slots, provided you have enough Action Chips stored to do so.

Not that you'd need to employ any strategy.  White Knight Chronicles is so ridiculously easy that you can skate through the entire game just by teaching the party healing spells and giving them the strongest equipment and weapons.  Once the lead character transforms into the White Knight armor, the game becomes borderline broken.  I never once had to transform into the knight unless forced by the game. Magic doesn't even become a factor until the final area, when the game presents at least some modicum of challenge.  RPG fans looking for the deep strategy and challenge of Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne will be sorely disappointed here.

White Knight Chronicles' best asset is its creativity.  How creative of a person are you?  That's the question to ask yourself before pulling the trigger on a purchase. The game's best moments come when it lets you color outside the lines. The game lets you create your own town and populate it with residents.  You can find materials to build houses and other structures, and assign residents to cultivate the town... hiring different professions yields different items.  Your town can then be uploaded, and you can either invite players to visit your town or drop in on other players’ villages. You can take materials and items and combine them to create new, more powerful weaponry. Up to four people can go on assigned quests purchased in the story. Eventually you'll receive a camera that lets you take pictures of your party and upload those online as well.  If you get involved and make friends online you can have tons of fun playing the game, and its many shortcomings become less noticeable.

Even though you'll have fun going on quests with other players, once you return to the story mode, you'll be reminded of the game's total mediocrity. 
 WKC isn't awful by any stretch of the imagination, but you can't help but notice that Level 5 had a ton of untapped potential here and coming from them, that's a disappointment.  Considering their past output, Level 5 also did a surprisingly subpar job with the visuals.  Rogue Galaxy and Dragon Quest 8 are among the most breathtaking games on the Playstation 2, but White Knight Chronicles doesn't even come close to harnessing the full power of the more advanced PS3.  The graphics aren't bad, but this game is seriously behind the curve visually, and the fact that this was finally released in the United States a year after its Japanese debut doesn't help matters.  Still, there's fun to be had in this title, provided you've got a lot of online friends who also enjoy the creative aspects of the game.  You can also unlock even more items and equipment on a second playthrough, but suffering through it once may be enough for most gamers.  Level 5 and JRPG fans who are more interested in expressing their creativity than pushing their skills to the limit will get the most enjoyment out of this game.  Everyone else is better off looking to the horizon for their RPG fix.

From Software
Action.  Occasionally.

It's probably not ethical to review a game you haven't completed, but I'm so eager to put the smackdown on this one that I'll use a convenient alias.  Not for me, mind you, but the game itself.  Instead of its actual title, which is nothing exciting anyway, I'll just refer to it by the name it should have been given... Quicktime Wankfest.  See how long it takes before you can guess which game it is!  Give yourself bonus points if you already know.

Back in 2009, veteran game developers From Software decided to create an exclusive for each of the current generation consoles, except the Wii, which always gets stiffed when big-name publishers make big-budget projects.  The Playstation 3 received Demon's Souls, an expertly crafted but viciously difficult action RPG that became the abusive love interest of countless gamers.  The Xbox 360 got Quicktime Wankfest, a case study in everything that's wrong with video games today.  You can tell who got the better end of this deal.

Anyway, Quicktime Wankfest begins with you, a faceless member of an elite team of ninjas, preparing to purge Tokyo of a parasite infection imported from the jungles of Africa.  Hmm, the most overused video game trope this side of the captive princess coupled with a plotline stolen wholesale from Resident Evil 4... you haven't even gotten past the first cut scene and things are already starting to look grim for this one!

The real problem with Quicktime Wankfest is that the opening cut scene never ends.  Once you leap out of the plane to confront the Plagas, er, Alpha Worms, you're locked into the first of many, many quicktime events.  First introduced in Sega's Shenmue, quicktime events clumsily merge real-time gameplay with cut scenes for a hybrid that's not really interactive, but too distracting to enjoy as a purely cinematic experience.

When the lead character crashes through the glass wall of a skyscraper and hits solid ground, the gameplay switches to a beat 'em up in the vein of Ninja Gaiden or God of War.  Unfortunately, the action is kind of pedestrian and doesn't really stand shoulder to shoulder with the games that inspired it.  Your surprisingly meek ninja is stuck in two gears, shifting from "slightly constipated" to "ludicrous speed" with a tap of the right trigger, the ninja vision is rarely as useful as similar gimmicks in Batman: Arkham Asylum or Assassin's Creed II, and finishing blows aren't as user-friendly or seamless as the ones in the God of War series.

Just when you think you've adapted to the quirks of the game engine, it grinds to a sudden halt with a close-up of the hero's masked face and another marginally interactive cut scene.  Just tap the buttons when they appear onscreen to proceed... or don't, and watch the footage rewind back to the start of the sequence.  You never actually seem to die in these quicktime events; like history, you're doomed to repeat them until you get them right.  No, you can't rewind to the minute before you rented this and make the right decision then.

It doesn't take long before the game dissolves into a schizophrenic farce, much like that Tex Avery cartoon where the bulldog maestro adopts six different personalities while conducting an orchestra.  It's a game!  It's a movie!  It's back to a game again!  After an hour, you'll scream at the television to make up its damn mind and give you one or the other.  While you're making furious, impotent demands of an inanimate object, you might also ask for a reason to care about the atom-thin characters, or the gravity-defying but largely hands-off fight scenes that seem more trite than outrageous in the wake of Bayonetta.

Ultimately, Quicktime Wankfest is doomed not only by an identity crisis, but by a lack of ambition in all its multiple personalities.  It's not compelling cinema.  It's not a satisfying action game.  Frankly, it's not much of anything.


Let’s pretend for a minute, shall we?  You’re Travis Touchdown, nerd.  No, scratch that… you’re Travis Touchdown, extra strength turbo-nerd.  Your apartment is littered with cardboard standees for Japanese cartoons.  You follow professional wrestling the way John Hinckley Jr. followed Jodie Foster.  Your idea of a date is a bottle of baby oil and the latest episode of Bizarre Jerry 5, a show with girls so young and provocatively dressed that it makes Sailor Moon look like The McLaughlin Group.

Finally, you love light sabers.  That’s not a surprise considering all I’ve told you before, but what if I said that you used them as a freelance assassin?  Yes, Travis Touchdown, you are no ordinary Primatine-huffing geek, but a world-renowned hitman, capable of bringing down targets ten times your size.  You’re an expert martial artist, an unparalleled athlete, and you’ve been known to transform into a tiger every now and then to even the odds in a tough fight.  You, my friend, are a god among nerds... or maybe just a nerd among gods.

One night, after carving up your latest target, you come home to find your best friend’s head in a bag.  You’re shocked, you’re beside yourself with grief, and you’re furious.  So naturally, you do what any man would do in that situation… you exercise your cat.  Hey, you were out of town for a while and she gorged herself on Meow Mix until you got back!  Once you’re done with feline yoga class, you dive headfirst into your work, slicing your way through the ranks to reclaim your title as the best assassin in your hometown of Santa Destroy.  Why the cops don’t step in to stop this competition is anyone’s guess, but hey, that’s not any less ridiculous than everything else I’ve told you.

Now that you’ve started your next mission and are up to your neck in thugs, hoods, and goons, it’d be a pretty good time to know how to use that light saber.  Just swing the Wiimote while tapping the A button, and you’ll cut a path through the human debris.  When one of your enemies is out of energy, just swipe the Wiimote in the direction shown to carve him into deli meat.  If your sword is running low on Schwartz, you’ll have to rely on punches and lethal suplexes until you can recharge it either with batteries or the same technique you used while watching those Japanese cartoons.  Seriously, give it a try… I’ll even turn my head for a while if that makes you more comfortable.

When you’re not fighting endless waves of mafia members or doing your best imitation of Pee-Wee Herman in a movie theater, you’ll earn money with jobs that suspiciously resemble old Nintendo games.  Some of them, like Bug Out, are good enough to pass for the real thing, while Man the Meat and Tile in Style are closer to what you might find in one of those awful unlicensed collections from the early 1990s.  You’ll also take an occasional break and let an acquaintance thin the herd of chainsaw wielding lunatics for a while.  This includes both your fawning understudy, who looks like a young Tina Turner, and your brother, whom you’ve affectionately nicknamed Sir Henry Motherfucker.  Gee, sounds like the relationship I have with my brother…

It’s fun to pretend, and for the first five hours of No More Heroes 2, it’s a blast to be Travis Touchdown.  However, after the ten hours it takes to finish the game, you’ll be relieved to step back into your own shoes.  The rough graphics, cryptic conversations with your panty-flashing love interest, and miserably cheap boss fights all take their toll, making you crave the moment when it all comes to an end.  Sometimes, the best part of pretending is that you can stop.


Sony/Q Games


Heat and cold have been bitter enemies since the beginning of time, battling to a lukewarm standstill for countless centuries.  There was a brief truce in the 1980s mediated by Jason Alexander and the McDLT, but twenty years later, they're once again at each other's throats, struggling for dominance in the game PixelJunk Shooter.

This time, the battlefield is a vast cavern littered with treasure and stranded miners.  Repesenting heat are scalding pools and geysers of lava.  Playing for the cold team is water, the refreshing taste that goes down smooth.  As the pilot of a small spacecraft, you're caught in the middle of the conflict.  Your official goal is to grab all the miners in each stage, but the only way you'll be able to do this is to bring heat and cold together, transforming them both into harmless igneous rock which can be chiseled through with your ship's laser beams.

The water doesn't seem to mind your presence, doing no harm to you and even cooling your ship's hull after you've unleashed a storm of homing missiles.  However, the lava takes things personally and will fry you to a crisp on direct contact.  Just getting close to a pool of lava is enough to raise your ship's temperature dangerously high.  Ultimately, your survival depends not only on neutralizing the molton rock, but keeping your distance from heat sources and taking frequent dips in water to keep your ship from reaching its melting point.

The interaction between fiery magma and life-giving water doesn't just make this game better... it makes the game.  Without it, PixelJunk Shooter would be a faintly modernized and thoroughly unremarkable clone of Atari's Gravitar.  The simple graphics smack of Flash- even Sega's Subterrania from the early 1990s had more detailed artwork than this!- and the soundtrack is all over the place, favoring tribal chants whose connection to the gameplay is strained at best. 

However, once you add lava and water to the recipe, practically everything changes.  The visuals come to life when waterfalls crash down from the top of the screen and streams of the bright blue liquid are diverted to a nearby lake of fire,  granting you safe passage to the next miner.  Handy items like alien sponges and the juiciest fruits in the galaxy add depth and a puzzle element to the unexpectedly sedate gameplay.  PixelJunk Shooter is the rare kind of shooter that's more likely to confound you with a seemingly impassable volcano or a perilously placed miner than overwhelm you with swarms of monsters.  The monsters are there, in all their dive-bombing, magma-spewing glory, but nine times out of ten, the devilishly crafted stages will be your downfall.

It's not the merciless assault on your senses that Geometry Wars and its many clones tend to be, but if you're looking for a laid-back game that challenges your mind rather than your vision, and brings something new to the table in a genre starving for new ideas, PixelJunk Shooter is a perfect fit for your collection.


2K Games/Gearbox
First-Person Shooter



JULY 17th, 2XXX: Just touched down on the planet Pandora.  Just lookin' at this place makes me thirsty... it's dry, it's dead, and the closest thing I've seen to civilization is the sad little shanty town where the ship landed.  I'll be honest with 'ya... this place is a dump.  I've seen better truck stop bathrooms.  I wouldn't even be here if it weren't for all them rumors about a treasure buried somewhere on this dirtball.  They call it the Vault, and it's big... real big.  Big enough for me to retire a hundred times over.  Big enough for the whole galaxy to talk about it.  Big enough to bring me here along with who knows who else.

JULY 18th, 2XXX: Taking the bus to Fyrestone.  There's a guy there who's got all the equipment I need to start lookin' for the Vault... Zed, I think.  Right now, I'm squeezed in here with a bunch of other treasure hunters.  The chick's not so bad to look at, when you can see her, but these big meaty guys scare the hell outta me.  I think one of 'em's from the army, while the other one looks like he could rip you in half if you got him mad.  The bus stinks somethin' fierce and the driver won't shut up... the sooner I get off this tin can and stretch my legs, the better.

JULY 19th, 2XXX: I'm here at Fyrestone, and being shown 'round the place by some damn robot.  It's gripin' that the bandits here like to shoot at it for fun, and after listening to it for the last fifteen minutes, I can't say I blame 'em.  The only other thing I remember it telling me is that these green posts will bring me back if I get killed somehow.  Guess it makes a copy of you, and spits you back out in one piece if you get your head blown off.  Gotta love technology!

JULY 20th, 2XXX: Got my first toys from Dr. Zed, along with a job... he wants me to pick off some of the skags outside his shop.  What's a skag?  Imagine the ugliest dog you've ever seen, with the biggest jaws you've ever seen.  Yep, that's a skag.  I got a pretty sharp aim, and the skags ain't too tough if you keep your distance, so I'm not expectin' any problems.

JULY 23th, 2XXX: No problems with the skags, but the bandits!  Damnation.  Got blindsided by a pack of 'em and was gunned down in a hurry.  The New-U works great, though... it was like nothin' ever happened.  Guess I'm gonna have to get better guns to handle these guys.  This rusty 'ol revolver just isn't getting the job done.  Also, I sure wish I had a better GPS system... this thing don't work worth a damn so I gotta pull out a map every ten steps.  Gets real tiresome after a while, 'ya know?

JULY 24th, 2XXX: The other folks on this planet- the ones who ain't tryin' to kill me, I mean- don't seem to do much but give me jobs and crack jokes.  Seemed kinda strange at first, but I guess you gotta have a sense of humor if you live in a place like this.  Also surprised that Pandora wasn't as dark as I thought it'd be when I first came here.  You could spot a skag comin' from a mile away... and when you find a nest of the varmints, you'll be glad you can!

JULY 27th, 2XXX: Just took out Nine-Toes and his pets, and I'm feelin' a lot more confident about my chances here on Pandora.  Took all his money and his favorite weapon as my reward.  Not like he's gonna miss it where he's goin', right?  Lemme tell 'ya, I can't imagine how a gun can get any better than this baby... it shoots a half-dozen bullets faster'n you can blink, and the bullets set anything they hit on fire!  I got a shield now too, so I'm not wastin' so much money at the New-U stations.

JULY 30th, 2XXX: Remember when I said it couldn't get better than the last gun I had?  It got better.  I betcha this place has more ways to blow bandits up than you can count, and believe me, there's nothin' I love more than killin' bandits.  Blew the leg right off one of the sonuvabitches with my sniper rifle... he never knew what hit 'em!  Also got a Bloodwing, which is kind of like a crow with a really big beak and really sharp teeth.  Gentle as a lamb with me, but he tears up skags like nobody's business.

AUGUST 2nd, 2XXX: Thought I was a goner last night.  Got into a fight with a bruiser... he smacked me around and tossed a rocket my way.  I was face down on the ground and the lights got dim, but I figured out that I could still use my guns while I was dyin'!  So I filled the dumbass with lead while he was standing there laughing.  As soon as he died, I came back to life right on the spot!  It was the damnedest thing.  Sure wish I'd known about this before!

AUGUST 8th, 2XXX: Skags and bandits, bandits and skags!  Ain't there nothin' else on this planet?  Only thing that keeps me here are all them different guns... and oh yeah, the Vault.  Completely forgot about that.  Whatever, it'll be there tomorrow.

AUGUST 15th, 2XXX: I'm comin' home.  I'm tired, and the bandits just get meaner 'n meaner the further I go.  The Vault can wait, and the guns can wait too.  Next time I go to Pandora, I'm bringin' some friends along with me.  Can't imagine why I came here without 'em.

Sega/Platinum Games

Years ago, a team of developers known as Clover Studios released a Playstation 2 game called God Hand.  Designed to bring an old-school sensibility to modern styles of gameplay, God Hand was outrageous, challenging, and oh yeah, pretty awkward to play.  The clumsy over the shoulder perspective and badly dated graphics split the gaming community with all the violent precision of a freshly-sharpened axe, with fans and detractors on opposite sides of the rift.  God Hand’s supporters, typically members of the gaming counterculture, turned a blind eye to the game’s faults while praising it as an unrecognized masterpiece.  The critics were just as adamant in expressing their frustration with God Hand’s cumbersome control, an unwelcome holdover from the early days of Resident Evil and Tomb Raider.

Fast forward to January 2010.  The same studio, now known as Platinum Games, has taken another shot at the formula, serving up a double helping of the sweet insanity of God Hand while stripping away nearly all its flaws.  The robotic turn-walk-turn control has been replaced with satiny-smooth combos capped off by devastating finishing blows, and the graphics are vastly improved, shattering peoples’ expectations even in an age where technology has set the bar for visuals impossibly high.  The haters will recognize Bayonetta as the game God Hand wanted to be, while the fans will point to it as proof that they were right all along.  However, there will be no debate about its quality… Bayonetta is a very hard game to hate.

Just who is this “Bayonetta,” anyway?  Don’t bother looking to the game’s jumbled mess of a plot for answers… you’ll be even more confused than when you started.  All you need to know is that the star of the game is a brash British witch (or dominatrix… it’s hard to tell from the outfit) who’s not afraid to use sex- and anything that’s not bolted down- as a weapon.  Take equal parts Supernanny, Xena: Warrior Princess, and your favorite hardcore porn star, then pour them all into a skintight outfit, and you’d be on the right track.  Her enemies rain down from the heavens and come in the following varieties: angels who look like gold-plated turkey vultures, tiny heads with dove wings, armored griffons that fight with the ferocity of starved lions, and bosses so colossal they often rival the size of the stages themselves.

Don’t worry too much about the sultry sorceress, however… she’s more than prepared to take on these holy harbingers of death.  A gun strapped to each limb (yes, even the legs) allows Bayonetta to pick off weak enemies from a distance, without the hassle of locking onto targets.  The beefier foes will require strings of punches and kicks delivered at close range, followed by a death blow delivered by Bayonetta’s transforming hair or, once the magic gauge at the top of the screen has been charged, a torture device powered by hammering buttons on the controller.  When enemies strike back, you can tap the R2 button to slip through their attacks and activate “Witch Time,” which temporarily slows down the action and lets you pound your adversaries into angel dust as they’re stuck in molasses.

The combat system is both keenly responsive and brimming with strategic possibilities, a balance that’s hard to achieve in a beat ‘em up for a modern game console.  If you want to take a casual stroll through Bayonetta and power your way through fights with a minimum of effort, that option is available to you, but you can also take your time and learn to play the game like a pro, stretching your combos out to infinity.  This opens up the game to practically anyone who can hold a controller, but rewards those players who go the extra mile and learn the finer points of combat… the right combos to perform, the right weapons to equip, and the right time to dodge each enemy’s strikes.  Bayonetta encourages players to improve without punishing those who haven’t sharpened their skills to a razor’s edge, a far cry from the punishing God Hand and an excellent template for future releases.

Bayonetta also makes the wise move of breaking up the battles, not with cryptic and tedious puzzles like its kissing cousin Devil May Cry, but with fun mini-games that keep the action fresh and unpredictable.  The most frequent of these is Angel Attack, a simple shooting gallery with Bayonetta unloading a small clip of bullets into a circling swarm of angels, but at other points throughout the game she’ll hop on car rooftops in pursuit of her enemies, race a motorcycle over a crumbling freeway overpass, and do her best Dr. Strangelove impression, riding a missile to a mysterious island city.  These scenes play like Yu Suzuki’s arcade hits from the 1980s, complete with remixed versions of the Space Harrier, Hang On, and Out Run soundtracks.  This is a good thing for players old enough to remember them and an even better thing for Sega, because without these cheeky references, it would be exceedingly easy to mistake Bayonetta for a Capcom release.

It’s an improvement over Devil May Cry 4 and a quantum leap ahead of God Hand, but there are still some ugly wrinkles in Bayonetta that could stand to be ironed out in the sequel.  Some of these are unfortunately exclusive to the Playstation 3 version, which suffers from an abundance of load times and severe slowdown in one of the later stages.  Other issues are more deeply rooted, and annoying regardless of which system you own.  The mini-games mentioned earlier will bore you to tears long before they actually end, the developers are clearly more attracted to the cartoonishly sexualized Bayonetta than any player would ever be, and the ludicrous cut scenes can’t be skipped unless you sign forms in triplicate and hand-deliver them to the president of Platinum Games.  There are even life and death quick-time events that punish you harshly for missing a single button press in what appears to be another of the game’s many film clips.  It’s just Hideki Kamiya’s own little way of saying, “Don’t put down that controller!  Or else.”

For all its annoyances, Bayonetta is a big success for both Platinum Games and Sega.  It’s a tightly designed, lavishly illustrated, and richly rewarding action title that never forgets its roots or its obligations to today’s more demanding players.  In short, Bayonetta is everything fans of God Hand loved about that game, without all the stuff the critics hated.

Ubisoft/Ubisoft Montreal

I approached this game with the utmost caution.  After all, the first Assassin's Creed was uncomfortably close to a critical disaster, with reviewers finding themselves as annoyed by the repetitive missions as they were awestruck by the lifelike graphics.  The bad press was made that much worse when a webcomic surfaced portraying lead developer Jade Raymond as a mindless bimbo, willing to do anything to please her undersexed fans.  Ubisoft unwisely threatened legal action, giving the distasteful drawing even more exposure and leaving gamers with the impression that the company was run by humorless bullies.  (People tend not to buy games from humorless bullies.  Unless it's Rockstar.)

When the sequel was released, I watched Metacritic like a hawk, pouncing on each new review and carefully gauging public reaction to the game.  It didn't take long before I noticed a pattern in how Assassin's Creed II was perceived.  The critics who were unimpressed by the original sang the sequel's praises in pitch-perfect harmony, offering every assurance that the game was an improvement over its predecessor.  The critics aren't always right, of course... in their rush to praise Batman: Arkham Asylum, they glossed over its most aggravating flaws.  However, critical opinion of Assassin's Creed II was so uniformly positive that taking a risk on the game didn't seem like that much of a risk.

I never played the original Assassin's Creed, so I can't tell you how the sequel improves upon the first game, or which flaws have remained constant.  However, I can say as a newcomer to the series that Assassin's Creed II brings welcome changes to some well-worn and increasingly threadbare styles of gameplay.  It's a game that's heavy on killing but mercifully light on testosterone, with an open-ended world that rarely seems aimless and stealth action scenes that aren't rigid or frustrating.  The visuals are so beautiful, the atmosphere so convincing, and the storyline so carefully constructed that you'll never doubt for a second that over two hundred people were responsible for its design.

The game begins with you running for your life alongside a mysterious female accomplice, who takes you to an abandoned warehouse.  During the trip, you discover that you've been training to join a league of noble assassins in its eternal struggle against a sinister shadow organization called the Templars.  You've learned a lot about the bloody business by playing a distant ancestor in a virtual reality simulation.  However, you'll need to round out your knowledge by strapping yourself into the Animus one more time and stepping into the leather boots of Italian renaissance figure Ezio Auditore Di Firenze.

Roguish and handsome, Ezio has no greater aspirations than chasing some Florentine tail and getting into occasional scuffles with the spoiled sons of the city's aristocracy.  His priorities change in a hurry when his family is railroaded in a trial by Italy's powerbrokers.  When his father and brothers are hanged in the town square and his mother is left speechless from the shock of their deaths, Ezio abandons his childish pursuits and begins a twenty year mission of vengeance against the men who conspired against his family.

You'll hunt for these scoundrels in twelve missions, split equally between nail-biting platforming and the most refreshingly dynamic stealth action since the last Sly Cooper game.  Unlike Batman: Arkham Asylum, which viciously punished the player for stepping outside the boundaries set by the designers, Assassin's Creed II gives you remarkable freedom in how you can take out your next target.  Should you take refuge in a haystack and wait for him to walk past, or find sanctuary in a crowd and stick a blade in his throat when you cross paths?  Maybe you'd rather deliver death from above with a throwing knife or your wrist-mounted pistol.  It's your call, and there are only a handful of instances when that choice is taken out of your hands.

While you're thinking about your next move, you'll want to take the opportunity to look around and sample the local color.  I've never visited Venice, much less 15th century Venice, but I have to imagine it would look a lot like this.  There are ornate churches towering over densely packed strings of houses, waterways with manned gondolas and cargo ships, and a cast of hundreds including crowds of bystanders, obnoxious bards (outta my way, bitch!), and the world's most modestly dressed prostitutes.  There's even a celebrity appearance by Italian super genius Leonardo da Vinci, who helps you defy both the corrupt town leaders and the very law of gravity as you inch ever closer to the leader of the conspiracy that claimed the lives of your family.

Assassin's Creed II comes so close to perfection, but drops the ball in one very crucial area... control.  It's too clumsy and too contextual, giving you the nagging feeling that you're never completely in charge.  Buttons on the face of the controller are assigned to Ezio's head, arms, and feet (uncomfortably reminiscent of Strata's ancient arcade flop Time Killers), and the function of these keys changes depending on the situation.  In other words, jump doesn't always mean jump, and assassinate won't always yield the intended results.

The game's "pathfinding AI" goes one step further in wrenching the control from the player's hands.  Ezio climbs walls at frustratingly uneven speeds, and won't even attempt to grab footholds seemingly within his reach unless you attempt a wall-hugging jump... a skill you won't learn until late in the game.  Finally, your speed is not dependent on how far you tilt the left thumbstick, as is common in action games, but how many buttons you're holding down while moving.  If you've got an Xbox 360, your finger will ache from holding down the right trigger after an hour of play.  If you've got a Playstation 3, heaven help you, because the triggers on its Dual Shock 3 are so slippery as to be finger-proof.  Either way, you'll curse the designers for breaking with tradition in the worst possible way.

Surprisingly, the awkward control isn't a fatal mistake.  It could have been in a less ambitious game, but Assassin's Creed II rises above it by being nearly flawless in every other respect.  All right, the ending is pretty stupid too, but that's two shortcomings in a game that addresses not only the issues of its predecessor, but the more deeply rooted flaws of the past ten years of game design.  It features characters you won't regret saving, sandbox gameplay with main objectives you'll actually want to complete, and stealth action that won't whip you bloody for coloring outside the lines.  If all this doesn't convince you that Jade Raymond has earned her place among today's leading game developers, you might as well turn in your Xbox Live membership, that God of War T-shirt, and the little stuffed Yoshi you've got hiding in your closet.  You're out of the gang!

Derek Yu

It was distressingly common in the NES days to judge a game by the pictures on the back of the box, only to come home and get an entirely different (and often worse) experience than what those tiny snapshots had suggested.  The combination of larger-than-life childhood expectations and false advertising sold dozens of games which had no business being on store shelves, let alone in the hands of disappointed consumers.  Remember how Deadly Towers and Arkista's Ring seemed like they could take the place of Link's Adventure as the true successors to The Legend of Zelda?  Remember how freaky cool Abadox and Zombie Nation looked, with their tangled masses of intestines and gigantic exploding buildings?  Ever got the impression that The Adventures of Bayou Billy would be the ultimate NES game with its three distinct styles of gameplay and those famous spit-shined Konami graphics?  Well, to paraphrase a frequently uttered line from a more recent video game, the box was a lie.  Yes, those pictures were from the actual games, but they were presented in a way that made you think you were getting a lot more for your money than the designers actually bothered to give you.

Such was the case with Spellunker, the old Broderbund computer game ported to the NES by Irem.  The snapshots on the back of the box suggested a sprawling adventure with deep play mechanics and dozens of hidden areas to discover.  What was inside the box was less thrilling... a subterranian Donkey Kong knock-off with the wimpiest protagonist this side of a Woody Allen movie.  Step off the third rung of a ladder, and you'd die.  Get splashed with the steam from a geyser, and you'd die.  Get too close to a dead canary?  That's right, it's curtains for you!  The hero who was pathetic beyond all reason made this already linear game feel even more stiff and rigid.  There was no room for exploration and no chance to experiment in Spelunker... you either went through the game exactly as its designer Tim Martin intended, or you died trying.  Frequently.

Spelunky is pixel artist Derek Yu's valiant attempt to right past wrongs and finally give players the game they were expecting Spellunker to be.  It has many of the elements of the venerable Broderbund computer release, from basic staples like bombs and ropes to that terrifying ghost that would chase you to the ends of the earth if you dragged your feet while searching for the exit.  However, while Spellunker dragged you through a predetermined path, Spelunky drops your red-nosed explorer into randomly generated caverns, stocked with untold riches and unspeakable horrors.  There's no wrong way to reach the exit at the bottom of the screen, and if you stumble into a dead end, you can always light a bomb to blast a hole through the floor or use a rope to reach a ledge.

Derek Yu's got all the fundamentals covered in Spelunky, although the game shines more brightly in some areas than others.  The graphics bridge the gap between the 8 and 16-bit eras, with simply drawn characters and lushly colored environments that bring back memories of Daisuke Amaya's instant classic Cave Story.  The control takes a bit of adjustment thanks to a slightly flighty main character and an overabundance of buttons... seriously, eight is way more than enough for a remake of a game that dates back to the early 1980s!  However, you'll get used to it with a little practice and the proper key configuration.  It's much harder to put up with the soundtrack, which is full of shrill chip tunes that'll leave you scrambling for the volume knob on your speakers.

What makes Spelunky really work is the open-ended design, along with the improvisation that it invites.  There are countless opportunities to color outside the lines and test the boundaries of the game's engine.  Gold veins line the walls and floors of the cave... do a little excavation with a well-placed bomb and you'll be rewarded with a shower of glistening nuggets!  Damsels in distress eagerly await your rescue, but in an age of gender equality, there's absolutely nothing wrong with making them earn their keep by using them to trigger traps or flush out spiders.  Then there are the shops... it's a pain to actually buy items thanks to the eight button control scheme, but oh so much fun to play mind games with the shopkeeper.  Just remember that he tends to hold a grudge...

It's common practice for homebrew game designers to reinvent the wheel and make games based on a winning formula... perhaps too common, if the avalanche of dual stick shooters on Xbox Community Games is any indication.  However, it takes guts to resurrect a game that didn't work in its original form, and fix the issues that kept it from reaching its full potential.  Let's hope that other indie developers will follow in Derek Yu's footsteps and turn near-misses from the 1980s into the smash hits of today.


The video game industry is a cutthroat business... competition is always fierce, and there's never a shortage of products on store shelves.  Throw in a weak economy, and it can be difficult to persuade customers to purchase even the better games.  Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD is one of those hard sells; a solid 21st century remake of a game that's already available on a half-dozen systems, and which toes the edge of obsolescence thanks to the looming Xbox 360 release of Street Fighter IV.

Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD is already in a precarious position, and it doesn't do itself any favors with its demo.  Not only does it fail to make a strong first impression with prospective buyers, it's so completely gimped that it's hard for them to come to any conclusion about it.  It's no surprise that the trial is limited to the plain vanilla Ken and Ryu, and that some of the modes are greyed out in the title screen.  However, while other Xbox Live Arcade demos let you enjoy a couple of stages against a computer opponent before shutting off the tap and prodding you to pay for the full version, Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD limits you to local multiplayer fights.  If you're not living next door to a fan of the series, you can't play the game, making this the stingiest demo since War World's meager thirty seconds of gameplay or the constant registration nags in Fireplace.  What the hell, Capcom?

Even after you drop the 1200 Microsoft Points on Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD, there's no guarantee that you'll fall in love with it.  First, the difficulty in the arcade mode is just short of ridiculous.  The stars from previous Street Fighter games have been replaced with four difficulty levels, which all greatly underestimate their challenge.  "Easy" is normal, "Normal" is hard, and "Hard" drops an impenetrable brick wall in front of you at the third stage.  Wait, when did this suddenly become Mortal Kombat?

It's also worth pointing out to purists that the Classic mode is a complete joke.  If you've come to play Super Street Fighter II Turbo without the added bells and whistles, you're better off sticking with Street Fighter Anniversary, which features a faithful conversion of the arcade game along with the flashier Street Fighter III: Third Strike.  What you get here are blurry arcade sprites carelessly dropped onto the same high-resolution backgrounds.  Ooh, less classic than advertised!

Despite these (largely unnecessary) shortcomings, the game does deliver the goods for Capcom fans who aren't quite ready to step into the third dimension with Street Fighter IV.  The new hand-drawn sprites are faithful to the originals, while offering added detail and subtle shading that's easy to appreciate even on a standard definition television set.  The animation is a bit stiff and the artists at Udon sometimes interpret the characters strangely... for instance, Ken's gravity-defying mullet gives him an eerie resemblance to Lion-O from the Thundercats cartoon.  However, even with these occasional missteps, the sharp new artwork more than justifies the delays that kept the game in limbo for almost a year.

As for the gameplay, well, that's exactly the way you remembered it from 1994, with a handful of new moves that elevate it over the slightly underwhelming Super Street Fighter II.  These range from E. Honda's humiliating Oicho throw (the original teabagging!) to the incredibly satisfying super combos.  They're finely tuned to be useless against blocking opponents, but brutally effective if you can squeeze them past your rival's defenses.  These powerful attacks must be earned in battle, making them preferable to the easily abused desperation attacks in SNK's South Town series.

While the gameplay is largely the same, the key difference between Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD and the low-def original is online support.  Although the arcade mode lets you sharpen your skills against capable computer opponents, you'll never fully master the game until you match wits with unpredictable human players... and you won't have any trouble finding them on Xbox Live!  Whether you take it easy with a laid back Player Match or claw your way through competition-caliber opponents in the Ranked Matches, you can be sure that each fight will be fast-paced and exciting.  You'll sometimes find poor sports who disconnect while on the edge of defeat, as well as latency issues that take some matches on a guided tour through the Twilight Zone, but they're rarely more than a minor and infrequent annoyance.

Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD is a worthwhile purchase for the right audience... but after fifteen years of advancements to the Street Fighter series that extend far beyond pretty graphics, that audience is starting to shrink.  If you prefer the purity of Street Fighter II to the expanded gameplay of its sequels, or are a rabid online gamer hungry for new challengers, your fifteen dollars will be well spent.  However, if neither apply, hold onto your cash... something better is just around the corner, as it always is in this business.