Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Closer Look at Smurf’s Village app for the iPhone and iPad

This article is still great, but the NEWLY REVISED Poor Smurfer's Almanac for 2012 just hit with all new information about the Dreamy Smurf update, all new crops and more! Check it out today!

  I know what you are saying: “Stan, you have to be smurfing me here!  Are you smurfing serious?”  Yes.  I’m not smurfing your leg.  Trust me, I never would have imagined that this would be something I would ever pay attention to, much less devote my precious time, and yours, to. (watch that preposition dangle!)  But two weeks ago, a friend of mine on that devilish social networking timesuck posted that there was a Smurfs app for the iPhone and better yet, it was a game.  Now, I am a child of the 80’s, two things are very dear to me: Pee Wee Herman, and the Smurfs.  I will always love both with a bizarre and clinical unconditional love that can really only be understood by twins and those who have climbed Mt. Everest.  So when you tell me there is a Smurf game for my phone (which, let’s be honest isn’t really a phone anymore), you have to know I’m going to give it a look.

The Smurf’s Village app, for all intents and purposes, is basically a pretty skin for the already epidemic Farmville or Frontiersville or Petsville or any of those other horrid social networking games developed by Zynga. Well, almost.  There are some important differences and I’ll get to those in a minute.  But first let me tell you how asinine I find those social games like Farmville.  Perhaps the most obnoxious thing since spam emails, these social network “games” are thinly disguised marketing tools used to monitor network activity and promote online interaction to increase the potential to exploit the bottomless resource that is the internet.  Games like Farmville seem to be built not around playing a game that is fun, but in asking your friends for supplies and otherwise cluttering the pages of everyone you know with insightful messages like “Stan, I need 4 nails to finish my fence,” or “Pam just stole a pig from your pen, click here to see what else is going on in Farmville.”  And you get these wonderful missives regardless of whether you partake in the madness or not.  I do not.  Worst of all, Farmville, and its cohorts, entice you to spend REAL MONEY, not video game money, rupees or gil, but REAL MONEY to buy things to speed up the progress of your farm.  And most of the things you spend your REAL MONEY on can be acquired by playing the game, it just takes more time.  So, much like the real Capitalist system, if you don’t want to earn your achievements, you can just buy them.  I pretty much hate everything about these kinds of games.

So how? How can I advocate Smurf’s Village?  My defense is shoddy and rests mainly on the phrase, “but dude, they are smurfs.”  However, I will tell you why I am sinking hours of valuable game time that could be going toward Kirby’s Epic Yarn or EA NFL Training Camp into this stupid little app, and I’ll try to make it sound convincing.

First of all, Smurf’s Village differs from its extremely obnoxious cousins in some very important ways.  Most importantly amongst these ways is that the game play is much more passive than something like Farmville.  There are no pushy messages from friends (even though the game is linked through facebook to your network) to give them things or to harvest their crops.  You can give gifts to your friends, but no one ever contacts you, and if you never connect to the social network, no big deal, the game plays on.  So, right off the bat, SV is not as self-effacing as its predecessors.

Second, the game is simple and fun.  If you are not familiar with these kinds of games, they are basically micro-management games reminiscent of SimCity, Roller Coaster Tycoon, or the Sims.  The premise is minimal: Gargamel found the Smurf village and destroyed it, scattering smurfs far and wide (and apparently spawning multiple clones of distinctive smurfs like Papa, Hefty and Smurfette, since each new village has one…).  Your job is to rebuild a new smurf village and make it flourish so that the smurfs will have a new haven to call home.  This reclamation project requires you to build mushroom houses for the smurfs and then put them to work farming in order to generate more revenue to keep the revitalization going.  Apparently, Papa Smurf is able to sell the produce generated by the farming to an undisclosed outside buyer who will in turn give the smurfs money (not REAL MONEY, let’s get that straight) with which they can buy building supplies, tufts of grass, and moss covered rocks.  Why you have to buy such things is really beyond me.  But those are the tools you use to beautify and enhance your new smurf village.  As you progress in the game, you will gain access to more and more décor items like colored fences, flower patches, and even different kinds of mushroom houses.  The game goes on like this at least up the level 25, the last level in which it is indicated that you can unlock new items.  If you like micro-management games (and I tend to) and the Smurfs (see above), then this game is a fun little diversion.

But you have to maintain that perspective.  See, it’s not all sunshine and roses.  The Smurf’s Village app is absolutely 100% free, but as you well know, you don’t get something for nothing, that’s not the American way.  And this is where shades of Farmville creep into your otherwise smurfy world.  You see, some of the best stuff you can buy: Smurfette’s house, Hefty Smurf’s House, friendly snails and caterpillars (which grant lots of XP daily) cost not in-game money, but smurfberries.  Smurfberries are a rare commodity in the game and you only earn a small amount per day (1 per level early on, after level 10, 2 per level and so on).  No big deal, right? It’s all part of the game.  Wrong.  You see, those great things that cost smurfberries, don’t just cost 5 or 6 berries, they cost 25 or more.  Thus, it could take months just to add Painter Smurf and Farmer Smurf to your village.  It could, but it doesn’t have to.  You can always spend REAL MONEY (again, let’s be clear), and BUY smurfberries from the game.  See the shades?  You don’t have to wait; you can have all of the best things right now, for a price.  Now to be fair, the smurfberries are pretty reasonably priced, if we abandon the idea that paying for video game content is unreasonable to begin with.  Fifty smurfberries only cost five REAL DOLLARS. And fifty smurfberries can net you at least Smurfette’s and Painter’s houses (with a little help from the berries you’ve accumulated along the way).  To make matters worse, smurfberries aren’t just for buying the rare stuff, you can also spend them to speed up the harvest, shorten build time for mushroom houses, or instantly increase your population.  And therein lies the trap.  If you can restrict your smurfberry usage to just those rarities and not things you can get just by being patient, the impact of this otherwise exploitative option is greatly minimized.  If the villages of my friends are any indication, the lure of instant villages is too great.  For some of my friends this appears to sing to the tune of upward of twenty or thirty dollars or more. Guilty admission, I spent $5 to obtain Smurfette’s and Painter’s houses, and I may break down and spend five more REAL DOLLARS for Hefty and Farmer, but after that I will probably be done spending REAL MONEY on video game content for my iPhone.  I justify it by emphasizing how little I am really spending and that I am spending it on having fun like I would if I were going to a rock concert or live theatre.  I justify it with just a twinge of shame. (see my rant about downloadable content from several months ago for a full understanding of my cause for shame)

Honestly, though, the game is fun.  It is fun running the little smurfs around, having them farm and build fences, growing the village and adding new décor elements.  It is fun, plain and simple.  I like micro-management games and this one manages to find a soft, nostalgic spot in my heart.  The game is limited in several important ways, however and I am hopeful that since this is fluid software those issues will be addressed.  Most pressing is the fact that the game is quite limited in scope at this time.  As I stated before, the game stops giving you things to unlock after level 25.  I’ve been playing for about a week and half at this point and I am already nearly level 17.  If they do not release updates or expansions soon, my time with the game will be smurfed.  There is also a lack of diversity in things to do.  Once you have all of your smurfs busy farming and you’ve built everything you can build, there isn’t much else to do.  Sure, there are mini-games to play like Papa Smurf’s Potion Mixing Game or Greedy Smurf’s Baking Challenge, but these are only available for credit (XP) once per day and the games only last about 45 seconds.  The game simply needs other things for you and your smurfs to do.  There are some plot (very loosely understood here) driven tasks to undertake (as in “grow some tomatoes to rid the village of skunk stench”), but the later you get in the game, the more scarce those become.  It can become really easy to lose interest if there aren’t more things to do in the village as the game progresses. I guess I cannot complain too much, however the damn thing is free after all.

So if you are looking for something fun to waste some time with while you wait in line at the DMV or are on a long car trip, Smurfs Village can be a fun way to accomplish just that, but you’ll need to keep things in perspective lest you get seduced into blowing your hard earned cash on something as ephemeral as video game content.

The Poor Smurfer’s Almanac
How to get the best productivity out of your village

Planting Schedules and Yields:
Know your crops!  By planting the right crops at the right time you can maximize your productivity.  Planting certain crops will enable you to generate large sums of coinage or experience in shorter amounts of time.  Not all crops are created equal and planting the wrong crops can several retard the growth of your village.  The chart below details which crops give you the best yields respective to whether you are looking to harvest $ or XP. 

Best Quick Growing Crops (grow time of 1 hour or less)
XP Yield                    $ Yield                      All Purpose
Cucumber (120)         Blueberry (120)         Blueberry
Blueberry (120)          Raspberry (36)          Raspberry
Currants (120*)          Blackberry (12)         Currants
Raspberry (96)           Currants (10*)           Blackberry
Blackberry (60)          Strawberry (9)           Cucumber
Strawberry (45)          Cucumber (8)             Strawberry

Best Mid-Level Crops (grow time of 2-6hours)
Brussels Sprouts (37.5XP  $7.5)
Peas (25XP  $5)
Carrots (16XP  $3.6)
Tomato (13XP  $2.6)

Best Long Term Crops (grow time of 9-24 hours)
XP Yield                      $ Yield                      All Purpose
Onion (14.5)                Corn (15.4)               Artichoke
Artichoke (13)             Sarsaparilla (6.25*)   Sarsaparilla*
Sarsaparilla (12.5*)     Artichoke (2.6)          Watermelon
Watermelon (10)         Watermelon (2)          Pumpkin
Pumpkin (10)               Pumpkin (2)              Corn
Potato (6.25)               Potato (1.25)             Onion
Corn (4.4)                   Onion (0.8)                Potato

XP and $ amounts are calculated on average yield per hour.  The amount of $ is calculated to reflect net profit (gross profit minus seed cost).  (Example: Brussels Sprouts yield 75XP and $20 in 2 hours growth, hence they yield and average of 37.5 XP per hour and $7.5, $15 gross profit minus $5 seed cost)

*The amounts for Currants are averaged up to reflect 2 yields per hour even though they can only be harvested every 40 mins.  This is for simplicity sake, adjust your planting accordingly.
*The amounts for Sarsaparilla are not reflective of their steep 1 Smurfberry seed cost.  Since there is no in-game monetary equivalent for Smurfberries, there is no reasonable way to evaluate seed cost.  You will have to decide the value of this cost and its overall effect on the profitability of planting this crop.

Plant smartly.  A well organized farm can accumulate a great deal of coinage and XP every day.  Depending on when you have time to play, figure out how to harvest the most crops in a day.  If you have a routine sleeping pattern, plant crops just before you go to sleep that will be ready to harvest immediately upon your waking up.  Maximize your grow time the same way for the rest of your day.  Make your farm work for you when you cannot work it.

It is strongly recommended against planting Potatoes, Strawberries, and Tomatoes.  These are the worst of the respective groups and will not accelerate your growth.  Also, with a seed cost of 1 Smurfberry, Sarsaparilla is a poor investment unless you have REAL MONEY to burn.

If you have the time, Blueberries are VERY lucrative!

Once your village is up and running, start populating it with snails and caterpillars.  Both generate a lot of XP daily if you check in on them.  Smurfette is good in the same capacity, but snails and caterpillars are much better and you can have multiples of them.  Plus, with a productive village you can add 2 snails or 1 caterpillar each day. This will help you advance in level much faster than with crops alone.

Later in the game, after you have built your village to your satisfaction and have nothing new to build, you can put your money to use buying XP by buying scenery and then deleting it.  Sure, this is a bit unethical, but it can turn money you are not using into valuable XP.

Design your village smartly.  You may want to consider dividing up your field into sections.  One section should be devoted to generating XP and the other coins.  Or simply design two separate fields and dedicate each to a task.

Unless you just have lots of REAL MONEY to burn, don’t waste Smurfberries on instantly growing crops or building houses.  Save your Smurfberries for things like the special smurfs or rare items.

Farmer Smurf is very important.  He can increase the yield on crops grown in fields that touch the perimeter of his house by 50%.  This means that up to 8 fields can see significant yield increases due to his presence.  He should be the first smurf you spend Smurfberries on.  You can arrange it so that he influences a full 8 fields, if you stagger your fields correctly.

Build bridges as soon as possible.  They greatly increase the size of your village and thus the arable land available.

Upgrade Smurf houses regularly to increase your population.  There are limits to the number of houses you can have per level, so this will help grow your village and get around this limitation.

Thanks for taking a look and have a smurfy time giving these hapless smurfs a new home!  Enjoy the smurf out of this fun little game!

Monday, November 29, 2010

12 Months, Sixty Dollars and a PS2: November

Godzilla Unleashed
From Atari (sadly)

Ok, so not every game has to have a riveting story, at least it’s fun to play, right?  Ok, so not every game can be really, really fun to play, but at least it’s smoothly executed, right?  Ok, so not every game can be smoothly executed, but at least it looks good, right? Well, maybe.
And that’s what I got for five dollars this month, a game that mostly looks good and does little else.  So I’ll start with that.  The monsters in Godzilla Unleashed look really, really cool.  Pretty much exactly what you would want the classic Godzilla monsters to look like!  They’re big, they’re bad, and they look like they could really tear up town!
Too bad they’ll never get the chance, not really.  Because that is where the greatness of Godzilla Unleashed ends.  The game itself is an otherwise clunky mess.  The plot is honestly below mention and after the second “cut scene” I pretty much skipped the remainder of it, so let’s not waste your time and mine and move on to more disappointing fare.  How much story do you want a Godzilla game to have anyway?  The biggest letdown comes from the lackluster game play.  This is a game that should be nothing but all out action.  Filled with lots of things to crush, military vehicles to chomp, and buildings to demolish, this game should be non-stop fun.  And it is not.  What you get instead is something that feels like a Playstation engine dressed up for the PS2.  Don’t believe me? check out the load times.  The “levels” are ridiculously small and there are only a dozen or so cities to battle in, yet it takes several minutes to load each scenario.  And if you think the load times are slow, check out the responsiveness of the controls.  I think Masters of Tera-Kasi was more fluid.  While we are at it, shouldn’t Godzilla have some really kick ass moves with which to combat Mothra and Rodan?  Well, he ain’t got ‘em here.  Instead you get a kick that would make Pele cry, a standard grapple move, a ducking action, a blocking action, a jump, and a tail swipe.  The only move worth doing is the fire breathing attack, and it is cool, but one out of eight don’t cut it.  Oh, the manual says there is a “special attack” using L2 and R2, but it never seemed to work for me.  So I guess you can kick and swipe your way to victory, or you can spew fire repeatedly and throw in the occasional building toss until your foe relents…or not.

You see that is the most baffling part of this game: it doesn’t seem to matter if you win or lose.  As a matter of fact, there doesn’t appear to be any obvious goal to the game at all.  If you beat your enemies or if they beat you, no big deal, you’ll still progress to the next level and fight again.  I guess you are meant to defeat the other monsters in each scenario, but there doesn’t appear to be any real incentive to do so.  Oh sure, you get points for the monsters you defeat, as well as the destruction you cause, but those points are pretty much only there to unlock other monsters.  And since the game is so much fun, I can’t imagine wanting to suffer through it all again, but this time with Gigan.

And speaking of destruction, shouldn’t this game be packed with it?  Sorry, not here.  Oh sure you can topple buildings, but they just fade away and disappear.  And you can pick up buildings, but only the smallest ones, and when you throw them, they also disappear.  There are tanks to squash and helicopters to swat at, but they are tiny, hard to see, and ultimately not worth the effort to seek out and destroy.  Where are the fires, the crumbling ruins, the screaming civilians? Sigh.

So I beat the game in about 45 minutes, I think I had no choice, the game just kept advancing me, so I figured I would see it through.  I’d like Atari to give me those 45 minutes and my five dollars back because Godzilla Unleashed was probably the biggest disappointment I’ve encountered during this project.  What should be an amazing monster smash ‘em up, is a slow, lumbering brute that inspires no awe and should forever rot in the bottom of the bin.

Only one more to go….where did the time go?

Friday, November 19, 2010

A Closer Look at My French Coach for the Nintendo DS

Bonjour!  C’est moi, votre bon ami Stan!  Aujourd’hui, j’etudie Francais avec My French Coach pour le Nintendo DS.  Je sais déjà un peu Francais, mais je voudrais apprendre plus.  My French Coach est bon pour beaucoup des choses, mais pauvre pour plusieurs tres important choses que vous avez besoin de parler francais bien.

The above paragraph was made possible entirely by working with My French Coach for the Nintendo DS.  But don’t cash in those lottery tickets for a plane ride to Marseille just yet!  As I state above (for you non-francophones out there), the “game” is good for a great many things, but it comes up short in some very important areas that are fundamental to communication in a foreign language.  As you might have garnered (nothing gets past you!), today we’ll be taking a Closer Look at My French Coach and just how it fares as a poor(er) man’s Rosetta Stone.

Before we delve too deeply into the program itself, a short history is appropriate if we are to understand my perspective on this particular subject.  In the interest of full disclosure, I feel obligated to tell you that I already knew a pretty decent amount of French when I started playing this game.  I took two years of French in high school (mostly staring at Mrs. Wilborn our buxom French teacher, sorry Mrs. Wilborn, but its true…) and following that I tutored French in college for two years (tutoring mostly 19 year old ladies’ tennis and volleyball players, again a distracting experience).  In order to obtain my MA, I was forced (you heard me) to pass a French fluency exam that consisted of translating a body of text from French to English.  I failed…the first time. (naturally I blame women!) But the second time I passed it and believe me it took many hours of study to get it right.  So, you can see that going into this “game” I was armed with a fragmented understanding of the language.  I believe overall, that puts me in a good position to judge just how well My French Coach prepares the uninitiated for their first foray into a foreign language.
One additional brief caveat before we get our hands dirty. I’m not entire sure what to call this thing.  You may have noticed my attempt at neutral language in the preceding paragraphs.  I am hesitant to call this a “game” when it is more of a learning tool, but calling it a learning tool sort of de-emphasizes the approach that the program takes in order to teach the language.  Furthermore, to simply call it a program is rather vague and muddies the water conversationally.  Therefore, I think we are going to agree that this is still a video “game,” even though it a special kind of “game” that can be used as learning tool as part of its primary function.  So you’ll have to bear with me if the language is transitory during the following dissertation.

Now, if I recall correctly, this is supposed to be a Closer Look at a video game, so let’s get back to the task at hand.  My French Coach for the Nintendo DS is part of a line of video games aimed at teaching novices how to speak and otherwise navigate a foreign language.  To date, the line consists of games for Spanish, English, Japanese, and Chinese.  What is taking so long for Italian and German, I have no idea.  The line seems to have some momentum and perhaps for good reason.
My French Coach consists of a series of “lessons” designed to provide a basic introduction to the French language.  You are given an instructor as guide, and oh what a fine instructor she is, to the lessons and are able to select the lesson of your choice from a list; hence you can revisit old lessons to refresh as you need to.  When getting started, you will be asked to take a “placement” exam of sorts to determine where in the lesson plan you should begin.  This is basically just to see how familiar you are with the language to avoid time-wasting repetition of known material and also to keep rookies from getting in too deep too soon.  The game placed me at Lesson 9 based on my test results and while that may have been a little simpler than I feel I was knowledgeable of, it never hurts to refresh.

Once you get going, the game is divided into three sections: Learning, Games, and Reference.  The Learning section is basically the “main game” where you progress through the lessons opening new harder challenges upon earning a certain number of points that are meant to indicate mastery of the material.  There are 50 lessons in all and beyond that you may continue learning under what is called the “Open Plan.”  This area is basically vocabulary drills and games that build upon the fundamentals already covered.  You will not obtain any new grammar rules or sentence structure beyond this point.  The Games section let’s you play any of the learning games you have unlocked up to that point.  There are eight games in all and although two of the games are very similar there is enough variety to keep this section fun.  You’ll even be ranked by grade level (i.e. I am a “5th Grader” at the time of this writing) depending on how well you perform in the games overall.

The Reference section might very well be considered an entirely separate section of the game, even though you can certainly use it as part of your learning experience.  The Reference section contains a place to view your progress as well as all of the unlockables in the game and how you are doing with individual words and concepts.  There is a Dictionary which is basically an abridged “French/English translation consisting of all of the terms used in the Learning section. Finally perhaps the most useful section in the whole game is the Phrasebook.  A concise compilation of helpful phrases you may have need of should you find yourself on the Rue Biscarra and desperately need to know how to get to Le Maya on Rue Vernier or if you happen to run into someone from Fiji (Tu es des Fidji?) You know, because it happens.  The Phrasebook has a lot of useful phrases and will even speak them for you if you are too embarrassed to bust out with “Ils vont marcher jusqu’au parc” on your first go.  At the end of the day, the Reference Section may be the most valuable part of this whole game.

The main section, however, is probably why most people buy this game.  Chances are good if you are considering purchasing My French Coach you have at least a passing interest in learning, or relearning like me!, French.  Thus most of your time is going to be initially spent in the Learning section.  The big question is, just how much can you expect to learn from the lessons to be found in this game?  The answer is mixed.  As I said in the intro: “My French Coach est bon pour beaucoup des choses, mais pauvre pour plusieurs tres important choses que vous avez besoin de parler francais bien.”  Translation:  The game is very good at many things, but comes up short in some vital areas if you hope to speak French proficiently.

The lessons start off with elementary vocabulary and phrases and progress to incorporate slightly compound sentence building and expanding word sets.  These things the game gets right 99% of the time.  There are some things it teaches that are odd or on the rare occasion outright incorrect, but for the most part the elementary education is solid.  You’ll learn basic noun-verb agreement and simple and inverted sentence structure.  You’ll pick up the fundamentals and by the time you get to the 50th and final real lesson, you should have a pretty good handle on elementary French.  Unfortunately, that is where the game will leave you.  After the 50th lesson, you will be shuffled off to what is called “Open Plan” which is basically just a series of vocabulary drills that add new terms to your inner dictionary.  You’ll not pick up any more grammar rules or be introduced to any new concepts, but you will be deluged with new words to learn.  Not that increasing your vocabulary isn’t valuable, but you’ll hit this wall pretty fast if you are ambitious and get into the game, and that can be a buzzkill for the hungry student.

Your best bet once the “Open Plan” is unlocked is to back out of the “Learning” section of the game and moving to “Games.”  You’ll still accrue points and unlock new levels and new vocabulary, but you’ll be free of the structure of the “Learning” section, which becomes a list of words followed by a random game, each and every time.  Under the Games section you’ll be able to set the parameters for each game and you’ll be able to include all of the material you have learned thus far as well as mix in the new stuff.  This will help you avoid the inevitable, repetitious conjugation game that can occur when playing the Random Game in the Learning section.  Plus, you’ll probably get more of a challenge out of playing the Games with expanded parameters and the inclusion of the all the material you had learned.  If you want a real challenge, try tackling “Spelltastic” with Open and Hard settings. Wow!
It's Whack-a-French-Mole-Word-Thing-Game...

The only real let down with My French Coach is the early and limited ceiling of what you will learn with the game.  While the game does a good job giving you a foundation for the language, it leaves out some really important stuff, like how to form a negative phrase.  Unless you plan to go to France and have everything happen just right, chances are good you are going to want to say something in the negative.  Thus, it would be nice to be able to negate something, but you’ll not get that lesson from My French Coach. (If you look back, you will see I did not use a single negative in that opening passage) You’ll also not be introduced to more than a couple of irregular verbs, and trust me, in French, some of the best verbs are irregular.  The game even plays dirty with you by introducing you to semi-irregular verbs and asking you to conjugate them in the Open Plan levels (verbs like “distraire”).  The game takes you only so far, and for me, it simply isn’t far enough.  In addition to negation, where are the reflexive verbs, where are the past and future tenses?  These things are still basics of the language and would be extremely useful for someone trying to be functional with it.  I’m not suggesting that the game make you fluent in fifty easy steps, but I do think that it could have gone a little deeper than it did. Beyond that, the game executes pretty well. Despite a few odd glitches in a few of the games (nothing major, just a few mechanics that get stuck here and there), you’ll be off and learning French in no time.
Oh my dear lord. I promise I will learn whatever this foxy little tomato is teaching...

Final Look:
My French Coach for the Nintendo DS is a pretty good French primer and will serve you well as an introduction to the French language.  It is not, nor should it ever be confused with, a replacement for the fine language learning tool known as Rosetta Stone (the makers of which may feel free to send me a free discretionary copy at their leisure).  My French Coach is fun and it helps getting into a foreign language accessible, but know going in that it is only going to take you so far, and depending on how far you want to go, that may or may not be enough.  For serious students and those who really get into learning French, you can certainly have a good time with My French Coach, but ultimately you are going to want a lot more than this game is going to offer. For those with a more casual interest in foreign languages, this game and its companions are a fun way to play around and maybe pick up a few things along the way.

Next time
I honestly have no idea, the holidays are coming up and I'm stupid busy, but I promise I'll take a look at something between now and then. I just picked up Quest 64 and I've been playing a lot of video game golf...

Saturday, October 23, 2010

12 Months, Sixty Dollars and a PS2: October


Scooby-Doo: Night of 100 Frights
by THQ

Waaaaaaaaay back in March, when this project was in its infancy I saw the game I wanted to do for October.  It was the perfect Halloween game and from a genre I am not too familiar with.  The game was one of those horror games like Resident Evil where everything was really dark and creepy and there was a mystery plot and lots of opportunities to be startled.  My wife told me to go ahead and buy it, because it may not be there seven months later and I might miss out, but I told her “no, that is not in the spirit of the project.”  Part of the fun of this is going to MUST HAVE MUSIC AND MORE every month and picking out a new game for the project.  So I let it pass, but every month I would check for it to see if it was still there.  Back in August when I picked up the Excalibur game, I saw, to my dismay that it was gone.  My wife was right (there, I said it in print).  Little did I know that my loss was also my gain.

You see, Halloween-esque games are slim pickings right now and there wasn’t much to choose from when I strolled into the second hand last week, but I wasn’t leaving without a game that would get me in the mood for trick-or-treating (do they still do that, or have over-protective grown-ups ruined that also?).  So what I ended up with was Scooby-Doo: Night of 100 Frights.  I was doubtful.  This was obviously a kid-game.  There would be no challenge. The game would be based on the newer incarnations of a character that I loved as a child and thus I would hardly recognize the franchise any longer.  Worst of all, the game play would be watered down and trite.
I love it when I am wrong on all counts.  Scooby-Doo: Night of 100 Frights is some of the most fun I have had during this year of PS2 games.  As I said above, I loved Scooby-Doo as a kid, so there is a natural draw here for me, but the plus is that the game is everything an old school fan could want.  From the classic monsters: The Creeper, Red Beard’s Ghost, the Green Ghost, etc. to the classic opening (redone in pretty decent 3D) to the laugh track and classic Scooby background music, you feel like you are playing the cartoon.  And I’m sorry, but what the hell more could you possibly want from a Scooby-Doo game?

The game is a pretty basic platformer with lots of levels to explore, power-ups to find, and monsters to defeat, but it is totally, and perfectly Scooby-Doo themed.  There are Scooby Snacks to collect, you save your game at the Mystery Machine, your pals Shaggy and the rest of the Scooby gang are on hand to help out, you’ll visit classic Scooby-Doo locales like a spooky lighthouse and, of course, a haunted mansion.  In typical Scooby fashion, there is a simple plot revolving around a girl, her missing uncle, and a new monster known as the Mastermind.  Most, if not all, of the monsters I loved as a kid from the original cartoon are in the game either as boss fights or just regular enemies.  Heck they even got Don Knotts to do voice work!

Nostalgia aside, the game is just fun to play.  The platforming is solid; the level design is smart, if not terribly complex.  There are a lot of areas to explore, and new areas become available when you locate the missing uncle’s various inventions that allow you to jump higher, bash into things, or float through the air.  While the game isn’t super hard, there are plenty of areas that present a challenge to even the most veteran gamer (I’m looking at you Creepy Cannery, and Wreck on the Deck).  Apart from the theming, all of your basic platforming elements are there, lots of traps to avoid, plenty of mini-puzzles to solve by hitting switches or finding keys, and of course, several tedious jumping puzzles.  No platformer is complete without a heaping dose of tedious jumping puzzles. Best of all, there is a lot of replay value.  On top of the levels being fun, there are monster tokens littering the game that, when collected, unlock monster profiles and Scooby trivia in the gallery section.  After getting a few, you’ll be stricken with Pokemon Syndrome and working toward that 100% completion.

Even though this game is nearly a decade old (2002), it is still worth its original retail price.  Scooby-Doo: Night of 100 Frights delivers in every possible way.  There is a reason it went to Sony’s Greatest Hits line the next year following its release.  I have no doubt that this game will get repeated play in my house for years to come.  $5 extremely well spent!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Closer Look at Haunted House, Then and Now...

At first I was content to let the above cartoon speak for itself, which I think it does.  But then I realized that it was too easy and that you would probably want to know at least a little bit about how the new Haunted House stacks up against its nigh unto thirty year ancestor.  So, I’ll regale you briefly with tales of yore and then give you my opinion.

Haunted House (1981) was the single spookiest game ever.  Throughout the life of the Atari 2600 and well into the era of Nintendo, no game had the jarring ability to startle the beejezus out of me the way Haunted House did.  I mean, the screen was pitch black, and even when you lit a match you could only see what was close by.  Then, while you are diligently exploring the mansion, CRASH! out of nowhere a bat or spider would suddenly appear with a clap of thunder and flash of lightning.  Furthermore, they were on an unstoppable path toward you with only your destruction in mind.  And god forbid that instead of a spider or bat you got Old Man’s Grave’s horrible spirit.  To make matters worse, the appearance of a foe also meant that your light went out and you were totally isolated.  You damn well better hope you know where you are in the mansion because the last thing you want is to run face first into a locked door.  Tensions were always high when playing Haunted House.

Even though the graphics were blocky and simple, even though the house was only four stories high with a regimented floor plan, even though you could beat it in minutes, Haunted House managed to capture something ethereal that later games would approach, but never quite grasp.  The game has the ability to make you nervous while playing it.  It cultivates a real sense of dread every time you open a door or navigate a staircase.  A baddie could be anywhere and worse yet the Ghost could travel right through locked doors meaning that he could menace you literally any second of the game.  And every time that lightning crashed and the screen flashed, your heart jumped.  Where was the monster that set it off?  Were they close?  Where exactly are you and where is the closest exit?  Are you cornered?  RUN!

Sometimes simple is better.  And with those simple, blocky graphics and minimal sound effects, the people at Atari captured lightning in a bottle.  Later horror/thriller games like Resident Evil would capitalize upon the power of the startle effect, having the undead burst out at you through windows and the like, but for all of their graphic gore and realistic sounds, they still only rate second-best in my book.  Which is why I was very nervous when I read last month that Atari was planning on releasing an updated version of the classic that set the bar so high so long ago.

We’ve been down this road before.  Many classic games from the Atari era have seen modern iterations with very mixed results.  Asteroids, Centipede, Pac-man, Space Invaders, all of the greats have “grown-up” into contemporary versions of their perfect, simple selves.  Some of these updates have been fun, and some disastrous, but all in all they really don’t stand much of a chance against their original counterparts.  So a 2010 Haunted House had me very, very skeptical.  But, initial reviews were good and the screenshots and explanations all pointed to the opportunity for something really fun.  Hell, even the price tag, $19.99 was right.  So I gave it a go.

Much to my delight, the game is actually very good.  The fundamental premise is exactly the same as the original game: you must search the mansion and find the pieces of the urn.  The end result is different, you don’t have to flee the house with the urn, instead you have to defeat a ghoulish foe.  But the spirit, if you will excuse the obvious and painful pun, is still there.  Haunted House (2010) is literally a re-imagining of Haunted House (1981) with modern sensibilities.  The main differences are in the execution of the concept.  First, the game isn’t tough as nails like its ancestor could be.  The main element of difficulty that is missing is the darkness.  HH2010 is dark, but it isn’t pitch-black like HH1981.  You will need light sources to navigate the mansion successfully, but you can still see most everything in the house at all times.  The light sources only really increase your visibility and help you find items, levers and treasures.  True, the mansion gets darker as you progress, but it never goes completely dark like the original.  Also, unlike the original, when you get scared by a monster, your game isn’t over, you just start back at the last fireplace you lit.  This means you’ll never encounter the dreaded GAME OVER and have to embark upon your mission anew, but at the same time where the original was at best 10 minutes of game play in length, HH2010 is more like 3 hours.  I would be pretty pissed if I got 2:15 into the game and had to start over from scratch. (Sidebar: I wonder if that is a good thing or a bad thing…)

The game still features the classic monsters to avoid, plus several new ones like gargoyles.  It also features a variety of light sources for you to employ, some of which actually give you offensive capabilities you will need if you are to survive your stay.  A big difference between the newer version and the original is the addition of boss fights.  The house is divided into four sections and at the culmination of each section you will have to combat a different mega-monster.  These boss fights are perhaps the toughest part of the game as they require you to defeat the mega-monster while avoiding being scared to death.  It is an endurance run for sure.

What the game lacks in difficulty it more than makes up for in atmosphere.  Despite the update, the game maintains the creepy feel of its predecessor and even builds upon it some areas.  The main area of note is the sound.  During your time in the mansion you will be beset with a plethora of moans, wails, thumps, rattlings, baby’s cries, and other very, very creepy sounds.  None of these sounds ever manifest in anything material in the game, which only adds to their effect.  I am not kidding when I tell you that playing this game in the dark, late at night, will make you question any errant sounds that might occur in your own home.  That, my friends, is successful theming!

Another nice addition is the inclusion of treasures and journal entries that you can discover as you explore the mansion.  The journal entries will reveal the dark history of the Graves’ family and their spooky home.  The treasures are snarky references to iconic horror film characters from days gone by.  And after you find a few, and read their descriptions, you’ll be making additional trips into the mansion to find the rest.

The game play remains true, if somewhat evolved.  Like in the original, you’ll have to work your way through the mansion which is a maze of locked doors and stairways.  And like the original, you will find keys that help you gain access to areas previously impassible.  But in the modern interpretation, you’ll also need to seek out levers and various colored lanterns to gain admittance to certain areas of the house.  As stated before, the house is divided into four “floors” each subdivided into four areas and each area is completely self-contained, so you’ll never get stuck because you left a key or lantern behind in another area.  As you progress through the mansion, the areas become larger and more complex and you’ll to do more in order to move on to the next area.  And to make things even more fun, there is a great two-player version where you and a friend can work together to solve the riddle of Graves’ Mansion.  This makes some of the later levels a lot easier without taking away from the overall challenge.


I’m honestly rather shocked and impressed at how well Haunted House (2010) compares to the original Haunted House.  Everything from the original is there in spirit if not in form.  The game does not try to reinvent the wheel, nor does it try to improve upon what already works and works well.  Instead Haunted House (2010) feels like an evolved descendant of Haunted House (1981).  Many elements of the modern game are fun homages to the original game: when your light goes out, all you can see are your eyes!  Nothing will ever capture the magic the way that the original Haunted House did, but this new game certainly knows what made the 1981 game so incredible. You can do a whole hell of a lot worse for $19.99, heck for $49.99, and I think that Haunted House (2010) is perfect for fans of the original as well as those exploring Graves’ Mansion for the very first time.  Accusations that the game is “kiddie” are completely unfounded and smack of basement dwelling rejection of anything that isn’t Grand Theft Auto.  This is a great game for anyone and everyone and comes highly recommended from your ol’ pal Stan.  I anticipate playing Haunted House (2010) many more times in the future, particularly around this time of year!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Girl on Girl Games: Metroid: Other M

...Or, Samus Aran is a whiny crybaby with daddy issues. Yes, that's right. Samus, the unapologetic female protagonist of the Metroid games has been downgraded from a bad-ass bounty hunter to a touchy-feely pacifist that lets a MAN tell her what to do. I'm not sure which side of the feminist argument this article puts me on, but politics aside, let's take a nice long look at why Samus' character was ruined the minute she opened her mouth.

The Metroid series has been historically low on story. You're a bounty hunter, exploring strange alien compounds/planets/spaceships. You fight aliens and unstoppable monsters, you get missiles and you turn into a ball that can drop bombs. At the end of the first game, you are revealed to be a woman. After twenty-three years of Metroid games, the people at Nintendo discovered that women have feelings.

Let me see. What kind of feelings do women have? Well, they like small, baby animals--hey, remember that baby Metroid that imprinted on Samus in Super Metroid and then saved her life? Why don't we have Samus, a hardened bounty hunter who kills things for a living, become absolutely obsessed with it?

If you think that's a terrible idea, you might want to hum through the cut scenes as you play Other M.

Ok, so maybe she doesn't become absolutely obsessed, but she does talk about it a great deal, in her new-found soft and feminine voice. The effect is somewhat creepy, leaving me to wonder if Samus' attachment to "the baby" (as she calls it) is really her trying to work out the classic career-versus-family puzzle that confounds so many a modern woman.

What other kinds of emotional baggage do women have? Another ten seconds of stereotyping later reveals that many have issues with their fathers. Since this iteration of Samus is an orphan, she struggles with daddy-issues that focus on her former commanding officer, Adam Malkovich. As the only woman in a male-centric military outfit, Samus recalls Adam singling her out by her gender at every staff meeting. Samus is shown in flashback as a willfully defiant malcontent who disagreed with Adam at every turn, eventually rebelling so far as to leave the military altogether. In retrospect, Samus says she appreciated that Adam referred to her as a "lady". What?

And finally, what would a woman be without...more women.

Women understand other women, correct? It's one of those things like where all us women go to the toilet together and like to shop, and say things like "oh my god, I have to have those shoes" or "Jim just doesn't understand why the toilet paper holder should match the faucet!" When one of us becomes hurt, especially by some man, we get together and watch romantic comedies in our PJ's while eating ice cream. Or something. The point is, women are supposed to have a lot of empathy going, especially for each other. Because we alone know how hard it is to be a woman. Samus, an independent bounty hunter without a mother, who joined the all-male military at a young age, is not immune to this. In fact, she completely understands the motives of the female NPCs without fail, empathizing with their plights.

I'm just going to lay it all on the line. I have no idea why this particular woman is a bounty hunter and not, say, a high school guidance counselor. I'm not at all saying there's something wrong with a character who is complicated and emotional. I'm certainly not saying it's wrong for a woman to have feelings like Samus'. But what I am saying is: why would a hardened, grizzled orphan, who was an excellent soldier but not a good follower, who travels alone as a one-woman robotic killing machine, ever, ever care this much about whether or not she fits in with the military group she initially abandoned?

More emoting after the break!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

12 Months, Sixty Dollars and a PS2: September


HULK                                                                                        By Universal Interactive

My wife and I have recently been reading Peter David’s truly masterful run on the Incredible Hulk comic book that spanned nearly all of the 1990’s.  David’s writing is inspired and his treatment of the character shows a true appreciation for Stan Lee’s original creation.  Because of this, we both had a renewed interest in all things Hulk.  Thus, whilst scanning the racks at MUST HAVE MUSIC and MORE for this month’s game, the HULK game naturally stood out to us as a potential candidate.  The only drawback was that the game was based, and spawned, from the subpar 2003 Hulk movie, and there was an equal chance that the game would suck just as much as the movie did.  Examining the game case and manual provided some hope: the game did not follow the movie plot, but was more of a sequel!  Even so, there was no promise of a good game, but with our brains enswirled (yep, I just made that up) in Hulkitude (also mine), we decided to just go for it and see what shook out.

The game itself isn’t terrible, just repetitive.  You alternately take turns controlling the Hulk or his alter ego Bruce Banner.  The Hulk levels are pretty straightforward smash ‘em ups, with the occasional mild puzzle (and I mean mild) to solve.  Most of the time as the Hulk you fight off endless waves of bad guys while trying to pursue someone or escape the onslaught of gamma dogs and machine gun fire.  In addition to pulping bad guys, you can also wreck up the place something good because the environments are almost entirely interactive.  A nice feature, but much like punching guys with guns, it can get old fast.  The Banner levels attempt to be more inventive requiring you to use stealth to evade your enemies in direct contrast to the Hulk’s less subtle approach.  As a matter of fact, confrontation as Banner will almost always result in Game Over.  As Banner you must sneak your way around military installations while trying to achieve an objective like synthesizing a cure for your condition or deactivating security controls.  Parts of the Banner levels are kind of like the stuff you do in Red Ninja, only with less finesse and fun.  Also imbedded in the Banner levels are several sequence puzzles that you must unscramble in order to proceed.  These sequence puzzles are generally presented as security codes you must override.  The puzzles are simple, but each one has a time limit that usually means you’ll occasionally need some good old fashioned luck to solve it in time.

In both areas of the game the level design is fairly uninspired.  There are neat parts here and there that give the game potential, but all in all the game is ho-hum.  The Hulk levels are fairly mindless smash ‘em ups, which has the potential to be a lot of fun and very much in the spirit of the character, but the enemies are boring and repetitive as are the Hulk’s limited cache of attacks.  “Oh great, another soldier with an energy shield, first I’ll throw a crate at him, then I’ll pick him up and slam him into the wall.”  Repeat a hundred times…  The high points are all of the various walls and doors you get to smash through as you progress through the levels. The Banner levels provide a little more cerebral stimulation, but the execution is clunky and thus some areas become frustration fests where you begin to question whether or not it is really worth your time to try to sneak past those search lights again and again.  The basic game has a shot at being really fun and the idea of playing as both Banner and the Hulk fully captures the essence of the character, but the game feels churned out instead of crafted and the result is a little dull.

What is not dull is the graphics; I only wish I meant that in a good way.  Everything in this game is shiny.  And I mean everything.  From the Hulk’s skin to General Ryker’s suit, every single surface in this game is shined up to the max.  The cut scenes are the worst.  Everyone looks like they are made of jello in the sunlight.  I think they were going for a cell-shading effect, but the result is a glossy nightmare.  The in-game graphics are better and a have more depth and texture, but overall the game looks over polished.  And if the glare doesn’t blind you, the voice acting might just push you over the edge.  Much like the acting in the film it is based on, the voice acting in this game is extremely heavy handed.  Banner is just as maudlin and gruff as Eric Bana’s film portrayal.  I’m still not sure why he isn’t the Hulk all of the time, as angry and frustrated as he seems…  The rest of the characters are two dimensional and forgettable and I think we are all better for it.

At the end of the day, I will say that the HULK game is far better than the movie it is based on.  Maybe it is because my expectations were less, but unlike the movie I was able to lose myself in the Hulk parts of the game and just enjoy smashing stuff.  I wish the game had inspired me more and was better able to hold my interest, but that may have been asking more than the game was able to give.  At its heart the game has very good intentions, it just cannot seem to fully deliver on any of them.    That being said, I don’t think my five dollars were wasted this month as I was able to eek out at least five dollars worth of entertainment from smashing tanks and tossing oil drums at helicopters.  HULK has the makings of a great Hulk game, but it just wants to be a little more than it is. 

Next month, we enter the home stretch of the “12601” project with only three games and months left!  There are still plenty of…um…interesting games on the shelf, which ones will make their way into my home?  See you next time…

Sunday, August 29, 2010

12 Months, Sixty Dollars and a PS2: August


Legion:  The Legend of Excalibur   

Remember back when I foolishly thought that Mobile Light Force 2 was going to be a dungeon crawler ala X-men Legends?  Well, if I was disappointed back then, this month’s game more than makes up for it.  Legion: The Legend of Excalibur (Legion from this point out) is a fairly traditional dungeon crawler wherein you take on the role of King Arthur recruiting and leading the Knights of the Round Table through noble quests worthy of the son of Uther Pendgradon.  Along the way, you’ll rescue terrified villagers, defend besieged castles, and even seek out the Holy Grail.

For its part, Legion is a fairly complex game.  While the fundamental game play is pretty much the same from level to level, the level designs are dynamic and the variety of quests keeps the game fresh.  The introductory levels do not do the game due justice and if you are initially unimpressed by what the game is giving you, stick with it until Percival joins you on the Avalon mission.  Once you gain a few knights to aid you in your quest, the game’s true strengths become apparent.  Each character has different weapons and abilities and will bring their own unique flavor to your quests.  You can take control of the knights who join you (and sometimes it is almost a must), or you can just command them as the King of the Britons.

Game play is pretty solid and despite the instruction manual’s attempt to confuse you, the controls are pretty much pick-up-and-play with a few things to learn here and there.  Controlling each character gives you command of different abilities, strengths and weaknesses and there is enough variety to keep the game interesting depending on how you want to tackle a level.  Stamina stats keep you from using your heaviest attack incessantly, and the swarms of enemies require you to think out your approach to a given a situation.  Navigating the various menus is uncomplicated and keeps from making a simple crawler a logistical mess, a shortfall of the aforementioned X-men Legends game.

If Legion has problem areas they are minimal.  One thing that struck me was the difficulty.  The game isn’t terribly hard, but there are spots that seem insanely difficult.  They seem insanely difficult until you realize the games other major flaw: patience.  With flashbacks to Robotron: 2084, there are parts of this game where the enemies swarm you in what seems like an endless push guaranteed to send you to the game over screen.  However, all is not lost in such a situation.  When faced with overwhelming odds (like the castle siege in level 2) there is usually a place you can retreat to and let the enemy come to you in smaller bunches where you can knock them off with relative ease.  If you are really lucky, this retreat point will also be near a healer so that all of your knights will stay refreshed.  This strategy works for most areas where the game jumps up and bites you in the butt.  So the difficulty in Legion is kind of schizophrenic, but outside of that the game is pretty solid and a lot of fun.

Most of all, it passes the $5 test.  If you can find Legion: The Legend of Excalibur for five dollars, not only is well worth the coinage, it is a shame to pass it up.  If dungeon crawlers are your kind of bag, baby, then Legion is definitely worth adding to your collection.  I hereby declare this five dollar find a winner! 

Next month…Green…

Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Closer Look at How the Game Genie Killed Difficulty in Modern Gaming

This is your password, good luck!
or “Why Modern Gamers are Sissies”

In my day video games were hard, seriously ball-busting hard.  We didn’t have endless continues.  We didn’t have fancy memory cards or hard drives.  If you were lucky, and I mean really lucky, your game MIGHT have a battery back-up, but most likely if you were going to be able to save your progress for later play you were going to have to enter a code and chances were damn good that said code was going to be roughly 45 characters long and the game programmers were wise-asses who used goofy-ass fonts that meant you had NO way of telling the difference between “0” and “O” and you better hope like hell you didn’t get confused and switch two characters, because if that code wasn’t exactly right you were screwed.  And most games didn’t have codes anyway so when that screen said “GAME OVER” you hoped and you prayed that they gave you at least one continue so that you could see what was on the next level.  And even if you did get that continue, you were going to have to start back over at the beginning of the very level that killed you.  But it was even money that “GAME OVER” meant “START OVER” and that you were looking at chucking another half hour into levels that you had already struggled through just to get your ass handed to you again by that same boss that just ended your run.  And furthermore this was a common occurrence since the difficulty of games was insane.  Lots of games had cheap, one-hit kills, hit points were a fairly new innovation and not at all easy to come by.  Level designs were insidious and usually ended in a boss fight that required near perfection to win.  And we didn’t have fancy internets or millions of strategy guides either.  If you couldn’t beat a game, you had to hope like hell that your best friend’s older brother was better at the game than you were and would tell you how to use the super secret attack to get past the final boss.  That was it.

But, at the end of the day, when you beat a game, YOU BEAT A GAME.  It was yours, you owned that game.  Why?  Because you invested hours, days, weeks, into that game.  You played every level inside and out, upside down. You beat every bad guy every way possible; you learned every secret, every trick.  You earned the right to say you beat that game and no one can say otherwise.  Beating the game meant something because it was something that required work, effort, and time.

Then came the Game Genie.  Apparently, the lazy, unskilled kids out there were getting bored with video games because they were too hard and they weren’t talented or patient enough to see the harder games through.  The result was the Game Genie, an insidious little device that latched onto your video game and went with it into your console.  Once inserted it would allow you to enter all kinds of nifty codes that would give you access to invincible modes, unlimited lives and continues, unlock all the weapons/items in a game, allow you to select which level to start at, and on and on.  Now the entire game was at your command, nothing would stop you from seeing that ending screen now!  And best of all, you didn’t even have to be good at video games, you just had to know which code to enter!


Saturday, July 31, 2010

12 Months, Sixty Dollars and a PS2: July

Twelve Months, Sixty Dollars, and one Playstation2…

Okay, so my favorite local second hand, MUST HAVE MUSIC AND MORE, has a slew of Playstation 2 games and recently I discovered that a great number of them are being sold for the low, low price of $4.95.  For those of you who have been following along at home, this is how I came across Pryzm , Chapter One: The Last Unicorn, that little gem that I alone made famous last year!  As I was browsing through the stacks the other day I saw a good number of these $5 games that looked at the very least interesting, if not potential diamonds in the rough.  After thinking it over I came to a conclusion:  The PS2 has a vast library and very few catch the attention of the popular culture, but lots and lots of games get released. Somewhere in those stacks of discarded, unloved games must be some really great games just looking for someone to play them and at the risk of five dollars a go, I think it’s worth finding just what is out there.  The result is this on-going experiment, a journey that you and I are going to take through the unwanted library of the PS2.  So strap in, kiddies, we’ve got twelve months, sixty dollars, and a Playstation2 and we’re about to discover what we’ve been missing!


Alfa Romeo Racing Italiano                                                              

In the modern era, there are two kinds of racing games:  simple, fun games for everyone (kart racers and the like) and complex, hardcore racing games that are only for those who are totally into racing.  Alfa Romeo Racing Italiano is the latter.  I am better suited to the former.  Complex, hardcore racing games demand at least a rudimentary knowledge of how racing cars work, things like gear shifting.  They require finesse, and understanding of car handling, and other car-knowin’ stuff  that I ain’t got.  I knew within 5 minutes of “playing” Alfa Romeo that this game was not for me.  I made just such a comment to my wife and the conversation went something like this:

Me: This game sucks!
Her: No, it doesn’t, you just aren’t any good at it.
Me: No, this game sucks, it’s too hard to steer, you have no control going around corners, the car sucks.
Her: It might help if you used the brakes.
Me: It’s a racing game, you don’t use brakes, you go forward, fast and you win.  No one ever won a race using the brakes.
Her: You might also consider down-shifting.
Me: Down-what?  What the hell is down shifting?  You just hold down the accelerate button and let off just when you go around curves.  There’s no shifting.
Her: Yes, there is.  In games like this you have to drive like it’s a real car.
Me: Nuts to that.  This game sucks and I’m going to go write my review and tell everybody that this game sucks.
Her: Maybe you’re not qualified to write this review…

And it pretty much was downhill from there.  I’ve not played much Alfa Romeo Racing Italiano since that conversation.  My wife continued to play for another half hour or so, but her car kept exploding just as much as mine did.  She still defends it, and I guess she is right, to a point.
Alfa Romeo Racing Italiano is probably an alright game if you are big into Gran Turismo or racing games of that ilk.  The game seems to have some depth, from what I read in the instruction manual. Both you and your car gain experience points for doing well in races and you can use those points to improve your driver stats and your car’s components. There are different challenges to take on and cars to win, plus you have this bizarro "Tiger" power that enables you to roll back time about five seconds during a race in case you need to correct a fatal error or salvage a cheap win by an opponent. Had it been more user friendly, I might have been able to get into this game, but as it stands, I pretty much gave a five dollar bill to a crackhead and said “have at it.” (not sure how much crack $5 buys these days, but all the same).  There is a "quick play" mode that is more fun, where your car doesn't explode after a few collisions, but that is not enough to prop up a game billed as a "racing RPG."

If anyone wants a barely re-used copy of Alfa Romeo Racing Italiano, leave me a comment and I’ll send it off to you for the low price of $5 and you can try it for yourself.  I’ll even cover the shipping.  I promise this will never make it back into my PS2.