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.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Girl on Girl Games: Barbie

Girl on Girl Games: Barbie for NES

Barbie in full early 90's regalia

It would be pretty easy to dismiss as a standard girl game but for one thing:  this game is not terribly easy. Barbie is only a girl game because it is themed in accordance with the Barbie doll franchise. Underneath the veil of pink emblems, charm bracelets and shopping malls, it's really just a standard platform-er, with all the usual trappings.

Barbie takes us on a trip through Barbie's dreams, most of which center on her plans for the next day. While she's not exactly planning to turn the world upside down with her daily errands, they seem like pretty reasonable errands for a teen-age doll in Southern California. She needs to go to the mall and buy a new outfit, go swimming, have lunch at the soda shop, and then meet Ken at a party. Barbie recounts all this to us as she nods off to sleep reading a book about mermaids.

She may be a vapid blond doll, but at least she's reading a book. Enjoying it, even!

As previously stated, the game works as a standard platform-type. You play as Barbie (who is very obviously a pixelated doll) in the game. Her sprite is very tall and thin, and is always depicted in different outfits appropriate to the venue. For example, in the first level, she's wearing a plain athletic top and pants, but after the first mall level, she picks up a new ensemble (the one from the title screen). During the soda shop level, she wears a poodle skirt and sweater. And so on. Complaints about this should probably be directed to the doll line rather than the game about the doll line--after all, Barbie is a fashion doll. Why wouldn't she have lots of clothes in a game?

More after the jump!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Closer Look at Muscle March for WiiWare

A Closer Look at Muscle March for WiiWare

Some video games are all about strategy, be they puzzle games, turn based battle games, or what have you.  Some video games are about precision asking you to make the exact right moves at the exact right time or else.  Then there are games that all about action, full-on in your face, guns blazing, fire pits roaring action.  And then there are games about muscles.  You heard me.  Muscles.
Yeah, you heard me.  Wait until you see this...

So my friend Chris comes over to the house one night last month and amidst our various goings on about how hard it is to find Atari 2600 games in the wild anymore and which NES games are worth $5, the boy says to me “Have you seen that Muscle game for the WiiWare yet?”  Obviously I had not.  So we pull up the trailer for said game on the interweb and oh my dear lord.  One cannot describe what bombards the senses next, so I’ll not try.  Instead, I’ll allow you to judge for yourself.  Here, take a watch:

What the hell was that?  That my friends is the greatest game for the WiiWare yet.  Yes, delete Mega Man 10 and that new Blaster Master game and make room for Muscle March.  The game is insane.  Pure Japanese insanity in all of its glory.  If you thought Katamari Damacy was a head trip you ain’t seen nothing yet. Imagine Katamari, but with nothing held back.  Nothing.  I think that trailer is proof enough.

The premise, if you dare say the game has one, is centered around a group of extremely zealous body builders who are incensed because people keep stealing their protein powder.  The protein nabbing invariably results in a madcap chase wherein the body builders pursue the perpetrator through cities, jungle villages, space stations and even the heavens themselves!  The protein thief will stop at nothing to escape and this means crashing through anything standing in their way, walls, doors, subway cars, forests, asteroids, you name it.  If the body builders are to nab the protein bandit, they must follow suit, literally.  Each time the perp smashes through something they do so in a very specific pose.  The body builders must mimic this pose or be knocked out of the chase.  That’s it.  Run fast enough and pose correctly and you’ll eventually have an opportunity to tackle the vandal and retrieve your precious protein…or will you….

Honestly, the game is ridiculously simple.  Too simple to be as damn challenging as it is.  When you break it down, the game is essentially Simon Says with poses instead of colors.  There are only four poses to play with and all you have to do is copy the fleeing criminal’s pose as it goes through the wall.  It is just that easy, and yet, it’s not.

The game is dizzying.  From the stereotypical J-Pop music to the absurd environments the game does not allow you to concentrate for a single second.  The backgrounds are just plain crazy.  Nevermind the fact that your chase will have you defying gravity, running through all kinds of buildings, subway cars, jungles, mines, space ships, and so on, as you bust through these surroundings there are innumerable distractions screaming for your attention all over the place.  Most of these distractions are in the inexplicable form of cardboard cut-outs of people and animals that are hopping and gyrating about as if they were on popsicle sticks and being puppeteered by hyperglycemic eight-year olds.  Just don’t pay them any attention. In the immortal words of Happy Gilmore when the “earthquake” rocks the miniature golf course, “how the hell am I supposed to do that?”  It will take a strong mind, but it can be done.

And it isn’t just the backgrounds that will have your mind reeling.  The action gets to be intense.  The chase starts out brisk, but manageable.  As you get closer and closer to the protein bandit, the speed of the chase ramps considerably.  Considerably.  The farther you get in the game, the faster you are going to have to react and match poses or be eliminated.  There are times when instinct and luck will benefit you more than reflexes.  That said, the game gets tough, fast.  And if you get too good at the main game, you can always try your luck at the endless chase game variation where you just run as fast and as long as you can.  Of course, that also makes very good practice for the main game.

That is all there really is to it, but let’s call a spade a spade, you’re not going to buy this game (for a paltry 500 Wii Points) for its complexities and depth.  If you’re looking for Final Fantasy XIII, it ain’t here. No, you’re going to buy Muscle March for the head trip, plain and simple.  This is a zany game all about the laughs and absurdity and the “what the frok was that” factor.  The game play is nothing special, but the game is. Muscle March is funny AND fun.

We’ve been playing the game for some time now and I cannot seem to rescue the protein from the Muscle Mech character to save my life.  And yet I keep trying.  Look, I’m not a big downloadable content guy, I think you know that.  I enjoy the Mega Man games and the Virtual Console has finally allowed me to play Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, but all in all, I’m not over the moon about downloadable games the way most people are.  I would not tell you to make Muscle March your next video game purchase if I wasn’t absolutely certain that it would blow your mind.  I’ll not waste your time with more of my nonsense this month, just go play Muscle March and try to reconcile its madness with your rational, sequential brain.

I’ll see you back here next month when I’ll tell you how we got where we are today and why we are worse for it…

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Girl on Girl Games: Introduction

Ok, so every once and a while, people start talking about video games and gender roles. They discuss whether or not violent tendencies are reinforced in males, and so on... and then they begin turning a hard eye toward a genre known as "girl games". You've seen them; usually pink, often sporting a "z" where an "s" rightfully belongs, and always based around a stereotypical female pursuit, like fashion, unicorns or baskets of kittens. Because games of this nature can be so irritating to many independent women, it is easy for them to overlook a wide sector of gender neutral games, which I call "games", and announce for all to hear that "girl games" are what they want us to play!
Dead or Alive, while once a rather unique fighting game, is now built on the wobbly foundations seen above.

Let us be completely honest for a moment. There are some pretty stereotypically male games out there, which, I believe are just as ridiculous as the so-called "girl games." Why doesn't anyone get worked up over this? Because it's too easy to catagorize all games without pink labels as "male" games--and we can overlook garbage like rasslin' games, hunting games and games about ladies with huge tits. Those, naturally, are not aimed at the lowest common male denominator. Right.

The cross-promotional outing of the Cabbage Patch Kids on the Colecovision.
Let's face it: those steaming pink piles of ribbon and rainbows are very easy to target. Those are not for burly men with tattoos. They aren't even for skinny men with antique furniture collections. Those games are for little girls who (of course!) aren't any good at playing video games. This is where the gender debate turns ugly. "This is what they expect our daughters to play?" Sometimes this collective female voice harkens back to the very beginnings of "girl games" and blame them for impacting generations of girls.

Just one problem with that: many of these games suck, or are percieved to suck, and no one plays them. And with a few notable exceptions, especially with the advent of the all-gender-popular Nintendo DS, they aren't very popular. Even among girls. The games are too easy, people complain. They aren't relevant, they cheapen the potential of girls... you get the drift. Because games like WWE Smackdown vs. Raw really help Johnny realize his full potential.

In short, I've decided to play some girl games. Yes, I dare say, I'm going to try to play all I can find. Because it's too easy to glibly dismiss these games as mere garbage, to read that a game is about glitter hairspray and determine that the game has no value, sight unseen. In the interest of fairness, I'll be reaching as far back as the Atari for vintage girl games and looking to the most current contributions whenever possible.

Why, you may ask? Because I am (or was) the main target demographic for these games. I'm not a child any longer, but I still remember what it was like to play video games back then. I truly don't believe all of these games are terrible...and I definitely don't believe all of them are as detrimental to girls as we all fear. Oh, I've no doubts that some will curl my hair--figuratively, that is (unless the game is about curling hair.) But I think many more can be relegated to the heading of "harmless".
Yes... Even this kind of thing.

In this series, I will examine a different "girl game" every few weeks (to the extent of my patience) and attempt to assess its potential dangers, values, and basic fun factor.