Monday, January 31, 2011

12 Months, Sixty Dollars and a Gameboy Advance: January

Ultimate Alliace
from Barking Lizards

Perhaps this wasn't the best game to start with, but with limited time I figured if I grabbed something I was familiar with I could still make the deadline.  I was half right, the deadline would be met, however I would quickly discover this wasn't quite a game I knew.

I loved Ultimate Alliance for the Wii when it came out six years ago, and I still think it is one of the best Marvel Super-hero games I have played.  I knew a version had been made for the Gameboy Advance, but at that time, I wasn't really much on handhelds or their watered down versions of superior console games.  While my interest in handheld systems has certainly increased, I cannot say that my experience with Ultimate Alliance has left my impression of their ports much improved.

It's not that UA is a bad game.  As games go, it's fairly average, but when held up against its bigger, better Wii brother, it comes up ridiculously short.  I realize this is comparing apples and orangutans, but the comparison is inevitable nonetheless.  With that in mind, I will try to limit such analysis to a single paragraph.

In a way I set myself up for failure because I was totally blown away by Marvel Ultimate Alliance for the Wii.  The game was huge, the missions were epic, and there was a host of great Marvel characters at your command.  You led a team of four characters of which you could alternate control.  Each character had a body of special attacks and gained new abilities and skills as they gained experience.  The missions took place all over the Marvel Universe and featured a veritable who's who of Marvel bad guys.  The game was amazing.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance for the GBA is just like that, except with all of the extra-special parts boiled out.  You get ten Marvel characters to command and an additional six that you can call upon for a super-attack a limited number of times per mission.  You do not play with a team of four all at once, but instead rotate through the three you build your team out of, plus the super-attack character.  Characters do not possess a bevy of special attacks, but instead have a punch, a kick, a combo attack, and a special attack.  The combo and special attacks are limited and are used up pretty quickly.
These condensations alone would not be all that terrible, but they are compounded by extremely short, uninspired missions littered with repetitious, bland enemies.  There are roughly six kinds of enemies and they appear in every level in groups of no more than three.  Levels are mostly straightforward affairs that run, at most, five minutes long.
The result is a game that says, "system limitations should have prevented me from existing." A game like Ultimate Alliance is probably better suited to the DS than the GBA.  The game you get is decent for what it is, but it is almost a misrepresentation of the game it has been derived from.  On its own, the game is a very simple, side scrolling smash 'em up with Marvel characters.  The plot is minimal and not terribly fluid, but the base action is decent enough, if controls are a bit sluggish at times.  A few more special abilities would have been nice, even at the cost of the special characters. Graphics are decent, the characters look like who they are supposed to, and the game play music is forgettable at best.  The biggest problem lies in the length of the game: it is incredibly short.  As a complete novice, I was able to complete the game in just over two hours.  I highly suspect that the brevity of the game is the result of the effort to pack as much into the game as possible.  Sadly the result is an overall less than amazing experience.

At the end of the day, Marvel Ultimate Alliance for the GBA is certainly worth the $5 I paid for it, however I would say that paying much more for it would be fairly disappointing.  If you see this game cheap, you like Marvel Super-heroes, and want a quick beat 'em-up, then go for it.  If you want a port of Ultimate Alliance for a handheld system, give this one a pass.

See you next month!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

12 Months, Sixty Dollars and a Gameboy Advance: Introduction

Well,  last year I had a really good time finding out just how many great games you could blindly stumble upon for measly $5.  The game was simple: every month I would go down to my favorite second hand store, Must Have Music and More, with a crisp five dollar bill and select a PS2 game from their shelves.  From there the game was played and reviewed and judgment, my judgment was passed on the actual value of the game.  Was it a hidden gem worth far more than its meager price tag?  Or was it a pile of pixelated garbage that insulted Abraham Lincoln himself?

 The results were mixed, but on the whole I would wager that I made out pretty good considering the investment versus the quantity of decent games I came away with.  Whilst browsing the shelves at Must Have, I also noticed a sizeable collection of Gameboy Advance games also priced at five dollars or below, some even as low as three dollars.  Come on now.  The GBA has a vast library, it was a much beloved system.  The games originally retailed for thirty dollars or more.  Can these prices be serious?  Can these games be this bad, that they are now only worth a tenth of their original MSRP?  If my experience with the Playstation 2 is any indication, then there have to be some pretty decent games out there for these ridiculously low prices.

So, if you are ready and willing, and I haven't bored you to tears yet, let's set sail on another voyage of discount video game grab bags.  Back in couple of weeks with our first game: Marvel Ultimate Alliance!!
Will it live up to its $5 price tag???

Thursday, January 13, 2011

12 Months, Sixty Dollars and a PS2: Year in Review

So a year has passed and the PS2 project has come to a close.  If you've been playing along with me at home, then you know we've had an interesting year of highs and lows, great games and some real headshakers.  So I felt it only appropriate that we spend a few moments here at the end of the project to take a look back at the journey as a whole and see if we have learned anything.

This whole project began with a simple observation: amongst the myriad of games on the shelf at my favorite second hand (Must Have Music and More, shameless plug!), were a lot of Playstation 2 games stamped with the lowly price of $4.95.  And I'm not talking outdated sports games like Madden NFL 05, I mean actual games that appear to have had a legitimate release and at least some life before they found their way into the lower caste of second hand games.  It was a game not in this project, Pryzm: the Last Unicorn, that sparked this entire thing off.  For $5 the game ending up being a huge value and despite its somewhat bizarre plot it was a great deal of fun.  And that got me to thinking, that if a game as much fun as Pryzm is sitting out there for $5 at the local second hand, who knows what other diamonds in the rough might also be lurking on the shelf.

The project started off on a good foot with Brave: The Search for Spirit Dancer, a fun little platformer that would be great for younger players and still has enough teeth for seasoned gamers.  Brave would give me hope that this entire adventure was going to be worth the whopping $60 I had agreed to invest.  And that hope with pay off several times over the course of the year.  Amongst the incredible gems I discovered are absolutely amazing games like Red Ninja, Gladius and Scooby-Doo: Night of 100 Frights.  These three games exemplify just how lucky you can get when you cast your net into the $5 ocean.  All three games are worth far more than their five dollar price tag and could easily give many contemporary games a run for their money.  Red Ninja, you will recall, is a spectacular stealth platformer that casts you in the role of a scantily clan female Ninja out for revenge against those left her for dead.  The gameplay is smooth, the level design is complex, and the challenge is high.  I look forward to more adventures with Kuranei in the future!  On the other end of the spectrum is Gladius, a deep and involved tactical battle simulation game that pits you as a Roman Gladiator or Barbarian Warlord leading your battle school against rival schools in tournaments across the land.  Gladius is the kind of game you can spend days and days playing and only scratch the surface of all it has to offer.  A real thinking game, this is another I look forward to devoting more time to.  Finally, Scooby-Doo: Night of a 100 Frights harkens back to the days of great platformers like Mario and Donkey Kong Country.  The perfect blend of fun game play and smartly executed nostalgic thematic elements, Scooby-Doo is a welcome addition to my PS2 library.

But the year wasn't all value and good times.  There were some pretty low points as well.  I can't say that I was overjoyed when playing Alfa Romeo Racing Italiano, One Piece: Pirate's Carnival, or Godzilla Unleashed.  These three games perfectly demonstrate the reason why the $5 game exists.  Had I paid retail price for any of these piles when they were first released, I am pretty sure I would have written their respective companies and demanded full refunds.  Alfa Romeo Racing Italiano purported itself to be a racing RPG, but was so hard to control and lacked any real fun factor, that I never really got a chance to see if it could deliver on its promises.  On the other hand, One Piece: Pirate's Carnival, was plenty playable, however, exactly what i was playing was consistently up for grabs.  In an attempt to replicate the fun of games like Mario Party, One Piece layers manga themes over a fairly standard board game concept.  The failure comes from the incomprehensible anime characters and themes that are forced upon the game.  While the game is clearly intended for fans of the anime, I do not think that having a target audience should limit the ability for anyone to have fun with it.  Sadly in One Piece's case, it does.  From the playable, but incomprehensible, to the nearly unplayable, we find Godzilla Unleashed.  What should have been a fun monster mash-em-up is completely stifled by sluggish, uninspired controls that foster an environment of boredom rather than thrills.  If the Ultimate Nullifier were activated against these three games, no one would ever be the worse for it.  If you see them on the shelf, run, don't walk, away.
The rest of the lot are pretty general fare.  Nothing absolutely terribly, but nothing you couldn't live without.  That being said, when you consider that most of these games probably retailed for upwards of fifty dollars, getting any of them for ten percent of their original price is a pretty good deal.

All in all, this was a very interesting project and I think that on the whole it was worth the risk of sixty American dollars to net seven or eight decent games for a system that only recently stopped game production.  In an age of rapidly and cheaply produced shovelware, it can be hard to risk thirty dollars or more on a new game for a modern system, particularly if you are like me and eschew much of the reviews available in print and online (just don't trust a lot of them for a variety of reasons).  If anything, this project proves that due to the accelerated transitional nature of the contemporary video game market and culture, a little bit of patience can net you some pretty damn good games for significantly less than you might pay for them new, particularly if you are not picky about used games in the second hand market.

It has been a very interesting year and I hope you have had as much fun playing along at home as I have had plumbing the depths of the second hand shelves!  Suffice to say, our journey will not completely end here.  True, our PS2 quest has come to a close, both the year and the money has been exhausted, but from the ashes of this experiment comes the next great adventure!  If there are this many great games floating around out there for the PS2, just how many might be out there for the Gameboy Advance?  Much like the PS2, the GBA boasts a vast library of titles, and much like the PS2, the Gameboy Advance was wildly poplar in its day.  The result is a dearth of games now being collected in the bins and on the shelves of second hands everywhere as the Nintendo DS has supplanted its predecessor.  You realize what this means of course...

Thursday, January 6, 2011

12 Months, Sixty Dollars and a PS2: December

Reign of Fire

I wanted to go out on a high note.  I really did and I want you to know that before we start.  And you cannot blame me, from all appearances this game promised a fantastic finish to this awesome project.  I mean, come on, its dragons vs. tanks, that can't possibly go wrong. Right?

Oh boy.

Turns out Reign of Fire, the game, is based on Reign of Fire, the movie.  Reign of Fire, the movie, was apparently a film from 2002 starring none other than Christian Bale, that's right, freakin' Batman, Matthew McConaughey (Time to Kill), and Gerard Butler from your silly Spartan movie.  It had to be a hit, right?  Well, if you've heard of it, then yeah, I guess it was, otherwise, this bad boy was direct to DVD.  The movie told the tale of hold-out humans struggling to survive against newly revived dragons that have scorched the Earth.  Why, why I ask you was this not a hit.  Move over Godfather!  Get out of town Rocky.  Back of the bus, Air Bud.  Reign of Fire is here!

So if the movie was that good, the game had to be a equally awesome, right?  Right.  It's dragons vs. tanks!  What better premise for a video game?  The back of the case clearly shows a dragon running down a tank, this is the game for us.  Only it's not.

Reign of Fire is basically a tactical simulator along the lines of Rogue Leader only you trade the Galactic Empire and TIE Fighters for dragons and velociraptors, oh and toss out the fun while you are at it.  The game starts with you as a human resistance fighter recruited to help in the defense of the human stronghold.  You begin by commanding a souped up jeep mounted with a machine gun and missile launcher.  It is my understanding that from there you will upgrade to tanks and other awesome killing machines.  It is also my understanding that eventually you can unlock dragon missions where you get to turn the tables on the insipid humans.  I say "it is my understanding" because I never got past level 3.

I won't say it is because the game is hard.  Sure, there are some difficult parts and the game requires some skill to succeed, but the main roadblock is that Reign of Fire just isn't very fun.  I managed the first two levels pretty well, but when it came to taking on the dragons themselves, I was toast.   First of all, the game controls are miserable.  There are two control schemes, one simple and one advanced, but neither one makes the game terribly engaging to play.  I stuck with the simpler scheme just to keep the frustration low, however it also makes tracking the dragons next to impossible and you pretty much end up getting fried when the heat is on.  The alternate controls are no better, since you are so busy trying to take down the mighty beasts that you fail to pay attention to where you are driving and you end up stuck somewhere or running into enemy fire.  The control scheme is strike one against this game.

The second strike comes from the uninspired level design.  If you have played either Rogue Leader or Rogue Squadron, you have already played these missions and they were more fun.  There are only so many "escort the convoy" missions you can play before it becomes a snore-fest.  Move to checkpoint A, defend convoy, move to checkpoint B, defend convoy, and so on. Ugh.

The final nail in the coffin is the clunky playfields.  I got stuck behind a barricade in the very first level and could not get unstuck and thus had to restart the level.  Mind you this happened during the tutorial, before I left the home base.  The other levels I played featured similar problems including hills that you could climb in your jeep, but you could only climb them at snail's pace and once you started up, turning around and going back down was hopeless.  Every level seemed to have "stuck" points that resulted in mission restarts.

Reign of Fire fails to execute on every level and ultimately provides a watered-down version of many similar games in the genre that are done much better.  The game came and went as quietly as the movie it was based on, and that is, perhaps, for the best.

I'll be back mid-month for a Final Look at this fantastic PS2 project and I'll also let you in on this year's new project!  See you then!