« December 10, 2006 - December 16, 2006 | Main | December 24, 2006 - December 30, 2006 »

December 23, 2006

Celebrity Mii Contest Cha Cha Cha

- Catching up with Kottke.org in my RSS round-up, I spotted the results of the site's fun Mii contest: "From over 220 entries in the Celebrity Mii Contest, the judges have selected their favorite celebrity avatar created with the Nintendo Wii."

Looks like a painfully hip Zach Braff Mii (pictured) won out: "Judge Spencer Sloan of Goldenfiddle said of this entry: "What's beautiful about this one is the truth in this piece. Yes, Braff, you're a nose and some lip. Bravo to the artist for taking a risk." Judge Jen Bekman of the Jen Bekman gallery said of the Braff: "There is this eerily human quality - I mean it really looks like him, as a person, in a weird way.""

Scroll waay down, and there's an almost surreal compilation of random figures: "Velma from Scooby Doo, Hannibal Lecter, Jack Skellington from A Nightmare Before Christmas, Dick Cheney, Tom Cruise, Hulk Hogan, Jennifer Wilbanks (aka The Runaway Bride), George Costanza, Charlie Brown, and V from V for Vendetta." Still, fun!

COLUMN: 'Cinema Pixeldiso' – The Last Starfighter

['Cinema Pixeldiso' is a bi-weekly column by Matt 'Fort90' Hawkins that takes a look at movies that are either directly based upon or are related to video games, with a focus on the obscure and the misunderstood. This week’s selection is another gem from the 80s, one that's sure to appeal to any shmups aficionado...]

http://www.gamesetwatch.com/laststarfighter1.jpg

Last week we looked at Tron, which featured a person forced to tap at his prowess at the arcade in a scenario that mirrors a video game, except its "for real". Pretty much the same thing here, plus its also from the 80s, and another cult classic of sorts. It's...

The Last Starfighter

Let's just dive head-first into the plot.

The film immediately opens up in a dusty old trailer park in the middle of Nowheresville. Among the assorted wacky elderly residents is young, able-bodied and free spirited Alex, who's basically Luke Skywalker: dreams of something better, primarily a chance of scenery, maybe some adventure, but is stuck where he is, forced to waste his time and talents. But when opportunity finally comes knocking...

After yet another day in which hanging with friends (and girlfriend) must take a back seat to fixing stuff around the park, Alex decides to blow some steam with yet another game of Starflighter, a sci-fi dog-fight shoot 'em up (or more commonly known by the kids today as a "shmup"). And like virtually every other video game portrayed in a movie, the graphics are unbelievably great.

Alex is pretty good at the game, but tonight, he's extra good, and once it appears that he's about to shatter the record, everyone in the park gets all excited and decides to see history happen. Though once again, virtually everyone in the park are all old people, and even though everyone reading this is perhaps an avid gamer, one has to wonder if any of us will truly give a damn about a video games, at least enough to get really excited, when we're all in our late seventies and wearing adult diapers.

The One Man Army

The high score is achieved, and Alex is on cloud nine afterwards, till mom presents a letter informing him that the loan to some big city college, aka his ticket outta there, has been denied. Then, while feeling sorry for himself, a crazy looking future car shows up and behind the wheel is Centari (portrayed by classical stage and film actor Robert Preston, in his final big screen role), the inventor of the game Starfighter, and who's looking for the person that just broke the record. Alex gets in, and next thing you know, he's going down the highway at about 300 miles an hour, and then he's in outer space, accompanied by vintage early 80s CGI graphics (which were created with old Cray super-computer).

Alex arrives at a military base on the planet Rylos, and eventually learns that he's been enlisted by the Star League to help fight Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada... just like the video game! Actually, the arcade game was simply a tool to find out who on Earth has what it takes to actually defend the universe (even though its pointed out that Earth and its inhabitants are neither advanced, smart, or simply cool enough to be part of the Star League, at least not yet). So Alex eventually finds himself among other hopeful saviors of the universe, who comes from all corners of the galaxy, in the obligatory Mos Eisley-like scene (again, just like Tron).

But once again, Alex is Luke, so he freaks out at the chance for high adventure once it finally presents itself, nor does he man up when he sees the huge floating head of Xur, the spoiled rotten brat son of the benevolent leader turned traitor, talk crap and gruesomely kill a good guy spy for show.

Centari takes Alex back home, but instead of things being nice and normal, Alex meets with his robotic doppelganger, known as the Beta Unit, which the Star League left behind as "a courtesy".

Also in town is some alien bounty hunter after Alex's head, which results in a shootout in which Centari (whom Alex calls back to bitch out, mostly about his robot double) is shot and wounded. Once he discovers that more aliens are sure to come to snuff him, Alex reluctantly agrees to go back and fight the good fight. But when he returns to Rylos, the base has been destroyed, and he also discovers that the entire fleet (the ships btw are called Gunstars, though there seems to be no connection between the film and the seminal Treasure platformer), have all been destroyed.

So Alex is indeed the last starfighter, and its only himself, his trusty, warm-hearted, happy-go lucky alien pilot Grig (portrayed with much zest by Dan O'Herlihy, whom many might know as the evil corporate bad guy from Robocop 1 &2), and one single ship, which of course is a one-of-a-kind, souped up prototype Gunstar, versus an entire enemy fleet.

A Familiar Story

Pretty ridiculous plot. isn't it? Well... not really. At least, not to anyone that's familiar with shmups. Because its the same basic plot for every spaceship combat game from the past twenty plus years. The Last Starfighter is basically Gradius: The Movie, or R Type: The Movie, or Thunder Force: The Movie. The Gunstar itself is actually quite close to what we see in shmups these days; it most closely resembles the ship from Silpheed...

The rest of the film follows Alex and Grig's attempt at outsmarting an entire enemy fleet, with Alex whining every step of the way about the impossible odds. Not only is he very Skywalker-like, but Alex is virtually every hero from every jRPG from Final Fantasy 7-on, so the film is on the ball video game-wise in more than just one aspect.

At one point, they hide and wait inside an asteroid, in another "boy, this is just like Star Wars" moment, with this one taking a cue from Empire Strikes back (earlier Alex goes into light speed with pretty the same exact special effect as well, though not nearly as nice), and there's a scene where Grig talks about his "wifeoid" and 6,000 kids which ranks as one of the film's finest moments.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, Beta Alex tries his best to fill the original's shoes by learning how to laugh (in a somewhat Star Trek: The Next Generation-like moment) and making out with Alex's girlfriend, which he refers to as "gland games", while also dealing with additional bounty hunting goons.

Shoot The Core

Anyway, Alex manages to wipe out the entire enemy fleet with one fatal berserker attack, or super bomb, which in the movie is called the Death Blossom. Again, quite consistent with shmups. In fact, the only thing missing from the movie are power pick ups left behind by destroyed enemies.

With the Armada wiped out, that just leaves the final boss ship, which goes down of course, and the universe is saved, with Alex as the universe's ultimate hero. He's given the chance to shape the future of the Space League, and since this is the 80's, not only does he accept, but he also returns to Earth to ask his girlfriend to be by his side and she says yes as well (if this story took place now, Alex would probably walk away from such responsibilities and the ending would be bittersweet, even a tiny bit emo).

Alex rides off to the stars, the man he wanted to be in the beginning of the movie, though both him and the audience had to sit through at least half a dozen speeches from assorted characters exclaiming that one must step up and seize opportunity when it rears its head.

Final Score

Overall, a solid, if a bit unspectacular film, and far from profound, but given that most contemporary motion pictures that deal with video games are far from solid, by default The Last Starfighter resides square in the middle of the "not so bad" category of films of its kind. Granted, it’s extremely predictable and tries way too hard to be Star Wars in many respects (though the area of ship design should not be faulted since folks who worked on that series worked on this film as well).

But thanks in part to the combination of some charming acting (primarily from O'Herlihy) and it being a product of its time (with that fine early 80s film stock and hair), the movie is not at all bad and totally worth checking out, especially if one is a shmups fan because, once more, it pretty has the same exact plot as every game in the genre.

...though whether one who puts up with such a flimsy story in their games would want to see it played out in a film is entirely debatable...

BTW:

It goes without saying that the film has had some lasting power, since its constantly been referenced over the years; most folks know about the South Park parody from last year, but the Clerk animated series took some cues from it as well, as has Aqua Teen Hunger Force. The whole idea of a video game used as recruitment tool was even used in Japan for Denji Sentai Megaranger, aka Power Rangers in Space here in America. Oh, the same goes for the US too.

There was even an off-Broadway play based off the movie that ran in New York City in late 2004 to some minor acclaim. And anyone knows that any film from the 80's isn't officially "cool" until its been made into musical (see: The Evil Dead, The Karate Kid. and The Goonies, to name a few).

FYI:

Near the end of the credits, it says an actual Last Starfighter game is available from Atari, and there was one in development, for the arcades actually, but it never materialized. But one was eventually developed for their home computers, though it was originally an entirely different game called Orbiter, which was changed to resemble the movie, and then those elements had to be stripped away, due to the sale of Atari according to a few sources. In the end, it became Star Raiders 2.

But, now everyone can finally play the same game from the movie (kind of) courtesy of Rogue Synapse, which has attempted to create something very similar to what was featured in the movie. They've even tried to create a full-realized version of Space Paranoids from Tron.

[Matt Hawkins is a New York-based freelance journalist and Gamasutra contributor. He also designs games, makes comics, and does assorted “other things.” To find out more, check out Fort90.com.]

Line Rider Heads To DS/Wii As Tricks Abound

- We've previously covered the 'physics toy' phenomenon that is Line Rider, but seems like it's time for a couple of updates to the insanely popular Flash toy.

Well, firstly, as you may have spotted, indie development studio inXile has licensed the game for a DS and Wii release, both expected to ship in Spring 2007 - it explains: "According to the title's original creator Bostjan Cadez, Line Rider is a "toy" that allows players to construct their own track filled with as many ramps, hills, and jumps as they can imagine utilizing a pencil tool. Once the player is done creating their course, they can send a virtual sledder down the route until he wipes out."

Secondly, the creator of the beautiful 'Jagged Peak Adventure', 'unconed', has created 'Urban Run' [YouTube link], the latest in his series of wonderfully designed Line Rider illustrated adventures. The game is an example of a) how physics games work really well, b) that one-man toys can make amazing games, and c) that indie studios can pick up on phenomena quickly and easily - all of these are good for the game biz! [Semi-via Waxy.]

December 22, 2006

GameSetPics: Game Company Xmas Cards

OK, so one of the coolest things about the game industry around Xmas time is the specially designed holiday cards, and it turns out that, between us in the CMP Game Group offices (since we run Game Developer, Gamasutra, and Game Developers Conference in our various departments), we get a lot of the particularly neat ones.

So we've taken it upon ourselves to scan in some of our personal favorites, and present them here for the entire Internet* (*or our friends who read GameSetWatch, anyhow) to see. Many thanks to Brandon Sheffield @ Game Developer and especially Jamil Moledina at Game Developers Conference for lending us their cards for the scanning process.

Cards are in alphabetical order, so we're not 'playing favorites' - here goes:

DoubleFine's card has a) totally cute artwork, and b) an extremely funny Tim Schafer-authored poem inside about how they can't talk about their next game. 'All the elves signed NDAs', indeed!

Eidos and its Crystal Dynamics office went for a fake game box, complete with exciting blockbuster info on the Xmas season, and group pictures of their offices.

Just a quick shout out for Koei, who unfortunately didn't put Gundam Musou on their Xmas card, but nonetheless showed off a wintry Dynasty Warriors character.

Namco Bandai's card is adorable because it has Pac-Man in a Santa outfit - nuff said, really. The bottom half of the card actually folds out to give you a closer look at the Tamagotchi village (Bandai's contribution) in the background.

   

One of two Nintendo holiday cards, with a simple keyhole type design featuring Wii players laughing it up.

The other Nintendo card has an inevitable 'Wii = We' pun on it. It's very wide, too!

The NIS Xmas card, for all you import fans - apparently the characters are from 'Soul Cradle (working title)'.

Red Octane's card weaves guitars (from its Guitar Hero franchise) and the company icon into a snowflake-style tableau.

Oddly enough, Sony's Xmas card also plays with geometric designs and Sony logos in a rather fetching fashion.

This origami paper came with one of Sony's Xmas mailing, so we thought we'd include it as a bonus.

   

Finally, Square Enix's card draws comparisons between December and, aha, Final Fantasy XII, for a very pure, wintry end to our round-up. This is just a selection of the cards out there, and we're going to try to add a few others from our various remote editors _and_ link to other people who are going to scan in their own cards.

[UPDATE - we added the Sony Xmas origami design in wallpaper-able sizes, at least!]

GameTap Adds 3D Ultra Mini Golf, Sam & Max Episode 2

- Those ever-loving PC subscription gaming freaks at GameTap have ratcheted up their PR again for the holiday season, announcing three major game launches and a special 99c pricing for the first month of service.

As the press release explains: "The highly-anticipated offerings include the premiere of "Sam & Max Episode 2 - Situation Comedy," the worldwide exclusive launch of Sierra Online's "3D Ultra Minigolf Adventures," and a first look at the final phase of the "Myst Online: Uru Live" beta, which allows subscribers to experience the game's all-new living storyline."

Though I've certainly been a vocal supporter of GameTap here at GSW, I feel like they're just reaching a critical mass where, when their excellent retro offerings get twinned with new or revitalized content like Sam & Max, Uru, and 3D Ultra Minigolf (which is due out for Xbox Live Arcade as well in early 2007, I think?), then it becomes a more compelling deal, even for the non-hardcore types. But without access to the livingroom TV, it's tricky - so we shall see!

GameSetLinks: From Mind Games To IT Crowd

- Ah yes - it's not quite the weekend, but there's still plenty of GameSetLinks hanging around and dogging my brain, so here they are, in a seemingly random order:

- Mateas' Brain: Over at Santa Cruz' Good Times Weekly, there's a cover story on Michael Mateas' new university course in the California surf town, suggesting of the Facade co-creator: "Someone who works in the medium of AI, attempting to apply it toward interactive drama, must have a keen understanding of linguistics, storytelling, human emotional psychology … the very topics philosophers have struggled with since the beginning of recorded time." [Via GTA.]

- Phantasy Re-Translated: You may have already spotted this on IC : "SMS Power has put up a new patch of Phantasy Star for SMS, featuring a script reworked by TheRedEye, aka [Gamasutra editor] Frank Cifaldi." Nice to see a literate community translation - not that some aren't, but hey! I'm still hoping that a fan translation will, at some point, turn up somewhere official - GameTap, Virtual Console, XBLA, I care not where! But it's a major opportunity for the biz.

- Daft Punk UMD Funk: Further to the recent comments over interesting UMDs to buy before they disappear, my old buddy Tim Koch mentioned Daft Punk's 'Interstella 5555' UMD, which is an animated music video-styled movie visually created by anime don Leiji Matsumoto - and Tim says that it's specifically listed as a Region 0 UMD on the box. Which is very neat!

- Wii Will Disney You: Over at The Hollywood Reporter, Paul Hyman has been chatting to Disney's new Wii-specific studio, and they reveal that they have also been flinging Wii controllers around: "I have to admit that our conference room has a few scars on the walls. But the fact that we can design for a new kind of controller opens us up to more than just moving joysticks and pushing buttons." Otherwise, it's just a little PR-y - but it's great that Buena Vista care enough about Wii to have a whole developer set up for it.

- The IT Crowd's Game Chops: A little behind on this, but I haven't really seen anyone talking about it on game sites - you may have heard of The IT Crowd, Graham Linehan's excellent UK Channel 4 sitcom, but you may not be aware that the Region 2-only DVD has some wonderful video game-inspired menus, including pastiches of Head Over Heels, Elite, and Manic Miner, among others. Also, the l33t-speak subtitles in the first episode have a bunch of game references, and Linehan's commentary discusses games at various points, noting: "At the moment I'm playing Shadow Of The Colossus, which I heartily recommend".

[Plus, Shynola, who did Beck's very vector graphics 'E-Pro' video and a whole bunch of other AMAZING vids like Stephen Malkmus' 'Jo Jo's Jacket' vid, with fake Westworld retro game, did The IT Crowd's credits sequence, which can only be good. UPDATE: Oh, and I almost forgot, the l33t-speak subtitles for the DVD includes "attack his weak point for massive damage", heh, and various other MMO/game geekspeak.]

8-Bit Operators Rockin, 8BP050, Beck Goodness

- A bit of a chiptune update, here at GSW, since there's a whole bunch of interesting stuff out there - starting with the announcement of a chiptune tribute to Kraftwerk, '8 Bit Operators', which is now actually coming out on Kraftwerk's U.S. label, Astralwerks.

The nice folks at Astralwerks sent me over an advance CD, and there's everything from NES and C64 to Amigas and beyond showcase on there, with guest vocals - some favorites for me were Role Model's Showroom Dummies (ST-00 instruments in full effect!) and 8-Bit Weapon's Spacelab (awesome cover of a more obscure track). Some of it plays a bit 'straight', but it's an effective straight, darn it.

Apparently, the tracks were actually approved personally by Kraftwerk, presumably while they were cycling across the autobahn, and the MySpace page has links for the following: "A 12” single (and digital download equivalent) will precede the CD launch and will feature Glomag’s exclusive 8-Bit Operators' mega-mix version of “Pocket Calculator” (featuring 0x7f, Bit Shifter, Bubblyfish, firestARTer, Hey Kid Nice Robot, Ladybug, M-.-n, Nullsleep, Psilodump, Random, Sidabitball, and David E Sugar) plus an exclusive version of “The Robots” by L.A.’s 8-BIT."

Elsewhere in the chiptune world, I'm delighted to note that the 8BP050 2xCD compilation has been released to buy, with the cream of the chiptune scene - this release is themed around the recent Blip Festival, but is now available for purchase. And as well as the 50 tracks on the double CD, there's an extra 20 tracks available for free download, including tracks from Chibi-Tech, Trash80, Zabutom and many other neat artists.

[An addendum to a previous post - not only is the Beck UMD for Guero pretty interesting as a video/audio medium, it has some really good chiptune remixes with custom videos, I found on further persual. These are only on the Guero bonus DVD and UMD, and include neat stuff like the video for Paza's remix of 'Girl'. Anyone wanna compile a list of where they're viewable online?]

December 21, 2006

GameSetCompetition: Karaoke Revolution, American Idol Style!

- Looks like it's time for another GameSetCompetition, and this one's fun if you're a reality TV show fan - or just enjoy warbling drunkenly and have England people called Simon berate you (and really, who wouldn't?)

The nice folks at Konami are giving away a T-shirt and a copy of Karaoke Revolution Presents: American Idol for PlayStation 2 plus microphone, the latest in the Karaoke Revolution series, to one lucky GSW reader, as part of a promo related to their virtual American Idol contest at MusicInEveryDirection.com (which, incidentally, is a cute catch-all URL for the Bemani games).

Basically: "Aspiring crooners in select markets across the country had the chance to try out the upcoming Karaoke Revolution Presents: American Idol video game and compete for a chance to win 2 tickets to a live taping of the American Idol television show. Over 500 contestants took the stage. 10 Finalists were chosen. But there can only be 1 Champion. Watch the finalists' performances and rate the videos to determine who will win the contest."

I had a quick look, and most of the finalists seem pitched right between William Hung and Kelly Clarkson, disappointingly - no extremes! But you can go ridicule them if you want. Here's the question:

"Which UK-headquartered publisher published the (sorry, not actually very good!) previous video game based on American Idol?"

Please send your answers to editors@gamesetwatch.com any time before Thursday, December 28th at 12 noon PST. There will be one winner randomly picked from the correct answers, the judges' decision is final, and that's that. Have fun!

[Oh, and while we're talking Bemani, I was in a GameStop retail store earlier and noticed that the U.S. version of Beatmania for PS2 is now just $29.99 new there, including the controller - which is a great price if you can find stores that still stock it. According to the clerk at my GameStop, a couple came in and bought both copies at the reduced price - damn you, obsessive Bemani couple!]

Deep Water Adventures Dive Into Borat-like Intrigue?

- Continuing the recent tradition of GSW highlighting unconventional or overlooked games, we just got a press release about a Russian-authored PC game: "Biart announces online sales launch for first diving simulator - Diver: Deep Water Adventures."

It's explained: "Diver: Deep Water Adventures is the unique combination of a diving simulation and an exciting arcade game. The development team, are real divers and they paid special attention to the authenticity of the diving aspect of the game. Diver: Deep Water Adventures features real diving equipment from leading world manufacturers like SCUBAPRO, Tigullio, Uwatec, Sea & Sea, Camaro, and Waterproof. Several of the game's missions are based on actual diving sites from around the world. For example, players will have the opportunity to go wreck-diving down to the "Thistlegorm" ship, which was sunk in the Red Sea during World War II."

This is pretty interesting, though the game tries to be both an "authentic diving simulator that will satisfy real divers and novices alike, and a full-fledged arcade game that will appeal to everyone" - so one wonders if it's possible/easy to do both, since the story page for the game includes references to Atlantis and the Pharoahs and suchlike, alongside the genuine sim stuff.

Still, this Strategy Informer interview with the folks who made the game is totally cute, in a Borat-ish way: "You see I am a PADI Rescue Diver myself. Occasionally, when I went on a diving resort in Hurghada, almost whole future team of “Diver” developers roomed numbers in one hotel… And so the story began. Now we often go there to relax, dive and have a rest from work."

Super Mario Underworld Flash Terrifies World

- RSF has put up a new flash video, though it passed under my radar for some time (in fact, he's due for a new one). This one's shorter than many of his earlier works (hint: use this link to see Super Mario Underworld once he updates his frontpage), such as Michael Fantasy and Sega Fantasy IV.

Anyway, Super Mario Underworld is an epic battle between the Mario and Luigi (or something? maybe?) set in the Super Mario World universe. As usual, it's epic and awesome, though the song has lyrics this time, featuring someone who probably didn't get very good grades in English. It's apparently a pseudo-parody of this flash video, which appeared at flash★bomb '05, a japanese flash animation event. Looks like they didn't do it again in 2006, unfortunately.

[NOTE: This is a reprint from Insert Credit, which is of course run by Game Developer's Features Editor Brandon Sheffield with some his lovable buddies. We try to crosspost Brandon's posts occasionally as some kind of nod to the fact that this is a 'work blog'. But just go read IC too, cos it's cool, huh?]

COLUMN: ‘Game Collector’s Melancholy’ - Military Madness

['A Game Collector's Melancholy' is a bi-weekly column by Jeffrey Fleming that follows the subtle pleasures and gnawing anxieties of video game collecting. Nintendo’s Wii has been on the shelves for a several weeks and interest in its Virtual Console feature is growing. Now that Military Madness has just been released for the Virtual Console, let’s take a look at Hudsonsoft’s strategy gem.]

Lunacy

military_madness_boxart.jpgNEC’s TurboGrafx-16 (known as PC Engine in Japan) has a special place in the hearts of collectors. Brought to America in late 1989, the TurboGrafx-16 was the underdog of the fourth generation consoles and struggled for life against the much more popular Genesis and Super Nintendo systems. Saddled with a complex variety of models, formats, and peripherals and a limited catalog of primarily Japanese games that most Americans were unfamiliar with, the console limped along for a few years before being consigned to the dustbin of history. Sad, but not too many tears were shed. However, all of the qualities that worked against TurboGrafx-16 in the marketplace make it irresistible to collectors and one of the key titles for TG-16 enthusiasts would have to be Military Madness.

Developed by Hudsonsoft and released in 1989, the game carries the somewhat more dignified title of Nectaris in Japan. Its narrative set up is good guys versus bad guys, slugging it out in a science fiction war on the surface of the moon.

At its core, Military Madness’ turn-based strategy is very basic. Each unit on the play field has an attack strength, defense strength and a movement allowance. In combat these factors are modified by terrain and encirclement. Over time, attack and defense erode as the unit suffers losses, although this is offset somewhat by the hardening of experience. Also, some unit types are weaker or stronger against other unit types to keep things interesting.

The game can be seen as a refinement of a wargame formula first articulated in 1986 by System Soft’s Daisenryaku and later employed by games such as Panzer General and Iron Storm. But it is the elegance and simplicity of Military Madness that sets it apart from other similar titles. While the game’s mechanics are easy to understand, better put a pot of coffee on because mastery will take some time.

Military Madness is also blessed with an excellent AI opponent. Aggressive but good at playing defense when necessary, the AI is flexible and surprisingly life-like. As the game’s minor-key soundtrack turns quietly in the background, it is easy to imagine yourself facing off against a devious cybernetic mind, cool and subtle. Death comes quickly in the hard vacuum of Mare Nectaris.

Monomania

military_madness01.jpgSearch for Military Madness online and expect to pay about $35 for a complete copy. Games for the PC Engine/TG-16 came on a format called a HuCard which was also called a TurboChip in America. It was a chip embedded in a thick, plastic card about the size of a credit card. The cards were stored in custom CD jewel cases with booklet inserts and then packaged in cardboard boxes about half the size of the old CD long boxes. Although the cards are mostly indestructible, all the extra packaging has a tendency to go missing, so pay a lot less if you are buying just the card by itself.

Over the years there have been a number of versions of the the original Nectaris. In 1992 it was ported to the NEC-98 and Sharp X68000, two popular Japanese micro computers.

A sequel called Neo Nectaris was released on CD-ROM for the PC Engine DUO in 1994. In Neo Nectaris battles were fought across a martian landscape with a variety of new units. The game was further enhanced with detailed animations and a CD audio soundtrack. Unfortunately, the TG-16 was pretty much dead at that point so it never received an American release.

A PC DOS version was created by a German developer in 1995. It was unusual in that it was complete remake done under license from Hudsonsoft. A Windows 95 port of the PC Engine version was released for Japan in 1997.

Japan also got a Gameboy version in 1998. Nectaris GB included a map editor and a feature called GB KISS that enabled data to be swapped between games via infrared ports built into the cartridges. It also took advantage of Hudson’s GB KISS LINK peripheral, an infrared modem that plugged into a personal computer, allowing game data to be shared from the cartridge and a hard drive.

In 1998 Jaleco published a Playstation remake of Military Madness for America called Nectaris: Military Madness. It was largely the same game as the original, padded out with an abundance of extra maps and a map editor. The graphics were upgraded in places and polygon battle scenes were added. Visually, the end result was not entirely successful. The maps had a blurry, smoothed over look and the battle scenes dragged an already time consuming game down to a snail’s pace. However, the moody music was intact and the underlying game play was tuned to perfection.

Jaleco packaged Nectaris: Military Madness behind the most generic cover art that I have ever seen and it is unlikely that anyone who wasn’t already familiar with game even bothered to pick it up. As a result, online auctions are probably the best place to find it for around $20.

In addition to the Wii version, Military Madness can also be found on mobile phones. A neat idea, but completing a single map can sometimes take hours of concentration, making the game seem ill-suited for quick, on-the-go play.

Involutional Melancholia

military_madness07.jpgYears ago I had an opportunity to buy a TurboDuo system, still in the box, along with Military Madness, Vasteel, and Dracula X. The owner was going to let the whole thing go for fifty dollars. I passed.

I don’t know why. I probably wanted to spend my money on Descent for the Playstation, thinking that it looked “cool” or something. Oh well. I am beginning to realize that collecting is really about the empty spaces on a shelf, the things that are lost and gone.

My collection can never be complete. I can only attempt to fill varying degrees of absence. It makes me a bit sad when I think about it, but then I remember games are fun to play! So, with Military Madness now available for only 600 Wii points, I won’t be letting this one slip away again.

[Jeffrey Fleming is a Bay Area book dealer and writer. More of his writing on video games can be found at Tales of the Future.]

Images: (C) 2006 Hudsonsoft, Inc. All Rights Reserved

ACMI Games Up The '80s, Aussie Style

- We've previously mentioned the Australian Centre For The Moving Image, or ACMI for short - which keeps putting on absolutely excellent video game-themed exhibitions, such as the 'Sonic The Hedgehog: Icon Of Our Times' exhibit from 2005.

Well, Helen Stuckey sent over a bunch of awesome postcards and a brochure for the latest exhibition, 'Hits Of The 80s: Aussie Games That Rocked The World', which runs at the Melbourne museum/exhibit space until May 6th, 2007, and in which you can "...Discover the games of the pioneering Beam Software (Melbourne House) in this secret history of Australia's place in the rise and rise of the videogame."

The featured games include The Hobbit and Horace Goes Skiing (yay!), and there's also an excellent essay on the origins of Melbourne House, the game developer which was essentially the bedrock of the Australian video game scene, and was recently bought by Krome, of course.

(Ah, and I just noticed that Aussie game development scene site Sumea has a news story on the opening with video of a presentation from Alfred Milgrom, founder of Beam Software (Melbourne House) - very neat.)

December 20, 2006

Gama's WOOMB, Quantum Leap, GCG's Audio Learnings

- There are not one, not two, but three Gamasutra and associated site posts which have appeared over the past couple of days and that may be of interest to you crazed GSW readers, so I am therefore passing them on, yay:

- Alistair Wallis caught up with WOOMB.net's Sander Zuidema to talk about the service, which "...offers translated Japanese titles from the MSX computer system for PC download. Most of these games are available in English for the first time, with the service also providing translations of the manuals and other associated extras." We've covered it before, but it seems like they're stepping things up: "During 2006 our goal was to release one game every three weeks. Throughout 2007 we intend to increase this amount, sometimes releasing several games at once, or single games at a higher frequency."

- We also posted the Quantum Leap 'Most Important Games Of 2006' on Gama today, noting: "They're timeless. They're inspirational. They inspire us, make us question our standards, and provide a roadmap for the future of development. They are the games that innovate and move the industry forward, and Gamasutra is proud to recognize them with our series of Quantum Leap Awards." And yes, Elite Beat Agents gets mentioned, and the point is somewhat that these aren't necessarily the best games, but the ones that are bounding ahead. Though there's a fair amount of overlap.

- Finally, Vincent Diamante, who is a long-time Gamasutra contributor and whom you may also know as one of the founders of Insert Credit, has posted a useful article on 'How to Break into Game Audio' on our sister Game Career Guide educational site. Mr. Diamante has been working on projects like Cloud and RoboBlitz recently, which is rather cool, and he has some good hands-on info on what has actually been our most-requested missing article on GCG in recent weeks. Good job, that man!

Joel Stein Buys A Penis In Second Life

- Humor columnist Joel Stein has been messing around in Second Life in his latest report for Time Magazine, and needless to say, he finds all kinds of bizarre things (yes, including an attractive in-game female who is an attractive female in real life.)

He also seems surprised by furries, which is, well, endearing: "As I quickly learned, having sex is exactly what many of the people on the site spend their time doing. Occasionally, it seemed, with characters that look like giant fluffy squirrels—which is wonderful, because there is nothing like the warm flush of superiority you feel when discovering a fetish you don't have."

This, in fact is the smartest summing-up of Second Life's insane horizons and practical reality that I've seen, even if it's done unconsciously: "I planned to put the Reuters guy out of business, own some kind of island where drone armies did my bidding and force people to follow laws based on my insane whims. Unfortunately, the other thing I learned about myself on Second Life, after spending half an hour learning how to walk, was that I'm too lazy to do any of those things. Or even draw my hair and eyebrows right." [Via BrokenToys.]

Minter To Keynote Independent Games Summit

- As you guys may know, I'm organizing the Independent Games Summit at GDC this year, which is running alongside the IGF, so we get to reveal our keynote this morning, and it's good news for Yak fanboys, I would say - this reprinted from Gamasutra:

"Jeff Minter, a 25-year game veteran and indie gaming legend, will keynote the first annual Independent Games Summit hosted by the CMP Game Group (also creators of Gamasutra.com) March 5-6, as part of the 2007 Game Developers Conference at San Francisco's Moscone Convention Center.

In his keynote, indie veteran and Llamasoft founder Minter (Tempest 2000, Attack Of The Mutant Camels) will discuss his personal history in the business, his design philosophy, and his current projects, including Space Giraffe for Xbox 360 Live Arcade, in an extremely rare North American appearance for the elusive programmer.

The IGS is a two-day event dedicated to the art and science of development practices, distribution strategies, and innovative ideas in the independent gaming community, and includes lectures from major indie figures from Three Rings, Reflexive Entertainment, Telltale Games, The Behemoth, Introversion, Valve, ThatGameCompany, NinjaBee, Gamelab, and many more.

Some more of the most highly anticipated IGS sessions include:

- Innovation in Indie Games, an exploration of creativity by the developers of the Experimental Gameplay Project at CMU, IGF-winning Braid, and Everyday Shooter, among others.

- Fostering an Experimental Student Project: How Cloud Got Made, a look back at lessons learned on the production process and finding the balance between professional game development and student resources, from the creators of PS3 game fl0w.

- Postmortem: Gastronaut Studios' Small Arms, an experiential study of the frenetic Xbox Live Arcade multiplayer shooter and insight into indie games on consoles

Top-level sessions ranging across such broad subject matter as content development, student contributions and accessibility are open to all registrants. There are two new conference passes designed specifically for the IGS. The IGS Expo Pass opens the doors to the summit sessions, the expo, five intro-level sessions and GDC networking events, and the IGS Classic Pass grants access to the two-day summit, as well as all GDC lectures, panels, roundtables and keynotes."

Vodafone's Receiver Peeks At Games

- Jim Rossignol sends over word that mega-cellphone carrier Vodafone, who are big in Europe (and not so much in Japan any more, as I recall!) have released a video game-themed issue of its 'Receiver' web magazine, with some pretty neat articles on video games.

There's a DB Weiss excerpt from Lucky Wander Boy in MP3 form, Rossignol himself talks about his Korean experience (though Gamasutra is not a 'web development portal', guys!), Pocket Gamer's Stuart Dredge discusses the future of mobile gaming, and Noah Wardrip-Fruin talks about play and experience.

Sure, a lot of this is a bit erudite, but Wardrip-Fruin's essay starts by talking about 2001 and Eliza all at once, so we forgive him: "In the mid-1960s Joseph Weizenbaum created a stunning piece of software. Years before HAL 9000's screen debut in 2001: A Space Odyssey, this software, Eliza, made it possible to have a conversation with a computer."

December 19, 2006

Holmes, Cthulhu - Two Great Tastes Now Combined!

- Hope he doesn't mind, but Gamasutra Podcast exec. producer and genial host Tom Kim sent out a funny email the other day about one of my fave subjects, Cthulhu (who is making a comeback nowadays, let's not forget!), so I pass it on.

Tom writes: "Following up on my posting on the Evil Avatar forums regarding IKEA's takeover by The Great Old Ones, here's an article from WorthPlaying.com about an upcoming Sherlock Holmes versus Cthulhu PC adventure game... A 3D graphic adventure out of Germany featuring two, shall we say, less than mainstream intellectual properties? Once again, the only explanation I have is that the ultimate incarnation of cosmic madness, the Dread Lord Cthulhu must have had a hand, er, claw, er, tentacle in."

Looks like Adventure Gamers has some good info on the title, which is called 'Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened', and "...will take players through London, a psychiatric hospital in Switzerland, various stops in the United States, and Scotland." There's even a German-language playable demo linked on the Adventure Gamers page, if you're tempted.

(Isn't Lovecraft-related IP still in copyright, btw? Obviously, Holmes isn't, which is why developer Frogwares, big PD IP fans, are doing it.)

OPM Gets Smedley PS3 MMO Hints

- Wow, lots of acronyms in the headline, but I just got the latest issue of Ziff Davis' EGM, and the final issue of Official PlayStation Magazine, aw, in the mail, and there's an interesting tidbit in a one-page OPM interview with Sony Online boss John Smedley that is worth repeating.

As part of his chat about the PlayStation Network online component for the PS3, which has been designed by SOE, Smedley says: "Sony doesn't have a 50MB Xbox Live Arcade limit. Sony's letting publishers do what they want... We're making an MMO that won't be distributed at retail, and we believe so strongly in it that it will only be made available online." Interesting - this appears to be confirmation that an upcoming SOE title will be digital download-only for PlayStation 3.

Smedley has talked about this a little before, in a personal blog from earlier this year: "We have four diverse MMO titles in internal development, not counting the five MMOs we currently have live, or our partnership with Sigil for Vanguard.... We’re also concentrating on bringing each of these games to you on both the PC and the upcoming PlayStation 3." He also notes: "With the exception of the DC Comics game we’re working on, each of these games is an original IP." But Smedley hadn't previously indicated that at least one of them would be digital download-only on PS3.

I wonder, is this PS3 MMO going to be free and pay for items/upgrades, or just pay-to-download - or both? The PlayStation Network makes pay for items very possible, of course. I guess we'll find out in due course - and let's not start 'OMG Sony is ripping us off by nickel and dime-ing us' rumors with regard to pay-for-items until it's obvious what's going on, shall we?

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Armored Hardcore

['Roboto-chan!' is a fortnightly column by Ollie Barder which covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This week's column covers the epic Armored Core series]

aclr_game.jpgWhat with Armored Core 4’s release a scant few days away, it seems only sensible to write a retrospective on possibly one of the most successful mecha gaming franchises ever created.

You’d think that a dedicated gaming intellectual property that affords immense creative freedom on the part of the player would be championed outside of Japan as well as within. While the latter is certainly true, the former is sadly not the case.

Admittedly, From Software's Armored Core games have often received rather disappointing localisations and non-existent marketing but some balk at the series’ ongoing complexity, both in terms of the controls and intricate customisation.

The truth is that these games have a very traditional learning curve in effect and not just as a series but for each and every game. In the current climate of zero effort rewards maximum enjoyment, Armored Core is decidedly antagonistic in its approach on making the player learn the game. In many ways, the Armored Core series is the spiritual successor to games like Assault Suits Valken.

Armored Core 4 does look to change this slightly but more of that later. Anyway, here’s more history on Armored Core than you shake a reinforced ceramic composite stick at (oh, and each of the gameplay screenshots double as links to in-game footage for this edition of the column).

More after the jump…

Armored Core (PlayStation)

ac_cover.jpgThe Earth is but a radioactive and blasted landscape, devoid of life since the Great Destruction fifty years ago. What is now left of humanity lives under the surface, in huge cities run by corrupt corporations. As such, there is the need for a discerning type of mercenary; one who can undertake missions of a particularly ruthless nature. These mercenaries are known as Ravens and their ride of choice is the Armored Core (also called an AC), a huge customisable mechanical avatar that’s sole purpose is to lay waste to whatever is stupid enough to stand in its way.

Armored Core was a game like no other at the time; it was a fast and responsive third-person shoot-em-up where the player piloted a massively customisable mecha. Each of the parts that made up these mechanical behemoths cost money, as did their maintenance and the re-supplying of ammunition, so the mercenary aspect of the game (as in getting paid) gave purpose to the gameplay. After all, nothing forces you more to be accurate and frugal with your machine gun shots when you know every single bullet is costing you money.

ac_game.jpgIt was also a big game, with over forty missions and branching storylines. All of which where told in the somewhat voyeuristic fashion of e-mail from your disreputable employers. The game had a unique, eerie and dystopian feel. It also had one of the most memorable gaming villains, that of the decidedly uber AC Nineball and its enigmatic pilot, Hustler One.

The controls were also particularly comprehensive, with almost every button on the pad used in gameplay. Due to the limitations of the original PlayStation pad, no analogue sticks were able to assuage the difficulty of tracking a target a la an FPS. Instead, the shoulder buttons acted as the means to look up and down. This was one of the main faults the game had but was easily avoided with judicious usage of the re-mapping of buttons via the options. That being said, yours truly had no problem with the shoulder buttons for vertical tracking but it did take a while to get used to (though the point here is that you are supposed to be controlling a complex mechanical war machine).

Armored Core’s mecha design was also very interesting in that the player could create their own mecha. As such, a special type of mecha designer was needed. Originally, Armored Core lacked any famous mecha design assistance but Shoji Kawamori, creator of Macross and mecha designer extraordinaire, heard of the project and offered his services.

Talking of Kawamori's creative input, building an AC was no slapdash affair, creating an unbeatable AC was a work of heightened craftmanship. The main three areas of design focus were as follows; keeping the energy consumption on the generator as low as possible (whilst utilising a fast AC frame and powerful weapons), having the weight of your AC within the limits of your AC frame and making sure that your armour points are matched by defence points (in that having loads of AP means nothing if the armour’s defence is weak).

This was given a Western release and was one of the series most successful iterations; it also garnered a sizeable multiplayer community with various tournaments held both in Japan and abroad.

Armored Core Project Phantasma (PlayStation)

acpp_cover.jpgSet not long after the events in the original, the Wednesday Organisation are in the process of building a new type of AC killing weapon, called Phantasma. However, it seems that wider ramifications are still afoot. The few missions Project Phantasma offered were quite a bit more challenging this time around but this was mostly due to the fact that parts and money from the previous game could be utilised, so the difficulty had to be raised as a consequence.

accpp_game.jpgThe main addition in Project Phantasma was that of an arena mode. Replacing the redundant “Ranking” league table from the original game, the player now had to earn their No. 1 Raven status by physically downing their mercenary compatriots. Unlike the missions, AC damage and ammo didn’t need to be paid for and you basically earned pure cash for each victory.

One of the more interesting aspects about Project Phantasma was the use of famous seiyuu Sho Hayami as the voice of the game’s twisted villain, Stinger. Interesting in that Hayami also voiced the similarly skilled mecha pilot Max Jenius from Macross, another Kawamori related work. Project Phantasma also started the ball rolling with the wonderful aspect of unbalanced parts, mostly due to the inclusion of new and vastly overpowered weapons. Some liked this state of affairs, many didn’t.

Armored Core Master of Arena (PlayStation)

acmoa_cover.jpgThe final entry into the PlayStation Armored Core series and the game’s title really wasn’t kidding; Master of Arena was almost entirely based around AC arena encounters. As such there were two discs for the game, the first being set around a very small mission mode and an easy arena and the second being host to a massive selection of over 150 AC opponents.

The missions were again harder and more involved than Project Phantasma and they were interlinked with many of the arena encounters, in that you had to defeat a set number of arena AC’s before more missions would be become available. The narrative was also based around the re-appearance of Nineball and the fact that there were still unseen forces pulling the strings of our future society.

acmoa_game.jpgThe amazing aspect to Master of Arena wasn’t so much the massive and involving arenas but actually a customisable AI setup called “Ranker Mk”. This allowed the player to create their own ultimate AC opponent, making this iteration of the series nigh on definitive due to the almost infinite gameplay longevity on offer. This is regarded by many as the pinnacle of the original PlayStation incarnations and perhaps even the best Armored Core game of all time. It is unfortunate to say that this type of gaming quality wouldn’t be seen in the Armored Core series for the next few years.

Armored Core 2 (PlayStation 2)

ac2_cover.jpgSet a hundred years after the events of Master of Arena, the world of Armored Core is a very different place. The central hub for Raven’s, called the Raven’s Nest, was disbanded and the Raven’s themselves were outlawed. Humanity began anew but it wasn’t until humanity colonised Mars that the Raven’s and their ACs were needed once again. Set on Mars, Armored Core 2 dealt solely with the same petty corporate squabbling of the previous games but also with a new and enigmatic alien menace. One that hinted towards the true origins of the technology behind the creation of ACs and the reasons behind the Great Destruction that occurred 150 years ago.

ac2_game.jpgOf all the entries into the Armored Core franchise, Armored Core 2 probably had the strongest narrative. It is unfortunate to say however that it was also the weakest in terms of gameplay. Armored Core 2 was very rushed for release, because it was intended to be a launch title for the then new PlayStation 2. It missed the launch by a few months though but upon its final release it was still in a ropey state. The framerate, draw distance and general game speed were very much lacking. To top it all off the parts list was shockingly unbalanced, which made the once strong and revered versus aspect of the series a veritable laughing stock.

There were improvements made though, such as the addition of your AC overheating as well as a new high-speed “over boost” function (not to mention a few extra hard points for even more ordnance and raw firepower). Yet despite these additions the slow and clumsy controls, the nausea inducing framerate and weapons that lacked any skill in their usage made the game a rather disappointing endeavour. It is also unfortunate to say that for many in the West Armored Core 2 was their first, though misrepresentative, taste in what the series had to offer.

Armored Core 2 Another Age (PlayStation 2)

ac2aa_cover.jpgFollowing Armored Core 2 by a few years, the action had now returned to Earth. Finally, a habitable and green world but still filled with corrupt corporations and other shadowy forces of power. Despite the previous and somewhat disastrous entry, Another Age did actually rectify quite a few of the problems that made Armored Core 2 so disappointing. The framerate and weapon balancing was noticeably improved, the game engine also received a new lick of paint and many of the new environments were particularly impressive.

That being said, Another Age was still very much a follow-on from Armored Core 2. Whilst there were improvements in the previous iteration’s gameplay pitfalls, they weren’t entirely fixed. Seeing this obvious state of affairs, the developers decided to drastically change the structure of the game. By drastic we mean doubling the mission count, to over 100, and removing the primary source of narrative; the Raven’s e-mail account.

ac2aa_game.jpgDue to the massive size of the game, the lack of e-mail made the narrative all the more subtle and surprisingly engaging. The missions themselves were also tactically more complex and diverse than previously seen. However, the real point of interest (for many fans at least) was the reappearance of Stinger’s Vixen, Phantasma and Nineball. Another Age was also the prototype for a new mode of versus combat; co-operative missions and online matches (via a peer-to-peer USB modem service, which wasn’t too hot in all honesty). In any case, with Another Age the darkest chapter in Armored Core’s history came to a close. It was time for the halcyon days of the series to shine forth once again.

Armored Core 3 (PlayStation 2)

ac3_cover.jpgArmored Core 3 was very much the turning point for the Armored Core series. In many ways, it was what Armored Core 2 should have been; fast and action packed with an entirely new and very impressive game engine. The good old days of Armored Core were back. In terms of narrative though, things are a little woolly. Armored Core 3 was clearly set after the events of Another Age, but dates and locales aren’t specified.

What we do know is that corporations are still the superficial governing force of the human race, with sinister dealings happening behind the scenes and we’ve gone back to living underground. Raven’s are still needed to do the messy and explosive jobs that most people wouldn’t dare to. In terms of gameplay additions and fixes, they were legion. In addition to the “overboost” cores, seen in Armored Core 2, there were now “exceed orbit” cores. These allowed the player to detach a drone or drones from its back and have it track and fire at will upon enemy targets. Weapons could also be dropped mid-mission and wingmen employed for that extra bit of firepower. Not to mention the new aspect of dual wielding guns, to give AC encounters that much needed John Woo edge.

ac3_game.jpgThe massive change however was that of increasing the number of versus players from two to four (via iLink). Couple this with the very shiny new game engine and silky smooth framerate, resulted in a very accomplished versus setup that only helped to emphasize the judicious part balancing that had been mostly absent in Armored Core 2 and Another Age. The somewhat shaky USB modem versus was still present but that paled in comparison to the joys of a four way mecha smash-em-up. Armored Core 3 was a great game but it only turned out to be a forecast of greater things yet to come.

Armored Core 3 Silent Line (PlayStation 2)

ac3sl_cover.jpgUpon our return to the surface instead of being all peaceful and civilised, history repeats itself and we bring our petty nonsense with us. It turns out that our underground complex wasn’t the only one of its kind. There are others with darker and more advanced technological monstrosities lurking in the places that had been long forgotten.

Silent Line is probably the finest entry into the Armored Core canon since Master of Arena. Unsurprisingly, the evidence behind this reasoning are due to both games sharing similar attributes. In addition to all the features in Armored Core 3, Silent Line added a whole new cockpit view setup, over 400 parts (double that of the previous offering) and the ability to destroy another player’s weapons mid-sortie. The amazing new feature though was that of how the game’s AI was handled.

ac3sl_game.jpgFor those that haven’t been paying attention, Master of Arena used an AI creation tool called Ranker Mk. This was based around changing preset values rather than teaching your AC in an organic fashion. Silent Line changed this by utilising an organic AI modification setup. In that, you would design an AC and then pilot it yourself in various arena encounters. In doing so, the AI would watch and learn from how you would play.

As such playing your AI avatar was uncanny and it was clear to see that this technology had been implemented throughout the game too, with enemies exhibiting differing and organic combat styles. Again, this kind of game feature coupled with the now immense parts list meant that Silent Line possessed unparalleled gameplay longevity. Many have argued, however, that this immense parts list wasn’t exactly as balanced as it could have been. Even so, Silent Line was a paean of gameplay and in many ways remains definitive Armored Core.

Armored Core Nexus (PlayStation 2)

acnx_cover.jpgAfter Silent Line, the franchise seemed spent. Where else could it go now? Everything that could be done with game had been already and bar some more parts balancing, the series had nothing new to offer.

To make matters more difficult they had to use the same parts list and game engine from Armored Core 3 and Silent Line. After much head scratching, Nexus was born. Nexus was a lateral shift in gameplay from Silent Line; instead of adding just more features, fundamental aspects of the gameplay were re-visited and changed.

They tackled the parts list by allowing the player to fine tune many of their stats but the main and fundamental gameplay change in Nexus was the way that heat affected gameplay. Previously, heat was something parts and impacts from weapons fire generated. It also only affected your armour points (or AP), in that get too hot and your armor melted away. In Nexus however boosters generated heat, this meant that in order to move efficiently you had to keep boosting to a minimum or more likely equip cooler boosters. Couple this with the fact that the radiator now removed energy from your generator during this cooling procedure meant that the player had to keep an eye on their generator bar whilst in the thick of combat.

acnx_game.jpgOn the surface, this may sound terrifying but it worked in a very logical fashion. Add the new and intuitive dual analogue control setup into the mix and Nexus is probably the first Armored Core game that mere mortals could comprehend. In terms of plot in Nexus, it was a direct continuation from Silent Line but the interesting thing was that Nexus was a two-disc game. One disc was entitled Evolution and contained all the new missions, essentially being the new game so to speak. The other disc though, called Revolution, was of particular interest.

The Revolution disc revisited missions from the PlayStation games and had a vast library of unlockable content (the massive amount of Kawamori’s artwork being particularly welcome in this respect). Each of the missions also offered the chance to play the opposite objectives, essentially giving the player an opportunity to take on the role of a competing Raven. The main fault of Nexus though was the complete and utter absence of a broadband capable online versus mode. With the inclusive new control setup and logical management of heat, not to mention a very balanced parts list, it was very much a missed opportunity.

Nexus has divided fans though; the older players don’t rate the new heat mechanic, as it was too restrictive, and the lack of online versus frustrated many. Whereas newer players finally felt, they could play the game on their own terms. These points didn’t go unheard however and the subsequent game mostly addressed these polarised issues.

Armored Core Ninebreaker (PlayStation 2)

acnb_cover.jpgArmored Core is regarded by many in the West as a difficult and foreboding game. In many ways, it is exactly that. Out of its mecha pop-cultural context, it remains misunderstood and the motivation to pilot such mecha seems non-existent and even irrelevant. Ninebreaker tackled this head-on; the entire game was one massive training simulator, with 150 disparate training programs that would make anyone an AC piloting veteran. It also heralded the re-appearance of an upgraded Nineball.

It's worth clarifying that Nineball is the embodiment of raw AC power; though not entirely evil his pilot’s motives aren’t always clear. There is a reason for this though; Nineball is an avatar for the overriding shadow organisation that controls the Armored Core world. This is hinted at in more ways than one, Nineball’s final form in the original Armored Core games was called Nineball Seraph. Seraphs are one of the seven choirs of angels; in short, Nineball is there to protect the “god” of the Armored Core world. In Armored Core 2 the term Ninebreaker also came about, awarded to those who had apparently defeated Nineball himself (this being you the player from the previous games). As such this game, the ninth game in the series, was named Ninebreaker; emphasising the need for the legendary level of skill that the game required.

acnb_game.jpgNinebreaker also toned down the heat mechanic, making it less brutal whilst balancing the parts list even further. It was the ultimate iteration for versus combat but it still lacked such online functionality, though a rather lacklustre web based ranking system was introduced based on points acquired in the various training programs.

In many ways, Ninebreaker is the superior game to Nexus but it requires a greater input from the player. You really are being trained to the fullest of your ability in each program but it still lacks the purpose of narrative driven missions. It also criminally lacked online versus via broadband, though it had a surreal online ranking system, unforgivable considering the training bent of the game. Cue the first portable entry into the Armored Core canon.

Armored Core Formula Front (PlayStation Portable / PlayStation 2)

acff_cover.jpgFormula Front was a first for the series, in more ways than one. The focus of Formula Front was no longer direct player controlled combat. The PlayStation Portable lacked enough buttons for a traditional Armored Core game to function properly; as such player control was removed. Instead, your AC had a customisable AI setup, very much akin to Master of Arena in fact. In short, you wound up your AC toys, put them in an arena and watched as they blew each other up.

The emphasis was one on one on one match-ups where your team rises up the ranks of the Formula Front world. The F-1 allegory is no coincidence either, in the world of Armored Core; Formula Front is entertainment for the masses. This “Formula World” mentality also went online and players could remotely challenge other teams, via Nouten.com (the online service that facilitated Ninebreaker’s lacklustre ranking option).

acff_game.jpgThe second big difference was the fact that Formula Front was the first truly handheld Armored Core. It also was the first game to boast connectability between the PlayStation Portable and the PlayStation2 versions of the game.

Formula Front also had four versions; the original PlayStation Portable launch title, the PlayStation 2 port, the International release (with added player control, though it had a few issues) and the trimmed down Western release of International that lacked a lot of the extra arena opponents. Due to the spectator sport focus of Formula Front, From Software regard it as more of a sidestory than anything part of the main timeline (though it is set during the era of Nexus et al, simply due to the parts available).

Armored Core Last Raven (PlayStation 2)

aclr_cover.jpgThe corporations that run our society have had enough; they have decided to wipe out this “Raven” menace once and for all. Re-grouping and renaming themselves the “Alliance”, they are set to re-forge human society through a massive war. The Ravens see this coming though and form their own coalition, calling it “Vertex”. The Ravens have no intention of going out without a fight.

As you can see Last Raven is set around an all out war between these two massive forces of power, but in an interesting twist the events of the game only occur within a 24 hour timeframe. If Jack Bauer were a mecha pilot, this would be his game. Making matters more complex still is the addition of cumulative part destruction and damage, in that you can destroy AC limbs outright and they won’t be repaired (forcing you to re-purchase busted parts). There is also a dynamic mission structure and the addition of human ground troops to cause mischief during missions.

aclr_start.jpgLast Raven is an immense undertaking though, not only down to the sheer amount of gaming content but more because it's really quite difficult. Upon release, most Western players complained that the singleplayer game was in fact too hard (something that was reflected in several reviews, to the point that many just gave up). However, if you brave the truly daunting learning curve in Last Raven then you will be met with a game that is remarkably well crafted. To the point that after besting each enemy Raven in combat gives a real sense of gameplay accomplishment.

Interestingly, Last Raven's difficulty also stems a lot from the AI's competence. They are very nimble and react quite organically to player tactics. Something that was culled from Formula Front, or more accurately from the user created AI that was used in the various Formula World tournaments. This being rather shrewd on the part of From Software.

Last Raven was aptly named due to it being the final entry on the PlayStation 2. Like Nexus and Ninebreaker before it, Last Raven still lacked online multiplayer, though many fans managed to circumvent this with the use of Xlink Kai and other tunneling software. Generally though, the response to Last Raven was mostly positive (well, for those who had stuck with the game). It also managed to bring the narrative arc quite nicely to a close, after all you end up as quite literally the last Raven alive.

Armored Core Mobile (Various)

acm_cover.jpgSince the inception of From Capsule, From Software's dedicated mobile gaming arm, several Armored Core mobile phone games have been released. At present there fourArmored Core mobile games.

The first release was that of Armored Core Mobile Mission, which was a singleplayer effort with a top down view. This was very quickly followed by Armored Core Mobile Online, which was an online multiplayer effort using the same top down view and game engine from Mobile Mission. Armored Core Mobile 2 was the first of the mobile games to utilise the rear view third person camera from the original games. Finally, Armored Core Mobile 3 is the most advanced of all of them and is a sidestory that fills the gap between Nexus and Last Raven.

Unlike the previous entries into the series, I haven't played these versions quite as much but they are comparable to the original PlayStation games (though they use parts from the PlayStation 2 offerings).

Armored Core 4 (PlayStation 3 / Xbox 360)

ac4_cover.jpgThe latest iteration of Armored Core, which is more akin to the nineteenth game in the series rather than the fourth, looks to be a major departure from the frugal approach of the previous games. Many of the more restrictive aspects of AC movement and customisation have been re-worked into something more fluid and ultimately more inclusive. However, despite the improved graphical veneer, Armored Core 4 is more like the older games than many may think.

One of the most unbalanced aspects of the first Armored Core was an unlockable set of cheats that allowed the player to become “Human Plus”. In the original Armored Core games and in Armored Core 2, the player had to get massively into debt and each time they did this they were operated upon and given a special Human Plus power (such as automatic radar, double generator refresh and the ability to fire back cannons whilst moving). This was changed in Armored Core 3 by having the player earn each attribute and having it mapped to an option part called OP-INTENSIFY. When equipped it disallowed the use of any other options parts, adding a smattering of balance to the mix. Since Armored Core Nexus, this “feature” was removed, though many enemy ACs still often exhibit these abilities.

ac4_game.jpgThe whole aspect of human plus that irritated players was that it was an unlockable rather than something innate in the game itself. Armored Core 4 pretty much gives the player human plus-esque abilities from the off. If this wasn't enough the game speed and maneuvreability of the player's AC has been massively increased.

There are now Quick Boost verniers situated across your AC, allowing you similar functionality to the various extension boosters from the previous (except innate to the mecha itself), plus the AC's themsleves actually move at a faster clip anyway now. Almost double that of the original games. Armored Core 4 could shape up to be one of the most impressive and inclusive entries in the series yet.

Returning from the Internecine

If the above is anything to go by, Armored Core is a pretty sizeable gaming endeavor. I've gladly poured a lot of time into almost all these games (bar the mobile phone iterations and Armored Core 4, obviously), to the point I played the PlayStation original so much I attained 101% completion (which I am pretty sure was the game's way of saying "enough!"). It also goes without saying that there are some areas I have been unable to cover in this edition of the column, though I hope the gameplay videos I've linked to should assuage some of that.

The series also shows no signs of slowing down either, come next year Armored Core will be treated to its first animated series in the form of Armored Core Fort Tower Song, which plans to link up with much of Armored Core 4's narrative. An anime tie-in is very much overdue for the series and with any luck we may see some of the Armored Core novels and original backstory in an animated form at some point.

It's worth understanding that Armored Core has survived close to a decade across multiple gaming platforms and generations of hardware. It's really quite remarkable, doubly so for a unique gaming intellectual property that has no ties to massive licensing (if anything it has created licensing deals). With any luck Armored Core 4 will continue that tradition unto mechanical pastures anew.

[Ollie Barder is a freelance journalist who's written for The Guardian, appeared on BBC Radio 4 and contributed to Japanese mecha artbooks. He lives at home with an ever growing collection of Japanese die-cast robot toys and a very understanding wife.]

Libraries, Meet Gaming!

- Via Jenny Levine's 'The Shifted Librarian' blog, we have joyful proclamation that the 'Gaming and Libraries: Intersection of Services' report is now available for purchase.

Unfortunately, the American Library Association report costs money ($63, to be exact!), but it looks highly interesting: "Numerous detailed examples of what libraries are already doing—including public, school, and academic libraries—provide Levine the springboard to illustrate how librarians can reap positive gains by proactively, creatively, and (above all) affordably integrating gaming into the services and programs already offered at your library. The case studies reveal that gaming programs often turn out to be among the most popular a library can offer. “I have yet to hear about a library of any type offering gaming that has received negative feedback from patrons,” Jenny notes."

It's also noted: "The issue covers video game consoles (e.g., MicroSoft's Xbox 360, Nintendo's GameCube, and Sony's PlayStation), computer-based games (e.g., Myst, The Sims, Civilization IV), and Web-based games (e.g., Bookworm and PopCap Games) as well as some of the common gaming-equipment setups/configurations in libraries. " Oddly, I did a semester towards a MLIS when I was switching from game development to writing about games, so I like to think this would be the kind of stuff I would be doing, had I got a degree.

December 18, 2006

Uh Oh, Dodge That Anvil!

- One of the most fun casual-ish PC games of the 2006 Independent Games Festival was Adult Swim award winner 'Dodge That Anvil', so it's great to see news, over at Indie Gamer, that the full version of the game has been released.

As creator Drake explains: "Rabidlab proudly announces the release of the full downloadable version of its popular online game, Dodge That Anvil! With over 40 levels of anvils, gadgets, wacky characters, and other surprises, plenty of fun awaits you in this unique 3D action game."

We have a profile of the game on Gamasutra from back in early 2006, in which it's admitted that a development hindrance was: "Conceiving a 3D platform action title with novel, physics-enhanced gameplay for my one-man company's very first commercial project. It's been fun and rewarding, but certainly not the easiest way to get a business rolling." But now it's rolling - go check the game out.

COLUMN: 'Beyond Tetris' - Heaven and Earth

["Beyond Tetris" is a column from Tony "Tablesaw" Delgado about puzzle games that transcend mere abstract action and instead plunge deep into the heart of problem-solving. This installment looks at a collection of eye-bending mindbenders: Heaven and Earth.]

Convex Concave, by Scott Kim, from Heaven and EarthIn 1992, the newly reestablished Games Magazine published a puzzle by Scott Kim called Convex Concave. There were several 2-D images of 3-D blocks to be punched out and arranged to form other 2-D images of 3-D blocks. But while the component images were simple, the goal images were complex Escherian monstrosities. But by laying the flat pictures on top of each other in ways that their 3-D representations could never allow, the impossible was created.

The Games puzzle was a promotion for the upcoming game Heaven and Earth, developed (though ironically not published) by Publishing International. The game had three parts: a pendulum toy; a solitaire card game; and The Illusions. The Illusions were designed by Scott Kim and comprised twelve puzzle games, each with forty-eight puzzles in four variations. In keeping with the Buddhist trappings of the game, the puzzles were all meant to challenge the mind by challenging the eye. The Convex Concave puzzle (which was, of course, one of the Illusions) was only the beginning.

Into the Labyrinth

Gaining Losing, by Scott Kim, from Heaven and EarthOne-third of the Illusions are mazes of different sorts. The most basic is the Antimaze; instead of following a path between lines, you have to send your cursor across the lines. In the Identity Maze, you maneuver multiple cursors simultaneously through the maze. Sometimes the cursors all move in the same directions, sometimes their movements are rotated or flipped; and in order for one cursor to move in a given direction, all of the cursors must be free to move appropriately. Both of these mazes are essentially no different from basic, single-state labyrinths. But in keeping with the theme of illusion, these puzzles recast simple mazes in an unfamiliar presentation. And in some of the more complex wrap-around Identity Maze puzzles, a "simplified" representation of the maze would be much larger than the original puzzle.

The other mazes, Changing Bodies and Gaining Losing, are more complicated. In these you control a fleet of active cursors that move in sync across a field filled with "frozen" cursors. The frozen cursors lie dormant until touched by an active cursor. In Gaining Losing, touching a frozen cursor activates it. By adding cursors in this way (and by skillfully removing cursors using "pits" on the field), you have to make sure that you fleet makes it to the goal in the correct formation. In Changing Bodies, if an active cursor hits one of these frozen squares, its "consciousness" leaps into the new cursor. The frozen cursor becomes an active cursor, and the active cursor becomes an impassable wall. These two puzzles are more than mere illusions; they are far, far more difficult than the other mazes.

Block Parties

A piece in motion in Figure Ground, by Scott Kim, from Heaven and EarthThe next third of the games involve moving shapes around the screen into the correct positions. The most basic is Sliding Graphics, where Kim has drawn upon the long history of sliding-block puzzles. The new addition for the game is sliding-block puzzles where unconnected blocks must be moved as a unit. Fit Fall has some twists on polyominoes, including infinite blocks and "blocks" made of unconnected cubes. While these variations aren't particularly illusory, they do allow for puzzles impossible for their non-computerized predecessors.

Figure Ground and Regrouping are the more complicated puzzles. Instead of staying discrete, the "blocks" that are moved around in these puzzles tend to merge into each other and become new shapes. In Figure Ground, when a group of similar-colored squares is moved, they uncover squares of a different color. And when two shapes of the same color are put next to each other, they become a single shape. In Regrouping, you manipulate groups of lines on a grid, but the lines you can move depend on the conditions of the round. Sometimes it's squares of a certain size, sometimes it's L shapes. In both of these games, it can be impossible to know how far you are from reaching your goal; the simplest mistake can make success impossible, and it's easy to convince yourself that the correct path won't work.

More than Meets the Eye Ai Ai!

Flip Turn, by Scott Kim, from Heaven and EarthThe last four games are unique and extremely hard to explain. One game, Cursor Warping, relies too much on skillful mouse manipulation to fall within the scope of this column, and I've already touched on Concave Convex (which is expanded in the Heaven and Earth). But it would take separate articles to explain both the mechanics and the subtleties of Flip Turn and Multiple Cursors. And those articles will never exist because those games, like most of the other puzzle types from Heaven and Earth haven't been duplicated. They have to be played to be understood. Luckily, both Scott Kim and Ian Gilman (one of the main programmers of the game) encourage you to play the original game.

I've been playing this game, off and on, since it was first released nearly fifteen years ago, and I still haven't finished it. There are puzzles (like some of the more complex Gaining Losing scenarios) that I've never come close to solving, and there are puzzles (like Convex Concave) that I've enjoyed solving over and over and over again. Even if the screenshots in this article don't seem appealing, I suggest you play the game yourself. As you might suspect, looks will be deceiving.

YMCK & The Famicom Headband Movement

-Raina Lee's latest column for VH1 Game Break has a fun interview with Japanese chiptune superstars YMCK, conducted at the recent Blip Festival in New York.

A couple of fun excerpts:

"What inspired your fabulous look?
Y: Our influences are the 1960s and the Famicom.
M: We wear the Famicom colors (pointing to her go-go dress in red and white)
Y: (points to tie) Famicom color necktie!

...

Midori, where did you get that Famicom headband? It’s fantastic!
M: This is a toy my friend got for me. (She shows that a clip is glued to the bottom of the toy, and then clips to her headband.)"

The interview also includes the note: "Slick and poised, rumor has it that YMCK may be signed to a major label soon. If so, they will be the first mainstream chiptunes band." I know some in the chiptune community are a bit nervous about this type of thing - but I also think that chiptune goodness could do with disseminating to all!

GameSetLinks: The Sonic Stalking Phenomenon

- There's so much news out there that this weekend seems to have brought another set of GameSetLinks - so the esoteric nature of the Internet's gaming present must be explored:

- Sonic Acts Like The King: Jon Jordan, who writes the 'Euro Vision' column for Gamasutra and also takes some great pics of UK game events, has a Flickr feed, and I just spotted this totally fun Sonic the Hedgehog photo he took at GameCity in Nottingham - though he confesses: "Actually, this is a complete set up on my part. Usually I hate doing that as a photographer, but this time the opportunity was too good to pass up."

- Orchestral DS Fun?: Siliconera has spotted that the DS is getting Nodame Cantabile in Japan, and explains it's "...a music/rhythm game where you lead a group of misfit musicians in an orchestra. You help Chiaki, the conductor by tapping notes on the touch screen. After looking at the game it seems like Nodame Cantabile is inspired from Ouendan." Doubt it'll get a conversion, so watch out for it.

- Book Of Cool Goes UMD: Just as I've recently been bemoaning the slow death of the UMD movie format, the very odd but interesting Book Of Cool have just announced a UMD version of their guide, which comes on two UMDs with a booklet, and shows you how to do a bunch of 'cool things' with the help of experts - from juggling to gambling to skateboarding and beyond. Neat.

- The Genesis Of Dune: Jiji has been checking out more Genesis games in fun and conversational style, including Dune: The Battle for Arrakis, for which he explains: "Wow, what a fantastic conversion this is. The PC version of Dune II (which lost its numbering for this version) was one of my favorites, and remains the real-time strategy game I've spend the most time on. This version took the PC game's button-happy mouse control and translated it perfectly to the joypad."

- Hacksterpiece It Up!: Vintage Computing & Gaming have updated their Hacksterpiece Theatre column to reveal Luigi vs. Mario (Mario Adventure 2), and DahrkDaiz's in-progress hack of Super Mario Bros 3 just sounds amazing: "There are so many incredible new features, power-ups, levels, and elements in Luigi vs. Mario that I’m not quite sure where to begin. Personal highlights for me include the new Mouser and Panda suits. With the Mouser suit, you can throw Bob-ombs, ala Mouser in Super Mario Bros. 2, and with the Panda suit, you can walk upside down on the ceiling in some areas!"

- DS Kitchen Confidential: The New Gamer has a sparklingly literate review of Cooking Mama for the Nintendo DS - and honestly, if all game reviews were this well-considered, I think they'd stop getting such a bad name for roteness. There are some pretty harsh comments, but it's concluded: "Despite these many alarming culinary oversights, when Cooking Mama isn't teaching you how to botch a recipe and when it's not having you play sing-a-long with a recipe, it can be a surprisingly fulfilling experience."

- Kojima Plays The Stock Market: Insert Credit has been keeping up with Kojima Productions' oddness, explaining: "Kabushiki Baibai Trainer Kabutore, Hideo Kojima's latest game on the DS is released tomorrow for 4,179 yen. For those that haven't been following this, Kojima has ventured into the world of training games and created a stock market simulator. Yes, that's right, you can buy and sell stocks on a virtual Tokyo Stock Exchange." Neat!

December 17, 2006

GameSetCompetition: Roboreptile Winner

- You may recall our GameSetCompetition to win a Roboreptile, which appears to be a crazed death-dealing dinosaur robot toy which is proudly described to be "As seen on the Ellen DeGeneres Show!"?

The Wikipedia page for the Roboreptile explains handily: "Following its success with the overwhelmingly popular Roboraptor is Wow Wee Toy's Roboreptile robot dinosaur. Unveiled at the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show, it is a smaller, faster and vastly more agile robot dinosaur. It was inspired by the Australian frilled lizard, being able to rear on its hindlegs and attack."

Here is the question and correct answer (which stumped a few people, incidentally!):

Q: "Which '80s arcade game stars an ape in a football helmet, and features fire-breathing lizards popping out of eggs as one of the enemies?"
A: Toki

And, who might the winner be? Why, it's Aaron Bell - congratulations, Aaron, we'll send your death-dealing machine to you forthwith.

Da Da, Da Da - Katamari XBLA Rumor-y!

- We don't tend to report rumors, of course, but XBLArcade points out hints that Katamari Damacy may be coming to Xbox 360's Live Arcade in some form, alongside Wii and PS3 versions of Keita Takahashi's beloved object aggregation franchise - this is according to the Quartermann rumor column in EGM.

Likelihood of this being true? Well, as the Wikipedia page for the game points out: "On 22nd August 2006 Namco filed a trademark applications for Beautiful Katamari Damacy and Katamari Damacy Tres Bien. Further to this on 7th September 2006 a trademark application was filed for Katamari Damacy-kun." Hey, that's three different trademarks for new Katamari games - and there are three SKUs mentioned in the EGM rumor. [EDIT: Though commenters point out the names are similar to each other in different languages!] If you add that to a NeoGAF rumor (that I now can't find) which also linked Katamari and XBLA, then this is sounding distinctly possible.

But the million-dollar question is - is Keita Takahashi involved in these new versions of the game? We actually heard a wild rumor that he'd left Namco, 2 or 3 months back, but enquiries to Namco PR turned up a blank, so it was very likely untrue. We Love Katamari (which, incidentally, has the best plot ever for a sequel that someone has been forced to make against his will), was released in mid-2005, which is, y'know, 18 months ago.

So one really wonders - his interviews in 2005 certainly had Takahashi resistant to the concept of games as a long-term career, and you know what, Namco - the PSP version of Katamari, which was done almost entirely without Takahashi, just wasn't that good. We're just saying - I personally think the best way to continue with the Katamari formula is to get Takahashi to mess with the formula, unless you're just doing straight conversions of the existing games to other platforms.

[And on a final, random note, Grubby Games' IGF finalist Fizzball is the best unholy melange of Break-Out and Katamari ever, and in wacky scientist PC casual game form, too. It's like a mash-up in game form, and that's actually kinda refreshing.]

Japanmanship Explains Game Salary Woes

- I had heard, anecdotally, that salaries for video game developers in Japan were pretty darn pathetic compared to their Western counterparts. But Japanese game dev blog Japanmanship has made a pretty good attempt at comparing salaries between the UK, U.S. and Japan, using available stats, and it's very interesting.

Taking U.S. salaries from our own Game Developer magazine's Salary Survey, and adding in lots of anecdotal and previously surveyed information, it appears that many Japanese game developer salaries are literally half of those in North America - though a commenter rightly points out: "California really borks the average American salary. The cost of living in the San Francisco Bay Area and parts of Los Angeles (where most of the game development in CA occurs) is Tokyo-level." Though not sure 'borks' is the correct phrase, since it's not really a negative effect, just a geographical/cost of living one - affects?

Regarding the game biz in general, though this is again probably more pronounced in Japan, it's noted: "Salaries in similar careers are higher, sometimes much higher. IT workers for example could earn twice as much as a games programmer. If you have exceptional skills and great Japanese abilities you are probably wasting your talents in the game business. Certainly if you’re out to make money games is probably the worst choice. So a desire to work in the Japanese games industry is a must, but it does open you up to exploitation." So... do Japanese games cost half as much to make because of this?

[ADDENDUM: More than one person has asked about specifics about Game Developer's U.S. salary survey, so I want to point out that our education site Game Career Guide has published a portion of our 2006 U.S. salary survey for game professionals. It's lacking some audio and producer/business stats that are in the full magazine survey, because it's student-focused, but it'll give you a good idea.]

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 12/16/06

['Game Mag Weaseling' is a weekly column by Kevin Gifford which covers video game magazines from the late '70s all the way up to right now.]

Ho, ho, ho-ly cow there are a lot of magazines out the past two weeks! Before I get to all of them, I wanted to point out a few British selections that you might be able to find at your local newsstand right now (the Barnes & Nobles near me seem to stock all of these regularly).

First off, GamesTM celebrated its 50th issue a month ago -- no small feat, considering its original publisher went bankrupt in January 2006. This would normally stop a US game magazine in its tracks, but the title (which focuses on Edge-type "mature" coverage and boasts exactly 180 pages each issue) got purchased by Imagine Publishing soon after and resumed regular printing in March. This sort of thing has been happening a lot in England lately, as dwindling sales has set off a great deal of consolidation in a marketplace that thought it had already gone past all that, now that Future owns about fifty squillion game mags and the other publishers are just collecting the crumbs. Regardless, it's a good magazine with a fine retro section every issue, and my congratulations go out to it.

Second, Edge released the first edition of File to stands a little while back. A relative steal at $12, File no. 1 is a compilation of all the good features, reviews, and so forth from the first 12 issues of Edge, from 1993 to 1994. It looks like they'll be doing one issue of File for each year in Edge's history, and this first one is a must-get if you aren't familiar with the Edge of this era, covering chiefly 16-bit titles with the same hardcore gusto that it covers the state of the art today. There's also a remarkable retrospective piece that goes over the prehistory of Edge and interviews the editorial and design team behind the first issues -- itself a reprint from 2003, but who's counting? The reprint quality isn't perfect (it's obvious they had to scan physical issues instead of going back to long-lost Quark files), but it's still an invaluable resource for mag fans.

Third, Retro Gamer is still awesome. Just in case you had forgotten that.

Anyway, click on to read all about the magazines that reached U.S. game maniacs over the previous fortnight. And merry pre-Christmas!

Game Informer January 2007

gi-0701.jpg

Cover: Top 50 Games of 2006

Whoa, it's a Game Informer without a World Exclusive Feature on the cover! In fact, this marks the first time a GI cover hasn't been devoted to any one game since way back in January 2004 -- the "Video Games 2003: The Year in Review" cover, which used the exact same greyscale-character-art-collage design as this issue's front page. (The effect doesn't look quite so slick this time around, though, if only because a lot of 2006's hottest game characters are tough to recognize when monotonized up like this.)

The funny thing: Is that the standout feature arguably isn't the Top 50 rundown -- instead it's the knock-down drag-out PS3 vs. Wii showdown that spills over ten pages of the Connect news section. Wii scores over Sony's system by just a smidge, and editor commentary and exhaustive pro/con lists are certain to fuel online debates somewhere. I think this is the nicest of the console rundowns I've seen so far, although the new EGM hasn't reached me yet.

Back to the Top 50: It's actually a relatively wussy feature, because the top 50 aren't ranked, as such, save for Twilight Princess winning Game of the Year honors. Side bars devoted to the top ten heroes, villains, dorks, disappointments, and "moments" spice things up remarkably well, though.

Zelda Superlative: "There really is no better introduction to a new console, or a better game for that matter..."

Nintendo Power February 2007

np-0702.jpg

Cover: Wario Ware: Smooth Moves

Joy! I may get my Ziff Davis mags extremely late, but Nintendo Power comes incredibly early once again, revealing a mess of new info about the Wii Wario Ware title over seven pages (plus a poster, plus a review). Nice!

Also interesting: A four-page feature on the Cave of Ordeals in Twilight Princess that brought up flashbacks of the Second Quest strategy way back in the first issue of Nintendo Power. Oh, also a full Virtual Console checklist for all you completists out there. Also, five pages on Hotel Dusk, which I'm 100% sure you won't find anywhere else. When did NP get so good again?

PSM January 2007 (Podcast)

psm-0701.jpg

Cover: Army of Two

In this exciting issue of PSM, EIC Chris Slate all but wishes the PS2 a slow, painful death in its editorial: "I sure am glad that I don't have to look at its butt-ugly games anymore...for the past year we've had to watch the guys at Official Xbox Magazine play their 360s every day, and that's just annoying."

It's only understandable, then, that this issue kicks off with an enormous PS3 preview feature, starting with eight pages on Army of Two and continuing with bits on GRAW 2, the new Brothers in Arms, Cipher Complex (ooh my, an unsigned game!) and even a full page of speculation on GTA4, even though there's still no information out on it.

Reviews: This is the first PSM with real PS3 reviews, and there's lots of love everywhere. Resistance gets four pages and a 9.0 score, and about half of the launch lineup scores over 8.0 as well.

Kind of a neat contest: A pack of 20 Blu-Ray movies are up for grabs on page 93. Economical.

Play January 2007

play-0701.jpg   girlsofgaming4.jpg

Cover: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

TMNT may be on the cover, but the real highlight of this issue is Dave Halverson feeling inspired to defend his 8.5 Sonic the Hedgehog score from last issue in the letters section:

"All I can say is that I spent 3 days with Sonic the Hedgehog and came out of it with a mega smile on my face...I have to tell the truth. I love the game. So the rest of the press doesn't like it. I didn't expect they would. They crap on pretty much any character-based platformer that comes down the pipe...Does it bother me that I'm more in tune with gamers who lay down $60.00 and play every level than I am with the press? Hell no. I'm with you. Always have been -- always will be."

Dave got his old GameFan mojo rising for this impressive rant, and if you got a copy of the magazine, all of you should read it right now.

Anyway: The TMNT feature makes the game look pretty fun, if nothing new. There are a couple nice interviews with Cliffy, Nolan Bushnell, and George Harrison (the Nintendo one, not the dead one). They really like Zelda.

But wait: Play's also released the amazing fourth volume in the Girls of Gaming series of yearly specials. As before, you can buy it off the newsstand or download the digital version from Play's site, complete with random bonus content. Some surprisingly obscure ladies adorn this issue, including Annet from El Viento (a Genesis game I won't expect you to know), assorted ladies from the Valis series, and a Rabbid in a bikini. Oh, and Rouge the Bat. :-(

GamePro January 2007

gp-0701.jpg   gpl2-0701.jpg

Cover: Metal Gear Solid 4 or Lost Planet (Level-2)

Freebies abound in newsstand editions of this issue, which include another console launch guide (if you missed it last month), a World of Warcraft Trading Card Game card, and a sweepstakes offer for some South Park stuff.

There's also a feature on MGS4 which is actually pretty darn impressive, especially by GamePro standards. Unlike a lot of GP features, this one has a ton of content, from the usual Kojima interview to all sorts of little useless details that fans will eat up voraciously. Good work there, men.

I just noticed: That the strategy guides in GamePro are about as useful as the strategy guides in Code Vault -- i.e., not at all. This issue has a hot walkthrough for a little piece of Act 3 of Gears of War, which I guess is great if you're stuck in, uh, that particular part. Why doesn't GamePro just drop the strategies entirely if they're so sick of writing them themselves?

Computer Games January 2007

cgm-0701.jpg

Cover: Supreme Commander

Speaking of magazines hating themselves, how d'you like Computer Games for including a full wraparound ad for Massive Magazine with subscriber copies of their latest issue -- one that's bound into the mag itself, so you can't see the real spine and you can't take it off without ruining the magazine? I sure don't!

Regardless, this issue has CGM's usual neato news features, including one on in-game advertising, as well as a blowout on Supreme Commander that got even me pumped about it, and I don't care about PC games. Mostly.

Speaking of which, Massive Magazine #2 is on stands now, and I'm just waiting for it in my mailbox. Hope it'll be as good as the first. I heard that Cindy Yans, features editor of CGM and pretty much the main lady behind Massive, recently left the company; hopefully that won't affect the quality of their new MMO mag too much.

Hardcore Gamer January 2007

hcg-0701.jpg

Cover: Rogue Galaxy

It seems like Rogue's getting a somewhat cool reception from mags so far (Game Informer being an exception), but HCG can't get enough, giving it an eight page feature much in the style of GTA:VCS's all-but-a-review a couple months back. Hey, I wonder if that has anything to do with DoubleJump publishing the official strategy guide for it?

Sadly: This issue of HCG is a tad light on the next-gen coverage, as Tim Lindquist admits that "we had to go to press early because of Thanksgiving." I can empathize with that, since I'm experiencing the same pre-Christmas rush right now with my mag...

Game Developer December 2006

gd-0612.jpg

Cover: Defcon

I usually peel the subscription stickers off my Game Developers, but I musta done a bad job this time because the results look pretty darn ugly over this lovely cover art. Sorry, Simon.

The postmortem this time around is damn interesting, though, covering a game done on a budget below $100,000. There's also a totally arrr-some article on the state of piracy around the world.

Beckett Massive Online Gamer December 2006/January 2007

beckettmog4.jpg

Cover: WoW (what else?)

My subscription to Beckett MOG started up! Hooray! This issue has another WoW TCG card (with all these free cards, I may just have to start playing soon, assuming I can find someone nerdy enough to join me), an enormous list of all the WoW cards, and the usual incredibly wordy features on all the current PC MMOs. In classic Beckett tradition, the WoW Auction House Price Guide has now expanded to two pages.

Assorted Future Publishing Cheat Specials

2007pscheaters.jpg   xboxcheatguide5.jpg

Rounding out this update are three cheat compilations from Future, two of which I mentioned in passing last week. These would have cost me $35 to purchase at the stands, so I have to thank Mr. Dan Amrich for being a Magweasel fan and sending these to me directly. The 2007 PlayStation Cheater's Handbook has no introduction or anything -- it's just wall to wall codes for 114 pages -- while Xbox Cheat Guide Volume 5 has a very quick two-page intro spread that at least includes something of an index.

cheats!11.jpg

And hey look, it's time for another Ultimate Videogame Codebook! Volume 11 of Cheats! is the same as all the other volumes, so I really don't have much more to say. Happy holidays!

[Kevin Gifford breeds ferrets and runs Magweasel, a site for collectors and fans of old video-game and computer magazines. He's also an editor at Newtype USA magazine.]



If you enjoy reading GameSetWatch.com, you might also want to check out these UBM TechWeb Game Network sites:

Gamasutra (the 'art and business of games'.)

Game Career Guide (for student game developers.)

Indie Games (for independent game players/developers.)

Finger Gaming (news, reviews, and analysis on iPhone and iPod Touch games.)

GamerBytes (for the latest console digital download news.)

Worlds In Motion (discussing the business of online worlds.)


Copyright © UBM TechWeb