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Archive For July, 2006

ChinaJoy: Western MMOs Hit The East

July 29, 2006 7:00 AM | Simon Carless

Continuing the updates from the ChinaJoy game expo in Shanghai, when we had a chance to look around the show yesterday, we spotted a number of Western MMOs which had been licensed to the territory, and so appeared in some form.

Obviously, we've already covered World Of Warcraft, but here are a couple of other neat ones:

Flagship's Hellgate London is a little way off, but they had a REAL LIVE HELLGATE there at The9's booth anyhow. Woo!

CCP's Eve Online is just in the process of launching in China, so had an area just for Sino-space sim sampling.

[BTW, if you think it looks a bit quiet in those pictures - don't worry, it was just after opening on the first day for ChinaJoy, for the period of time when the show was just open to trade visitors. After they opened the doors to the hordes of public, it got a whole lot more crazy!]

COLUMN: 'Shmup Me Up, Buttercup' - Bullet Barrage in your Pocket

July 28, 2006 11:49 PM |

vulkanon.jpg ['Shmup Me Up, Buttercup' is a sporadically updated column by Jeremiah 'Nullsleep' Johnson, dealing with shoot-em-ups, or shmups, from Japan and the West, and covering the frantically cultish game genre that refuses to die, despite many bullets aimed in its direction over the years.]

Training Is Over

We've mentioned Takayama Fumihiko's excellent BulletGBA here before -- an absolutely indispensible bullet hell simulator for anyone wanting to hone their projectile dodging skills on the go.

Now he's followed up with another take on "Bullet Hell Shmups" for the GBA called Vulkanon. While BulletGBA was mostly a training aid for familiarizing oneself with different bullet patterns, Vulkanon builds upon the "Shooting" side challenges found there and delves further into mini-game territory.

Short, But Suicidally Sweet

bulletgba.jpg While the first release consists of what is basically just a single boss battle, it should provide enough of a challenge for all but the most hardcore danmaku dodging maniacs. It adopts an interesting approach in that all of the bullets fired by the boss are destroyable. However, upon being destroyed they spawn "suicide bullets" of 2 kinds -- so you'll have to consider when to dodge and when to shoot.

Your ship (once again represented here by the @ character with a miniscule hitbox) is equipped with 2 modes of fire. In addition to a normal forward shot you can use a screen-wiping laser which will clear all bullets, offering a momentary escape mechanism. Sweeping away large amounts of suicide bullets in this way will yield higher scores, so the timing is crucial since this weapon requires a recharge period.

Keep On Shooting

Unlike BulletGBA, Vulkanon is played in a more traditional horizontal orientation which makes the playfield seem a bit cramped, but also serves to heighten the manic feel of the gameplay. Nice to see Takayama moving forward with new ideas and continuing to pick up the slack for commercial developers by giving us more portable shooting love!

[Jeremiah Johnson is co-founder of chipmusic and computer-art collective, 8bitpeoples.com based out of New York City. Working with Game Boys and NES consoles to create music, he has been featured in various publications ranging from Wired to Vogue.]

COLUMN: 'Bastards of 32-Bit' - Skullmonkeys

July 28, 2006 1:48 PM | Danny Cowan

skullmonkeys1.jpg['Bastards of 32-Bit' is a weekly column by Danny Cowan that focuses on overlooked, underrated, and inexplicable titles from the era of the PlayStation, Saturn, and Nintendo 64. This week's column covers Skullmonkeys for the Sony PlayStation, published by Electronic Arts and released in the United States in January 1998.]

Of clay monkeys and platforms.

Any game can possess a solid and original gameplay concept, but can fail due to a lack of care given by its developers. Take The Zombie vs. Ambulance, for instance -- a title which, despite its awesome premise, is rendered boring due to its generic presentation and instantly repetitive gameplay. The lesson to be learned by developers here is that in the absence of creativity or unique ideas, even a game about a zombie-killing ambulance can be unplayable.

Other games, on the other hand, may base themselves around a hackneyed concept, but contain fresh ideas that are executed so well that the end result is something truly remarkable. These games are made with a passion that extends beyond contractual obligation. They possess unnecessary amounts of charm, and exude a kind of polish that can only come from a team of people who genuinely want to make a great video game. Such is the case with Skullmonkeys.

skullmonkeys2.jpgLess clicky more hoppy.

As sequel to the point-and-click PC adventure title The Neverhood, Skullmonkeys defied expectations by being -- of all things -- a sidescrolling platformer. The game offers little variation on the platforming formula, and many of the genre's cliches are in full effect throughout. It's still a fun and very playable game regardless, but much of its gameplay will seem very familiar to fans of platforming titles.

It's the imaginative design that defined The Neverhood that makes Skullmonkeys into the noteworthy title it is, however. The characters are likeable, and a unique claymation style gives the game a look that separates it from other lowly PlayStation platformers like Punky Skunk and Johnny Bazookatone.

Most incredible of all, Skullmonkeys is often a very funny game, and intentionally so. This is most obviously apparent in the varied character animations and silly FMV sequences, but Skullmonkeys' soundtrack (composed by Terry Scott Taylor) is also exceptional in this aspect. The background music that plays during bonus rooms is perhaps what best exemplifies the game's bizarre sense of humor -- the track is a soothing acoustic lullaby, accompanied by the singing of a man who identifies himself as "your little invisible musical friend for life." To elaborate further would only be a disservice to the greatness of this song.

Joe-Head Joe in all his glory.Mad props to Ton Ton.

The humor becomes even more ridiculous at times, so much so that many of the game's stranger moments feel like inside jokes shared among the staff. One of the bosses, in fact, is nothing more than the gigantic digitized head of one of the Skullmonkeys' artists, propped up on a pair of legs. The game's available weaponry is pretty odd, too, ranging from exploding birds to a screen-clearing smart bomb called the "Universe Enema."

These playful touches show that Skullmonkeys was a labor of love, and effectively transform an otherwise nondescript platform hopper into a memorable experience full of charm and personality. The game may be relatively difficult to find today, but it's well worth tracking down.

[Danny Cowan is a freelance writer hailing from Austin, Texas. He has contributed feature articles to Lost Levels Online and 1up.com, and his writing appears monthly in Hardcore Gamer Magazine.]

ChinaJoy: World Of Warcraft & Coca-Cola Extravaganza!

July 28, 2006 6:45 AM | Simon Carless

So, as you might have heard, Blizzard's World Of Warcraft is the biggest MMO in China right now. You may have even heard that WoW-related imagery has appeared on Coke cans and bottles in China, alongside some great TV ads promoting the team-up.

But even so, it was surprising to go to the ChinaJoy game show today in Shanghai and see basically an entire hall dedicated to a tie-in between the soft drinks giant and Blizzard/The9.

So we took a few choice pictures, as follows (and apologies for lack of specificity on captions, I'm a little vague on WoW races and don't want to get flamed into oblivion for getting any wrong!):

This is the entrance to the area, complete with Coke logos decked out in WoW-style stone.

Kick the soccer ball into the mouth to win FABULOUS PRIZES!

Somebody's beard isn't on straight!

This guy's eyes flashed red menacingly from time to time.

Some more rather fetching pro WoW cosplayers.

Dude, it's totally WoW/Coke themed Whac-a-mole! (Though just a cosmetic change to an unrelated arcade machine, aw!)

You could take someone's eye out with that!

COLUMN: 'Compilation Catalog' - Capcom Classics Collection Remixed

July 28, 2006 1:48 AM | trevorw

['Compilation Catalog' is a regular biweekly analysis of retro remakes and compilations old and new. This entry's subject is Capcom Classics Collection Remixed, released this year for Sony's PSP.]

Capcom has been releasing compilations of their 8- and 16-bit arcade games since the 32-bit years with the import-only Capcom Generations packages, though since that time the company has stuck to giving the retro treatment to a very specific set of their hits. The Ghosts n' Goblins series, the series of shooters beginning with 1942, Commando and a couple of close relatives, Final Fight, and the Street Fighter II series have all seen multiple releases on multiple platforms since then, but many of Capcom's well-loved - though perhaps less-successful - titles have languished. Thankfully, this compilation seems to signal a change in the wind.

Black TigerCapcom Classics Collection Remixed brings together 20 titles that were released for several of Capcom's custom arcade boards, up to and including their wildly successful Capcom Play System hardware. Several of the titles (most notably Final Fight, Forgotten Worlds, and Strider) have received well-respected home ports in the past, and while they are in perfect form here, the true stars here are the long-neglected titles that have rarely or never been seen at home. Black Tiger is an extremely well-crafted platformer that was scheduled for NES release at one time, but never made it out.

The fast-action dungeon-platformer Magic Sword received a SNES port once upon a time, but it's a relief to finally see it preserved in proper form here. The three-game compilation Three Wonders may seem like an oddball grab bag at first, but it includes some of the prettiest visuals in this package, and the run n' gun Midnight Warriors is strongly reminiscent of Treasure's Gunstar Heroes (which it preceded by two years). And despite three separate rereleases of 1942, 1943, and 1943 Kai, the nicely polished fan favorite 1941 hasn't made it home since it came out for NEC's ill-fated SuperGrafx console - until now.

Along with the cult classics, there are some oddballs that are so obscure that even if they were denied home release indefinitely, Capcom might be forgiven for not taking the risk with them. Quiz & Dragons is a fantasy-themed, uh, trivia game, that incorporates a few RPG elements and has a body of questions that draw heavily on '80s and early-'90s pop culture. The references to TV shows of the era are especially difficult these days, though the game's no slouch when it comes to questions about anatomy or history.

The Speed Rumbler, Avengers, and Last Duel are three odd little top-down, vertically-oriented action games, each with fairly original (and often strange) mechanics. Block Block is a Breakout clone, but it's polished and well-made, and seems to be one of the better examples of a well-trod genre. And Varth is a very tough, very long vertical shooter, with thirty (!) levels and excellent art design.

Capcom's development for NES often involved the practice of adapting arcade releases with significantly different level layouts, graphic styles, and even different gameplay. Also preserved here are three examples of arcade games that received well-known NES treatments: Section Z, Legendary Wings, and Bionic Commando. Some might argue that the NES versions of these games are better remembered because they're simply better games, but the games' presence here means that the curious can find out for themselves.

Forgotten WorldsEven those titles that have been around the bend consolewise are in excellent form here. Forgotten Worlds includes some interesting approaches to adapting its uncommon rotary controller's firing scheme to PSP controls. One involves using the face buttons to approximate a second D-pad, while the other has the player turn the PSP upside-down so that the analog nub can be used to fire in any direction and the face buttons used to move the player. The well-loved beat 'em up Captain Commando is in perfect form here, after an unflattering SNES port and a now-rare and expensive showing on the Japanese Playstation.

The horizontal shooter Side Arms may have fared well on the TurboGrafx-16, but it's nice to see all of its animation restored. Mega Twins, a platformer that's almost a spiritual successor to Black Tiger makes it home here without compromise for the first time, even after a few ports back in the 16-bit days. This likely marks the first perfect port Final Fight has ever received (discounting the resolution-challenged version in the console Classics), and Strider finally gets to stretch out into its native aspect ratio. The old-and-moldy Street Fighter makes a token appearance here, too, though it's not much more than a curiosity these days.

The package uses a notebook-themed menuing system that's very similar to what was seen in the multiplatform Capcom Classics Collection. There are unlockable tips, artwork, and music for each game, and each includes a short description linking it to its time and to Capcom's history. It's clear that great care was taken with how each game is presented, as there are multiple video and control modes available for each game. Most games can be displayed at native or stretched resolutions, and every game that used a vertically-oriented monitor in the arcade has an option to be displayed vertically, with controls automatically rotated to suit the orientation. All of these settings are automatically saved and maintained, so there's little to fuss with as far as configuration goes.

And speaking of aspect ratio: games on the CPS hardware used a resolution that put them very close to a 16:9 aspect ratio, which means they fit the PSP's screen particularly nicely, even without stretching turned on. The only real technical problems present mostly seem to be due to issues with the PSP hardware itself. Starting any given game involves around fifteen seconds of loading, and return to the menu screen takes nearly as long. There's some of the PSP's infamous ghosting present here and there, though it's mostly limited to games that use a lot of black in their backdrops. Overall, though, emulation-workhorse developer Digital Eclipse has turned out a very polished product here.

Midnight Wanderers (3 Wonders)This collection does more than previous Capcom retro-releases to illustrate the consistency of graphical and musical style, as well as some consistently great gameplay, that was present across nearly a decade worth of Capcom's arcade releases. Many of the games here share gameplay elements, shading styles, and other bits and pieces - like the way a key or treasure chest might be drawn, and the ubiquitous "zenny" currency - that link them across the years despite a lack of any sort of franchise links.

It's this consistency that really helped establish a name for the company's in-house development. And even though this collection is full of what might seem to be considered B- or C-list releases, there's more sheer quality and genuine love of the medium to be found here than in compilations brought from the dusty corners of many other software houses.

[Trevor Wilson is a web developer and amateur game developer who indulges his unhealthy obsession with obscure, strange, and unique video games over at his weblog, namako team.]

Chemool Blasts Floppy Disk J-Music Collection

July 27, 2006 6:01 PM | Simon Carless

http://www.gamesetwatch.com/steamd.jpg Over at the VORC chiptune resource, they have some excellent new info about a fun compilation from a Japanese hentai game musician.

It's explained: "Takahiro Yonemura aka Chemool is a Japanese hentai game music composer who is known with Comic Party, Steam Hearts, Advanced Variable Geo etc. He'll release a new PC-8801 music disk for the first time in a decade at upcoming Comic Market 70: Japan's biggest exhibition and sale for hobby productions."

What's more: "The disk includes various FM synth tracks made with PMD + the Sound Board II since 1998, and maybe some guest's works. Available as 5"25 floppy disks as well as CD-Rs featuring bonus recordings from the PC-8801. Overseas distribution is not planned." Any release in this day and age which comes with 5 and a quarter inch floppy disks is good with us!

Second Life Movie Trailer Content Hilarity!

July 27, 2006 11:26 AM | Simon Carless

http://www.gamesetwatch.com/cornfield.jpg So, the folks over at Second Life have announced a movie trailer contest, in which the Linden Lab chaps "need your help to create the ultimate movie trailer to show off the best of Second Life".

It's explained: "For this installment of the Second Movie trailer contest we're going to do things a bit differently. We've broken down the contest into six distinct categories that highlight some of the most popular activities in Second Life: Love and Romance, Gaming, Action/Adventure, Music, Fashion and Design, RL Research and Education, Building in Second Life, Social Networking in Second Life." Where does the furry diaper club factor into that, again?

Also noted: " Your movie trailer should revolve around one of these categories and prominently feature at least two new features introduced in Second Life within the last year. These could include: Hardware Lighting, Flexible Objects, FollowCam, HUD Attachments, Ripple Water." Prizes are in Linden dollars, so huzzah!

Shanghai Game Experiences - Part 2

July 27, 2006 5:21 AM | Simon Carless

http://www.gamesetwatch.com/chinaoutsource.jpg A few more updates from Shanghai, and the first is an update on something you might already have heard hinted at, but didn't realize the extent - there's really quite a lot of Xbox 360 game piracy out here in China.

Supposedly, there's only a limited amount of games available thus far, but we saw "at least one vendor offering Xbox 360 titles such as Hitman: Blood Money for around 30 Chinese yuan ($3.50)." As noted: "This development has occurred after an incident in March 2006, in which hackers managed to flash changes to the BIOS on the Xbox 360's Optical Disc Drive which allowed non-authenticated (copied) games to be played. Further information on the hack surfaced in late May, when other parties appear to have released a public version of the exploit." Baaad news from Microsoft, this is.

Also published - a longer feature looking at the Chinese console outsourcing biz, which is just starting to take off. As noted: "The top companies located in Shanghai can produce art assets, programming elements, and even entire console game projects at a cost significantly below that of Western titles." Games such as Midway Arcade Treasures 3 and the PSP title Street Riders were done entirely in China at a fraction of the cost of Western development. Hopefully this won't mean job losses for Western developers in the long-term.

COLUMN: 'Game Rag Slapdown' - An Open Apology To G4TV

July 26, 2006 10:51 PM |

I'm losing it...[The 'Game Rag Slapdown' is an exclusive bi-weekly Thursday feature written by The Game Rag's Nathan Smart that's always video game related, sometimes funny ha ha, but mostly funny hee hee (and sometimes funny, period). This week, Nathan apologizes to G4TV.]

<== Here is what this apology references ==>

Dear G4TV,

I just wanted to take this time to apologize for publishing a series of articles in which one of my writers watches your channel for 24 hours and then talks about what he experienced while watching.

This is truly unacceptable. I know that one of the bullet points of your mission statement is to "get rid of viewers" and with this article we have stopped that with a bullet point proof vest. I have talked with the writer and he is being promptly promoted to Features Editor as punishment for this journalistic crime. He will now have more work than ever and your staff, more than anyone, knows how much it sucks to have to work.

When he first approached me with the idea I said no right away. I had told him that you guys didn't like people watching their shows but he went ahead and did it against my wishes. When I read it, I felt I had to publish it. If anything I thought that maybe it would do your viewers good and turn them away, thus, fulfilling your mission statement.* What I didn't realize is that you don't even want ONE person watching - even for the greater good!

This is why I, Nathan Smart, applaud you. You don't subscribe to the 'mix in a little bit of evil with the good' philosophy and that's commendable. You stick to your guns. You shoot from the hip. You keep it real. You're the man now dog. You are.

So, again, I say, "I'm sorry." I apologize for boosting your ratings by one. I'll be keeping a steady hand over my writer stable from now on. Anyone steps out of line... *SMACK* "You lose all the money you made today!"** Thanks again for voicing your concerns and then deleting them like you never said them. I appreciate the taken back criticism.

*Am I supposed to put a comma after 'thus?'
**That is what I would say to them because I treat my writers like whores.

[Nathan Smart is a fake news writer for The Game Rag and really enjoys the benefits of it (no facts, no research, no real interviews). He also does Bobby McFerrin versions of indie rock songs with his one man group Indie Blockedappella. He thinks things are funny.]

Styrateg: Hard To Say, Fun To Play?

July 26, 2006 4:45 PM |

Rake in the Grass Games has released a demo of their latest project, Styrateg. A turn-based fantasy RPG, Stryateg is certainly not breaking any phenomenally new ground, but if it's recovering old territory, at least it's doing it well enough.

styrateg.jpgWith your standard Elf/Warrior/Dwarf/Magic User loadout, Styrateg puts you in a mildly generic mythic kingdom with a standard "fight the evil" storyline. The dialogue is peppered with poor english, but the point gets across: kill the monsters. Whether or not the story develops from there is unknown: the downloadable demo limits you to a set number of turns.

These turns are governed by action points, in which you can plot a course for one of your handful of controllable characters (you get backup,) make attacks, use items, and so on. Like I said, nothing new, but it seems like it could be a good way to kill a weekend. To be honest, though, I expected more from the creators of the absolutely stellar (and pragmatically named) Jets N' Guns.

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