Harvest Moon: Back to Nature — 4Q2014

Photos courtesy of Gamefaqs.com
Photos courtesy of Gamefaqs.com

A life that’s second nature

by Lyndsey Hicks
by Lyndsey Hicks

A life of farming is never simple. Ask any farmer and they’ll tell you: It’s a tough, tough job that requires before-dawn rising and at-dusk retiring that repeats itself over the course of many a day. There’s also the fear of Mother Nature wrecking your livelihood and outside forces such as other humans stealing from you and running you into ruin. But, thankfully, you can avoid all of that and experience the joy of living off the land at its finest, digitally if you so choose, thanks to Natsume’s Harvest Moon: Back to Nature. And, if you play your cards right and take time to pull yourself away from digging up your ground, you can find yourself a certain Mrs. to share the farming duties with as well.

Back to Nature is the best game in the long-running series. I say this with confidence because it’s one of the only titles in the series to have been remade multiple times with the same setup, just different characters. Every modern Harvest Moon title takes its cue from Back to Nature, as well. The main goal, which stays the same throughout the series, is to take a farm that’s fallen into disrepair and make it into a profitable bastion of hard work and success. Your character works to accomplish this by pulling up his bootstraps and putting in a little elbow grease with little to no help from anyone else, aside from the gnomes he meets tucked away in the crease of the town.

Speaking of the town, you’re tasked with meeting folks and forging Harvest Moon BTN-01some type of relationship with them so that you are considered neighborly. The town’s set schedule makes for interesting interactions and a type of schedule planning not unlike Animal Crossing. While you’re working to save your farm and chatting up the townsfolk, you’re given a third task of finding a suitable lass in town to wife up. If you can manage to put a ring on it by wooing your intended (there are five lovely ladies that you can choose from to pursue with varying likes and dislikes), you’re all but guaranteed to earn your place in the town and be allowed to stay.

Back to Nature is deep, extremely deep. So much so that it takes quite a bit of time just getting the farm up and running in a proper manner that you might make money to sustain it. And that’s Score-4-retrogrademission accomplished for Back to Nature: Get you involved and thinking hard about what it is you want to accomplish in your town. That level of interaction is simple to begin with, and with decent controls it doesn’t get too much harder to maintain. It’s one of the things that I love about Back to Nature. It doesn’t press too hard about mechanics and there’s a wealth of information within the game about crops and caring for animals that can help you maintain a comfortable way of life within the game. But sometimes, the level of comfort you want isn’t always within reach.

While I praise the controls, the effect isn’t always beneficial for you. The game is hard in the beginning, sometimes too hard for its own good. Take, for example, the fact that you arrive in town with basically nothing but the clothes on your back. You’re expected to succeed and settle down there but you have nothing tying you there very much. What’s to say that your player character doesn’t decide that it’s too much, packs up shop and goes home? It’s not very realistic with some of the things you’re tasked with doing, and starting with absolutely no money and trying to rebuild a farm is impossible with no cash flow.

My next problem comes with the cash opportunities afforded in the game. Without cheating, it is nearly impossible to become successful and well off. This leads into a larger problem with the way time is structured in the game as well. While the time aspect has to be different than real time, an entire day should not pass within nearly 30 minutes. It’s extremely hard to get much accomplished in the early going and it demands that you must have a routine in place quickly or risk being left behind. Sure, you’re given a year or two to get things together but it’s hard to make things work on the farm, court a girl and participate in town activities all at once in the short amount of time that passes as a day.

Couple it with the schedule given to the town and there’s a time management problem just waiting to happen. The controls sometimes leave a lot to be desired, too. More than once I’ve had a bucket that I’ve filled with goodies from my plot of land empty just far away enough from a bin that it went wasted. And more than once I’ve been angered by loss of income because it’s on the ground and not able to be reclaimed. But that’s a fact of life in Harvest Moon titles, I suppose.

Otherwise, Back to Nature is a great simulation of farm life. It’s a good way to play a dating sim and life sim all at once with very little consequence for poor choices. Getting back to nature is an idea all of us need to think of at least once, even if it is to digitally pair off and make a fast dollar.

Back to basics

Back to Nature, released in 1999 for the PlayStation One, has been remade several times. The first remake was released for Game Boy Advance as Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town in 2003. Friends of Mineral Town was expanded with a side story, More Friends of Mineral Town — which allows playing from a female farmer’s perspective — in 2005. These were later ported as Harvest Moon: Boy & Girl for PSP in 2005.

ChuChu Rocket — 4Q2014

Photos courtesy of Gamefaqs.com
Photos courtesy of Gamefaqs.com

An epic cat and mouse game

by Lyndsey Hicks
by Lyndsey Hicks

Cats in rockets trying to kill mice. As well as being weird, the age-old concept of a cat-and-mouse game is surprisingly addictive. In the form of the Dreamcast’s ChuChu Rocket, the concept manages to jump the barrier of weird and branch into the realm of entertaining.

The game of cat-and-mouse is simple: Lead mice to safety in your rocket with well-placed arrows while avoiding cats that other players will send to hunt the mice. The more mice you have left alive at the end, the better. It’s not hard to get started once you have that basic understanding of the game, and it quickly becomes an addicting exercise of frantic fun to keep mice alive.

The fun thing about ChuChu Rocket is the sheer randomness of everything happening on the playing field. There are so many factors that can affect your mice total at the end of a round that it’s Score-4-retrogradeimpossible to win by talent at moving rodents alone. One must consider the fact that only three arrows can be placed by a character at any given time. With level layout also taken into consideration, the idea that you can be in the lead for five seconds and that be enough to win is a real possibility. Throw in the power-up aspect and constantly changing conditions of the match area and there is a real recipe here for disaster disguised as fun.

It’s a good thing that the game is so fun to play because the ChuChuRocket-02graphics and the music sure aren’t going to draw you in by themselves. The game looks like a 1999 game, which isn’t to say it’s horrible, but it isn’t pretty, either. The graphics date themselves mightily, but that’s not really anything to be ashamed of, since ChuChu Rocket doesn’t exactly need to get by on the quality of the scenery. The music is nothing to write home about, and frankly, I played with it turned off for the majority of the time that I’ve owned the game. It really adds nothing to the overall experience and after a short time, it becomes rather irritating. But, like the graphics, it isn’t really what you came here for.

What you’re going to take away from ChuChu Rocket depends on what you’re looking for. In this day and age, 15 years after its original release, you can take a solid party game from this that’s a highly quirky title worthy of many replays or you can see a weird 15-year-old game about cats chasing mice with questionable game conditions attached. Rat infestation issues aside, ChuChu Rocket is a great rat race into nostalgia.

Thief — 3Q2014

Photos courtesy of Shacknews.com
Photos courtesy of Shacknews.com

It takes a thief

by William Harrison
by William Harrison

You know, once in a while, a game comes along that is just full of fun stuff and guilty pleasures that make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Ladies and gentlemen, this is that game. Thief is a game that when I first heard about the original — way back when it was only available for PC — I thought it was one of those games I would have liked to play but didn’t think it would be fun. Man, was I ever wrong.

Thief places you in the role of master thief Garrett as he works his way through a city run by a greedy and bloodthirsty Baron and his guard known as the WATCH. Use the shadows to your advantage and truly make what is theirs … yours.

Eidos/Montreal and Square ENIX put forth a great effort in Thief-05making this game a reality and bringing it to home systems. Thief is actually the fourth incarnation of the series, set during the time period around the same time as the Black Plague, I think; they don’t really tell you when it’s set or where it is relevant to any time period. I only say during the time of the Black Plague because of the disease that runs rampant called the gloom, which is a lot like it.

The stealth gameplay is the main reason why I’m a huge fan of this game. I like the fact that it’s a major part of the game and there is an achievement for making it through the game unseen. There is the rating system where I seem to always straddle the line between ghost and opportunist in my quest to see if I’m still as sneaky in stealth games as I claim to be.

As of press time, I haven’t finished Thief but the story and the free roaming aspect are awesome. At times, I wander from the story to explore, roam aimlessly and rob people blind just like in real life.

Score-4The city and the characters are beautifully designed and rendered but it seems to be missing something. The music — as far as atmosphere goes — is OK but it seems that you can’t really hear it. And, a lot of times the interactions between characters is almost a joke because you can sometimes barely hear what a NPC or yourself are saying. Apparently, subtitles are a bit of a must to catch everything being said.

I’m not quite sure how the old Garrett matches up to the new Garrett since I haven’t played the PC titles but hopefully it’s not too far off. I really do enjoy this game, but it seems that it isn’t really all that long, at least not when you get into the story-specific missions. There is still a free roam element there but there are also points where you can’t go back and that seems like it’s punishing the player and slapping you saying, “You want to explore?! NOW!? The fate of the world is at stake!!”

Thief is a really good stealth, make-you-feel-guilty-in-a-good-way sort of game and should definitely be played by all. The fact that it’s the fourth game but also a reboot of the series is fine, but the fans of the older games may have a problem with the differences. Sound issues aside, this is a hell of a steal.

NBA Jam — 3Q2014

NBA Jam-02The old king of the court

by Lyndsey Hicks
by Lyndsey Hicks

NBA Jam was — and still is — an experience. No, that’s not some preposterous fluff dreamed up by an National Basketball Association maven like yours truly. It was truly an experience because if you were around at the time that Jam hit the streets, you’d remember the sheer amount of hype that surrounded the arcade release. You’d also remember the hype that came home with it. Was it justified hype? Yes and no.

You see, Jam represented the start of the exaggerated sports game era, the type of game where the player animations were over the top and the action just as extreme. Throw in a plethora of secrets — like playing as President Bill Clinton — and the hype went into overdrive. The game isn’t bad and it mostly lived up to its billing. The simple setup of two-on-two basketball and fast-break basketball helped certainly, and the animation isn’t bad at all. The player interaction is where it mostly succeeds, actually. At the time, there was no other place to get the kind of play that Jam offers: Crazy dunks, the ability to be on fire from great shooting and street ball-type rules. It’s that offering that made it a phenomenal success.

Jam doesn’t stumble in its race to be an in-your-face baller NBA Jam-17experience. That street ball player interaction means you don’t have to learn much about the game to succeed and play well. The control is simple yet has a layer of depth that means anyone can do well at any skill level. The atmosphere could be a little better with a better soundtrack, but what will make you take notice is the announcer. If there’s anything you will remember about the game, it’s Tim Kitzrow shouting to the top of his lungs that a man is “on fire” or “BOOMSHAKALAKA.”

Score-4-retrogradeThe graphics, like the soundtrack, are nothing to get excited about. There’s a static crowd except for the courtside folk, and then there’s the players. Jam popularized the over-exaggerated look for players, and it certainly had its uses. It’s not out of place for Jam, and it brings a certain atmosphere to the action that Jam benefits from.

If there’s ever a reason to play NBA Jam, find it in the cartoonish action, sound and look. That’s where the fun is, and the main reasons why the game succeeded in living up to the hype (mostly) that broke backboards in the olden days of 1993.

SSX Tricky — 3Q2014

SSX Tricky-02Grab your gear and hit the slopes

by Lyndsey Hicks
by Lyndsey Hicks

SSX can get a little … well … Tricky. OK, yes, I went for the easy joke, but it’s one that can be made with a solid title in SSX Tricky. Tricky tends to take the best things about the SSX franchise and make them better. And that’s better for everyone because snowboarding games of the time weren’t exactly freshly powdered experiences.

Tricky settles into its role as a snowboarding simulator with slick visuals and an added bonus of interesting characters. The easiest way to describe playing Tricky is that it’s you versus the mountain, and well, sometimes you versus the other characters versus the mountain. While the World Circuit mode is touted as a main attraction — and it is certainly is for several reasons — the mode that does the most for me is Free Ride. There’s nothing quite like running down the tracks and pulling off tricks without other characters to annoy you. The characters aren’t really that annoying, and the rivalry system is fun, but I preferred my solitude while learning the game and Practice and Free Ride provided that easily.

Those slick visuals are also on display throughout the different SSX Tricky-19modes, and it immediately sets the game apart from its competition of the time. The game flat-out looks great on the GameCube, and the other console versions looked great, too. The GameCube version has an interesting control scheme that lends itself to rolling down the slopes, and it’s intuitive and becomes second nature as you become more comfortable pulling off various tricks. For that increasing level of comfort, you are rewarded with bigger and better items that should help you improve as well as make you look a little better on the track. It’s that drive to unlock these goodies and tracks that keeps you coming back to Tricky.

That’s all alongside the soundtrack, which is excellent, too. There are a few vocal pieces with the instrumental tracks for the different levels, and all are appropriate for the atmosphere EA wants to Score-4-5-retrogradeconvey. In particular, the remix of Run DMC’s massive hit “Tricky” is the highlight — as it should be. If it’s the main theme of the game, it should stand out, which it manages to do so. It never gets old to hear the trio’s 1986 hit sampled and remixed (editor’s note: ’80s rap never gets old, in any situation) while throwing down massive tricks on a treacherous mountain. And, believe it or not, the voice acting adds to the game as well. Usually, a fully famous all-star cast of voice actors produces mixed results. However, Tricky is an exception to that rule. Folks like Lucy Liu, Oliver Platt, Patricia Velasquez and Billy Zane deliver solid results.

With three other sequels and a reboot in 2012, Tricky has had the challenge of standing out in a crowded library of titles featuring snowboarding. But it’s not that hard to do when it’s got good mechanics and great atmosphere, a rather tricky feat to accomplish.

Titanfall — 3Q2014

Photos courtesy of Shacknews.com
Photos courtesy of Shacknews.com

Keep calm and prepare for Titanfall

by William Harrison
by William Harrison

Hello, pilots and welcome to the Frontier. The long-anticipated Titanfall is up for review and let me tell you, I had a lot of fun with this one and so will you. It posts a few unique innovations as well as an online only style all of its own. And, of course, giant robots … everything is better with giant robots. The campaign mode is weird at first but it’s nothing that can’t be handled.

Titanfall takes place in the distant future and in another colonized area of space. Two warring factions, the IMC and the Frontier Militia, are fighting for control of their little pieces of space and the place they call home. Unfortunately, the IMC seem to be looking to control the area under the flag of Hammond Industries, a galactic widespread company that has its hands in … well, pretty much everything. Then in comes the Frontier Militia, who believe the people are better off without the watchful eye of the IMC and Hammond Industries telling you what to do.

Titanfall is a very impressive and beautifully rendered game. It’s Titanfall-01currently out for the Xbox One, Xbox 360 and PC. I have it for Xbox One and it’s about the only first-person shooter that I currently play. The gameplay is pretty much like Call of Duty, but that’s to be expected when Infinity Ward closed its doors and reopened to a split in the company not called Respawn Entertainment and Sledghammer Games. Respawn Entertainment is pretty much made up of the developers that made the COD series stories and games what they were.

The addition of the Titans (25- to 30-foot-tall robots) and the ability to either pilot or have the AI control it makes for a new number of things that can be done.

Score-4-5There is a campaign mode but it is multiplayer-based, meaning that the story is controlled by the outcome of the winning team in some missions. It only allows for 6v6 (12v12, if you include having the AI-controlled Titans on the map as well) so that the games can remain as lag free as possible. Don’t want to ride inside your own Titan, well hop out and switch your Titan to either guard or follow to help hold a position or for a little backup. I must admit that I am rarely riding inside my Titan when I play. They have a nice selection of weapons for the pilots but only about six for the Titans themselves, which is fine by me.

The multiplayer is done really well, but right now there are only seven play modes, with the seventh as a mash-up variety pack that consists of all play modes on all maps randomly selecting both. I believe the Xbox 360 version is missing a mode or two.

Here is how I see it: Titanfall is one of those games you hear about and think it would be awesome if they can pull it off right. Respawn did their homework and came up with a game that is fun and immersive. Unfortunately, it kind of hindered itself by being online only, and although the download needed to play it on Xbox 360 isn’t as massive as the GTAV download (1.3 GB versus 7.9 GB), it’s still a bit annoying. However, you don’t have to delete data to play. A matchmaking option that puts you with people in the same skill level would be a nice idea, too. If you haven’t played it, then you should definitely “Prepare for Titanfall.”

Excitebike — 3Q2014

Excitebike-02Nothing to get excited over

by Lyndsey Hicks
by Lyndsey Hicks

Nearly everything game industry legend Shigeru Miyamoto touches turns to gold. The keyword there is nearly. While it might be considered blasphemous in some circles to question the godlike tendencies of Miyamoto-kamisama, there are sometimes valid reasons strewn about his resume. Excitebike is one of those excuses to point to when someone says that Miyamoto is capable of committing no wrong in game design.

Excitebike isn’t a terrible game. In fact, it’s one of the better games to come out of the NES lineup. But that isn’t saying much in the long run. Excitebike takes a simple concept and makes a mountain out of a mole hill. So much so that if you have no idea how the game works, you’re not going to immediately figure it out just by rumbling through a couple of tracks. My personal learning curve stretched from age 8 to age 28, and it was only because I asked someone about the nuances that I became a better player.

That’s the thing about Excitebike, though: I get that it’s a really Excitebike-14simple game. You, the dirt bike rider, are gifted and able to challenge a multitude of tracks. You aim for the highest score, stay off the rough patches, use your boost to speed up and attempt to keep your bike level with the course once you make big leaps. That’s the extent of the game. There’s a track editor thrown in for good measure and a second type of race that’s basically time trials. Simple, right? Yes.

Score-2-5-retrogradeAnd frustrating. No one knows what I would have given to know that pressing A rapidly when you fall off your bike helps with recovery. I would have traded my tiny kingdom in little old Columbia, S.C., to know that. It would have also helped to know that driving over the arrows on the ground reduces bike temperature. Knowing these two important pieces of information might have made a distinct difference in my continued career of dirt bike racing. But, alas, that dream went right out of the window with my inclination to continue renting the cart back in the day.

If you want nostalgia and you can appreciate being forced to learn the ins and outs of dirt bike racing, by all means pop a wheelie in Excitebike. But don’t be surprised with the unimaginative locales, race layout and penchant for keeping you the player in the dark. Simple concept? Check. Simple controls? Check. Mario cameo? Triple check. But Shigeru Miyamoto’s genius touch to make the game a better experience for the uninitiated? Nope. That’s still sitting in the garage with my drive to play the game as a frustrated 8-year-old and now as a more discriminating 32-year-old.

Unreal Tournament — 3Q2014

Unreal Tournament-01An unreal icon for consoles

by Lyndsey Hicks
by Lyndsey Hicks

As someone who has never really gotten into the Unreal series or PC shooters in general, learning to run and gun with one of the seminal shooters of our time was and has been a challenge. It’s a challenge in patience and in equilibrium, mostly because I can’t play older first-person shooters without migraines and vomiting. So, if a game could persuade me to sit down and enjoy the fruits of its murderous labor, then more power to it. Unreal Tournament didn’t have to try to hard to work that magical feat.

Unreal Tournament is a patchwork of ideas found commonly in modern shooters. It’s arena-based play that requires you to hunt down and eliminate the competition. That’s not that hard of a Unreal Tournament-19concept, actually. You’re given an arsenal with which to complete your reign of carnage and helpful items such as health and armor boosts. While the concept is easy, the number of control options offered can easily overwhelm even a seasoned shooter veteran. Mostly, you’re just looking for a way to aim and shoot, but there’s about 15 different ways to set up your gunning exploits in UT. There’s a wealth of modes offered, too, and you can’t go wrong with picking any of them. It’s nice to be able to practice before jumping into the main story mode, or play a good Capture The Flag match.

Score-3-retrogradeDespite the variety of modes to run through, the character selection isn’t all that varied. Stalwarts, like Malcolm from the original Unreal, are available but beyond that the character selection is a little blah. There are some to be unlocked but the question remains: Do you want to go through the trouble of unlocking a character that you aren’t going to care about?

The soundtrack is decent, with a few standout tracks so there’s something to spice up the disappointment of the character selection. The graphics are OK, but like that dearth of characters, there isn’t much to get excited about. For the translation to PlayStation 2, the game plays and looks OK. It’s nothing special but it isn’t terrible, either. Just don’t expect super impressive PC quality.

Unreal Tournament is an interesting experiment. It’s a PC juggernaut that tries its hand at accessibility in the home market and doesn’t fail miserably yet doesn’t entirely innovate, either. If you were wondering what the hype was all about for the PC darling, the PS2 version is just the right version to introduce you to the world of Unreal.

DDR Max 2 — 2Q2014

ddr-max-2-16

Choosing a seventh dance card

by Lyndsey Hicks
by Lyndsey Hicks

There comes a time in every long-running gaming franchise when said franchise has to grow up. That transition may come in the form of a new coat of paint or through a purging of characters, a reboot, if you will. But every franchise goes through it, and Bemani and Dance Dance Revolution, in particular, are no strangers to this. By the point of Max 2, the seventh main mix in the series, DDR had to do something at the risk of growing stale. So, continuing the trends started in Max it was.

Max 2 presents itself as an interesting beast, even if you’re intimately familiar with the series. There’s a new mode to play, Oni — which introduces the concept of a “three strikes and you’re out policy” with courses to play — and the overall look and feel has been upgraded from the days of yore. Max 2 represented the middle of a new era for DDR, begun with the wholesale do-over of Max. There’s not much new in the way of concepts for Max 2, and that’s all fine and well. Since Max’s changes were regarded as a failure and an unnecessary slash-and-burn of the franchise, Max 2 works toward undoing the mess made previously.

Score-4The game does well with updated aesthetics. The song wheel (introduced in 5th Mix), the foot rating (dropped in Max), Groove Radar (introduced in Max in favor of the foot rating) and Freeze arrows return. The re-introduction of the foot rating system is the best idea that could have come from cleaning up Max’s mess. The Groove Radar and foot rating system give you all of the pertinent song difficulty information that you will ever need. The song wheel looks better than ever since it’s now in its third iteration and Freeze arrows don’t seem to be such an aberration as they once were in Max.

The song list is interesting mix of updates to old favorites as well as ddr-max-2-05new entries aimed at adding something new to DDR. Not that Max didn’t do that very well, but Max 2 is about a greater variety of songs and it shows in the fact that there’s not a new Paranoia in sight — at least in the arcade version. The home version attempts to inject a new iteration of the familiar song, but it’s not nearly as successful as it thinks it is. Yes, Paranoia Survivor, one of the boss songs of the sequel Extreme, is present and available for play in the Japanese console version, but its inclusion as a preview song isn’t really necessary. And it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Why destroy the myth of Survivor — the first 10-footer Paranoia — by showing its hand early? My problem with Max 2 is illustrated by this point: JP flag w stick iconThe game sometimes feels like a re-tread of previous entries, and it shouldn’t. I was under the impression that the reason for the debacle created by blowing up DDR with Max was to avoid just the sort of problems that you’re going to run into with Max 2. Though, in its favor, Max 2 has Maxx Unlimited, which is my favorite Maxx song out of the entire bunch.

I have to commend Konami for at least trying to right the wrongs committed with Max’s well- meaning philosophy of starting over. It just feels a trifle like Max 2 is slacking into old habits. Max 2 may not feel like it’s cheating on its diet started by Max’s slimdown but by having a few extra songs, Max 2 isn’t necessarily pushing the plate back like it should and it shows.

DDR 5th Mix — 2Q2014

ddr-5th-mix-05

The last of an era for DDR

by Lyndsey Hicks
by Lyndsey Hicks

The end of an era had to come for Dance Dance Revolution at some point, and that finality hit like a ton of bricks with 5th Mix. There really wasn’t much of a going-away party or celebration of all that was DDR before the storming of the gates that was Max, but 5th Mix represented the culmination of the philosophy that was dancing with arrows before speed mods and Freeze arrows came along and changed everything.

Score-4-retrograde5th Mix isn’t bad, if you’re used to playing DDR. At this point, everything is in place and you should know how things work: You step on four different arrows in time with songs in three difficulties: Basic, Trick and Maniac. You miss enough times, it’s game over. If you should pass the song, you’re graded on how well you did. 5th Mix doesn’t introduce anything new mechanics-wise, and that’s fine considering it’s content with letting you play DDR exactly the way you’ve played before. Instead, it makes changes in the aesthetics, and that’s where change is needed the most.

5th Mix changed the way the DDR structure looked with the great ddr-5th-mix-14introduction of the song wheel. Gone was the old look of CDs in a jukebox and in came a circular sectioned wheel — similar to the one found on the “Price is Right” — that features all of the songs available for play. This overhaul brings with it a better look and a better feel overall to the game, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s the first in the series to run at 60 frames per second. Also, 5th Mix was the first in the series to introduce a unique color scheme that “represented” the mix. This brings a fresh look to the table and works wonders with making a seemingly tired concept look new.

JP flag w stick iconThe music is another help in the revival. A few older favorites returned, but there’s quite a few new tunes and they stand out. One of my favorites, Healing Vision ~Angelic Mix~, steals the show and makes its presence known as a boss song as does Can’t Stop Fallin’ in Love Speed Mix and Afronova Primeval. The rest of the songlist is kind of take it or leave it, but there’s a good mix, which is essential to any DDR mix’s long-term replay value.

Where I find a few problems with 5th Mix is also within the song list. Thankfully, 5th Mix is the only version that features the ridiculous long versions of a few songs. Probably the most egregious of these unnecessary uses of space is the overly long version of Dynamite Rave. Besides not needing yet another version of the elderly song, the long version is LONG, much too long and it borders on obnoxious. There is absolutely no need for a three-minute version of any already corny song that appears much too frequently in DDR songlists in the early days. And much like Dynamite Rave, the other long versions don’t really add much to the setlist. If I want to hear a version of Britney Spears’ Oops I Did it Again, I’d just listen to the original. And B4U ~Glorious style~ is a complete waste of space that could have been occupied with other worthy songs that didn’t make the cut, like Rhythm and Police.

5th Mix was a good last call to an era of DDR that most players didn’t know was coming to an end. A passable song list, great upgrade over previous versions and a streamlined approach to the current DDR structure meant a decent version to dance to with few problems. It’s not the greatest DDR mix, but we can probably safely say at least it wasn’t Max. 5th Mix found its home right in the middle of the series, where it was supposed to be all along.

Kagero: Tecmo’s Deception II — 2Q2014

kagero-01
Photos courtesy of MobyGames.com

At death’s door

by Lyndsey Hicks
by Lyndsey Hicks

Sometimes, games require difficult moral choices that we aren’t prepared to handle. Tecmo’s Deception II wheels and deals in this dilemma, and it doesn’t shy away from asking you, the player, to make some gruesome decisions that may just scar you for life.

Tecmo’s Deception series, as a whole, is a unique beast that requires careful consideration about whether you even want to start playing it. Most of the games in the series, Kagero included, work on the premise that you are a person given the ability to set traps to defend a certain area from invaders. Your motivations for defending the area vary, but you’re tasked with this objective alone. In Kagero, you’re a young girl who was kidnapped by a group of aliens who train you to fight kagero-03in their stead. To prove your worth, you’re sent to a few places in the kingdom to defend the premises with traps. Traps, which are progressively learned throughout the game, are your tickets to death. Your goal is to keep folks out of the castle/mansion/wherever. You accomplish this by creating combos of death with the traps. If there’s one thing about Kagero that’s awesome and fascinating, it’s the combo and trap scenarios. I’ve managed to kill my way through the game with some seriously devious combos that have to be seen to be understood.

Score-3-5-retrogradeWhile Kagero is technical interesting, the background isn’t exactly going to set the world on fire. The graphics are your typically early PlayStation blocky polygonal nightmares until you’re actually in game and setting traps. That’s when the game really shines, in terms of its look. The same thing goes for the soundtrack; it’s not great but there’s a few interesting tracks that you might hum for a little while (editor’s note: The track for naming a character is one of my ringtones), and there’s a few that will immediately make you wonder if someone was watching softcore pornography late at night while creating the game’s soundtrack.

Morality comes into play from the beginning. Those hard decisions we mentioned before? Those are going to come in the form of who you let live and you let die. It takes a lot to kill off an entire family that’s managed to stumble into the castle you’re guarding, and it takes a lot to let them escape. Full disclosure: In the 14 years that I’ve been playing various runs through the game, I have never killed the entire family, and thus, I can’t get the ending that involves perfect kills. I couldn’t do it because that question being asked of me, I couldn’t answer. It’s a personal choice that can’t simply be solved. For some, it’s a no-brainer; for me, it’s a deal-breaker. By the point that I’d gotten to that choice of deaths, I was fully involved in the game and thus I continued playing. But, maybe if I’d known that was a factor in playing, maybe I wouldn’t have picked it up or maybe I wouldn’t have taken the time to understand the depth in the game that comes from this choice. The depth is what will draw you in and keep you coming back, long after you’ve completed your final mission and the credits roll.

And that morality clause sometimes triggers anger within me. Having played numerous times through to the later missions of the game and the eventual final mission, I’ve had the chance to learn the nuances of the game. My anger stems from the frantic pace at which you must act and sometimes make that moral choice. Maybe I don’t want to rush and kill a person (or family) because I need time to think about the consequences of my actions. This phantom deadline — usually triggered by someone’s health getting low — adds an unnecessary time element to the proceedings. Sometimes, it causes panic to set in and makes things worse. And your controls may or may not be of help then. A number of things are possible: Traps may miss, area effects will hurt you or the cooldown of a trap is too long. All of these are built into the game system, and they’re all equally annoying. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I managed to die by electrocuting myself and my foe. Or, the number of times I died because I couldn’t run fast enough in Chapter 23 to get away from the robots that are easily twice as fast as I am.

And my biggest gripe comes in the later chapters of the game. Once you’re committed to a trap combo that works, you’re not really encouraged to experiment. Why experiment when it’s probably going to get you killed? Because, make no mistake, you’re going to die. A lot. In the later chapters, the difficulty is so high that if you weren’t correctly setting yourself up consistently toward the better traps, you’re going to be stuck until you can build up enough money to purchase the good stuff and move forward. The repetition and stagnancy becomes glaringly obvious deep into the campaign.

Overall, there’s loads of replay factor in Kagero. There’s different trap routes to unlock, multiple endings depending on who you let live and a decent soundtrack and storyline that explains the method to the madness of death and destruction. Be forewarned, however: You need to be ready to play judge, jury and executioner if you want to survive the emotional onslaught of Kagero.

Macross M3 — 2Q2014

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Photos courtesy of IGN.com

Piloting your dreams in Macross

 

by William Harrison
by William Harrison

As you may not know, I used to want to be a fighter pilot because of an old cartoon I saw called Robotech. Then, I was introduced to the real series called Macross, and my love for all things that flew was renewed even more. I also wanted to take up engineering to make the Varitech fighters I love so much a reality; hell, I may still get that chance one day or somewhere my designs may help someone do what I couldn’t in my lifetime. Anyway, we’re here to talk about a game that never made it to the U.S. because of the man who made Robotech famous and is an out-and-out bad person. Macross M3 is up and its Varitechs, Zintredies and missiles, oh my!

The game takes place during the time Max was starting out up till macross-m3-04he meets Meria. From then on, you can choose either Max or Meria until the point in the story where their daughter is born. Then, you can only choose her as a playable character. Unfortunately, I don’t know if you get to play as anyone else because there is a mission shortly after their daughter joins U.N. Spacy and has a crisis of conscience, which is where my venture ends. I’m not sure if there’s a glitch at this point or a choice that is made that can change that. So, I don’t know how the game ends but that doesn’t mean the game isn’t worth playing.

The controls have improved compared to its previous counterparts of the VF-X series. The graphics for this Dreamcast title are a lot smoother than the PS1 games, as well, but you would expect that.

Score-3-5-retrogradeThe gameplay, however, seems to present not much of a challenge as its VFX counterpart. The learning curve may not seem to be there, but it is in the form of a mission where the difficulty goes from “Oh that’s nice” to “Oh god, why won’t you die?!” I did find it funny that I ran out of missiles only to discover later that they refill over time. Nothing really stands out too much but the graphics and the story JP flag w stick iconthat I can figure out is good. Unfortunately, I was unable to finish this game because at the time my grasp of the Japanese language was very nonexistent.

The last word on this is that it’s a really fun game and presents a good time to be had by all. Well, except for the fact that at least that one stage is a pain. My score for the game would be higher if I was able to finish the game and I may still one day. Until then, if it somehow finds its way to your door, invite it in, have a good time and share a bit of sake with the essence of an old friend.

Metroid Prime — 2Q2014

Photos courtesy of IGN.com

The return of Samus after 8 years is welcome

Lyndsey-cutout-2013
By Lyndsey Hicks

As a longtime fan of the Metroid franchise, I suppose I could be forgiven for not making the immediate leap onto the Prime bandwagon. After all, Super Metroid is my beacon of hope still shining for 2D games, a symbol of the pinnacle that the genre reached. I mean, I plan to name my firstborn daughter Samus. That’s how much I love Metroid. So, when Prime hit the shelves, I was duly skeptical. It had been eight long years without so much as of a whiff of Samus’ scent in the market of solo games and I was starving. Enter Prime.

Prime isn’t so much a pure Metroid game as it is a combination of metroid-prime-06Metroid and first-person shooters of the day. What you need to know to understand Prime is that it’s set between Metroid and Metroid II: Return of Samus, and it’s the first real game in the series to start putting the pieces of the Metroid saga together. Samus roams around Tallon IV to uncover the past of the Chozo (her caretakers after the death of her parents in a Space Pirate raid), and takes on the villainous group, who are conducting biological experiments on the planet. That’s the meat of the story essentially, but it mostly means that you’re going to do some exploring. This being Metroid and all.

Score-3The first-person controls could have been hazardous to the game’s health but they aren’t. They’re actually simple to use and surprisingly easy to get used to even if you’re intimately familiar with Super Metroid’s setup. My main concern was how does Samus’ action translate to the first-person mold? Can she still move around fluidly? And, how is the action handled when she has to switch to Morph Ball mode? All of these questions were immediately answered with a simple playthrough. Action is fluid and movement is clean and paced well. There are no problems with switching modes, and I rather liked how that is handled. It’s almost as if someone on the development team at Retro Studios remembered what it was like to imagine you were Samus in the Varia Suit.

I appreciated the atmosphere of Prime, considering that if a game is to be called Metroid in any way, it must have the “Metroid atmosphere.” I certainly got that as I meandered through maze-like caverns with foreboding music playing gently in the background. What I appreciated about the soundtrack mostly was the use of old themes to tie the games together. You can tell you’re playing a Metroid game if you listen hard enough, and I liked that the issue wasn’t thrown in my face constantly. I didn’t need to be hit over the head repeatedly that this is a Metroid tale, and the music was polite about reminding me.

My only problem with Prime is that while it feels like a Metroid game should, I wasn’t that immersed in the tale. Every Metroid game released up to this point, I played through and was engaged thoroughly. Prime? I really couldn’t get into the story that much, and I didn’t really care all that much about the Chozo. I realized that because of the way Metroid ends, Samus can’t really go back to the Mother Brain issue. However, Prime just struck me as boring.

Prime was the start of a good thing, obviously, since there are two sequels and a host of spinoff games. What I was most pleased with, however, was the fact that Samus returned in top form. It was about time. Eight years was way too long to go without using some version of the “Metroid instinct.”

Macross VF-X2 — 2Q2014

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Find your way in the stars

by William Harrison
by William Harrison

ありがと ございました おなしと の おとこのしと!

And for the non-Nihongo speaking, thank you ladies and gentlemen! It’s great to be back and for the Far Eastern (Nihon, Nihongo = Japanese language) issue. I understand that a lot of people may be wondering why it’s not called Robotech. Well, let’s just stick with the version that was released in Japan. The funny thing is, this game was actually scheduled for an American release but was later canceled because of the “creator” of the Robotech series. His demands were a bit on the ridiculous side and rather than bow to him, Big West/Bandai Visual (before it merged with Namco) made sure that the American release never saw the light of day.

But if you knew the right places to go and were willing to pay the price, you could macross-vf-x2-04have your very own copy like I do. It’s been a while since I’ve been able to play it, but this is still one of the best games I have played in a long time and the fan boy in me was all over this when I saw it in an import store in Greenville, S.C. I fell in love with Macross VF-X2.

VF-X2 is a flight-style combat shooter with a bit of an arcade feel to it, loads of fun and not too bad of a story to add to the Macross universe. You are Arges Focker, rookie pilot who joins Score-4-retrogradethe U.N. Spacy and is shortly recruited to the Raven Fighting Squadron. You battle through several missions, piloting several of the variable fighters from the original Valkyre to the VF-22 (Macross plus YF-21: The 21 was designated the 22 to honor Guld Goa Bowman after his death).

The game plays very well and the sounds and effects will put you in the right frame of mind of the Macross series, but, unfortunately, it does have a few bugs.

JP flag w stick iconOne of the main bugs occurs when you beat the game: The closing cinematic glitches and plays for two frames then either freezes or boots you to the credits screen. That’s heartbreaking because it kind of ruins that whole satisfaction of beating the game. The game is solid as a whole, but the glitches kind of cut into the fun. If you love Robotech/Macross, don’t let the glitches keep you from a solid representative in the series.