Capcom vs. SNK: Millennium Fight 2000 — Issue 42

The fight of the century

Who would win between Cap­com and SNK?
That’s the ques­tion that was at the fore­front of every­one’s mind in the ear­ly 2000s. The rival­ry between the com­pa­nies was well known, and the streets were hot with love for their respec­tive fight­ing game series. When Cap­com vs. SNK was released, the ques­tion was answered, though we still did­n’t know who was bet­ter defin­i­tive­ly. There’s a sequel for that.
What CvS did get right was the ini­tial ques­tion. Take some of the best and most pop­u­lar fight­ing game char­ac­ters from both com­pa­nies and pit them against each oth­er. Mar­quee SNK names like Ter­ry Bog­a­rd, Mai Shu­ranui, King and Rugal Bern­stein face off against Cap­com main­stays like Ryu, Ken, Chun-Li, and Sagat. The full ros­ter has some­one for every­one from each com­pa­ny. If you like grap­plers, there’s Zang­ief rep­re­sent­ing Cap­com while Raiden shows up for SNK. Love fight­ing teenage girls? You’re cov­ered with Saku­ra and Yuri. The selec­tion is a nice buf­fet to choose from.
But then it gets a lit­tle more inter­est­ing. Each char­ac­ter is slot­ted into a one-to-four ratio cat­e­go­ry. Heavy hit­ters like Aku­ma and Orochi Iori, usu­al­ly hid­den boss char­ac­ters in their respec­tive games, are Ratio 4. Ratio 3 fea­tures boss char­ac­ters such as M. Bison, Geese and Rugal. Ratio 2 is for the mid­dle-class fight­er like Ryu, Ken, Kyo Kusana­gi and Mai. In the low­est ratio are light­weights like Saku­ra, Ben­i­maru, Yuri and Dhal­sim. The Ratio Sys­tem allows mul­ti­ple com­bi­na­tions so long as the ratio equals four. Build­ing your team is cru­cial because of the pow­er bal­ance impli­ca­tions and their poten­tial matchups.
The in-depth fight­ing sys­tem is not with­out its flaws, how­ev­er. The place­ment of some char­ac­ters in the Ratio Sys­tem is ques­tion­able and their movesets being pressed between EX and reg­u­lar cat­e­go­riza­tion is arti­fi­cial lim­i­ta­tions imposed at best. This is fixed in the sequel but here it’s a prob­lem that slight­ly affects game­play adversely.
In addi­tion to the Ratio Sys­tem there is the Groove Sys­tem. A two-part func­tion, the Groove Sys­tem deter­mines how the char­ac­ters per­form cer­tain basic moves like rolling and dash­ing and how super moves work. Cap­com Groove plays a lot like Street Fight­er Alpha 3 with access to Lev­el 3 supers imme­di­ate­ly with enough super meter built up. SNK Groove plays sim­i­lar­ly to the Extra Mode in the King of Fight­ers series. Here, you only get access to Lev­el 3 supers when your life meter is flash­ing, though you can charge your meter man­u­al­ly to gain Lev­el 1 supers. There’s a lot of strat­e­gy involved in choos­ing the right Groove and apply­ing its prop­er­ties to your advan­tage, which is a nice change of pace.
Cap­com vs. SNK also gets its envi­ron­ment right. The game looks fan­tas­tic, with beau­ti­ful back­grounds of famil­iar loca­tions for both com­pa­nies. Of spe­cial note is the SNK graph­ic mode for Cap­com char­ac­ters. Shinkiro out­did him­self with the stun­ning and life­like art­work. I was­n’t super famil­iar with his work before­hand because I was­n’t an SNK enthu­si­ast. But, you can con­sid­er me a devo­tee as of this game because I fell in love with his art through his char­ac­ter portraits.
And, along­side the gor­geous envi­ron­ments is a won­der­ful­ly nos­tal­gic sound­track. Sure, there are some new tracks, but the meat and pota­toes are in the old­er remixed tracks. The sound mix­es well with the action, and there are quite a few bops to be had here. The sound­track is one worth adding to the collection.
Cap­com vs. SNK is a great start for the fran­chise. It’s built with vet­er­ans in mind, but even as a new­com­er you can find a char­ac­ter to learn and devel­op. Cap­com banked on the unini­ti­at­ed tak­ing the time to learn the back­ground of the char­ac­ters fea­tured, and the result is worth tak­ing a spin 22 years after its ini­tial release. No, the ques­tion of who’s the best was­n’t answered here, but it’s one worth explor­ing in a top-notch release for the Dream­cast fight­ing game library.

Final Fantasy Anthology — Issue 42

Reach­ing a new audience

Chances are, if you’re think­ing about buy­ing this retro pack­age of Final Fan­ta­sy, you’ve already played at least one of the two games includ­ed. So, why buy this? Because the pack­ag­ing is the draw, and it’s a must-own if you like the Final Fan­ta­sy series.
Let’s start with the obvi­ous: Final Fan­ta­sy Anthol­o­gy does not have a lot of Final Fan­ta­sy games includ­ed. Two clas­sics with inter­est­ing and sto­ried back­grounds are here: Final Fan­ta­sy V and Final Fan­ta­sy VI. Until this release, Final Fan­ta­sy V had nev­er been trans­lat­ed and released in the U.S because it was deemed too hard for the mar­ket. Final Fan­ta­sy VI was released in the U.S. as Final Fan­ta­sy III. It was a crit­i­cal dar­ling in both mar­kets and is wide­ly regard­ed as one of the best retro-era Final Fan­ta­sy games and role-play­ing games ever. So, Square Enix putting these two games togeth­er in a pack­age would kill two birds with one stone: Good sales — near­ly a mil­lion copies sold — and intro­duc­tion of a “lost” game to the bare­ly tapped mar­ket. Square Enix suc­ceed­ed on both fronts.
Released in the U.S. and PAL regions, FF Anthol­o­gy fea­tures FFV and FFVI in full with new CG intro­duc­tion movies for both games. Although we have reviewed FFV pre­vi­ous­ly (see 2Q2010 issue), we have nev­er reviewed FFVI. Just know, how­ev­er, that both games are fan­tas­tic, with FFV as our choice to play in the pack­age. Both games have a deep sto­ry with mem­o­rable char­ac­ters that you come to know and love by the end of your adven­ture, and beau­ti­ful graph­ics and stun­ning sound­tracks. It’s a tes­ta­ment to the strong sto­ry­telling found in the retro FF era, and the pack­age is bet­ter for includ­ing these two games particularly.
Round­ing out the pack­age is the oth­er high­light: The includ­ed bonus sound­track CD. The sound­track fea­tures 22 of the best tracks from both games, with our favorites com­ing from the FFV por­tion. FFVI does have some bangers, also, so the sound­track is great addi­tion all around. 
What you should care about — and why you should buy this pack­age — is the fact that you’re get­ting the best of the 2D Final Fan­ta­sy games. Add in that sound­track CD, which is like a gate­way to FF music, and you have a good deal with in-depth game­play to boot. This is Square Enix at its best before it embraced the 3D era for its flag­ship role-play­ing series.

ModNation Racers — Issue 42

The mods must be unimpressed

Mod­Na­tion Rac­ers stum­bles at start­ing line despite wealth of options

When you come for the king, you bet­ter not miss. And, as much as Mod­Na­tion Rac­ers tries to come for Mario Kart, it miss­es by quite a wide mile.
Mod­Na­tion Rac­ers tries, I’ll give it that. There’s depth to be had here for an arcade go-kart rac­er. There are var­i­ous modes to jump into, includ­ing a career mode and online and offline play. Addi­tion­al­ly, the cre­ate-a-char­ac­ter and track edi­tors are seri­ous time sinks. A once-thriv­ing and robust online store for all sorts of mods — the name of the game — is still there. The cus­tomiza­tion remains deep, with var­i­ous ways to dress your char­ac­ter and build a rig that suits your aes­thet­ic. This is where Mod­Na­tion has the advan­tage over Mario Kart, and that’s obvi­ous from the get-go. 
But under­neath the sur­face, Mod­Na­tion starts to fal­ter big time. The tracks are gener­ic and bor­ing and are gen­er­al­ly under­whelm­ing with a clunky design to the over­all feel. There was noth­ing that jumped out as inter­est­ing, and they feel slapped togeth­er and cliche. And, equal­ly as bor­ing is the char­ac­ter design. Despite the char­ac­ters being chibi-rac­ers, they aren’t cute. The super-deformed look works when you can pull it off, and Unit­ed Front Games did­n’t suc­ceed here. The char­ac­ters look gener­ic and stale with no personality.
As bland as the char­ac­ter design is, even goofi­er are the con­trols. Kart rac­ing, while not a pre­ci­sion genre, should be easy to con­trol. Mod­Na­tion Rac­ers is not easy to race in, con­sid­er­ing there’s some­thing assigned to every but­ton on the con­troller and then some. On top of that, the con­trols feel impre­cise, loose, and slop­py. Also, the speed lev­els, while cus­tomiz­able, are not tuned prop­er­ly. What should have been the eas­i­est and slow­est speed for a new­com­er still felt like the equiv­a­lent of 150CC in Mario Kart. That’s not easy, and the con­trols are unhelp­ful in deal­ing with that sen­sa­tion of speed. 
Also, some of the rac­ing mechan­ics are ques­tion­able at best. The drift­ing fea­ture is ter­ri­ble; at no point was com­plet­ing a drift pos­si­ble going as fast as I was going. And, the AI’s con­sis­tent abil­i­ty to pre­vent weapon pick­up even on the eas­i­est lev­el was grat­ing as was the con­stant bump­ing into objects and bar­ri­ers. It’s obnox­ious also that there is no weapons dis­play beyond words and a meter. Explain­ing what the weapons are and their effects would have con­tributed to more playing.
Adding insult to injury, the sound­track is gener­ic and for­get­table. Not a sin­gle track stood out, and much like the lev­el design, seemed half-thought-out and lazy. I kept hop­ing and lis­ten­ing for some­thing, any­thing, to pique my inter­est, but I was dis­ap­point­ed there also.
Mod­Na­tion suf­fers from the adage of too much of a good thing. While it’s nice to have the wealth of cus­tomiza­tion options, it comes across as what the kids call “doing too much.” Every­thing seems extra and a lit­tle bit too much. It’s try­ing too hard to tack on a lot of things that are designed to out­shine the com­pe­ti­tion when it should have focused on get­ting the basics cor­rect. Even where there is depth, some­times you have to know where to rein it in, and Mod­Na­tion Rac­ers stum­bles on the steps on the way to cast their bal­lot for them­selves as the king of kart rac­ing. It’s an admirable but ulti­mate­ly flawed chal­lenge to the throne.

Super Princess Peach — Issue 42

A peachy keen adventure

Usu­al­ly, for us die-hard Mario enthu­si­asts, sav­ing Princess Peach is the name of the game when it comes to an adven­ture. After all, we start­ed way back when with Pauline in Don­key Kong and moved up to Mush­room King­dom clean up in Super Mario Bros. But occa­sion­al­ly, the script gets flipped and it’s about sav­ing Mario instead. Super Princess Peach does just that and does a damn fine, if not stereo­typ­i­cal­ly emo­tion-filled, job.
Start­ing things off with busi­ness as usu­al, Bows­er invades the Mush­room King­dom in a bid to steal Peach and wreak hav­oc. He suc­ceeds but, chang­ing things up, man­ages to cap­ture Mario and Lui­gi instead and cre­ate chaos with the Vibe Scepter, which con­trols oth­er beings’ emo­tions. Instead of hop­ing for a hero, Peach decides she must return the favor and sets out across eight worlds set on Vibe Island to save her plumber beau and his brother. 
In her quest, Peach is assist­ed by a sen­tient umbrel­la named Per­ry. Per­ry imbues Peach with Vibe meter by defeat­ing ene­mies and pro­vides oth­er tech­niques for her arse­nal. And Vibe meter is real­ly the oth­er big mechan­ic here. On the DS’ bot­tom screen, there are four emo­tions that Peach uti­lizes to solve puz­zles: Joy, Rage, Gloom and Calm. The emo­tions are inno­v­a­tive and easy to use, mak­ing con­trol­ling Peach a breeze. Rarely are the touch­screen con­trols an issue, and it’s easy to quick­ly switch among them on the fly.
Graph­i­cal­ly, Super Princess Peach is cute and vibrant, which plays well for the vibe Nin­ten­do is going for here. I expect­ed that Vibe Island would look bright and col­or­ful in most places and has a light, airy feel to it. The back­grounds pop and the char­ac­ter sprites are cute and weird in a good way. It car­ries the nor­mal Mario charm, but there’s some­thing about run­ning around as Peach with the adorable Per­ry that looks and feels gen­uine­ly refresh­ing. The sound­track is also some­thing spe­cial. It has a groovy vibe to it, and all the tracks work well with the sur­round­ings. Also, Peach’s voice act­ing is spot-on. Peach sounds exact­ly like what I would expect in mod­ern games, and I par­tic­u­lar­ly enjoyed the sound effects for the dif­fer­ent emo­tions she employs.
My only bone of con­tention is small but a big part of the game: The Vibe meter. While a nice mechan­ic as far as game­play goes, there was some­thing about it that both­ered me that I could­n’t artic­u­late when the game was released in 2006, but I can now. I’m not over­ly fond of the con­cept that Peach is led around by manip­u­lat­ing her emo­tions. It’s the con­cept that women are emo­tion-dri­ven crea­tures that jumps out at me as a lit­tle more than offen­sive. If we’re capa­ble of sav­ing our beau — which we whol­ly are, and it only took from 1985 to 2006 to show this — then we can do it with­out it implied that we’re wild­ly mood-swing­ing weirdos who are gid­dy at one moment and rag­ing or cry­ing at the next. It’s a lit­tle more than stereo­typ­i­cal misog­y­nis­tic non­sense that quite frankly was­n’t nec­es­sary to attach to an already damsel-in-dis­tress arche­type try­ing to change the sta­tus quo. The game, on its tech­ni­cal mer­its, is strong enough to stand on its own, honestly.
Despite some wonky ideas about Peach’s emo­tion­al sta­bil­i­ty and for­ti­tude, Super Princess Peach is a quaint and fun adven­ture. It’s not a game-chang­er in the Mario pan­theon but it’s easy, acces­si­ble, and adorable. I can’t ask for more out of my hop ‘n’ bop done right. It’s just peachy.

Marvel Puzzle Quest — Issue 41

A mar­velous puz­zle journey

Ah, qui­et, placid Puz­zle Quest. We’ve seen many ver­sions of the clas­sic match-three game and yet, some­how, some way there’s a unique spin added that catch­es the eye and delights. Mar­vel Puz­zle Quest, the mobile jug­ger­naut from Demi­urge Stu­dios, is a spec­tac­u­lar extra move-laden free-to-play boun­ty for on the go.

I’ve played at least two ver­sions of Puz­zle Quest and they’re decent. Hav­ing that his­to­ry helps with con­cepts and under­stand­ing some of the intri­ca­cies of MPQ, but the base match-three con­cept is not hard, though. Your goal is to match three or more like-col­ored gems (green, black, yel­low, blue, red, pur­ple, and sil­ver) to dam­age your oppo­nent until they are downed. You can have a team of one to three char­ac­ters who will take turns match­ing gems against an AI-con­trolled team. From time to time, match con­di­tions vary — espe­cial­ly depend­ing on the mode or in-game event, but the main goal is gen­er­al­ly to take out your oppo­nent as clean­ly as possible. 

The Mar­vel com­po­nent comes in through char­ac­ters to col­lect from the sto­ried com­ic book com­pa­ny. Your team and the AI’s team will be com­posed of Mar­vel char­ac­ters rang­ing from the obscure to the most recent MCU-themed ver­sions, ranked in a five-star sys­tem. Char­ac­ters have three spe­cial moves — some­times with sub­sets and pas­sives — that must be unlocked. How you obtain them is where the pay aspect comes into play. Pric­ing can be steep when you’re try­ing to build a decent ros­ter, but it’s no worse than some of the oth­er options out in the mar­ket­place right now, and it has a more sat­is­fy­ing feel to com­plet­ing a col­lec­tion here. As a well-known Mar­vel doc­tor­al can­di­date, I have had a lot of fun pulling togeth­er a ros­ter with MPQ. I know most, if not all, of the char­ac­ters and their vari­ants (thanks, Loki!), and it’s decent work to keep track of who I have earned or am still hunt­ing down. In the year that I’ve been play­ing, I’ve cre­at­ed a spread­sheet that’s updat­ed dai­ly to track where my col­lec­tion stands. It’s that deep.

The depth of the puz­zle engine is also sur­pris­ing. It’s not uncom­mon to strate­gize moves, match­es and board set­up to max­i­mize poten­tial dam­age in a fight. The AI is well-bal­anced, enough that I rarely feel as though it’s unfair. I also very sel­dom lose match­es now that my ros­ter is about 80 per­cent com­plete. And in terms of ros­ter-build­ing, I also tend to get my fair share of rare and pow­er­ful five-star char­ac­ters. MPQ could eas­i­ly be a mon­ey sink, but it’s avoid­ed with a lot of devel­op­er bal­anc­ing behind the scenes.

The bal­anc­ing act also extends to the dif­fer­ent modes, and it’s a job well done. There are quite a few events to choose from at any giv­en time, and they’re fun to mill around in to improve your skills and earn rewards. You can join an Alliance, which is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed. The ben­e­fits from join­ing a sol­id squad can mean get­ting a rare char­ac­ter for free, or oth­er perks you might have to pay for nor­mal­ly. The modes are nice and pro­vide a change of pace. There’s a dai­ly mode fea­tur­ing Dead­pool with dif­fer­ent require­ments; Ver­sus mode, where you face off against AI-con­trolled avatars of real teams; Puz­zle Gaunt­let, where there are solu­tion-ori­ent­ed puz­zles against teams; Sto­ry events, where pre-deter­mined sto­ries play out through match­es and cut scenes; and, time-lim­it­ed events, where you and pos­si­bly your alliance join forces to take down a boss.

Demi­urge Stu­dios also does a great job with how the game looks, as well. MPQ has some of the best mobile graph­ics of any­thing on the mar­ket right now, and the use of actu­al run com­ic book cov­ers to rep­re­sent char­ac­ters is fan­tas­tic. The back­ground art also looks amaz­ing and crisp. Demi­urge out­did them­selves and for a sev­en-year-old game, it still looks sol­id and well done. The sound­track is nice, but it’s noth­ing to write home about. I usu­al­ly keep the music turned off, but it’s by no means terrible.

If you’re into Mar­vel, you’re going to love this. You’re going to drop a lot of mon­ey try­ing to build your ros­ter, and you’re going to have fun doing it. Even if you’re not into Mar­vel that much, you’re going to find some val­ue in this. It’s a good time wrapped up in a mobile game that plays well and pro­vides a lot in small pack­age. It’s a mar­velous play no mat­ter how you look at it.

Retro Replay — Soulcalibur II (GameCube version) — Issue 41

Heart and soul of calibur

Some­times, when you’re the sequel to one of the great­est fight­ing games of all time, you need no intro­duc­tion and you’re allowed to have repeat praise heaped on your shoulders.

We pre­vi­ous­ly reviewed the PlaySta­tion 2 ver­sion of Soul­cal­ibur II in 4Q2010, yet here we are again talk­ing about it in glow­ing terms for the Game­Cube ver­sion. There isn’t much new to say oth­er than this port is just as beau­ti­ful as the PS2 version. 

With the addi­tion of Link to the cast for this ver­sion, the game is even bet­ter. Link fits right in with the pro­ceed­ings and man­ages to unbal­ance the game heav­i­ly in his favor. He’s the per­fect addi­tion, to be honest.

With a killer sound­track, beau­ti­ful graph­ics that hold up after 20 years, a deep sto­ry­line and supe­ri­or game­play to almost every­thing avail­able on the mar­ket at the time, Soul­cal­ibur II is a wor­thy suc­ces­sor in every way to one of the great­est fight­ing games ever made.

Street Fighter V — Issue 41

Don’t call it a come­back: SFV cleans up after launch

I’m going to be intense­ly per­son­al for a minute: My life by the time of my mid-30s was not fun. It was a time of change, reboots in near­ly every area (part­ner, career, school again), loss and learn­ing from the mis­takes of my 20s. I’m good now, but it wasn’t with­out strug­gle and pain.
And the old­est entry in the fight game can com­mis­er­ate with me because they know what that time is like. Street Fight­er V is sit­ting at the bar with me, drown­ing its sor­rows because it and the series, too, went through it in its mid-30s and like me is doing much bet­ter than one could expect after the struggle.
SFV didn’t start out as mag­i­cal as it has become. The launch was mired in prob­lems and things just weren’t where they should be. The game’s sto­ry mode didn’t launch along­side the actu­al game and the net­code was ter­ri­ble. But what a dif­fer­ence time makes. 

The sto­ry, while still not as engross­ing as past entries, has improved. It moves the SF world mythos along and makes sense if you know the series’ past. Tak­ing place between Ultra SFIV and SF3: 3rd Strike, Char­lie wakes up in a tomb and is guid­ed to steal an item from Guile, which would help him defeat M. Bison. Third Strike boss Gill dri­ves the plot over­all, tying up the loose ends between SFII and the endgame of 3rd Strike, which is the known end of the series sto­ry­line-wise. I love that Gill is tied into this as it always seemed like he was out of place as the end of SF lore. I nev­er ful­ly under­stood why he was the boss of that tril­o­gy of games except as some­thing new for Cap­com to try because every­one was sick of M. Bison by that point.

While I’m impressed with the sto­ry, I’m more impressed with the pre­sen­ta­tion. Much like its pre­de­ces­sors, SFV looks gor­geous. The back­grounds are beau­ti­ful as are most of the char­ac­ter designs. Even the menus look good. Some­times, when I start the game, I take a sec­ond just to mar­vel at the main menu and how the modes are pre­sent­ed. And let’s talk about the sound­track for a sec­ond. The music is all-around amaz­ing. Every time I get in-game, I dis­cov­er anoth­er track that I feel like I haven’t pre­vi­ous­ly heard, and I fall in love all over again. It’s so good that it’s worth track­ing down and adding to your music collection.

While I love the game, there is a big sec­tion I don’t care for: the play style. I’m an Alpha purist, specif­i­cal­ly SF Alpha 3. That’s my Street Fight­er style and has been for years. How­ev­er, SFV plays kind of stiff — a lot like SFIV — and that’s hard for me to grasp. It’s playable, obvi­ous­ly, but it’s not my style of Street Fight­er play. And that’s OK. It real­ly doesn’t detract from the game’s abil­i­ty to shine or be Street Fight­er, but it’s not my per­son­al pref­er­ence to play. It is a lot of fun to watch being played pro­fes­sion­al­ly, though.

Street Fight­er V has come a long way as the most cur­rent entry in the series. Game ele­ments have got­ten a lot of pol­ish, whether it’s fix­ing the net­code or expand­ing the ros­ter with old favorites and skins allud­ing to long-dor­mant char­ac­ters. It’s now the flag­ship game it should have been, and it’s still rul­ing the fight game roost while every­one waits for the announced Street Fight­er 6. 

Some­times, with the strug­gle comes the rewards and SFV has more than earned its life fight money.

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel — Issue 40

Bor­der­lands: The Pre-Sequel is a lot of retread

Stop me if you heard this one.
A group of four boun­ty hunters run amok on Pan­do­ra and open a trea­sure chest filled to the brim with loot after killing a bunch of things.
In fact, you should have stopped me, because you’ve heard that song and dance before. Twice to be pre­cise. It’s because I’ve waxed poet­i­cal­ly about two oth­er Bor­der­lands titles in pre­vi­ous issues over the past decade. It was all fine and well, that run­ning amok on Pan­do­ra. Until it wasn’t. You see, Bor­der­lands has charm and grace, know­ing when it’s hit­ting its lim­it at the bar. Bor­der­lands 2, well, you have to tell it when to stop because it thinks it can han­dle its liquor but real­ly can’t. Pre-Sequel? Brown liquor gives it courage to talk to folks a cer­tain way, and it winds up get­ting thrown out of the bar and Ubered home. It’s because Pre-Sequel thinks it’s some­thing we’ve nev­er seen before, when we all have and we’re not buying.
Bor­der­lands: The Pre-Sequel is set between the events of Bor­der­lands 1 and 2 sto­ry­line-wise but was released chrono­log­i­cal­ly after Bor­der­lands 2. Pre-Sequel tells the parts of the Bor­der­lands saga that we didn’t see hap­pen­ing simul­ta­ne­ous­ly in the first game and men­tioned in the sec­ond game: How Hand­some Jack dis­cov­ered the Vault; took over the Hype­r­i­on Cor­po­ra­tion and, by exten­sion, Pan­do­ra; and, cor­ralled an ear­li­er group to assist in his nefar­i­ous plans of dom­i­na­tion and galac­tic domin­ion. Along for the ride this time are char­ac­ters we already know from Bor­der­lands 2: Nisha Kadam, the future sher­iff of Lynch­wood and Jack’s future girl­friend; Wil­helm, pre-cyber­net­ic obses­sion and trans­for­ma­tion; Athena, wan­der­ing Pan­do­ra after the events of the Secret Armory of Gen­er­al Knoxx DLC in Bor­der­lands; and, Clap­trap, who’s assist­ed the Pan­do­ra Vault Hunters but doesn’t yet know he’s the sac­ri­fi­cial lamb of the sto­ry. These Vault Hunters are sum­moned through an EchoNet call from Jack to find the Vault on Pandora’s moon, Elpis. 
Know­ing what we know now about Jack and his motives, it’s safe to assume that there will be greed, mon­ey and shenani­gans involv­ing guns. Those are there, yes, but it’s just Bor­der­lands 2 with a slight­ly dif­fer­ent mask and a lack­ing sto­ry. Because make no mis­take: The sto­ry is not mov­ing for­ward here. It’s sole­ly meant to fill in some gaps, but it’s obvi­ous it’s not meant to be some sort of pitch-shifter that Bor­der­lands 2 or Bor­der­lands 3 were and are.
Know­ing this about the sto­ry, what you find when you get to Elpis is def­i­nite­ly a whole lot of typ­i­cal Bor­der­lands skull­dug­gery. From the begin­ning of the jour­ney once you touch down on the plan­et, the new mechan­ics of oxy­gen man­age­ment and low grav­i­ty are a pain to deal with and obnox­ious. Yes, you do need some­thing new to spice things up a bit, but it’s not imple­ment­ed with any type of pre­ci­sion or enjoy­ment. Con­stant­ly hav­ing to man­age how much oxy­gen is left while try­ing to avoid tak­ing dam­age means dis­trac­tion, and it ruins any sort of sand­box vibe the game might have been going for. Oxy­gen man­age­ment is also tak­ing prece­dence while work­ing through Bor­der­lands Begin­ning Syn­drome, or when you start a char­ac­ter in a Bor­der­lands playthrough with lit­tle to no help. The first few hours of any Bor­der­lands playthrough are slow and a slog with no help, and Pre-Sequel is no excep­tion. All oth­er mechan­ics are Bor­der­lands 2 based, so there’s noth­ing else new here of note.
Much like the non-new mechan­ics, the graph­ics are Bor­der­lands 2 based as well. So, you’re not going to see new tex­tures, though there are a few new ene­mies and NPCs to change things up a bit. The new ene­mies are slight­ly inter­est­ing, as are some of the boss­es. This has always been Bor­der­lands’ strength as fran­chise: Col­or­ful char­ac­ters that leave an impres­sion. Pre-Sequel man­ages to cre­ate some good­will with some new char­ac­ters, but they’re all in the style of Bor­der­lands 2. Bor­der­lands 2 was ser­vice­able in its graph­ics as a mar­gin­al­ly bet­ter upgrade to Bor­der­lands, so you’re get­ting that mar­gin­al upgrade here as well. The sound­track also is Bor­der­lands 2 based, so if you enjoyed that, you’re prob­a­bly going to enjoy this, too. There are a few tracks that stand out, but noth­ing spe­cial … much like every­thing else offered here.
Take Pre-Sequel for what it is: a stand­alone pack­age that real­ly should have been prepara­to­ry DLC for Bor­der­lands 2 or even fol­low-up DLC for that game. It real­ly shouldn’t have been held back after Bor­der­lands 2 because it works well as a stop­gap mea­sure between Bor­der­lands and Bor­der­lands 2. As a front-end sequel game, it’s just more of Bor­der­lands 2 — down to the reused assets and sound­track — and that doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly increase its endear­ing qual­i­ties, no mat­ter how much I love Bor­der­lands as a whole. At this point, it’s suf­fer­ing from sequel-itis.

Ken Griffey Jr.‘s Winning Run — Issue 40

The Kid’s SNES fol­low-up a guar­an­teed home run

There are a few things Rare, the bas­tion of all that is unholy in retro gam­ing, has done cor­rect­ly. One was Gold­en­Eye 007 for the Nin­ten­do 64. And anoth­er is the Ken Grif­fey Jr. MLB series.
Ken Grif­fey Jr., for the unini­ti­at­ed, is one of the best major league play­ers to have ever picked up a bat and glove. There was once a time that folks believed that Grif­fey would beat Hank Aaron’s home run record in the ’90s. Alas, once Grif­fey left the Seat­tle Mariners after the 1995 sea­son, he was nev­er the same thanks to numer­ous injuries. He’s still “that guy,” though, and it remains that his game series is one of the best in arcade base­ball. The first game was good, but the sequel — Ken Grif­fey Jr.’s Win­ning Run — is absolute fire.
Let’s start with the premise, because there actu­al­ly is some­thing of a sto­ry here. The open­ing cin­e­mat­ics show Grif­fey Jr. at the plate doing what he does best: Smack the ball. Already beloved by fans and team­mates, his hero­ics in the bot­tom of the 11th inning of the 1995 Amer­i­can League Divi­sion Series’ final game that year cement­ed the city’s love for “The Kid” and led to the birth of this sequel title. He was so beloved that when Grif­fey Jr. start­ed think­ing about retire­ment, Seat­tle active­ly cam­paigned for the Hall of Famer to sim­ply “come home” and reclaim his title of King of the King­dome. This set­up is lov­ing­ly craft­ed in just the intro, and the rest of the game is favor­able because of it. 
So, what’s inside the pack­age with a slick out­side? A lot, for a SNES game. There are sev­er­al ways to play, depend­ing on if you want a quick game or if you want to make a full 162-game sea­son of things. The MLB League mode is a great­ly appre­ci­at­ed fea­ture. In it, you can choose to play three types of sea­sons: A short 26-game sea­son, a medi­um 52-game sea­son and a full 162-game sea­son. There’s also an option to play an exhi­bi­tion game in the MLB Chal­lenge mode. I like the abil­i­ty to choose between those options, because maybe I don’t want to sit through an entire sea­son. I can’t do that in real life, so I know I don’t want to do that in a video game ver­sion. There’s even a mode to resume a pre­vi­ous­ly start­ed game. 
If you’re not so inclined to be a play­er, there’s a decent man­ag­er mode includ­ed. Ever the non-tra­di­tion­al­ist, if you’re like me and you want to skip to the end, you can run through a World Series mode where you play out the Series to crown your cham­pi­on. There’s also an All-Star mode where you can play through the tit­u­lar game and par­tic­i­pate in the Home Run Derby. 
With the wealth of options in how to play, it’s easy to actu­al­ly play. Win­ning Run doesn’t rein­vent the wheel of base­ball video game mechan­ics, which is a good thing. That means that even if you’re not a sports nut, you could prob­a­bly pick up the game and learn how to play base­ball. Base run­ning, field­ing, pitch­ing and bat­ting are easy to under­stand here, and the mechan­ics all come naturally. 
While Win­ning Run doesn’t have the MLB player’s license — nei­ther did the orig­i­nal game, either — it does have a fla­vor that com­pet­ing games at the time didn’t have: Charm and charis­ma in every detail. The graph­ics are clean, crisp and out­right beau­ti­ful. They are so well done that even 26 years lat­er, as a SNES game, they hold up. Even the menu graph­ics look great. Rare was killing it in the late por­tion of the SNES’ lifes­pan, and Win­ning Run is a stun­ning example.
And, for a moment, let’s talk about the sound­track. This is one of the few sports sound­tracks that I own. Rare’s sound team con­tin­u­ous­ly makes up for the sur­round­ing mess with qual­i­ty sound, and this is one of the best from their cat­a­logue. The main theme was fan­tas­tic, and the menu theme is out­stand­ing as well. Both themes add to the over­all pack­age and get things start­ed off right. The in-game ambi­ence is nice as is the play announc­er. Every­thing ulti­mate­ly cre­ates a good arcade base­ball feel, which you’re going to need if you’re going to slog through an entire pennant.
Tech­ni­cal­ly, aside from the lack of the MLB player’s license, there’s noth­ing wrong with Win­ning Run. The lack of play­er names and like­ness­es is a bum­mer, but it doesn’t real­ly take away from the core strengths of Win­ning Run. 
Excel­lent options, easy-to-under­stand mechan­ics and a fan­tas­tic sound­track make run­ning the bases fun in Win­ning Run. The Kid’s sequel effort paid off and bats high in the order of great sports games.

Mario Kart 8 (Wii U) — Issue 40

Mario Kart races back to form in Wii U edition

There comes a time in every Mario Kart fan’s life when you have to make a choice of whether you still love the series or if you don’t. I assume this, of course, because I have no idea if any­one still plays Mario Kart or not. I assume they do, and I just don’t know it. The series hit that fabled peak of ques­tion­abil­i­ty for me when Mario Kart Wii was released. GI wasn’t using a rat­ing scale when we reviewed it (editor’s note: This was reviewed in 3Q2008), but suf­fice to say it would not have received a good score. Mario Kart had a lot of work to redeem itself for me, a long­time lover of the series who start­ed in 1992. The lat­est orig­i­nal entry, Mario Kart 8, has made sig­nif­i­cant effort to pol­ish the series again.
Mario Kart, at its core, has always been about arcade rac­ing. There’s noth­ing real­is­tic about play­ing as var­i­ous Mario and oth­er gen­er­al Nin­ten­do char­ac­ters while romp­ing through var­i­ous Mush­room King­dom locales. It’s always been about the Mario charm expand­ed to fit with­in a palat­able dri­ving scheme that makes any­one a cham­pi­on go-kart enthu­si­ast. Mario Kart 8 does not shirk on this charm. If it’s a mem­o­rable Mario char­ac­ter, they’re prob­a­bly in this game. 
And, in a nod to the appeal of Nin­ten­do crossover and nos­tal­gia, there are new addi­tions from out­side the port­ly mus­ta­chioed plumber’s usu­al sus­pects: You can now play as Ani­mal Crossing’s Isabelle and The Leg­end of Zelda’s Link. While they don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly con­tribute any­thing new to the series, their pres­ence is enough to elic­it excite­ment because it means Nin­ten­do is final­ly open­ing Mario Kart up to the gen­er­al ros­ter. There is much to mine from, and if you’re ques­tion­ing any of this, look at the lead Smash Bros. has tak­en in this field.
Mario Kart has always been the sort of series that takes its his­to­ry seri­ous­ly. Entries after Mario Kart: Dou­ble Dash have begun ref­er­enc­ing the pre­vi­ous tracks of yore, some­times with var­ied results. Mario Kart 8 man­ages to gath­er a lot of stel­lar new tracks and some old that aren’t favorites but will suf­fice as entries. A lot of the old­er tracks are from more recent entries but make no mis­take — they are there for the pur­pose of draw­ing you in to remind you of the good times and then send you on your mer­ry way to try the new tracks. Tug­ging at my heart strings with a mod­ern SNES Rain­bow Road remake will get you every­where, though there are caveats to these remakes. 
While the tracks are great graph­i­cal­ly, the music is hit or miss. When I say I want a Rain­bow Road throw­back, I also want the orig­i­nal music to go with it. It doesn’t need a musi­cal over­haul because the orig­i­nal music was bril­liant. I’m not sure why Nin­ten­do thought it need­ed to have the sound remade, but it wasn’t a par­tic­u­lar­ly great deci­sion. Oth­er remas­tered stage choic­es, includ­ing Grum­ble Vol­cano and Music Park, are fine. And a lot of the new tracks are great; Drag­on Drift­way and Excite­bike Are­na are def­i­nite standouts.
Graph­i­cal­ly, the game looks amaz­ing. It’s the best-look­ing Mario Kart pro­duced yet. All the char­ac­ters look life-like, and the stages are incred­i­bly detailed. Even the water par­ti­cle effects look amaz­ing. There are times when there’s a brief lull in action that I can soak up the sur­round­ings, and I’m impressed by the Wii U’s under­stat­ed capa­bil­i­ty. Mario Kart 8 shows what the sys­tem could poten­tial­ly do. It’s a tes­ta­ment also to just how good Mario Kart looks in the mod­ern era.
Now, here’s where we may have some issues. I’m not fond of the AI rub­ber­band­ing, and I haven’t been a fan of it since the Mario Kart 64 days. We are a quar­ter of a cen­tu­ry grown up and past that, and we’re still hav­ing issues with last-minute vic­to­ries by the AI. This is a known issue at this point, yet it rears its ugly head still. Also, while a lot of the new tracks are cool — Excite­bike Are­na among the best of the bunch — there are some that do absolute­ly noth­ing for me. Track selec­tion is impor­tant, and this entry has dullards. Big Blue, for what­ev­er rea­son, keeps show­ing up in mod­ern catchall Nin­ten­do games, and it’s here, too. I’m not impressed with the track at all, and they could have come up with some­thing else. 
Also, while I love the Ani­mal Cross­ing track, it needs some­thing else than the series’ cute motif and catchy music. It’s your basic, run of the mill dri­ve around in a loop track, but it needs some­thing else to give it some pop. Same thing goes for the Hyrule track. It’s basic, too. What makes this worse is that the tracks are part of the DLC bun­dle for the game. If you’re ask­ing me to spend hard-earned mon­ey on extras, the extras need to be super spe­cial. I’m not get­ting that with those two tracks, specif­i­cal­ly. Thank­ful­ly, there are oth­er extras to be had that kind of make up for those.
Over­all, this is a sol­id entry in the Mario Kart sphere of influ­ence. This is the best entry in years, and it deserves some high praise for a lot of the things that it gets right. There’s always room for improve­ment, but the rac­ing king con­tin­ues to show why it’s the arcade rac­ing champ and why it con­tin­ues to rule the road of go-karting.