Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Little Things: Assassin's Creed Unity Journals (Part 2)

I have returned to the godforsaken wasteland that is “three Assassin’s Creeds ago”. Originally, I was only going to write the one piece out of spite, but I needed a break from Dead by Daylight’s multiplayer murder extravaganza and it was the only single player game I had installed. So, I guess we’re keeping this train on the rails…by…going…off the rails? The phrase “beautiful disaster”, I suppose, applies here. Even now, I cringe as snaggle toothed NPCs waltz together through Arno’s still virtual body. In this game, AFC stands for Absolute Fucking Chagrin. I regret everything I’ve ever done to get here. In fact, I dropped my controller while typing and Arno crouched. It took me far longer than I’m proud to admit to make him stop doing it. Left trigger, yes, where all games put their crouch toggle! I was a fool to assume otherwise. For change of pace though. Today I plan to walk through the game as if I weren’t playing it. This should help me find good things. Happier things that will make me not want to play through a game so difficult and edgy that I scream for sake of a palette cleanser. Let’s begin.

This, is where my journey to become one with France began. As I mentioned earlier, the people of Paris must have been informed ahead of my arrival that I was, in actuality, a human doormat. I shook them off and began my stroll. One compliment I will always pay Ubisoft: their game feels alive. People wander the streets purposeless, like we humans do on the regular, but unlike attendees at your local Walmart, their eyes dart, their necks crane. These people are looking for something. The little answers to complicated questions. “Why am I, French beadmaker Marie LaMotte here, in this seemingly accurate presentation of life as a construct. What is my purpose? Is it only making beads? Why is that twenty-something climbing the side of that building. Damn these French millennials climbing delicate architecture! What color beads should I buy from the man with the lifeless eyes today?” Marie is an intricate AI being, with thoughts and feelings in the form of seven different variations of “What is that? No. That over there.” I feel inhuman myself staring into the face of a being so lifelike. What color beads will I buy from the man with the lifeless eyes today? Only time will tell.

Leaves also fall from the trees in the cool Paris breeze. How many leaves, you ask? All of them. A new wave of leaves fall every 1-2 minutes. The trees have a regenerative power unbeknownst to me. We need to put the screws to Ubisoft so we can reveal the secrets of their ageless tree technology. This would revolutionize the tree industry. The paper industry will have to live, however, with newfound guilt at the thought of cutting down and processing something that cannot truly die.

I have just committed, as any historian would note, the greatest crime a Parisian could have committed in this era of history: a light jog. I began a run to distance myself from the terror of undying foliage when the above man’s head alit with a yellow marker. As we humans know well, a yellow marker over the heads of our friends and family means that they are displeased. You see the marker and know immediately that you should have moved out years ago despite your lack of income. This man, began to make Jersey Shore noises at me, while pounding his chest. I have been told that this means he is an “alpha male”.

I walked up to the man to apologize for my hurry and he responded in an entirely proportional and rational manner.

I have been returned to my shady purgatory, where now, the sun is slightly lower in the sky. Am I a tree as well? Undying against the shedding of my many leaves? I will have to test the theory later. I will try walking in the opposite direction of our alpha male friend as, while I am immortal in my tree-like mannerisms, the experience of being stabbed in the chest cavity seemed unpleasant, and I want to be a benevolent god when Arno notices his actions are not his own. At best, he will complain about standing still while I type. Then again, no one stabs a man who’s standing still. Right?

I have chosen a man dressed like Huckleberry Finn to follow. I want to see where he goes, what he does, what he whispers to the trees. I sense great struggle within him. He bites at his hands, and holds his arms tightly around his body in sadness. I want to know what this man did.

He stopped to talk to a woman, who placed her hand on his chest and face. She seems kind, as she curtsies to him.

Holy shit. Has this writer found their OTP in a Ubisoft game? Surely it isn’t so. I must follow deeper in. Where there are no trees and words are spoken aloud, without fear of overzealous alpha male stabbing attacks.

It was fun while it lasted. They did the thing. You know the thing. Where you’re holding hand with someone in a cartoon, but there’s a pole to play hand-chicken with? They lost to the pole and went their separate ways. The man in the hat has seemingly fused with this young woman in an act that I cannot believe I am witnessing in a public street. Paris is wild, man.

I became bored. In an act of fear (of being stabbed) and desperation (of ending this article so I can play Dead by Daylight again) I assaulted this man the second he shoved me. Retaliatory action…it turns out it does wonders sometimes!

Naturally, I was worried for the man Arno had stabbed, and so, I made sure to check him for bleeding. After having decided that 18th century medicine could not save him, I took his wallet to bring back to his wife. Yeah…that’s why…his wife.

Maybe we’ll be better people next time.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Donkey Kong's Face is a Mask and We Have Been Misled

On June 27th, in the year of "Everything is broken. Someone help." Donkey Kong's greatest secret was revealed while you slept. Maybe you didn't hear about it. But maybe you did, and you are quivering in mortal terror at its mere mention. I am sorry for opening your wounds, but the people have to know about this. The people deserve the truth about America's second favorite monkey (they're still using the memes people, the exact ape you're thinking of is still #1.) But, let's begin unraveling this ungodly horror.
Yes indeed, people, there is fur in the gaps around our golden boy's eyes. The fur continues. People on the internet, as they are oft to do, began taking @KatieAldworth and @theloserfish conspiracy all the way to the 18th hole. The results may shock you.
Our greatest hero is one of the many that hide behind a mask. In the same era that we discovered Yoshi's full species name, that Miyamoto-san confirmed Link's last name as...also "Link", and the year that Mario began swallowing people's souls with a magical hat that gives everybody bedroom eyes, we find that the mighty King of the Kongs hides his true face. That he has always hidden his true face, in-fact.

"re: to that donkey kong tweet that's been going around"- Louie Zong (@everydaylouie) on Twitter.
Credit to Louie Zong (@everydaylouie) for both the quoted tweet and above gif.

Only time will tell how many of our once beloved icons will betray us in this manner. But rest assured, I will not document them, as I am tired and jaded by repeated discoveries of falsehoods and hidden meaning. This kong may now be the one with "the funny face" but, in a turn of optimism thought impossible, he is still the "leader of the bunch".

If you make any startling video game discoveries you wish to share, keep them to yourself and most definitely do not post them in the comments. I could not take it. And make sure to check out the four Twitter accounts shown in this article (@theloserfish@KatieAldworth, @everydaylouie, and @MonkeyAfezar) to stay up to date on this unraveling scandal.

Credit for all tweets and gifs used in this article go to the original accounts included with each tweet. Thank you for your lovely contributions to our beautiful internet society. You are the real heroes.

Spotlight Check-In: STRAFE

If you visited here all the way back in the black and white era of 2015, you may have stumbled across a segment I used to do called "Spotlight". In the industry, spotlight means, to display or over-hype a game before its inevitable failure at the early access grindstone. I seems fair that, if we hyped a game up so much, we should also take the trip back to disclaim our incorrectness. So, without further ado: the first ever "Spotlight Check-In" for Pixel Titans' STRAFE.

When I first pitched this game to readers, the pros were obvious. The game played like twitch-shooters of yore such as Doom or Quake. It had been a dry spell for the genre, and Strafe appeared to be the breath of fresh air that it needed. However, Strafe did suffer a singular, and damning misfortune: coming out after the 2016 reboot Doom (2016). The new Doom proved why the genre worked, and what a truly refined experience could feel like, adding new mechanics including an execution system that may just become an industry standard outside of beat-em-up games thanks to ID Studios and Bethesda. In fact, nary a bad review in sight for the industry juggernaut reborn.

But then Strafe also came out, and reminded us why ID Studios decided to axe certain old aches and pains. Strafe's flaws are not new ones, but they have next to nothing to do with the twitch-shooting mechanics, which are actually tight, responsive, and fun to use. They all stem from the rogue-like aspects of the title. The random level generation is nowhere near as refined as titles that master it like Spelunky or Rogue Legacy, the system will drop you into scenarios where death is literally unavoidable. Just read the IGN review. As the review also states, the price-point for health, armor, items, is insane, often making the item that would make the next room attempt-able a mere window shopping experience. I rarely got to use any really interesting items in my play time, ending up stuck with only a double jump and the occasional teleporter piece. There are many hard games. For instance, reviewers are currently being ridiculed for comparing the new Crash Bandicoot remaster to Dark Souls, but those games feel like you've earned it when you win. My first win in Strafe felt like a fluke. I did not earn it.

I also feel the need to disclaim that on PC, the game is much better. If you really want to buy it, do so on your steam account. But the PS4 version? The framerate is appalling at times, making true speed strategies like leaving enemies alive, or running through ambush rooms impossible to do. A friend of mine who rarely plays any kind of game aside from the rare horror title said, and I quote: "It looks like one of those old-time-movie-thingies." They meant a zoetrope. A god-forsaken zoetrope. The experience was so similar to a moving picture device invented in 1833 that they pulled that exact example out first. PC has this problem much more rarely and is a sounder investment for those of you who like your video games to look like they're moving.

Now, there are some amazing things about strafe. The visuals have a strange sense of dimension to them that makes the visuals, when working, like nothing you've seen. The first time you use the teleporters to enter a level is jarring, but in a good way. It feels like being sucked into the world of Tron, and made me wish the game supported VR in spite of any barf-bags I would need nearby. I also want to give a standing ovation for the self-aware humor found in the game's few FMV cutscenes. The tutorial was a hilarious affair, and I wish there had been more of the instructional VHS humor peppered through the game. It felt like a bonding agent that wasn't double coated. So the game lost stick. I would love to see the folks who wrote and produced these FMV segments partake in the FMV Renaissance currently occurring in the industry. That game would be a laugh riot worth shelling out for. But in short, the failings here, while mechanical in nature, should not detract from the humor and aesthetic choices that are honestly the reason why it grabbed my eye in 2015 to begin with.

I have to congratulate these master humorists, again, on their pre-order bonus too. An industry first, pre-ordering the title got you the VV-1N weapon. When this gun is fired, well, you win the game. That's it. You pull the trigger and it gives you the "W" so to speak. This is brilliant satire, poking fun at the garbage practice of pre-order DLC, and if the entire game had carried this same level (see Jazzpunk) this game would be on everyone's lips right now.

All in all, I went from sixty to zero here. The game isn't bad, and playing on a PS4 instead of a PC didn't help, but I definitely oversold the title in my Spotlight article. I know of some foolhardy souls who live to die again and again in games that, are incapable of feeling regret at their deaths. This game is for that person, and they will have fun. But for casual players, retro shooter fanatics, or console-only speedrunners? Strafe around this one.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Relaxing Games for Non-Relaxed Players

You’ve just run face-first into your seventh cultist with a machete in Outlast 2. They’re an insta-kill enemy, and so you have to sit through another two-minute death animation and then another two-minute load screen. Add that up. You’ve lost 30 minutes of your very short life and some change. You go to throw your controller, but resist the urge, instead booting up something you love to ease up a bit. But this game from your childhood? You’re suddenly finding flaws, realizing you’re not as good at it as you recall. This time, you do throw it. Don’t go for the power button though. (Though if you’re actually at a breaking point, please do.) Instead, reach for your wallet as the republic demands you. Here’s a fistful of games that bring little to no stress, and will help you chill out after a stressful gaming experience.

The Katamari Franchise (PS2/PSP/PS3/360/iOS/PS Vita/Nintendo DSi)
Katamari is, ironically in the case of our intro paragraph, all about a critical perception of capitalism. But we’re not going to talk about it, as it will make you weirdly depressed and is perhaps worth another article in the future. Instead let’s talk about Katamari’s charm. The series is damn cute. Every simple shape is colored with delightful pastels, and the smallest objects are rendered with adorable detail. The premise is simple: grab all of the things. Cover your Katamari (a large sticky ball you roll around the world) with milk cartons, marbles, and bonsai trees to make your Katamari bigger. The requests of story mode have time limits and can be a little frustrating, but any entry with a zen, endless, or free-play mode allows the player to grab all they want without constraints.

Eventually, you can reach a point where you’re collecting people, houses, stars, and planets, giving the player an immensely large sense of control. Nothing stops the Katamari. If you were a normal game character in the Katamari’s path, this game would be part of a horror franchise (maybe worth making for Godzilla fans?) but the players control of the Katamari allows the player to entirely kick back. Add multiple colorful player characters, a fun and J-pop laden soundtrack, and the occasional NPC dance party for a really calming time with Japanese cultural influences. Like those with calmer heads say: “You’ve just gotta roll with it.”

Best of the Franchise
Katamari Damacy (PS2)- First entry in the series. Brings nostalgia and the original game vision.
We Love Katamari (PS2)- Self-aware humor about series success and the addition of co-op.
Beautiful Katamari (360)- Massive cosmic scale and the addition of online play and DLC levels.
I Love Katamari (iOS)- Katamari on the go. Play this entry on your iOS or Android device.

Oxenfree (XB1/PS4/PC)
Do you like things like Twin Peaks, Welcome to Night Vale, or other sleepy town mystery franchises? Add Oxenfree to your attention span! You play as Alex, a teen with a new step-brother on a trip to an abandoned tourist island with her friends and friends of friends. Take part in all the pleasures of teen aloofness, like watching all your friends get hammered while you don’t, as you are aware this is a “horror” game. I put “horror” in quotes for a reason. Oxenfree is more like a “supernatural thriller”. You’ll never be scared, but you may be slightly unsettled (in a good way.) The real appeal is the exceptional soundtrack, the realistically written teen characters and the simple artistic style of the game itself.

The controls for puzzles, a small hand radio that the player can tune to hear secret messages and otherworldly communications, are really satisfying, and no puzzles feel too complicated. Instead you get a heartfelt and lovable romp through a town that, while empty, feels truly alive thanks to the developer’s hard efforts to make it feel so. The game is short, but has multiple conversation branches and endings, so there’s always a reason to return to the island for another vacation with your new digital friends!

Costume Quest Franchise (360/XB1/PS3/PS4/PC)
If you’re a big fan of turn-based RPG’s then I highly recommend Costume Quest or Costume Quest 2 as a relaxer between sessions of more difficult RPG’s like Lost Odyssey or Final Fantasy. Thanks to the creative efforts of Double Fine, and their tendency to accept game ideas from all areas of the company, Costume Quest is full of childhood wonder and charm. The game centers on a brother and sister player character who must use their magical Halloween costumes and newfound friends to battle monsters who want to steal the Earth’s candy for themselves. When I say magical, I mean that, for example, a cardboard robot costume transforms into a massive mecha with rocket fists. The game’s mechanics include stamps and “creepy treat cards” which allow you to manipulate the space between turns and inflict status effects on enemies.

The game doesn’t just hand you the win, but it isn’t as traditionally grindy or difficult as the modern JRPG. This allows the player to sit back and focus on the childish wonder of discovering new costumes and solving simple environmental puzzles. The second entry adds time travel, new costumes, and a new set of locations and characters to mix up the action. Both use a timing based attack bonus system, similar to Shadow Hearts or South Park: The Stick of Truth, to keep players from completely disengaging. This mix of skill based bonuses and simple gameplay makes for a very relaxing Halloween treat, with a DLC for the first entry that makes it perfect for the winter holidays as well!

Stardew Valley (XB1/PS4/PC/Switch)
If you’re a big fan of games like Harvest Moon or Animal Crossing, I hope you get to play the game that has arguably mastered their mechanics: Stardew Valley. The thing that makes Stardew Valley relaxing isn’t the escapism from big business culture, thought it helps, but rather the fact that, in order to truly enjoy the game, you have to learn to let go of failure. My first night playing, I had a small panic attack, because I tried to do too much and passed out in the street from lack of sleep. But, the game doesn’t punish you for missing events, instead it makes you choose, while making sure that you’re taking care of yourself too. The game emphasizes self-care as a base mechanic, which we’ve seen before, but the player learns to do what they really want to do, and not to waste time trying to do it all. This is literally neglecting the farming aspects of the game, which funnily enough, take a backseat to meeting new neighbors and exploring the beautifully crafted rural town.

What makes Stardew Valley relaxing is the sheer number of things to do. Arcade machines with other full games on them, fishing, farming, gardening, crafting, it goes on for days. The same mechanics that have the player choose what to do ensure that you’ll want to come back the next in-game morning, looking forward to the next fun event. There’s even romancing options for those who find that kind of mechanic relaxing, but like everything else, it’s optional.

Abzu (XB1/PS4/PC)
Water levels are the worst design choice most video games can make, but Abzu manages to be entirely water level without ever being annoying or frustrating. The art is gorgeous, every single thing draws the eye and makes you want to take screenshot after screenshot. The fish move in believable ways, adding life to the already colorful ocean scenery. Speaking of the fish, you can actually learn things in this game! Using a special collectable shrine, the player character can enter a meditative pose and go first person, exploring the aquatic life in the area. In this mode, you can see every animal’s name if you yearn for knowledge.

If you’re more about gameplay, Abzu’s swimming feels very natural, and actually allows you to move in complicated ways without feeling lost. This is what every water level should feel like. The puzzles, which are the basis of the gameplay, are very easy and mainly require an awareness of your surroundings that should be natural when they’re so damn beautiful. I’d honestly set this game down in the same vein as Journey or Ori and the Blind Forest, meaning that the small price-tag is well worth all the amazing sights and sounds, and small design choices and narrative turns make the experience one of a kind.

Grow Home/Grow Up (PC/XB1/PS4)
Some of the most fun experiences in video games are zero-to-low gravity that allows crazy jumps and glides, stress-free collectables that give actual rewards, and a sense of exploring somewhere new. These are literally the backbone of the Grow Home franchise. You play as a small, child-like robot named BUD whose ship, MOM, crashes on a planet where plant life has a suite of unique traits and a simple art aesthetic allows the player to put his attention anywhere they want it without feeling like they’re missing something. You’ll climb, glide, bounce, roll, and escape the planet’s gravitational pull while collecting the scattered remnants of your mother (your ship, people.)

I haven’t met anyone who has played this game and been bored or disappointed. Even hobbyist players seem to be able to easily invest in BUD’s colorful world. You can use plants, which you can scan and use as deployable items, to catapult yourself, spew high-lifting geysers, and ride to the top of tremendous star-plant stalks. My only complaint is that BUD cannot touch water for more than three seconds or so circa 1995. It’s vaguely annoying to be gliding along, or carelessly flinging BUD around the planet’s orbit, only to skim a small pond and combust immediately. The pros well outweigh the cons though, and with this game set up to be free for Xbox Live Gold members through the Games with Gold program for July, I think you’ll be hearing even more on this one soon.

Ooblets (XB1/PC Releasing in 2018)
Double Fine is on this list twice, thanks to this title, working in conjunction with developer Gumberland to bring you Ooblets. Being compared to three games in particular, Ooblets mixes Animal Crossing’s home-making and aesthetic choices, Harvest Moon’s gardening gameplay, and…amazingly…Pokémon’s small creature battles. So, let’s clarify, you make a beautiful home for yourself and plant seeds and such that transform into plant-life battle creatures that follow you in a train, ready to battle Pokemon style. This. Is. Amazing.

The game was a crown jewel at E3 this year, appearing in Microsoft’s E3 conference and stealing hearts from then on. The customization of characters and homes is definitely going to provide players that love that kind of thing (me) a lot of freedom and a desire to earn newer cooler decorations for their home. Players who learn more towards traditional gameplay will enjoy the traversal of the world and the Pokemon inspired battles. Plus, it’s just super cute, adopting a similar pastel scene identity to other list members like Oxenfree. Keep an eye open for this one, as it is gonna be a mega-hit!

There are dozens of relaxing games, but then this article would coil into the sun like the stack of books that teachers always use in the math problem about reaching the sun. So, I’ll be listing a few here. Kick back, let off some steam, as steam is good for the Earth’s complexion and it will thank you with more relaxing games, you charming little steam-factory, you!

Firewatch (XB1/PS4/PC)- Aside from a few real-world stresses in the plot, exploring the natural park is soothing and satisfying. It feels alive! I wish it had VR!

Everything (PS4/PC)- In this game you can play as literally anything in the game, from grass to stars. There’s no real goal, so the player can just relax and laugh at the wacky animations.

Mini Metro (PC)- A simple puzzle game revolving around subway tracks, the simple design and smooth music is reminiscent of more relaxing flash games, and is just as accessible.

Botanicula (PC)- Play as a set of microscopic bugs and plants in a world that unfolds in the arms of tree-branches. The natural look is pleasant and the musical cues for interactions are gratifying, making every click feel warm.

Kami (PC)- A puzzle game about folding origami. It’s exactly what it sounds like, but soothing musical chimes make the puzzles feel like a relaxing learning session than a frustrating puzzle jam.

Refunct (XB1/PC)- Mentioned in my “Top Speedrunning Achievements” article earlier this week, this game offers calming atmosphere, and refined wall-jumping and acrobatic mechanics that never let the player feel inept. The only goal is to press buttons, or you can paint every block, but it’s all done at your own pace.

If you have a game that really un-grinds your gears, feel free to comment. I’d love to know how to make my readers, wild beasts that they are, more docile and pliable to, perhaps, subliminal suggestions hidden in long video-game related texts. In the meantime, enjoy your tangerine!

Top 10: Anime Video Games

Let’s talk Japan. From Sailor Moon to My Hero Academia, anime has a firm root in the states and does not seem to be letting go anytime soon. This affinity brings us an innate desire to see magical girls, kaiju, and shonen demon slayers punch and rasengan their way into our other media, with a (loose) Death Note adaptation coming to streaming service Netflix, and the Naruto Shippuden franchise enjoying a long run as a hit video game. Some franchises get left out in the cold (a non-PSP Soul Eater game would have been nice) and others still never escape the entry level that is the anime fighting game. But a good number of titles, some of them even just basic fighters, have enjoyed rousing success and a loyal fanbase. Let’s take a glimpse into some of my favorite anime video games!

10. Dynasty Warriors: Gundam 2 (Xbox 360/PS3/PS2)

Gundam is all about flashy mechs fighting unconquerable odds, complete with cheesy anime visual and audio effects. The folks over at Koei Tecmo, whose Dynasty Warriors franchise is all about the overwhelming feeling of one-versus-thousands and the feeling of overpowered bad-assery that comes with being able to handle those odds. Naturally, a Gundam-infused 1-v-1000 experience from the studio is a treat, with every special attack and newly unlocked Gundam model feeling like a titanic powerhouse of missiles and laser-swords. Lovers of the anime series will enjoy the generational narrative structure of these games, and the sheer number of fan references and characters included in the hack ‘n’ slash romp. I wish the studio had found a way to make non-melee combat feel more personal, but when cockpit deep in the hordes of Zaku that oppose you, the game feels just like home.

9. Naruto: Path of the Ninja (Game Boy Advance/Nintendo DS)
In an unexpected move, developer Tomy brought Naruto’s classic series to handheld in the form of a fun and simple turn-based RPG. The low-res visuals and emphasis on hyper-massive jutsu animations harken back to the early Final Fantasy days in a way the old RPG warhorses will really enjoy. While the simplicity of the game’s design is kind of a let-down, the number of party-ready characters, fun to use jutsu, and challenging JRPG bosses allows the game to stretch on just long enough to feel complete, without overstaying its welcome. I recommend it for diehard fans of the original series (especially the forest of death arc, as you spend most of your game time there) but for casual viewers, you’re better off with the Naruto games later in the list.

8. Soul Eater: Battle Resonance (Playstation Portable/Playstation 2)
Soul Eater has been treated a little harshly compared to similar anime, with the series ending early with a much less satisfying ending than that of the manga series. The franchises’ games did not escape this fate by any means, receiving three games, none of them making it state-side. I had the pleasure of playing a Japanese copy of the handheld fighting game Battle Resonance in freshman year of college, and let me tell ya, I really wish it had made the jump. The gameplay is a bit stiff for a fighter, with character taking a front seat to the gameplay, but this adds a strange level of strategy. The rigidity of the gameplay makes it completely necessary to learn space-control and to master character attacks properly. What really shines is the design of the game, which uses sound to masterfully capture the cartoon mischief that Soul Eater brings to its every incarnation. Maybe we’ll get lucky one day, and a new Soul Eater series will come to do things right, bringing with it a suite of new fighting games.

7. Yu-Gi-Oh: The Eternal Duelist Soul (Game Boy Advance)
If Hearthstone has taught the world anything: it’s that portability is key to a successful trading card game. Yu-Gi-Oh has many great video game editions (also check out the next-level fan-service of Duel Millennium on 360 and PS3) but none come close to the Game Boy Advance entries for a good number of reasons. The game operates on a five-tier difficulty system, that requires you to beat enemies multiple times to prove your victory wasn’t a fluke. The game also introduced “Polymerization” to the games for the first time, letting fusion mechanics add to game refinement. Players could obtain new cards in two very cool ways: by buying booster packs (ala Hearthstone) with in-game currency, or by entering 8-digit codes from physical trading cards. The feeling of adding your own real-world cards is gratifying and is a big part of why dedicated players should check out the game.

6. Attack on Titan: Wings of Freedom (Xbox One, PS4, PC)
Attack on Titan became a subject of colossal interest in the development community, with numerous mobile games being published, each experimenting deeply with potential mechanics, but only a year or two ago, developer Omega Force managed a near-perfect control scheme and now their attempt subtitled Wings of Freedom is the best effort made. Imagine an amazing blend on the classic Spider-Man game swinging mechanics with timing based critical attacks and momentum-based combat maneuvers. The game is highly challenging at first, but as you master the controls, level up your characters, and upgrade your blades, canisters, and mounts, you really start to feel like a master titan-slayer. The studio was incredibly dedicated, as once the story content of the first anime season ends, you can play side-missions and extra story scenarios that include later-series threats like the armored titan and the beast titan! If you’re a big fan of the show, you need to pick this game up right away!

5. J-Stars: Victory Versus (PS3/PS Vita/PS4)
The game America never should have gotten from the people who love the fans the most over at Bandai Namco, J-stars is a star-studded fighting game with 52 characters from over 30 anime series. The thirty-nine playable characters cover everything from Toriko to Dr. Slump with thirteen assist characters helping to bolster the already ridiculous roster. The tag-team formula encourages crazy mix-ups. Ever want to see Bo-Bo-Bo and Jotaro Jostar battle Vegeta and Gon? This is your game! The story mode is done in the style of the tried-and-true tournament arc, with each character having a bevy of personalized moves, character-filled design choices, and masterful dialogue interactions. The only reason this game takes the middle slot is that the scale of combat seems almost too large, with less powerful characters being lost in the mayhem. While speedy characters like Monkey D. Luffy or Goku shine, smaller one like Gon or Ariel get left behind in the debris. There’s something to be said though, about how once-in-a-lifetime such a crossover really is!

4. Dragon Ball Xenoverse (PS4/PS3/360/XB1)
Microsoft was kind enough to offer a “Free-Play Days” promotion period for this game, and so I got an amazing 48 hours with it that made me want to buy it immediately. As an agent of “Time Patrol” players create a custom character (choosing from Saiyan to Namekian to everything in-between) and travel through time to stop a dastardly villain from interfering in the Dragon Ball Z timeline. You’ll save Goku and friends from enemies who, though easily defeated in the anime, have been powered to the ranks of super Saiyan god level before Goku can even go super Saiyan himself! Every DBZ game has had a bad habit of making players go through the same arcs for years, but this time travel twist makes fights you’ve been having since DBZ: Budokai feel fresh. The game garnered an equally good sequel, so you know it’s well worth the now cheap price-tag.

3. One Piece: Burning Blood (XB1/PS4/PC)
One Piece has a history of exceptional games with heavily varied genres, but the latest entry Burning Blood brings the zany character diversity of One Piece to its maximum culmination. This 3D fighter is truly hard to master because every character plays entirely differently! But in this same vein, every character feels truly unique and fully realized. Logia fruit users get the benefit of a sort of limited-evasion technique that makes them an obvious choice for competitive play, but in single player, each fighter feels tailored to their unique strengths. The story mode will take you through the Paramount War arc, playing as Ace, Luffy, and Whitebeard primarily. But once you’ve explored all the branching story paths and completed all the optional challenges, bounty mode allows you to take on powerful survival teams based on in-show team-ups or fantasy league dream-teams. This game is packed with content and on higher levels will challenge even fighting game pros. With the Straw Hats rocking their post-time-skip abilities, the sheer scale of combat feels immensely powerful!

2. JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Eyes of Heaven (PS3/PS4)
I only recently got into the JoJo’s franchise, with most of my exposure coming from the SEGA fighting game based around the third arc Stardust Crusaders, but even casual fans will immediately see why this game has taken the number two spot. The sheer level of diversity in gameplay, and the huge amount of content is awe-inspiring, and serves as an excellent love letter to the fans from developer Cyber Connect 2 (who will also hold number one on this list.) Characters appear from the original story arc Phantom Blood, all the way to the most recent manga arc JoJolion. 54 fighters star and literally none of them fight the same way, requiring you to learn everyone separately in a show of true mastery. For example, Jotaro is obviously very accessible, with his moves focusing on getting in close and delivering mighty salvos of fist and knuckle, but switching over to Mariah will see you having to keep your distance luring fighters into traps to finish them off. No other fighter I’ve ever seen has taken this much time to develop every fighter into a unique arsenal, and the pay-off is an astounding romp through one of Japan’s craziest stories!

1. Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 (360/PS3)
Cyber Connect 2 truly understands every variable that made Naruto such a success in the west. The art appears so similar to the hand-drawn anime style, becoming increasingly more so in later entries, and every jutsu feels titanic against the battlefields. While more recent entries offer larger stakes, and tremendous character rosters, Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 has a sort intimate air, focusing on the pain arc, where death became a constant and emotions ran wild. The game really embraces the emotional tones of the show, inserting “flashback moments” into the fights. Finish an enemy in a certain way and you’ll get a short scene developing those character’s bonds. This is so integral to the heart of the show, and fans will be sure to well-up a bit. But most importantly, the story mode is fun and well-built, switching between a freely explorable ninja world and 3D fighting challenges. The boss design is something to marvel at, putting a lot of the greatest developers to shame. This game is all about shifting between emotionally well-written moments from the show, awe inspiring animation, and gameplay that will put your fighting game instincts to the test. This game still sits in my top 20 or so, and I highly recommend giving the remaster a try when Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm Legacy (a bundle of HD remasters for all 4 Ninja Storm games and their DLC) when it hits in September of this year for $79.99.

Hundreds of anime remain without proper adaptations. Maybe someday we’ll see an adventure game for Cowboy Bebop that makes your hand shake, a brutal fighting experience set in the world of Kill La Kill, or, if we dare dream, a cross-company crossover game that gives us even the non-Jump characters we know and love. Probably not though, because Americans don’t buy Japanese games. It’s their self-centered thinking and tendency to literally wear their nation’s flag as a sort of super-hero blindfold. It can’t be helped, but if there’s an anime game you really love, feel free to tell the world about it below. Plus ultra!

Thursday, June 29, 2017

It's Alive!!!: Game Genres That Need to Be Saved From the Dead

Spacewar came out in 1962, so technically games have existed for somewhere around 55 years. In that time, many fads have come and gone; parachute pants, Tab, whatever we deluded ourselves into thinking that Poggs were. But in the line of duty, some video game genres have crashed a burned in the wake of the mighty market. Gone are the days of cartoon geckos chasing TV remotes, and poorly rendered soldiers belly-crawling beneath a seven-polygon jeep. Let’s take a look at the genres we’ve lost. These genres are going to get very specific, so bear with me here.

Animal Mascot Platformers
The late 90’s and early 2000’s were strange a difficult times. We were a nation in mourning over our economy, young men and women were entering the industry, raised on Ninja Turtles and Transformers, and to compensate, we made everything “radical”. We did. It was our sin. We dared play god with backwards caps, kickflips, and energy drinks. This birthed the unthinkable. Developers thought, “If it worked for Sega. It may work for me.” And the animal mascot, a time tested classic staple of the industry, was rebirthed as an icon of this video game era. There was some good from it. Play Banjo-Kazooie, Crash Bandicoot, or Conker’s Bad Fur Day to see the positive impact. But others existed. Awesome Possum, Ty: The Tasmanian Devil, and Punky Skunk existed to lower this same bar. Eventually the bandicoot, the gecko, and the hedgehog took on one too many sequels and the genre saw a strict decline, along with 3D platformers in general. Shooters were the new big easy with the Call of Duty games earning so much money, and so studios changed focus.

But as with anything dead and then suddenly undead. The arrival of one in this day and age has ushered the return of its long dead siblings. Yooka-Laylee is the first of a new wave, and initial reviews were not kind. The thing is riddled with nostalgic touches like: finnicky controls and a bad camera that, while essential to the original 90’s platformer experience, are kind of a modern-day death-blow. Now we have a new Bubsy game, a Sonic game with a character creator, and HD remasters of the original three Crash Bandicoot games arriving. I do not know which of these will be good and which will spiral us into a dark age of longboards and Pizza Hut exclusive DLC packs. But hopefully, as we escape this tunnel, so genuine good will arise in the form of an edgy new entry in the Flicky franchise.

If we are so lucky.

Awesome Possum/Aero the Acrobat/Punky Skunk/Crash Bandicoot/Gex the Gecko
Sly Cooper/Ratchet & Clank/Banjo-Kazooie/Conker’s Bad Fur Day/Yooka-Laylee
Sonic the Hedgehog (2006)/Shadow the Hedgehog/Spyro the Dragon/Scaler
Ty the Tasmanian Tiger/The Legend of Kay/Bubsy/Blinx the Time-Sweeper
Crazy Hedgy/Freedom Planet/Mr. Nutz/Oscar/Radical Rex

The Instrument Rhythm Game
There are many who will try to tell you that this genre is, in fact, very alive, with the release of Harmonix’s Rock Band 4 and Activision’s Guitar Hero Live. If you see me in the “real” world, I am one of these people. But here, on the internet, it is obvious that nobody buys plastic guitars anymore. It has reached critical mass. So much so, that Mad Katz has suffered tremendous financial harm for assisting in Rock Band 4’s development cycle.

DISCLAIMER: I am heavily biased. I participated in Harmonix’s “Rock Band Road Crew” promotion. I was given a free “Band-in-a-Box” Bundle. I liked the game very much. Understand that I am heavily biased in my liking of this thing. But, it is really good.

There was a time when buying a fake instrument was great. It was cheaper than buying the real thing and you could pretend to be Slash, Gene Simmons, or someone, perhaps, less slimy, without leaving the house. The setlists were good (for a time) and friends actually wanted to play these plastic devices with you. Now, the ironic enjoyment of your peers has vanished. The new generation uses “cheesy” as a hard negative when used in reference to anything other than films like Birdemic or The Room. Your instruments were either given to the Goodwill or gather dust in your parent’s garage. Harmonix made a good show, offering instrument backwards compatibility, backwards compatible DLC music, and even extensive post-launch support that only ended a few months ago. They made one game, just one, after seeing they’d made too many, and just fed players free things. Good job.

But Activision…no…they did not just make their one thing and sit back. They made a new guitar, new controls, music streaming with microtransactions. They tried to enter the “games-as-a-service” market and bombed badly. I played this game too, received as a holiday gift. I have since re-gifted it. I am not sorry. I did not want to re-learn a whole new fake instrument. I wanted to use the same one, for the same thing, but with new music. This could have still been a service and succeeded. But instead, a dated business model met with new age blunders and came up empty. I commend you for trying. All in all? This genre is in the ground until VR and AR make it an experience that needs no instruments, or until barcades finally catch on again and start offering free token for Guitar Hero with every mojito. This last reality is definitely the closest to ours, and would not surprise me.

Rock Band/Guitar Hero/Rock Revolution/Rock of the Dead/Fret Nice
Guitar Freaks/DJ Hero/Power Gig: Rise of the Six-String/Guitar Hero Live
Band Hero/Donkey Konga/Guitar Hero: On-Tour

Ironically, peripherals are likely what put this genre in the ground as well. If you’ve ever been to an arcade and played House of the Dead, Carnevil, or Jurassic Park, you understand the appeal of feeling a plastic gun in your hand while you blast away zombies, clowns, and dinos. But translating this to the home market has always been next to impossible. There’s a long and complicated history of home-ready gun peripherals, but none have ever truly caught on despite the Wii’s motion controller coming closest. It’s even a genre we’ve always explored, with light-gun game Duck Hunt serving as an NES launch title, to be followed by Hogan’s Alley.

A few modern games have tried however. The Playstation 3 has a fairly large selection of games that utilize its Playstation Move device and the “sharpshooter” attachment. These include classics like House of the Dead and Time-Crisis, while inviting new titles like Dead Space: Extraction and Resident Evil Chronicles. These are all top games, but the barrier to entry is the purchase of a Playstation Move, a Playstation Eye-Camera, and the sharpshooter peripheral. This is obviously a bit much to enjoy around 15-20 rail-gun games. The Wii failed a similar gambit on its Wii Zapper peripheral due to the forced scarcity of the console’s stock and the leaning towards more child friendly games. But if you really want to explore, some of the best Wii games are mature rated rail-shooters like House of the Dead: Overkill.

Modern developers try to varying degrees of success to bring the genre to bear on newer consoles thanks to new motion control and VR devices (Blue Estate, Fable: The Journey.) Even fewer dare to port their game over with nothing but controller support (Attack of the Movies 3D, Men in Black: Alien Crisis.) While it is bold to say the genre is “dead”, it certainly isn’t breathing.

House of the Dead/Dead Space: Extraction/Duck Hunt/Hogan’s Alley/Time Crisis
Ghost Squad/Area 51/Carnevil/Silent Scope/Jurassic Park/Invasion/Terminator: Salvation
The Ocean Hunter/Men in Black: Alien Crisis/Blue Estate/Attack of the Movies 3D
Wild Gunman/Super Scope 6/Resident Evil Chronicles/Die Hard Trilogy

Arcade-Style Extreme Sports Games
When I was a young man, the only sports games I would play were Wave Race 64, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, and, uncomfortably, Disney Skate Adventure. I grew up and played early SSX games, Shaun White Snowboarding, and of course Arctic Thunder and Hydro Thunder. I was drawn to these thanks to local arcades, and the over-the-top nature of these games. I would never play a main entry in NBA Live, but NBA Jam was one of my favorites. I deeply believe that this is because…well…you can play sports in the real world. I can go outside to a park and shoot free-throws, to a local bar/alley and bowl. But in real life, I cannot light the basketball on fire (or can I?) and go in for mad dunks on Bill and Hillary Clinton. That’s some games only vacation that more people deserve to go on.

It’s time to return to the days of yore. When skateboards would run over a power up and escape the Earth’s gravity, where Barrack Obama can square up with the Burger King in a 3-on-3 game, where mini-golf means being interrupted by titanic dragons and violent car chases. Put the arcade back in “Arcade Sports”! A remake of NBA Jam for the Xbox Live Arcade, alongside the Shaun White franchise tried to do it the old way. Blood Bowl tried to return us to the age of limb-ripping footballing. But one game proved that this rebirth can be done by exploring new venues. 

Rocket League. It’s the hot new craze. People are still playing it. They've added hockey and volleyball and the promotional items range from DC's Batman to the recent cartoon hit Rick & Morty. Let’s take this same arcade zaniness and focus on free content and customization and run with it. Let’s make Billy Crystal play cricket on the moon. It’s video games, we can do anything! Let’s act like it!

Mutant League Football/Blood Bowl/NBA Jam/Shaun White Snowboarding
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater/Rocket League/Fuzion Frenzy/#IDARB
Sportsfriends/Disney Skate Adventure/Lethal League/Windjammers/Disc Jam
Cyberball/Neo Turf Masters/Punch-Out/Mario Hoops 3-on-3

Looking back, if this article had been written ten years ago it would include Adventure Games (The Walking Dead/Thimbleweed Park/Tales from the Borderlands) Simulators (Goat Simulator/Farming Simulator 2016/Surgeon Simulator) and Arcade Shooters (Bulletstorm/DOOM/Painkiller: Hell & Damnation). But humans love the underdog, I’m told. I would not know as I am no longer human. But this sentient mass of stress and pizza bagels believes in change. We can change these dead genres and bring them back to life. Let’s just, you know, be smart about it this time. Please.

Feel free to leave other genres near and dear to you, that also happen to be dead. With these posts please leave flowers and tasteful eulogies, as the dead are to be respected. Rest in peace, DJ Hero. You were an amazing one-week lover, and you will be missed. Godspeed little turn-table. Godspeed.