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Tuesday, June 23, 2015
Wednesday, April 10, 2013
Metacritic score: 94
VGChartz sales to date: Unknown
WHAT MADE IT GREAT
Death is the one certainty in life. Ok, Benjamin Franklin thought taxes were another but he was born before tax fraud became enshrined in our system as loopholes. But no amount of Swiss bank accounts can stave off death, sooner or later it comes for us all. Death is a daily occurrence, as sure a bet as the sun rising in the East each day, and yet it never feels mundane or everyday even when it doesn't effect us personally. When death recently came for LucasArts it was a blow to many gamers because the studio has created some classic gems during its heyday, perhaps one of the greatest of which being Grim Fandango.
The game draws many themes from the Dia De Los Muertes festival in Mexico including both design and story elements. Souls of the recently deceased must travel through the Land of the Dead (no relation to the Romero flick) to reach the Ninth Underworld. Those who lived good and honorable lives ride the express train and make the journey in just a few minutes. If your life was, shall we say, a bit more raucous you have to travel on foot which adds about 4 years onto the trek. These souls are represented as calaca figures and many of them decide to take up permanent residence in limbo. Some of them become Grim Reapers, agents who help ferry other souls to the Ninth Underworld, but many of them fill more mundane jobs. You'd think someone already dead wouldn't have a lot to worry about, but it's possible to suffer a more final death if you fall victim to 'sprouting'. This is caused by toxic darts that make flowers grow from your bones (literally pushing daisies) and it makes for a powerful incentive for the souls to stay in line. Within this setting, Tim Schafer (who you may remember from a previous feature) has crafted a neo-noir crime thriller that's straight out of Hollywood's silver age.
|The Land of the Dead is a surprisingly lively place|
|Don't worry if you're not as suave with the dames as Bogart was, if you botch a conversation you can still try again until you get it right|
|Also like in Mad Men, the characters are constantly smoking. The instruction manual helpfully points out in very tiny print that they are all dead already and thus not good role models.|
The gaming landscape is constantly shifting over time, partly the result of consumer tastes and partly thanks to advancements in the necessary hardware and software. Grim Fandango's 1998 release came at a pivotal time as the year marked the release of multiple titles that would come to define the current era of gaming. Metal Gear Solid and Thief gave birth to the stealth action genre, Half-Life redefined first person shooters and Ocarina of Time highlighted just how far adventure games had evolved beyond their interactive story origins. Each of these games could only be possible because the technology supporting them had advanced far enough to allow for the improved environments, AI and gameplay mechanics they were built on. The result was that players could take a greater level of control that previously didn't exist, letting you direct your character to perform more complex actions directly instead of watching them play out in cut-scenes.
As action oriented games began to fully dominate the market, graphic adventure games found themselves thrust into the Land of the Dead and heading towards the afterlife. Grim Fandango can be thought of as the earliest death rattle of the genre as it sold poorly despite considerable critical praise and a sincere marketing push. Despite LucasArts' insistence that Grim Fandango met sales expectations, the company decided to drastically scale back their focus on similar adventure titles. The Sam & Max series was mothballed, a planned sequel to Full Throttle was scrapped, and Tim Schafer, the man responsible for designing most of LucasArts' stable of adventure games, left the company to found his own studio Double Fine. Rival studio Sierra, the other big name in adventure games, looked at the poor sales of Grim Fandango and, seeing the writing on the wall, decided to exit the genre also. In a cosmic twist of irony, Grim Fandango became the reaper for the entire graphic adventure genre.
|Sure reaping seems like a sweet gig, but you'd be surprised how rarely you get to wear the robes and the benefits are terrible|
WILL WE EVER SEE IT AGAIN
Is it possible for a Grim Reaper to return among the living? There are a lot of people hoping that will happen and they'll accept it in just about any form. That's because we haven't seen so much as a pinky bone from Manny since his original debut, LucasArts owns the rights and hasn't shown any interest in making a sequel. Some might say that's a wise decision since Schafer was such an integral part of its tone and without his input it would be impossible to recapture that. But gamers who missed out in 1998 haven't gotten an HD re-release or even a straight port to console. You can't even download it on Steam, the only way to get your hands on a copy is by begging a friend or scoring one online where used copies still go for around $50.
|If you want an unopened copy you have to stand before the Gate Keeper while he stares deep into your soul and judges whether you are worthy of the honor.|
|What is dead may never die, but rises, harder and stronger|
Wednesday, April 3, 2013
Platform: Arcade; later ported to Amiga, Atari ST, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, NES and ZX Spectrum
Metacritic score: Not available
VGChartz sales to date: Unknown
WHAT MADE IT GREAT
Ultra-violence is nothing new to entertainment, from modern cinema back to the gladiatorial fights of Rome it's clear that humans have a deep desire to witness bloodshed that goes well beyond our actual propensity for causing it (for most of us, anyway). Just as old is fretting over the societal impact such violence supposedly causes. In the 1950's there was a Congressional inquiry into whether comic books caused delinquency and Homer's Odyssey, composed sometime around 1200 BC, is best summarized as a tale of monsters, cannibalism and violent death that ends with the hero savagely murdering the hundred or so men who tried to sleep with his wife during his 10 year absence. In one of the earliest recorded acts of political censorship the infamously sadistic Caligula attempted to ban it on account of its depravity. NARC, a product of Williams' arcade division, was one of the first to confront this topic in video games and drew plenty of controversy at the time.
|It's no Breaking Bad, but back in 1989 this was a pretty sweet drug lab. Look at the size of those beakers!|
In many ways the game is a mashup of two distinctively 80's conventions: action films and Nancy Reagan's Just Say No campaign. This heady concoction was then turned all the way up to 11, as evidenced by the license plate on the fake Porsche murder-machine that reads "SAY NO OR DIE". That threat is backed up as you mow down waves of junkies and dealers to unravel a powerful cartel. In the gritty dystopia which you protect and serve the streets are under constant threat by the drug network known as K.R.A.K. and NARC units patrol with Judge Dredd-like authority over crime and punishment. You and a color coordinated partner are given dual SMG's and a rocket launcher along with the aforementioned Mad Max mobile to clean up those streets in the most violent way possible. You can also bust enemies when you get next to them which rewards you with more points, but it's certainly more entertaining to blow them to pieces with a rocket. Enemies drop cash and drugs which adds on to your score at the end of each level, but the real reward is knowing your murderous rampage has made the city safe from the dangers of drugs. Actually, your real reward is finally confronting the kingpin Mr. Big who [25 year old spoiler alert] is the massive floating head of a rejected Miami Vice villain.
|Are his initials ME, or does he actually have a framed portrait of a himself labeled "me" in case he forgets who he is?|
|This exists solely to terrorize the dreams of children|
Unless the above image has traumatized you into a coma, you've probably already guessed why this game flew under the radar. Despite its aggressively strong anti-drug policy, the game nevertheless attracted criticism because it still contained numerous references to drug use (even if all those references were "If you do drugs a militarized cop will blow you to smithereens"). When the game was ported to the NES by Rare in 1990, the instruction manual proudly proclaims it to be the first video game with a strong anti-drug message even though Nintendo insisted upon scrubbing all references to drugs from the game. In the NES version, criminals no long drop backs of crack which implies that instead of taking down dealers, you're now just blowing away addicts wandering the streets in a drug-induced haze. That's really more of a strong anti-rehab message, but either way the distinction was lost on angry parents.
But it was the level of violence in the game that earned it the most criticism. It wasn't the first game to give the player an automatic weapon and infinite ammo, but it was one of the first to include animated gore. Blood sprayed from enemies when they were shot and a rocket blast would send bloodied limbs flying in all directions, not quite what we'd called realistic violence today but at the time it was more graphic then anything people had played before. Williams seemingly knew well enough to try and skirt the controversy, as aside from the bullet holes and blood splatter across the logo the arcade flyers seem to intentionally downplay the amount of drugs and violence. That strategy is probably what prevented the sort of all-out media backlash that greeted Mortal Kombat's commercial success, but it also ensured that NARC cabinets remained in the seedy shadows of the already incredibly sketchy arcade scene.
|Bullets, drugs and cash drop from almost every enemy but rocket ammo is very precious. Explosions like this make it hard to not pull the trigger.|
WILL WE SEE IT AGAIN
While attitudes regarding what level is violence is considered "normal" or acceptable in video games, it's unlikely NARC will ever rise from the ashes. An attempted reboot of the franchise was launched by Midway in 2005 but it bombed spectacularly. The game was billed as a direct reboot of the original, but the nonsensical plot was further hashed out in a vain attempt to not make the game seem balls out crazy. Also, in a move that would have brought swift death from the original duo of Narcs the remake gave players the option of stealing the drugs they bust and using them to gain perks like increased fire accuracy. Kind of lost the whole anti-drug message there, and it sort of calls into question the methods used to prevent the flow of apparently beneficial illegal narcotics. Decisions such as this sparked an even more intense reaction then the original game. Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich remarked on its release "These kinds of games teach kids to do the very things that in real life, we put people in jail for.", and he should know since he is currently serving 14 years in a federal prison for corruption charges.
The reboot was probably destined to fail regardless of any controversy because the game is a true relic of the 1980's. The shredding theme (which was awesomely covered by The Pixies), the radical biker getup for two cops that never use a motorcycle, and the hilariously incongruous stern anti-drug warnings delivered through extreme violence are all so uniquely 80's that anyone who didn't live through the decade would probably be completely bewildered by this game. In that sense playing the game can be an exercise in cultural anthropology, trying to wrap your head around a simpler time when machine-gun toting cops who executed drug users on sight was considered preferable to the crack epidemic. For that reason alone it's probably worth tracking down an original copy or the version ported to PC, Xbox and PS2 in the Midway Arcade Treasures 2 collection. The more widely available NES version was hampered by the two-button controller scheme and noticeably inferior graphics, but still made for a fun two-player game. But if you ever happen past a NARC cabinet it's definitely worth your time to plunk down a quarter or two. Just make sure you keep your nose clean if you hope to survive the encounter, because as we all know Winners Don't Use Drugs.
|Anyone who played an arcade game between 1989-2000 remembers this title screen. It may have kinda sorta worked too since teen use of weed and cocaine fell slightly during this period, though meth and ecstasy usage skyrocketed so make of that what you will.|
Wednesday, March 27, 2013
Platforms: PS3, 360, PC
Metacritic score: 80 (cross-platform average)
VGChartz sales to date: 2.2 million
WHAT MADE IT GREAT
Hey, you got first-person shooter in my platformer! No, you got platformer in my first-person shooter! Wait a sec...this tastes great! That is the internal monologue that must have played out in many gamer's minds when they first sat down to play Mirror's Edge. Developed by Swedish team DICE, whose Battlefield series proves they know how to cram much more then just simple gunplay into an FPS, Mirror's Edge was an attempt to reinvent the platforming genre. Mario 64 had demonstrated that platformers could be just at home in a 3D world as the 2D realms they had been born in, but it still stuck to a traditional 3rd person perspective. DICE figured the time was right to bring gamers into the protagonist's head by building a game around an offshoot of parkour known as freerunning. Combined with a bold artistic style, a strong female playable character and it's emphasis on speed and agility over firepower Mirror's Edge immediately stood out from the crowd.
|Faith's routes run both on top of and inside the city's many skyscrapers, but the cold steel and blue color palette gives the city a very uniform and sterile feeling.|
|Don't look down...don't look down...don't...aw crap, I pooped myself again|
|Most guys would kill to have Faith's legs wrapped around them, but I don't think this is what they have in mind|
Finding the path that allows for the best running line could have been challenging in such a clean, polished cityscape. Fortunately DICE made the smart move to integrate the game's artistic design with the practical need for pathfinding. The color red plays an important role in this design, highlighting different parts of the environment in a way that draws your attention to natural routes through the urban obstacle course. Extending the concept further, the color red is used as a highlight to story elements, characters and other aspects of the game the developers want you to notice. Because you are constantly looking for the next direction to run in, this element has the effect of making certain things really pop out at you and enhances the overall artistic design. And there are plenty of eye-popping moments to be found, from Faith's wall-running, back-flipping traversals while under heavy fire to some truly acrobatic moments at about 100 stories up. Seeing all this from Faith's own eyes is unnerving at first, but once you become comfortable you realize it's a whole new way to view platforming.
|Motion blur not only adds realism, it also makes the chase sequences seem that much more frantic|
Some mashups, like peanut butter and jelly, are instantly recognized as a hit while others, such as pineapple and pepperoni pizza (trust me), are slower to catch on. MIrror's Edge made bold choices when it came to just about every gameplay and design decision, so naturally it was bound to polarize audiences. Most critics were highly positive, citing the groundbreaking 1st-person take on platforming and the visual style as strong redeeming qualities. Game Informer called it "genre-defining" and compared it's intense first-person action to Call of Duty 4. Coincidentally, Mirror's Edge would release on the same day as another CoD game.
|The cutscenes were animated instead of being rendered in the Unreal Engine 3 the game was built on, a decision that some enjoyed while others found it distracting|
WILL WE SEE IT AGAIN
If things go according to plan, the we can most certainly expect to see the series return. Without giving anything away, I can say that Faith's future seems set on a path toward greater danger. An EA senior VP confirmed the game in 2009, only for a rumor that development had stopped over concerns about the early builds to spread in 2011. However, as of 2012 there have been more rumblings from both current and former DICE developers that the game is in the works. DICE has certainly been busy with Battlefield 3 with End Game, the final DLC, ready for release and recent confirmation that BF4 is already in the works, so there might not be time to switch the focus back onto Mirror's Edge. After all, DICE's on executive produce has said the series is "too good to kill", so hopefully we'll get more word on we break out the split-toe running shoes and hit the pavement.
If you really can't wait that long and you've already mastered the incredibly challenging time trial modes, you can always check out the 2D side scrolling version for iOS. It does a decent job of mimicking the look of the game but feels distinctly more like Sonic then Mirror's Edge. Also, putting ads in a game that costs $10 for the iPad version is just low class. But at least it demonstrates that EA believes there's money to be made off this series, now let's all hope they do it right with a fully-fledged sequel. Maybe with a sweet online mode that goes beyond chasing time trial ghosts. However they decide to build upon the first game, it will be great to be reminded once again just how far platforming has come from it's humble origins.
|It's your city. Run it.|
Wednesday, March 20, 2013
Platform: Atari Jaguar
Metacritic score: Not available
VGChartz sales to date: Unknown
WHAT MADE IT GREAT
For as long as there have been monster movies, there have been heated debates over which monster is stronger. Hollywood and video games have been only too eager throw fuel on the fire ever since 1943's Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman set off a trend of monster movie mashups. Even the two biggest names in monster movies got in on the act and it shouldn't surprise anyone that King Kong vs. Godzilla is still the most commercially successful entry in the Godzilla franchise. So it was only natural that when 20th Century Fox added the Predator to a stable of monsters that already included the first two Aliens films people began clamoring to see the two title monsters duke it out directly. Dark Horse Comics was the first to deliver while an Easter egg in Predator 2 made the crossover all but official, but it was clear this was not nearly enough to satiate the public's desire for a mashup. In stepped Rebellion to develop the most highly anticipated game for what was at the time the most powerful console on the market: the Atari Jaguar.
The game is played as a first person shooter, but the experience is very different depending on which of the three playable characters you select. AvP let's you play as either an alien, predator or marine each with their own story and unique abilities. As Marine Private Lance Lewis, you start out in the brig totally defenseless when the aliens attack your base. You're goal is to get a gun, regain security clearances and gain access to the base's self-destruct console before making your getaway in an escape pod. As a Marine you can use a variety of weapons such as shotguns, plasma rifles and flamethrowers along with the exceedingly helpful motion tracker. You can also heal yourself with medkits (but can't carry any) and traverse the base using either the elevators (with proper clearance) or the air ducts. As a predator your mission is to kill the alien queen and claim her skull as a trophy. True to the films you come armed to the teeth and can cloak to (mostly) hide from enemies, but instead of scavenging weapons you earn them through honor points. Killing enemies while visible with your melee wrist blades will earn you the most points, whereas as using ranged weapon while cloaked will actually cost you honor points causing you to lose access to some of your upgraded weapons. The predator can use and carry med kits but is limited to using elevators to get around the ship. The alien character stands out from the other two because you are limited to melee attacks but can also move significantly faster. You can't heal yourself at all, but you can cocoon any marines you kill to create a respawn point in case you die. Another advantage is that the predator's cloak doesn't work on you, very useful since your objective of rescuing the queen from a predator ship means you'll be fighting lots of them. Like the predator you are limited in how you can move around the ship with air ducts being the only option.
|Face huggers were some of the most terrifying enemies in the game. Not only did they strike suddenly, they also blocked your view making it hard to defend against the swarms of aliens that were often lurking nearby.|
|Being able to cloak yourself at will was extremely useful when fighting in crowded rooms, but the cost in honor points and the more difficult vision mode it triggered helped balance it out.|
WHAT WENT WRONG
Unfortunately not enough people were willing to buy the $250.00 Jaguar (just under $400 in today's money) for a single game. Despite being much more powerful then the Genesis or SNES and it's claim as the first 64-bit console, the Jaguar had little else going for it. Few 3rd party developers were willing to deal with the chipset's unique architecture and many viewed it as severely flawed. Further compounding the issue was poor initial sales of the console as a result of lackluster first party games such as the universally panned Trevor McFur which simply paled in comparison to Mario or Sonic as a console mascot. As a result few publishers were interested in releasing games for a console with such a small install base which created a downward spiral of disinterest in the system.
On the consumer side of things, many criticized the controller design whose extreme complexity and awkward layout became something of a running gag. The regular version had 17 buttons, most of which were arranged like a telephone keypad in an undifferentiated block between the hand grips. Remember this was at a time when the main competition offered between 4 (Genesis) and 8 (SNES) buttons. Atari must have realized how complicated this setup was because most games included a button overlay that fit over the number pad in order to provide more distinguishing information. The pro version of the controller added 3 more buttons while leaving the number pad unchanged, demonstrating just how poorly the executives running Atari understood their market. Even the design of the plug was poorly conceived as the VGA cable used to connect to the console was extremely easy to unplug with the slightest of tugs. A 2009 IGN article cemented it's status as the worst controller ever making such abominations as the Power Glove look brilliant by comparison.
|Whoever decided the controller needed * and # buttons should have been immediately fired. Out of a cannon. Into a wall of spikes.|
WILL WE SEE IT AGAIN
An idea this good can't stay stuck in the past and the intervening years has seen this mashup develop into a legitimate franchise of it's own. Rebellion has remained active with the series and has already relaunched it twice on various platforms. In 1999 the series was reborn as Aliens versus Predator for PC and Mac which recaptured the positive reviews of the original and sold well enough to earn a Gold Edition re-release and a sequel in 2001. This version added in a surprisingly fun multiplayer component that was further refined in the sequel. Rebellion tested the cliche that the third time's the charm when the relaunched the series again in 2010 for PC, PS3 and 360 this time calling it Aliens vs. Predator. This outing received only mixed reviews with many criticizing the overall polish and the multiplayer in particular as being a step backwards. Since Rebellion released this alongside another re-issue of the "versus" version of the series they same year it made the differences between the two more apparent. Nevertheless, Rebellion co-founder and CEO Jason Kingsley has expressed his desire to develop a sequel saying that sales were good even despite a few "totally shit" reviews.
For those wanting to experience the original it's fairly easy to find working Jaguars online (many already bundled with copies of AvP). However, this might be one of the few instances were playing the emulator may actually provide a better experience since the game plays much easier with keyboard and mouse then the original controller. Another thing to watch out for is the abundance of confusingly similar named titles. Because Rebellion freely distributed the source code for the "versus" game just a year after it's release (and because it's the most popular of the series) it's all to easy to accidentally snag a copy of that version instead of the one published by Atari. That's not such a bad thing because "versus" is incredibly fun in its own right, but it lacks the weight and importance felt within the first AvP game. Even all these years later you can still feel how many hopes were riding on the game. To those precious few Jaguar owners it justified their decision to buy the console in the first place while to everyone else the game was a shining beacon of something great that was forever beyond your reach. It was truly an epic battle of the monsters, but in the end the beast that took the biggest beating was the Jaguar itself.
|"That's it man, game over man, game over! What the fuck are we gonna do now?!" Chill out, Hudson. This series is sure to return someday.|
Wednesday, March 13, 2013
Platforms: SNES, Genesis
Metacritic score: Not available
VGChartz sales to date: Unknown
WHAT MADE IT GREAT
Licensed games tend to get a bit of a bad rap, but there are plenty of great games that tie-in to existing film or television properties. Capcom had a string of great NES games all based on Disney franchises and even the critically acclaimed Telltale Games' The Walking Dead is a licensed property. Animaniacs makes for a particularly great tie-in game because the cartoon antics are a natural fit for video games and the show's subversive humor (subtle enough to sneak past censors) gave it appeal to a broad audience. At its core the show was a parody of Hollywood production itself, frequently lampooning behind the scenes life at Warner Bros. studio and famous pop culture references (many at the expense of Executive Producer Steven Spielberg). The show was heavily inspired by acts like The Marx Brothers and Looney Tunes and is therefore filled with the kind of zany humor and wacky violence that translates easily to video games. Because the show is based around multiple animated shorts with their own characters, there is a large cast and variety of settings available to draw from. That might explain why Konami decided to make this game twice.
You see, Konami released two entirely different versions of this game on both the SNES and the Sega Genesis. It was fairly common to find differences between versions of the same game which could potentially be a disappointing surprise in the days before the internet. Sometimes it was the result of censorship such as the edits made to the SNES version of Mortal Kombat and other times it was meant to take advantage of system-specific design architecture such as Mode 7 or Sega Virtua Processor. Rarely would a game developer make the decision to produce two versions that were entirely unrelated in both design and story, but Animaniacs is proof that it did occasionally happen. On the SNES the plot revolves around Pinky and the Brain stealing the script to Warner Bros. next great film in their latest attempt to try and take over the world. You play as the Warner Brothers (and the Warner Sister) Yakko, Wakko and Dot through a series of platformer stages as you try to collect pages from the missing script. You only play as one character at a time but the other two will follow your movements and you can switch between them at any time. Unlike most platformers, the goal is to evade most enemies rather then defeat them so your move set is limited to jumping and dashing or using the other characters to form a ladder over obstacles. Collecting film canisters plays the slot machine at the bottom of the screen which can randomly reward you with power ups, continues or character revives. This is a must because a single hit from any enemy will kill you, meaning you've got a total of three hits before you need to burn a continue. Between stages is an overworld where you can pick which stage to play next or try a bonus mission such as rescuing a fallen sibling from the water tower. Each stage is broken into multiple different segments with varied gameplay throughout that mixes in elements like evading an enemy, on-rails chase scenes and boss fights.
|Ralph will frequently chase you around and will lock you up in the water tower if he catches you, and your only options are to either dash out of his way or jump off his head to momentarily stun him (SNES)|
|Don't ask where he keeps that thing when he isn't using it|
Two different games means two separate sets of problems. Konami was able to ship two very stable, mostly bug-free games almost simultaneously which is quite impressive in itself, but it was harder to fine tune balance between two very different gameplay designs. Playing each game is a very different experience and isn't easily comparable across the two platforms. Each version was, in different ways, both better and worse then the other depending on which way you looked at it. For instance, the SNES version had far better graphics but was also significantly more difficult. This exemplifies the problem with tailoring different versions for different platforms: no matter what you're going to leave everyone at least partially dissatisfied. In those days it was far less common for gamers to own multiple consoles and during the 16-bit wars there was no middle ground, you were either in the Sega camp or one of the Nintendo faithful. The end result was heated playground battles over which version was superior. In most of the fights, there was no clear winner and having two versions of a game to compare directly only served to highlight the shortcomings found in each one.
The other danger to splitting your market is that sometimes the critics decide there is a clear winner, discouraging the supporters of that system from giving the game a try. In the case of Animaniacs, most felt that the Sega Genesis version was superior largely because of how easy it was to die in the SNES version. The platforming was challenging enough, but with a single hit proving fatal it made for a razer thin margin of error. Eventually you would earn enough slot plays to rack up a sizeable number of continues or character revives, but early on it was pretty easy to see a game over screen before you even finished the first level. In any event, the reviewers gave higher scores to the Genesis version but even those seem a bit low given how enjoyable the game is. Once you stop worrying about whether the version you're playing is the best you realize just how fun this game is even if for those who weren't of a certain age when this show was still on the air.
|Helloooo Nurse! Don't look at me that way Dot, that's just her name.|
WILL WE SEE IT AGAIN
Extremely doubtful. The problem with reissuing a licensed game is that the developer and publisher never own the rights to the property. That doesn't necessarily make it impossible, but it also means the project might be given to a totally new team. Konami has already experienced this first hand when one of their classic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade games was given an HD remake by a different studio, in the end that title had to be pulled from PSN and XBLA when that reissued license expired. There have been a handful of other Animaniacs games made including a truly terrible Game Boy port of about 60% of the Sega version, the rest getting lopped off so it could fit on the cartridge. For a property like Animaniacs, which has been off the air since 1999 and occasionally in syndicated reruns, it's pretty unlikely there's remotely enough demand to justify any further releases or remakes.
Without a convenient double-feature HD remake, anyone looking to try this game is in the same position gamers faced in 1994 and must choose between the Sega or SNES version. This is a tough call, both games have plenty to like about them and the passage of time hasn't made one shine any more then the other. Personally I'm partial to the SNES version because of its brighter graphics and more numerous references to the show. More of the cast make appearances in the SNES version and their character models are larger and more closely resemble the animation from the show, and even the writing does a better job of mimicking the shows unique subversive yet lightheartedly wacky sense of humor. I'll admit to being biased on this because I had played the game on SNES first, but upon replaying both my preference still stands. I feel the increased difficulty that earned the SNES version lower reviews actually gives it greater longevity and provides a challenging platformer that looks surprisingly well for its age. That lasting appeal is an especially good trait to have in this case because it looks like it's game over for the Animaniacs.
|I sure hope so, but they better get comfy in there cause it might be a long wait|
Wednesday, March 6, 2013
Platform: PS2 (originally); later ported to Xbox
Metacritic score: 79
VGChartz sales to date: 1.14 million
WHAT MADE IT GREAT
Ninjas are often viewed as the pinnacle of the badass hierarchy. They're incredibly lethal, they strike without warning and they are masters of slipping back into the shadows undetected. It's no wonder that people often associate ninjas with mystical powers and abilities, even as far back as the Meiji Restoration when Japan underwent rapid modernization Japanese looked back on the shinobi as supernatural or mythical figures. In many ways the shinobi clans responsible for training and contracting ninjas were the elite special forces of feudal Japan. Their mission wasn't to lead troops into battle to fight and die honorably like the Samurai, instead their goal was to disrupt the enemy by conducting espionage, sabotage and assassinations. Their training, their tools and their techniques were all designed to maintain secrecy and so an aura of mystery naturally developed around them. In short, they make for some of the most compelling protagonists to play as which is why it's so depressing how few games let you take up that role.
Of course, the very things that make ninja so interesting are also what makes them so difficult to design a game around. Stealth is a tricky mechanic to pull off effectively and swordplay is even harder. It's no wonder that most games revolving around ninjas play more like beat 'em ups or platformers. The Tenchu series was one of the few games to focus on ninjas are both mythical figures and still retain some semblance of realism in terms of the tools and tactics at your disposal. Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven, the third title in the series, is perhaps the high water mark even though it wasn't developed by series originator Acquire, who you may remember from our feature on Way of the Samurai. The heavily mystical story picks up where the first game left off, continuing with series mainstays Rikimaru and Ayame while also introducing a 3rd playable character. A cunning sorcerer named Tenrai is trying to collect three sacred jewels which are said to grant incredible power to whoever possesses them. Fortunately Rikimaru, who was presumed dead after his battle with the Big Bad from the first game, has somehow returned to confront this new evil. Like many great Japanese games the plot can be difficult to follow at times and incredibly absorbed in its own mythology at others. By the end of the game you'll no doubt be experiencing some confusion, or possibly nightmares from the potbellied demons or creepy wooden robots. But maybe a game about magical ninjas doesn't need to always make sense.
|Seriously though, you need to mentally prepare yourself for this kind of shit|
|Knowing when to strike and when to remain unseen is one of the most critical aspects of the game. Fortunately a (mostly) well-behaved camera with manual control makes this a little easier.|
|Hone your skills and you'll be regularly rewarded with some of the best stealth kill animations ever created|
Nothing, really. In just about every way, Wrath of Heaven was a major improvement on both the previous titles that had been released on PSX. Being the first game in the series to transition to the PS2 era, significant improvements in graphics and audio were a given. The larger playable roster and surprisingly enjoyable multiplayer were both welcome additions to the series, and while the gameplay focus remained unchanged the increased inventory added new flavors to an already well-seasoned experience. But there were two areas in particular where reviewers felt the series had a misstep. Tenchu 2 introduced an extensive level editor that let players build their own arenas and design missions for them, a feature that was pretty ahead of it's time for a console game back in 2000 but this was axed from Wrath of Heaven.
The other area reviews harped on was the enemy AI routines which, despite being improved upon from earlier entries, simply couldn't match the polish of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, the long awaited next installment of the series that pretty much defines the action stealth genre. Even though Tenchu was the first 3D stealth game, Metal Gear Solid became the gold standard when it launched later that same year and has held that position pretty much ever since. In Wrath of Heaven, enemies have simplistic patterns and poor visual acuity (though their hearing is annoyingly accurate) which can make them easy picking for a stealthy player. But get caught in the open and they'll gang up on you, showing sword handling skills far greater then their ability to patrol on guard duty. Some enemies can even stealth kill you from behind if you're not watching your back in a melee, all of which makes for a big swing in difficulty the moment you break stealth.
|Right, so that's where that third demon was|
WILL WE SEE IT AGAIN
Hopefully we'll see the Tenchu series again someday, as From Software has been publishing new titles developed by K2, Acquire and their own in-house people sporadically over the years. The most recent releases have been Japan-only, but with a new console generate right around the corner the time might be right for Tenchu to start fresh. The thought of scaling up the sandbox design to a whole cityscape is certainly an enticing prospect is the success of Assassin's Creed is any indication. Being able to control Rikimaru, Ayame or a user created ninja as in Tenchu Z in an open world 15th century Kyoto or Osaka would offer up so many possibilities in terms of gameplay variety. With a continued focus on stealth and missions that could include espionage, infiltrating secure castles, assassinating rival daimyo and more the game could fill a unique niche in the market. Including mission editors, online multiplayer or co-op modes would further set the game apart and bring the series into the next console generation.
|Challenging boss fights and deep inventories are staples of the series, but there's no reason these can't make the jump to a truly open world setting|
|Look at how sweet this is! How is more of this not being made right now?!|