Everyone's got that game they used to love but nobody else seems to remember it. This site it dedicated to those games. Check in each week for a fresh look at another hidden gem and weigh in on whether it should be remembered as a classic or not.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Grim Fandango

Year: 1998
Developer: LucasArts
Publisher: LucasArts
Platform: PC
Metacritic score: 94
VGChartz sales to date: Unknown

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
Manny Calavera is the stories hero and serves as a "travel agent", ferrying souls along their journey to the afterlife for the Department of Death.  Things aren't going well for poor Manny, he's long since given up hope of making the trip himself and seems to be stuck with the worst clients, always assigned to journey on foot and never possessing a ticket for the express train.  His boss Don Copal is sick of it and threatens to fire Manny if he doesn't get some better clients so he steals one he's sure will earn a ticket from fellow agent Domino.  The plan goes south in a hurry as the client, Mercedes, is mysteriously denied a ticket leading Manny to investigate further.  The conspiracy he uncovers connects all the way up to the highest reaches of the criminal underworld and will send him on an adventure lasting multiple years and spanning the edge of the world and of death itself.  To go any deeper into the plot would deprive you of the immense enjoyment of watching it play out.  This is a story that does more then just reference film noir classics like The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca and Chinatown, it succeeds in capturing the gritty style and tone those films helped establish.

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
This is a classic adventure game focusing on collecting items and using them to solve puzzles.  Much of the action is scripted and you are only controlling Manny to interact with items or engage in conversation with AI characters.  Grim Fandango is similar to other LucasArts titles of this era in that it is meant as more of an interactive story then a test of reflexes or flashy set pieces.  It also follows suit in safeguarding your character from anything that would result in a 'game over', so you don't have to worry about overlooking a critical item or making a fatal mistake when solving a puzzle.  The game does offer a unique mechanic in that there is no HUD.  Manny rummages through his pockets to access his inventory and instead of a quest tracker his head will automatically look toward nearby items or people of importance.  In some games this could easily be a hindrance but it most certainly compliments Grim Fandango's gameplay and showcases the visually arresting design.  The static backgrounds are built from detailed 3D models and heavily influenced by art deco style while the animated characters draw their inspiration from traditional Day of the Dead themes and decorations.  It's almost like Mad Men if Don Draper was a government-appointed Grim Reaper who stumbles upon a vast crime syndicate and resolves to take it down, which sounds like the most awesome thing ever when you think about it.  

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
The real tragedy of this outcome is that by any measure Grim Fandango is an incredible game.  Contemporary reviews absolutely loved the game and despite the incredible number of instant classics released in 1998 Grim Fandango still took home multiple Game of the Year awards from sources like IGN, GameSpot and the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences.  The passage of time has only increased the public's respect and admiration for the game as it graces multiple all-time best lists.  The unique artistic design and 3D engine are responsible for making it better looking then any decade-plus old game has the right to while its morbidly dark sense of humor and the earnest delivery of the voice talent ensures the story resonates just as soundly as it did the day it was released.  Like a fine wine, Grim Fandango is a vintage that has only improved with age.     

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.
But every death creates more of the elements that create life.  After buying George Lucas's mind, body and soul, Disney also took ownership of LucasArts and all the IP's it held.  As they shut out the lights at the studio, they announced their intention to license their existing properties to other studios.  Maybe that's just corporate double talk for "We're firing everyone and handing their stuff to Disney Interactive", but they have shown a willingness to form hands-off partnerships with other studios.  Kingdom Hearts is developed entirely by Square even though they share credits with the House of Mouse and the series has been successful for both parties.  Even though Tim Schafer and Double Fine are fiercely independent by nature, perhaps they'd be interested in revisiting the Land of the Dead.  The graphic adventure genre has even made somewhat of a comeback lately thanks to the efforts of Telltale Games, a studio of ex-LucasArts developers who left to reanimate the Sam & Max series.  How fitting is that?  Death in one studio leads to life in another.  Perhaps there's hope for Manny to pull a resurrection act of his own, I just hope he books a ticket on the express train when he makes his return.

    What is dead may never die, but rises, harder and stronger
Have you played this game?  Is there a game you remember being great but no one else has heard of it?  Sound off in the comments below, and be sure to Like us on Facebook or Follow us on Twitter!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013


Year: 1988
Developer: Williams
Publisher: Williams
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

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?  
Underneath the extreme exterior is a fun side-scrolling run 'n gun game that feels like a mix of Contra and the classic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade games from Konami.  The game was hard in the typical arcade way, meaning lots of cheap deaths and extremely difficult boss fights designed to suck down quarters.  The fight against Mr. Big is notoriously difficult, in part because you have to fight him while constantly resisting the urge to gauge your own eyes out.  NARC was also notable for the 32-bit processor that powered it, the first arcade game to do so, and the digitized graphics that would later be used in Mortal Kombat.  Both these factors have helped the game retain some visual appeal despite its old age.  It certainly hasn't lost any of its nightmare-inducing potential over time.  The knife-wielding PCP addict clowns are still just as terrifying as I remember, and perhaps those alone justify arming the police with an infinite supply of Porsche-mounted machine guns.  The driving segments are usually fun, but are occasionally hindered by weird design choices such as the obstacle laden streets where you first find it.  Even solo and on foot you pack enough firepower to gun down everyone who didn't just say no, which is apparently most of the city.  Seriously whatever city this takes place in makes Robocop's near-future Detroit look like friggin' Disneyland.  

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.

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.
Have you played this game?  Is there a game you remember being great but no one else has heard of it?  Sound off in the comments below, and be sure to Like us on Facebook or Follow us on Twitter!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Mirror's Edge

Year: 2008
Developer: DICE
Publisher: EA
Platforms: PS3, 360, PC
Metacritic score: 80 (cross-platform average)
VGChartz sales to date: 2.2 million 

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.
You play as Faith, a courier for an underground resistance movement who oppose the strict order and fascism that keeps the gleaming city of glass and metal so shiny and clean. Since every form of transportation and communication is tightly controlled, the only way to pass important messages or supplies is by hand-delivering them across a natural obstacle course that runs under, through and on top of the city's skyscrapers.  Faith seems comfortable living at the margins, but all of that will be upset as the totalitarian government becomes increasingly determined to completely eliminate everything they regard as criminal behavior.  That most certainly includes Faith, her friends and her family and you can bet the government has no qualms in pressing their advantage in numbers and firepower to the fullest.  They'll send waves of armored soldiers packing assault rifles, attack helicopters and their own highly trained counter-runner agents at you, and all Faith has to respond with is her own physical skills and abilities honed from a life of freerunning.  

Don't look down...don't look down...don't...aw crap, I pooped myself again
That's right, your best defense against the most serious hardware a totalitarian dystopia is you own hands and feet.  In an interesting twist on typical first-person gameplay, guns actually play a very minimal role.  You're welcome to pick up guns from fallen foes, but doing so will break your momentum and slow you down.  You'll have to carefully weigh whether the long-range lethality is worth losing speed, but in Mirror's Edge the name of the game is fluidity.  When you take off running you will gradually build up to your maximum momentum which allows you to leap farther and hit harder, but that edge disappears the moment you slow down.  To keep your speed up, you'll need to actively look ahead and scout the best path through a set of obstacles while carefully timing your acrobatics to preserve speed.  Carrying a gun with you will make that job harder, while larger guns will prevent many of your moves entirely.  Fortunately Faith is adept as moving like water both while running and fighting, an activity made more immersive by being able to actually see your own limbs.  Being able to look down and see your feet might seem like a small detail, but it helps immensely in being able to nail the timing for difficult jumps or tricks.  And being able to watch from 1st person perspective as you disarm and beat down an opponent, seeing the flowing motion of your arms and legs working in perfect synchronicity, and then continuing to haul ass down the side of a skyscraper at top speed is a feeling few other games can match.

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
Call of Duty: World at War returned the series to it's WWII roots and was the first to feature the popular Nazi Zombies mini-mode, selling nearly 2 million copies in it's first month of sales.  EA was hoping to put a dent in Activision's CoD juggernaut by siphoning sales with it's highly unique and anticipated Mirror's Edge, but this strategy tends to benefit Goliath over David.  No doubt many CoD fans would have been willing to give Mirror's Edge a try, but when faced with where to lay down their $60 most will bet on the known quantity.  Some negative reviews also sent a mixed message about the game, such as the 5/10 from Edge magazine whose main complaint was not having a more open-world design.  The game was by no means a flop, but it's sales fell well short of the projected goal of 3 million copies

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.
Have you played this game?  Is there a game you remember being great but no one else has heard of it?  Sound off in the comments below, and be sure to Like us on Facebook or Follow us on Twitter!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Alien vs Predator

Year: 1994
Developer: Rebellion
Publisher: Atari
Platform: Atari Jaguar
Metacritic score: Not available
VGChartz sales to date: Unknown 

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.
Regardless of which character you select, AvP is an extremely tense horror game.  There is no background music, only the ambient sound effects of the huge ship and the monsters that populate it.  Combined with the maze-like corridors it creates a very claustrophobic feeling.  It's easy to get lost too since you can more or less freely navigate the many decks within the ship which greatly adds to the tension when you take a wrong turn and stumble upon a horde of enemies.  Being one of the earliest FPS games on a console it was also startling to be attacked from any side with many jump out of your seat moments caused by suddenly hearing an aliens screech and getting hit from behind.  The greatly increased power of the Jaguar over the other existing consoles at the time allowed for much improved graphics and a bigger field of view then previously possible which further helped to make AvP superior to the many craptastic Doom ports and knock-offs beginning to flood the console market.  Rebellion also added lots of little touches to connect the game to the movies in order to further immersion.  The ping of the Marine's motion tracker, the way the predators vision changes when cloaked or how dead aliens leave damaging pools of acid around their corpses all helped further flesh out the game's environments.  This wasn't just the best game for the Jaguar, for many it was also the main reason why they bought the Jaguar at all.    

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.

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.
But for those few brave souls who did own a Jaguar, AvP was their saving grace.  The game earned highly positive reviews and offered an FPS experience that was largely unmatched on consoles and came very close to capturing the genre's excellence on PC.  The graphics outshone anything else available on SNES, Genesis or even the cutting edge CD-based (and astronomically priced) 3DO.  AvP proves the Jaguar could have competed against the next console generation that would launch a few years later, outclassing the Sega Saturn and even holding it's own against the original Playstation.  But with sales far short of expectations and a severe shortage of titles to play the writing was on the wall with Atari's 1995 SEC filing revealing they still had over 100,000 unsold units in inventory.  Atari launched a terrifyingly bizarre infomercial presumably to scare people into buying a Jaguar, but by 1996 Atari had no choice but to leave the home console market entirely.

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. 

Being limited to melee attacks when all your enemies carry automatic weapons would seem like a severe handicap, especially with no healing ability.  But their incredible speed and ability to cocoon enemies into spawn points made it incredibly fun to play as the alien.
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.
Have you played this game?  Is there a game you remember being great but no one else has heard of it?  Sound off in the comments below, and be sure to Like us on Facebook or Follow us on Twitter!           

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


Year: 1994
Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Platforms: SNES, Genesis
Metacritic score: Not available
VGChartz sales to date: Unknown

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)
The Sega version is noticeably different as soon as you fire it up and you're greeted with a cutscene showing the Warner Brothers (and Warner Sister) welcoming you to their game before breaking the fourth wall to argue with each other about the semantics of being an animated character.  This game's plot revolves around the Warner Brothers (and Warner Sister) deciding to open up a "hip pop-culture shop" that they appearantly have been always talking about (I must have missed those episodes).  To achieve this you'll need to explore the various sound stages around the studio lot to find four iconic props from famous films.  Like the SNES version, each stage is based around a different film genre such as sci-fi, horror or westerns and you switch between controlling each of the three Warner siblings.  In the Sega version, however, each sibling has a different special move needed to progress through different areas of the game.  Yakko uses a paddle ball to attack enemies, Wakko uses an oversized mallet to activate switches and Dot blows kisses which trigger certain characters to perform special actions.  You also have a health meter that is shared across all three characters so you can take multiple hits but when any one character dies they all dutifully follow their sibling into the abyss.  On the SNES this would send you to the continue screen, but the Sega version gives you both continues and extra lives which can be earned by collecting 100 star tokens.  The next most obvious difference is that you are restricted to a single horizontal plane like a true 2D side-scrolling platformer whereas the SNES game has depth allowing you to move closer or further in addition to left or right.  The only other notable difference is that the levels are timed, but the timer is pretty lenient so you will probably never really feel as if you're racing the clock.

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.    

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
Have you played this game?  Is there a game you remember being great but no one else has heard of it?  Sound off in the comments below, and be sure to Like us on Facebook or Follow us on Twitter!             

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven

Year: 2003
Developer: K2
Publisher: Activision
Platform: PS2 (originally); later ported to Xbox
Metacritic score: 79
VGChartz sales to date: 1.14 million

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
One of the features that makes Tenchu so much fun is the sandbox style of play.  You're able to select which character you want to play as and each one has there own style and abilities which makes them feel substantially different from one another.  Rikimaru relies on his single ninjato (a weapon that didn't actually exist at the time) on superior strength to overwhelm enemies while Ayame instead uses her greater speed and maneuverability in combination with her pair of smaller wakizashi.  Series newcomer Tesshu is the third playable character, unlocked after your first play through, and uses raw brute strength to pummel his enemies with his fists but also uses his knowledge of acupuncture to perform stealth kills.  Playing as each character unlocks alternate cutscenes, can alter boss fights and even effects the outcome of the story.  More importantly, because each character has such different controls it can allow for drastically different approaches on each subsequent play through.  The sandbox style level design also increases replay value as most levels include multiple paths to your goal.  Thanks to a massive toolset of over two dozen items that includes everything from throwing stars to poisoned rice there is always more then one solution to every problem.  Need to infiltrate a village?  You could run from rooftop to rooftop, singling out guards and leaping onto them from above to drive your sword through their spines.  Or you could engage in open combat to draw them away from your objective before dropping smoke and caltrops to make a hasty retreat to your now undefended target.  Perhaps making it through the village completely unseen is more your style, in which case you can stick to the shadows and slowly move between cover to reach your objective without even alerting the enemy you were ever there.

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.
All of this adds up to provide a tremendous amount of replay value since there's no way to do and see everything in a single play through.  In addition, there's an excellent reward system built into the game that rewards you more points at the end of each level for remaining undetected, performing stealth kills, and otherwise being a total badass.  A high score at the end of a level nets you more items and equipment and also unlocks additional special moves and stealth kills.  This opens up even more possible approaches for you to take on future levels, but the strongest motivator to keep playing this game comes from the excellent stealth kill animations.  Trying to find all the different ways you can remove someone's head from their body is great fun, but setting up and then successfully pulling off the most complicated assassinations you can think of is the true reward for honing your skills.  One of my personal favorites is clinging to a ceiling rafter to wait for an unsuspecting guard to pass beneath you, then using your rope dart to silently hang them while you swing to the ground in one clean movement.  If that's not enough to keep you coming back, there's also split-screen multiplayer that lets two players take on missions together or hunt each other on a map populated with enemy AI.  You can choose from the main playable characters as well as many more you can unlock that include the bosses you face, complete with their unique special moves and abilities.  If you're a fan of ninjas (and honestly how can you not be?) then there's a lot in this game to love.

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
Even with these concerns reviews were still predominately positive, though they may explain why it scores slightly below it's predecessors.  It didn't quite reach the 2 million sales accrued by the original, but did blow away sales of the second game (to be fair, that game was released just a month before the PS2 launched in North America).  Activision made the choice to sell the property to From Software, a small but talented Japanese studio we've featured before.  The series lived on and has produced a number of spin-off games and mobile ports along with another entry in the main storyline with 2009's Tenchu: Shadow Assassins for the Wii.  None of these have been particularly well received, but the mobile phone ports to Sony Erickson devices (remember those dark days before smartphone app stores?) deserve special scorn for how terrible they were.  Without big games to grab people's attention or Activision's deep pockets for marketing the series has mostly fallen into obscurity.

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
Complicating things, however, is that so many developers have worked on the series.  Tenchu progenitor Acquire developed the last game from the main storyline with Shadow Assassins for Wii in 2009.  But when they lost the rights to the series to From Software they developed the Shinobido series, a ninja stealth game that is (unsurprisingly) very similar to Tenchu.  Interestingly, Acquire had been developing Shinobido before (and after) doing Shadow Assassins for From Software so perhaps it's not an issue.  It's not entirely clear who should take the reigns if Acquire is unable or unwilling.  K2 did a great job with Wrath of Heaven, but their release of Tenchu Z for Xbox 360 was met with pretty harsh reviews for failing to improve over the previous title.  From Software's in-house studio is another option, but their only work in the series is an XBLA puzzle-style game that also failed to impress.  Whoever does it, it's not too hard to believe we haven't seen the last of Tenchu.  Sooner or later it will slip from the shadows, silently infiltrate our consoles and take us all by surprise with how incredible it is.

Look at how sweet this is!  How is more of this not being made right now?!
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