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, December 26, 2012

Ogre Battle: The March of the Black Queen

Year: 1993
Developer: Quest
Publisher: Enix (originally); Atlus (PSX)
Platform: SNES (originally); later Sega Saturn (Japan-only), Playstation and Virtual Console
Metacritic score: Not available
VGChartz sales to date: 200,000 (data available for PSX version only)

As gamers we owe quite a lot to Japan.  Much of the technology consoles and computers depend on grew out of Japan's tech boom in the 1980's.  When U.S. companies triggered a gaming apocalypse through inundating the market with crap shovelware (best epitomized by 1982's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial), Japanese companies stepped in to give us new consoles with quality games to play on them.  Perhaps there's no better example of the flow of games and ideas from East to West than the JRPG.  RPG's were born in the West with the rise of table-top games in the 1970's, most notably Dungeons & Dragons whose success would make fantasy setting a staple of the genre for decades.  When PC gaming began to rise to prominence in the 1980's the RPG genre rose with it, particularly the Ultima series which would become the foundation for many elements of RPG videogames.  These games had a tremendous impact on Japanese developers and Enix put themselves at the epicenter of the boom by publishing Chunsoft's Dragon Quest (known as Dragon Warrior stateside) which became the standard for JRPG's.  By the time these games began to arrive in the West during the waning days of the 1980's, features like top-down views, streamlined combat that hid statistics in the background, non-linear gameplay, in-depth stories and character relationships, anime-style designs and many more features first introduced in Dragon Quest had become staples of the genre.  

Later many would criticize the strict adherence to these foundations as the primary reason for the decline of JRPG's due to staleness, but Enix and it's stable of developers displayed a willingness to venture away from the rules they had established.  Ogre Battle: The March of the Black Queen was a JRPG through and through, but it mixed up the formula by including a tactical strategy element.  The game's title comes from the titles of two different songs on Queen's second album owing to lead designer Yasumi Matsuno's love of the band, but the game itself was inspired by the Yugoslav wars.  The first in what would become two companion series (the Tactics Ogre game having a stronger focus on tactical RPG gameplay) it was actually designed to be the 5th game in the series although the previous entries were never created.  You could say a confusing chronology is yet another staple in the JRPG genre.  

Telling stories through breathlessly delivered text boxes (sometimes poorly translated) is clearly a genre staple

The story follows a group of revolutionaries battling against the Zetegenian Empire ruled by the evil mage Rashidi through his possession of a powerful magical artifact.  The goal is to build an army of distinct units, each composed of up to five different characters, and move these units across tactical maps in order to liberate towns and defeat the boss unit controlling that section of the map.  You play as the Lord of this revolution, but your particular attributes are determined by your answers to a Tarot card reading at the start of the game.  While the subset of questions you're asked are randomly chosen at the start of each playthrough, the three possible answers all vary between neutral, righteous and evil.  Your answers affect your starting alignment, one of the most important stats in the game.  Alignment of individual characters can change up or down based on the actions your perform, such as killing characters with higher or lower alignments then yourself, and other random factors such as bonuses attached the Tarot cards you acquire.  Whether a characters alignment is high or low will affect whether they receive a combat bonus at night or during the day, which attacks are more or less effective, whether or not a character can evolve to a new class and how your reputation is affected when that character liberates a town or temple.  The other main decision to make when starting a new game is picking your gender.  In a uniquely Japanese display of sexism, your character's gender determines which class trees are available to your character and while there are a large number of classes available, each is only available to one gender and there are far fewer classes open to female characters.  But worry not, no matter which gender you choose to play as you'll acquire a large number of additional characters giving you a chance to experience most classes within a single playthrough.

Some Tarot cards actually decrease your stats when you get them, causing the affected unit to voice their displeasure.  Or they stubbed their toe.  Or maybe they're just fans of Honey Boo Boo. 

In fact, you'll end up building quite an army over the course of the game such that your Lord may not end up playing a large role in his own revolution.  By the end of the first tutorial map you'll acquire a number of units but a max of 10 can be deployed in each battle.  It costs goth (the in-game currency) to deploy units and you'll be charged for every full day cycle they remain on the field.  You can edit each unit to change up the character classes and battle formation during the world map screen, but once you select a battle map to play you are stuck with the units you've got.  There are a large number of human character classes such as wizards, fighters, samurai, vampires, knights, angels and clerics as well as animal types like griffons, dragons, krakens or giants.  These are just a small sampling of the numerous class types, each having their own attack types, bonuses, evolution trees and necessary tactics.  Managing your forces is a major part of the game because there are so many variables that affect combat performance.  If all your units are made up high alignment characters you'll get your ass kicked during the night, but low alignment characters will hurt the reputation of your rebellion if they liberate a town.  You'll also want units that can move quickly to cut off enemy units flowing out from the boss unit's position and mountain units to hold key choke points on the map.  Units move around the map in real-time, but you can pause the screen while you issue orders to give yourself a chance to position units or use items.  Items can be purchased through units positioned in a liberated town and the inventory is shared between all your units, so it's a good idea to keep one unit in a town with a store as the rest of your units push towards the boss.  Enemy units will also try to retake anyplace you've liberated which will seriously harm your reputation so it's a good idea to maintain a defensive line to protect your gains. 

The floor of the battle screen indicates the terrain you're fighting on.  Most classes suffer a damage penalty when fighting over water, but krakens and mermaids receive a bonus to both offense and defense. 

Combat plays out from a more hands-off, tactical vantage giving you the ability to choose an attack strategy or play Tarot cards that have a huge effect on battle, but you don't choose specific attacks or enemies to target.  This makes force management even more important because the positioning and composition of characters has a bigger influence on the outcome of a battle then just how strong each character is.  Each character has a set number of attacks they can make and combat ends when all those moves are used up with the winner decided by whoever dealt more damage.  The loser is forced to retreat a few spaces but if an enemy is killed you'll be awarded with extra money and a random item.  If all the characters in a unit are killed, that unit is wiped out but killing only the leader sends them into retreat to the boss.  If they make it back, the leader will respawn so it's critical to chase down and wipe out any retreating units.  Once you reach the boss unit you'll battle him until he's defeated, but this may take launching repeated sorties by your units until they can take him out within their set number of attacks.  When the boss is dead you've beaten that battle map, but you can still return to find hidden items and units.  You'll fight through around 30 battle maps of increasing size and complexity before you reach the final stage and the ending you receive is influenced by the path you've taken to get their, your character attributes and the hidden items you've collected.  Given the massive number of character classes, the various endings you can achieve and the sheer enormity of the scale of tactics at your disposal it's possible to sink hundreds of hours into this game across multiple playthroughs and still not experience everything it has to offer.

Japanese companies have an intuitive understanding of their own market, but when it comes to the rest of the world there's little effort to read or react to consumer demand.  In North America JRPG's were popular and their appeal was growing, but they didn't dominate the market the way they did in Japan.  While today Dragon Quest/Warrior is universally regarded as a huge step forward in RPG's, during the time of their release the North American market gave them a fairly cold reception with review scores well below what the Japanese review magazines awarded.  Those reviews rose with each successive release, nearly matching the acclaim received in Japan by the end of the NES lifespan, but global sales still did not come close to what was achieved at home.  It's likely that these factors are what led to Enix publishing a mere 25,000 copies destined for the North American market, making this one of the rarest and most expensive SNES games to track down.  The sequel, Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together (another Queen inspired sub-title) didn't see a U.S. release at all until years later.

It's a liberation, bitches!
Once again the reviews from U.S. gaming magazines was just average, but even despite the limited number of copies available the game built a cult following.  Battle Ogre arrived just before JRPG's really exploded in popularity when Square's Final Fantasy III (actually the 6th iteration in Japan) and Chrono Trigger hit shelves and created mainstream interest in the genre.  Once the floodgates were open, people finally recognized that Ogre Battle was a great game with a unique real-time strategy hook and the hunt to claim a copy was on.  The game remains a sought after collector's item to this day and copies in good condition with the original box and manual go for well over $200.

Thankfully Quest and Atlus ported Ogre Battle (with 'limited edition' on the cover) along with the Tactics Ogre sequel to the PSX in 1997.  Even though this was just a straight port with no graphical tweaks or updates (and they lacked the voice acting present on the Japanese Sega Saturn ports) the limited run of 200,000 copies sold out.  Copies of this version can be found for $50-$100 but sealed copies are still considered a collector's item and can easily approach the $500 mark.  Fortunately for Wii and Wii U owners, you can download the original SNES version from the Virtual Console for a very reasonable $8.  A mobile port of the game is also available, but only in Japan.  

Units can move over any terrain but receive substantial speed bonuses on roads, making bridges important choke points.

There have been a handful of other Ogre series games released over the years, the most recent of which was Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis for the Game Boy Advance in 2001 (the North American localization came out the following year).  Remakes and ports still trickle out on new systems and remain highly popular.  A PSP port of Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together was developed by the original team and released in 2011 to highly positive reviews.  While no new games in the series have been announced, fan support for a return of the series remains high.  Given that much of the series lore has yet to be fleshed out, there's still plenty of stories left to tell.  Since the merger the series is now owned by Square-Enix, probably the foremost RPG studio in the business, but they've been content to leave the development of the Ogre series in the hands of Quest and hand most of the publishing responsibilities to Atlus.  Even though Square-Enix has been silent on the series, there have been rumors that series creator Yasumi Matsuno is interested in a revival.  As a freelancer he helped develop the PSP port of Tactic Ogre, but when he took a position with Level-5 it seemed to kill any speculation that he could return to the Ogre series.  But this past Novemeber Matsuno revealed he has left Level-5 and plans on taking a break before returning to game development.  Is it too much to hope he will reunite with Square-Enix and bring back the Ogre series?           

There's a big empire out there to explore with epic stories told throughout the ages.  Hopefully we'll get a chance to play what so far has only been hinted at.
Have you played this game?  Is there a game you remember being great that no one else seems to have heard of?  Sound off in the comments below, and be sure to Like us on Facebook or Follow us on Twitter!   

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Conker's Bad Fur Day

Year: 2001
Developer: Rare
Publisher: Rare
Platform: N64
Metacritic score: 92
VGChartz sales to date: 770,000

Every now and then the universe aligns in such a way that the impossible becomes reality.  By the summer of 2001 the N64 was nearing the end of it's lifespan and the strain was starting to wear on it's considerable fanbase.  The PS2 had been out for about a year and the Xbox launch was just a few months away, and the graphical power of both consoles were making the N64 look dated by comparison.  On top of this, the N64 player base had aged 5 years since the console launched and their tastes for more mature content in games was growing and emerging details of the soon to launch Gamecube only confirmed the opinions of many that Nintendo consoles were purely kid-stuff.  What few mature-rated games existed on the N64 were almost entirely first-person shooters with the occasional fighting game thrown in for good measure, but the action and platforming genres were by and large geared towards a younger audience. Everyone assumed the N64 was finished, that Nintendo was focused on their new console and there was nothing left in the lineup that would appeal to those gamers who had "outgrown" the system.  Everyone was wrong.

Rare had been working on a new title based around Conker the squirrel as early as 1997, tentatively titled Conker's Quest.  At first the game was shaping up to be another in a stable of deep platformers with cuddly anthropomorphic protagonists, much like Banjo-Kazooie or Donkey Kong 64.  It was so much like their existing titles, in fact, that Rare feared it would get lost in the shuffle and so a monumental effort to redesign the game was launched.  The finished product wouldn't be ready to launch until the waning days of the N64's lifespan, but when it was finally released it was everything gamers had been wishing for.  Conker's built upon everything Rare had learned developing for the N64 and as a result both the gameplay and the numerous in-engine cutscenes (a novelty on the N64) looked absolutely gorgeous.  The game kept it's action-platforming roots but the difficulty was cranked up considerably with more challenging puzzles and enemies.  An expansive multiplayer suite was added that included a variety of game modes, none of which felt tacked on.  But most notably, the game's story and themes took on an edginess that was rarely permitted on a Nintendo console.  The plot included numerous references to drinking, drugs, sex, graphic violence, strong language, adult humor and parodies of pop-culture.  Just as many gamers were starting to feel Nintendo had nothing left to offer them, Rare delivered exactly what they were hoping for.

The story picks up as Conker stumbles out of a bar blind drunk and gets lost while attempting to find his way home to his smoking hot (in an anthropomorphic squirrel way) girlfriend Berri.  Unbeknownst to our furry hero, the Panther King finds his favorite end table is missing a leg and after consulting his adviser Professor Von Kriplespac decides that a red squirrel would make the perfect replacement and orders his minions to hunt one down.  If that weren't bad enough, Berri is kidnapped by Don Weaso, head of the Weasel Mafia, to force her into being a stripper at one of his night clubs.  The plot only gets more bizarre from there as Conker's greed often subverts his lust and his goal of getting home to give his girlfriend "the business" is frequently sidetracked by his attempts to score as much of the cash scattered around this strange land as he can.  The situations he finds himself in are downright hilarious and even Conker questions the absurdity of some of the tasks he must complete in order to progress.  Some of the highlights include helping a cheating bee, er, pollinate a busty sunflower, fighting a war between grey squirrels and Nazi teddy bears, carrying out a bank robbery heavily influence by the famous lobby scene from The Matrix, and who could forget battling the opera-singing Great Mighty Poo, king of Poo Mountain (you fight him by hurling toilet paper at him, naturally).  Most people would be content to use feces as a one-dimensional joke, but Rare takes it to a whole new level and the virtuoso singing performance given by The Great Mighty Poo is rivaled only by Portal's "Still Alive" as the most hilarious soundtrack in gaming.    

Despite being a massive pile of shit, he was a downright heavenly baritone.  Maybe the corn niblet teeth helped?
The gameplay is similar to traditional 3D platforming games and follows the trend set by Mario 64.  A large central hub area leads to each of the various stage areas found in the game, though each is blocked off until Conker gets to the appropriate part of the story.  Once you've solved the puzzles in an area they stay solved, but you are free to return to it at any point in order to collect cash, health-giving chocolate or one-ups.  The one-ups are especially important as they will buy your way back from the dead as explained by vertically-challenged Gregg the Grimm Reaper who, in a rather high-pitched voice, tells Conker that "Squirrels have as many lives as they think they can get away with."  Conker's arsenal of moves is more limited then in other Rare platformers, mostly consisting of attacking with a frying pan, performing super jumps and twirling his tail to briefly hover in a move Conker fittingly dubs the 'Helicoptery-tail Thingy'.  To round out his skills, there are numerous context-sensitive zones allowing Conker to perform special actions such as pulling various weapons from his pockets, drinking Alka-Seltzer to cure his hangover, or defeating fire imps by pissing on them.  

The lighthearted designs are hilariously juxtaposed against some rather dark black comedy.  I guess even pitchforks can suffer from depression, though before they attempt to hang themselves they should probably seek help (or a wood chipper .    
Given that Rare's previous hits GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark are arguably two of the best multiplayer games on the N64, it's no surprise that Conker's BFD also winds up on that list.  What is surprising is just how varied the different modes are and how they draw from totally distinct genres, many of which aren't even present in the single player game.  There's a free-for-all tank battle mode, a hoverboard race with elements similar to Rare's Diddy Kong Racing, three capture the flag modes (one that pits a team of cavemen against a team of raptors, another that has 2-4 teams competing to steal cash from a bank vault and a traditional team combat mode), free-for-all and team deathmatch modes and finally my personal favorite Beach.  The Beach level is especially fun playing as either the grey squirrel "Frenchies" trying to escape across the border or the Tediz who can try to stop them from three castle towers giving them access to either a turret, sniper rifle or rocket launcher.  The weapon selection in the 3rd-person combat modes has a nice variety from typical deathmatch weapons like SMG's or rifles to instant kill melee weapons like chainsaws or katanas.  There is something hilariously satisfying in using a chainsaw to shred a Nazi teddy bear into a cloud of stuffing.  Other modes also have context sensitive weapons like the TNT plunger in Beach which the refugees can use to instantly kill the Tediz and create a window of easy escape or the tooth and claw based melee combat in Raptor mode.  Despite the odd amalgamation of different game styles each mode is enjoyable in it's own way and the wide variety on offer makes it easy to spend an entire day battling it out with three other players without anything feeling stale.

While one squirrel is chainsawed to chunks, a teddy is getting the stuffing stabbed out of him in the background.  Cycle of violence, friends.
Nintendo was absolutely terrified of this game.  The company execs took one look at it and broke into panic attacks and night terrors of protesting parents accusing Nintendo of permanently traumatizing their children.  Nintendo insisted on including a large print warning label on the game box advising it is not meant for anyone under 17, which is to my knowledge the only Nintendo game to every carry such a label (if I'm wrong, call me out in the comments).  But the hand wringing didn't end there.  Nintendo refused to publicize or market the game in any way (a policy evidently still in place as there is no mention of the game anywhere on Nintendo's website) and Nintendo Power refused to feature or review the game.  Nintendo Power didn't acknowledge the game's existence until 10 years later when it was discussed in the Playback feature of volume 230 published in 2011.  KB Toys refused to carry the game in their stores and Nintendo of Europe wouldn't publish the game in the EU market.  If it wasn't for the solid 2nd-party privileged developer status and long history of successful collaborations it's doubtful Nintendo would have licensed the game at all. 

After being blackballed by Nintendo, Rare was left scrambling to promote the game they had spent the past four years developing.  Rare published the game themselves in North America and Australia (to this day the only other game they self-published was the previously featured Jet Force Gemini) while THQ published the game in Europe.  Shut out from the most widely circulated gaming magazine for Nintendo fans and saddled with a warning label essentially saying the game wasn't suited for the console's largest audience base Rare decided to embrace the raunchiness of their adult-oriented game by publishing an ad in Playboy and putting out a racy TV commercial.  Under such circumstances it's no wonder the game only sold 55,000 copies during the initial launch period, leading Nintendo to criticize Rare's sales performance in their decision to pass on the offer to buyout the developer.  Needless to say, after developing so many hit games for Nintendo, many of which are remembered as the best ever made by a company that wasn't the Big N themselves, Rare felt betrayed and rumors persist that it was Conker's BFD which was the real reason Nintendo broke that bond and sent Rare into the arms of Microsoft.   That would certainly explain why Conker chainsaws the familiar N64 logo in half during the game's opening credits.

But as much as Nintendo feared it, the critics were completely bonkers about it.  Reviewers praised the graphical feats Rare had accomplished noting how improvements in draw-distance, lighting, shadows, facial animations and lip-syncing "makes other Nintendo 64 games look like 16-bit software" in comparison.  The soundtrack and voice acting (much of it provided by lead director/designer/writer Chris Seavor, which explains all the British accents) was also well received and elevated the crude humor far beyond what you'd expect from typical toilet jokes.  It's no surprise that it took the #1 spot in GameTrailers "Top Ten Funniest Games" list.  The only criticisms came from some reviewers who felt that the removal of traditional Rare platforming tropes like item collection cut down playtime and the finicky camera system (to be fair, you can apply that complaint to almost any 3D game from that period).  But those concerns didn't detract from the overall enjoyable experience and in the years since release a large cult following has developed around the game.  It now holds the rank of 9th highest rated N64 game on Metacritic, sharing the top 10 with three other titles by Rare, the only company other then Nintendo to break into that pantheon of great games.

When Rare was bought by Microsoft in 2002 it effectively killed any possibility of Conker's return to a Nintendo console (or any other Rare game from making it's way to the Wii/Wii U Virtual Console).  Even if Nintendo did have the rights to Conker's it's extremely unlikely they would ever let it see the light of day given that the company has only increased it's focus on family-friendly fare since then.  But fortunately for Xbox owners, Microsoft has no such qualms about mature themed games (well, no as many I suppose would be more accurate) and in 2005 Conker: Live & Reloaded was released on Xbox Live.  Though the game was originally meant to be a higher resolution uncensored remake, Microsoft had a change of heart and made some edits to both the single and multiplayer modes that some fans found rather egregious.  While the multiplayer could now be enjoyed online through Xbox live, the game modes themselves were heavily altered.  The variety of modes is reduced to just team-based capture the flag and deathmatch and a class system was introduced.  There were also numerous edits made in the name of censorship in order to whitewash all the foul language from the game, the heavy hand of this is felt most during The Great Might Poo song which was re-recorded and had a number of lyrics bleeped out; both actions greatly reduced the comedic value of this scene.  While the new graphics and textures looked truly stunning, many felt that the game's heart had been sucked out for questionable motivations given the game retained it's M-rating and dire warning labels despite the censorship.

The sickle is handy for both reaping souls and slashing content deemed morally unfit by the censors of the Underworld.
Even with all the changes, the new multiplayer remained popular and was still one of the top 10 most played games on Xbox Live two years after release.  But sadly the servers got the kill-switch in 2010 when Microsoft ceased Xbox Live support for original Xbox titles.  While Rare at one point had mulled a sequel, those plans were squashed when sales on Live & Reloaded failed to meet expectations.  While Rare still owns the rights to the game, the company has changed quite a bit since those days.  Founders Chris and Tim Stamper left the company in 2007 and after a string of sales that fell short of their N64 glory days Microsoft restructured the studio.  New studio head Scott Henson has shifted the company's focus entirely to producing Kinect titles after 2010's Kinect Sports achieved commercial success in the face of middling reviews.  This new Rare seems intent on putting the past behind it so I think the odds of a new Conker game are pretty long.  That means the only (legal) way to play the game now is by finding an old copy and dusting off your N64. But you never know what the future holds, the odds were against Conker from the start but it managed to become one of the best games ever released on the N64.  From all reasonable perspectives it came out at the wrong time and appealed to the wrong crowd, but for that one brief window Conker was the king.

Heavy is the crown, my squirrely friend.  Sigh, where the hell did I leave my bottle of Scotch?  

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

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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

General Chaos

Year: 1994
Developer: Game Refuge Inc
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platform: Sega Genesis
Metacritic score: Not available
VGChartz sales to date: Unknown

When trying to find the origins of the multiplayer online battle arena genre, more commonly know by its acronym MOBA, most people will probably point to the Warcraft III mod Defense of the Ancients, also lovingly abbreviated as DotA.  Some in-the-know gamers might actually think of the Starcraft custom map Aeon of Strife, which was actually the inspiration for DotA.  But I doubt anyone would consider the 1994 Genesis classic General Chaos, a game that as far as I can tell was the first to combine elements from real-time strategy and action games with a fixed isometric point of view (if I'm wrong, let me know in the comments).    Anyone who does remember this game will recall a fun game with a goofy sense of humor that served up one of the best multiplayer experiences the Genesis had to offer.

Designed by the same guys responsible for the arcade classics Rampage and Arch Rivals (as previously mentioned, the forerunner to NBA Jam), General Chaos pits the forces of Moronica, led by the titular General, against General Havoc's Vicerian army.  During the briefing before each battle you'll select from preset dossiers of soldiers, each varying in class composition.  There are five different classes on tap: machine gunners, rocket launchers, grenade chuckers, flame throwers and dynamite tossers.  You can also opt for a two-man commando unit which is a little easier to coordinate but you'll be at a numerical disadvantage since I've only ever seen the AI choose a 5-man squad.  The goal of each battle is simple: take the objective by eliminating the opposing force.  There are also various bonuses and power-ups scattered around each map which are definitely worth moving out of cover to collect.  

Boot camp offers a quick tutorial on the game's controls and mechanics, a good idea considering how different the gameplay was from anything else on consoles at the time.
You control all 5 soldiers in your platoon by selecting each one and using the cursor to move them into position around the map.  You can move them as one big group or position specific classes in different spots, but when you give the command to fire each unit will target the nearest enemy and open fire at once.  If two units gets close enough, it will trigger a cartoon style dustcloud brawl which will occasionally result in one-on-one melee fights.  If a unit goes down, there's a brief window to call in a medic that can return him to the fight but this ability is limited by the number of medical corps officers you have in reserves.  But explosives have an advantage with a chance the enemy will be instantly skeleton-ized resulting in immediate death.  Plus, the grenadier looks a lot like Chuck Norris so that's gotta count for something, right?     

With 5 different characters to control it was important to pay attention to the positioning of each unit.  Grenade and dynamite throwers could lob their projectiles from behind cover, but would be quickly cut down if moved into the open.
While the single player campaign was an enjoyable, if quick, romp the real fun was in multiplayer.  Both co-op and competitive modes were available and there were even options for up to four players for the 10 or so people who owned a Sega Multitap.  In co-op each player takes control of a two man commando unit of their choosing and proceeds to tackle the same campaign in single player.  This mode makes controlling each unit much simpler and a well-coordinated team can easily flank the enemy, provide cover or pickup the collectible bonuses.  The AI difficulty also scales up against two players so you'll need to work together to overcome the computer's numerical advantage.  Versus mode, on the other hand, can be insanely challenging against another human-controlled team.  In this mode, each player picks one general and proceeds to face off with either 5-man squads or 2-man commando units.  Picking the right group is critical because a skilled opponent can exploit any weaknesses much better then the limited mid-90's AI was capable of.  Random negative events like weapon jams or the aforementioned instant deaths help create a sense of, well, chaos that can swing the battle but overall the player more skilled at positioning their units will end up on top.

In co-op a coordinated team can overcome a superior force.  With their ranged units drawing fire while in cover at the bottom of the screen, the incredibly lethal flamethrower and launcher units can move in and wipe out the enemy.
Consoles have never been a very welcoming home to RTS games, and even one as heavily streamlined as General Chaos failed to find a wide audience.  Back when EA was still Electronic Arts, they were more willing to take risks on games that fell well outside the normSometimes this paid off such as with classics like M.U.L.E., Populous and Wing Commander, but inevitably there were bound to be a few duds in the mix.  Back when games were developed on shoestring budgets and could be published without taking on too much risk this wasn't a problem.  But in today's environment a sales flop can spell bankruptcy, so I fear we'll be seeing fewer games from big publishers that step outside the comfort zone such as EA's under-appreciated Mirror's Edge.  

So it was probably inevitable that General Chaos wouldn't find mass-market appeal, and it's likely Electronic Arts wasn't too upset by that [UPDATE: It wasn't completely ignored, it was EA's second-best selling original Sega Title the year it was released. Thanks to Game Refuge Inc. CEO Brian Colin for setting the record straight].  I can't recall seeing any ads for it and was unable to find any original reviews.  The game's notoriety as an overlooked Genesis classic and outstanding multiplayer experience seems to have grown louder over the years thanks to the echo-chamber effect of the internet, but replaying the game proves it's not just a matter of nostalgia.  I guess you could say General Chaos was always intended to occupy the "value" space, but that wasn't necessarily a bad thing in the days when many purchases came from browsing the bargain bins.  Before the budget gulf between AAA-titles and shovelware was measured in millions of dollars it was possible to find games from smaller developers that were every bit as great as the heavy hitters released by Nintendo, Sega, Konami, Midway or Acclaim. 

They might not be modeled after celebrity likenesses, but that doesn't mean they weren't a fun batch of characters. Seriously though, that one dude totally looks like Chuck Norris.
This is one game that could really work well on mobile platforms.  Using the cursor to position troops was better implemented then in a lot of more recent RTS ports to console, but still no replacement for a mouse.  Being able to select and move troops with a few quick taps would be a far superior control scheme.  The brevity of the overall campaign and how it's broken down into isolated battles is a natural fit for the kinds of experiences people want in mobile games.  It's true you'd lose the fun that comes from playing side by side on the same couch, but being able to play co-op or competitive matches online would certainly make up for that.  You could even get the chance to experience 4-player support without needing a rare system add-on that was only supported by a handful of titles.  The points system, which was only ever used in the post-battle performance reviews, would lend themselves to an integrated leaderboard system with minimal adjustments.

Game Refuge Inc. is still around today, and they even seem to have shifted focus to the mobile/casual space.  With less then a dozen employees, they may not have the resources available to port this classic to iOS/Android.  But their website also claims they are trying to ramp up capabilities so if you're a programmer looking to break into gaming maybe send in your resume and then get to work on this Genesis classic.  Or if you lack coding skills just bomb their Facebook page until it gets made.  Either way, this is one under appreciated gem that deserves a second chance.

War.  War never changes.  But gaming does, so let's bring back General Chaos on  mobile platforms so we can get back to hilariously simplifying violent conflict.
Have you played this game?  Is there a game you remember being great that no one else seems to have heard of?  Sound off in the comments below, and be sure to Like us on Facebook or Follow us on Twitter!     

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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Beyond Good & Evil

Year: 2003
Developer: Ubisoft
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platform: GameCube, PC, PS2 and Xbox (originally); now available on Playstation Network and Xbox Live
Metacritic score: 86 (cross platform avg)
VGChartz sales to date: 510,000

It was only a matter of time before this cult-classic grabbed a featured spot.  For those who played Beyond Good & Evil, you're probably wondering why it took this long.  As for everyone else, well you missed out on a unique, joyous adventure whose bright colors and characters hide a surprising depth and maturity.   Designed and written by Michel Ancel, best known for the Rayman series, BG&E is another Ubisoft effort that shows what's possible when you inject your characters with heart and soul (they are a French studio, afterall).  A far cry from Nietzche's 1886 treatise by the same name, though by the time the credits role you'll be left questioning whether moral choices can be so neatly categorized in black and white terms like good or evil in a world filled with so many different shades of color.   

You play as Jade, a young photographer on the war-torn planet of Hillys that was brought up in a home for war orphans.  The planet is under constant assault by the DomZ, a species focused on abducting people to convert them into energy or infect them with spores to turn them into mindless slaves.  In this atmosphere of fear, the fascist Alpha Sections came to power on a platform of security and defense but the abductions have continued unabated.  Jade is happy helping her anthropomorphic pig "uncle" Pey'j take care of the orphans, but when they need money to keep up the shield protecting their little haven it's up to her to take on a job photographing and cataloging the planet's wildlife.  This job will eventually lead her to the secretive ISIS network, a resistance movement that hires Jade to investigate their suspicions about the Alpha Sections.  Over the course of the game, Jade's camera will bring more then just the local fauna into focus and her revelations will change everything she thinks she knows about the government, her trusted guardian and even herself.  

Photos taken of sensitive areas are immediately uploaded to the IRIS network, but be warned that your enemies will go to great length to conceal the truth.
Jade's path puts her at odds with both the DomZ and Alpha Sections and she'll need to rely on a mix of stealth and combat to survive.  Jade relies on her combat staff for melee attacks, but her real weapon is her camera.  You'll need to solve puzzles and use your platforming skills to sneak into highly restricted areas and unravel the conspiracy by snapping incriminating shots to expose the truth.  You'll also be able to upgrade your camera over the course of the game enabling new abilities such ranged attacks.  Other useful tools Jade acquires include a hovercraft and spaceship used to navigate between the main hub city and the various assignments, both vehicles can also be upgrades using Pearls that are rewarded for completing missions, playing various minigames, cataloging the animals of Hillys, exploration or cold hard credits if you'd rather do things the easy way.  Further help is provided by a variety of player-controlled NPC companions possessing unique special abilities, but they're just as susceptible to damage as you are so keep an eye on them and share your food or PA-1's to help them regain or boost health.

Stealth can often help you avoid dangerous situations, but there are times when being discovered means instant death.

The gameplay provides a nice mix of puzzle-solving, platforming and straight up action while the planet of Hillys is an excellent backdrop for your adventures.  The game world has a distinctly European countryside feel to it which makes for a nice contrast with the more sci-fi and modernist elements of the setting.  It's also refreshing to play a game that has a strong female protagonist without beating you over the head with it.  A better way of thinking about it is that you play as a brave, loyal and adventurous hero that just so happens to be a woman.  Playing as an investigative journalist and using your camera to defeat the antagonists is also a nice break from the standard "save the world by killing everything" formula found in so many games.  But it's really the story that shines brightest, it's impossible to not care about these characters and feel the same compassion that drives Jade's journey.  I don't want to risk spoiling anything, to do so would be a crime against humanity, but I will say that while some of the twists can feel out of left field they add a layer of depth that's largely left up to the player to consider on their own after they put down the controller.

Our old foil marketing once again plays a large role in why BG&E never got the love it deserved, and a number of top executives at Ubisoft have been pretty public about how the game's release was mishandled.  The studio was hellbent on releasing the game in time for the holiday season, only Ubisoft Montreal had another game ready to launch at the same time.  That other game, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, was a highly successful reboot of the classic 1989 original and received widespread praise for its graphics, puzzles, time-rewind mechanic, combat, sound design...in short pretty much everything about the game.  Both games are based on a mix of action, platforming and puzzle solving and where released at the exact same time.  Further stacking the deck against BG&E, Ubisoft devoted almost all of its marketing effort toward Prince of Persia, a move that Ubisoft North America CEO Laurent Detoc would go on to describe as the worst business decision he's ever made.  

I know Jade, I don't get it either.
It's hard to understand how nobody predicted how badly Prince of Persia would cannibalize sales away from BG&E, but perhaps they felt the game was so unique, so different, that it would stand out enough to get noticed.  While BG&E is certainly special, however, at least some of its individuality was sucked out by the focus-group effect that took place after its troubled unveiling at the 2002 E3.  Sandwiched in a sizzle reel that included footage from Rayman 3, Splinter Cell and Ghost Recon, the crowd reaction to "Project BG&E" was deafening silence.  Although everyone who played the floor demo's walked away with a positive impression, the studio came to the conclusion that the original vision was too out there.  

The original design for Jade was younger, more stylized then and less sexy than what we see in the finished game.

As a result, the visual design was greatly tweaked to be less "artistically ambitious".  Further changes were made that greatly reduced the original focus on open-world exploration after the 2003 release of The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker was criticized for it's long sailing sections.  Ancel reported that these changes were demoralizing to the development team after having spent so much effort making the game stand out, and that the finished game felt more like a sequel then a reworking.  When reading the reviews, the effect of this changes becomes more evident.  Impressions were predominantly positive, but critics frequently cited the game's brief playtime and its inability to fully commit to any of its many gameplay aspects.  Perhaps GamePro summarizes it best when they say BG&E is "a jack-of-all-trades, master of none."  With non-existent marketing and good but not great reviews, BG&E's fate was sealed before it even hit shelves.

Thanks to the magic of re-releases, BG&E got the full HD treatment and was added to PSN and XLA in 2011 and it looks even better then you remember.  At around $10 the price is better too, taking much of the sting out of the short play time.  Actually, given the prevalence of shorter indie and episodic games available for download BG&E HD feels like a natural fit in today's market.  While sales data isn't available yet (downloadable sales are notoriously hard to track) it's safe to say they have likely outperformed original retail reception.  In the years since its release gamers have been more receptive of its original story premise and the game's reputation has steadily grown, creating the odd effect that its rank in 'best of' lists actually improves as time goes by.   

The sun hasn't set yet on this stunningly gorgeous remake, it continues to draw new fans into the promising land of Hillys.
If you needed further reason to check this game out, there's this tantalizing reveal from a 2008 Ubisoft conference hinting that a BG&E 2 is in the works.  While the story was originally intended as the first in a trilogy, poor sales scuttled that idea.  But thanks to a continued interest in the game by a passionate community and warming general reception Michel Ancel and a small team have begun development.  It's expected the new game would be destined for Wii U and the next Playstation and Xbox consoles, but little is known about the still much in development project.  But don't start salivating just yet, it was recently reported that development on this game had taken a backseat to Ancel's work on the Rayman titles.  With Rayman Legends due out in early 2013, hopefully development on the next Beyond Good & Evil will start in earnest soon.    

Pey'j is looking handsome as ever in his tastefully stained undershirt.  And is that a meditative Jade i see in the background?

 Have you played this game?  Is there a game you remember being great that no one else seems to have heard of?  Sound off in the comments below, and be sure to Like us on Facebook or Follow us on Twitter to receive updates and teasers for new posts! 

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Wednesday, November 28, 2012


Year: 2003
Developer: Zipper Interactive
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform: PS2
Metacritic score: 87
VGAChartz sales to date: 2.94 million 

Unless you're prepared to go through Hell Week, Socom II is the closest you'll ever come to being a Navy SEAL (fun fact: except for the word 'Navy' the full title is entirely made of acronyms, anyone know what they stand for?).  This 3rd-person tactical shooter puts you in the boots of a SEAL team leader and challenges you with shutting down an Albanian weapons smuggling syndicate, ending an armed revolution in Brazil, disrupting a coup in Algeria and preventing a rogue nuclear attack on the U.S. by a Russian terrorist group.  All in a day's work for the most elite special forces soldiers the world has ever seen.  Thankfully, you'll be backed up by a capable fire team whose intelligent AI does justice to the discipline of real-life SEALs.  The game strives to be true to life at every turn and received extensive input from Naval Special Warfare Command (the U.S. Navy even earned developer credits for their effort).

Sandstorm tasks the SEALs with infiltrating a desert terrorist compound and blowing up a communications setup.  Use the load screen briefing to study the map and plan your attack or defense.  
The lengthy single-player campaign consists of 12 missions spanning four distinct deployments, each drawn from the types of conflicts SEALs actually engage in.  Before each mission you'll arm yourself with primary and secondary weapons based on real-world armaments (though some have altered names for legal reasons) and up to three tactical items such as scopes, silencers or grenades.  Success is entirely dependent upon how well you can use the elements of stealth, surprise and tactical firepower to lead your fireteam to achieve the mission.  Your three AI teammates can be controlled through voice commands to perform such actions as follow waypoints, take cover, silently take down individual targets or breach and clear rooms.  Your team's ability to engage the enemy using tactical force to overcome superior numbers will determine whether you can complete the primary, secondary and hidden objectives in each mission.  Accomplishing these will often provide intel or other advantages in further missions.  

While Jester kicks in the door, use voice commands to order fireteam bravo to deploy a flashbang allowing you to take out the target without killing the hostage.

While the single-player portion of the game is truly excellent, it's the multiplayer that kept players coming back right up until the servers were shut down in August 2012 (more on that later).  Using the PS2 Network Adapter and the bundled headset you could play online in 8v8 matches of elimination, demolition, breaching an enemy compound and rescuing hostages or protecting VIPs from assassination.  The game plays much like Counter-Stike in that death comes quickly and the penalty is sitting out until the round ends.  There is an extensive armory of smg's, assault rifles, pistols, shotguns and sniper rifles along with a full compliment of grenades and other tactical items.  Gear, including unlockable skins, can all be adjusted in between rounds or scavenged from dead players during a match.  With 22 different maps across a variety of terrains, each with a unique layout requiring different tactics, there were ample opportunities to experiment with the huge inventory.  The dedicated servers, voice chat, ranked lobbies and robust clan systems made it a favorite among competitive gamers and a close-knit clan community developed around the heavily team-based combat.  This is an online experience just as Earth-shatteringly good as Battlefield 1942, Call of Duty 4 or the aforementioned Counter-Strike.  

Use C4 to infiltrate the compound while evading enemy fire.  Plant and defend the bomb to take out the comms room and end the airstrike threat.

So why didn't Socom II spawn an endless series of sequels and imitators like those games did?  Critics raved about the multiplayer and declared graphics, gameplay and controls to be major improvements on the already strong first title.  While the sequel didn't manage to sell as many copies, it still lands just outside the top 50 best-selling PS2 games and created a loyal following that still begs for a true sequel nearly a decade later.  This is a rare instance when neither positive critical reception, a dedicated fanbase or even successful sales were enough to stave off consignment to the dustbin of history.  What the hell went wrong?

Online loadoats could be detailed from camo style to voice type and switched up between matches to take into account the terrain type.  Weapon and gear profiles could also be saved but those could be switched up between each round to adjust strategy on the fly.

While the game did sell, an additional headset, network adapter and broadband connection were required to experience the phenomenal multiplayer and get the most out of the game.  Online gaming was old hat to the PC crowd, but on consoles the concept was still in it's infancy.  The Socom series was one of the first to offer online play and in the absence of Xbox Live or PSN backbones Zipper used the PC model of lobbies and dedicated servers.  This fostered a vibrant clan community that encouraged long-term play but could also be intimidating to newcomers.  Players in ranked servers expected their teammates to know what they're doing, so it was wise to learn the ropes in the unranked respawn lobbies first.  The focus on tactical gameplay may also have given it primarily niche appeal, but regenerative health and rapidfire respawns weren't yet mandatory in all shooters so this may not have hurt too badly.

Extraction was one of many unique multiplayer modes that demanded close teamwork to lead the hostages to a heli pickup as the SEALs or prevent their escape as the terrorists.

The next outing on the PS2, Socom 3 was released towards the end of the systems lifecycle and despite earning similar reviews fell quite short of sales expectations.  Most criticism centered around the graphics which failed to keep pace as the console aged, but the fanbase particularly disliked the inclusion of vehicles into combat.  While the huge variety of vehicles was fun to pilot, they had a major impact on the feel of multiplayer.  The use of vehicles allowed for much more expansive maps and played more life Battlefield in addition to the smaller, more tactical encounters the series was known for.  Many within the existing community found the new gameplay out of place and felt the wide open maps and increased 32-player games exposed weaknesses in the game's draw distance and frame rates.  A significant number of players opted to continue playing Socom II right up until Zipper's closure forced the servers to go dark at the end of August 2012.  Zipper released one final Socom for PS2, the middling Combined Assault, along with a handful of releases for the PSP which were better received, but none could recapture the appeal or commercial success of the first two titles. 

Whether by land, air or sea no place in the world is inaccessible to a Navy SEAL.  But when it comes to use of force they prefer the tactical advantage of small arms to the overwhelming force of vehicular combat, and gamers expected the action to reflect that.

The Socom series made two appearances during the current console generation, but only one was handled by Zipper themselves.  Shortly after Zipper was bought out by SCE to become an in-house studio for Sony the Socom brand was handed off to developer Slant Six.  There efforts on the PSP titles were viewed positively by critics and fans, and when it was announced the first PS3 release would be heavily based around the formula set by Socom II the internet exploded with cautious optimism that we were finally getting the much-desired true sequel to Socom II.  In many ways Confrontation delivered on this promise by offering the same team-based, tactical combat the series was known for in a presentation highly similar to Socom II, right down to the layout of the HUD-display. 
But numerous technical flaws and network glitches triggered an intensely negative reaction from gamers and reviewers unable to play the game.  Without a single-player campaign, there was nothing players could do except loudly complain on every Socom message board across the internet.  Once players could finally get online they found persistent lag, unstable frame rates, numerous missing features that were listed on the box (including the critical support for clans) and a cornucopia of gameplay bugs.  Slant Six struggled to release a series of patches over the next few months and the game eventually came closer to fulfilling it's promises, but the damage was done and sales never recovered.

The inclusion of fan favorite maps like Frostfire and Crossroads (above) in Confrontation were much appreciated, but couldn't offset how rapidly stale things felt with only 7 maps to choose from.

Zipper made one final attempt with Socom 4, this time developing the game themselves and determined to incorporate lessons from newer online shooters.  The graphics were given a visual update, a story driven single-player campaign was added and there was a much greater emphasis on action over stealth and planning.  But once again PSN network failures prevented players from getting online during launch week, this time due to the infamous PSN hack starting on 4/20/11.  Despite the low bar set by Confrontation, Socom 4 still managed to disappoint with it's cheesy single-player campaign, poor controls and new focus on run-n-gun combat.  It was pretty clear that Zipper had tried (and fell well short) of aping the Call of Duty formula, losing any meaningful connection to the Socom series in the process in much the same way Socom 3 had done.  When considered alongside the lack of a lobby system, poor voice chat, and limited clan support many within the existing Socom community felt betrayed by what they viewed as shallow appeals to the casual gaming crowd.  Once more they dug in their heels and decided to stick with Socom II despite being over 8 years old at this point.

The underwhelming response to Socom 4, coming on the heels of poor sales by Zipper's online 1st-person shooter MAG, spelled doom for the studio and Sony announced their closure in March 2012.  This also meant the dedicated servers for Socom II which Zipper had continued to operate would finally be shut down.  Anyone looking to scratch their itch for tactical online combat must now turn to Confrontation, which is thankfully much improved since it's very rocky launch.  With Zipper shuttered and no Socom projects anywhere on Slant Six's horizon the future looks pretty grim for this once-great series.  If Sony ever does hand this franchise off to someone knew, there is a sizable fanbase always hungry for more with still-active communities begging for an HD port of Socom II.  Looking at the 1st-person action shooters popular on Xbox Live and PSN, it's easy to see why a so many gamers interested in teamwork, strategy and tactics feel left out in the cold.  Once you've spent time playing as the most disciplined, most professional, most highly-trained special forces soldiers on the planet, everything else just seems like child's play. 

We're serious Sony, give us a proper Socom or this will be one hostage not even Liam Neeson can rescue
Have you played this game? Is there a game you remember being great but no one else seems to have heard of it?  Sound off in the comments below, and be sure to Like us on Facebook or Follow us on Twitter to receive updates and teasers for new posts!

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