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, October 31, 2012

Star Wars: The Old Republic

Year: 2011
Developer: Bioware
Publisher: EA
Platform: PC
Metacritic score: 85
VGAChartz sales to date: 2.47 million

Some might cry foul over the inclusion of a game that is still active and has sold over 2 million copies in it's first year, and for most games they'd be correct.  But this is an MMORPG involving one of the world's most lucrative brands developed by a renown studio at a cost of over $150 million.  The goal was to topple the reigning heavyweight in the genre, World of Warcraft, and in some respects they were successful right out of the gate.   It set records for it's stratospheric development costs and becoming the fastest growing MMO with over 1 million subscribers signed up in just three days.  The future for Bioware and EA must have looked pretty rosy at the time since active subscribers are key to an MMO's success, but the party was short lived.  In just a year numbers rose to a peak of nearly 2 million subscriptions to somewhere between 500k - 1 million as of this writing. The hemorrhaging has led to layoffs of the Bioware Austin studio (including the game's Executive Producer) and may have contributed to the resignation of Bioware founders Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk from their positions and the industry as a whole.  How could things go so wrong?  SWToR was the chosen one, it was supposed to destroy the MMO status quo, not join it.  Bring balance to the Force, not leave it in darkness.

Building on the foundations set by Ultima Online and EverQuest, The Old Republic combines classic MMORPG gameplay with the fully-voiced dialogue and emphasis on story found in western RPG's like Skyrim or Bioware's on Mass Effect.  Taking place in everyone's favorite galaxy far, far away but in a time even longer ago, SWToR is set around 3,500 years prior to the rise of Vader and fall of the Emperor.  This is a time of outright war between armies of Jedi defending the Galactic Republic and the Sith Empire attempting to dominate it.   Players join the fray alongside and against other smugglers, Jedi Knights, Sith Inquisitors and bounty hunters with each of the 8 playable classes receiving a unique storyline.  These main missions will each take around 50-200 hours depending on how quickly you race through them and are enjoyable from start to finish thanks to the quality voice-acting and immersive cutscenes which can be influenced by player choices like in Mass Effect.  These decisions often have lasting impacts and can alter your characters Force alignment to the light or dark side.  

Whether you're playing a light or dark side Sith Inquisitor, the option to Force choke it always the right one. 
The genuinely engaging story missions are just one of many ways to level your character.   There are hundreds of fully-voiced side missions (most of which avoid standard fetch-quest gimmicks) across numerous planets, moons and space stations which you can freely travel to upon obtaining your own ship.  There's also cooperative instanced Flashpoints which delve into important battles or moments and provide special weapons and armor.  PvP fans can get their fix from Warzones which can be queued up at any time from any spot, dropping you into competitive 16 player objective-based matches.  In addition to serving as personal housing, player ships also let you complete on-rails space combat missions that play out like cinematic space battles found in the Star Wars films.  Once you do reach the endgame, you'll find 8 and 16 player Operations (SWToR's version of raids) with multiple difficulty levels as well as Warzone matches dedicated to level-capped players.  

Each faction has four playable class types representing traditional MMO roles of tanks, ranged or melee DPS and healer which can be further modified through specializations such as ranged, melee, stealth, crowd-control and more.  Combat is handled through customizable hotbars and new skills are learned by leveling up through quest completion, crafting, combat and other XP-earning activities though NPC companions put a new twist on many of these genre staples.  Crafting, for example, is handled through your companion's crew skills which allow you to automate the tedious process of collecting raw materials and crafting them into usable goods that can be equipped or sold through player markets.  A bigger impact is felt in combat where your companion will fight alongside you, augmenting the strengths or weaknesses of your chosen class and specialization.  My stealth DPS focused Jedi Consular can use a companion to tank, opening up my powerful attacks from behind while soaking up damage and drawing attention away from me.  Each class will accrue multiple companions over the course of their story, putting a fresh coat of paint on MMO mainstays while also making solo and small group play more viable.

The Jedi Consular class can master the Force to heal companions and control crowds, or wield a dual-bladed lightsaber and strike from stealth to deal massive damage.  Each can be further customized to augment traditional MMO roles.

Obviously a major component to any MMORPG is player customization, and SWToR excels at making you feel like part of the Star Wars universe.  Each class has two specialization routes to choose from which can be further augmented to personal taste by assigning points across three distinct skill trees.  Weapon and armor types are restricted by class (don't expect a Jedi to use something as clumsy or random as a blaster or a smuggler to try his hand at hokey religions or ancient weapons), but you can expect to personalize your lightsaber/blaster with color crystals or wear purely cosmetic sets of armor.  Armor, weapons and even some speeders (SWToR's player mounts) can be crafted using crew skills to give your gear a more personal touch.  Each account also has a persistent legacy rank which rewards player progress and encourages you to roll multiple characters by creating a personal lore and family lineage that connects each of your characters.  Legacy perks include stat boosts, bonus skills and even unlocking the various alien races for different classes when making subsequent characters.  

Companion outfits can also be customized to suit your tastes, but anyone who doesn't dress their Twi'lek in a skimpy slave girl outfit is really missing the point.

I've prattled on quite a bit about about what this game is, but it's harder to convey exactly what makes it great without spending some quality time playing it.  A lot of what's been said will be immediately familiar to anyone that's played an MMO, and yet SWToR does such a great job refining each of these aspects as to make you remember why you liked MMO's in the first place.  The Star Wars setting provides an endlessly rich sandbox to play in and who hasn't wanted to live vicariously as a Jedi Knight or bounty hunter?  But I think what this game does particularly well is find that elusive middle ground between the hardcore and casual MMO player.  The engaging story and settings intrigue gamers who feel more comfortable in single-player RPG's.  At the same time, the interface and mechanics have the depth and customization options experienced players demand but each concept is introduced in a gradual and organic way that won't leave newcomers feeling like they've been dropped into the deep end.  What it all boils down to is The Old Republic is the best possible way to become a part of the Star Wars universe and for most people that's all the justification needed to pronounce this game as great.

This can best be described as the "Dark Knight Phenomenon".  Simply put, SWToR was the game we deserved, but not the one we needed right then.  Given that this is both an MMO and a Star Wars game, it was inevitable that the fanbase would be highly vocal about any slight quibble.  And sure enough before the game was even released the forums were jam packed with people decrying the limited endgame options, repetitive weapon and armor designs, and an ever-growing list of features whose absence signified nothing short of an epic failure.  And while some of these oversights were genuinely frustrating, it's more then a little unfair to compare a newly launched MMO to one that's had over a decade of post-release updates and patches.  But the bigger issue, and I think the ultimate source of these numerous minor complaints, is that SWToR is not the Star Wars game players wanted.

Far and away, the most common refrain in the criticism was that it's an MMO.  A lot of players had been waiting for Bioware to continue their Knights of the Old Republic series, an excellent single-player RPG with a dedicated following.  But Bioware was hoping to break into the MMO space and wanted to further its own IP (they even handed the sequel to KotOR off to Obsidian Entertainment to develop externally).  Eventually this path led them to using the core team behind KotOR to develop SWToR, making it the spiritual successor if not exactly a true continuation of the beloved series.  Players frequently complain that SWToR gave them eight average KotOR stories (one for each playable class) when they really wanted a single great one.  Simultaneously, just as SWToR was going live an existing MMO set in the same period as the films was shutting down.  Star Wars Galaxies may have come up short in terms of combat, content and balance but it offered a staggering level of customization and gameplay options.  There might not be many people out there who wanted to live out a digital life as Watto or those musicians in Mos Eisley Cantina, but for those who wanted to experience Galactic Civil War from the perspective of a Mon Calamari mayor in a player-created city on Tattoine then SWG was everything you had ever dreamed of.  

A ship will bring you work, a gun will help you keep it.  A Bounty Hunter's goal was simple: find a crew, find a job, keep flying.
The end result was two disparate communities being brought together over ToR and none of them were completely satisfied.  Fans of KotOR complained that Bioware spilled MMO all over their single-player RPG while the displaced SWG fans levied the exact opposite charge.  Some players expressed this sentiment through complaints that ToR didn't reinvent the MMO genre despite all the refinements, while others felt the community and PvP aspects never evolved the way other MMO's did since players could solo much of the content without ever needing to group up.  The general hype over all things Star Wars helped drive early sales, but once that first free month was up the majority let their subscriptions lapse.  The KotOR fans stuck to soloing one or two characters to play their stories before being satisfied and the hardcore MMO crowd returned to the established MMO's they had already invested so much time and money in (though judging by WoW's subscription problems it would seem many quit the grind for good).  The declining subscriptions were compounded by the decision to drastically increase the number of servers when long waits were reported immediately after launch.  This resulted in many servers feeling barren and making it difficult to find quality players in PvP and endgame content.  A chain reaction had started which Bioware was incapable of reversing leaving even the most active and dedicated players at a loss.  Even those of us who had been most active in the server guilds and online community felt a great disturbance in the Force.  It was as if millions of voices had suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced.  

It may seem silly asking this question since SWToR was released only a year ago.  However, just like Obi-Wan there's a chance that after being struck down, SWToR will become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.  Bioware has announced SWToR will be going free to play this Fall.  This means you can purchase the game at retail (currently available for under $10) and then enjoy it without ever needing to spend another dollar.  Some restrictions will be in place to encourage people to spend some money now and again, but based on details so far it appears the bulk of the game, including the entire story missions up to the current level cap, will be available to all sans subscription.  

Huttball is a fantastic take on PvP capture the flag and will get even the most reluctant player to give the Warzones a try
Not only does this significantly lower the cost of entry, it also entices players who don't have the time to make a $15/month investment in a game.  Despite letting my own subscription lapse, I immensely enjoyed my time exploring the galaxy trying out new characters and becoming active in a guild.  But like most players, I hit a point where my interests moved on to other things and it became hard to justify maintaining a sub when I was only logging a few hours a month.  I'm willing to bet a lot of people shared this feeling, especially gamers who had wanted more KotOR or had grown bored with MMO's in general.  As for the hardcore crowd, very few are willing to maintain more than one active sub and it's hard to walk away from a game you've already but a ton of time into.  Going F2P gives these players a way to ease into the game without making big commitments with their money or time.  This could be just the trick to convince lapsed players such as myself to dust off the cobwebs and dive back in.  

Of course, you can't count this as a success unless it can overcome the record setting development costs and turn a profit for Bioware and EA.  If they strike the right balance between what's free and what's behind the pay-firewall it could result in better returns than during the subscription high water mark.  Turbine's continued success with Lord of the Rings: Online after its move to F2P proves it's certainly possible.  If they can manage to generate another flood of new and returning players (myself happily among them), the odds are high at least some will decide they like the game enough to chip in a few bucks now and again to support the people who made it.  Death is a natural part of life and we should rejoice for those around us who transform into the Force, but it's not clear that SWToR is willing to give up the Force ghost just yet.  I've got a feeling that the Force will be with SWToR.  Always.      

IT'S A TRAP!!!! Mon Calamari aren't actually a playable race though they do appear in-game.  I just shattered your dreams, didn't I?
Have you played this game?  Is there a game you remember being great but no one seems to have heard of it?  Sound off below in the comments, and be sure to Like us on Facebook for updates and teasers on upcoming posts!

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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Little Nemo: The Dream Master

Year: 1990
Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Platform: NES
Metacritic score: Not available
VGChatz sales to date: Unknown

Last week there was a Google Doodle celebrating the anniversary of Little Nemo in Slumberland, a comic strip by artist Winsor McCay that debuted way back in 1905.  In a time known for conservative Victorian principles (and yes, some casual racism) the Nemo comic strips were downright experimental in their use of perspective, color and framing to achieve an appropriately dreamlike feel.  Seeing those surrealist landscapes again filled me with nostalgia and a strong desire to consume hallucinogens, both of which inspired this week's post. 

Nemo, after dropping about 50 hits of acid, whimsically dreams of murdering father time in an elaborate visual representation of New Year's 

Capcom was experiencing a Golden Age in Platforming in the late 80's/early 90's and was applying their winning combination of bright graphics and tight controls to any license they good get their hands on.  We've all heard of Mega Man and Ghosts n' Goblins, but in what universe do DuckTales, Chip n' Dale: Rescue Rangers and The Little Mermaid all get top-notch platformer tie-ins?  And yet thanks to Capcom's incredible Mega Man engines and their fever-dream quest to license every Saturday morning cartoon in America that's exactly what we got.  And so it was that in 1990 Capcom gave us Little Nemo: The Dream Master, licensed from the Japanese anime film Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland which was released the previous year (it would eventually receive a U.S. release but not until 1992).  Why Capcom chose to release a licensed tie-in game in the U.S. market when it's licensed property was never released there and the source material was nearly a century old is anyone's guess, but I for one am glad they did.  

The game puts  you in control of Nemo as he adventures through Slumberland to rescue King Morpheus from Nightmare Land.  Naturally this all plays out in Nemo's dreams, and each level has a visual style that uses bright colors and fantasy environs but also a slightly dark and twisted feel.  The look pays homage to the classic comic strip's ether-induced visual style and stands as one of the best-looking NES games ever produced.  Seriously, if you aren't hooked from the first levels towering kaleidoscopic mushrooms then you must be a DEA agent.  The 8-bit soundtrack also helps to convey an otherworldly feel that suits the game's setting and themes quite well.

If Nemo's been eating that amanita muscaria it's no wonder he's having these dreams

The actual gameplay is extremely challenging, which is to be expected of anything based on the Mega Man engine.  Hidden across each of the 8 levels are a number of Golden Keys which are needed to unlock the level's end, but it's not clear how many keys you need until you reach the end and see the corresponding number of locks.  Enemies are plentiful and highly lethal, and Nemo's only weapon (for most of the game anyhow) is a bag of candy.  In fact, you actually can't hurt the enemies at all with the candy, only stun them in place momentarily to leap over them.  Some animals can be tamed (drugged?) with the candy allowing you to...uh...wear them like a skin suit.  Aside from being deeply disturbing, this grants you the ability of that animal such as digging in the mole skin, leaping in the frog skin, or flying in the bee skin to name just a few.  Most animal skins also grant you increased health and the ability to attack enemies, so you'll want to spend most of the game getting your Hannibal Lecter on.       

That bee skin is so helpful you won't stop to question why this is what Nemo dreams about
It's a licensed tie-in to a property over 100 years old.  Alright, so it's actually a tie-in to a popular anime that was only a year old at the time but that film wouldn't get a release outside of Japan until two years after this game hit stores.  That meant in most markets people hadn't seen anything related to the Little Nemo property since the 1930's, well before most parents at the time had even been born.  To say the property was unknown is an understatement, so Capcom needed to treat this like an original IP if they wanted it to sell outside Japan.  That means making a case to the consumer what this game is and why they should try it.

Of course, Capcom did not do this.  I can't remember any marketing for this game although a YouTube search did pick up this utterly bizarre commercial:

I've played this game off and on over the past two decades and still have no freaking clue how this commercial connects to the game beyond the occasional schizophrenic flashes of in-game footage.  They make the game seem like something based around Nightmare on Elm Street, with Capcom sending middle-management and Jesse Eisenberg through your neighborhood at night to tap into your secret fears.   Nowhere in that commercial is the slightest inkling of the lighthearted ethereal setting contained within the game.  They've taken a game filled with bright, colorful landscapes and show only the bleak final level in nightmare land.  If it wasn't for the box art at the end you wouldn't even know this is an ad for a game at all.  

And oh, how Capcom does love to screw up it's box art.  While it didn't approach the epic terribleness of Capcom's North American release of Mega Man, the box art for Little Nemo screams "kiddie game".  Seeing it juxtaposed with that frenetic horror show of a commercial only underscores how poor a choice it was for a game that is genuinely difficult even for an avid gamer.  I can only imagine how many crying 5-year-olds were subjected to constant deaths in an acid-trip landscape because their parents saw this on the shelf and picked it up.  It's no wonder I originally found this game at a garage sale for one dollar, those parents must have thought they were unloading some ancient cursed relic on me.  

Not even the offer of a free Mega Man sticker is worth the uncomfortable looks you get handing this to the cashier

I've got to assume that just as few people know the Little Nemo brand today as in 1990, so for all intents and purposes this would still need to be treated like an original IP.  That's even more problematic today then back in the early 90's thanks to the massive budget (and therefore risk) involved in producing AAA titles.  Publishers aren't willing to let a developer gamble millions on an unknown entity when failure means bankruptcy.  Fortunately for gamers willing to step outside their comfort zone, we are in a brave new era of indie gaming.  Operating on shoe-string budgets with skeleton crews, these developers can take risks on ideas and styles the conservative corporate studios won't touch.  

In fact, indie gaming has led to a full-fledged revival of 2D platformers which not long ago had been all but left for dead.  Heavily stylized and simple yet brutally challenging games like Limbo, Braid and Super Meat Boy selling millions of copies across multiple platforms.  Little Nemo could fit nicely in this niche with only a few modest updates to graphics and audio.  Holding a 7.9 average rating on IGN's community reviews (and landing at #68 on their 100 top NES games list) it's clear that current gamers find plenty to like about it.  What isn't clear is who owns the rights to this property.  As this game was licensed on the 1989 film rather then the original comic strip it's doubtful even Capcom has the rights to re-make it anymore.  The good news is that the copyright is so old it should soon be entering public domain.  That leaves open the opportunity for some enterprising programmer to give us another trip through Slumberland.

"Oh, I see you've already helped yourself to our mushrooms.  Look Nemo, I should have mentioned this earlier but..."  

Have you played this game?  Is there a game you remember being great but no one seems to have heard of it?  Sound off below in the comments!

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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Way of the Samurai

Year: 2002
Developer: Acquire
Publisher: BAM! Entertainment
Platform: PS2
Metacritic Score: 74
VGChartz sales to date: 510,000

A lone ronin wanders into a sleepy Japanese village.  There he finds two hostile clans on the verge of war and a newly centralized government encroaching on a traditional way of life.  This wandering swordsman must use his wits and his steel to make it through unscathed, and hopefully find a way to profit from the town's upheaval.  This is the plot to Yojimbo, a 1961 film by legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa and starring the renowned Toshiro Mifune.  This movie is a cinema classic and spawned the American remake A Fistful of Dollars which launched Sergio Leone's international success as the king of the spaghetti western and Clint Eastwood's fame playing the Man with No Name.  Both movies are beyond excellent and I highly recommend them, but if you want to take on the role of the ronin yourself then there's only one way to enjoy this rich story and that's by playing Way of the Samurai.

It even throws in an afro samuari for good measure.  And yes, he is an unlockable skin.

You play as Kenji, a ronin (samurai who has been released from their daimyo, or feudal lord, and was considered a shameful position) whose travels take him to the small village of Rokkotsu Pass.  The game is set during the start of the Meiji period, a time of upheaval in Japanese history when the traditional feudal system that supported samurai was being replaced by a more modern, centralized vision of government.   The growing pressure of modernization is being felt in Rokkatsu Pass where a power struggle has emerged between the powerful central government, the powerful Kurou family, and the Akadama clan.  Caught in the middle are the villagers themselves who, let's be honest here, are going to lose no matter which side wins.  Kenji finds himself caught up in local politics as soon as he begins a 3-day adventure through the Pass, and that's where things get interesting.

Though small, the game's playable area includes a nice variety of Japanese landscapes

Way of the Samurai has multiple branching storylines and it's up to you to decide which one to play.  Kenji can choose to align himself with one clan over the other, double-cross either side, defend the villagers instead, or even just passively observe the events and not get involved at all.  The amount of variation in every interaction is truly staggering and seemingly infinite.  In the first encounter alone, you come upon a group of thugs harassing a village girl.  I must have played this over a dozen times and have yet to repeat a scenario, with each providing a (sometimes major) tweak to the overall story.  I have killed the thugs and won a date with the girl, killed them but spared their leader, killed them but scared away the girl when I turned to attack her, done nothing and watched her die, helped the thugs kidnap her, and just killed everyone.  There are seven different endings and you're encouraged to play them all by carrying over some items and stats into a new playthrough.

Combat is a major component of the game, and thankfully the swordplay mechanics are really enjoyable.  There are over 40 different kinds of blades in the game which can be picked up from defeated foes (though you can only carry 3 at a time) and each has it's own attributes and a variety of stances.  You can even equip and wield a wide range of alternative weapons like axes, saws or sickles with each have their own style.  Button mashing will quickly get you killed, you need to be precise in your attacks and can't risk leaving yourself open to swing wildly.  Over time you unlock new combinations and techniques, and the better you are in timing and varying your basic strikes the more of these you learn.  Favorite swords can be repaired by the smith, and once per game you can add a sword to your collection for use in future playthroughs.  

Usually you decide whether to initiate combat, but when you do you can expect to cut down groups of enemies 
Niche appeal outside Japan.  Though you could argue this game was actually a success as it launched a series that continues to this day, albeit each iteration seeing successively smaller sales.  Still, it's global sales to date are only around half a million with 50% of them coming from Japan.  I think the widespread interest in Japanese culture and the success of other culturally-relevant games (Dynasty Warriors, the never-ending series about the Chinese Three Kingdoms period, comes to mind) suggests it's not the focus on Japanese history that turned people off.  Instead I feel like it's the style of gameplay, particularly the story structure and combat, that turned people off.

While branching storylines were not unheard of in Western gaming, games like the Fallout series or Deus Ex tended to be long adventures made up of smaller quests, each with their own branching options, while still maintaining an overall narrative.  WotS takes a different approach that is more common in Japanese titles, giving you a short 3-4 hr adventure in which the entire narrative is dependent on player choices and is designed to be replayed multiple times.  It's similar to Majora's Mask, the truly excellent follow-up to Ocarina of Time whose repeating 3-day storyline many gamers found off-putting.  But WotS didn't have the Zelda name to drive sales or soften criticism and many gamers, having no interest in multiple playthroughs, felt the game was too short and the story too disjointed.  

The more methodical and precise style of swordplay also came off as cumbersome to some reviewers.  The mechanics are similar to Bushido Blade or Acquire's own Tenshu games (both excellent series that may one day find themselves on The Best Games) in that they try to adhere to the principles of Kendo, a martial arts style of swordplay derived from the kenjutsu techniques samurai used.  It emphasis economy of motion and energy, using quick and focused slashes to quickly kill an enemy without exposing yourself.  The result is a fighting style that is highly efficient, but not very flashy in execution.  Combined with the limited production value of a small studio there wasn't much flash or style to attract a broader market interest.

In a way we can answer this directly because it's most recent iteration was released on PS3 for the North American market Aug. 2012.  While sales data isn't in yet, the Japanese version released in 2011 and has so far sold only 160,000 copies and stands as the weakest entry to date.  The series has also seen lower reviews with each new release for failing to address the briefness of the stories or improve the production values in graphics or sound.    You gotta credit Acquire's persistence, but this dog just won't hunt.

But in a more perfect world, perhaps a tweaked version of WotS could become more then just the lifeline of a struggling developer, it could be a true global success.  Non-linear gaming is hugely popular as demonstrated by the success of Heavy Rain and re-birth of Deus Ex.  But gamers still want a longer narrative, perhaps even more so when they are weaving it themselves, otherwise the game risks becoming repetitive regardless of the number of different choices at each turn.  Throw in more polished graphics and a smoother fighting mechanic that borrows from the timing-based Arkham games while staying true to the kenjutsu roots of samurai swordplay and I think you've got a winner.  In fact, even though I'm pretty critical of the motion-control trend I can see this series being a natural fit for Kinect or the Wii U's continued support of Wii MotionPlus if a studio could actually pull it off.  

Make the Wii U spray fake blood from the disc drive after a kill and you've got an instant classic on your hands 
Have you played this game? Is there a game you remember being great but no one seems to have heard of it?  Sound off below in the comments!

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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Mutant League Hockey

Year: 1994
Developer: EA
Publisher: EA
Platform: Sega Genesis
Metacritic score: None available
VGChartz sales to date: Unknown

The 90's was a golden age of extreme "sports" games, with Midway's 1993 release of NBA Jam (an update of their lesser known title Arch Rivals) standing as a pinnacle of the genre.  The formula was simple: take the engine for a "serious" sports title and repackage it with over the top action and visual style, then crank it up to ludicrous speed.  In this noble spirit, EA released their own edgier takes on sports, with Mutant League Hockey being the second and final entry in the series.  

In about 10 seconds less than half these guys will still be standing

Built upon the mechanics of EA's own excellently crafted NLH '94, MLH lets players take to the ice as skeletons, trolls and robots in order to brutally maim and murder each other in hilarious ways.  Oh, and also win league championship by occasionally taking a break from fighting the various teams in order to score goals on them.  There are two conferences, Toxic and Maniac, each with 10 teams of various quality based loosely on actual NHL franchises (such as Chicago Black Hearts or Detroit Dead Things) and an additional 3 all-star teams.  While most of the rules from Hockey carry over, there are some notably fun exceptions.  

Fighting is still technically a penalty, but it's also a major aspect of the game.  On a controller that had just 3 main buttons, one of them was dedicated entirely to attacking the opposing players.  Crowds tossed weapons for you to pick up, letting you "check" a player by clubbing him with a hammer or running him through with a chainsaw.  Pick on a player too much, and you'll go into a fight mini-game that doesn't end until one player is out cold.  Both players still get sent to the box, but the loser gets added time on his penalty (a rule I wish would make it into the NHL).  Trick plays can be pulled off with hilarious results, such as rigging the puck to explode, planting land mines, bribing the ref (or just killing him), and replacing your goalie with a giant demon head to free up a 6th attacker.  

Scoring on the Demon Head causes it to explode Michael Bay-style
Because it shared an engine with NHL '94, it was entirely possible to rely on astute defending, tight passing and smart line changes to win.  The right way to play, however, was to crank the damage level to maximum and set about killing each and every player on the opposing team until they were forced to forfeit.  Each slain opponent would remain where they fell as an obstacle and any holes blasted in the ice could be used for a one-hit kill by checking opponents into the watery abyss below. The ice was restored during each period break when some sort of large slug would smooth out the ice and devour all the litter (read: corpses) cluttering the place up.  

Players who fell through thin ice were immediately eaten by a shark, because logic is not as awesome as sharks

Low visibility in the marketplace.  You'll notice EA stuck to football and hockey, and there's good reason for that.  Midway's NBA Jam was a runaway success and came to define the genre.  EA knew directly competing with that would be unwise, but they could still cash in on it's popularity by tapping into that same formula and applying it to their own sports properties.  They opted to emphasize violence and gore rather then mimic NBA Jam's mix of real licenses with over the top (but family friendly) wackiness.  This helped them to stand out, but also meant they couldn't rely on the name recognition and built-in fan bases of real world leagues and players.  The marketing campaign was was subsequently smaller, amounting mainly to a few ads in gaming magazines.

They did have some pretty sweet spreads though
Contemporary reviews were somewhat mixed with Game Informer scoring it an 8.75 while EGM gave it an average of 6.25 primarily for failing to innovate on it's predecessor while actually decreasing the number of mutant varieties from 5 to 3.  But more of the same must have been enough for most, as many comparisons rank MLH as be the superior title thanks to the slick mechanics of it's NHL '94 engine.  The gameplay was undeniably fun and made for a hockey game even non-sports fans could enjoy.  The possibility of instant death, unpredictable goals and non-stop fighting also made this a particularly good multiplayer game.  Balance issues across some of the teams could lead to that fighting spilling over onto the couch, but hey, this is hockey after all.

Though hard sales data is difficult to come by for this and prior console generations, it's safe to say sales were modest.  A short-lived cartoon series based on the property was spawned, but oddly it didn't premier until a few months after MLH hit stores.  The show failed to generate any interest in the game, but did manage to survive into a second season.  While Mutant League Football evidently sold well enough to justify the sequel, MLH represents the swan song of the short lived series.  Either that or EA decided it had milked this cow dry and didn't think it was worth the effort bringing it to the next console generation.  


I'm not sure Mutant League Hockey would do any better in today's market.  The popularity of wacky sports titles has significantly declined since the NBA Jam and NFL Blitz heydays.  Sure, both those titles are still around in various forms and EA themselves even have their "Street" series of titles.  But players today expect authentic licenses, full featured league and career modes, photorealistic graphics and deep control mechanics.  Even sports that are extreme by nature have trended towards realism with former mainstays like Tony Hawk's Pro Skater being supplanted by the down to Earth Skate series.

Still, a lot of gamers hold this game in high esteem.  The community review aggregator at IGN gives it an 8.6 and it can be found on a number of "best of" lists for both Genesis games and hockey games.  The gameplay does hold up surprisingly well today, the hockey mechanics are simplistic but still fluid and blowing up a goalie with a well placed trick puck never gets old.  But I think it takes a certain amount of nostalgia for the original to appreciate the style and emphasis on pure fun over any sense of athletic competition.  This isn't the type of game in which you create a player and guide him from rookie to MVP, hell any created player could end up dead five minutes into his first game.  

The fighting mini-game was certainly pretty to look at, a good thing since most of the game was spent fighting.

When you think about it, this game really lends itself to the kind of casual pick-up and play that's best suited to mobile gaming.  If EA ever were to revive this brand, that would be the most sensible way to do it.  That being said, I've yet to play a mobile sports game that had even halfway decent controls.  I can imagine breaking your phone in half after the third time you commit suicide by accidentally skating into a hole in the ice.   But with little name recognition and only niche appeal, Mutant League Hockey stands to remain a relic of the 16-bit era.

Have you played this game?  Is there a game you remember being great but no one seems to have heard of it? Sound off below in the comments!

Get it here!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Jet Force Gemini

Year: 1999
Developer: Rare
Publisher: Rare
Platform: N64
Metacritic Score: 80
VGChartz sales to date: 1.16 million

In a lot of ways this entry perfectly captures the spirit behind this series, so it's only fitting we kick things off with it.  Here was a game produced by a top developer at the height of their popularity, received positive critical reviews, and most importantly was really enjoyable to play.   All signs indicate a new blockbuster, yet somehow commercial success remains elusive.  

Rare was hot off the success of Goldeneye and Banjo-Kazooie when it released this 3rd-person shooter/platformer in 1999.  The game revolves around twins Juno and  Vela, who along with their apparently sentient dog Lupus form the eponymous Jet Force Gemini.  You're tasked with gunning your way through swarms of insect Drones in order to stop evil bug-lord Mizar.  Pretty standard sci-fi stuff, but it's the gameplay that makes this title really stand out.

You play as each of the three main characters at various points throughout the game, using a fun arsenal of futuristic weapons to mow through hordes of bugs.  Each character has their own unique ability which must be used to complete mission objectives.  The missions themselves are a blast to play, mixing up it's run-n-gun foundation with some light platforming through lush levels to great effect.  The variety in weapons is especially enjoyable,  a good thing since you're presented with non-stop action and some particularly memorable boss fights.

The first of many towering bosses in need of squishing

A unique shared-screen co-op mode further sweetens the pot, letting a second player join along as sidekick/robot Floyd.  Interesting, given Nintendo's recent emphasis on asymmetric multiplayer with the Wii U.  Finally, a competitive multiplayer mode offered some really entertaining 2-4 player deathmatch along with some admittedly diverting racing/rail-shooter minigames.  Although this is the same developer who brought us one of the greatest 4-player multiplayer experiences ever (despite incredibly being included last minute), JFG doesn't quite live up to the highwater mark that is Goldeneye.  It had plenty of customization options and the matches played out at a frenetic pace, but the maps didn't have the tactical depth of Goldeneye and the 3rd person view created a steep learning curve.  Still fun to play, but not the kind of game you drunkenly dusted off at 3am in your dorm to settle a grudge.

Same-screen co-op in action with Floyd hovering on the left

Market realities and corporate culture.  JFG was given to the same small team that had worked on Blast Corps. while the studio's primary focus was on Donkey Kong 64, the next-gen update of their stellar Donkey Kong Country series on SNES and also the cornerstone in their 2nd-party relationship with Nintendo.  Rather then stagger their release dates, Rare wanted both games on the market before the holidays.   Unsurprisingly, the Nintendo-backed title was given clear priority in marketing and the all-important Black Friday release date while the small in-house project was bumped to December and given little fanfare.  Combine this with the low visibility of a new brand and it's no surprise the public was largely ignorant of this gem.  

Critical reception was mostly positive with graphics, audio and especially gameplay receiving a lot of accolades.  Reviewers were unanimous in praising the rapid-fire gunplay and boss design, but split on visual style with some complaining the anime-inspired look was to cutesy and a weird fit with the sci-fi violence predominant in the game.  Controls were critiqued for being too finicky, particularly the camera while others thought the perspective shift from 3rd to 1st person when firing was awkward.  The most common complaint centered on the need to revisit earlier missions and complete a large number of rescue side-missions in order to beat the game.  Despite the flaws, reviewers nevertheless recommended it mostly without reservations.

Also, they may have been too creepy-cute
Looking back at the main criticisms leveled against JFG gives an interesting perspective on how tastes were changing at the time and have since shifted again.  Replaying old missions in order to progress was a common element of early platformers (like the Metroid series) but gamers were increasingly seeing them as cheap means of padding a game's runtime.  Obsession over replay value was high when new game releases were spread thin and your next buy had to last you a long time, but in the 1990's gamers were flush with multiple consoles each offering huge catalogs and extending playtime became less of a focus.  But thanks to Achievements and Trophies, a whole new generation of completionists have been bred into existence.  With it's extensive side-missions and multiple playthrough requirements, JFG seems almost tailor made for this console generation.  

While the visual style is more subjective, I think the commercial success of games such as Borderlands and Team Fortress 2 prove that the combination of cartoonish violence and graphics has mass market appeal.  In truth, the style and gameplay of JFG shares more than a passing similarity with such standout series as Naughty Dog's Jak and Daxter or Ubisoft's Rayman.  These games may frequently land towards the top of the sales charts and are key properties for their developers.  Why not JFG, too?  

Rare could certainly use it too, having fallen on hard times after their partnership with Nintendo ended and they were bought by MIcrosoft in 2002.  As such, Microsoft obtained the rights to in-house hits like Banjo-Kazooie and Perfect Dark allowing Rare to develop HD re-releases on Xbox Live.  It's likely if these had been successful, Rare would have been given the ability to continue pursuing major releases but sales did not meet expectations.  A downsizing followed, and now Rare focuses only Kinect titles such as their Kinect Sports series.  Even if they still had the capacity and resources to make it, it's unlikely Microsoft would be inclined to pursue an unproven series or even hand the project to Rare if it were to be revived.  Looks like the this N64 classic is destined to remain in the past.

Have you played this game?  Is there a game you remember being great but no one seems to have heard of it? Sound off below in the comments!

Get it here!