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, 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
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Wednesday, November 21, 2012


Year: 2005
Developer: Double Fine
Publisher: Majesco
Platform: Xbox, PC, PS2 (originally); now available on Xbox360, PS3, Mac OS X, Linux
Metacritic score: 87 (cross-platform avg)
VGChartz sales to date: 210,000

Every now and then we are treated to a game that defies all conventions and expectations with it's originality.  It can be a fresh take on a stale genre, a unique setting or maybe a thoughtful story but however the developer achieves it, it's sure to leave a lasting impact on those who play it.  Tim Schafer has made a career out of delivering this impact time and again, and perhaps none of his efforts is more beloved then his 2005 cult-classic Psychonauts.  Wildly creative in it's Tim Burton on peyote design, an outlandishly unique setting and writing so hilarious you will literally laugh out loud, this is a 3rd-person platformer adventure title like nothing you've played before.  

The story follows young Raz (voiced by Richard Steven Horvitz who you may recognize from Invader Zim) as he escapes from the circus to enroll at Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp,  a government training facility designed to turn kids into skilled psychic agents called Psychonauts.  After an introductory cutscene, you take control of Raz and begin exploring the psychedelic campgrounds that form the game's hub world.  It's easy to get lost exploring the scenery as every inch is packed with fellow campers to interact with and myriad collectibles to hunt down.  Digging up arrowheads allows you to purchase goodies from the camp store while the PSI challenges and cards can be collected to increase your rank and unlock new psychic abilities such as levitation, telekinesis, pryokinesis and more.  But it's the zany cast of characters and their hilarious conversations that gives the setting a life of it's own and are the true reward for wandering Whispering Rock. 

Dogen is one of the more memorable characters you'll meet.  His tinfoil hat isn't just stylish, it also prevents him from accidentally exploding people's heads.  Just don't ask him what he thinks about squirrels...

Once you get around to undergoing "Basic Braining", you'll be taught the ABC's of psychic warfare.  Each level takes place in the mind of one of the characters and comes with a visual style unique to that character's personality, for instance the martially minded Coach Oleander's mindscape takes the form of a raging battlefield.  Within each mind you'll have to navigate a series of challenging obstacles and overcome powerful bosses representing that character's unique psychosis (and at Whispering Rock there are plenty of psychoses to go around).  The platforming is genuinely tough and requires careful timing and tight movements (made a little more frustrating on the PS2 thanks to Budcat Creations' rushed port; see more below) but the challenge is a welcome one and you'll find yourself chuckling at the mental imagery around you even as you die repeatedly.  There are also collectibles within each mind to help you rank up such as semi-transparent figments of imagination and emotional baggage, literally anthropomorphic suitcases requiring a matching luggage tag to "resolve".  

The campers may think Linda the Lungfish is a monster, but she's just a little misunderstood is all.  The level in her mind, in which Raz takes the form of a 10-story monster wreaking havoc on a lungfish city, is one of the game's highlights.  

It's the little touches like these that make Psychonauts so engaging to play.  All these various collectibles and unlockables could have taken the form of generic tokens, but Double Fine lovingly weaves everything into the setting and style of the game's narrative.  Even the start screen is thematically relevant, it's not merely a menu but a giant brain which Raz must run around and find the correct portal to start or load a game.  The more you explore your surroundings, the more fleshed out the characters become and you begin to realize how deep the rabbit hole goes.  As Raz becomes more powerful and the story unfolds you'll find yourself pushing on in the face of greater difficulty and more challenging puzzles not to beat a level but to advance the story, and that's the most powerful testament to a game's greatness that I can think of.

Ford Cruller is possibly the most accomplished Psychonaut ever and will often pop up as a mental mentor for Raz.  Naturally, he's a crazy old kook with multiple personality disorder and can be summoned by waving a piece of bacon, much like myself actually.

Publisher marketing missteps are always an easy target for blame and Majesco's handling of the game was certainly less than stellar, but I think there's more to the story.  Double Fine originally cut a deal with Microsoft to publish Psychonauts as an Xbox exclusive but for reasons that aren't entirely clear Microsoft backed out of this agreement.  Majesco stepped in to save the project and expanded it to Windows while outsourcing the PS2 port, but as a smaller publisher their comfort zone was with small budget value-oriented games.  With Psychonauts they had a brand new IP based that was quirkier than the mainstream fare and took a little time to grow on you, so it didn't have name recognition or instant shelf-appeal.  Psychonauts needed a serious investment in marketing to back up the money already spent on development and Majesco wasn't capable of providing it.  By the end of 2005 Psychonauts had only registered 100,000 sales and Majesco announced it was leaving the big-budget games business entirely.

Whether it rode a wave of hype or not, Psychonauts was still a great game.  Reviews at the time were overwhelmingly positive, with EGM going as far as saying ""Anyone who doesn't fall for the unique characters, hilarious dialogue, and brilliantly conceived environments of Psychonauts has no soul."   And it's not just sentimentality that keeps gamers raving about this title as I found myself just as enthralled replaying it after all these years, still bursting into gleeful laughter at jokes that remain fresh.  There was some criticism of the difficulty spike in later levels and the PS2 version, dinged for having worse controls and some audio syncing issues as a result from being ported, do feel a bit more noticeable but by and large it's easy to see why the game was strongly recommended by critics.  It's no surprise that it went on to win numerous industry awards for everything from Best Writing to Game of the Year, even nabbing a BAFTA Video Game award for Best Screenplay.

Just because Nils Lutefisk uses his clairvoyance to spy on the girl's bunk doesn't mean he approves of unintended sexual innuendos.  I like to think it was writing like this that helped nab that BAFTA.

But despite all the accolades and glowing press to compensate for the lack of advertising, gamers were unwilling to give it a shot.  Perhaps it's because gamers had turned their backs on platformer adventure titles and were instead wrapped up in shooters such as Battlefield 2 or action games like God of War.  Or maybe we had developed a craving for games with more realistic and mature (read: violent or sexually explicit) themes.  Whatever the reason, it's clear that there was little patience for an offbeat and clever original title that eschewed adult content in favor Saturday morning cartoon sensibilities.  Psychonauts was like the band of lovable losers competing against the wealthy jocks, but as much as we like seeing the misfits win in the movies when it comes time to lay our money down most people aren't going to bet against the odds.

The great thing about living in the internet age is that even the most obscure cult obsessions can be given a second life.  Thanks to continued interest from diehard fans, in 2006 Psychonauts was the first in a wave of Xbox Originals offered for download on the 360's Xbox Live Marketplace.  Three years after that it became available on GOG.com and in 2011 it became available on OS X for the first time when it was introduced to Steam.  Just this year it expanded to Linux as part of the Humble Indie Bundle V with Tim Schafer reporting that Psychonauts had beaten it's original retail sales after only a few hours.  Most recently the game was added as a PS2 classic for download on the Playstation Network in August 2012 (although poor audio-syncing and some rough edges around the controls make this version the weakest of the available options).  Including all the digital sales from these sources (not tracked in the numbers reported by VGChartz), Psychonauts has gone on to sell well over half a million copies.  Maybe those numbers don't compare to Halo 4 or Black Ops 2, but still impressive for a game that was written off as a total flop over 7 years ago.

Not only has new life been breathed into the original, but buzz continues to build that a true sequel is still a possibility now that Double Fine once again owns the publishing rights to the game.  Marcus Persson, the creator of Minecraft, even made an offer via Twitter to fund the project.  Those hopes quickly cooled once the required budget was estimated at a cool $13 million, but Schafer and Persson continue to discuss the possibility.  Who knows, perhaps Psychonauts could grow beyond it's cult following and rise from the ashes to become a full-fledged success?  I guess if I want to know the answer to that I'll just have to get back to collecting PSI cards to rank up my own psychic powers.

I'm pretty sure I visited this same area on a trip to Amsterdam.  Wait, no, that was while tripping in Amsterdam.  
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 upcoming posts!

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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Armored Core 2

Year: 2000
Developer: From Software
Publisher: Agetec
Platform: PS2
Metacritic score: 78
VGChartz sales to date: 790,000

Like many games from Japanese developers, especially ones with a small but dedicated following, From Software has released numerous iterations in the series between each numbered sequel and picking just one from the many revisions was a tough call.  I chose Armored Core 2 because it marked the high water point in terms of sales and it established a number of conventions that continue to define the series.  This is a mecha game for people who like tinkering just as much as they enjoy blowing stuff up.

The series takes place in a dystopian future in which powerful corporations influence and control the government and the populace at large.  To achieve their (often nefarious) ends, they rely on groups of mercenaries euphemistically referred to as "mediation firms" employing piloted-mecha to destroy opposition from other corporations and government-controlled armies.  The plot of Armored Core 2 revolves around three major corporations trying to control the terraforming project on Mars.  You play as a new member of the independent mercenary group Ravens and as such find yourself caught between the warring corporations and the government bodies trying to impose order.  Completing contracts assigned by your handler advances the story while rewarding you with cash and parts depending on how well you perform.  In addition to the 30 single-player missions, you can also compete in the Arena by challenging 50 other AC's to work your way up from bottom-ranked newb to the most feared Merc on Mars.  

If you want to unseat top ranked pilot Ares in his AC Providence you'd better be damn good because he won't give up the crown easily
 The game plays as a 3rd person shooter, albeit from inside a 3-story multi-ton mecha called Armored Cores, referred to as AC's for short.  Contracts task you with using the considerable arsenal at your disposal to destroy enemy MTs (the game's grunt-level units), target valuable enemy assets or defend assets of the corporation that hired you, assassinate specific targets, or just raise hell for rival corporations by causing as much damage to their infrastructure as you can.  Because the Ravens operate independently you will often find yourself accepting contracts from each of the various factions.  This will occasionally result in one of them putting out a hit on you, and a contract that appears to be a cakewalk can quickly turn sour as you find yourself beset by other AC's trying to intervene.  Like any true mercenary, you'll want to carefully manage your cash flow to ensure you can purchase needed upgrades, resupply your ammo, and cover any necessary repairs.  Any damage your AC incurs will come out of your paycheck, potentially wiping out any earnings from completing the assignment.  This task is made easier thanks to the new overboost feature that allows you to achieve flight for short periods before either running out of energy or overheating.  

The garage is not just where you build and customize your AC, but also where you test out your creations.  This heavily armored AC uses a hover tank for legs, but will the combo prove to taxing for its generator?
The heart of this game is found in customizing your AC between contracts, and the sheer number of options is truly staggering.  Heads, arms, legs, shoulder mounted accessories/weapons, and internal components like generators and radiators all have a variety of effects on your AC's performance in battle.  You must balance weight and power requirements when building your AC while also keeping track of the various bonuses or limitations of each individual part.  These customizations influence movement speed, armor, targeting systems, energy output, the number of weapons you can equip and even whether or not you have access to in-game radar systems.  There are 14 different component categories to personalize, each with dozens of options to choose from, ensuring that you can build an AC to match your own gameplay tastes.  Like to move slowly and carry a big gun?  Bulk up your AC with high-armor parts, put it on tank treads to handle the weight, and fix heavy cannons to your shoulders capable of destroying enemies in a single blast.  Or maybe you prefer to stay nimble and get in close to do your dirty work?  In that case, stick with bipedal legs and maximize your boost output so you can fly in close and cut down enemies with you arm-mounted energy sword.  You can even personalize your paint scheme and design your own emblems in a graphical editor that puts the current version of Microsoft Paint to shame.  Even the in-game HUD can be adjusted to display in any color you can think of.  Just because you're a hired gun paid to destroy anything in your path doesn't mean you can't look good doing it.

Anyone who says hot pink isn't an appropriate HUD color for your giant deathbot can take it up with the business end of your grenade launcher.
And you have plenty of options when it comes to beautiful destruction.  Sniper rifles, rocket launchers, energy swords, shotguns, laser rifles, missile launchers, plasma cannons, flamethrowers and more can all be affixed to the various weapon slots on your AC's arms and shoulders.  Hell, you can even ditch your arms entirely and replace them with fixed dual-wielded weapons.  The type, weight and power of a weapon determines where it can be affixed and how many slots it uses, preventing you from unbalancing the game by equipping 4 MIRV launchers, for example.  You'll also want to carefully consider how your weapon choices fit your AC design philosophy.  For instance, if you like to keep on the move while fighting you probably don't want to equip a chain gun on your bipedal AC since it would require you to kneel in order to fire it.  But if you equip tank treads or quadrupedal legs this limitation is removed, allowing you to shower enemies with a constant stream of bullets while avoiding return fire.  In addition to the comprehensive list of offensive weapons, you can also equip defensive parts designed to evade target lock, deploy decoys, jam enemy radar, or replace your energy sword with a shield.  Simply put, there's enough options to play with that it's unlikely you'll find any two AC's that are exactly the same.

A complex game saddled with controls from a bygone era.  From Software successfully made the transition from the PS1 to the PS2 in terms of graphics, but couldn't manage the same feat with controls.  Instead of utilizing the PS2 controllers dual analog sticks for movement and targeting, From Software stuck with the same d-pad based scheme it used on the PS1.  While a few minutes of practice was enough to get the hang of things, manuevering in tight or crowded spaces was tricky and no amount of practice could ever make using the L2 and R2 buttons to aim up/down feel natural.  One couldn't help but notice how clunky the game felt compared to all the other games on the market that made use of dual analog sticks, and the reviews at the time universally docked the game on this point.  
Split-screen multiplayer is available in horizontal and vertical flavors, but given the difficulty in tracking airborne enemies it's best to stick to a vertical split.
When you combine the difficult control scheme with the dizzying array of customization options, it resulted in a game that was downright hostile to newcomers.  From Software remains well known for their focus on hardcore gamers and unflinchingly brutal difficulty levels, with their most recent creation Dark Souls being equally lauded and reviled as one of the most challenging games of all times.  Given their unwavering support for this kind of design philosophy in the face of the Wii/App era of casual gaming, it's no surprise they held the same viewpoint back in 2000.  Failing a contract meant you went home empty handed, but still had to deal with repair bills and restocking your ammo.  Other contracts required specific parts to navigate an area or destroy a target, regardless of whether or not you have the cash on hand to afford them.  This meant that less-skilled players could easily find themselves buried under an insurmountable debt, preventing them from advancing and requiring a fresh start to finish the game.  Even in the days before spastic waggling replaced fine-tuned motor control, tastes were shifting toward games that were more accessible and required a minimal investment to get into.  Armored Core 2 was most certainly not one of those games, and as a result it struggled to find an audience outside of mecha-obsessed Japan.

Depending on how you define success, you could argue the series has achieved it since the series has continued to survive thanks largely to its own inertia and Japan's unquenchable desire to see large robots fighting each other.  Armored Core V (actually the 14th installment) was released in early 2012 for PS3 and 360.  But despite a much needed overhaul on the controls, transitioning the Arena concept to online multiplayer and continual refinements across the board each new release sees weaker sales.  Even in Japan, where each interest remained steady after AC2 bombed in North America, sales have dropped with each successive entry.  

It's hard to blame this waning interest on the poor control mechanics and resulting negative press of a game that's over a decade old at this point.  Rather, I believe the decline of the mech-genre in general is evidence of the shift in game design towards intuitive and widely accessible controls and mechanics.  It's probably no coincidence that the rise of mech games coincided with a new era in gaming hardware capabilities.  When you look at the progression of just game controllers from the NES to the PS2 you see them becoming progressively more complex in an effort to increase the amount of player-controlled interaction, sometimes taking things a bit too far (I'm looking at you, Jaguar).  The mech simulation genre was tied pretty closely to this design philosophy, aiming to make players feel like they were in the cockpits controlling these massive machines.  I remember going to the first BattleTech center that opened in Navy Pier and being completely blown away by it.  Sitting in a fully enclosed pod, surrounded by dozens of buttons, throttles, peddles and levers, and playing live against others in similar centers around the world felt to me like the future.  

But things didn't pan out that way as minimalist designs have become the driving principle behind 21st century technology.  The PS3 and 360 both use controllers with a nearly identical button configuration as their predecessors, while Nintendo actually reduced the number of buttons from the Gamecube to the Wii and again with the Wii U's new tablet-style controller.  Perhaps given this focus on streamlining controls it was inevitable that the mech simulator genre with its emphasis on total immersion would fall by the wayside.  Steel Battalion for Xbox was perhaps the dying gasp from that school of design and is remembered more for the intricate $200 controller it was bundled with rather then its actual gameplay.  Thanks to the devotion fans of the simulator genre tend to exude, these types of games will likely be with us at least until actual giant mecha are available for purchase.  After BattleTech folded, the property was bought by Microsoft and became the MechWarrior series which continues to this day in upcoming release of free-to-play MechWarrior Online, currently in open-beta for anyone who wants to give it a try.  But I think it's safe to say that mainstream commercial success will remain out of reach for these games, and as far as the gamers who enjoy them are concerned, maybe that's not such a bad thing.

This back-mounted plasma cannon packs a serious punch, but also eats tons of energy and requires taking a knee before it can be fired.  Still, I bet most of you already made up your minds about it at the words "plasma cannon".

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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Power Stone 2

Year: 2000
Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Platform: Dreamcast
Metacritic score: 87
VGChartz sales to date: Unknown

The follow-up to the successful arcade fighter and Dreamcast launch title, Power Stone 2 is a frantic fighting game known for its fully 3D interactive stages and colorful, fast-paced mayhem.  Released less than a year after the console launch of its predecessor, Power Stone 2 was designed to improve on every facet of a game that was genuinely good but ultimately outshone by the competition.  The series stood out for its interactive 3D stages at a time when most stuck ardently to 2D design.  It also eschewed the long input chains and strict timing demanded in most of those games, instead using a basic set of moves whose input remained constant but effects varied by character.  Power Stone was Capcom's answer to Nintendo's incredible Super Smash Bros. but without the world famous mascots.  What at first appears to be a very basic fighting mechanic can, in the hands of an experienced player, offer a surprising amount nuance to experiment with.

Clever use of the environment is a must.  Failing to maintain a tactical advantage can be punished with a facefull of turret fire.
Make no mistake, this is still a fighter that appeals more to the button-mashers among us, but it also delivers a strategic depth and replay value that was lacking in the original.  For starters, up to four players could fight at once instead of just one-on-one and multiple new game modes were introduced. They also bumped the roster to 14 characters, significantly expanded the number of weapons and power-ups (you can even create your own), and vastly improved the scope of the interactive stages.  That's a lot of changes, but the core of this game is still about frenzied action.  Trivialities such as blocking and countering have been cast aside, fights consist of relentless attacking and using the environment to outmaneuver your opponents.  The random appearance of weapons and items can drastically swing the flow of battle, especially the eponymous Power Stones.  You'll quickly be conditioned to start salivating whenever one of these gem-like objects pops into existence since collecting three of them causes your character to transform and grants the use of massively powerful special attacks until the boosted power bar is depleted.  

Let your opponent collect three Power Stones and you're in for a world of hurt.
The classic 1v1 story mode returns and is expanded upon with the new Arcade mode that serves up a series of 4-player fights in which the top two survive to the next stage.  There is also an Original mode (essentially a Free Play multiplayer mode) and Adventure mode which offers the bulk of the replay value.  Adventure mode lets you unlock new items, earn cash to purchase unlockables from the shop, and also collect cards that can be used to mix unlocked items to create new ones.  Anything you unlock can be used in the other game modes and they're often superior to the stock weapons and power-ups which gives an added incentive to keep playing long after you've seen each character's ending.

Perhaps Power Stone's biggest innovation in the genre is the hugely interactive 3D arenas each consisting of multiple sub-stages that change over the course of battle.  One of my favorite stages begins atop a massive warplane that is gradually destroyed by the chaos, sending everyone into a free fall to Earth.  Rather then interrupt the fighting, players continue to slug it out until reaching the platform floating below.  Each stage is also packed with unique environmental objects ranging from simple chairs up to airships that can be used to upset the balance.  These backdrops look gorgeous thanks to Sega's excellent NAOMI engine whose shared architecture with the Dreamcast made porting arcade hits to the console a breeze.  Super Smash Bros. may have the star power of Nintendo's stable of mascots, but nothing can touch Power Stone 2 in terms of fast, fun and frenetic four-player fighting.  

Just because you're all plummeting to your death doesn't mean you should stop beating on each other.

Did you own a Dreamcast?  Well, neither did anybody else.  Sega's missteps in launching the Dreamcast have been well documented and their surprise decision to push the North American launch to coincide with 9/9/99 (desperately trying to beat the PS2 to market) didn't fare much better.  You'd think getting a console early would be a good thing, but Sega managed to piss off retailers, developers, and publishers who were caught off guard by Sega's grand surprise.  The Dreamcast put up record sales in the few months before the PS2's released killed demand and Sega only managed to sell around 10.5 million Dreamcasts before production ended in 2001, a mere two years after its North American release.  To put that in perspective, it's widely rumored Sony still produces new PS2's over a decade after launch and has shipped a record-setting 150 million units globally.  The smaller your player base, the harder it is to launch a successful game since it requires that practically everyone who bought the console also purchase the game.  

With the odds already stacked against it, Capcom further ensured the Power Stone franchise would become a cult classic by releasing it alongside their own Capcom vs. Marvel arcade fighter.  Just like Power Stone and many other Dreamcast games, MvC was originally a visually stunning arcade-only title that made its console debut during the Dreamcast launch.  Unlike Power Stone, MvC appeals to the hardcore fighter crowd and has a massive stable of well-known characters with huge fanbases among both Western and Japanese gamers.  If that wasn't bad enough, there was even more competition thanks to the Dreamcast's other groundbreaking 3D-fighter: Soulcalibur.  I can't recall another time when three incredible fighting series were launched in the same year, let alone on the same day!  Despite positive reviews, gamers flocked to the more hardcore-oriented Soulcalibur and MvC which outsold poor Power Stone by a margin of over 2:1.  Capcom immediately went to work refining what they knew was a winning formula, but it was already too late.  The missteps launching the series effectively killed any chance of building a solid fanbase and thanks to the phenomenal PS2 launch just a month earlier the writing was already on the wall for the Dreamcast faithful.

The Temple of Doom inspired boulder chase isn't just an example of inventive stage design, it's also a fitting metaphor for what it felt like to be a Dreamcast fan in the days after the PS2 launch.
Sad to say, but I'm afraid this series is well and truly dead.  It's not that fighting games can't succeed in the era of the FPS, there will always be a small but dedicated market for people looking to wail on strangers.  Power Stone's own litter mates Soulcalibur and MvC outlived their console of origin and continue to find success with new iterations as well as HD and collector's edition re-releases of their classics.  Even the brawler sub-genre has proven it's staying power as evidenced by Nintendo's critically acclaimed Super Smash Bros. series and Sony's joining the mix with their upcoming Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale.  But humble Power Stone remains the black sheep among Capcom's extensive roster of fighting games.  An attempt to re-energize the series was made in 2006 when both original games were merged to become Power Stone Collection for the PSP, but only 80,000 copies were sold worldwide.  

An outspoken minority continues to stalk Capcom's forums with pleas for a Power Stone 3, or even some HD reissues for download on PSN and Xbox Live.  A quick YouTube search returns dozens of fan-made trailers and pleas all hoping to spark a renewed interest in the franchise but hopes are fading.  The realities of game development today are fairly hostile towards new and unproven IPs, and Power Stone simply lacks the brand recognition enjoyed by its now well-established competitors.  Capcom could take steps to breathe new life into the series, for instance including some of the Power Stone cast in the roster of their crossover fighting games.  But they passed on the opportunity with the recently released Marvel vs Capcom 3 (and it's even more recent "Ultimate" re-release) despite including characters from relatively unknown series such as Darkstalkers and Final Fight.  It seems that even Capcom is content to pretend the Power Stone series never existed at all, and that's a real shame for all the people who enjoyed it and everyone who never got the chance.  
A fun cast of characters, but not a Mario or Kratos in the bunch.
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