Shovel Knight – Computer, 3DS, PS Vita, PS3, PS4, XBox One, WiiU

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Shortly, all games will legally require artwork wherein all the game’s characters stampede outwards from the box in dramatic recreation of either the Big Bang or a Kool Aid commercial.

Shovel Knight? Meh. Might as well see what all the fuss is about.

If you haven’t heard of Shovel Knight by now, then congratulations for having successfully avoided the wave of fan-made, kickstarted indie games that constantly threaten to take the game industry by storm and put an end to the soulless vacuum of triple-A games developed by people who know what they’re doing. Okay, so that’s a bit harsh, and I’ve said before I’m convinced that Shigeru Miyamoto is the only one who actually knows how to make a game, and anyone else with a modicum of success has just blundered upon it accidentally, enabling them to go on to make other games that have a chance of being good. Sort of a video game evolution, like a dolphin who manages to survive global warming because some random mutation made it enjoy swimming around in boiling Coke. While the indie movement is praised as revolutionary, I suspect it’s simply spreading out funds, talent and attention and it won’t stop until every game out there is as bland as Call of Duty, Madden and Rock Band. (At that point, no doubt, developers will want to capitalize on the craze of blandness and come up with games that creatively put instruments in the hands of football teams and make them go out and fight brown people.) Don’t believe me? Ask yourself why we have a thousand TV channels that all show reality TV, or why we have hundreds of musical genres that all suck.

Still, in spite of the musical smegma and TV programming that will shortly be replaced by high-definition mirrors, every so often we get something good. Likewise, in the world where everyone with a “Unity for Dummies” book is trying to publish a reinvigorated spiritual successor to what they view as the under-appreciated adaptation of Where’s Waldo for the NES, sometimes a game comes along that shines so brightly in the sunrise that the world stops and turns in unison to gaze on the wonders that private developers have wrought into being.

Shovel Knight is not that game.

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Honestly, I’m not even sure if this is a screenshot from the game or if there’s been some expansion released.

Let’s start with the formalities. Shovel Knight takes place in a world where brutal violence by an elite aristocracy is looked on as cute and quirky, so long as the knights are paired up with mundane objects or themed personae rejected by the worst of indie comic book villains. Fresh off a marathon of indie horror movies, Shovel Knight fights with a sharp wit and an undeserved feeling of righteousness and indignation for those who lead a morally inferior lifestyle. Just kidding! He bludgeons his enemies on the head with a shovel. Having shoveled on my own once or twice, I can say those things don’t like to cut through grass roots without the weight of an obese manatee pushing down on them. A knight fighting with a shovel may sound cute, but we’re talking about a painful and slow death here. At least with a razor-sharp broadsword, your enemies will suffer clean deaths, bleeding out in moments. Anyway, Shovel Knight has a friend named Shield Knight. Shield Knight, presumably pissed off that she got saddled with the same character class as Goofy from Kingdom hearts, ditches the loser who would swagger onto the battlefield with a paintbrush after watching The Karate Kid. Then a bunch of other knights appear and…something. I guess Shovel Knight feels the need to prove the tactical superiority of yard work.

Okay, on the surface, I’ll give it this much; Shovel Knight is brilliantly conceived, well-executed, and hits on most of the right retro qualities to potentially make it a fun game. The game feels like Capcom’s Duck Tales more than anything else, although the stage layouts feel more like Mega Man, the overworld map is in the style of Mario 3, and there’s a town with simple quests Shovel Knight can accept, kind of like…Wikipedia goes with The Adventure of Link. Why not? Sounds good. I admit that during the first stage, I had a lot of fun learning the ropes, digging crap out of the ground, and hopping around on my pogo-shovel without questioning it any more than I did the fact that Scrooge McDuck apparently uses a pogo-stick as a cane. After the tutorial stage, I moved onto the town, thinking it could be really fun trying to collect special items in each stage and trade them for equipment and upgrades. Brilliant! Finding a way to expand on retro games without losing the 8-bit feel!

Then I spent an hour and a half trying to get through the next stage without snapping my 3DS in half.

The other trend spreading like gonorrhea through the fan-rom-hack and indie-game community is to make games hard. Really hard. Like, hard enough that when you beat them you feel a wave of remorse for working on the game with a dedicated passion that you could have used to cure cancer or reverse climate change. After all, the harder the game, the better, right? Why can’t every game be Kaizo Mario?

Let’s talk. Hard games aren’t inherently good games. Some good games are hard. Some hard games are good. The reason people make hard games isn’t because they’re more fun to play, it’s because they’re easier to make. I always questioned why Bowser didn’t knock down some of the platforms over his lava pits, or why he didn’t just build a wall around the first level to prevent Mario from reaching the flagpole. (Although, economic experts in the Mushroom Kingdom suggest the wall would cost billions of dollars to build, staff and maintain, and it wouldn’t stop Mario from entering level 1-2 on a legal visa and overstaying his visit) These things would have been really easy to do and they would have made the game impossible—which means best game ever, right?

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This looks exciting. Too bad I couldn’t make it that far.

No. See, it takes nothing to hack Castlevania to put a boss rush in level one. But does the player have the skill right off the bat (heh, heh) to deal with five bosses at once? Do they have the equipment and power-ups necessary? How many paths can the player take to avoid damage—too many and the game is boring, too few and they won’t be able to progress, get frustrated, and stop playing the game. Making a game hard is easy. Making a game difficult and playable takes skill and effort. Shovel Knight? It’s fun, has game play about as challenging as Duck Tales, and seems well-designed. And if you die, there are no checkpoints. If you spend ten minutes on a level and fail, you have to spend another ten minutes just to get another chance to practice what you screwed up. And this breaks the game, raising it to frustration-level hard. I’ve had this complaint before. After proving to the game that you can accomplish something, you shouldn’t have to keep doing it. If Shovel Knight were math, you could get a problem on your differential calculus homework wrong and it would send you back to Kindergarten to teach you how to count to ten.

If you want a good example of a game that is so hard it is literally impossible, but done so well that people can’t get enough of it, I’m sure whatever device you’re reading this article on has some version of Tetris.

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Gladly.

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Lego Indiana Jones – PS2, PS3, Wii, XBox 360, NDS, PSP, PC

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I enjoy playing Lego games once in a while, but I could work with a metal detector, a team of bloodhounds, and ground-penetrating radar strong enough to take lewd photos of the earth’s core and I couldn’t find anything new to say about them. Indiana Jones would have trouble uncovering details that I’ve lost, and this review primarily focuses on him. Developer Traveler’s Tales found a formula that works. They recreate famous movie scenes with Legos. The player runs around collecting enough cash from dismantling the scenery to be dubbed “True something-or-other,” and throw in a fair dose of humor since they realize you can’t draw Picasso’s Guernica on a place mat with a box of Crayolas and expect art historians to publish articles about it for years to come. So for years they’ve been churning out the same products, a little bit stale, a little bit funny, but it’s something to do in the evening that hasn’t made me too sick yet. In that respect, the Lego series has much in common with McDonald’s.

Lego Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures attempts to send the player through poverty-stricken areas of India, Somalia and Texas for a sobering look at the economic crimes of the rich. Just kidding! It lets you play through Indiana Jones’ original adventures! Although I don’t know why they have to specify “original” adventures as, thank Kali, they never made any more than the three. I suppose they could be comparing it with the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, but that pretty much faded into obscurity during the mid 90s, gone the way of Surge, Jncos, and those shoes with the lights that flashed every time you moved.

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To digress a bit, I’ve always wondered why, exactly, the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull failed badly enough that South Park accused George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg of raping Indy. It has pretty much the same formula as the other films. Indy’s on a search for a magical macguffin with some divine significance—yes, maybe with so many legitimate, respectable religions in the world, picking the gods of anal probes and hallucinating rednecks may have somewhat detracted from the air of importance—and there are bad guys to beat to the chase, slightly comical action scenes, and a girl to win over in a way that looks James Bond look as charming as the guy who waits until last call to pick up the women everyone else rejected over the night. But maybe it is about the air of importance. Most Americans will understand the Ark of the Covenant, even if they’re not Christian, and the Holy Grail has literally become synonymous with something you desperately want to find. Maybe we don’t really know what a Sankara stone is, but rescuing enslaved children makes sense. Plus as soon as you see the cult leader rip out that dude’s heart and hold it up high as it bursts into flames (…while blaspheming the name of one of those legitimate gods I mentioned earlier), I think we pretty much establish he’s the bad guy and we want to take him down. Same thing with Nazis. Indy hates Nazis. Jake and Elwood Blues hate Illinois Nazis. Pretty much any person with an ounce of decency hates Nazis, so you don’t have to explain anything to people. Soviets, on the other hand…not as evil in retrospect. At this point in Indy’s life, it makes more sense for him to be fighting arthritis. And the skull of Beldar Conehead doesn’t seem like something that matters whether or not it falls into the wrong hands. Also, we never got a movie about an aging James Bond reuniting with the mother of one of doubtless dozens of children he’s fathered along his swath of destruction through the Cold War.

But back to the game…you punch things. As usual, the real objective in the game is to collect enough money to unlock characters to help find all the hidden items that, quite honestly, I stop caring about once the movie plots end. To be fair, you can punch them or whip them. Either way, when the scenery explodes and all that cash falls out, it feels pretty good. Not to mention the explosion sound it makes pretty much sums up the force required to separate Lego bricks. Other Lego games give certain characters innate abilities that help them progress through levels. While to some extent this game does that as well, you also have the option of picking up tools, like shovels, wrenches, guns, or books, and using them to interact with the environment. Or to launch a rocket at a Nazi. The problem in this mechanic lies in the fact that the button to pick up these items is the same as the one to use innate abilities. And Willie Scott’s innate ability is screaming to shatter glass. Often during The Temple of Doom, I found I simply had to switch characters if I needed to grab something or else I’d have to listen to Willie shrieking like a 12-year-old girl at a Justing Bieber concert while she ran around looking for just the right spot to pick up the item.

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Boss fights, as usual for Lego games, are so lame I feel comfortable diagnosing the game with advanced stages of muscular dystrophy. Since Lego combat tends to be as threatening and authentic as a trip to Taco Bell, nearly every major villain in the game seems to have attended the Monty Python school of battle. So each fight plays out like any girl I asked out in high school; they run safely out of reach, leaving me nothing to interact with but the room around me. Since most of the game consists of finding pieces and building things to progress, boss fights don’t really change up game play. The only difference is you have some prick standing by to laugh at you when you screw up. So yeah, exactly like dating in high school.

But really, whatever. It’s a Lego game. If you like Indiana Jones and other Lego games, you’ll get pretty much the same experience here. It’s fun. It’s cute. There are also a number of Star Wars cameos hidden throughout the game, including Luke frozen upside down in a wampa cave in Nepal. Which is good. Like I said before, you don’t want to take yourself too seriously

Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis – PS2, XBox, PC

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If you follow my blog regularly, rather than flip through in disappointment after your search for “sex” and “video game” turns up nothing but a wall of text with a few irreverently captioned images, you’ve probably found more than one review complaining about game series that sold out by porting a downgraded version of their original to a same-generation console just to make a few bucks (or a few thousand yen). While I do love to put on my big, black sanctimonious robes and pound my gavel in condemnation for these cash-grab attempts, I would disgrace the dignity and sex appeal of my big, curly powdered wig if I didn’t admit I can’t really make a general rule out of that practice. Fortunately, another sell-out genre of video game lets me keep up the pretence of blanket hatred on a much more regular basis: movie-based games.

Because Spielberg thought people would prefer an obscure species of predator to the historical favorite for the third film. Yeah. Smart move there.

Because Spielberg thought people would prefer an obscure species of predator to the historical favorite for the third film. Yeah. Smart move there.

I loved Jurassic Park. It came out the summer before fifth grade, and I never remember a movie scaring me more than that.  Give me a chair moving very slightly in a ghost story and I’ll pucker my naval in boredom. On the other hand, give the shark from Jaws a pair of lungs, legs, the intelligence to open doors, and a plausible-sounding explanation of how scientists might make them a reality, and I’ll lie awake at night, terrified, unable to sleep until eighth grade. Granted, some of that stemmed from the fear that the sun would go supernova and incinerate me in my sleep, but still…raptors! So you can imagine that after years of games like the weird top-down/first-person SNES adaptation or the Sega version where you play as a raptor, when I found a copy of Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis for $3 at my local Savers, I reacted with an emphatic WTF (and not just because I found out later that the game sells for upwards of $80 on ebay).

As the game simulates an alternative reality where John Hammond succedes, capitalism seeps into every aspect of the game, including visitor deaths.

As the game simulates an alternative reality where John Hammond succedes, capitalism seeps into every aspect of the game, including visitor deaths.

Operation Genesis shows an odd sense of self-awareness, showing the main characters from the film selling out their principles to make piles of cash.  John Hammond apparently has made a full recovery from his lesson in human endangerment for the sake of capitalism (or if we follow the book’s plot, his death by compies) and puts himself to the task of opening another park and profiting off tourists, despite the occasional fatality. Rather than advising about ethical ramifications of cloning a long-extinct ecosystem, Dr. Grant now digs fossils for the explicit purpose of extracting DNA for use by the park (however, the fact that they manage to obtain DNA from solid rock, which has completely replaced any organic material, causes me to question the validity of the cloned animals).  Dr. Sattler has apparently renounced her paleobotanist ways and now works as a nurse for sick dinosaurs.  And John Arnold, no longer holding a grudge against the dinosaurs that dismembered and devoured him, returns as the park’s operations manager.

Gameplay resembles sim games, with construction mechanics similar to Sim City, but with tourists walking through the park, apparently completely incapable of finding things like restrooms, restaurants, and the dinosaurs standing right on the other side of viewing enclosures. Oh yeah, and the game also includes dinosaur cloning.  Although the game drops you right onto the island with no instructions after a paltry five-minute loading time, if you’ve ever played a sim game in your life, it doesn’t take too much effort to pick up the tasks. The park needs an entrance, fences, and at least one dinosaur before you can open, at which point park admissions becomes your primary source of revenue, along with charges for viewing, eating, and for the serious dick players, using the bathrooms. Restaurants, cleaning stations, ranger stations, and other buildings help tourists leave to spread the word about how satisfied they felt after wandering, eating, peeing, and not getting gored to death in your park, raising your rating and by extension, your potential to profit.

Most of the amenities and attractions require research before you can build them because apparently your staff simply can’t grasp how a gift shop might work without someone writing a dissertation on the subject first. I know why they include this mechanic in the game–it lets the player prioritize, adding variety to each play through, and insuring that the park could, theoretically, fail. It also adds some credibility to the scientific aspects of the game.  I just fail to see how developing a vaccine for previously unknown diseases that will work on species whose biology we’ve only ever known through rocks shaped like their bones takes the same amount of time to figure out as how to drive a jeep through a field of duck-billed hadrosaurs.

They call this building the hatchery. I think it looks suspiciously like a raptor pen.

They call this building the hatchery. I think it looks suspiciously like a raptor pen.

The process of cloning dinosaurs from DNA adds a layer of complexity to the game, requiring just about every step actually involved in real-life cloning except for the applications and approval from ethics boards. You start by digging fossils from a randomly selected dig site which, props for authenticity, coincides with real-life locations where each dinosaur species lived. You can purchase extra dig teams to make the excavation faster, but each team costs twice as much as the one before it and the process still feels like it takes sixty-five million years to get anything you can use. Also, sometimes they’ll dig up gold, silver, or opals, which have no use, but you can sell them. I usually use the money on store-bought fossils. You know why? Because I’d rather have fossils than gold, silver, or opals.  Once you have fossils, you have to extract DNA from them. Each sample gives you a small portion of DNA for a single species. You need 55% or more to clone a dinosaur. Yeah. It takes a while. And at 55%, they die off rather quickly. I like to imagine mixed characteristics of dinosaurs and frogs. Slimy, amphibious raptors hopping around their pens, or T-rexes trying to catch flies with their tongues. Anyway, once you have enough, and pay a hefty fee, your dinosaur hatchery (which you need to build) will start incubating and raising your park’s attractions: one animal at a time.

Allosaurus, a member of the Tyrannosaur family, struts for the camera. See, even T-Rex has relatives that embarass him at Thanksgiving.

Allosaurus, a member of the Tyrannosaur family, struts for the camera. See, even T-Rex has relatives that embarass him at Thanksgiving.

While at thirty years old, I still love the idea of dinosaur cloning and hope for the possibility to visit a real Jurassic Park one day, I don’t really know if the main focus of the game should force players to watch the research in real-time. While you start with enough material to produce at least one dinosaur species, it can take years of in-game time to get a second. Each dig site has only three species, and the fossils put up for sale only match the species of fossils you’ve found. Furthermore, out of the nine sites available, you can only access three per save file, so you can’t actually get all the dinosaurs in the game for your park. The game moves at the speed of fish climbing out of the ocean, but it only takes four or five hours of gameplay before you realize that, even though the game itself has other options, it won’t let you do anything to make your establishment more awesome.

Theoretically, disasters can add some panic into the game. Apparently tropical storms and disgruntled employees shutting off the power don’t quite match up with the excitement of the occasional twister (what, did you just copy and paste the coding from Sim City?), which can either add mild amusement in the need to follow along behind it immediately repairing fences, or it can game over you if it happens too early on.  Dinosaur rampages–supposedly–cause more trouble, but I’ve never had an animal break out of its fence, even when I had the T-rex in minimum security pens.

Nausea mode: where the camera jiggles, and the vomiting player simulates shooting dinosaurs on the ground below.

Nausea mode: where the camera jiggles, and the vomiting player simulates shooting dinosaurs on the ground below.

The game also offers a mission mode, with some alternative gameplay. The first mission asked me to drive a jeep around an island, photographing various species to prove to investors that the park really did clone dinosaurs–or knows how to use Photoshop. The second mission put me in a helicopter, gunning down rampaging carnivores.  The game lost me on that one–for a vehicle designed with the ability to hover, it handled like a gift shop balloon in a strong breeze.  Again, if they intended to nauseate their players, mission accomplished, but I just couldn’t live up to the task of operating a helicopter, machine gun, and vomit bucket at the same time. The reward for completing ten missions  lets you release all your dinosaurs onto an island without disease or people and just watch. No thank you.

You know what I’d rather do? Go read the damn book.

Assassin’s Creed 2 – PS3, XBox 360, PC, OSX

Ezio enjoys fine wine, long walks on the rooftop, and flinging himself off towering buildings as if a plate of steel and a pile of hay will help him survive.

Ezio enjoys fine wine, long walks on the rooftop, and flinging himself off towering buildings as if a plate of steel and a pile of hay will help him survive.

Years ago, a friend of mine had me play a little bit of Assassin’s Creed to kill time.  I didn’t get through much–just the first few tutorials–but it intrigued me.  Then after hearing the entire video game community collectively climax over the series (and finding a copy of Assassin’s Creed II for $6 at GameStop), I decided I needed to see what had absconded with everyone’s attention for so long.  Having just finished the game, I think I can capture its true essence with one sentence; Assassin’s Creed II allows players the rare opportunity to travel through time to visit the wonders of Renaissance Italy, see the sights from the heights of marvelous buildings, travel through the streets of Venice in a gondola, and meet historical personalities both famous and infamous…and then kill them.

Our hero: daring, bold, eager, cross-eyed, and 100% irrelevant to the plot.

Our hero: daring, bold, eager, cross-eyed, and 100% irrelevant to the plot.

Mixing sandbox-ish and platform-ish designs, Assassin’s Creed II provides 20-ish hours of interesting-ish gameplay.  The game opens with Desmond Miles busting out of  an Abstergo holding cell with his noticeably cross-eyed love interest in a thrilling escape sequence that I assume would make sense had I played the first game.  After establishing some stuff about the battle between the Templars and the Assassins, Desmond straps himself into a virtual reality machine called the Animus in order that we, as players, may forget everything we just learned about Desmond to focus on the real story; Ezio Auditore, a cross-eyed,15th-century nobleman, takes revenge on a conspiracy for the murder of his cross-eyed father and brothers. After their deaths, Ezio discovers his heritage as part of the Assassin organization, and he sheds his plain, average garb of a Florentine in favor of a gaudy white robe, hood, and armor that…helps him blend in with the average folk around him.

I know the frame story would (likely) make more sense in the context of the other games, but honestly I just don’t care. Video games have never needed story arcs or direct sequels before, and it actually sort of helps if they don’t. After all, Hollywood can expect people to pay three dollars at a Redbox if they want to understand the latest money-desperate sequel before, but games that charge a minimum of $30 and then require an hour of gameplay per dollar spent, I’d much prefer skipping to the better games rather than paying the time and money to play them sequentially.  Case in point: when I bought this game, I asked the guy at GameStop which Assassin’s Creed game he recommended I start with.  He suggested this one, and I thanked him for his expertise. Then Anne asked the girl working in the store whether she could recommend Disgaea 3 or 4.  She suggested starting with 3 because “It comes first, so you don’t want to miss out on the story,” and we both wondered how often she sleeps with the manager to keep her job.

Ezio flying on a da Vinci prototype. I wanted to make a joke on decoding, but they actually have Leonardo crack codes--with all seriousness--regularly in the game.

Ezio flying on a da Vinci prototype. I wanted to make a joke on decoding, but they actually have Leonardo crack codes–with all seriousness–regularly in the game.

Still, even with the solid storyline following Ezio, I didn’t exactly burn with desire to uncover the story–even with the plot-based sub-quest with its own menu section cleverly titled “The Truth.”  Ezio’s–and by extension the game’s–existence depends on killing people, the story does the bare minimum to prop up that premise. But since the term “assassin” implies a political murder, and since they seemed to want a fairly credible historical plot–at least until they start casting magic spells during the final boss fight–the writers had their hands full trying to tie together a series of actual murders, while also referring to any minor skirmishes along the way as “assassinations” as well.

At its heart, ACII revolves around stealth, which along with babysitting missions and quick time events, end up topping lists of things most likely to inspire players to send dead animals to the game designers.  However, while not quite as effective as Batman: Arkham Asylum, the stealth mechanics don’t detract from the game. Note that I say “don’t detract from,” not “add to.”  They don’t really encourage covert behavior, as the player has too many options for reducing notoriety among the NPCs.  For instance, you could lure citizens away with a handful of coins tossed into the street, then drop the body of a guard killed quietly on a rooftop down to draw the attention of a larger group of guards, then blend in with a crowd until you reach the guarded treasure–or you could just stab the guards in broad daylight, then turn around to find one of hundreds of posters plastered throughout the city with your face on it, tear it down, and everyone will forget that anything happened, despite the 99 other posters still hanging in plain view.  I ended up running, leaping, climbing and flipping through city streets littered with corpses, all with blood trails leading directly to me, and no one cared.  And if anyone did voice concern that I ought to not hang out on the roof of the palace, I could just stab them in the throat, rip down another poster, and continue on with my business.

I so rarely get the chance to depict a complete combat sequence using a photo instead of a video. . .

I so rarely get the chance to depict a complete combat sequence using a photo instead of a video. . .

While I have to admit in a certain level of satisfaction in walking up to an unsuspecting victim and thrusting my long, hard, rod of steel into their skulls, or leaping down from the sky to flatten them beneath me, breaking my fall with their spines, I mastered that very quickly in the game.  Because Ubisoft focused on historicity and realism, though, they didn’t escalate the abilities of enemies.  While yes, I have often wondered how so many Final Fantasy enemies can withstand explosions, gunshots, and swords through their torsos without so much as a strong cough throwing them off balance, I understand the reason for this; it keeps the game from getting stale.  ACII starts off at a reasonably simple difficulty setting, then as the player gains stronger weapons and armor it…well it doesn’t really change much at all.  Equipment doesn’t noticeably change your performance, enemies do just as little damage to you all throughout the game; even as you gain more health, it only allows you to stumble off of taller and taller buildings. And no matter how sharp your knives get, they can’t murder someone any more than “completely dead.” It gave me the option of using a poisoned blade at one point. I never even figured out how to use it, since stabbing them in the throat proved just a little more effective.  So the game basically provides a series of platforms to help an Italian guy kill enemies in one hit by falling on their heads. Great, Ubisoft. You’ve invented Super Mario. Except cross-eyed.

Ezio staring at the hand of the King of the Cosmos, which could easily go unnoticed as the player doesn't need to focus on much except the radar in the lower-right.

Ezio staring at the hand of the King of the Cosmos, which could easily go unnoticed as the player doesn’t need to focus on much except the radar in the lower-right.

“Up yours, Jake!” You say? “This won game of the year!” Yes…so have lots of games. Each year, I might add. People hand out game of the year awards like copies of The Watchtower. I know I’ve pretty much panned a super-popular game, but if you’ll stay with me, I want you to consider one more thing; pretend you don’t see anything that doesn’t actually have a function. If entire cities become either smooth or climbable walls guarding the occasional treasure chest full of money that becomes obsolete by chapter five, or platforms to walk on or swim through, then you’ll stop seeing any variation in the different locations. Each city contains the same assortment of posts, ladders, haystacks, etc, and except for the framing story not allowing access to certain parts of the map, you can access any area regardless of skills learned, immediately. All the sandbox-ish missions blend together–run through some section of town very fast, get in a fight, or kill some guy–with no bearing on the plot and no reward except the practically useless cash.  Even the main missions only redeem themselves by advancing the story.

Our cross-eyed hero, from the front. Seriously. While it doesn't add anything that the previous shot didn't show you, I literally could not find another shot of gameplay.

Our cross-eyed hero, from the front. Seriously. While it doesn’t add anything that the previous shot didn’t show you, I literally could not find another shot of gameplay.

While most games offer less actual variety of play than they seem, ACII pretty much consists of nothing except follow your radar to the next point on the map. Occasionally, you press a button once you get there–and not even like a quick time event, either.  At the very beginning of the game, Desmond approached the Animus virtual reality simulator and the game told me to “press any button.” No timer. No encroaching threat. Nothing. While quick time events have always annoyed me, Ubisoft found something even more pointless: the slow time event.  They provide an over-abundance of most missions with little or no variation in them, and it ends up turning into a geographical scavenger hunt more than anything else. Furthermore, traditional platformers required the player to properly assess the physics engine so as not to fling themselves past ledges and into the gaping abyss beyond like a Depression-era stock broker, but as this makes 3D platforming about as easy as juggling angry magpies, so the player only needs to hold down the X button to automatically hit the next ledge, pole or brick conspicuously sticking out of the wall for the eager climber.  But not to sacrifice difficulty, they made the controls hypersensitive to directly, so at any moment–usually while the camera auto-rotates–Ezio could flip along his public trapeze and then suddenly turn and leap crotch-first into the nearest wall, then slide down to his death like the world’s least-funny Looney Toon.

I don’t really understand the hype around this game.  Look at the pictures I posted; notice how little gameplay you see? When you google screenshots for a game and only get photos from the trailer, you can guarantee the developers did that to hide the lack of interesting gameplay from the market.  So I guess it kept my interest, and I got through the whole thing, mostly in the way my students get through the books I assign–they get bored halfway through, then skip to the end, using Spark Notes to fill in the gaps. And seriously…with as much detail as the PS3 can render, why does everyone have crossed eyes?

Final Fantasy VII – Playstation, PC

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Thank god they fixed this! Why, I could almost hear the fabric of society bunching up around my nethers!

Thank god they fixed this! Why, I could almost hear the fabric of society bunching up around my nethers!

“They say words like ‘hell’ and ‘damn’ in it,” my friend John told me about Final Fantasy VII in ninth grade. This sums up the major features of the game quite nicely. Sure, at the time it came out, people hailed it as a demonstration of the cinematic powers of CD-based game consoles, but anyone who played it knew that it really demonstrated Tifa’s enormous rack as it jiggled like two shopping bags full of Jello when the explosion at the northern crater shook the Highwind–the game also demonstrated what Squaresoft could do when not oppressed by Nintendo of America’s horribly oppressive censorship requirements.

...Cloud, on the other hand, looks like he'd prefer some private time.

…Cloud, on the other hand, looks like he’d prefer some private time.

Final Fantasy VII almost needs no summary. Everyone knows about it by now. It changed the video game scene; believe me, I took weeks to decide whether I’d say that or not. People have made that claim about FFVII all over the internet–as they have about FFIV, FFVI, FFX and just about any new piece of technology that comes out. If you locked me in a room with ten dozen donuts, you wouldn’t especially look at the first one I ate and credit it with having special sprinkles with the power to break my will; it would have happened eventually.  However, the events surrounding the game’s release did successfully allow a number of things to happen.  Well, mostly it only took Square getting royally pissed at Nintendo for not giving them a CD-based console to work with, so that let them make the switch to Sony, which propped up Playstation as a major competitor in the market, leaving Nintendo wallowing in the dust trying to figure out how to entice their customers back without actually offering any good games.

"Must look intimidating...can't let them see...hair burning..."

“Must look intimidating…can’t let them see…hair burning…”

Still, I’ll concede that not everyone reading this has played the game, so I’ll sum it up: The multi-conglomerate Orwellian corporation known as Shinra, or in short, “Big Mako” have discovered an energy source even better than the sludge left over from decomposed corpses–the souls that used to inhabit those corpses.  Pulling the spirits of the dead out of the planet, they compress them and convert them into electricity so people can play video games (among other things), which naturally pisses off the local hippies.  Except rather than a skinny little white guy with a guitar and bloodshot eyes, a seven-foot tall powerhouse of a black man with a machine gun grafted onto his arm leads them, along with his double-D companion, Tifa, and her brooding, stormy, anti-social childhood friend, Cloud. Their game of cat-and-also-cat ends when one of Shinra’s old mistakes–a genetically engineered super-soldier with the DNA of an ancient monster sent to destroy the planet–arrives and plants a Nodachi two meters long into the President. Yada yada. Sephiroth burned down Cloud’s and Tifa’s hometown and now plans to destroy the planet, Cloud and his friends stop him.  The game ends, and the player looks up pictures of Tifa’s breasts on the internet.

So what do you think...they look fake, don't they?

So what do you think…they look fake, don’t they?

Although I joke about Tifa and her apparent fan following of CGI Animators on redtube, I truly believe in the necessity of adding a character with a large amount of sex appeal.  And not just her, but also Barret, his constant stream of profane tough-guy talk, his place as the only black guy in the entire fantasy genre except for that one dude from the Neverending Story, and the subtle gay vibe between him and Cloud.  Also, the comical string of obscenities that Cid spews forth could scour the rust off a car.  These things indicated that Squaresoft wanted to treat their audience like adults.  Games have aged since Donkey Kong, and so have their players; gone are the days of staring at Celes’s 16-bit pixilated sprite and trying to imagine something a little more photo-realistic.  I love the whimsical nature of those early games, but people actually seem to live in this world. Characters have speech patterns and dialects and everything.

Furthermore, in designing the combat system, Squaresoft took this notion of well-developed, distinct characters…and chucked it right into Ifrit’s hellfire. Custom characters have long attracted players to the Final Fantasy series. Games like Final Fantasy IV gave us special abilities like Kain’s jump or Rosa’s pray. Three and five (and later Tactics) allowed characters to learn skills permanently to equip in specialized combinations. Six mixed that, with character-specific skills and the ability to permanently use magic and raise stats. So naturally, we would expect something brilliant and revolutionary, now that we have 32-bits to utilize, right?

Same old ATB, stand-in-a-straight-line combat system, but with runaway summon animations lasting over two minutes!

Same old ATB, stand-in-a-straight-line combat system, but with runaway summon animations lasting over two minutes!

Nope! Forget all that–it all boils down to materia.  From the beginning of the game, any character can equip any materia–crystalized mako energy containing the knowledge of the ancients–which can let them cast magic, summon monsters, perform special abilities, augment other materia, or raise stats. The game only limits you by how much materia you can afford/find and how many slots your weapons and armor has to put them in. Characters can’t retain any of this once unequipped, so only limit breaks–powerful attacks only available once a character has received an amount of damage proportional to the power of the attack–and physical appearance in battle differentiate one character from another. And the game chucks characters at you like it wants you to sign up for its online dating service; with nine characters, parties of three or less, plus the old-school restriction of requiring the protagonist to lead your party at all times, I always have two or three who sit on the sidelines for the whole game, just to save money equipping them and to focus on building up the limit breaks for the more interesting characters. Which, yes, I usually choose based on physical appearance, in light of anything else. Which means the dog and the toy cat usually get bumped in favor of Tifa and Yuffie. And quite possibly Barret.

Anyone who's ever raced a chocobo knows the triumph every time you defeat Teioh...and the pathetic reward that usually follows.

Anyone who’s ever raced a chocobo knows the triumph every time you defeat Teioh…and the pathetic reward that usually follows.

Fortunately, though, Squaresoft packed more into this game than a hackneyed combat system and a questionable set of feelings for an electronically generated configuration of polygons.  In fact, I usual enjoy playing this game to completion.  Likely in attempt to show off the Playstation’s capabilities, FFVII includes a plethora of mini-games including a submarine battle, motorcycle chase, and a snowboard sequence so obnoxiously difficult that it only proves Cloud can run into more walls than Wile E. Coyote.  Furthermore, at the end of the game you open up the option to breed generations upon generations of chocobos–obviously the best hobby to take up with only seven days left to global annihilation.  You can raise chocobos to race, or try to raise special colors to help find all those hard-to-reach areas of the world map.  Again, I enjoy this, but sometime the task takes way too long, and the games variables don’t really feel truly random–while each race offers a 1 in 6 chance of winning the good prize, I seldom actually walk away with anything I couldn’t buy in any one of the hundreds of identical shops in the game, and quite often when trying to breed chocobos that can mate with each other, you’ll end up getting the wrong gender or the wrong color several dozen times in a row.

Final Fantasy VII also offers two bonus bosses, similar to the hidden bosses from FFV and the original Final Fantasy.  The Emerald and Ruby weapons make up for the plateau of difficulty toward the end of the game.  This presents a conundrum though because even though these bosses exist to add challenge to the game, in order to take them down you have to level up far more than necessary for anything else in the game, and it takes the punch out of anything else you’d do.  And while Sephiroth stands as one of the most iconic, impressive villains in any fantasy storyline, it generally disappoints me when I get to that final battle and he fights back with all the strength of an anemic guinea pig.

He's too sexy for his shirt, so sexy it hurts! He's too sexy for that sword...

He’s too sexy for his shirt, so sexy it hurts! He’s too sexy for that sword…

However, despite the overpowered characters in act three, frustrating random number generator, and a protagonist with forearms like Popeye, the storyline makes this game well worth playing. The save-the-planet eco themes offer, well…actual themes in a game’s storyline.  Sephiroth captivated so much attention by defying the obnoxious tradition that fantasy has of presenting magic-using villains, and the final scene with him carrying two meters of solid steel and dressed like a Chippendale dance only cements the fact that for once, just once, the villain earned his role in the story by acting like a dick to the protagonist, rather than because we all need to learn about how idolatry will lead us straight to Hell (thank you, C.S. Lewis, for welding Christianity into fantasy literature for all time…can we please talk about something else?). And, of course, spoiler alert, while FF characters have died before, nothing tops the moment when we lose Aerith forever. As I explained to my class the other day while doing the video-games-as-literature lecture, “When this happened, I cried like a baby!…no, you don’t understand, this happened like, two weeks ago.”

So to all those people who “debate” whether FFVII or FFVIII leads the series as the best game…WTF? You totally can’t compare the two.

Minecraft – Windows, OS X, Linux, Android, iOS, Xbox 360, Raspberry Pi, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, etc

Minecraft-360

My list of things to do over winter break included reading and preparing for class next semester, getting through “Catch-22“ and a few other books for my own sake, taking the Jeopardy contestant test, studying for the GRE, and catch up on game reviews so I could post more frequently than once per week. What did I actually accomplish over the last six weeks? Minecraft. Often for four or more hours per night.

Now, nursing an addiction for a video game could easily sound like praise, but with that logic you might say that watching someone do heroin for ten years would offer a sparkling endorsement of opioids. Likewise, I don’t want to compare Minecraft to drug use, although it did have a tendency to leave me looking like I hadn’t eaten or slept in a week. Rather, picture a combination of Fallout, Final Fantasy XII and Legos. I’ll start with the obvious comparison.

Like many others my age, I spent an inordinate amount of time learning my ineptitude at engineering through these plastic Danish building blocks. My creations, subject to the terrors of my grand imagination, grew larger and more complex as the weeks went on until gravity popped her ugly head in to see my accomplishments as they shattered into pieces under their own weight. Minecraft offers the same sort of appeal as Legos without the nasty clean-up and inevitable three days of locating errant pieces with your feet. The world consists of an invisible cubic grid, and most objects found in the game can either fit into this grid or combine into other objects or mechanisms that you can build with. Gravitational force shows up every now and then like a know-it-all friend, offering horrible advice–“I think that pile of sand should come down here!”–or unexpectedly dropping a flow of lava on your head, then laughing hysterically as you lose your supply of rare diamonds, tools, and the blocks you spent the last three hours harvesting, but for the most part it stays out of your way so you can build your dream castle-slash-mansion-slash-dungeon-slash-pornatarium a hundred meters above the surface of the earth.

Each new game randomly generates a world full of specific geographical features–mountains, deserts, oceans, forests, etc–animals, monsters and other dangers, and minerals for you to mine. Beginning with nothing, I set myself immediately to the task of ripping down a nearby tree with my bare hands, then shredding the log into planks to build a crafting table, which let me work with some real tools. From then on, the game makes a little more sense, although not much. Different tools work best for different jobs; the axe cuts wood better than stone, while the shovel digs dirt, sand and gravel better than the pickaxe, etc. Unfortunately, after about three days of playing I realized I didn’t need anything except a strong pickaxe since the shovel and the axe managed to dig dirt and chop down trees only a little more effectively than a slice of watermelon (or any other random object found in the game). And since tools degrade over time until they shatter, the watermelon has thus far proven more effective.

The game offers a simple tutorial, but otherwise the player has to figure out their goals on their own. It doesn’t take long to figure out that you need to dig to find better minerals to make stronger tools that can mine the stronger minerals, all the while dumping the pile of stuff you pick up into whatever grandiose object you chose to blight the landscape with by making. It really amounts to an experience akin to building with Legos, except instead of searching through a giant tub of blocks, you search though the heavens and the earth, hoping to find whatever you need before something explodes behind you, emptying the contents of your pocket onto the ground and sending you to some random location to respawn in hopes of not getting too-lost before the time limit expires and your stuff vanishes from the game forever.

So after about two or three weeks of this, I realized I had found a smattering of most of the items in the game, built most of a castle, and splattered both my innards and several hours worth of progress all over the surface of the earth due to monsters sneaking up on me (more times than I care to admit), when as a character I had a mid-life crisis of sorts and seriously questioned my life’s path. I had a castle, diamonds, electricity…and planned to use it to mine more stone for castles, diamonds for pickaxe making, and electricity…so I could build more and mine more minerals…for the purpose of mining more…

You get the point.

As I enjoyed Final Fantasy XII more than most games, I played through it once with a completionist mindset. Once I had collected every trophy and found almost every item, I turned my sights toward the Wyrmhero blade…only to get an hour into the fishing minigame before I realized, “I have no reason to ever use this sword.” I had destroyed every challenge in the game. A super-sword would have no benefit other than a useless trophy. I went on to the final boss battle barehanded, hoping to salvage some shred of challenge.

I hadn’t experienced this feeling again until I realized the futility of Minecraft. Sure it kept me busy, and I sunk a lot of time into it, and yes, having my own flying castle satisfied me…much in the way that watching Indiana Jones satisfies my desire to travel…but I just couldn’t justify continuing in a game where I could accomplish all the major challenges within a few hours. Only the monsters and natural dangers offer any real degree of challenge, but since the game doesn’t focus on combat, they would fit in just as well in Sim City, Katamari, Trauma Center, or Wheel of Fortune.

Several platforms have versions of Minecraft, each one of them slightly different from the others. I played primarily on the PS3, but also checked out the Raspberry Pi edition, while Anne spent some time getting killed on the Mac version–that’s right, in addition to natural game dangers, online players have to worry about minor wars destroying all their accomplishments. We agreed that the PS3 played the easiest, since using a console controller limited the concentration we needed to devote to complex coordination tests–and also the Pi edition has no feature to save your progress…kind of a theme with the game, I’ve noticed–but you may have noticed this review lacking pictures.  Apparently the developers of this game, which fosters creativity, didn’t feel the need to include a function to take screenshots, so it won’t let you record in malleable form any progress you happen to make despite the game’s best efforts to ruin you. While I usually search for images online to insert in my posts, the only thing that pops up are the accomplishments of those who can take screenshots. Google it for yourself. I don’t need to root through their pictures for you.

Honestly, the game has the best of intentions and a unique concept (although the pathetic inclusion of combat aspect kind of ruins that concept), but one other aspect not only breaks the camel’s back, but crushes the camel and grinds its viscera into the sand beneath it: inventory management. With a limited number of inventory slots and a maximum of 64 items per slot (only if it lets you stack them), you quickly find yourself with half a planet’s worth of material in your pockets. Storage chests don’t offer a lot of relief, and pretty soon you notice yourself spending half the game just collecting, moving, sorting, and looking for all the items you’ve already collected. Just like in Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, the game offers over a hundred hours of play time, but less than half of that feels fun, while the other half makes me feel I would use my time better by cleaning my apartment.

The game does give a sort of unexplained sense of satisfaction, but has some issues to work out. For starters, the list of bugs and glitches–including the randomly corrupting data files for anyone who plays split-screen–don’t really belong on a console game, and shouldn’t have seen a PS3 release until they could iron those out (save the glitches for PC games, guys!). Other than that, yes, theoretically the game has an end boss, but without orienting itself toward combat, you really can’t claim any achievement other than that you’ve hollowed out an entire planet.

Plants vs Zombies 2: It’s About Time – Android, iOS

A screenshot that successfully tells the player what to expect from the game--notice the load hasn't completed.

A screenshot that successfully tells the player what to expect from the game–notice the load hasn’t completed.

Plants vs Zombies got me through my last semester of grad school. Marathon reading for ten hours a day often left me twitching as though I suffered from the residual effects of a sturdy blast of electro-shock therapy. But having the trusty cartridge in my DS, ready to whip out and play a few flags of endless mode lifted my spirits like a busty cheerleader jumping up and down on the sidelines waving her…pompoms. Despite its flaws, the first Plants vs Zombies game kept my attention and stayed interesting through months of casual play. So you can imagine after delay upon delay, when the lightning bolt struck to bestow new life upon this deceased corpse of a game, I fully supported their choice to subtitle the game, “It’s About Time!”

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And if that didn’t clue you in, the game flopped like a trout sunbathing on a stone slab. Yes, the game garnered high scores and praise from critics and spread itself like a plague to the rabid 25 Million rabid PvZ enthusiasts who downloaded the game without a trace of realization that film directors have used zombies for years to criticize mass consumerism. Yes, it designed new worlds with clever themes for their zombie attackers.  And yes, it gave us brand-new plants and let us unlock costumes to make them look cuter.

This screenshot alone nearly reaches the total I paid for the completed original

This screenshot alone nearly reaches the total I paid for the completed original

But when most of the features hide behind the checkout counter of the online store, the game basically amounts to playing a commercial, and even with all the optional purchases you couldn’t tempt viewers with such a threadbare ad if you played it during the Superbowl. In fact, I only felt inspired to make a single purchase during the entire game; the HD version of the original. (The DS version had a tendency to seize up when the player blankets the entire field with Cob Cannons) The DVD rack in my living room will testify to my willingness to shell out as much as $60 for a game, but I would rather pay more for a complete game than a pittance of coins to buy parts in installments. Naturally though, if they thought they could have made more money with a single up-front cost, they would have sold it that way. Rather, PvZ2 inundates you with an avalanche of tiny purchases that EA hopes no one will tally up to realize how much money they’ve actually vaporized playing the game.

Yetis drop lunchboxes with prizes. Don't expect to get this, though; they deleted keys from the game.

Yetis drop lunchboxes with prizes. Don’t expect to get this, though; they deleted keys from the game.

Furthermore, taking a page from Microsoft’s book, they haven’t even completed the game yet. One world, as of the time of this writing, still remains blacked out with question marks enticing us to keep us playing indefinitely, so they can dangle their unlockables in front of us like the light on an angler fish’s head. To add to this, every few days they’ll offer a “yeti event” or a “party,” a bonus level that lets you…kill a robotic yeti or play a specialized mini-game level, which I’ll admit had me running to the game every night until I realized that this offered virtually nothing except a handful of in-game cash too meager to use for anything because they’d rather sell you in-game cash in exchange for your real cash. Fair trade, right? Think of it like buying a gift certificate, only less useful. While the shop in the first game had interesting items that added to all aspects of game play, money in PvZ2 will only buy you Deus-ex-Machina attacks, which don’t fall in the category of “useful tools” since you can finish every (existing) level with just the (free) plants.

The map offers players branching paths that let them decide what order to unlock prizes. Don't expect to see this; they removed it from the game.

The map offers players branching paths that let them decide what order to unlock prizes. Don’t expect to see this; they removed it from the game.

To add to the frustration of not having a completed game, PvZ2 underwent a massive redesign about a month ago. Formerly a map with branching paths that could be unlocked by keys randomly found (but more often purchased) by completing challenges, they opted to make it linear, offering angry players a handful of in-game cash to sooth the anger welling up over the fact that some of us played the game for weeks trying to build up those damn keys! The redesign also added the gigantuar mini-bosses from the original, but even with the addition, the variety of zombies, attack patterns, and–even with all the purchasable items the number of plants.

Also, don’t look for mushrooms, night levels, roof levels, aquatic plants, or a Zen garden. The mini-games have also lost variety and almost entirely resemble the main game, as well. Factor in the change from branching paths to a linear progression, and one may suspect the game designers visualize us as helpless dolts, fearful of having to make the slightest decision without consulting our life coach or dialing up our psychic friend or pulling de-contextualized phrases out of the Bible like we’d read the phone book and interpreting them as literally as possible. Sorry, but even the simplest of minds enjoys making their own decisions once in a while, but when you strip those decisions down to which handful of plants you’ll use each level, the game becomes boring very quickly.

This shot shows some of the interesting mechanics added to the game. Unfortunately, they don't make it as interesting as it looks

This shot shows some of the interesting mechanics added to the game. Unfortunately, they don’t make it as interesting as it looks

Recognizing the fact that I don’t always describe very well the games I write about, I suppose you may appreciate a run down of the game to figure out what I’ve yammered on about for the last three pages. Tower defense. Zombies come at you. Five rows of them. Plants based off clever puns. Pea shooters, iceberg lettuce, bonk choy. Zombies eat plants; zombies eat your brains. There. Does that help?

Yup. Still waiting. They call it future world, but by the time they release it they'll have to call it "the Past."

Yup. Still waiting. They call it future world, but by the time they release it they’ll have to call it “the Past.”

The game doesn’t exactly thrive on complexity. The original did very well not because it reinvented the tower defense genre, but because they put a lot of care into the elements of the game, easily giving us a variety of problems, decisions, strategies, etc that forced us to adapt level-by-level. The game offered amusingly misspelled notes left by zombies who offered very thin facades to coax us into opening our doors to them (one note even bearing the signature “mom (not the zombies)”). Plants vs Zombies 2 replaces the variety of elements with a variety of sales pitches, and rather than genuinely humorous interludes, we get your neighbor, Crazy Dave, searching through time to find a taco he ate at the beginning of the game; this seems to attempt Stupid Humor (think “Napoleon Dynamite”), and while a lot of people seem to enjoy Stupid Humor, the returning fans will miss the Clever Wit of the original, while the taco quest becomes the same joke repeated indefinitely. Literally indefinitely–we have no idea when they’ll release the next world of the game.

Plants vs Zombies 2 doesn’t qualify as retro, I know, but I thought I should drop in a reminder about why we should play more retro games.  As game developers lean more and more toward terrible ideas, gamers need a refuge where they can play something fun. So ignore the positive reviews. PvZ2 loses its charm very quickly, while the original will hold your attention like Fallout 3 on Ritalin. Buy that one instead.

—————

Update (July 7, 2014): PvZ has, by now, released two new worlds for this game. However, by this point, I have long since stopped caring.