The Monkey King: The Legend Begins – Wii

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The publisher’s choice of box art, traditionally styled depiction, yet dull and unrepresentative of gameplay…

“Five dollars? Eh. Why not?” What better way is there to sum up the national epic for over a billion people, a brilliant, comedic satire mixed with a deep and insightful meditation on Buddhism and other traditional beliefs of China? An afternoon of boredom led me to explore a skeezy pawn shop, where I found “The Monkey King: The Legend Begins,” and figured “Why not try to overcome malaise by seeing what they did to this timeless myth?”

To be fair, a six-hundred year old book loved by the planet’s most populous nation is bound to more pointless adaptations than the entire Marvel and DC universes combined, and by the law of averages, some of them are bound to leave a taste in your mouth like coffee filtered through an old pair of Hanes briefs. So really, if I tried to protest every bad or unfaithful adaptation of Journey to the West, I’d be left with zero free time, a bill for cardboard sign making that rivals my mortgage, and an unreasonable hatred of Dragonball. So why not look at the game on its own merits?

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…versus the alternate art, which is accurate, but more visually assaulting than Where’s Waldo hyped up on Red Bull.

Immediately upon booting up the game, I noticed that the d-pad wouldn’t let me select menu options and the select button was way at the bottom of the Wiimote. Don’t laugh. I’ve never actually encountered a Wii game that wanted me to hold the controller sideways.

Gameplay reminds me of old arcade shooters, like Galaga or Gradius—because when I think of an epic meditation on spirituality and enlightenment, I think “Space Invaders.” The legendary Sun Wukong (or if you so choose, the unique and pointless Mei-mei) flies through China on his cloud, spinning the magical staff that, in the book, can grow or shrink to any size the monkey king wants, but which in the game shoots out a glowing orb. Because you can’t have a space shooter without lasers, right? Even if it isn’t set in space. And depicts events that occurred in the 8th century.

Honestly, there’s not too much I can say about this game. It’s a traditional arcade style. It’s fun, I guess, in the way that Dairy Queen is fun—you like it every time, but there’s never anything new about it, you really wouldn’t want to go there all the time, and whenever I go it plays a bad satellite radio station of all the songs from the 1950s that were so bad, the entire decade tried to set them on fire and bury the ashes so new music would grow, but it just festered in the ground until it sprouted something with the maddening powers of Cthulu. Er, well, you get the point. The music in the game is a little grating.

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Tilt, and the whole world tilts with you.

The one unique feature involves the system’s motion controls. If you tilt the controller in the direction you’re flying, you start careening through the level like a deer on collision course for a Volkswagen Beetle. If you tilt the other way, you slow down and become a much easier target for the dozens of enemies trying to dye your clothing with their viscera. An interesting idea, even if it does display a fundamental misunderstanding of gravity, as though the core of the earth were swinging back and forth from Los Angeles to Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, it’s a little too tempting to exploit. Every time you die, your next life comes back, blinking invincibly (as trauma patients often do when leaving the ICU). During this time, you can launch into turbo mode and skip through 25% of the level. Sometimes, if you position yourself at the right spot, you can do this even when not invincible and hit the boss in moments.

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…And a boss fight. There. You’ve seen pretty much everything.

The game is short, but still feels padded. You work through five stages, then a boss rush stage that calls itself “hell,” but hands out power ups like Halloween candy. And then you fly through all five stages again, literally backwards, starting with the bosses and then heading back toward the beginning.

Also, I know there’s a lot of violence in the book, and I know I read an abridged translation, but I don’t seem to recall pigs with rocket launchers in Journey to the West.

Dragon Blade: Wrath of Fire – Wii

Dragon_Blade_-_Wrath_of_Fire_CoverartI love Fantasy narrators. Can you imagine if everyone talked like that?

In ages long past, a great hunger drove the mighty warrior to seek out the legendary meat lovers pizza, which came to him in a vision.  He quested long to come to the sacred Hut of Pizza, whereupon he requested his meal from the wise sage who took him in from the cold and seated him in the warm light at yon table that, lo, was beside the TV showing Sportscenter.  But there he sat, long forgotten by the world, and the hunger devoured him from within.  Lost to the temple monks, none arrived with the Tray of Serving, nor did any ask if he wanted his flagon of Mountain Dew restored to its former glory.  Now a wrathful shell of his former self, the mighty warrior must take up arms and battle his way into the great kitchens to reach the office beyond, where he shall face the Lord Manager of the Hut of Pizza, lest he never leave the realm.

Thus begins Dragon Blade: Wrath of Fire.  An uninspired little bundle of tropes, clichés, and trite I picked up in a Game Stop for 80 cents.  When I thought, “That price is nothing to shake a stick at!” I should have considered that this was a Wii game, played entirely via shaking stick method, and not very well at that.

Dragonblade1

She got as far as “fiancee” before I started measuring her for a coffin.

Dragon Blade opens with a story pieced together with the refused shat out and flushed away by other fantasy clichés.  The young hero has a dream of being a chosen one, then gets a spiritual companion who tells him to go out and collect pieces of something.  Then someone razes his village to the ground because no fantasy world would be complete without an all-powerful organization that harbors grudges against idyllic backwater towns.  Either that or these people have a primitive understanding of motivation.  “Happy New Years everyone! In order to help you finish that novel, start that diet, and finally get around to that yard work you’ve been putting off, I’ve burned your house to the ground! Go get ‘em, tiger!”  Then after the hero’s girlfriend dies in a scene so bad, Anita Sarkeesian felt it like Obi-Wan felt the destruction of Alderaan, we begin an adventure full of hacking and slashing down a linear corridor!

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Despite not being an actual blade, they at least went so far as to make it dragon-like.

Well-crafted names can make or break a fantasy story.  Unfortunately, names are almost required to sound like a toddler vomited up a bowl of Alpha Bits along with a few Scrabble tiles they swallowed, but a good writer can make names sound natural (Samwise, Eddard, Laurana), exotic (Daenerys, Chewbacca), or meaningful (Gandalf, Han Solo).  A bad writer can make names that sound like something you pulled out of a garden or read off a prescription bottle.  Dragon Blade falls into the latter category with names like Vormanax, Norgiloth and—our hero—Dal.  The first major boss battle is a dragon named Jagira, which would have only been an acceptable name if they were writing Thunder Cat fan fiction.  One can only assume the half-assed lazy attempt at scribbling out an opening paragraph and relying on an assumption that fantasy readers won’t care if it sounded as awful as a banjo in a wood chipper.  I mean, I know that game developers don’t really care much about story, but could they have at least scraped together a few coins and pulled in some starving, wanna-be screenwriter and….holy crap the story was written by Richard Knaak!

Seriously? They hired one of the better Dragonlance authors, the man who gave us The Legend of Huma and Kaz the Minotaur, and he wrote out this shit? That’s gotta be a mistake on Wikipedia’s part.  Although, the game clearly isn’t about story.  After the opening cinematic, the game limits itself to a few lines of dialogue before boss battles, sort of a pre-battle, fantasy smack-talk.  The real focus is on the hack-and-slash action and well-crafted, challenging boss fights.

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Props for interesting dragon design. Then immediate revocation of said props because I never got far enough to see more than one.

So that’s top-notch, right? I can say this strongly and confidently about the action in this game: meh. Just meh. It’s not the worse thing in the world, and I suppose there’s currently a large following for games so difficult you measure progress in Dragonball Z minutes. But there’s a difference between games that are crafted to be challenging and games that fuck with the controls to prevent success. Once more, this game is in the latter category.  I once wanted to find a Wii game that accurately allowed me to simulate sword fighting; this is not that game. Dal swings his sword with such flourish that each attack animation represents an excellent time to go make a sandwich, use the restroom, or go clean the basement. With controls so slow and unresponsive, the best I could do was initiate attacks while the enemies were still charging at me and hope that they would be kind enough to impale themselves on my sword. The motion controls carefully sense whether you’re swinging the Wiimote up, down, left, right, or stabbing forward, and translate them all into a sort of side-slash, incapable of hitting anything below Dal’s waist or at eye level. This gets rather annoying while chipping away at bosses.  The fights with the dragons seem to have received the majority of the developers’ attention, trying to create impressive and fun battles.  But in an effort to make the fights last longer, their defence is so high that you might as well be whittling down their scales with a safety pin.

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I love this game this much!

Ultimately, the difficulty turned me off. Beyond that, I suppose the game wasn’t terrible. It was simplistic, but that’s okay at times. However, I find the blurbs on the box that advertise “unique two-handed combat” a bit disingenuous when the game brings absolutely nothing new to the table.  It’s like finding a loaf of bread at the store that’s spelled out “fresh” with mould spores.

Ju-on: Haunted House Simulator – Wii

Taking the week off, everyone! Here’s a review by Anne, the only person I know who has ever told me I’m optimistic. Enjoy!

Juon

Let me start off by saying I HATE THIS GAME! I spent multiple curse filled, blood pressure raising, hours playing this game and even the memories of it make me want to toss my Wii-mote off a tall building. There, with that out of the way I can look at this game a little more objectively but still, you know what you’re in for.

Ju-on: The Haunted House Simulator is, as so many people before me have stated, more of an experience than a real game. It plays in the style of old point and click adventures to a certain extent in that you use the Wii-mote as a flashlight and as a means of telling the lucky character of any given level where to go. This also allows you to interact with a limited number of pre-set objects that either progress the story or cause a jump-scare to occur. I say limited because there are a certain number of paper scraps one must collect in each level and they tend to be hidden in drawers or in mailboxes but it is sometimes difficult to figure out what can be interacted with and what is just a static background piece. The best example I can give is in the security guard level there is a section where you must flush all of the urinals in the men’s bathroom in order to set off the next sequence but prior to this none of the bathrooms have allowed such an option, so the player must go by trial and error to discover what will make the story progress. In addition, if you do not collect all of the pieces in the level you will find yourself replaying as the only way to unlock the final level is through having all of the pages from all of the previous levels completed.

I understand that some people find children creepy...but did he have to drop his pants?

I understand that some people find children creepy…but did he have to drop his pants?

With all of that nitty-gritty detail out of the way let’s talk game play. I would like to start off with one not to subtle hint: there is no run button. Each character walks down their given corridors like they are strolling through a museum rather than being chased for their lives by a vindictive ghost. Personally, if I were in their shoes I would have noped the fuck out of there way before things got as bad as they do and to hell with my dog, my job, or my ‘family’ (I think that’s what they’re indicating with that picture that shows up in each level and the little bit of commentary in the last one?). Picture this if you will: you are walking your dog when it suddenly gets away from you and runs into a darkened warehouse. In the very first room that you enter you hear it barking and attempt to open a set of doors only to be grabbed by something behind the door and shaken. Would you calmly start browsing around for batteries, keys, and hidden pages? I personally would be well on my way to another zip code and hoping the dog was smarter than it looked.

Oh yeah, I'll tell you something I think you'll understand...

Oh yeah, I’ll tell you something I think you’ll understand…

Additionally, and I know this is picking at small details but what is with the trend of having video game protagonists get horse shoes nailed to their feet before any game that involves any level of stealth. This game’s horse shoe sound effects are so bad that there were several times that I missed the beginning of a scare because I couldn’t hear it over my own character’s walking. Again, am I the only one who would be tip-toeing as quietly as possible if I were being chased or even taking off my shoes if they insisted on making that much noise? Also, where does one find a horse-shoer for humans? Is it a niche market? Is there a discount since there are only two feet to shoe or is it extra since you probably have to anaesthetize them so they don’t pass out when you nail the shoe on?

Finally, the motion sensor aspect of this game as a way to simulate a flashlight is actually a really innovative and interesting idea. Newer horror games have run with this theme with the most notable one in recent memory being Outlast. The problem with this is that the Wii-mote sensor in this particular game is AWFUL. I thought I had played bad Wii games before but I was wrong. When my character wasn’t determinedly staring at the ceiling like a paranoid pest control worker he or she would make 180-degree spins to go in the opposite direction of where I needed to go. This wouldn’t have been such a problem except that every level is for all intents and purposes timed due to the shortest lasting batteries that have ever been my honor to curse about. This means that half the time a ‘scary’ nose would occur and I wouldn’t even be looking in the right direction for the scare.

Because nothing horrifies me more than a comically large hair clog in a bathroom drain.

Because nothing horrifies me more than a comically large hair clog in a bathroom drain.

Which brings me to related point. If you run out of batteries or fail a quick time event, which you will because of the aforementioned control issues, you have to start the level all over again from the very beginning. This wouldn’t be such an issue except every last cut scene must be triggered in order in order to progress and the jump scares don’t change. After the first, or heaven forbid eighth time, you go through a level the preset scares simply feel like they’re taking up valuable time and are a chore to slog through. I’ll admit that every once in a great long while you’ll find an optional jump scare that you may have missed along the way but it is extremely rare and yet these soon to be yawn worthy moments still lead to the ‘scared’ and ‘sissy’ meters at the end of a level somehow filling even if you in no way waggle the controller during one.

...Seems legit. Nothing bad ever happens to anyone who crawls into a jagged hole in a fence in the middle of the night when surrounded by blood.

…Seems legit. Nothing bad ever happens to anyone who crawls into a jagged hole in a fence in the middle of the night when surrounded by blood.

One memorable time I was playing through a level for the umpteenth time and finally completed it only for the game to taunt me with a quip about my basically needing to go hide under a blanket while during the very next level when I nearly jumped out of my skin at a well placed and new to me jump scare it told me I had nerves of steel.

Now here is the part of the review that I like to call ‘random crap that was said during the game’. Some of this will actually be from my brother’s run as I made him play it to make up for him making me play through the first level of Dark Souls II blind (and I don’t play that type of game so I had no idea what to do at first) and spent a good hour or so laughing at me.

~’This looks like the owner’s own personal crop of weed.’ -Regarding the field from level 3 (the delivery boy level) with the grass covered play set and oddly shaped ‘plants’.

~’This person should just lay down the cash to get an LED flashlight or even a crank operated one.’ -Regarding the quickly draining batteries of the flashlights in every level.

~’This is a sign that you’ve taken your delivery to the next level… neither rain, nor sleet, nor slashing knife…’ ‘Oh, no worries, some days are just so strange.’ -Regarding the delivery man not only entering the apartment to attempt to deliver the package but then continues wandering around the buildings afterward rather that high-tailing it out of there.

~’That guy needs to wear bifocals!’ -Regarding the delivery man’s need to hold the package right up to his eye in order to check the address and later being unable to see more than an inch or two in front of his face.

~’Not the death tuba!’ -After yet again missing a jump-scare because my character was facing the entirely wrong direction.

Sacks of bloody garbage bags outside this creepy abandoned apartment? Seems like an invitation to go inside instead of leaving the package on the door step like a normal UPS guy!

Sacks of bloody garbage bags outside this creepy abandoned apartment? Seems like an invitation to go inside instead of leaving the package on the door step like a normal UPS guy!

So is the game worth the play through, I hear nobody ask. In my opinion no. It has all of the ideas and elements to be a great game from the haunting locations and claustrophobic environments of the classic Silent Hill games to the raging jump scares that we’ve come to associate with games like Five Nights at Freddy’s. The problem is that it has extremely limited replay value and even then it isn’t all that scary. I spent most of the short play time simply re-doing levels where I had failed a quick time sequence due to poor control sensitivity or looking for the annoying and sometimes ridiculously placed page fragments that truly require a walk-through to locate. This is made double frustrating by the fact that the levels are so dark that sometimes you don’t know if you’re actually progressing or simply have collided with an obstacle that you can’t see and are slamming the character uselessly and repeatedly against said immovable object. Darkness is atmospheric but it is not, in and of itself, scary.

In addition, the Grudge lady is poorly animated from her chunky octopus hair to her albino son who is practicing his cat calls. Even fans of the original movies are going to be disappointed as there is minimal plot other than that one or all of the characters in the game may or may not be living at the original Grudge site. If the game gave us any reason to relate to or even empathize with the characters this might have played out differently but as it is, slapping a name on the beginning of each level and then asking the player to feel bad when they ultimately meet their untimely demise is bad story writing. This is not to say the game can’t be entertaining for a short time but at least this gamer spent more of her time cursing poor controller sensitivity and crappy batteries then actually feeling frightened and in a haunted house simulator, the sense of impending doom is everything.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword – Wii

Damn...I feel sorry for that bird in about twenty minutes. I had a lot of girl problems in high school, but thankfully I never had to worry about a sentient car.

Damn…I feel sorry for that bird in about twenty minutes. I had a lot of girl problems in high school, but thankfully I never had to worry about a sentient car.

Let’s run an experiment. Take out a piece of paper and a pencil (I’ll wait…you good? Good) and write down as many words or phrases as you can that should describe a Zelda game. My list includes things like “adventurous,” “open-world exploration,” “beautiful and grand,” “colorful races and characters,” “excellently designed bosses and dungeons,” or my personal favorite, “clever use of items and tools.” Now make a list of words and phrases that should never under any circumstances describe any installment of the series. To throw out a few examples, try “fetch quests,” “overly linear,” “monotonous transportation,” “small, repetitive world,” “a species of testicle-shaped fruit creatures, “tedious puzzles lurking around every corner,” “Jar-Jar Binks” and any combination of the terms “motion controlled” and “Parkinson’s disease.” Congratulations, you now have a standard for judging Skyward Sword!

...okay, so I'll admit I find her kind of endearing. But I liked the elegant princess-goddess of wisdom better. At least for the purposes of a Zelda game.

…okay, so I’ll admit I find her kind of endearing. But I liked the elegant princess-goddess of wisdom better. At least for the purposes of a Zelda game.

Traditional Zelda games emphasized the open-world exploration, allowing the player to tackle dungeons in virtually any order (save for the few that required specific items to access or complete). I loved this. It let me plan out my game as something unique each time. Maybe I want to get the white sword before going into the first dungeon, or pick up the power glove before any thing else so I could access any location in the Dark World. Or not. Maybe I want to pick up the bow first, or scour the land for 250 rupees to get the blue ring. Maybe I want to ignore the swords entirely and get through as much of the game as possible with just the bow. Despite limitations on graphics and memory, the early incarnations of Link made replaying the game more fun. And while I somewhat understand why they required a linear dungeon order in Ocarina of Time, I would have preferred otherwise, and at least they left plenty of overworld quests open to choice. Sort of.

Unfortunately, each progressive game has doubled down more and more on this linear progression, and in Skyward Sword you don’t seem to have any say in what you do at any given time, as though you asked Nintendo to help you with a science fair project, and three hours later they run out of things for you to hold in place, so they send you upstairs to get it coffee so they can finish the project for you. And remember when you said you liked the fact that the game made you think? Well guess what, they’ve installed plenty of puzzles! Challenging, obtuse, and tedious puzzles lurking around every corner. Convoluted puzzles that make you feel stupid. And if overestimating player intelligence didn’t go far enough, they also manage to underestimate it, too.

Oh no! If only someone had designed this game in a way that let me swing my sword sideways! Like every other Zelda game!

Oh no! If only someone had designed this game in a way that let me swing my sword sideways! Like every other Zelda game!

Seriously Nintendo…two hours of tutorials? You put a motion-controlled sword in our hands and then need to tell us how to swing it left, right, up and down (yet no tutorial for the bug net, which handles about as well as you could expect…assuming Link had an advanced case of Parkinson’s disease)? Did you think we didn’t hear the constant beeping tone denoting low health, that we needed our sidekick to remind us that we need to find hearts? Did you? Really? Because of all the game’s sins, nothing tops saddling you with a companion so obnoxious that you’ll yearn for the halcyon days of “Look!” and “Listen!” and even Jar Jar Binks seems like a step up.

Apparently Nintendo felt the ambiguously gendered Zoras no longer creeped out players enough.

Apparently Nintendo felt the ambiguously gendered Zoras no longer creeped out players enough.

Link’s companion for Skyward Sword, Fi, grated on my nerves like a a block of soft cheese shoved through a fine mesh made of razor wire. Unlike Navi, who would point out useful objects and locations, the King of Red Lions who gave interesting back story and helpful objectives, and Midna, who gave Link super powers, Fi’s main objective compels her to repeat what other characters have only just finished saying. The Chief of the Kiwkis (a species of testicle-shaped fruit creatures) tells you the other kikwis have wandered off and he needs help finding them? Enter Fi to tell you that you should go look for the kikwis. The water dragon asks you to obtain sacred water to heal her wounds? Fi shows up to tell you that you can heal the dragon’s wounds by finding sacred water. Have you encountered your fiftieth time-shift stone, which you’ve used to solve all the previous desert puzzles? Don’t worry! Fi will explains that you can use time-shift stones to solve *this* puzzle. And notice that I didn’t say “how you can use time-shift stones.” That might actually venture into the realm of useful information. Even when you ask her for hints or for mission objectives, she’ll only paraphrase what another character told you, or give you such vital information as “Find hearts to refill your health” or “Bombs help you blow stuff up!”

I like sword fighting as much as the next guy, but this doesn't quite seem grand enough for a Zelda boss.

I like sword fighting as much as the next guy, but this doesn’t quite seem grand enough for a Zelda boss.

As the spirit of the sword and a creation of the goddess–yes, we apparently have a fourth goddess that no one will ever talk about again–she does serve a role in the plot. Namely, every time Link retrieves the MacGuffin currently in vogue with the latest dungeon, a message from the goddess will awaken in her memory banks. She then zips around the chamber like Tinkerbell on Ice because apparently she can only communicate these messages via interpretive dance. Still, for all it adds to what little story I found, I would have preferred walking up to the altar to find a note pinned to the treasure; “Dear Hero: Fire temple next. Eldin Volcano. Best Wishes. -G.” Oddly enough, though, Fi annoyed me the most when she calculated statistics. “Master, I calculate a 95% probability that this enemy guards the item you seek.” “Master, I calculate a 85% chance that you will need a sword to attack these monsters.” “Master, I calculate a 90% chance that if we go to the next dungeon, the game will progress.” Dear Nintendo, you can’t have a character rattle off probabilities like C-3PO (Yes, I just compared Fi to the two most obnoxious characters in the Star Wars universe) without that 5% chance that she gets it wrong!

This skulltula requires precise physical manipulation to expose and hit its weak point. Fortunately, the controls work so perfectly it almost feels psychic! No motion sensing problems at all!

This skulltula requires precise physical manipulation to expose and hit its weak point. Fortunately, the controls work so perfectly it almost feels psychic! No motion sensing problems at all!

But in other news, we all remember all those hours spent sailing the Great Ocean in the Wind Waker, and how Nintendo took those complaints and doubled down on them, giving us the Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks, each one delivering even more monotonous transportation than the one before. Well, fear not, as Skyward Sword offers an airborne mode of tedious travel. As a resident of Skyloft, Link flies a Crimson Loftwing, a giant bird who soars leisurely through the sky in an attempt to arrive fashionably late. The Wii motion control gives you all the precision and handling as flying a stack of Kleenex through a strong breeze, and any quests or games that require the bird rely more on you getting lucky than getting better.

The overly linear design places obstacle after obstacle in Link’s path, each one requiring something you’ll find somewhere else. None of these fetch quests progress the plot or even make game play interesting. Curiously enough, though, I clocked in at roughly 40 hours by the end, a number quite common for RPGs and adventure games. That and the four hours it took to get to the first dungeon give off a strong vibe of Nintendo having nothing to put in the game. After the first five or six hours of chasing Zelda, I got through the first dungeon and came face-to-face with an honest-to-Nayru “Your princess is in another castle” message. Well, you get honesty points for all but admitting that you have absolutely no new ideas.

Red Steel 2 – Wii

Just call me "The Man With No Name--Clint Yojimbo."

Just call me “The Man With No Name–Clint Yojimbo.”

By a show of hands, how many of you wouldn’t have nurtured your video game addictions if you hadn’t secretly harboured fantasies of picking up a sword and mowing down orcs? Same here. In spite of my deeply ingrained pacifism, I, too, have always yearned for the opportunity to perpetuate fantasy violence and dashing heroics. I suspect a fair number of people at Nintendo share my anti-monster sentiments as well because, well, you tell me; when a console developer decides to control an entire generation’s worth of games by waggling a stick, what else could they have in mind besides sword fighting? Good thing for us, the Nintendo Wii has infallible technology that in no way lets you control games with all the precision of an epileptic break dancer on an electric fence.

Having a black belt in Haedong Kumdo (Korean Kendo), I wanted to see exactly how well I might hold up in a sword fight. After spending a few years waiting for roving bands of samurai to raid Duluth, I decided I might need to step up my game if I wanted to put myself to the test. Fortunately, Google proved slightly more reliable than 21st-century American ronin, and it led me to Red Steel 2, touted as the best game on the Wii for realistic sword motion control. Not as fortunately, it also rooted itself in flashy combo moves and magic attacks, chucking enemies–who have the physical prowess of a bored teenager on barbituates–at you with the urgency and expediency of a government bureaucracy. But the motion controls…yeah. Wicked responsive. And mostly irrelevant.

Thankfully, the Delorean made it safely back to 1985.

Thankfully, the Delorean made it safely back to 1985.

Red Steel 2 feels like Bioshock spent too much time watching Akira Kurosawa films and Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns. Seemingly aware of the connection between the two genres, the game takes place in a steam-punk-ish version of the Wild West, filled with biker gangs and samurai clans. Our not-so-subtly no-named Man-With-No-Name hero (I’ll call him “Clint” for short) begins the game tied to a motorcycle, trying to go for an inner tube ride. Except without the inner tube. Or the water. After his body becomes frictionally acquainted with the majority of the desert, he manages to break free to seek revenge on the man who used him as a human dust mop. As this Ramen-Noodle Western progresses, we learn that Clint possesses the Kusigari clan’s greatest treasure, the last remaining Sora Katana. Furthermore, the game’s antagonist, Shinjiro, in attempts to capture the secrets to forging these katanas, decided to force the Kusigari clan to talk by murdering them all, except, of course, for the notoriously taciturn Clint, who decides that he may as well double up on his revenge missions and hunt down Shinjiro as well.

Ineffective Gun Control Method: If you make guns cost over three years' salary, only millionaires like Dick Cheney can murder people. The only thing that stops a millionaire with a gun is a good guy with a gun.

Ineffective Gun Control Method: If you make guns cost over three years’ salary, only millionaires like Dick Cheney can murder people. The only thing that stops a millionaire with a gun is a good guy with a gun.

Clint begins his mission by entering Caldera, a Rapture-esque town with claustrophobic streets, no residents, houses, or civil amenities of any kind. It does, however, have trash lining the streets, along with enough smashable junk to fill the Sea of Japan. The game functions primarily as a money-collection simulator, faithfully representing the experience of a homeless man rooting through trash. Except in Red Steel 2, every box, barrel, pay phone, crate, table, beer bottle and rocking chair lying about in the streets has about 24 bucks just waiting to pour out at the slightest tap from your sword. Despite the game’s planned battles and a handful of random enemy encounters, I spent most of the game gleefully bullying inanimate objects, threatening them with my sword, shaking them down for their loose change. I did get to spend it here and there, but the game gave me so much of it that I never had to budget, or make a decision between two upgrades on sale. I always seemed to have enough. The game gave me so much money that it became a glaring plot hole, actually. Generally when a community has so much money that they throw it out with the trash, the town won’t have so much a problem with gang warfare as they will with runaway inflation.

Hold the A button and you can block bullets without all the flashy effort of a Jedi knight

Hold the A button and you can block bullets without all the flashy effort of a Jedi knight

Wii motion controls improved significantly on those used in Skyward Sword–a fact made even more impressive by the fact that Red Steel 2 predated the Zelda installment by a year and a half. While the game does have a strong relationship between on-screen action and player motion, saying that it faithfully represents battlefield kendo would, to say the least, misrepresent kendo. It would, to say the most, prepare thousands of players for a short lives as shish kebabs should they ever need to repel an invading shogun. I personally suggest one of two styles for playing the game. First, you can find a two-handed sword to fit the Wii mote into–or as I did, just hold the wii and the nunchuck at about the right distance apart and try not to flap yourself with the cord too often–and wield it as closely as possible to a real katana. The game doesn’t require such wild, flailing motions, but it certainly encourages them, and you might as well have some fun with it. This does, however, invoke one of the biggest annoyances with the Wii controller–the fact that they always seem to combine characters’ view and aiming your weapon with the same motion controls. So when the game recommends a strong wind-up before attacking, I raise the control above my head, then end up slashing menacingly at a distant cloud that could care less about the pissant little cowboy flapping his arms on the ground.

Or you could take the more utilitarian approach to the game, ignore what it tells you to do, and sit sedately on your couch, flicking your wrist gently. Either way won’t make much difference to gameplay, as the enemies shamble about, moving around like trees bending in a strong breeze and attacking you with the same level of confidence I displayed talking to girls my freshman year of high school. You don’t especially need a VATS system to find an opening on these guys.

If you want to kill a ninja, you must fight like a ninja.

If you want to kill a ninja, you must fight like a ninja.

I should also mention that combat mixes sword play with gun fights, but who cares? Except in one or two instances, you don’t need the gun, and when faced with the prospect of wasting ammo in order to point at the screen and press a button, or to save bullets and swing the controller like an Olympic-class dwarf tosser, I nearly always chose the option that made me feel like a ninja. You also learn combo moves as the game progresses, which tend to power you up until you fall into a range of skill somewhere between Goku and God, and I had to actively force myself to use regular sword strikes so as not to finish battles simply by repeating “The Guillotine,” “The Tiger,” or “The Reaper,” the latter of which tends to immediately murder anything not considered “final” enough a boss. The game’s developers, however, apparently didn’t think they had made it easy enough what with the nuclear-powered sword, enemies doped up on ether, and giving you enough money to make Montgomery Burns to kiss up to you. No, they also insist on putting you through an extensive tutorial for every new skill you learn!

Note: carrying your sword like a baseball bat only tends to open up your "strike zone."

Note: carrying your sword like a baseball bat only tends to open up your “strike zone.”

Each time it gives you a skill, the in-game sensei appears. His pedagogical methodology involves playing you a video of a girl white enough that she could pass for Samuel Jackson’s photo negative, who daintily swings her Wii mote until you can reproduce her motions. Then you have to pull off the move, usually twice. Then you’ll have to perform it three times in a row. Then you’ll usually have to do it once more so the game can tell you that you can also use the combo to kill enemies. And you endure these tutorials until the very end of the game.

So I didn’t hate Red Steel 2; in fact, in the right frame of mind I could play it for hours on end. I just don’t think it quite passes for the virtual sword-fighting experience I’ve always waited for. The enemies don’t put up much of a fight, and it couldn’t often keep up with my movements. I’d recommend it as your run-of-the-mill Bioshock-with-a-Sword video game, but I’d still hold out for something a little less gamey and a little more virtual reality-ish. Dear Square Enix: Please remake Bushido Blade for the Wii.

Link’s Crossbow Training – Wii

Walking. How novel!

Walking. How novel!

As one of my earliest memories of watching video games, I remember thinking the bait and the bombs from The Legend of Zelda looked like a toy soldier. I moved mountains to buy my own copy of A Link to the Past, and bought a shoddy old NES from a secondhand store just to try to play The Adventure of Link, which I never had as a kid. I bought an N64 just so I could play Ocarina of Time, and recognized that I’d have to buy a Game Cube solely for Wind Waker. I have used arrows, boomerangs, bombs, bottles, bows, candles, canes, capes, deku leaves, deku shields, deku sticks, gauntlets, giant’s knives, gloves, and on and on through Zora’s flippers and Zora’s scales. And in all the code brought to life as Hyrule, I have never seen Link use a crossbow. I suppose though, if he had any experience in it, he wouldn’t need the training.

A latecomer to the Wii, I picked up Link’s Crossbow Training for 49 cents (43 cents after my Gamestop member discount!). Before playing it, I decided to do it right, so I bought a zapper on eBay for about $8. That ought to make Nintendo feel good. Probably a year’s worth of development and an entire disc full of coding, and people spend 16 times the value of the game on a mostly solid hunk of plastic. Meanwhile, I see someone online trying to sell used Madden games for $10 each, and I think our planet has officially lost touch with the concept of “value.” To top it off, after buying the zapper, I found a bunch of reviews complaining about it. Yes, I believe you when you say ditching the zapper makes the game easier. And I got to level 99 in Duck Hunt once by playing six inches away from the screen–when I should have played it next to an unshaded lamp. I liked the zapper. I couldn’t quite look down the sights because of the Wii’s setup, and I didn’t exactly sneak around my house like James Bond on a stealth mission, but for the sake of virtual realism, it felt like holding a crossbow, and I figured “Why the hell not!!”

Link would make King Edgar proud.

Link would make King Edgar proud.

Anyone who ever swore furiously at the old man who wants to “play money making game” will know that the Zelda franchise has embraced mini-games right from the get-go. Fortunately, they’ve gotten a little less random and a little more fun as time has moved on. Link’s Crossbow Training feels like a mini-game that grew too big for its bottle. With no story of its own, the game utilizes scenes from Twilight Princess, finding excuses for Link to pump all manner of monsters, targets and…gorons wearing targets on their stomachs?…full of lead…tipped arrows. Okay, so the lack of a story kind of excuses the absurdity of friendly races standing confidently as targets without the luxury of cast iron underwear (or so much as a ragged loin cloth). But the crossbow itself, a stylish, well-built fully-automatic number capable of firing 30 rounds per second, really crowns the achievements of this game. After all, not only does it let me indulge my desire to mow down cuccos like a gangster with a tommy gun, but the sheer mechanics of a crossbow working that fast make me think we ought to have Link head up NASA for discovering materials and/or mechanics that work that way.

I...uh...the gorons seem to trust...uh...why would they do this? Do gorons even have groins?

I…uh…the gorons seem to trust…uh…why would they do this? Do gorons even have groins?

The game organizes itself pretty predictably. Each level has three stages. Link usually shoots at targets in the first, fights off enemies coming at him from all sides in the second, and then wanders around a map blasting unsuspecting monsters in the third. They do vary the pace, sometimes letting you hit targets while stationary, or moving like a rail shooter, or chucking skulls into the air like skeet (keep it classy, Link). Near the end, the game introduces bosses, one darknut and the stallord. They both go down rather easily, though, and I finished the final level on my first attempt and with a higher score than any of the other eight levels.

He looks nasty, but flash him your big, twinkly eyes and he melts to big, soft putty in your hands. Then you plant a quarrel in his fuckin' face!

He looks nasty, but flash him your big, twinkly eyes and he melts to big, soft putty in your hands. Then you plant a quarrel in his fuckin’ face!

Each stage lasts roughly a minute or two (insert sex joke of your choice here). Sometimes the wild blasting of monsters gets exciting, and the length of the level feels frustrating when you have a pile of bolts left and several dozens of monsters without quarrels in their foreheads, but when the game sets your target score at 40000 and you get 300, the brevity doesn’t discourage you from replaying the level. However, this also makes the game short, and with a steady arm you could get through it in about two hours, less with prior practice. But hey…49 cents. Otherwise, the only disappointment comes from the cucco, who deducts points from your score when you shoot it. I expected nothing less than a swarm of rabid chickens set out to re-enact Hitchcock movies. But no.

Mario (Galaxy – Wii) vs Wario (Land – Game Boy) – An alternative Prospective

Sorry guys, but I’m taking this week off. Hey, some games just take more than a week to play! Give me some time. Anyway, Anne agreed to take over, and since I don’t share the world’s love of Mario, she came up with a few thoughts on the subject. Enjoy.

I find it difficult to believe that this planet could support an apex predator of this size.

I find it difficult to believe that this planet could support an apex predator of this size.

Some games don’t need a long synopsis to help the player grasp the concept of the game play or the progression of the story. These games tend to change only minimally since the beginning of their series. When someone says they’ve been playing Mega Man you may feel the need to clarify, “classic, X or Zero series?” But regardless of their response, your mind probably fills with images of 8 boss levels of varying themes and everyone’s favorite tiny robotic hero and his blue spandex codpiece. The same goes, if not more so, for the Mario franchise. No, don’t start pulling up your emails to send me an angry rant pointing out Mario RPG’s originality or Mario’s cameo appearance in Mike Tyson’s Punch Out. We both know that the main series has changed only superficially since its 2D NES days.

Dude, he won't take the hint. Just tell him she's on another planet.


Dude, he won’t take the hint. Just tell him she’s on another planet.

So no, I won’t bore you with a long and tedious description of how the story of Mario Galaxy progresses or spend time lavishing praise over the colorful and creative level designs. For those few of you who have taken up hermitage since before the release of the Nintendo Wii and have only just come down off your mountains: Bowser once more kidnaps Princess Peach, this time into space, and Mario, still unable to take a hint, flies off to her rescue. This of course requires him to traverse the corners of the universe in order to save the least protected ruler of all time. He does this through using changes in the physics of the levels to his advantage as well as turning into the requisite Mario franchise creatures; in this case a ghost and a bee.

Princess Peach meets Jessica Rabbit

Princess Peach meets Jessica Rabbit

With that out of the way, we can get to the more important topic; why the hell doesn’t Mario just forget about Peach and take up with Rosalina? Kidding of course. The real question is, are we sure that Mario really is the hero of this franchise? I mean, we all assume that since the basis of the games’ quite limited storyline is always Mario saving the princess that he must therefore be a valiant and selfless figure, but many people on the Internet have theorized that Mario is in fact a rather morally ambiguous figure. To mention only a few examples, he murders helpless goombas who pose no threat to him unless he stupidly walks straight into them of his own free will, and in games like Mario Kart he shows his disdain for even his own brother. For more examples I will point you in the direction of the Game Theorist on YouTube and his Vlog article entitled ‘Why Mario is Mental’.

But that then begs the further consideration that, if Mario is not the hero but rather the villain of the tale then how can he have an evil doppleganger. I am of course speaking of Wario, the apparent anti-hero to mirror Mario’s supposedly altruistic persona. I would like to make the argument that perhaps Wario is, in reality, a hero in his own right and that we have been judging him through the colored lens of our belief in Mario’s goodness, and in that he looks like what we expect a villainous version of our protagonist to look like, cue all the jokes about profiling ever. But consider this, when we first meet Wario he is shown stealing Mario’s castle, which leads everyone’s favorite excrement clearer to start a journey to get it back. Yet, what if Wario was taking over for a good reason; what if, in fact, he really was leading a revolution in order to depose the tyrannical despot that has previously been ruling in order to give less understood creatures like the goomba and koopas a chance to thrive right along side their cuter, yet no more threatening counterparts, the Toads? The revolution is upon us, comrades! The proletariat will rise and shed the mushrooms and question mark blocks of our oppressors!

IdLBwLoI would like to direct your attention to the original Wario Land series for the Gameboy where Wario does the exact same things that Mario does in all of his games; punching baddies, dropping through tubes, and more importantly collecting coins. He does this in order to purchase his own castle. Note: PURCHASE, not steal. Yes, he loots ancient treasures but if we as a society are willing to call Indiana Jones and Lara Croft heroes when they do the same thing, then we might be setting a bit of a double standard by villainizing Wario for that behavior. At the end of the first game he comes upon a young woman who has a genie that she orders to murder him. When this doesn’t work out she disappears, and Wario uses his wish, not to get back at Mario or anyone else who has slighted him–including the would-be murderess–but instead wishes for a castle. The size of the prize is dependent on the amount of money and treasure the player has collected to this point in the game (I’m not admitting that I have rarely gotten above the absolute base hovel in most play-throughs so I don’t want to hear any snicker in the back row. That means you!). This clearly shows the connection of his hard work paying off rather than him being given status based on what brainless royal he is currently dating.

I believe that Wario is not the monster portrayed by Nintendo’s over dramatized story-telling but rather the victim of a vicious smear campaign, perpetrated in order to hide the much more dastardly actions of his counterpart, namely everyone’s golden boy: Mario.

Dear God! He's gone full chia! Abandon planet!

Dear God! He’s gone full chia! Abandon planet!

Also, if you need further proof that Mario isn’t exactly the poster child for positive messages, just think about the underlying themes of Mario Galaxy, if not all of his earlier games. The viewer is expected to believe the Mario just happened to come into town on a star-themed festival day that also just so happened to coincide with the newest abduction attempt of his spiky antagonist and then goes rocketing off into space-sans helmet- in order to save his love interest. In the course of this trip he turns into animals, leaves his physical body to become a spirit, rockets around between a rainbow plethora of psychedelic planets with bizarre and often impossible gravity changes. I would like to present this theory to the reader: Mario is not out saving the damsel in a daring space adventure but rather tripping out on Reindeer Mushrooms that he picked up at the star festival and ingested.

Can you believe the earth looked like this when it first formed?

Can you believe the earth looked like this when it first formed?

First, a science lesson: Amanita muscaria, most known by gamers as the red and white Mario mushroom is, in real life a highly toxic mushroom found all around the world. In addition to its poisonous nature this mushroom also has another fun trick up its sleeve in the form of its ability to cause extreme and prolonged hallucinations. Reindeer that eat them in northern climates have been known to chase and even ram cars while hopped up on the effects of these diminutive fungi.

Doesn’t it then, seem much more likely that after seeing all of the star paraphernalia from the festival, ingests some of the country’s most common cuisine (do we really see any other edible foliage throughout the Mario series?) and spends the afternoon tripping out about the one thing he knows best: saving the princess. He even goes so far as to throw in an even hotter love interest and gives himself the power to ignore the laws of space and time. Now I don’t know about you but that sounds like a psychedelic trip to me.

I leave it to you to make up your mind about the accusations laid before you today but keep in mind, if we keep standing behind this possibly psychopathic drug addict we may have no one else to blame when he names himself the unquestioned tyrannical ruler of all.

Metroid Prime 3: Corruption – Wii

TitleMovie sequels, almost without question, have a quality inversely proportional to the number of films that precede them in the series. Video games, fortunately, routinely buck that trend. However, the literary gymnastics required to pull off a chain of sequels, prequels, inter-quils, alterni-quels and the other host of ploys developers use to desperately milk their cash cows after the udder has long since dried up and broken off has a tendency to some creative game numbering. As if “Final Fantasy II” didn’t epitomize nonsense in titling, the series eventually moved on to things like “Final Fantasy X-2“ and “Final Fantasy XIII-3.“ Having recently finished Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, which comes sequentially after Assassin’s Creed II but still two games before Assassin’s Creed III, I often have to throw aside any suspension of disbelief that these people can title a game more meaningfully than Mary Poppins song lyrics. Probably the prime example of this comes from the Metroid games. This week I’ll talk about Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, the tenth game in the series which takes place as the fifth or sixth game chronologically (depending on how you interpret the original and Zero Mission), and fourth in the Metroid Prime trilogy. Wrap your head around that while watching the Lion King 1&1/2.

Explain how a monster that, in 8 bits, looked like a demon child with down syndrome turns into a creature that Samus can only smite Gandalf-style.

Explain how a monster that, in 8 bits, looked like a demon child with down syndrome turns into a creature that Samus can only smite Gandalf-style.

Corruption immediately stands out as different from the rest of the series by having cut scenes (although disclaimer: I haven’t played Echoes yet), thus trying to have some semblance of storyline other than shreds of information given in instruction manuals and plastered on Metroid Wiki pages. The story begins, as usual, on a space station that will shortly swarm with space pirates. Samus, with the help of her bounty hunter friends, fight back. Recurring dragon-pterodactyl Ridley shows up, challenging Samus to a Balrog-style duel as the two of them plunge indefinitely into a dark yawning chasm. Just as Samus and Team come close to saving the day, Dark Samus shows up and infects them with large amounts of phazon.  A month later, Samus wakes up, and rather than receiving the proper medical care due to a combat veteran coming out of a 30-day coma, the Galactic Federation forces tell her they’ve harnessed the phazon in her body for use in battle, and oh, by the way, wouldn’t she kindly go and hunt down the other bounty hunters who may have gone insane from the effects of phazon?

Samus's posse. She gets a posse in this game.

Samus’s posse. She gets a posse in this game.

Unfortunately, while I generally prefer detailed story lines in games over all else (to the point where I have played Xenosaga Episode I several times), it doesn’t fit Metroid. At least, not the way they did it. Rather than playing as the super-awesome solo bounty hunter single-handedly fighting her way through planet Zebes, Corruption portrays a Galactic Federation Military who must have exclusively recruited from the ranks of the Gotham City Police Department. Each new transmission relays an objective that would convey less risk if Samus had, say, a highly trained team of space soldiers to aid her, but for some reason, they all want her to do this herself. Trying to portray her as a silent protagonist, she comes off not just a little festering and resentful.

Upon starting the game, the player will first notice the nausea. While generally I don’t get sick playing first-person games, the notoriously precise Wii controller has a habit of zipping the view around unexpectedly, or losing contact with the sensor and leave Samus twirling in circles. Fortunately, I adjusted to this after about two hours of playing, but the first-person perspective may not always provide the most realistic game experience. Judging from the exploration aspects that the original games shared with the Legend of Zelda, one might think that a 3rd-person over-the-shoulder view would work as well for Samus as for Link (They picked that perspective for Ocarina of Time, apparently because they thought players would want to see a cool character like Link. I guess Samus probably also gets paid 70% of what the male video game heroes make as well…) Still, that brings up another issue I had with the game–the decreased focus on adventuring and exploration.

Not many games give you the option of ripping the life right out of your enemies. This one does.

Not many games give you the option of ripping the life right out of your enemies. This one does.

The first Prime game takes place immediately after the original Metroid. So it makes sense that Samus has her high-jump boots and morph ball and missiles (even if it doesn’t make sense that she has the grapple beam, space jump, and plasma cannon). However, early-game disaster naturally strips her of all the weapons, armor, and bonuses in order that she can start over again, making for a cliched story, but a satisfying game. In Corruption, that doesn’t happen. She begins with the morph ball, bombs, space jump, and a form of the grapple beam, and just keeps them. This sends Metroid on a trend like the Legend of Zelda. Items in both series originally helped characters reach new areas, fight enemies easier, and improved movement. Once activated, the player could use them creatively at any point on the map. Now, items have much less pizazz. They have specific uses, interacting with easily-identified objects in the environment, and only have a worthwhile use at those spots. It makes new items much less exciting to gain, and raises questions about why so much of the galaxy’s architecture favors inhabitants with morph balls and bombs at their disposal.  Can everyone morph? If so, why don’t we see anyone else do it? Why can’t we find store fronts filled with morph balls?

Oh, hell no! Platforming...my arch-nemsis.

Oh, hell no! Platforming…my arch-nemsis.

The game borrows the central hub idea from Metroid Fusion, except that you travel to different planets to reach new areas, and while in Fusion you began to discover that each sector of the ship connected with the others, you can’t get that unfolding sense of lost-in-a-labyrinth horror you get from the atmosphere of the 2-D games. (Taking into account the series connection with the “Alien” movies, introducing non-aggressive characters also takes away from the sense of loneliness). And of course, the super-detailed environment, while graphically impressive, sometimes feels like playing in a magic eye picture, forcing you to stare at it for hours before seeing the supposedly simple tasks the designers wanted you to notice. They offer you a map, but the 3-D stylized blocks they give you works about as well as solving a rubik’s cube blindfolded. Twisting, zooming and panning through it reveals nothing more than a sense of throbbing astigmatism.

I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t like the game, though. In fact, I thought the Wii controls drastically improved the Prime series, and (for a while at least) I got no small amount of pleasure from ripping the fixtures off of walls with my grapple beam. Boss battles became a little repetitive in this area, though, as most of them require shooting at obnoxious, fast moving targets in order to reveal a weak spot that would stun the boss long enough to rip off a segment of armor so you could switch into hyper mode in order to actually deal damage.  Hyper mode–attainable because of Samus’ phazon infection–added nice features to the game, allowing overpowered blasting, shooting, and electrocuting when whittling enemies down with the charge beam got too boring, and unlike other games’ super modes, you can switch into it at any time (at the cost of some life energy), rather than just when you fill up a gauge or collect enough items or take enough damage–in most games, this usually happens just after I finish a boss or other section where such a bonus would actually benefit me.

Other than your ship, the game gives you about one save station per planet. Prepare yourself to lose hours of progress.

Other than your ship, the game gives you about one save station per planet. Prepare yourself to lose hours of progress.

Metroid Prime 3: Corruption can’t really compete with the 2-D Metroid games, especially Super Metroid, Metroid Fusion, and the original, but it does offer some satisfying aspects, and offers a nice challenge without sending you scrambling for a walkthrough every other room. Still, I may write to Nintendo and demand back all the hours of my life wasted from stupid deaths because they only give me one save station per planet.

The Last Story – Wii

Last Title

Between planning lessons for school and writing about every game I play, I’ve begun to suspect that I may not actually have something to say about certain things. Certainly the terrible games like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde let me spout elegant prose as rapidly as I spout an elegant stream of profanity while playing the game, and of course the excellent books, once again like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, lend themselves to interesting discussions of the pointlessly abstract. But honestly, some things just don’t have much worth mentioning. I’ve always intended to write about Burger Time, for instance, but while concepts of a short order cook trampling food like a grape stamper running around in flagrant defiance of health codes conjures up a delicious opportunity for ringworm jokes, it doesn’t really have much substance to it to write any more than that.

Despite the hurdles, however, I now turn your attention to The Last Story, a game so generic that even its developers decided to fill it up halfway with as many fantasy RPG tropes as they could list off in an afternoon, at which point they called it good and went home before the rancid filth of blandness they created could swell up, devour any remnants of artistic integrity still sucking meager nutrients from their soul, and chain them up and whip them until they produced a line of unwanted sequels. They did, at least, learn to avoid the fate of the Final Fantasy XIII team.

You know, I find it amazing how this in no way resembles the octopus battle from Final Fantasy IV.

You know, I find it amazing how this in no way resembles the octopus battle from Final Fantasy IV.

The not-so-subtle Final Fantasy nods in the game indicate the developers intended to take the throne that the giant RPG Series sucked into the void with the last few attempts at reinventing themselves. Obviously the synonymous titles give off a familiar vibe, jabbing our eyes, demanding attention like a Twilight book cover slapped on Wuthering Heights. The game weaves personal, political, and worldwide existential crises together, has a similar art style and logo as Final Fantasy, and even shares a few minor similarities such as series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi and composer Nobuo Uematsu.

I find it amazing how this in no way resembles a fuzzy-headed Gannondorf

I find it amazing how this in no way resembles a fuzzy-headed Gannondorf

Unfortunately, the legendary developers and beloved Fantasy elements don’t seem to push this game forward so much as drag it with the oomph of a golf cart pulling a dead horse.  The game opens with the obligatory action scene. The player takes control of Dagran, a young mercenary who we very quickly learn will act only as a supporting character when, after one battle, control switches to the real protagonist, Zael. As Reptar-themed monsters pour out of the camera’s blind spots, Zael hacks endlessly at them with a Buster-Sword-sized weapon. After a few hours of spamming the A button, I realized that the game hacks automatically, with no need to input attack commands. This made sense in Final Fantasy XII; actually, it seems a bit embarrassing that it took Sakaguchi eleven main-series games before he realized how often we used it. But at least in Final Fantasy, we had the option of programming the characters’ behavior. Yeah, it took the need to thoughtlessly mash buttons–a technique perfect by Shadow Hearts–away from us, but we never lost control, nor did we sacrifice options for battle strategy. Zael, on the other hand, when he receives the “Supernatural Aid” portion of his hero’s journey, claims the Power of the Outsider, which allows him the ability…to do something else in battle besides hack with a sword.

This move requires you to target an area on the ground as you run up the side of a wall. Both actions use the joystick. I didn't use this often.

This move requires you to target an area on the ground as you run up the side of a wall. Both actions use the joystick. I didn’t use this often.

His first new skill allows him to resurrect fallen semi-playable characters while simultaneously tempting all the enemies to hunt him down as their main target. Now you may ask what good will come from drawing all the monsters toward the person you want to revive, but I can say with confidence that Zael’s uncontrollable need to relentlessly slash everything within a two meter radius will keep your companions safely dead until you finally wrestle with the controls enough to get away from the battle. Another skill, the ambush slash, only really works going into a battle, as it requires Zael to hide. A third ability lets him attack friendly magic spells for additional effects. I had some more abilities, but like many other RPGs, the basic attack option works best, and in the Last Story it has the added bonus of not demanding surgical dexterity to perform.

Zael putting the moves on Callista, showing her how to look at things like he can.

Zael putting the moves on Callista, showing her how to look at things like he can.

Zael lives to underwhelm. In addition to a handful of battle options, he can fire arrows from a crossbow that the enemies almost feel, and outside of battle he frequently assumes the task of… looking around the environment…for stuff. The game offers roughly 25 to 30 hours of play, which somehow still feels padded, despite its clear disdain for side quests. On an early mission Zael must go to the other side of town to get beer. And if he gets beer, he has to go get more beer. As it turns out, the game expects the player to notice things on the way and get distracted in order to further the story. The lack of direction given the player also serves no end except to pad out a short game to a minimum acceptable length. At regular intervals, the player takes control of Zael, usually as he sits in bed, and proceeds to walk around until something happens. The world doesn’t extend beyond a castle and a town, so chances are it won’t take long before you stumble into the area that triggers the cut scene, but I would appreciate maybe a hint or an arrow now and then.

The best suggested strategies in this game more often than not fall terribly short of the standard run-in-waving-your-sword-at-anything-that-moves technique.

The best suggested strategies in this game more often than not fall terribly short of the standard run-in-waving-your-sword-at-anything-that-moves technique.

I did enjoy the story. Tropes become tropes for a reason, and I saw a lot of what I like in the fantasy genre in this story. Unfortunately, the designers didn’t add any ideas to the story–except, apparently, a blues harmonica player–so I could predict twists and turns in the plot most of the time. They clearly intended the identity of the final boss to shock the player, but when the ally who had acted suspicious through the whole game suddenly failed to join the party during the final dungeon, I didn’t exactly lose my breath; I’d wager that more Superman fans would have trouble identifying Clark Kent. Also, while the length of the game makes it possible to play an RPG without asking time off from work, it also detracts from developing any of the characters enough to have their actions make sense.

From what I gather, they announced “The Last Story 2“ a while back, but only as an April Fool’s joke. I would have liked to see improvements on the game; it has potential, even if can’t deliver in the first instalment. Besides, I hated Final Fantasy XIII enough that I want other series to succeed, but I may have to wait a little longer.

The game doesn't offer much in the way of armor variety, but it allows you to change the color. I usually went with the "invisible" dye.

The game doesn’t offer much in the way of armor variety, but it allows you to change the color. I usually went with the “invisible” dye.

Coming up soon: Minecraft, and Dragon Quest IV–if I can pry myself away from Minecraft long enough to play it.

Zombies Ate My Neighbors! – SNES, Sega Genesis, Virtual Console

ZAMNTitleNaturally, when people find something they like, they tend to want more.  Lately it seems that America just can’t get enough of zombies. Apparently they can’t find nearly enough stories about the living dead as they’d like. After all, what can you do when Hollywood limits stories to: White Zombie, Revolt of the Zombies, Revenge of the Zombies, Teenage Zombies, Zombies of the Stratosphere, Night of the Living Dead (1968), Night of the Living Dead (1990), Dawn of the Dead (1978), Dawn of the Dead (2004), Shaun of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, The Evil Dead, Evil Dead II,The Re-Animator, Zombie vs Ninja, Redneck Zombies, Scooby Doo on Zombie Island, 28 Days Later, Hellsing, World War Z, Resident Evil and the Walking Dead.

In such a generic dearth, one may have to turn to literature, such as: The Zombie Survival Guide , Herbert West: Re-Animator, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls, Warm Bodies, Undead, The Dead, The Dead of Night, The Living Dead,  Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After, Dead@17, Shaun of the Dead, World War Z, the Resident Evil novelizations, and the Walking Dead.

And when you run out of those, unfortunately, zombie video games don’t offer much more than: The Last of Us, Survivor FPS, Amy, Lollipop Chainsaw, ZombiU, Dead Block, Dead Island, No More Room in Hell, Yakuza: Dead Souls, Call of Duty: Black Ops: Zombies, Dead Nation, Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare, Zombie Panic in Wonderland, (the aptly named) I Made A Game With Zombies In It, Minecraft, Plants vs Zombies, Plants vs Zombies: It’s About Time, Zombie Apocalypse, Dead Space, Left 4 Dead, Resident Evil (1 through Six, Zero, Code Veronica, the Umbrella Chronicles, and Outbreak)…and the Walking Dead.

And if you blow through all those, I left off literally hundreds of titles listed on Wikipedia.

Zombie media has worn out its novelty. However, people haven’t quite figured this out yet. Every time a book, movie, TV show or game pops up with “Zombie” or “Dead” in the title, people flock to stores with no realization of how frequently artists use zombies to criticize mass consumerism.  Given the situation, I face a challenge in talking about “Zombies Ate My Neighbors,” a run-and-gun action/horror game from 1993: namely, no one cares about zombies anymore.

"Oh, is that hair gel?"

“Oh, is that hair gel?”

The title, however, might confuse people. Rather than a description of the challenges facing the player, it broadcasts the game’s sense of humor which parodies famous horror films prior to the sixties. The game has a simple design; you select either the girl character, Julie, or the 3D-glasses-sporting, Vegeta-haired boy, Zeke. After loading a squirt gun–presumably with a combination of Holy Water, WD-40 and sulfuric acid–the chosen avatar begins a mad dash through a top-down view of suburbia, trying to prevent–you guessed it–zombies from eating your neighbors. Initially, you have ten people to save per level, but since they have a tendency to stand by obliviously as werewolves knead their intestines like a ball of dough, this number drops rather quickly. If a victim dies, you begin with one less neighbor to rescue in the next level.

Ever wonder what they keep in the back room at the grocery store?

Ever wonder what they keep in the back room at the grocery store?

Zombies, rather than the focus of the game, serve more of a basic enemy goomba-type role, cheap, limitless fodder to throw at you whenever the game feels obligated to give you an enemy, but doesn’t want to put too much effort into it. After the first few levels, a whole slew of mummies, pod people, Chucky dolls, chainsaw maniacs, Martians, giant ants and more crawl out of the woodworks to grab a tasty mouthful of soylent suburbia.  The developer, Lucas Arts, clearly put some thought into this, which elevates Zombies Ate My Neighbors above most of the zombie books, films and games I listed at the beginning of this article. The game assumes familiarity with classic horror, then uses that as a foundation for parody. Each level sports an introduction with humorous titles such as, “Evening of the Undead,” “Dances With Werewolves,” “Where the Red Fern Growls,” “The Day the Earth Ran Away,” and more, with many sequel levels which proclaim themselves as “More Shocking” or “More Terrifying” than the one before it.

Even the music looks back to classic films, with tense ostinato tones reminiscent of the Twilight Zone theme, combined with a theremin melody inspired (much like Danny Elfman’s score to “Mars Attacks”) by Bernard Herrmann’s score for “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”

ZAMN provides an early example of a classic video game trope: using random every day objects as weapons. You start out with a squirt gun and pick up some logical weapons like a bazooka and a weed whacker, and certain objects like crosses make sense, but you also chuck a fair share of soda cans, plates, footballs, silverware (for werewolves), tomatoes and popsicles at the hoard of beasties.  While it amuses me to no end envisioning what might happen if you fought a mugger by conking him with a popsicle, I have to side step that amusement for a word about combat.

ZAMN1
If I had any criticism for the game, it would stem from the combat system. You start with a finite amount of ammo and have to pick up more as you go along, and unlike the survival horror genre, you can’t usually just run away from fights. The zombies must have recently feasted on the Wicked Witch of the West because they explode at the slightest touch of water, but most enemies have significantly more health.  In addition, the game only sometimes lets you know that your chosen weapon has any effect on the monsters at all–bosses blur out-of-focus briefly, and some enemies flash, but only a few and not with every weapon. While discovering halfway through the game that yes, in fact, the squirt gun does harm mummies and giant ants may have only inconvenienced me slightly, I did from time to time realize I had spent the last thirty seconds launching ammo just slightly to one side of a monster, like I wanted to kill an even worse monster standing behind it to gain this monster’s trust back.  Unfortunately, to add to this, several monsters flit around like humming birds, making them hard to hit, and so I’d find myself tossing away my weapons supply as though it would give me cancer. ZAMN.3Enemies in general, but bosses more than others, have a little too much life, and I found certain key fights dragged on to the point of boredom. Snakeoids, a recurring boss seemingly based on the graboids from the movie “Tremors,” often found themselves the victims of long strings of verbal abuse. Not only did they need a sturdier pounding than Rasputin before they died, but they could only take damage for brief moments when they surfaced to attack. Sometimes they’d surface at reasonable intervals, and on a few occasions I got them to glitch out and surface repeatedly, but most often I’d just stand for minutes on end like a donut tempting them to ruin their diets while they ran circles around me, deciding whether they should eat me or not. ZAMN3They offset the NES-level of difficulty slightly by offering a password system. By entering a four-letter password, you can start near the last level played with none of the weapons except the squirt gun, one health kit, and the exact number of neighbors you had left. The fact that the game only has memory for neighbors actually doesn’t make the game as difficult as it would seem–fewer neighbors to rescue means less time spent in each level, and while you may not pick up as many items that way, you’ll take less damage and last longer. Still, if you lose all your neighbors, you lose the game. Furthermore, the game rations out passwords once every few levels like it might run out, so you may find yourself repeated a lot of stages that you already know you can beat.

But mostly this nice little gem of a game, now twenty years old, still finds ways to entertain, not just with gameplay, but also by tapping into timeless horror icons, much like the original Castlevania did. And even those who might not have a library of silver-screen films or the knowledge of trivia to make the connections can still appreciate the light-hearted horror humor presented in Zombies Ate My Neighbors.

Maybe we can look back to some extant pieces of the zombie canon and move on to the next big monster fad…I don’t know…werewolves or something. We have enough already to keep us entertained for a long time without getting bored. We don’t need to see any new, terrible zombie films. It’s a good thing Zombies Ate My Neighbors never sunk that low.

Oh wait…