Tuesday, March 24, 2009

'Madworld' Musings

With the release of Madworld on Wii this month, I find myself overjoyed to own the console for the first time in almost a year. Here it is, a visually rich and daring console game, its stark black and white imagery is as sleek and sexy as that of graphic novels like Sin City or Lone Wolf and Cub. The game is also imbued with the powerful legacy of Viewtiful Joe and Okami, two juggernauts in the hardcore gaming community who make regular appearances in arguments for games as Art. There was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to support this game and I’m glad to say that I feel well rewarded for it.


Madworld creates a virtual world that is clearly derived from sources in the realms of comics and movies, but at the same time fills that world with wildly imaginative and original ideas. There’s an abundance of ninjas, zombies, and robots (the trifecta of nerd gold), all rendered with incredible style and unencumbered enthusiasm. A number of similarly simple tropes, like castles and post-apocalyptic city streets, feel fresh and exciting in three-dimensional black and white. There’s a surprisingly compelling story that takes place within this world as well; a Running-Man inspired tale of man who must kill with spectacular violence in order to go on in ‘the game.’


Madworld’s main character, Jack, uses his chainsaw arm, street signs, and any old object he can get his hands on to brutally dismember, impale, and bludgeon his opponents. On top of this there’s a colorfully profane audio commentary, graced by fine comedians from “Whose Line is it Anyway,” which ensured that I never forgot I was playing an M rated game. I think that the stand out line for me was when one of the commentators/comedians said “The real question is whether she spits or swallows.” I shit you not.


Overall there was plenty of solid brawling and memorable boss battles, which are difficult to talk about without spoiling them.


Ironically, Madworld is hindered by the one of the same aspects that sets it apart, its presence on the Wii. The Wii controls work, but they don’t add anything. The camera is simply terrible. The Wii has no second analog stick with which one would typically control the camera, so you’re reduced solely to re-centering the camera at your back, which is hardly helpful especially during boss fights; often I was blindly running towards the camera and that occasionally cost me my life. There’s also no block option, so the remaining defensive option is to dodge, which is done by ‘waggling’ the Wii’s left controller, the nunchuck. During boss battles in particular, I found myself waving my left arm like I was having a seizure. The bottom line: the game was frustrating enough that I swore, not as much as the commentators, but enough that I’m embarrassed about it.


I expect that Madworld will become a cult classic and it deserves a strong following, because in truth it’s easier to forgive a few technical flaws when the overall presentation is so polished, and the experience itself is so unusual. Madworld is a gift, and I was happy to receive it.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

What I'm Playing

Coming out of the first Christmas in as much as ten years where I did not receive an unbelievable stack of games, I found myself to be surprisingly content. After all, I still had games like LittleBigPlanet and Resistance 2, which offer an almost infinite amount of entertainment coming from their online options. However, a couple rashes of sales and new PSN releases have given me a pile of great titles to play. Here’s what I’m playing now, along with some brief thoughts about each:

Magic Ball (PSN)

Back in the days of the Playstation2 and Xbox, puzzle games, and especially multiplayer puzzle games, were few and far between. For Sarah and me, those consoles are to a certain extent defined by Bust-a-Move, Katamari Damacy, and Lumines. We played these games and only these games together, so I eventually began to feel burnt out on each.

Magic Ball is the first new 2-player puzzle game I’ve seen in a while. It’s essentially an update of the classic brick-breaking games of old, Breakout and Arkanoid, where you use your pong-style paddle to bounce a ball into blocks, which disappear upon being struck. Magic Ball’s innovation lies in replacing the old abstract blocks with cartoonish objects and physics-based reactions; instead of breaking various colored bricks, you’re confronted with three dimensional scenes, like pirates stranded on a desert island, surrounded by circling sharks. There are some flaws – the angled perspective of the game can cause your ball to disappear from view and the physics can lead to less predictable bounces compared to the strict geometry of the classic versions. However, the game’s unpredictable nature is often a great asset, and the scenes are always interesting and colorful.

Sarah and I have been playing the cooperative version (there is a competitive mode as well), in which we share the space at the bottom. This leads us to coordinate; as levels have grown more difficult, we often fire only one ball and focus all our efforts on keeping it in play. At the same time, we try to grab the best power-ups while avoiding the worst. We’ve often shouted “Watch out for ‘small balls!’” which is just plain hilarious.

We’re close to finishing the whole set of 50 levels, but the promise of more downloadable levels has me hoping this will become an enduring game for us.


Honestly, I might not have ordered BioShock if I hadn’t found it on sale. It was almost unanimously considered 2007’s game of the year, but it arrived on the PS3 so late that my enthusiasm had waned. The game has been much discussed and analyzed, so I’ll just briefly say that I love it. The art design is utterly fantastic. My only complaint is that textures load noticeably if you re-load from a save point; this may be a flaw in porting the game to the PS3, but it may also be exacerbated by my compulsion to load my last save rather than respawn after dying.

Dead Space

When I was a kid I used to watch and re-watch the Alien movies with the same dedication and fascination most kids reserved for Star Wars. Dead Space has offered the same style of haunting space adventure, complete with psychologically disturbing creatures. As a result, I’ve been aching to play this game despite the fact that it hasn’t received top review scores. I’ve only played a little bit, but so far it has a great sense of atmosphere, interesting puzzles, and solid gunplay.

Burnout: Paradise

I spent a brief amount of time playing this game last night as well. It’s gorgeous, which is almost imperative for racing games these days. I also really like the open-world design. My concern had been that I’d wander around aimlessly, but there are new races at every corner. This provides a great innovation over the ‘repeat and memorize’ formula of pretty much every other racing game in history. I lost one race, and then simply started a different one.

Some of my, completely personal, favorite gaming moments in 2008

January is always a time to debate which games were the best of the best in the previous year. I thought I’d take a more personal approach, and list some of my favorite experiences that I had while gaming in 2008. So without further ado…

Some of my favorite gaming moments in 2008:

Endless Ocean is all about looking, and even though the game isn’t in HD, my jaw still dropped when I finally got to see the bottom of the deepest, darkest abyss. Swimming deeper and deeper, the light faded away. All I had was my flashlight, the rhythmic sound of my breathing, and my personal soundtrack – Air’s Pocket Symphony. There was a moment of absolute darkness and then a glimmer of light appeared – revealing a bizarre, alien looking fish, glowing red and blue. When I finally saw ground, there was a giant whale carcass, bones jutting upwards while crabs crawled all over it.

There was a day that I stayed home sick and spent the entirety of the day playing Advance Wars: Dawn of Ruin on the DS. Being sick never felt so good.

I finally got my PS3 in June; my way of stimulating the economy. I impatiently waited for my special edition to arrive at work, and lugged it home. It was certainly a big moment, opening the box and unwrapping the shiny new console, complete with MGS4, while my fiancé, Sarah, rolled her eyes in the background.

When Sarah’s cousin, Josh, came to visit, GTAIV was hot off the presses, or at least still warm off the presses. I suspect Josh had never played GTA at all before. I’ll never forget the sound of him laughing maniacally as he ran over pedestrians; no one was safe from his mini-van of doom.

I finished MGS4 on a brilliant summer afternoon when I got off work early. It was clear that Snake had become an utter badass by the end, when I was unloading round after round from the grenade launcher, killing unending waves of robots, and racking up millions of points.

There was a time when my younger brother, Tim, played many more games than I, but now that he has a toddler and a newborn, he’s busy as hell. Tim came to visit in the early fall and we stayed up late playing Warhawk online. He got the hang of it pretty quick. At one point we thundered into an enemy base together, him driving a jeep while I manned the gun on back. We were taking out guys left and right. He hopped out, grabbed the flag, and got us back out in a flash. I left a wake of heavy machine gun fire as we sprinted to victory, yelling the whole way.

PixelJunk Monsters didn’t seem like a game I’d get hooked on, but on the first night I stayed up until 2 a.m. rescuing my little villagers and listening to the soothing soundtrack.

I picked up The Darkness cheap, with not very high expectations, so I was pleasantly surprised by how rich the experience was. There’s a moment early on where you sit on the couch and watch a black and white movie with your girlfriend. The whole scene unfolds in first person, making it feel completely immersive; an eerie out-of-body experience to have while sitting on my own, real-life couch.

LittleBigPlanet kept getting delayed and delayed, only to finally be released on a Saturday while I was driving to Baltimore. I didn’t get it until the following Monday, while I was still exhausted and unshaven from the 12 hour drive. My dad was visiting at that point, and amazingly played through the first third of the story levels with me.

Resistance 2 had some huge bosses, but the moment that stood out to me was when I was suddenly chased by a swarm of tiny aliens, which simultaneously behaved as one giant beast.

Just when I thought the whole year was wrapped up, and there were no more exciting releases, Lumines: Supernova came out on the PSN. It’s a favorite for Sarah and I, so I downloaded it immediately. We battled it out in the competitive mode on Christmas day. We’re each so evenly matched now that it has become almost more about endurance, but still plenty of fun.

It’s funny how, looking back, most of my favorite moments involved playing game with a person. I did have lots of fun on my own, playing through games like Heavenly Sword, Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword, and Lost Winds, even if they didn’t really have one moment that stood out. I’ve also already had great experiences with games this year, so 2009 has had a great start!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


When Cuboid was released last week on the Playstation Network I was a bit pessimistic. Aside from seemingly coming out of nowhere, the game doesn’t have a visual style that’s as strong as titles like Lumines. Despite the lack of sex appeal and seizure-inducing eye candy, Cuboid is a brilliant puzzle game based on a simple mechanic.

You’re tasked with pushing an oblong block through a grid-based maze. The block is essentially two cubes put together, so as you push it the block will alternate between standing on its end and laying flat. At the end of the maze you must be able to stand your block on end in order to fall into the goal. This means that the true dilemma these mazes offer isn’t so much figuring out which way you need to go, but rather how you can orient yourself to traverse the path and be able to actually get into the final goal. If that didn’t sound mind-boggling enough, subsequent puzzles also throw a variety of trigger-buttons at you, some of which must be pressed by standing up, while others will disable pathways if you are unfortunate enough to touch them.

At the moment, I’m stuck on one of the last puzzles in the game. I keep staring at it and thinking that there is no possible solution; it’s impossible to do what the game is asking. But since I said the same thing during the last level, I know it’s not true. Cuboid is utterly diabolical. It’s not a game that encourages creative thinking; more often than not there is one definitive solution. To some, that may be a flaw, but the game is fiendishly clever, and makes me feel all the more so for figuring it out.  

Friday, January 9, 2009

3-D: The next big thing?

Sony is pushing 3-D as the next big thing, and let’s just assume for a moment that everyone is going to turn around and say that it actually works. I haven’t experienced this new evolution of 3-D entertainment myself, and no amount of screenshots or video can relay it, but that’s exactly what’s so interesting.

On the surface, 3-D technology seems to be aimed at the same sort of evolution between standard definition and high definition; your TV is just going to produce things that look more real. Yet I can’t help but feel like there is an event I’m missing. I think that’s why 3-D movies are selling so many tickets these days.

Going to the movies used to be an overwhelming experience. A few years ago, when I lived in Lafayette Indiana, I did some research on their defunct small town theater. This was a single screen theater that, like many of its brethren, died when big megaplexes came along. Some decades ago, the Lafayette theater was the first to bring moving picture to this small town. People lined up around the block, dressed in their finest Sunday clothes, to see Errol Flynn in Four’s a Crowd. I don’t think many people cared what the movie was about, it was cool enough that it was a movie.

Rosalind Russell, as a fast-thinking newspaper reporter, co-stars with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland in the romantic comedy Four's a Crowd (1938).

Seeing movies is completely common now, and I don’t expect that anything could possibly change that. What’s interesting here is the idea of flipping things around, and making a home entertainment experience one that “you have to see yourself.”

Another example: Years ago baseball started being broadcasted on TV, and this worried a lot of people; they expected ticket sales to drop down. The surprise was that ticket sales actually went up. Showing baseball on TV expanded the audience, sure, but people who could easily watch a game on TV were willing to pay a premium for the privilege to see a game first hand. The experience of sitting in a stadium became even more valuable. These days it’s a real task to get tickets to sporting events, especially my home-town favorites, the Cubs.

Right now, the only way to experience the new generation of 3-D entertainment is to hoof it to CES. I’m wondering what will happen when that experience comes to people’s living rooms. People love HD, but few will hoof it to my apartment just to see things in hi-res.

And what happens to those theaters, the ones who thought they finally had something people just couldn’t replicate at home? Are theaters going to have to push for bigger Imax screens and more 3-D until they just can’t afford to produce the spectacle, or is it enough that they get films six months before you can watch them at home?

Then again, perhaps we’ll see nothing but shrugged shoulders and disappointment in the 3-D revolution. Either way, I’m curious to see what happens.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Why I still read magazines – in print.

I am terribly saddened about the end of EGM magazine and the many layoffs at 1up. Like so many others, I listened to their podcasts religiously and the appearance of each new issue of EGM in my mailbox always brought a smile to my face. It is terrible to see tough times fall on anyone.

I am very happy to see at least a few of the fine folks who recently lost their jobs persevering on Eat-Sleep-Game.com with their new podcast, Rebel FM. It is bizarre to try and think of 1up as a web-only news source along the lines of IGN, but I’m glad to see the survivors of the layoff persevering as well. It’s going to be interesting to see what everyone does next.

Because I know this is the one thing that is gone for good, I can’t help but think about EGM magazine. Print media has been in danger for some time now, so I suppose we all should have seen it coming. There are obvious hurdles for magazines and newspapers these days, particularly related to printing costs and slow speed of information. A website can really run circles around any words on paper, plain and simple.

There are also special foibles for videogames magazines. Sometimes I read a preview and think: “Did you seriously just write an article about watching a clip on the web?” It’s silly to describe video to people who can’t see it. There are also times, particularly for big titles, when I’ve already read the review on the website. These wouldn’t be dilemmas if everyone went web-only.

I can picture a world without newspapers on doorsteps and magazines in mailboxes. I know a lot of people who would be excited; it would be good for the environment if we stopped using paper and it does sound futuristic to read everything on brightly lit LCD displays. But I like getting news in the mail. I like seeing things in print. I read newspapers and magazines, and I have to ask myself: Why?

For me, it is still incredibly convenient to have someone else compile the news and set it in my lap. Every day I read the newspaper with lunch. I know that I could get up to the minute, no – up to the second news on the internet, but I like to read the paper with my meal. I never worry that I am missing anything because I know I’ll read it again tomorrow. The same has been true for my many gaming magazine subscriptions; I know I could hunt down all of the news out there each month, but why bother when I can have it neatly bound? I usually have a rotation of magazines, EGM, GameInformer, and Nintendo Power, which arrive throughout the month. I read them over breakfast.

Here’s another thing: I spend most of my day in front of a computer, I don’t need to spend any more time reading a screen. It would be depressing to watch my laptop grow into an external organ. And if that sounds crazy, hey, you’ll burn your eyes out!

Print media is portable; it goes wherever I want and it requires no electricity. How’s that for eco-friendly? Can you recycle a kilowatt of used up power or a pile of old monitors? Can you read your iphone while a plane takes off? Would you want to read your iphone at the beach? I like to take my magazines with me on the road. I like that they don’t require power.

That might all sound funny coming from a guy whose hobby is on the cutting edge of technology, but I guess I like to mix the old and the new. And I guess I’ll be doing that tomorrow when I bring my laptop to the breakfast table; oatmeal and game videos. Oh, and hopefully I won’t forget to renew my subscriptions to my other favorite game magazines, while they still exist… 

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Fallout 3

The holidays are finally over so it’s back to the normal routine, but not without a few new games to dive into during those precious spare hours.

My wishlist was pretty long this year. All in all, there are so many different but great games out there: Deadspace, Fallout 3, and Mirror’s Edge are chief among them. I picked up Fallout 3 in an after-Christmas sale at Target. It seems quite appropriate that I got a post-apocalyptic game at a recession-inspired sale.

I knew that I’d like Fallout 3, but as it turns out I love Fallout 3. At first it feels very much like Oblivion. I found myself saving after every encounter and fighting while running backwards. But the V.A.T.S. system in Fallout 3 is incredible and the switch from swords to guns makes a huge difference. I don’t know if I can go back to Oblivion now that I’ve started pausing each encounter and carefully selecting which limb to shoot. Of course, the icing on top of cake is watching actions play out in slow motion.

Beyond all of the neat effects, the Fallout 3 world is vast and detailed. I’m still early on in the game and I’ve decided to simply start wandering. There’s a certain drama that comes from never knowing what to expect over that next hill, or what you’ll find in the next building.

Just last night I stumbled upon a group of slaves locked in a standoff around a few pints of clean water. One of them offered to give me half of the water if I helped him fight off the rest. I agreed and immediately found myself engaged in a close range gun battle.

Not long afterwards, I opened the door of an abandoned police station. It turned out to be not-quite abandoned; a group of super mutants were holding some captives. I negotiated booby traps, slaughtered the grisly green beasts, and saved these kind people. Later, I’ll be offering them guns and escorting them home.

Fallout 3 has a really rich upgrade system, which is old-school enough that it can be tedious to assign skill points. The game is also a bit hard to jump into – I keep wondering if I just needed to give Oblivion more time before it really struck a cord with me. In a strange way, Fallout 3 is actually the game I wish GTA IV had been; an infinitely detailed open-world game with new discoveries and important choices to be made at every corner. I suspect I’ll keep playing Fallout 3 until I’ve discovered everything.