Zoo Keeper [Nintendo DS] – Review

Zoo Keeper

Zoo Keeper is a game that has intrigued me since the early days of the Nintendo DS. In North America, it was the first game to release outside of the system’s launch window. A launch window that was a veritable drought – after the system’s November 21, 2004 launch, there weren’t any releases until this January 18, 2005 title. Even then, I don’t recall there being an actual noteworthy release until June 14, 2005 – Kirby: Canvas Curse. My curiosity in this game shouldn’t be construed as a belief in its quality either; after ten years of thinking about it, I refrained from hyping myself up for it which was a good call, as it’s merely a basic match-three puzzle game.

You crazy lion.
You crazy lion.

There are a handful of modes available to play, each a variation on the familiar match-three gameplay present in many like puzzle games. The quest mode in particular is quite ingenuitive. It’s not a beefy affair however, nor is there a lengthy distraction present. The drive for high scores or killing time would have to be one’s long-range motivator with this game. Fortunately, the underlying gameplay is solid and enjoyable. Bearing in mind that this released a year or two before the dawn of the App Store, this was a predecessor of sorts to the touch-controlled match-three games that are a deluge now. I wouldn’t say it’s particularly progressive in what it is – it’s just a basic, solid puzzle game that incorporated touch controls well.

The scoring in quest mode was unlike anything I've seen.
The scoring in quest mode was unlike anything I’ve seen.

It’s worth noting that I have played an Android version of Zoo Keeper in my ten year quest to experience this version. A year or so ago I downloaded a multiplayer focused version and had little more than a passing session with it. That says nothing of its quality and perhaps everything with my desire to abstain and experience the Nintendo DS game fresh. Ironically, I wound up not spending too much time with it either – no more than a few hours. Again, that says nothing of its quality. As I mentioned before, it’s a basic puzzle game that plays well. It may have curried more favor with me before my exposure to the match-three hell (heaven?) that is mobile gaming. It has a cute art style too.

Virtua Racing Deluxe – Sega 32X [Review]

Virtua Racing Deluxe

Having completed Doom on the Sega 32X, I decided to spend some substantial time with the only other 32X game in my possession: Virtua Racing Deluxe. Originally released as an arcade game in late 1992, it is one of video game’s polygonal pioneers. Nowadays, it looks extremely primitive, although it’s still a joy to play. As it originated in Sega’s AM2 division, this is no surprise; they were led by Yu Suzuki – one of video game’s greatest designers. Released in late 1994, the 32X version is scaled down graphically, but expands upon the arcade game in content.

So yeah, that's positively the Golden Gate Bridge.
So yeah, that’s positively the Golden Gate Bridge.

I don’t have any nostalgia for games with this sort of graphical fidelity and the few that I’ve played retroactively have been unpleasant. Those that I have played seemed to have been notable only for their choppy graphical prowess at the time and were otherwise unenjoyable. I was blown away then when this game not only moved at a fast clip, but was highly responsive and a blast to play! It’s a stepdown visually when compared to the original but still remains palatable. It also features significant pop-in, but it wasn’t so abhorrent that it impacted my performance.

There were five stages to race on and three vehicles to choose from – two more of each than the arcade game. Each of the stages and vehicles required a different sort of finesse to achieve greatness. Lacking a career mode, the motivating force for solo play was high scores, or rather, best times. Placing first in the field of sixteen was a tall order, and my best after an hour is second place. The responsiveness of the vehicles and the limited time involvement required saw me continuously attempting to best my computer opponents. A split-screen multiplayer mode is available for two players although I haven’t tried it yet. My biggest fear is slowdown which, to be fair wasn’t an issue in my solo sessions.

I liked racing with the zoomed out camera angle - although some structures conflicted with it.
I liked racing with the zoomed out camera angle – although some structures conflicted with it.

The enjoyment I had with Virtua Racing Deluxe came as a surprise to me. I had doubts about it based on my past experience with primitive polygonal games. Any doubts I had were erased when I grabbed the controller. It was as fast-paced and responsive as any other racing game of the time period, and perhaps more so. Although my exposure to the 32X library is limited at this point, I feel confident in asserting that this is one of the premier titles on the platform.

Doom [Sega 32X] – Review

Doom

Who can say what sparked it, but one evening Jeff and I played the Sega 32X. It’s an add-on for the Sega Genesis that increased its power but never proved successful for a variety of reasons, namely poor timing. Its library rounds out at about forty titles which pales in comparison to the nine hundred plus that the Genesis hosted. Along with it, I also have a Sega CD which makes setup an absolute chore. There are three power bricks (although only two are needed if the Sega CD isn’t being utilized), an A/V cable connecting the Genesis and 32X, and an A/V cable connecting the monstrosity to the TV. Our session was a memorable one though, so it was worth it.

With such a limited library there aren’t a lot of options, especially when I only have a few games. The two that we spent the most time with were Virtua Racing Deluxe and Doom. As he’s not partial to racing games we barely touched VRD. That game’s primitive polygonal graphics can be off-putting at first, but I was surprised at how fast and responsive the game was; it’s definitely a worthwhile title. Therefore, we spent our time with Doom. Our session lasted a couple of hours, and we wound up making it to the final stage*.

One knock against the 32X version is the limited real estate devoted to the game screen.
One knock against the 32X version is the limited real estate devoted to the game screen.

His experience with Doom supersedes mine, having played it on PC closer to its cultural explosion. My first gameplay exposure came with the Xbox Live Arcade release. I couldn’t tell you what went through my head then, but I don’t remember being blown away, even considering the context of its release. After all, this was the most significant of the early first-person shooters and became one of the most popular, if not played, video games up to that point in time. Honestly, I wasn’t particularly jazzed about playing the 32X version but it’s hard to ignore how well-made it is, even this version.

For hours, we blasted demons with a handful of weapons and searched for keycards in order to open locked doors and progress to each level’s exit. That took place across fifteen-odd levels, with one or two focusing on a boss fight rather than exploration. On paper, this all sounds monotonous, but the gameplay was quite fun. It was a fast-paced shooter and the stages and enemy encounters never felt duplicated, despite a limited palette of either. Undoubtedly, playing with a friend and taking turns completing levels enhanced my enjoyment.

Doomguy, now's not the time for knock knock jokes!
Doomguy, now’s not the time for knock knock jokes!

This newfound enjoyment and appreciation of Doom surprises even me, considering I really enjoyed Doom 3 – a game most others didn’t. I’m contemplating more Doom and my next steps branch two ways. The 32X version was a port of the PC original which hadn’t even fully released at the time, so I haven’t completely seen Doom (which this FAQ detailing version differences is just phenomenal). I’ll either start up the XBLA release or the version included with the Doom 3 Limited Collector’s Edition. I’ve also never played Doom II: Hell on Earth so that’s a natural progression too. Either way, I’m excited to play more Doom. I guess that’s one redeeming quality for the 32X.

* The final stage to reach the credits. If we had reached the same stage on a harder difficulty, there were actually two more stages.

Star Ocean: First Departure [PlayStation Portable] – Review

Star Ocean First Departure

When it comes to an established franchise, I find it hard to experience it in any other way than completely engrossing myself. Whether it’s soaking up each entry in a role-playing series, or binge-watching a movie franchise, I like to get the whole story from start to finish. So with the recent announcement of the fifth Star Ocean game, subtitled Integrity and Faithlessness, I’ve found myself visiting the series for the first time, and from the beginning. There’ve been plenty of opportunities for me to check the series out over the years, and I’ve owned entries for years without touching them. But, much like the dual announcements of new Guitar Hero and Rock Band releases reinvigorating my desire to play earlier entries in those series’, this one did it to the nth degree.

Battles took place in fully roamable arenas - an evolution of Tales of Phantasia.
Battles took place in fully roamable arenas – an evolution of Tales of Phantasia.

My first consciousness of the Star Ocean series occurred around the release of Tales of Symphonia. That seminal JRPG was one of the few on the GameCube and one of my favorites bar none. I turned to GameFAQs throughout that playthrough and the author of one FAQ in particular suggested Star Ocean: Till the End of Time so heartily, that I still remember that fact to this day. Needless to say I never checked it out (excluding a multiplayer match or two for the inaugural Game-a-Thon). Flash forward and I now own all but the most recent entry: The Last Hope. So, what better place to start than the first game?

Or truly, a remake of the first game as the western release lagged behind its Japanese debut. Star Ocean was originally released on July 19, 1996 for the Super Famicom. It didn’t make it to Western shores until the PlayStation Portable remake; First Departure was released in North America on October 21, 2008. Developed by tri-Ace, the game was the product of the studio’s collective experience making Tales of Phantasia and their love of Star Trek. It’s an action-RPG whose core elements stay true to likes of Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, but the battle system is quasi-real-time and the setting has more in common with Phantasy Star. The PSP remake appears to remain very true to the original, and with the exception of a few items, I could imagine this game being a direct port.

There was an omnipresent feeling of the future, even while on Roak.
There was an omnipresent feeling of the future, even while on Roak.

One of the elements that excited me the most in thinking about this series was the sci-fi setting. The ability for a lengthy RPG to fill out a world with backstory, characters, and places is a hallmark of the genre, and when that ability is buoyed by a sci-fi motif, well, let’s just say I’ve always been more interested in the future than the past. So I was disappointed when the majority of this game revolved around a fantasy setting. This was explained narratively in a way keeping true to its sci-fi background, and perhaps even by the constraints of the hardware or the by the studio’s rookie nature.

Granted, this was all wrapped around the context of a sci-fi storyline and it did have its moments. The main protagonists hail from an undeveloped planet – one that the Federation (exactly what you’d think) has intentionally avoided until the inhabitants have reached their space age. So when the group is exposed to the Federation initially, there’s a lot of interesting story building that takes place. And again at the end, when the answers to the questions that have been posed throughout the game are being revealed; the sci-fi elements really sealed the deal. Plus, there’s time travel and that’s super sci-fi.

Most everything else is standard fare for the genre. I took the group from town to dungeon to town in search of this or that or whatever would progress the story. The combat system is an evolution of the real-time one pioneered in Tales of Phantasia. Instead of taking place on a 2D plane however, I controlled one of the party member’s in a 3D arena. There wasn’t a lot to fights other than mashing the attack button and maybe triggering a special attack every now and then. I was content to button mash and the lack of difficulty allowed me to breeze through the game.

An air of replayability was present as not all party members could be accessed in one playthrough.
An air of replayability was present as not all party members could be accessed in one playthrough.

I feel it was necessary for me to play this game, although I wouldn’t recommend it to others if they didn’t share my tendencies. It wasn’t a bad game, it just wasn’t that interesting. The settings offered an interesting clash, but this was mostly a fantasy game wrapped around the veneer of a sci-fi game. I found little to dislike about the combat system and could enjoy the monotonous task of mashing a button until a foe was dead, but I can’t praise it either. At roughly fifteen hours it’s the shortest JRPG I’ve played, but lengthy enough to tell a cohesive tale. Here’s hoping for a bright future.

Returning to Guitar Hero II Expert after Six Years

Guitar Hero II

With the announcements of new Rock Band and Guitar Hero games, my vigor towards those titles currently in my collection was reignited. Coincidentally, it wasn’t too long before these announcements that I had procured a copy of Green Day: Rock Band. It had been sitting in my closet for a while and with this redeveloped enthusiasm, my partner and I got the plastic instrument band back together. To be fair, achievements did play a role too.

We jammed through Green Day: Rock Band in a single sitting – complying with the requirements for one of the game’s endurance based achievements. It didn’t make him a fan of theirs and didn’t make me anything more than the casual fan I already was. We conquered, and moved onto Guitar Hero: Van Halen a week or so later. We aimed to do the same with it, but called it quits early on when we realized the achievements wouldn’t pop for the both of us, only the primary player. For us, this was a nightmarish callback to the launch of Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock.

GH3 360 Coverwrap.indd

I purchased that game on a break between college classes and when school was done for the day, we rocked the evening away in a single marathon session. When all was said and done, I had the medium co-op achievement pop, but nothing happened for him. After the fact research yielded our answer: nothing would unlock for the secondary player. What a jip! What were people supposed to do to unlock the four co-op related achievements? Bribe friends, put out an ad on Craigslist? Keeping in mind that the difficulty achievements didn’t stack meant all related songs would have to be played through four times, each on a different difficulty. Needless to say we didn’t start a new co-op career on another difficulty.

So, I was left to finish Guitar Hero: Van Halen on my own. Unlike the crotches of 80s rock stars, it wasn’t bulging with content so it was a relatively brief affair. I did discover a few of their lesser-known songs though. All this recent Guitar Hero and Rock Band playing had me curious towards the older games in my collection, specifically, ones with achievements that I hadn’t obtained. Perusing TrueAchievements signaled that I may be able to clean up a few achievements in Guitar Hero II – namely completing the game on expert and a co-op achievement or two. This was a possibility because the co-op achievements unlocked for both players.

Green Day Rock Band

So I fired up Guitar Hero II and was greeted with a nearly complete expert playthrough – I was four songs away. Of those, I only had access to three. The first one I attempted was “Misirlou” by Dick Dale. Although you may not recognize it by title or performer, if you hear it, you’d likely be able to place it – surf rock of the 1960s. Surprising myself I passed it with flying colors barely scraping by on my first time. “Wow! I can do this” I exclaimed to nobody but myself. My next attempts – “Institutionalized” by Suicidal Tendencies and “Hangar 18” by Megadeth put the difficulty level into perspective.

I didn’t give up though. On my initial attempts with those songs I was able to clear more than 80 percent on each. A few days passed before my next attempts but with those I played the songs over and over and over again, getting better at performing the tricky hammer-ons and pull-offs and learning the crucial moments to activate Star Power. One by one I conquered the songs until I was left with game-ender: “Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. I sat through the first few minutes of that song no less than a half-dozen times thanks to the tricky solos. Eventually, everything synced and I was able to scrape by. Achievement unlocked.

Project Gotham Racing 4 [Xbox 360] – Review

PGR4

Project Gotham Racing 4 was ostensibly the final game in the series. For the sake of this article, I’m going to pretend Ferrari Edition for the Zune HD doesn’t exist. I have past experience with the series, having sunk a material amount of time into the third entry early on in my Xbox 360 ownership. My memories of that playthrough are gone now, but I’ve always associated quality and differentiation with the series. My recent playthrough of this title backs that claim up further and highlighted a game that has held up, and I presume, will hold up for many years to come.

Developed by Bizarre Creations and published by Microsoft, the series was their answer for an exclusive Xbox racing series before Forza Motorsport. Debuting as a launch title for the original Xbox in 2001, PGR was an extension of Bizarre Creations’ Metropolis Street Racer, released a year prior on the Dreamcast. After Forza’s debut in 2005, the two coexisted for a few years before Bizarre Creations was acquired by Activision. While Turn 10 Studios was chasing realism with the Forza series, Bizarre Creations was always melding the realism of supercars with the sensibilities of a more approachable racing game.

I spent most of my time racing like I do driving, looking out through the interior of my ride.
I spent most of my time racing like I do driving, looking out through the interior of my ride.

In my eyes, one of the most prominent differentiating features of the series are the settings. Rather than rely on established racetracks like most racing games, the developers instead use well-known cities for backdrops. Courses take place throughout city streets and as a result, variations are bountiful. After my dozen or so hours with this title, I had remembered the routes I’d driven throughout the cities, and could piece together the components that different variations shared. When one variation might take a left, another one might go straight, for instance. This practice was an efficient use of the cities, as I was able to race on many variations, with different objectives, and in different weather, making each event feel unique.

The cities themselves were rendered with impressive detail too. It wasn’t immediately apparent to me, but after a season in the Gotham Career mode, my eyes began to take in the scenery as I’d become more familiar with the courses. The skyscrapers and landmarks that lined the courses weren’t two-dimensional, like the set of a classic western. No, you could look down the intersecting roads and alleys and see well into the distance. The many logos and name brand storefronts that lined the more populous areas made me wonder what went into the licensing process.

Speaking of a headache-inducing licensing process, this game features the largest roster of automobiles in the series, including the addition of motorcycles. Altogether, there are more than 130 available in the game with more added through DLC. Unfortunately, after the studios closure at the hands of Activision in 2011, all DLC was removed from the Xbox Live Marketplace, at least, that’s probably why. Another association I make with the series is a reliance on supercars and this release has them in spades. However, it also fills its roster with a more varied lineup of automobiles that highlight notable examples of many “scenes” with the exception of Japanese tuners.

The cities truly were rendered with a fantastic level of detail. I haven't been to Shanghai, but I know for a fact they have KFC there.
The cities truly were rendered with a fantastic level of detail. I haven’t been to Shanghai, but I know for a fact they have KFC there.

Returning to differentiating features, one of the aspects of this title that kept me hooked were the varied race types. Whereas typical races may comprise the majority of other racing games, they’re only a single event here. Other genre staples are present such as passing checkpoints to keep the clock alive, but I had the most fun with cone-based events, where I was tasked with slaloming through arranged cones. These and many other modes kept my quest for the top rank in the Gotham Career mode fresh, even when that effort got long in the tooth. With that complete, a whole other single player mode was available and went mostly untouched by me.

The game’s arcade mode featured heaps of one-off events where success was graded on a bronze, silver, gold, or platinum basis. These played up the driving with style aspect the series is known for more than the Gotham Career mode did. This aspect being the ability to earn Kudos points for performing stunts on bikes, drafting and drifting, and in general driving balls to the wall. In other words, there’s a lot to keep someone occupied here. And as best as I can tell, the multiplayer component is still available, at least as of a 2013 TrueAchievements forum thread. So the popular Cat and Mouse game type would be available via that method, although finding players may prove difficult, even on boosting forums.

Apparently, John Cena has a side career as an enthusiast motorcycle racer and no, you still can't see him.
Apparently, John Cena has a side career as an enthusiast motorcycle racer and no, you still can’t see him.

I started playing Project Gotham Racing 4 as a change of pace while I sunk seventy odd hours into Lost Odyssey (I still haven’t written a write-up of that!?). It was able to hold my interest enough to branch off into a full-fledged playthrough afterwards, and was enjoyable enough that I’m considering diving into another racing game sooner rather than later. I can walk away from my time with PGR4 impressed with the efforts exerted from Bizarre Creations. It’s still a sharp-looking game today with fantastic backdrops and beautiful interior and exterior car models. Gameplay was fast and crisp, especially from the first-person perspective and I encountered visual hiccups maybe once. Most importantly though the game itself was a joy and there was no shortage of things for me to do.

Crossy Road [Android] – Review

Crossy Road

This is a review of Crossy Road. It’s timely only if you’re reading this month’s ago, or if you’ve never heard of Crossy Road. Unfortunately, if it’s the latter, you’ve missed the zeitgeist. That doesn’t mean you’ve missed out on the fun though. Crossy Road is an evolution of Frogger with elements of modern mobile game design tacked on for revenue streams. It’s a game built around understandable mechanics, unobtrusive monetization features, and an attractive art style. It doesn’t fill you up, but it’s easy to keep coming back to.

As I mentioned, the core gameplay of Crossy Road is heavily inspired by Frogger. It’s basically that game with one important twist – it’s endless. Instead of crossing a few lanes of traffic and navigating floating logs to reach the shore on the opposite end of the screen, your character is on a never-ending journey. Both obstacles are present and accounted for here and seem to be randomized, keeping gameplay fresh. Tapping the screen moves the character one row forward and this is how the score is calculated. The high score competitions can get heated, recalling the days of Flappy Bird.

This is a free-to-play game, but it doesn’t beat you over the head with advertisements. The primary source of revenue for the developers would appear to stem from the many character skins. These can be unlocked by spending accrued coins on an in-game prize machine (think the gumball machines at your local grocery store). The coins are earned slowly, but extras can be earned by watching advertisements. Or, this coin collecting process can be subverted altogether by purchasing the character skins. Each character has features that make them unique, but not substantially different. For me, they were just something to work towards, while I strove to improve my score.

Crossy Road - Zombie
Each character has a few traits that make them unique. In the case of the zombie, it’s now dusk and I imagine it moans for brains.

Crossy Road is a free game, available on Apple and Android devices and it’s well worth the download. I thought it was a stellar pick up and play game for those moments when you need a distraction. If you have friends playing it too, the competition aspect will help to deepen the experience.  But, it was a distraction sort of game, and something I couldn’t spend a long stretch of time with after the first few sessions. It is, however, something I’ve spent much time with in the dozens of sessions I’ve played it. Well worth a look.

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