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Alundra 2 (2000)
It ain't pretty, but it's one of the better 3D action RPGs on the PlayStation
(www.plasticpals.com) Alundra 2 ditches the 2D visuals and dark subject matter of the original in favor of 3D graphics and a comical adventure story. However, the action RPG game play of the original is largely kept intact, including Alundra's heavy focus on platforming. In this game, a pirate hunter named Flint becomes embroiled in a conspiracy masterminded by Baron Diaz, who is attempting to usurp the throne a neighboring kingdom and steal its legendary treasures.
Gone are the various sub-weapons and most of the secondary items, but you'll upgrade your basic sword and shield and gain access to elemental rings which can be used on enemies and traps as well as summon powerful screen-filling attacks. For example, you may need to pick up and place bombs and then shoot one with the fire elemental to cause a series of chained explosions. You'll also find puzzle pieces scattered throughout the game world. These can be traded with a swordsman who teaches Flint how to add extra moves to his regular one-hit attack.
The transition to 3D works OK for the most part, since the designers kept things simple by using an overhead perspective, rather than going with the more ambitious style of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. The biggest issue is that the collision boxes on enemies and bosses seem a bit too big, and as a result you'll often get hurt when you move in close to score a hit even if the enemy is simply standing still. This can feel a bit cheap at times, especially since enemies deal much more damage to you than you do to them. The game balances this out by allowing you to carry tons of healing items, but it's not ideal.
Unlike most PlayStation RPGs, this game doesn't have any flashy animated video sequences. Instead, all the cut-scenes are presented using the in-game graphics engine. This wouldn't be a problem (and can even be preferable, as it ensures visual consistency), except the character models look pretty bad when seen up close, and the animation is also very choppy. That said, the characters and enemies look OK from a distance and are more detailed than the ones in Brave Fencer Musashi.
The cut-scenes are mildly amusing, with a light-hearted Saturday morning cartoon vibe throughout the adventure, helped by voices that suit the characters. The music is about average, though it can get repetitive since there aren't that many tracks.
Alundra 2 fixes many of the issues I had with the first game. There are some tricky puzzles in this game, but they usually don't require expert jumping or timing, and they never throw randomness into the mix. And, unlike the first game, most switches automatically reset if you fail so you don't have to leave the room to reset them.
There are a couple of areas where the game does feel a bit unfair, though. The chase sequence in the Giant Bull, for example, has you racing down a winding path while avoiding pitfalls. Similar to levels in Crash Bandicoot, Flint runs towards the camera, preventing you from seeing what is ahead of him until the last second. The camera should have been positioned further away from him to give the player more time to react. Luckily the game gives you frequent checkpoints in this section, which mitigates the problem.
Many fans of the original Alundra really hated this game, mainly because it has nothing to do with the events or characters of the first game, but I came away enjoying it much more. Alundra 2 may be rough around the edges, but it's nowhere near as frustrating as the original. Sure, it doesn't make a very good first impression, but if you stick with it there are some surprisingly good dungeons and puzzles in the latter half of the game that are worth completing.
The polygonal graphics are serviceable at best and as I mentioned there are issues with the collision detection on enemies, but considering this was Matrix Software's first attempt at 3D, it certainly could have been a lot worse. If judged as its own entity, Alundra 2 can easily hold its own against other PS1 3D Action RPGs like Brave Fencer Musashi and Threads of Fate, but it's certainly no Zelda-killer.
Frequently becomes more frustrating than fun to play
(www.plasticpals.com) On the surface Alundra looks like a garden-variety Zelda clone, but at heart it shares more in common with Landstalker (SEGA Genesis), featuring challenging jumping puzzles not found in the Zelda franchise. That's no surprise as many of Alundra's development team came from Climax Entertainment, the company behind Landstalker and several other classic 16-bit RPGs. It's known for its above-average difficulty and its beautiful 2D graphics.
Alundra, an adventurer with the ability to enter people's dreams, washes up on shore near a small town. It turns out the townspeople are afflicted with strange nightmares that can kill them, so Alundra enters their dreams to fend off a mysterious evil power. As an outsider the townspeople don't always trust him, but later he is joined by a fellow Dreamwalker named Meia who helps him fight off the demon.
While it may not have the most sophisticated characters or storyline, the narrative thread it weaves is commendable given typical genre fare. As usual the localization by Working Designs attempts to throw some humour in here and there, but thankfully doesn't go too far.
Alundra is fairly typical of the genre: he can move in eight directions, and fights primarily with a sword (and several other weapons, items, and magic spells). Genre staples such as bombs and health upgrades are also present and accounted for, but bombs and arrows are unlimited and aren't terribly useful outside of a few specific situations. Instead the game play focuses primarily on tricky jumping and switch puzzles. While you'll explore several nightmares (which function like dungeons), the rest of the game takes place within the typical overworld / dungeon layout.
Standard enemies are a bit tougher than in most other games, often defending themselves using shells or shields and taking multiple hits to die. On the other hand the bosses tend to be fairly easy, usually relying on simple and repetitive patterns and large area-of-effect attacks, and can be killed with a few well-timed spells. Some of the bosses are even recycled multiple times, which feels a bit cheap, but at least they look fairly impressive for the most part. Presentation
This is probably one of the best looking 2D games of the 32-bit generation, with lots of gorgeous detail in the environments and characters. However, the game does fall a bit short in the animation department, especially when compared to the likes of The Legend of Oasis on the Sega Saturn. There isn't much in the way of 32-bit flair other than the animated videos which bookend the game, but what's here has aged gracefully over the last 17 years. The game's soundtrack is about average.
Challenge & Replay Value
Jumping is often the most challenging part of Alundra's puzzles, and the root cause of much frustration. Unlike Landstalker, which had an isometric perspective, Alundra has a more traditional top-down view that makes judging your footing a bit easier, but you still have to be extremely precise.
The game also gives you the feeling of being too strict with regards to its collision detection and timing, and it can feel outright unfair in some situations – such as puzzles that rely on random chance or that have ridiculously opaque solutions. There's a room in the game, for example, where you have to dislodge swinging wrecking balls from their supports to be used as platforms. Unfortunately for the player, this requires extremely precise timing and a lot of luck, as the wrecking balls roll in wildly different directions and cannot be pushed or moved after they have come loose.
In another room the game literally throws chance at the player to catch a barrel dropped randomly from one of four hatches, three of which are traps that will hurt you. You need to catch three barrels to complete the puzzle, but after a certain number of tries the trap stops dropping them (forcing you to leave the room to reset the puzzle). Since you'll be taking damage from failed attempts, it feels like a war of attrition.
In these situations the game simply isn't much fun to play, and the traps feel like a cheap way to force the player into using up their healing items. If this was limited to just one or two areas in the game it would be excusable, but this sadistic design sensibility rears its ugly head on a regular basis. Unfortunately many players won't have the patience to see the game through to the end, and it does little to entice a second play through. This is a shame, as there are some very cleverly designed areas and puzzles sprinkled here and there that help to balance out the experience, if you can suffer through it. Conclusion
If Alundra's difficulty and general design was a bit more fair and balanced, it would qualify as a genuine classic. Sadly, this is simply not the case: where it ought to be challenging and fun, it is borderline unfair and frustrating. I wouldn't go so far as to say it is a bad game, it just has its priorities mixed up. The fun part of solving a puzzle is figuring out what needs to be done, but Alundra's designers preferred making it as hard as possible to execute what are often immediately obvious solutions. You'll catch glimpses of brilliance here and there throughout its 30 hour quest, but doing so will require an awful lot of patience.
You may be surprised to learn I would still recommend it. For one thing, it'll give you an even better appreciation for just how incredibly balanced the Zelda games are, and it's a good back-up if you're running out of the better traditional 2D action RPGs.
Tail Concerto (1998)
This tail is a bit short
(www.plasticpals.com) CyberConnect's Tail Concerto is a cute little 3D action platformer for the original PlayStation starring anthropomorphic dogs and cats designed by Nobuteru Yuki (probably most famous for his character designs in the television series Escaflowne). It's the first game in the company's imaginative Little Tail Bronx series, set in a steam-punk world of floating islands.
Story & Game Play The Black Cats Gang is causing havoc amongst the floating island cities of Prairie, so police-dog Waffle is called to the rescue. Along the way he'll help to uncover the mystery of the Iron Giant, a mysterious artifact from an ancient civilization.
Piloting his robot suit, Waffle can jump, shoot bubbles, and grab objects around him. In later stages he'll hover using a jet pack, cling to mesh ceilings, and climb on pipes to get around. Unfortunately most of these mechanics aren't fully explored, as the game is simply too short to get the most out of them.
There's also a bit of an RPG feel as you can enter buildings and talk to people in the various locations. However, you can't upgrade your character's abilities or robot suit, and aside from optional red boxes which can be collected to complete a photo album, there are basically no side-quests or puzzles.
The grabbing move is mainly used to pick up items, and you can also grab and toss bombs back at enemies, but that's about it. Most of the time, you damage foes by shooting them with your bubble gun, which doesn't deal much damage.
Presentation Tail Concerto is a decent looking PlayStation game, benefiting from simple cartoony graphics. Cut scenes usually feature full voice acting, and there are frequent animated videos to punctuate major plot points (about 20 minutes in total). It's a well rounded package but nothing extraordinary compared to other games that were released around the same time.
Challenge Each of the areas you'll explore are pretty basic, so the main challenge comes from the poorly programmed camera. Sadly camera control was not mapped to the secondary joystick, and tilting the camera up and down with the L1 and L2 buttons doesn't help much. As a result, you'll end up making mistakes that should be easy to avoid, which may get a little annoying.
There were a few bosses and platforming sections which gave me some trouble, mainly due to the poor camera and somewhat sluggish controls. The game gives you plenty of opportunities to pick up continues though, so you never have to replay too much of any given segment.
Conclusion Tail Concerto isn't as fleshed out or as polished as it probably should have been, which is a real shame as the characters and world could easily support a much larger game. And while it may be aimed primarily at young children, the clunky camera will probably make it too frustrating for that demographic. Meanwhile more experienced gamers will find the game is too short and simple, clocking in at just five hours. If you can get past the problematic camera, there is an enjoyable little adventure with a big heart to be found, with little to no filler. I would still recommend you skip it and play the sequel, Solatorobo, instead.
Mawaru meido in Wario (2004)
Ranks highly amongst the available WarioWare titles
(www.plasticpals.com) The Wario Ware series turned a new leaf with Twisted!, featuring a built-in gyro sensor that detected the orientation of the cartridge. You play most of the included 200 micro games by tilting the GameBoy Advance, and in some cases you'll have to fully rotate the system in your hands to win. The cartridge also comes with a rumble feature, which gives you satisfying tactile feedback for every degree you tilt the system. The gyro sensor calibrates when the game is turned on (and after each micro game) so it can be played regardless of whether it is plugged into the top of a GameBoy Advance or the bottom of a Nintendo DS.
Like the other games in the series, Twisted! modifies the successful formula from the old Game & Watch portables: each micro-game has a short time limit and is designed to test your reflexes, and they get progressively faster the longer you survive (gradually making them more difficult). You can only mess up four times before it's game over, but there are boss stages every 10-15 rounds that offer you a chance to earn a 1-up. The 200 games are divided amongst characters living in Wario's funky city, each with their own little stories and micro-game themes.
Although tilting left and right is at its core a very simple interaction, there is no shortage of unique game designs. Whether you're tilting the screen to cause a ball to drop through an obstacle course, flying a plane through a tight corridor, or simply shaving the stubble from a chin, each micro-game is fun and intuitive. And they have to be, since most of the time you only have a few seconds to figure out what to do and how to do it. Even with the hints that pop up before each one, it can be quite disorienting as the speed increases. Unfortunately this means some micro-games are a bit too simple, requiring a quick left-right-left-right tilt combination to win, but they do mix things up with three or four variations of each game.
New to Twisted! are the addition of souvenirs, which are randomly unlocked as you pass boss stages. These are mostly little time wasters that take advantage of the tilt sensor – from music records that you can scratch like a DJ to extended versions of micro-games you've already played. It will take quite awhile to unlock them all, and simple though they may be, they add incentive to return to characters you have only beaten once. Some of the optional challenge modes, which only give you one life or that toss micro-games to you at top speed will certainly put your memory and reflexes to the test.
The Wario Ware series can be a bit hit-or-miss, but Twisted! is up there with the best of them – its tilt mechanic is both fun and original. It's sort of amazing to me that modern devices like smart phones, that come with gyro sensors built into them – don't have more apps that take advantage of this functionality. The only problem with Twisted! is that you can't play it on the GameBoy Player for the GameCube, which allows you to play GameBoy Advance games on your television, because you'd have to physically tilt the entire GameCube to get it to work.
Better than the last one, Portrait of Ruin
(www.plasticpals.com) Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia is the third and final instalment in the Castlevania series on the Nintendo DS, following Dawn of Sorrow (2005) and Portrait of Ruin (2006). This time the secretive Order of Ecclesia, unconnected to the Belmont clan, is attempting to prevent Dracula's centennial resurrection by collecting the fragments of his scattered soul. These glyphs can only be controlled by Shanoa, a raven haired beauty who has sacrificed her memory to serve as an empty vessel for their power. However, before Drac can be sealed, another member of the order named Albus runs away with the glyphs. Shanoa will have to hunt him down before he is consumed by Dracula's power.
Shanoa can absorb glyphs left by enemies, and these can then be equipped to serve as offensive weapons and spells. Her magic power is drained with every attack, preventing you from spamming – but it quickly replenishes when not attacking. If you press UP and both attack buttons, you can combine the glyphs to perform a more powerful attack that uses up hearts. She'll also gain support glyphs that bestow special abilities, like summoning helpful familiars or activating special moves. Only some enemies will leave behind glyphs – and they drop them randomly – so you'll have to kill a lot of them to obtain each one. In practise, the glyph system isn't much different from the soul system seen in Aria of Sorrow.
The typical Metroidvania level design has become a bit of a slog, but thankfully Order of Ecclesia doesn't adhere to the same structure as the past six games. Instead of exploring one large castle, Shanoa chases after Albus through several smaller areas for the first half of the game. Like the paintings in Portrait of Ruin, these are basically bite-sized maps – there's nothing particularly difficult about them besides the local monsters. You'll find plenty of save points, warp points, and you can even return to town instantly using magical tickets sold in the shop. It's a shame they didn't take the opportunity to create more traditional platforming levels, where one missed jump could lead to instant death.
In between areas, Shanoa can return to the village where she can buy items and upgrade her armour. There, she can take on requests from villagers (that she has rescued) to earn money and items – but most of them are just fetch quests. Again, it feels like a missed opportunity when they could have easily added more varied challenges to the game – such as time trials, perfect boss runs, etc..
Unlike the rest of the game the bosses can be quite tough, but it's mainly because Shanoa is a such fragile heroine. It seems like regardless of the armour you equip, she dies after just a few hits from their attacks, so you'll probably expire before you can learn (let alone memorize) their attack patterns. And because healing items are ridiculously expensive, you'll have to fight losing battles repeatedly until you sort them out. It's frustrating, but it actually makes the game more enjoyable because you'll feel a sense of accomplishment when you finally do succeed. There are also two optional areas in the game designed specifically to test your skills, and naturally they're pretty difficult. Once you've completed the game, you will unlock a Boss Rush mode and harder difficulty settings.
Order of Ecclesia's difficulty seems a bit unbalanced, with fairly easy exploration contrasting with the merciless boss fights. It's nice that the designers have broadened the scope of the adventure by dividing it into several smaller maps, but these don't contain any real platforming challenges. And again, collecting glyphs and the villager requests amount to nothing more than tiresome fetch quests. However, for the most part this is an enjoyable 2D action game, with good graphics and a great soundtrack, which is becoming increasingly rare these days. I also appreciate that the character designs have returned to a more detailed style than the anime look of the last two instalments.
More of that punk style and dice-em-up action
(www.plasticpals.com) Travis Touchdown returns to the seedy town of Santa Destroy after his friend, the owner of a local video store, is brutally murdered. Little did he know that there would be a laundry list of twisted assassins itching for a chance to match swords with him. When he left three years earlier Travis was the top-ranked assassin in the United Assassins Association (UAA), but in his absence dropped all the way down to #51. He'll have to climb his way back to the top on a mountain of corpses if he wants a shot at avenging his friend.
Reviewers took issue with certain aspects of the first game, and these criticisms weren't ignored. Originally players had to do a lot of boring driving around town just to get to each destination. Now players warp directly from one location to the next on a map screen.
And before, Travis had to pay an entry fee to take on each new mission – which meant taking on odd jobs to earn cash. In this game those entry fees have been axed, meaning you can get right to the action if that's what you want. You can still take on side jobs to earn money, but that's mainly if you want to purchase optional stuff like a couple extra weapons or beef up your stats by training at the gym. When compared to the first game, these cuts reduce the total play time by about 2-3 hours.
The side jobs and gym training are also a real treat, because they're designed to look and play like classic retro arcade games. There's eight side jobs, which range from exterminating bugs in a maze, to delivering pizza on your motorcycle. They're simple but well designed mini-games in their own right, with most having four levels of increasing difficulty. Training is much more basic, but will test your reflexes. Finally, you can also play a modern vertically-scrolling shoot-em-up in your motel room, which has three levels of difficulty. These all provide fun diversions from the main game.
The battle system hasn't changed much from the first game, with simple two-button combat. You can lock onto enemies and tap the "A" button to swing your beam sabre, and press "B" to throw punches and kicks. You can easily button-mash to string together combos, and perform satisfying finishing blows by swinging the Wii remote as directed by on-screen prompts that freeze the action for a second. If you're enemy is dizzy, you can grab them and perform a suplex for an insta-kill by swinging both the Wii remote and nunchuk at the same time. If your beam sabre's battery gets low, you'll have to pause fighting momentarily to recharge it – which leaves you vulnerable.
Rather than having to hold the Wii remote at different angles to change up your combat stance, in this game the power and speed of your attacks is determined by what beam sabre you have equipped. Eventually you'll have access to four different types, with some offering quick but weak attacks and others that are slow but powerful.
Similar in style to the Metal Gear Solid series, each boss encounter is pretty unique and features flashy cinematic story sequences to introduce them. They're definitely an odd bunch, but you won't have to fight all 51 assassins ranked ahead of you (there's actually only 15 boss fights in the game). These goons are typically protected by hired thugs – and the closer you get to the end of the game, the more thugs you'll have to take out. In truth, it can get a bit tiresome in some of the later stages, but thankfully there are a few missions where you practically jump right into the boss fight. You'll also play as a couple of Travis's friends, which adds further variety.
No More Heroes 2 is a fairly simple action game that corrects many of the issues found in the first game. The designers clearly know their target audience – and pander to our nostalgia for 8-bit games and giant robot cartoons. While there isn't much depth on offer here, the combat is dumb fun and the outlandish characters and funky style should keep your interest throughout its 8~10 hours.
Vagrant Story (2000)
Difficult, but totally worth the effort
Much to the surprise of his fans, Yasumi Matsuno's follow-up to the massively popular Strategy-RPG masterpiece Final Fantasy Tactics was Vagrant Story, the third game in history to receive a perfect score in the long-running weekly Famitsu magazine. Mixing together elements of both strategy and action RPGs, Vagrant Story emphasizes weapon customization and exploration. The strategy lies in using the right weapon for each of the different enemy types, along with traditional RPG elemental trade-offs.
The story follows Ashley Riot, a Riskbreaker working for the Valendia Knights of the Peace. Riskbreakers are essentially spies in the medieval land of Valendia. The religious cult Mullenkamp is involved in shady dealings with the powerful Duke Bardoba and both Parliament and the clergy want to get to the bottom of it. Suspiciously the cult leader and prophet, Sydney Losstarot, has scampered off to the city of Lea Monde – abandoned because of nasty earthquakes which all but buried the inhabitants alive – and Ashley must follow him. To reveal anything more would ruin one of Square's finest story lines, populated by a cast of memorable characters, and arguably their best PlayStation effort.
The dialogue in some spots has a mock Olde English feel to it, and for the most part is very well written. There's a subtle interplay between characters, who launch verbal witticisms instead of dopey one-liners at each other. Cinemas play out using the in-game models and are beautifully directed, with comic book-style word bubbles taking the place of proper voice acting. The lack of voice acting certainly hurts the presentation and is probably the one flaw in Vagrant Story worth noting (assuming the voice work was the quality of say, a Metal Gear Solid, this game would've been legendary).
In true AD&D fashion, Vagrant Story takes place in all manner of dark and unfriendly places. The developers visited various European cities and the game is overflowing with their observations. These areas have unfairly led to its reputation as a "dungeon crawler" but there's plenty of outdoor areas as well. Lea Monde was a city after all, and you'll explore a spiderweb of streets and back alleys, misty forests, and the twilight under city.
Unlike typical RPGs where you simply buy and equip stronger weapons at each new town you visit, Vagrant Story requires much more planning. You can fight empty-handed or using 1-handed swords, 2-handed swords, daggers, 1-handed axes/hammers, 2-handed axes/hammers/pole-arms, stave's and crossbows. Empty hands can be equipped with a shield. You'll find plenty of equipment throughout your quest, mostly complete weapons but also parts (a blade or a grip). These can be retooled in the sporadic workshops to create entirely new weapons and armour. Further complicating things, they are made out of grades of material: bronze, iron, silver, hagane (steel), & legendary damascus.
In combat, weapon suitability is based on its affinity to the enemy: humans, beasts, undead, phantoms, dragons and evil creatures. The more you use a weapon against a specific type, the more it becomes attuned to killing that type. However, weapons that are especially suited to some enemies will naturally become less effective against others – therefore you will require a handful of specialty weapons.
Once the right weapon is in hand, combat begins. Players open the combat sphere, which temporarily freezes the action to gauge Ashley's distance to the target. Naturally, the combat sphere is much larger when using crossbows or pole-arms than when using a dagger. If an enemy's body is inside the sphere, Ashley may attack. Sometimes you'll hit just an arm or a leg, but if the enemy is standing right next to him, Ashley may choose which part of the body to attack: each area has its own hit percentage, adding an extra layer of strategy.
Hitting an arm will lower an enemy's attack or defencive power (depending on whether its the weapon arm of shield arm). Targeting the correct body part can be vital to success. Once an attack begins, Players can time sequential blows to string together a combo. This requires expert timing, and to make matters more interesting each class of weapon has its own distinctive rhythms.
Vagrant Story puts the PlayStation to the test with full 3d environments and characters. While most of the environments are fairly blocky, they're filled with great details – Lea Monde has been abandoned for some time, and the onset of decay can be seen everywhere. The settings are mostly limited to dungeons, but each one has its own mood.
The character artists clearly put their heart into the models and textures. Even duplicate enemies have been dramatically remodelled and textured. The same degree of love and care was lavished on the many weapons and shields you can forge – almost all of which are exceedingly cool. Unfortunately Ashley's armour, such as his helmet, breastplate, gauntlets, greeves, and necklaces are not visually represented in the game (a pity, but with all the possible combinations this could go on and on!). The main characters are designed in a manga-esque style and even change facial expressions (which was uncommon for PlayStation games at the time).
The game's musical score is by Hitoshi Sakimoto, who worked previously on Final Fantasy Tactics. Sakimoto-san considers his work on Vagrant Story his best contribution to the medium, and I agree. The many battle themes which accompany the intense bosses add variety and suspense to the fighting, while his creepy ballads fit perfectly with the dark and unwelcoming catacombs. At times the music drifts away, allowing the ambient noises to establish mood. The game's credit roll features the only real symphonic piece, beautifully recapping Ashley's main theme.
It deserves its critical acclaim and insanely devoted cult followers because it succeeds above and beyond what it sets out to do. The storyline is easily one of the best ever in a video game. This is one of the all-time greats for the few, the proud, the Vagrants.
Biohazard 4 (2005)
Resident Evil 4 re-animates the corpse of a dead franchise
Capcom begins 2005 with a bang, with the release of the highly anticipated Resident Evil 4, directed by series creator Shinji Mikami to be nothing less than the greatest survival horror game of all time. Designed from the ground up to bring back players who had given up on the series while at the same time inviting a whole new generation of gamers to give the series a try, Resident Evil 4 revitalizes and revolutionizes the genre from decapitated head to chewy toe.
Leon makes his long awaited return to the series, this time as a secret agent sent to rescue the President's daughter from her Eastern-European kidnappers. The cinematic intro makes it clear that Umbrella is finished, and as Leon and his rather unfriendly police escorts arrive outside of the autumnal village of Pueblo, the player is filled with a giddy sense of the unknown.
Disregard the previous entries in the series completely: replacing the static cameras from previous games, Resident Evil 4 employs an over-the- shoulder camera which follows the game's protagonist, Leon S Kennedy everywhere he goes.
While the control scheme hasn't been dramatically changed, it works much more intuitively from this new, action-oriented angle. For example, aiming at specific targets is no longer an exercise in frustration, as Leon's arsenal comes equipped with laser sights allowing pinpoint accurate shooting. While Leon still uses type writers to record his progress, ink ribbons aren't required, allowing an unlimited number of saves. And unlike previous versions, Resident Evil 4 has a much more flexible inventory management function, allowing you to reorganize your equipment to your heart's content – not to mention that keys and other special items don't even take up room in the main equipment screen.
Context-sensitive actions round out Leon's repertoire, allowing him to hop over small fences, climb ladders, jump down from high ledges or out windows, and kick or suplex stunned enemies. Taking a cue from Sega's Shenmue, there are even action sequences requiring the player to press either the L and R shoulder buttons simultaneously or rapidly alternate between the A and B buttons to avoid instant death. Unexpectedly, these do-or-die reflex tests are actually quite fun and spruce up the in-game cinematics with an added element of danger – players accustomed to simply watching cinematics in other games won't want to put the controller down for long in this one! You better watch your back!
Perhaps the most exciting and immersive aspect of the game, however, is the enemy artificial intelligence. No longer is Leon fighting slow moving zombies: these are angry villagers armed with pitchforks, hatchets, torches, dynamite and chainsaws that move quickly and attempt to surround him from all sides. They'll hunt Leon down and leave no place to hide, angrily busting down doorways, climbing in through the windows, tossing axes from afar, and when you're out of reach they'll smoke you out with molotov cocktails. And unlike previous Resident Evils, the number of enemies doesn't top off at 7 or 8, as often you will be attacked by an onslaught of 10 or more enemies at once, and any given area can be populated by dozens of attackers. Enemies become more diverse and require different strategies as the game progresses, keeping the action fresh and nail-bitingly intense.
The graphics offer a visual feast unlike any game before it; virtually every inch of every character, weapon and environment has been meticulously crafted down to the finest detail. Cinematics come to life through keen direction and a flawless combination of motion-capture and animation. Characters actually emote through "acting"; subtle facial expressions and body language. Backgrounds are filled with sumptuous props, such as billowing silk drapery, trees and shrubs, distressed woodgrain textures, or small pools of muddy water. And the bosses will blow you away. It's undeniably one of the greatest looking games of its time, and easily the best looking game on GameCube. Fans of gore will have plenty to sink their teeth into.
The audio experience aptly complements this visual tour-de-force with first-rate voice acting and sound effects. Enemies talk amongst themselves, or chant in disturbing fashion, and upon sight will shout for help, launch obscenities at you, laugh uncontrollably as they stab you in the back, and fly into a berserker rage when shot. The sound effects, as can be expected, are first rate. The musical accompaniment ranges from a stressful, driving percussive ambiance when enemies are near to a cool, collected techno vibe when Leon's about to enter the fray. When the action ramps up and the stakes are high, the music drifts into a dramatic, intensifying heart beat to perfectly complement the player's pulse.
Some players will no doubt be disappointed at the shift in focus from puzzles to action, but there are still a number of puzzles in the game. These help to break up the action but don't require any backtracking or collection of specific items to complete. In my opinion, the whole "collect the emblem key to unlock the red door" thing was already getting on my nerves by the third game.
The team responsible have gone above and beyond the call of duty in providing a fresh take on an established franchise. The changes are irreversibly positive, a true sign of an instant classic if there ever was one, and the mini games add extra vitality to the revitalized corpse we all call "Resident Evil". Its like an action movie that you control, only better.
A Diamond In The Rough
(www.plasticpals.com) It doesn't happen all that often, but now and then the Wii has gotten some truly exceptional original titles. Little King's Story is one of them. Developed by some of the veterans responsible for hits like Harvest Moon, it has a hint of that game's obsessive compulsive game design, mixed with the simple but fun strategy elements of Nintendo's Pikmin series. It's all presented in a cute and charming graphical style, with music almost entirely from the catalogues of classical composers (which proves quite fitting). As you survey your land buzzing with inhabitants, it's hard not to believe there is a small world living inside your television.
The game puts you in the role of a small boy named Corobo, the would-be ruler of the kingdom of Alpoko. At first your realm consists of a dusty shack and a few peasants, but with a little elbow grease you'll quickly expand to the nearby river and beyond. Villagers begin as layabouts called carefree adults, but by summoning them with a twirl of your sceptre, you can send them into buildings where they'll take on specific job classes. Building stuff takes money so at first you'll need to dig up some treasure to pay for things, but eventually the loot from quests will be your bread and butter. Then you can build farmer's huts for faster diggers, soldiers' barracks to get some grunts, and carpenters for building bridges and stairways.
Conquering the monstrous guardians in the lands just beyond the protection of your borders (which include silly giant frogs, musky mushrooms, monstrous ambling sunflowers, demonic cows and chickens, turnip-headed mandagoras, and little imps called Onis), you expand your territory and new job classes become available. The game ramps up in complexity at a good pace, which allows players to familiarize themselves with its nuances. Hunters can pick off enemies from afar with their bows; lumberjacks clear away gigantic tree stumps blocking your path; and miners break down rocks standing in your way. Specialty classes like gourmet chefs can take out pesky giant chickens with ease, while savvy merchants can unlock hidden treasures. Once recruited, your units will jog along behind you in selectable formations to hell and back.
The trick is bringing the right combination of units with you into the great unknown. You'll need a farmer to dig up holes, which can yield health-restoring hot springs or valuable treasure. A handful of soldiers are a must to take down the many foes you'll encounter; and one of each of the specialty classes could come in handy. Individual citizens aren't nameless units; they can be upgraded with more life and power, and can each carry one special item which boosts their stats or makes them invulnerable to certain status effects. Later, you'll get upgraded classes that are stronger and faster than some of the initial ones.
Thankfully, unlike most strategy RPGs (such as Pikmin), if a unit bites the dust on the battlefield, there is a strong chance they'll wash up on the local beach the next day good as new. Even so, they don't feel quite as expendable as units in similar games, since there is a chance of permanent death (citizens will hold a funeral). This unhappy event can and should be avoided by resetting and reconsidering your strategy. Most of the time, beating a hasty retreat to regroup when an enemy is steaming mad (an indication they are about to attack) will prevent your units from taking damage. New citizens can be generated by sending two units who have fallen in love into the local church, who will promptly wed and have a kid. The kid can be turned into an adult by sending them to school, at which point you can assign them any class.
You can spend hours just monster hunting (via the suggestion box), but to make headway you'll have to venture into enemy territory and conquer their ruling kings. There are seven kingdoms in all, and each features a different theme and wildly unique boss encounters. One plays like a pinball game; another like a round of trivia; yet another tests your knowledge of real-world geography. It's all incredibly well done and can be quite challenging, and always entertainingly book-ended by cinematic movies. And if you happen to fall victim to their unusual attack patterns, the game lets you continue to try again as many times as you'd like.
For every kingdom you conquer, you'll rescue a princess who will give you some side quests to fulfil, which result in a special scene upon completion. Earthquakes threaten the safety of your growing population, which means a special airship must be built, requiring special parts. Paintings – artwork by gamers who entered an online contest – are scattered around the world and are rewarding to collect. These objectives, along with the aforementioned suggestion box mail, mean you'll easily spend between 30~40 hours playing the game. Most of it is completely optional, which means players can spend as much or as little time as they want doing the extras.
I thoroughly enjoyed Little King's Story, but it does have its share of frustrations. The game doesn't make use of the Wii remote's pointer functionality, which could have made sending troops at specific enemies much easier. You'll have to do some backtracking in the beginning, before you are able to set up warp points. The bosses feel a bit unbalanced in their difficulty, even on the "normal" difficulty setting. The storyline isn't as developed as other RPGs. These are all pretty minor issues in the long run, and shouldn't prevent you from enjoying the game. To be honest, in the first hour or so I wasn't sure if I was going to like it, but when the game clicked with me there was no turning back. If any of the above sounds like fun to you, you should take up the crown and sceptre and get the game.
Sakasete! Chibi robo! (2007)
A decent, but shallow experience
(www.plasticpals.com) Having thoroughly enjoyed the highly original and inventive Chibi-Robo! on the Gamecube, I decided to pick up the DS sequel, Chibi-Robo! Park Patrol. Having read some reviews that said it was only passable or mediocre, I wasn't expecting much. As it turns out it's a very different sort of game, but a decent time waster nonetheless.
Park Patrol puts the player in the role of Chibi-Robo once again, but this time his job is to restore a barren yard to a beautiful green park. By tilling the soil, planting flowers, and adding items of your choosing (trees, water fountains, benches, and play structures), you can return the park to its former glory.
As in the original game, there is a time limit of about 10 to 15 minutes per day. At the end of each day, you are automatically returned to the Chibi-House (your base of operations), to recharge and tally your score. Chibi-Robo himself also has a limited battery life, and will need to recharge should he run out of juice.
The park itself is a square grid divided into 7×7 large tiles. You can freely arrange the walking paths, streams, and landscaping to your liking. For example, you can add hills or valleys that push the terrain up or down, or run a path over a stream (which makes a small bridge). All of this hard work is actually done by Chibi's friends from town, whom he enlists, that don't come cheap. Every job requires electricity, which is the game's currency.
In order to make electricity, you'll need to make people happy. Happy Points can then be transferred into power, which is then stock-piled for later use. At first Chibi-Robo's battery life is very short, but you'll buy upgrades and eventually you'll have an infinite supply.
Just outside the park there is a flower shop (you earn major Happy Points for delivering flowers from the park), a Monkey Burger fast-food joint, and a back alley. These areas are easily accessible and are home to a number of toys that will need electricity to be revived. Once revived, the toys will go to work for you in the park.
Like in the original Chibi-Robo, the toys in Park Patrol have unique problems and a favourite food. By collecting chocolate bars, candy canes, bubblegum, and more from the trash left near the park, you can boost your plastic pals' friendship rating. The better friends you are with each character, the cheaper their labour becomes.
Helping out the citizens and renovating the park would be entirely too easy (not to mention boring) if it weren't for something standing in your way. And that's where Sargent Smoggler comes in. The stock villain of the piece, Smoggler attacks from time to time by sending smoglings and smog-globs into the park to ruin your flowers or damage your structures.
You can easily dispatch any smoglings before they do much damage, and for the most part the game even warns you when a smogling attack is about to occur. As such, they're really just paper tigers, but they do a good job of mixing things up before you get bored, sort of like the natural disasters in Sim City.
Chibi-Robo Park Patrol may not be as good as the original, but it's hard to compare them since they are such different games. Park Patrol does make excellent use of its setting, allowing you a great deal of customization of the park. Though it is simple, the game does have its share of intricacies which I don't have time to go into.
Unlike most DS games, the controls in Chibi-Robo (aside from walking) use the touch screen in some way, and become second-nature in no time. The controls are set up so that a lefty can play as well, using the A, B, X and Y buttons as the directional pad. The best addition to the Chibi-Robo universe are the many vehicles he can ride (and again, the touch screen controls are fun for those as well).
I've enjoyed Chibi-Robo Park Patrol, though not as much as the original game. This is a game to keep on your back burner while playing a more involved game, 15 to 30 minutes here and there. The total play time is roughly 8-12 hours. Having said that, a new Chibi-Robo game is coming out on the DS that looks like it will provide a more well-rounded experience.
An addictive action-platformer with a unique spin
(www.plasticpals.com) Game Freak, developer of the massively popular Pokemon series, finally takes a break from that well-worn franchise to develop Drill Dozer, a refined action-platformer with a puzzle twist. Drill Dozer puts you in the cockpit of a drilling machine that can bore a hole through just about anything, including most of the GBA's library.
Set in a vibrant cartoony world that looks a little like Pokemon and sounds like Advance Wars, players take on the role of Jill, the young daughter of the boss of the Red Dozer clan of thieves. It's up to her to fight against the Skullker gang who've stolen the family's heirloom, the Red Diamond. On top of that, the Metal City Police have a warrant out on the Dozer clan, which includes crotchety but wise Grutch and the mechanical wiz-kid Gearmo, who will help out from time to time. The story is entertaining enough to tug you along and the zany baddies are good for a laugh, which is more than I can say for the millions of licensed games on the GBA.
At its heart, Drill Dozer is all about drilling. You can drill clockwise with the R button and counter-clockwise with the L button. There's never an instance where you don't know which button to use because everything is colour-coded when a specific button is needed (red for R, blue for L). When you start drilling, a large gear appears on the screen, and with the right timing, you can shift up into a higher gear. Higher gears need to be collected in each level, and they'll give you the power needed to punch through powerful barriers. Just about everything can be drilled, from enemies and objects to special drill switches and platforms. The game eases you into each specific drill gimmick with simple tutorials that make for a very smooth learning curve.
In addition to drilling, the Drill Dozer can jump (A button), crouch, and slide. Jill can even pop her head out and look around or interact with the environment (eg. listen to intercoms or read post-it notes) using the B button. Besides the usual jump and drill levels there are a couple of stages where you use the drill to power a propeller (both for underwater and aerial exploration), which help to break up the game play. Most importantly, drilling and kicking into higher gear is simply fun to do, and the game is filled with enemies and obstacles to make the most of this. The game cartridge even comes equipped with a built-in rumble pak, which gives the player a (optional) buzz every time they power up the drill.
There's an initial set of 12 levels, and eventually you can unlock an additional 5. Contrary to what you might expect given the game's cute veneer, the levels are longer than usual and contain a wide variety of challenges, including some pretty tough bosses. In keeping with the rest of the game, the bosses are inventive and require you to use your drill with precision and excellent timing in order to best them. They really don't pull any punches, so memorize their patterns to grind them into submission!
Drill Dozer is a relatively short (ie. about on par with a Mega Man) game if all you want to do is play the main scenario, but you may find yourself enjoying it enough to take on the extra challenge of the unlock-able levels. These levels usually have branching paths leading to hidden treasures, and are filled with some very tricky platforming puzzles that surpass anything you've seen in the main game. You can also revisit older levels with an upgraded drill bit to explore previously inaccessible areas, so there's plenty of reasons to keep playing even after you've beaten the final boss.
There's no denying that Drill Dozer is a must-have game for your GBA library. The graphics, music, scenario, and game design are a refreshing change of pace for the 2D platformer genre as a whole (something of a miracle given the glut of this sort of thing on the GBA), and the game fares better than the daily grind of shovel-ware DS software, so be sure not to miss Drill Dozer while it's still on store shelves.
Aria of Sorrow is the best of GBA's Castlevania games
(www.plasticpals.com) Castlevania Aria of Sorrow is the third and final installment on the Gameboy Advance, and the first Castlevania to take place in the future. It's also easily the best Castlevania since Koji Igarashi rocked the world with his 32-bit masterpiece, Symphony of the Night.
As per the usual, game play is lightning quick, responsive, and satisfying. The designers have added yet another twist to the core game play in the form of Soul collecting. The castle's dark energy has affected Soma in an unexpected way: he has the power to rule over the monsters populating the evil halls. By defeating a monster, there is a small random chance of capturing their soul!
Unlike previous game play gimmicks, the Player gains all sorts of cool tricks vis-a-vis enemy souls (similar to Final Fantasy 7's "materia" system), and is a welcome modification to the Castlevania sub-weapon staple. Some can be used as special attacks (like the ability to shoot lightning bolts from your fingertips), others as special abilities (such as walking on water, or bat transformation), and some support him by upping his stats (strength +20%, for example). Successful combination of souls is necessary to unlock the castle's many mysteries.
The only problem I have with the soul collecting is that it can sometimes be a pain to collect them. Some monsters are extremely rare (inhabiting only one screen of the entire map, for example) so tracking them down can be problematic. On top of that, you'll have to kill dozens of the same enemy type over and over just to get their soul. It's too time consuming. You can get an item which increases your chances of an enemy dropping its soul, but it's not as effective as it should be.
Sporting a nice variety of sprite-based characters and enemies, mostly good and sometimes unbelievable backgrounds brimming with Gothic goodness, and enchanting music, this is Castlevania as it was always meant to be! As in Harmony of Dissonance, you'll see mode 7-esque scaling and rotation to create pseudo-3D effects, which look great on the GBA's screen. Soma's sprite looks fantastic, and the boss monsters are sure to impress. This is one of the best looking GBA titles.
Whereas Harmony of Dissonance favoured better graphics at the expense of sound quality, Aria of Sorrow restores the balance and somehow manages to excel in both areas. There is even a fair number of voice samples, further blurring the notion that you are playing a portable game.
Taking a cue from Chrono Trigger is a New Game + option (start from the beginning with all souls and equipment from your first time through). There's the much appreciated Boss Rush mode. And adding further incentive to replay the game, the option to control the latest Belmont – Julius (no mean feat considering he can't level up or equip more powerful items). These extra features are great since a first game will probably take the average gamer about 8-10 hours.
The amazing graphics, awesome tunes and challenging boss monsters, coupled with monster-hunting soul-collecting goodness, the best main character since Alucard, and one of the coolest plot-twists since the original Metroid – and you've got an instant classic. Simply put, this is one of the best titles available for the Gameboy Advance (or any system for that matter) and a must-have if you own a GBA or DS.
Breath of Fire 2 is one of the better entries in the series
(www.plasticpals.com) Capcom's Breath of Fire series is one of the unsung Japanese RPG series that, while successful, never approached the popularity of Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest. Better known for their action games rather than RPGs, Capcom didn't even release the original Breath of Fire in the states (allowing Squaresoft to publish it instead). Capcom did release Breath of Fire 2, and it has since been ported to the GameBoy Advance and is now available on the Wii's Virtual Console download service.
Breath of Fire 2's storyline remains true to RPG roots – an entertaining yarn that begins with a small boy in a sleepy town and follows him on a worldwide quest. The main characters are well developed, with each party member starring in at least one major scenario in the game.
At this point in its development, the main attraction of the Breath of Fire series was its flashy graphics. Contrary to other RPGs of its day, Capcom's trademark animated characters and enemies added some excitement to the battle scenes. Of course this is commonplace now, but it's still a nice touch. Breath of Fire 2's characters face the camera during battle, which allows you to see their faces, which is a nice improvement over the original.
The two main gimmicks of the original Breath of Fire – dragon transformations and character fusion – have been improved upon. Players can't rely on Ryu's power too much since one dragon attack completely drains his AP. Characters now fuse with elemental sages to produce more powerful allies (instead of melding party members into hideously ugly monsters).
You can also have up to 4 party members fighting at once, and instead of having a simple battle system with front and back rows, you can arrange your fighters to boost offence or defence with a variety of formations. This system would be improved in the next game.
The game's pacing and difficulty have also been tweaked to be less frustrating than the original, where boss battles often overstayed their welcome. The fishing mini-game is reminiscent of the one in Zelda: Link's Awakening (endearingly simple), and you can invite various NPCs to live in the town you create (though once your villagers have been chosen you can't swap them out).
Originally made for the SNES, Breath of Fire 2 was later ported to GBA and is now available on the Wii's Virtual Console. I played the GBA version on a DS Lite. Primarily, the colour palette has been noticeably lightened to accommodate the original GBA's lack of a back-lit screen and the music isn't quite as sharp. Some minor cosmetic changes aside, the port is very authentic with none of the glitches experienced in other SNES-to-GBA ports.
This is the SNES-era Breath of Fire title to play, if you have the itch that only an old-school RPG can scratch. The storyline is self- contained, it improves on the original's formula and graphics, and is considerably more refined in terms of its difficulty and pacing.
If you're interested in the series but don't know where to start, this is a good candidate. I enjoyed this one more than BoF 3, mainly due to the better cast of characters but also because it is simply more fun with less hang-ups than its PS1 sequel. For 800 Wii Points, and considering the general lack of good RPGs on the Virtual Console, this game is a no-brainer.
Bokura no taiyô (2003)
The Sun is Friend & Foe in this Vampire-slaying Adventure
(www.plasticpals.com) Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand is the brainchild of master game designer Hideo Kojima (creator of Metal Gear): a vampire- slaying quest-adventure in the vein of Zelda with the hide-and-sneak shooting action of Metal Gear. This alone makes Boktai fun but what makes it great (as the title suggests) is the added unpredictable element of the sun.
Inside the cartridge a solar sensor detects sunlight, which affects the game world. The sensor only works with genuine UV rays, resulting in the first GameBoy game to force the player to make use of its portability! When playing you must be outdoors, or at least near a window. While it is possible to play portions of the game at night by storing the sun's energy ahead of time in "Solar Stations", you need the power of the sun to destroy the bosses. Therefore, the player starts to organize their schedule around the game, to think like the Immortal- hunter "Django" who must hunt by the light of day.
The power of the sun is most evident in the Gun-del-Sol, Django's weapon of choice, which is powered by sunlight. As you shoot the gun, its power becomes depleted, but gradually recharges as the solar sensor picks up sunlight. You can also charge it quickly by pressing and holding the A button (when the sun is shining), or by refilling at a Solar Station (after sundown). The Gun-del-Sol is highly customizable, with 4 separate categories for various add-ons and power-ups (elemental lenses, grenades, extra solar batteries, and shot-modifying frames), adding an RPG element to the game.
When Django is indoors, the only way to charge his gun is by standing under rare skylights, which appear only when the solar sensor is detecting sunlight. In rooms with windows, the room will be pitch black until some sunlight is detected, at which point it brightens up allowing you to explore without fear of what lurks around the corner. The Vampires themselves must be destroyed using sunlight via the "Solar Piledriver". And (as any seasoned vampire hunter will tell you) it's best to sneak in during daylight hours when it's reasonably safe, than to go bustling through when the dark slimy things start stalking about. The game's internal clock allows natural passage of time from day to night, providing the exact time of sunrise to sunset through your timezone. There's just something cool about entering a creepy castle and being told: 1 hour, 14 minutes to sunset
With the guidance of the wise Otenko, a floating sunflower with a face, Django must venture through undead catacombs and spooky forests to reach a number of evil lairs, where the Immortals sleep in coffins by day. Sneaking inside the castles, even by day, will not be easy. The halls are often haunted by throngs of undead servants; drones easily provoked should you pass within their line of sight or make too much noise. And like in Metal Gear, rooms are often mazes filled with drones who must be distracted by making tapping noises against walls. Traps reminiscent of Metal Gear's VR Missions will also put your stealth skills to the test.
And if all the ferocious monsters and booby-traps infesting each area don't get him, Django must also put on his thinking cap to solve infuriating puzzles, from downright evil block-pushing exercises to mischievous riddles. Once he's found the Immortal, often a boss battle ensues. If by some miracle he survives, Django must physically drag the unconscious demon's coffin all the way back outside! Along the way, the coffin might become restless, and if you leave the coffin alone for too long (to fend off poisonous spiders for example) it will start nudging its way back to its original resting place! Monsters that come in close contact with the coffin become more active, and will try to steal the coffin and take it back to its crypt.
When the coffin has been successfully dragged out into the daylight, it's time to power up the Solar Piledriver! Massive mirrors flip to reflect and focus the sun's rays at the coffin, awakening the Immortal inside. Immediately the evil presence leaps out, engulfing the battlefield with its shadow! Each individual mirror must be maintained at full power, or the Vampire's dark energy may physically flip the mirror away. If you can keep the mirrors pointed at the Immortal long enough, the sun's rays will incinerate it for good.
After all is said and done, nothing the game throws at you can compare to the unpredictable and unreliable nature of the sun itself (not to mention bad weather, which can really put a damper on your slayer schedule). Even with the skill of ten Belmonts, if the sun ain't on your side, then you can't progress. Therein lies the game's charm and its vice – for though it can often be an impediment to progress and therefore annoying, the solar sensor is the key to new and unique game play ideas. Luckily, playing the game at night is equally fun, since you must strategically conserve solar power when facing even tougher challenges. And, old lairs often have areas which are only accessible once you have an item from later in the game – meaning you can go back and complete them with or without the sun.
All in all, an excellent package – Konami shows there is more to vampire hunting than their own Castlevania – a lot more. Boktai ranks among the top of the GBA's extensive library, and is one game you have to track down and play. It really is that good.
Odin Sphere (2007)
Beautiful, but it has its issues
(www.plasticpals.com) Back when the battle for 32-bit supremacy was all but over, there was a Japanese-only Saturn game called Princess Crown that caught my eye in the pages of GameFan magazine. It was the most beautiful 2D game of its time; never to be translated into English what with the Saturn gasping its final breath. Luckily Vanillaware's follow- up to Princess Crown, Odin Sphere and Muramasa: The Demon Blade didn't suffer the same fate. As its name suggests, it's an homage to Norse mythology stringing together the stories of 5 characters: a Valkyrie, a Fairy, a Cursed Prince, a Witch, and a Black Knight. Each character gets their own "book" lasting between 5~10 hours apiece, with their stories intertwining in interesting ways.
Unlike conventional sprites seen in most 2D games, all of Odin Sphere's characters are built up of several pieces,similar to certain bosses in the Castlevania games. This allows standard characters to be much larger and bosses can take up most of the screen! The backgrounds have multiple layers which move independently like a glorious pop-up book, with foreground elements like leaves gently swaying in the breeze. It truly is a sight to behold.
It bears mentioning that the presentation is rounded out by a great musical score courtesy of Hitoshi Sakimoto (of Final Fantasy Tactics, Vagrant Story, and FF12 fame), and is some of his most original work to date. His old colleague Masaharu Iwata is also credited.
Each character has their own way of moving and attacking. Most of the them are close-range fighters, while a couple have ranged attacks. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses, which helps to spice things up.
Best described as a brawler-RPG, Odin Sphere is a button masher book- ended by story scenes. All of your main attacks are done with the SQUARE button, and you can aim attacks by pressing up or down. Using magic or items mid-battle pauses the action while you select what to use. Unlike in Muramasa, there is no platforming besides one or two battles late in the game.
Attacking relentlessly drains your POW meter, which will leave your character in a defenceless dizzy spell if it runs out completely. Certain characters can use up the POW meter to perform signature attacks, adding a bit of strategy. Meanwhile, enemies can leave you with a number of status ailments, such as poison. You'll need to work out strategies to not only win, but win quickly (to earn better spoils). The battle system is quite fast-paced and fun, but is a little on the simple side because the real meat of the game lies in its alchemy system.
Unlike in most RPGs, you don't gain experience directly from killing foes. Instead, you gain levels by eating food. You'll collect seeds which can be planted anywhere and will grow by absorbing phozons that appear from dead enemies. Once the seed has enough phozons it will produce a fruit which can be harvested and eaten immediately (to regain HP and earn a little experience) or taken to a restaurant with other ingredients to cook a meal (which gives you much more experience).
But growing plants for food requires phozons that can otherwise be absorbed by your character's weapon: the psypher. Psyphers gain levels independently from your HP, and the stronger it gets, the more spells you can use. Casting spells uses up phozons that are stored in your psypher (sort of like MP), so you'll want to collect them whenever possible to keep your MP up and raise pyspher levels. It becomes a balancing act between growing plants and restoring MP.
Some items, such as vegetables and potions, need to be combined before you can get much use out of them. You'll find a wide assortment of alchemy recipes for all sorts of potions; from standard heals and antidotes, to more rare and complicated mixes which will produce all sorts of effects. Simply put, the alchemy system ranges from simple to complex depending on how much effort you want to put into it.
2D graphics are notorious for taking up large amounts of memory, so this is to be expected, but the major drawback to this game is its loading time. It's annoying, but it's just one those things you have to deal with. It's worst when you go to the restaurant & café. Since these two areas require about 10-15 seconds to load, and you visit them often, it does begin to wear on you.
Also, when there are many enemies on screen at once, especially during certain boss battles, you will encounter some serious slow-down. Slow- down like you have never seen before. The whole screen will come to a screeching halt, and you can count the animation frames as they tick away. It usually isn't too bad, and it's not a game-breaker, but it will happen.
Another problem is the game gets quite repetitive. Each of the five main characters will visit the same eight or so "worlds" in the game. Each world is distinct, but they only have half a dozen monster types per world, so you will end up seeing the same places and monsters quite a few times over the course of the game.
As one of the most technically advanced and beautiful 2D games ever made, Odin Sphere is an awesome sight to behold. The game may not be for everyone, but if you like RPGs and action titles, or just want to see some amazing artwork, you should check it out. It's successor, Muramasa, fixes most of the issues with this game but ditches the complexity too.
Oboro Muramasa (2009)
Unrivaled 2D excellence & Blistering Action!
(www.plasticpals.com) Muramasa: The Demon Blade is a side-scrolling action game developed by Vanillaware, known for director George Kamitani's absurdly detailed graphical style and fluid animation. I live for this kind of stuff. In the majority of games today, the quest for realism blots out all traces of the artist's individuality and expression. Colors become desaturated as 3d models rely more and more on photographic textures. Muramasa is the antithesis of this movement; it's style is detailed but clean, crisp, and colourful. Some of the characters and monsters have gnarled anatomy reminiscent of old Japanese ink drawings, and the layered settings are dutifully rendered interpretations of unspoiled landscapes. The game propels you forward simply to see what visual splendour lies just around the corner. In a nutshell, games like this simply don't get made very often, so when they do I'm chomping at the bit to play them.
There were three major issues with Odin Sphere, the game's predecessor: loading times between areas; slow-down during busy battles; and repeated use of the same areas and monsters. Muramasa corrects these issues thanks mainly to the Wii's better hardware, which means you won't see any loading screens or slow-down whatsoever. And unlike Odin Sphere's five selectable characters that trekked through the same areas fighting the same bosses, Muramasa has only two characters which visit plenty of unique locales and fight entirely different bosses.
The battle system is relatively complex, but once learned is incredibly flexible. You can equip three swords and swap between them at any time. Short swords deal quick but light damage, while long swords are slow but powerful. Each blade has a unique special attack that deals added damage. However, during the course of using a blade's special attack or blocking enemy blows, a sword will lose its durability and shatter. A broken sword is useless for attacking and defending, but will slowly reforge itself when sheathed. Knowing when to sheathe and unsheathe your swords adds to the strategy, since unsheathing a powered-up blade unleashes damage to every enemy in your vicinity. Different types of attacks, such as combos, upper cuts, downward stabs, charging stabs, somersaulting whirlwinds, and ninja-style dashes are possible. You can also equip a set of perishable items to use during battle that will replenish your strength, heal status (such as poison), or sharpen your blade.
There's a few slight hiccoughs in an otherwise great game. For starters, you can't go wherever you please due to multi-coloured barriers. These along with the optional side quests (available later) mean you'll do quite a bit of back-tracking throughout the game. Another issue I had was the difficulty settings make the game either too easy or too difficult, without much middle ground. Finally, the game is best played with the Classic Controller add-on, which some people may not own or feel compelled to buy.
Muramasa: The Demon Blade is an exceptional game that has corrected the major flaws tarnishing its predecessor. The main draw is undoubtedly its presentation, which is second to none. The graphics defy belief – imagine Hokusai's classic wood print "The Wave", but moving – that's in this game. And there's so many incredible set pieces to explore, and mythological demons to slay.
Vanillaware's blistering 2D action game is truly one-of-a-kind on the Wii, and is just begging to be played. If you own a Wii, you'd be doing yourself a disservice not to.
Azel: Panzer Dragoon RPG (1998)
The battle system alone makes for a very unique RPG
(www.plasticpals.com)The first two Panzer Dragoon games were coined "dramatic shooting games"; a rail-shooter with a plot and character development in a dazzling setting reminiscent of Miyazaki's Nausicaa. So dramatic, in fact, that the designers decided a third game in the series should be an RPG to expand on the setting, the end product being a massive 4 CD game. Perhaps due to the failing Saturn sales, or because of the production costs (the first 4 CD console game), SEGA made only 32,000 copies for North America – a ridiculously small number – causing Panzer Dragoon Saga to become one of the most rare and sought after video games.
The setting is a future world controlled by the remnants of a once powerful (but now extinct) ancient civilization. The gigantic structures left behind by this civilization, though masterless, still pulse with life. Biological mutant terrors, bred to control human population and maintain ecological equilibrium, continue their gruesome task. There is the typical power-hungry Empire (and its fleet of airships), excavating ruins in the hopes of finding war machines left by the Ancients. There is Craymen, a rogue general who is trying to overthrow the Empire. There are the Seekers, a rebel group that believes the ancient technology is evil and must be destroyed. In the middle of all this conflict is the hero, Edge, and the mysterious bio- organic woman found at the excavation site, Azel.
The battle system is very unique and fun to play. Using a variation of the "Active Time Battle" system, you have a series of meters which must fill up before you can perform specific actions. Equally important is the dragon's position in relation to his enemies in order to avoid their super attacks and pinpoint their weak spots. For example, some enemies have safe zones (allowing you to prepare a big attack or heal without worry), but often in order to destroy them you have to move into their super attack zone to pinpoint their weakness. You're constantly moving during battle, sweeping into hot zones to deliver an attack while deftly dodging the enemy's counter attack.
With the exception of exploring towns, you are riding your dragon. Therefore, most of the time you are flying around, interacting with the environment by targeting things and shooting with the breath attack. This works well, because instead of having to walk right up to a treasure chest to open it, you can just shoot it from a distance. The same goes for towns, you can target NPCs and speak with them from a distance.
Graphically, the game is perhaps a bit overly ambitious. Full 3d environments with full 3d characters, in a time when games on the technically superior PlayStation had rendered environments or sprite-based characters, was no small feat for the Saturn. Unlike the N64 which hid pop-up with dense fog, the Saturn was never designed to do transparency. Because of this, there is some unsightly pop-up on the horizon of some stages (like the ocean stage) but in most instances they have hidden it rather cleverly. Slow-down is kept to a minimum. Battles look great, and there are some cool special effects for the spells. And of course, the hallmark of Panzer Dragoon, the best water effects of the 32-bit era, and there are a number of different techniques used!
In terms of sound, the game is no less ambitious. Featuring full voice- acting for every single character in the game, from the hero on down to the lowliest peasants, with up to three separate exchanges per character (per disc), is a mind-boggling technical achievement when you consider we are only now reaching that standard in the latest RPGs. The music was composed by Saori Kobayashi, and is amongst the finest you will hear in any video game.
Presentation is good, but not great. CG animation is used frequently throughout the game to accentuate the storyline, but the quality is inconsistent. The introduction and ending are suitably higher quality than the rest, however the general standard is not even in the same league as Final Fantasy VII's worst stuff. Most FMV games from that period look dated by today's standards anyway, and should be appreciated for what they get right, not condemned for lack of technology or production values. The implementation of voice-overs required lip- synching, which few games of the time even bothered to attempt (let alone implement) in every scene, as this game does.
SEGA, by combining such a unique and in-depth battle system with a completely different method of exploration, created a new type of game that is a hybrid between shooters and RPGs. The marriage of unique game play to a Nausicaa-inspired setting, with the addition of the most in-depth dragon mythology ever, amounts to an instant and timeless classic.
Jumping Flash! (1995)
3D Platforming Bliss - but over far too soon!
(www.plasticpals.com) Exact is a fairly unknown Japanese game developer, having produced only 3 PlayStation titles (Jumping Flash! 1 & 2, Ghost in the Shell), but have made a name for themselves by always taking advantage of the 3D play field in new or unique ways. In Ghost in the Shell, it was the ability to crawl on any surface (including walls and ceilings), and in Jumping Flash! it was the ability to leap hundreds of meters high into the sky.
The world of Jumping Flash is in distress, for the evil scientist Baron Aloha has taken chunks of the planet and carted them into outer-space. These wondrous locales include Egyptian pyramids, volcanic spouts, amusement parks, cities and other areas which defy description, all tethered to giant robots called Muu Muus by tractor beams. Our hero, Robbit the robot rabbit, must explore each planetary island while collecting jet pods that will disengage the Baron's hold on them.
While the game won't win any awards for its story (this is a platform game after all), what it does possess is an incredibly ambitious design. Robbit can shoot using twin laser cannons, but his main ability is a super jump, which can be multiplied up to three times in mid-air. Players are free to look around, allowing for precision shooting (or to gather your surroundings), and use special weapons (of which 3 can be held in reserve).
Some levels take place underground, which play like any corridor shooter, but the above areas are where the game truly shines. Incorporating several ingenious platform mechanics: moving platforms; fans which keep you airborne; rainbow-road styled rollercoasters; Jetsons' styled vacuum tubes, and more. The levels are not restricted by any sense of reality – in the volcano zone, you'll see giant frying pans flipping eggs over volcanic eruptions. It's crazy, weird, and wonderful. Collecting all four jet pods and finding the exit in each stage before time runs out will require precise command of Robbit's triple jump, a challenge despite the fact that players can see to the horizon at any point (a limited on-screen radar helps).
In each of the six sections of the world there are 2 levels and a boss (not counting the secret modes, this only amounts to a total of 11 levels). It's not uncommon to finish the game in less than 1 hour (made all the more disappointing by the high quality of what is there), but the game design is so unique it may be worth picking up. After you finish the game, new modes become available which extend its playability. For a fun distraction, each world has a bonus round (often cleverly hidden) in which you are given 60 seconds to pop a series of balloons, designed to put your platform/shooting skills to the test. You can also play levels in a Time Attack mode, but the game is over a little too quickly.
Bosses are always unique but not overly difficult. Upon completion the game begins another challenge: players must complete the stages with different jet pod, exit, and bonus rounds, all within a 5 minute time- limit, instead of 10 minutes. 5 minutes might sound like plenty of time, but these levels are massive – and now, every jump counts! After the extra mode is finished, the SUPER mode becomes available, unlocking an insane 6-level boost to Robbit's jump which makes the game even more fun, but much too easy.
Jumping Flash! was a PlayStation launch title, making its successful implementation of graphics and design even more surprising. Every object and enemy is completely 3D, and while simplistic, get the job done. Slight fog is used to hide pop-up, but otherwise you can literally see the entire level spread out before you, ready to be explored. The effect is most pronounced while performing Robbit's trademarked triple jump, as you can see the ground push away from you, then come rushing back as you land. Levels possess unique themes, with the graphics and level-specific game mechanics really combining to create an experience.
The music in Jumping Flash! is typical platform game wackiness, with that gamey feel we expect from Nintendo games. In fact, the whole package is as close to a Nintendo-made title that the PlayStation ever saw, a compliment to the designers. Jumping Flash! wasn't the first 3D platform game, but it was the first to implement truly 3D, "go anywhere" levels, and, while there have been finer examples of the genre since (Super Mario Galaxy for example), Jumping Flash! holds a special place very near the top of its class. Now available on the PS3's network for a measly $5, you really can't go wrong with this one!
Puzzle Activity Book meets Point-n-Click Adventure!
(www.plasticpals.com) Professor Layton & The Curious Village is the first chapter in Level 5's popular game franchise starring the titular professor and his plucky side kick, Luke. It combines elements of point and click adventure games with brain teasers to great effect.
The brain teasers originally appeared in a series of puzzle books called Head Gymnastics by Akira Tago (who also supervised development of the game), which Level 5 president Akihiro Hino enjoyed in his youth. The genius was combining these puzzles with a fun mystery and an interesting cast of characters.
In this installment, Professor Layton has been summoned to the strange village of St. Mystere by Lady Dahlia, widow to Baron Reinhold. The late Baron has willed his life's fortune to anyone who can solve the mystery of the Golden Apple. Unfortunately, the apple is hidden somewhere in St. Mystere and no one knows where it is. It's up to the Professor to solve this and many other riddles along the way, with the help of his trusty assistant Luke and the citizens of St. Mystere.
Professor Layton uses the touch screen almost exclusively for everything from talking to villagers to moving about town, to writing answers to solve a puzzle. Just about anyone, regardless of gaming experience, should be able to pick it up and play it immediately, assuming they can read. Don't take that to mean the game is easy. There's plenty of text in the game, and key to solving many puzzles is paying special attention to the wording of a question. Slight hiccoughs may occur with the game's hand writing recognition, but it's nothing a quick do-over won't fix.
There are over 120 puzzles to be solved, in a wide variety of styles. Very few puzzles boil down to trial and error, with most having specific, logic-based solutions. The difficulty also varies greatly from puzzle to puzzle, so it's probably not suitable for very young players. Puzzles are presented both with text and often some kind of visual diagram which you may write on, if the need for simple calculations or notes should arise (and it will).Should you get stumped, you may buy up to three hints using "hint coins", which you find littered throughout the village in suspicious places. Simply tapping around on objects of interest in the background will yield enough coins (and hints) to get you out of a tight spot – though without a time limit, there's really no reason to hurry. Meanwhile, players keep score with Picarats they earn for successfully solving puzzles. The more Picarats you score by the end of the game, the more unlock-able stuff you get.
Certain puzzles are exclusive to a specific chapter, but players may tackle these in later chapters by visiting Mrs. Riddleton's shack, where any missed puzzles are stored. Players can also access the puzzles they've already solved through the menu, which is great for puzzling friends and relatives.
Aside from the puzzles, Professor Layton's primary strength lies in its lavish production values. Beautifully drawn characters and backgrounds in a distinctive style similar to "The Triplettes of Belville", and music evocative of a Paris café, transport you to a wonderfully idealized vision of early 20th century Europe.
The colour palette is slightly subdued, almost as if the entire game has been tinted with a light sepia tone, further adding to its flavor. As a nice treat the presentation is rounded out by dazzling cinematics from time to time, easily matching the quality of big budget animated films through stunning use of computer graphics and some voice acting. Thankfully, players can enjoy these scenes again and again through the options' movie viewer.
Professor Layton & The Curious Village is a win-win combination of classic brain teasers with a storybook animated film. For my money, Professor Layton is a better game than its competition (Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney, Hotel Dusk, etc), because unlike many point and click adventure games, where the puzzles often require a specific item or have illogical solutions, Professor Layton deviates from the norm to create a much more user-friendly experience. At the same time, with its unusual cast of characters and setting, Professor Layton is much more engaging than standard edutainment titles, such as Brain Training or Big Brain Academy.
It took me about 15 hours to complete the main game, being very thorough not to miss any puzzles or hint coins, which is a perfectly acceptable length for this sort of game (and its low price). Players can also unlock extra puzzles via wi-fi for a fresh challenge. From what I've gathered, the Layton games will likely become one of the DS's most treasured series. Don't pass it up!
Use of the touch-screen reinvents the Zelda controls
(www.plasticpals.com) Phantom Hourglass, the first Zelda title designed for the Nintendo DS, picks up where The Windwaker left off. A comical seafaring adventure in the cel-shaded style, Phantom Hourglass makes excellent use of the DS graphical capabilities as well as its touch screen, delivering one of the best games for the system yet.
The DS begged the question, "How would a Zelda game play using the touchscreen?" and Phantom Hourglass is the answer. Eschewing both the d-pad and face buttons entirely, Phantom Hourglass can be played with the touch screen alone, with the option of using the L button for readying secondary items. This is a big change, but die-hard Zelda fans can breathe easily as the controls couldn't feel any more natural.
Link will move wherever you touch the screen, and attack enemies when you tap on them with your stylus. You can also perform fancier moves, such as the spin-slash by drawing a circle around him. Where things get really interesting (and innovative) is how the player uses secondary items such as bombs, arrows, and the boomerang. It's amazing how intuitive the controls are for each item and in most cases it's an improvement over the typical 2D Zelda control mechanisms.
One of the coolest additions to the game play is the ability to draw on the map screen. Clues for solving a puzzle can be quickly jotted down, or the location of buried treasure can be sketched onto the map. This isn't just a gimmick as you'll be making memos throughout the entire game. X marks the spot!
Phantom Hourglass even improves on game play specific to The Windwaker. Instead of having to conduct the wind to sail around the ocean, players simply plot their course by drawing a line on the map. Tapping enemies that attack you on the high seas will fire the cannons with surprising accuracy. You can even upgrade and customize your ship with dozens of different parts.
The best new addition to seafaring is dragging up treasure from the deep. In The Windwaker, you simply navigated to the spot marked on your map and the treasure was yours. In Phantom Hourglass, you now get to control the salvage arm as it drops below the water's surface. Collecting each buried treasure plays out like a mini-game where you have to avoid mines and rocky cliffs while snagging rupees, until finally latching onto the treasure chest on the sea floor!
Key to solving the mysteries of the game is delving deeper and deeper into the Temple of the Ocean King. Unfortunately, the temple is cursed – anyone who dares to venture inside will have their life drained – and there are Phantoms about who mean serious business! This is where the titular Phantom Hourglass comes into play. The hourglass prevents your life from being drained for a time (just how much time is determined by how much special sand you have collected). Making things a bit easier are safety zones which pause the timer and prevent Phantoms from seeing you.
It's a bit of a chore to return inside the temple (which players must do at least 5 times throughout the game), but the handy warp points and Link's arsenal of items provide for handy shortcuts, cutting down on the back-tracking quite a bit.
The DS isn't exactly known for its power (often playing second fiddle to the PSP) but Phantom Hourglass looks and sounds like a portable version of The Windwaker. It may be a little rough around the edges, but it does a great job overall. Characters are especially expressive by DS standards, and the bosses and cinematics (often stretching across both screens) are a sight to behold.
Enticing non-gamers to play is Nintendo's mandate, and Phantom Hourglass could be described as an "entry level" Zelda game. Relying entirely on touch screen controls required a simpler design, and some traditional Zelda elements were truncated as a result. Dungeons are linear, puzzles are easier, and enemies don't put up much of a fight. That said, the game is still fun to play, the bosses are epic even by Zelda's standards and the mini games will test even the best player's skill with the touch- screen. For my money, Phantom Hourglass is one of the best DS titles available, and a solid if not spectacular addition to the Zelda franchise.
Chibi robo! (2005)
(www.plasticpals.com) Skip's first Gamecube game, Giftpia, never made it across the Pacific despite the intense interest of curious gamers starved of RPGs. Luckily, Chibi-Robo didn't suffer the same fate.
Chibi-Robo shrinks players down to the small size of its titular star, a tiny robot built only to make people happy. Like Mr. Mosquito, Pikmin, Katamari Damacy, and The Minish Cap, Chibi-Robo places a large emphasis on exploring the world from a worm's eye view. The entire game takes place in and around the household of the Sanderson family.
Exploring their humble abode is no simple task if you're 10cm tall, not to mention Chibi Robo's limited power capacity, which always threatens to run out. Being a robot, Chibi won't die – but running out of power (which drains in different amounts depending on the actions he performs) is about as close to death as he'll get. Luckily Chibi can plug himself in to wall outlets to recharge, which he'll do quite often in the beginning.
There's also a day / night cycle, with either portion of the day divided into 5, 10, or 15 minute chunks. The longer you set the timer, the more you can accomplish. At night, when the Sandersons are sleeping, the toys spring to life (ala Toy Story) and Chibi will have to make them happy, too.
As Chibi explores his surroundings (often through clever puzzle- platforming) picking up trash and scrubbing away messes left by his human owners, he acquires Happy Points and Moolah. The happier he makes the people, animals, and toys, the closer he gets to becoming the #1 Chibi Robo in the world, which is the underlying goal of the game, and each step of the way nets him increased battery life.
Cleaning up soon takes a back seat to meeting the strange inhabitants of the home, each of whom has a unique personality, dreams, crushes, and problems. These story lines are sometimes brief episodes, while others span the entire length of the game (including after the credits have rolled). Moolah earned or collected can be spent on items or tools that will expand Chibi's arsenal, and costumes give him special abilities (like understanding animals or skipping to the next day).
Chibi-Robo is especially refreshing in that there is virtually no violence or enemies in the game. Spydorz (robotic spiders that attack from time to time) are easily dealt with, and leave behind scrap metal which can be recycled into ladders, bridges, and warps; useful tools for exploring the world. The only real suspense comes when your battery life is running low, or when you're in the middle of a complex platforming task and the day or night is about to end. The importance of this point cannot be stressed enough in today's market of video games which rely too much on violent conflict resolution.
Chibi-Robo is a thoroughly polished adventure game with a laid back, stress-free style, broken up by enjoyable bouts of platforming, action, and mini games. The endearing characters (including the family dog's love-stricken chew toy), the many trials and tribulations they set upon you, and the stories that play out as a result of your actions, are fun and rewarding to watch unfold. The game has a very open-ended style that reminded me of the many intertwining character stories in Zelda: Majora's Mask. All in all Chibi-Robo is a very unique game lasting between 15-20 hours that shouldn't be missed.
Pikmin 2 (2004)
Pikmin 2 improves on the original in almost every way
(www.plasticpals.com) Pikmin 2 plants the seeds for a new game in Shigeru Miyamoto's original real-time strategy series. Growing out of the design of the first game, Pikmin 2 now features 2 new types of Pikmin, expanded Pikmin abilities, 2 playable characters, a new 2-player competitive mode, the addition of underground caves, and no 30 day time- limit. In addition, though this feature has no game play function, they've added the Piklopedia; a veritable encyclopedia of all the different treasures and alien species Olimar has encountered during his expedition (along with clever, sometimes hilarious observations by the crew).
In the first game, there were a total of 30 ship parts that needed to be collected in order to repair Olimar's spaceship, the Dolphin. Now Olimar has returned home, only to discover that Hocotate Freight (the company he works for) has gone bankrupt after the inexperienced pilot Louie's shipment of PikPik brand carrots was eaten by a gigantic Space Bunny (of course, Louie's insatiable love of PikPik carrots had absolutely nothing to do with the disappearance). The Dolphin gets repossessed, and Olimar and Louie return to the planet to collect treasure to pay off Hocotate Freight's debt. In all, there are now more than 200 new items to be found and collected, although only 100 or so are needed to pay off the debt.
Game play has been sufficiently expanded upon. The original Pikmin trio return, although this time the Yellow Pikmin have lost their ability to use bomb-rocks, and instead they are now insusceptible to electricity. In addition, you will encounter large flowers in underground areas that can transform regular Pikmin into two new types: Purple or White Pikmin. Purple Pikmin are like Sumo wrestlers; about ten times as strong as regular Pikmin, they make for great warriors and can carry objects 10 times their weight! White Pikmin are very small, insusceptible to herbicide, and can sniff out buried treasure. However, don't expect the game balance to slide, since each transformation flower can only generate up to 5 new Pikmin seeds, and as per the first game, you may only have up to 100 Pikmin on the field at any time.
Olimar was the hero of the first game, but this time he is accompanied by the rookie named Louie. Louie acts as a secondary Pikmin leader. This allows you to divide your forces to tackle different projects simultaneously. For example, Olimar can be off defeating enemies while Louie waits for his Pikmin to break down a wall. You can switch between the two characters at the press of a button. This makes exploring the larger areas easier and more efficient before the sun goes down.
In addition to exploring large environments littered with Pikmin- specific obstacles, the Player will find entrances to underground caves. Once inside a cave, time stops and the Player can explore and do battle for as long as need be. Since the Onions don't go with you, you cannot respawn Pikmin, which plays into the strategy. Each cave can delve several levels down with each level containing several pieces of treasure to collect, as well as new enemies and obstacles. With so many floors, it really tests your strategy because your Pikmin numbers will quickly dwindle if you make mistakes along the way. This can be disastrous, as the last floor is always home to a rather large boss monster, often visually impressive and requiring a new strategy to defeat.
The caves really extend the life of the game, offering up all sorts of play areas, and each feature a specific graphical "theme". These aren't just boring caves; they're a series of connected metallic platforms, a child's toy-strewn bedroom floor, an underground reservoir (with beautiful trickling water), or a bright shiny garden. It's all in a day's work for Olimar and crew, and like the first game, after a hard day's work you return to your ship and read funny and endearing emails from the hapless Shacho (lit. "Boss" in Japanese), or your loving wife and kids.
The graphics in this game are slightly improved over the first Pikmin, which was already looking great. The artists have gone out of their way to create organic environments filled with precious details. One of my favourites is when your Pikmin brush by flowers, sometimes a couple of shimmering butterflies will pop up and start fluttering around. And you can attack and harvest the butterflies, too, if you want to. There's so much in this game, and it runs at a constant 30 fps. The new Piklopedia allows you to view any of the game's flora and fauna and hundreds of treasure items at any angle with a zoom. This is great for reading the small print on the side of that Duracell battery you collected in stage one, for instance. Each plant, animal, and sponsored treasure is modelled and textured with the utmost attention to detail.
Sound and Music aren't quite up to par with the visuals. The music can be atmospheric, but is often clunky (though charming in its almost childlike percussive quality). The audio in the beautifully rendered CG intro and endings, however, is very well-done, featuring hilarious character voices and beautiful compositions. One of my favourite sound effects is the little wail a Pikmin makes when it's dying, but perhaps even better are the little chants and tunes the Pikmin hum in unison as they traverse the landscape. When you have 20 Pikmin of every colour on the field, for example, they start humming a ridiculously cute rendition of Pikmin 1's theme song!
Pikmin 2 has expanded on and refined every element from the first game. Basically, they've given more Pikmin, more treasure, more levels, the multi-player mode, and refined the game's presentation with a number of Pixar-quality CG animations. This bodes very well for things to come as the Pikmin series continues to flower.
A Wii launch title that everyone should play
(www.plasticpals.com) Never mind that it was designed for the Gamecube; Twilight Princess is one of the best looking Wii titles available. The character models are polished and textured with minute details; Link's clothing and equipment and the Zoras and Gorons have never looked better. Unique cultural cues for each of the game's areas enrich the world of Hyrule, resulting in a more believable and immersive adventure. You'll get to know many of the people you encounter quite well, either because they're integral to the story or because they test you with various side-quests along the way. Interesting and sometimes beautiful special effects spice things up, especially in the Twilight Realm.
As expected Link must save the day by exploring dungeons, solving puzzles, battling enemies, collecting special items, and slaying bosses – lather, rinse, repeat. Similar to A Link to the Past, there's even a light world/dark world set up. It's an old formula that some fans are getting tired of but it works, and somehow Nintendo has managed to improve it once again. All of the returning items with the exception of perhaps the standard bomb and bottle have been upgraded with some sort of new function. Where items haven't changed much, they've been improved thanks to the Wii remote's pointer functionality. Aiming the slingshot, boomerang, or bow feels incredibly natural and effortless. You can pick off enemies from afar so easily it's almost criminal. Say good-bye to the nightmare of aiming with the analog stick that was Ocarina of Time or Majora's Mask.
One of the biggest changes is how Link attacks. Rather than pressing a button, players must now waggle the Wii remote in order to slash with the sword. At first this sounds like it might detract from the experience but once you get used to it, you won't want to go back. Sometimes, this can lead to frustration as there is a slight delay between unsheathing your sword and attacking that wasn't quite as evident in previous titles, but is forgivable because fighting feels more natural and satisfying. Players will pick up seven secret sword techniques as they progress through the game, which further enriches the battle system from The Windwaker, which was already pretty good. One of the biggest improvements that the waggle brings to the table is that Link doesn't come to a halt when he slashes his sword – you can run around freely slashing left and right.
As the game's introduction makes clear, Link can transform into a wolf. At first this is a bit of a curse, but eventually you can use this to your advantage. Link gains special abilities in wolf form that are indispensable to his quest. In addition, Midna (a lovable side-kick from the Twilight Realm) can stun a group of enemies for easy pickings, and point out where it's possible to jump long distances. You can also converse with animals and listen to spirits, which may provide you with the necessary clues to progress.
The puzzles aren't always new, and many chests are filled with rupees (that probably won't fit in your wallet anyway) but overall the dungeons are engaging to the last. Each one presents its own unique set of challenges and some are even inhabited by characters who will reward you for your help. The bosses look epic and are inventive and fun to fight, if a little easy for Zelda veterans.
There are some slight problems that mar the experience, such as the constant valuations of rupees per game session ("You got a Blue/Yellow/Red/Purple/Orange/Silver Rupee!"). Do I really need to see that prompt over and over again? It's a small, but annoying problem. Oh, and not having enough room for rupees ("so let's put it back") is annoying – let me carry 1000 rupees from the start, please.
Then there's the issue of the HUD, which takes up way too much real estate on the screen. You can hide the mini-map, but it's still annoying. In my opinion, everything (such as your hearts, rupees, items, etc) should be semi-transparent or invisible until needed. And it pains me to say it, but Epona just isn't as life-like and fun to control as Agro from Shadow of the Colossus.
Despite any minor flaws, Twilight Princess is an awesome experience, taking the best bits from previous Zelda titles and mixing them with new ideas, a new look, and new controls (in the Wii version anyway) to create a truly epic game. There's very little to complain about and a whole lot to love.
Some of the stand out moments for me are also the small ones; fighting a new type of enemy, using a new item, or meeting new characters. In other words, the kind of moments that make up every play session I had with the game. And it's a long game, too – it took me about 48 hours to finish it (collecting all the heart pieces and bugs, and most of the side quests – though I still need to find a few Poes), done over about a week a pretty good indication I was hooked!
More importantly, Twilight Princess feels complete (unlike The Windwaker) and is on the same scale as Ocarina of Time or A Link to the Past, which is how a Zelda game should be. I can't imagine how they'll top this one next.
Still infinitely playable after all these years
(www.plasticpals.com) The first Zelda was so well conceived that it set the stage for innumerable sequels. The fantasy setting of Hyrule, populated by the elf-like Hylians, is a world made up of forests, deserts, mountains, rivers, ruins, cemeteries, and dungeon fortresses. Familiar creatures and conventions, such as fairies and rupees rule the day. At this early stage, the mythology wasn't well developed but the Triforce plays an important role, fragments of which are the prize and the goal of each dungeon.
The evil thief Ganon has kidnapped Princess Zelda and used the Triforce of Power to summon evil monsters into the otherwise peaceful land. To prevent Ganon from abusing the power of the Triforce of Wisdom, Princess Zelda has scattered its pieces throughout Hyrule. It's up to Link, a young boy clad in green, to take up the sword and save the day. One would be forgiven for assuming Nintendo took some inspiration from the cult classic "The Dark Crystal" – with its Elf-like Gelflings and a quest to restore peace to a troubled land.
Miyamoto wanted to create a game world where players could feel the excitement and wonder of exploring strange new lands and finding hidden secrets; the kind of feeling he had wandering around his hometown as a child. To this aim, the land of Hyrule was unmatched in size for its time, composed of 128 unique screens. That was like having a whole world inside your television – you'd come to recognize areas like you do your own neighbourhood.
Adding to the complexity of the landscape are its many secrets, which can only be uncovered by using one of the many items in the game. With the right equipment, Link can bomb open walls, burn bushes, push boulders and gravestones, and ferry across rivers. Now, this all sounds pretty typical of adventure games these days, but there are no words to describe how awesome that was back when this game was new!
Even with all these items, Link will sometimes need directions from locals to find his way through the labyrinth of the Lost Woods or Death Mountain pass, which seem to keep unwanted visitors out with some kind of magic! Sometimes the locals will proffer goods (at a price), play gambling games (rigged, I swear!), donate rupees (it's a secret to everybody), or shout at you and demand payment for damaging their humble abode!
Every now and again as Link fights his way past the minions of Ganon, he will come across ominous ruins. Venturing inside, he is faced with a labyrinth seething with enemies, hidden passageways, traps and puzzles. The game automatically fills in a dungeon map to help you find your way, an innovative feature at the time. If Link perseveres he can find a complete map as well as a compass which points to the location of the Triforce. These make the going a little less tough, but they don't reveal the location of keys, locked doors, or essential items.
As he gets closer to the Triforce, Link will hear the unsettling breathing of an enormous beast through the dungeon walls, and in the next room a boss battle awaits. Bosses in the first Zelda game are fairly tame compared to the sequels. Gohma and Dodongo would put in appearances in later games, and Link uses similar strategies to defeat them here.
There are 9 dungeons in total, gradually becoming more complex and difficult to find. Unlike future iterations, there are usually no tell- tale clues as to what walls can be bombed, what shrubs can be burned, or what blocks can be pushed. Despite the sometimes punishing nature of its game play, especially in the master quest (which features different dungeon locations, layouts, and items), Zelda was a sensational success. Players everywhere relished the riddles that Hyrule posed.
Some twenty years after its initial release, I decided to pick it up again just for fun. Within a couple of hours I was absolutely transfixed, and couldn't stop playing it! I ended up finishing it for the first time in my life. Zelda had always stumped me as a kid because I always entered my name as Zelda – triggering the much harder, more cryptic master quest. I really feel bad for people who haven't played it – or won't, simply because it's "old".
It has some control issues, but there's a solid game here
(www.plasticpals.com) Dewy's Adventure, the next original IP from the Elebits team, focuses on the Wii remote's tilt sensor as its core game play mechanic.
The first thing you'll notice about Dewy's Adventure is that it is one of the best looking Wii games to date. I wouldn't say the graphics are as good as Super Mario Galaxy, but they are very polished, run at a smooth frame rate, and make use of many cool shader effects. It really is a gorgeous game with many great looking stages and bosses.
At its heart, Dewy's Adventure is a puzzle-platformer. Players tilt the Wii remote in the direction they want Dewy to slide. You gain momentum depending on how far you tilt the remote; tilt it just a little and you can perform some very precise maneuvering, or tilt it far to send Dewy sliding around at top speed. At first it feels a little sloppy, but the more you play the more you will ease into it.
Jumping can be a bit tricky, but therein lies the challenge. Unlike in most games, you can't control Dewy's direction mid-jump. His trajectory is determined entirely by the direction you are tilting the controller at the time you jump. It is a bit tricky at first, and the levels delight in challenging you with precise platforming tasks, so falling off ledges is not uncommon (luckily, you return to solid ground with just a small hit to your life bar).
The controls do get frustrating in some areas, and is one of the main reasons this game got average reviews. But despite falling to my doom many times, I still fundamentally enjoyed this game and its control scheme.
Being a magical droplet of water, Dewy has some special powers based on temperature. Players can change the temperature up or down using the D- Pad. If you turn up the heat, Dewy evaporates into a cloud capable of floating in mid-air and letting loose a charged lightning attack. If you cool things off, he transforms into a diamond-like ice cube and can spin attack enemies like a top.
Players can adjust the temperature any time they want, but Dewy automatically reverts to a water droplet after a few seconds. These temperature adjustments are sometimes necessary to bypass certain obstacles in levels, too, so it's not just a simple gimmick.
On the surface of things, Dewy's Adventure looks like a childish game, with its cute monsters and pastel coloured stages. Don't be fooled. This game is challenging and fun to play, and there's a lot of game here. There are 7 main areas (jungles, caverns, ruins, volcanoes, glaciers, etc), each broken up into 4 levels. Each level may take between 5-10 minutes each to complete your first time through.
You are graded based on the time it took to complete the level as well as how many trapped citizens you rescue (100 per level). These trapped citizens aren't just a collectathon chore, but secreted away in hidden nooks and crannies, requiring you to search every inch of the game. You can replay any of the levels whenever you feel like it, so you might be tempted to return to old ones to find more citizens to better your score.
Each area has one mini-boss and one main boss. The bosses not only look fantastic (they're the highlight of the game), but also present some interesting challenges, which reminded me a bit of Zelda or Mario.
Konami's Elebits team has produced two of the most original games available on the Wii, which make excellent use of the Wii's unique controller functions. This game also utilizes the Wii's photo mode and sends you tips in the message board. Not only that, but it also meets the high production quality standards that Nintendo fans are accustomed to.
If you own a Wii, don't let Dewy's Adventure's cute appearance put you off playing this game. While the tilt controls can make for some frustrating experiences, if you stick to it and become comfortable with them there is a solid game here with lots to see and do.