June 2004

[floatleft]http://www.snackbar-games.com/images/reviews/contraadvance/cover.jpg[/floatleft]Contra Advance is a throwback to the 2d Contra games that appeared on NES, SNES, and Genesis in the early 90s. The original NES game paved the way for probably the most famous cheat code in gaming history that has even had [url=http://www.gameskins.com/item–Infinite-Tee–gssh010]t-shirts[/url] with its button combinations emblazoned upon them. Contra Advance is a remake of Contra III which appeared on the SNES way back in 1992.

It has been nearly a decade since I remember playing Contra last and I had a very difficult time getting back into the rhythm of things with Contra Advance. In recent years I have been spoiled by platform games with unlimited lives that restart you merely a few minutes away from where you last died. Contra Advance gives you no such luxury. Armed with the customary “1 weapon at a time” philosophy of the anti Red Falcon operatives I set out to battle aliens through 6 difficult stages and overcome the enemy threat. Had this been a real military exercise I probably would have failed.

The control setup on Contra Advance is exactly as you will remember it: Jump and Shoot. No more, no less. Since you can only carry 1 gun at a time there is no need to switch weapons. Contra Advance really subscribes to the “less is more philosophy” in this remake title. This is a change from the original Contra III where you could carry more than 1 gun and swap them. You will also notice an absence of the aura bomb. The lack of 4 buttons on the GBA makes this a necessary change as those shoulder buttons are not always easy to hit during intense action.

[floatright]http://www.snackbar-games.com/images/reviews/contraadvance/ss02_thumb.jpg[/floatright]I have a tendency to rush through platform games and die on very simple parts time and time again because I remember doing that with Mario games back on my NES. Once again I attempted to breeze through this game only to have a pretty difficult time getting past even the first level. There are only 6 stages so the game would be very short had I been able to breeze through each level, but it wasn’t. The first level whipped my butt and taught me a new respect for patience in gaming. After some practice I honed my skills and laid the smack down on some aliens.

The experience was just as I had remembered it and having 5 or 6 lives sure wasn’t as appealing as having 30, even though you do get a plethora of continues. As I played through each level meticulously trying to find just the right pattern for each boss and just the right timing for each jump I became very nostalgic about the whole thing. My frustrations began to mount and I would take a break so as to not damage my precious new Classic GBA. After completing each level I would write down the code so I could pick up right where I left off. I had a hard enough time beating each level so there was no reason for me to have to play them again.

The level codes were incredibly tedious and annoying. You complete a level only to find out that you are expected to type in a 20+ alphanumeric code to restart there at a later date. This got on my nerves and really cut back on the number of times that I wanted to play after I had beating any of the levels. Forget remembering the code, I hope you enjoy playing the first level.

[floatleft]http://www.snackbar-games.com/images/reviews/contraadvance/ss05_thumb.jpg[/floatleft]Most of the time I played with the music off, but a few times I cranked it up and really basked in the 1990s midi soundtrack that accompanied the game. It isn’t something I would recommend doing on a regular basis; your ears will thank me.

Overall, Contra Advance was a mighty frustrating experience. At only 6 levels it is mighty short, but those levels could possibly take a while to complete, especially if you lack the patience to recognize patterns (*cough*ME*cough*). Contra Advance is a decent 2d shooter that seems way too short for the price. Nostalgic Contra III fans may find the port a little disappointing considering some pretty massive changes were made, but it’s a fun game to toss in for a few levels. It even supports the GBA link cable for some co-op action. I don’t know that I would recommend this as a purchase given its length, but if you are looking for a challenging on-the-go shooter to play with a friend, Contra Advance may be just what you are looking for. If not, you can probably just look the other way.

Halo 2 Countdown

June 29, 2004

If you scroll all the way down, you will see a Halo 2 countdown. This will remain down there until Halo 2 comes out on November 9th.

[floatleft]http://www.snackbar-games.com/images/reviews/nbajam/cover.jpg[/floatleft]I must admit that when I heard that NBA Jam was going to be re-released a part of me got a little tingly. I can’t even recall the amount of time I spent playing the original game on my old Sega Genesis which I incidentally still have. NBA Jam was groundbreaking with its fast paced style of gameplay and it really seemed to give way to the NFL Blitz style of sports games that followed shortly. Now that the standard sports games have had time to mature we revisit NBA Jam to see if it still has what it did back in the day. Unfortunately for Acclaim the answer is a resounding no.

I picked this game up from Amazon.com one day when they were doing a $20 off sale. I essentially got it for just the $5 in shipping and I am glad that it didn’t cost me anymore. I am not going to compare this to any other basketball games out right now because this game barely qualifies as basketball.

The original game was very over the top and everyone remembers the unfair handicap that seemed to thrust the CPU back into any game regardless of the deficit. I am sad to report that the latter did in fact make an appearance.

[floatright]http://www.snackbar-games.com/images/reviews/nbajam/ss01_thumb.jpg[/floatright]The original game pits 2 – 2 player teams against each other in an over the top arcade style hoops game. This time we see a major change in that you now have 3 players on a team. As you form your team, you are given the choice of 6 or so players and you pick your favorite 3. At halftime you are given a choice to change up your roster. Living in San Antonio, I was very happy with the selection of players chosen for the Spurs roster.

Given its wacky nature, NBA Jam doesn’t play like an ordinary basketball game. The more outlandish the move or dunk the greater the reward. As you play, a standard score is kept. In addition to that, you have a small orange meter that measures “Jam Points” assigned with each score. Jam points range from 100 for a jump shot to well over 1000 for a triple alley-oop dunk. Once your meter is full you can activate the Hotspot. The Hotspot is a space behind the 3 point line that allows you to do an insane dunk from 3 point land. The Hotspot has a tiered level of scoring. The 1st dunk is worth 3 points, the 2nd worth 4, and so on until you reach 7 points. As you get better, it becomes easier to gain style points and activate your Hotspot. Beware of the CPU when you activate it though. 9 times out of 10 I had the ball stripped and stolen from me upon activating it only to have it run out. The CPU also can activate Hotspots and they rarely get the ball stolen during that time.

The controls are pretty straight forward. Shoot, Pass, Steal, and Juke are your basic controls. The turbo button also makes an appearance and adds alternate moves to each basic move. Turbo + shoot will result in a very impressive dunk instead of a standard dunk. Turbo + steal will push players instead of just swiping the ball from them. Your Turbo has a very short timer though. Pushing in the right joystick (R3) activates the Hotspot when it is time.

[floatleft]http://www.snackbar-games.com/images/reviews/nbajam/ss03_thumb.jpg[/floatleft]Also making appearances are the phrases “He is heating up” and “He is on fire” which many NBA Jam fans are familiar with. After making several successive scores a player will become “on fire” at which point he can goaltend, dunk and not be blocked, and be virtually unstoppable. An opponent scoring will end this player’s hot streak.

While NBA Jam makes a nice refined release of the original arcade hit, it doesn’t really improve that much over its predecessor. Playing 1 player mode often gets very cumbersome and boring very quickly. I mentioned a handicap and that handicap can swing a game 20 points in a matter of a minute or so. The original game also had a severe handicap that allowed the CPU to come back from very large deficits to win by a buzzer beater or a 2 point bucket and this one is no exception. I played no less than 8 games in a row one day to go from dominating the opposition to looking like a bunch of kids on the court. I managed to squeak out a single win in those 8 games against LA. After that, the game just wasn’t fun anymore. Difficult games are fine, but making it darn near impossible to win gets old very very fast.

The graphics were nicely updated and it was very obvious they ignored the recent trend of almost photo realistic models and went with very cartoonish graphics. The sound effects and music were nicely done although I think I spent hardly any time noticing them over my constant yelling.

One nice addition to the game is the Jam Store. Upon completing a game you are awarded a set number of points. These points can be used to unlock and purchase different things in the shop ranging from new arenas to cheats to attributes for the create-a-player mode. Playing in the old school arenas against a classic team was actually really cool. Instead of smooth full color graphics you are presented with a 1950s/1960s looking black and white game as if you were watching it on tv back in the day.

There is no doubt that playing NBA Jam with some friends over might result in some fantastic outlandish basketball, but it may not compare to the likes NBA street or NBA Ballers. If you are looking for a fast paced arcade style game and can cope with the advantage the CPU has then by all means pick up NBA Jam (keep your eye peeled for a bargain). For everyone else, you would be better off looking at some of the newer basketball games to hit store shelves. I will personally be trading this one in just as fast as I can.

Van Helsing

June 29, 2004

[floatleft]http://www.snackbar-games.com/images/reviews/vanhelsing/cover.jpg[/floatleft]Due to the fact that Dots and I have a new baby we didn’t make it out to the movies to catch Van Helsing so I had no clue what I was in for with the game. I had heard nothing good or bad about it aside from a comment from my sister-in-law about how cool she thought it was. It had been a long time since she had mentioned any newer games in conversation so I figured I should make it a point to play this one.

Dots and I rented it through our favorite game rental company, [url=http://www.numbthumb.com]NumbThumb[/url]. (Shameless plug I know) I knew the basic premise of the story of Van Helsing so I knew what I could expect in the way of enemies and a basic plot. You play as Van Helsing, the legendary monster hunter, and it is your job to fight your way through Transylvania and defeat Count Dracula. Along the way you will face other monsters such as the Wolf Man, Mr. Hyde, and Frankenstein.

I have to be honest with you. While playing the first level where you battle Mr. Hyde I got really frustrated. The game operates with a very unusual camera view. Some portions of the level have fixed camera views and other times the camera follows you, but you have no manual control over the camera which really got on my nerves as there are times where it is just plain impossible to see things with the camera angle you are given. The camera also got stuck in plenty of places in later levels, but once I got used to it, I learned how to control the view with my movements and prevent “Stupid Camera Syndrome”.

[floatright]http://www.snackbar-games.com/images/reviews/vanhelsing/ss05_thumb.jpg[/floatright]After the initial frustration of dealing with a new layout of controls I really got into the game. The model of Van Helsing is really well done and it looks just like Hugh Jackman who also did the voice for the game. The environments are also very pretty and the fog effect in the 5th or 6th level is quite spectacular. Unfortunately I did experience a tiny bit of clipping inside the Castle where the telescope comes down. I was able to walk on the floor right though the platform. It looked very strange. There was also one point in the game in the caves below the Castle that the game got very slow. I am talking slower than “Original Legend of Zelda in a dungeon with lots of guys on the screen” slow. Van Helsing partially disappeared as I was trying to fend off a flying skull and so I paused the game. Unpausing it resulted in a continuation of the slow down. A few seconds later it returned to normal speed, but the Van Helsing model was mildly distorted with a huge band that seemed to be attached to his back and to a fixed point under the bottom of the cave. It was really very strange and not something I was able to recreate. Leaving that area and continuing on returned the game to normal. I will chalk it up to a very strange bug that I managed to uncover by accident.

As your battle your way through the 13 Missions in this game, you are given a wide arsenal of weapons to aid you. Your default weapons are your Tojo Blades and Dual Pistols which have unlimited normal ammo as do all the guns in the game. You can also find a shotgun, crossbow, gatling gun, elephant gun, rifle, and dual scimitars. Each weapon also has an alternate ammo upgrade. The way this works is that you have an alternate ammo meter on the top right portion of the screen. Tapping the left trigger on Xbox enters the alternate ammo mode and any weapon you fire that has the upgrade will deal additional damage to enemies and in some cases secret doors which require a stronger hit to open will be opened. Typically pressing the check button to inspect them will give you a hint as to what weapon will open them. The meter slowly drains until you are out of alternate ammo. It is refilled in 1 of 2 ways. Attacking enemies with normal attacks will build it back up or you can use an ammo replenisher which is available throughout most levels and in the Armory for a small fee.

As you play through the game you will collect a number of things. The first things you collect are glyphs. There are red glyphs which restore your life and then there are green glyphs which are the currency in the game. Green glyphs can be used to purchase life and weapon upgrades in the Armory at the conclusion of each level. You will also collect Easter Eggs which are placed into special pedestals that unlock small puzzle levels. The completion of these puzzle levels results in you unlocking one of the extensive number of cheats available in the game, many of which aren’t even worth the time to look at.

My first attempt at this game was on Normal and I got stuck pretty early on and was unable to continue. I wasn’t fluent enough with the attack combos and the weapons to do any real damage. After restarting on Easy, I learned quite a bit more about how to play the game. While beating the game on Normal will allow you to restart with all your weapons and play again on Hard, I recommend starting out on Easy to get a feel for the game and which weapons work better on different enemies.

[floatleft]http://www.snackbar-games.com/images/reviews/vanhelsing/ss10_thumb.jpg[/floatleft]One of the really great things about the game is the frequency of save points. You aren’t being alerted that the game is saving, but every time you see a short loading screen the game is saved. This makes it really easy to play partially into a level without fear of losing all of your progress.

There were a few things in the game that I was unsure about and I didn’t have a manual to check them out. For starters, you can lose your hat in battle. I am not sure what affect this has on the game, but the little guys in the Castle as well as many of the bosses had a tendency to knock it off. It is kept track of in the end of level stats so try to keep your hat on. The 2nd thing is somewhat hard to explain. As you kill enemies there is a small counter on the left. You have approximately 5-6 seconds to continue to hit enemies on the screen before it resets to 0. For each enemy you kill without that meter being reset it increments by 1. After you defeat everyone on the screen it stops and retains your current number of kills. At the end of the level it reports back what your longest number of kills was. Since you aren’t being rewarded any bonuses for this I can only assume it as well as the hat thing are reported back to Xbox Live for score keeping. If someone can confirm this I would appreciate it as I don’t have Xbox Live at this time.

Van Helsing is a game that I didn’t give a whole lot of thought to. I had to force myself to play it at first and until I started playing on easy I didn’t really enjoy myself. The learning curve can be mildly steep, but nothing you shouldn’t master in the better part of an hour. After having played through just over half of the game, I can say that I have honestly enjoyed it so far. I am also really into the story now and that may be due in part to the fact that I skipped the movie, but I am really excited to see how it turns out. Typically with games that I review I stop playing them after the review is done and move on but I think I may actually finish playing Van Helsing.

There you have it. Yet another movie based game that actually came out pretty well. As always, $50 would be a tad too much for this one, so you might try picking it up pre-owned. I really have had a lot of fun with Van Helsing and I think the story is very immersive. Is Van Helsing a blockbuster sleeper hit? Nah, but it is definitely something you can pickup and play through a few times without it getting old.

P.S. The final “HUD” or screen configuration is reflected in screenshots 6-8 and 11-13. I assume the other screens are from pre-release versions of the game.

Meetup Pics

June 29, 2004

I went through and put names by people in the first 10 or so pictures. People without names aren’t members of our forum that I know of.