May 2008

Rocky and Bullwinkle was one of my favorite cartoons as a kid. Memories of Fractured Fairy Tales, Aesop and Son, and Mr. Peabody’s WABAC machine remind me of Saturday mornings sitting on the living room floor with my younger brother having a good time watching all the shorts.

Rocky and Bullwinkle is a collection of microgames in the vein of Nintendo’s Wario Ware. The microgames can be played either separately or as part of one of the game’s seven 25-microgame shows. Each show centers around a specific part of the original Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon with appropriately themed microgames. As a reward for completing microgames in shows the player accrues boxtops that can be used to purchase items in Bullwinkle’s shop. Most of these add a score bonus that is only really useful for climbing the online leaderboards, but there are two items available that are extremely useful: the scrooch gun adds an additional timer unit to each game, and the parachute grants the player an additional life.

Those that are familiar with Nintendo’s Wario Ware games will feel right at home with Rocky and Bullwinkle. Each game is short, simple, and scales in difficulty based on how far through a show you are. There are more targets, less time, more complex shapes, etc. for each game as a show moves from beginning to end which, along with the game’s 105 distinct microgames, helps to alleviate any feelings of repetition.

Graphically, Rocky and Bullwinkle isn’t a powerhouse, and it doesn’t need to be to adequately capture the near 40 year old cartoon’s animation style. All of the included characters and settings look astoundingly like their cartoon counterparts (although they are a bit cleaner than I remember), and the voice clips are either borrowed directly from the source material of expert reproductions.

Rocky and Bullwinkle, like all 360 games, comes with a stable of achievements to be earned by the player, and this is the one aspect that just doesn’t feel fair. Two of the achievements are tied to completing specific objectives within specific microgames. Fine. What falls apart, however, is that the triggers only function within the seven pre-built shows. It’s exceedingly frustrating to know that you’ve played the Rocky show 12 times just to get Hyber Space to show up as a level 5 game when you should have been able to select it from the single game rerun menu and play through each difficulty level. Similarly, the achievement for completing all Aesop & Son (the seventh and most difficult show) microgames at level 5 is overly frustrating due to the random microgame selection.

Rocky and Bullwinkle is a good collection of microgames, and it really embodies what the Live Arcade is about: quick, fun, easy to pick up games, that can be played in five to ten minute bursts. The package is even better for those of us that fondly remember Bullwinkle J. Moose and Rocket J. Squirrel.

Crosswords DS

May 19, 2008

With Nintendo’s experience translating pen-and-paper classics Picross and Sudoku to the DS, the release of Crosswords DS was highly anticipated. Those titles appealed to a casual audience, and this title is no exception, wholeheartedly earning the Touch Generations label. The real problems that it faces deal more with experienced crossword enthusiasts.

The letter entry system is fairly problematic. It often misreads Is as Ls, Ks as Hs and Vs as Us, among others. This is understandable, but coupled with the relatively slow process of entering letters, even a smaller puzzle can become a tedious effort.

The most disappointing aspect of Crosswords is the clue writing. Most are just simple definitions, lacking any creativity or challenge, and some even just put blanks inside of larger words. Most people with a serious interest in crosswords come to expect a bit more from clue writing.

The game’s Anagrams mode shows a bit more promise. Though very similar to online addiction TextTwist, it puts the focus on completing the entire set of words, rather than getting the most in a short amount of time. It can be a bit frustrating, but is still a good way to pass the time. This is by far the most addictive mode in the game, and would be a great addition to a different casual title in the future, but it isn’t quite enough to make this one solid on its own.

Word searches are also included. Though there aren’t as many problems with controls, having to scroll the area to see words is infinitely frustrating when words span multiple screens.

For crossword novices and DS neophytes, Crosswords DS has a solid set of help tools. The training mode is clear, simple and comprehensive, and a set of hints and wrong letter notifications are available when a puzzle gets too tough. However, after a few days, even they will be advanced enough to want more of a challenge. Increased difficulty doesn’t really make the game harder, and instead makes it larger and longer.

While Crosswords DS is certainly no substitute for GAMES Magazine or The New York Times Crossword, it may be enough for less intense puzzle-seekers to warrant a purchase.

Beginning this week, our Monday morning update on the new releases on the Wii Virtual Console takes a turn to encompass the weekly releases on WiiWare as well.

To kick things off, Nintendo has released a pair of WiiWare titles and a single Virtual Console title this week. The WiiWare releases are: Critter Round-Up (Konami) and Star Soldier R (Hudson Entertainment).

Critter Round-Up will set you back 1,000 Wii Points and is rated E while Star Soldier R is only 800 Wii Points, but is also rated E.

This week’s VC release is SKYKID is only 500 Wii Points and is rated E. READ MORE

The Witcher

May 6, 2008

CD Projekt Red has given us “The Witcher“, a remarkable single-player RPG that captures everything flavorful about lush, gothic settings and mature themes. Even more surprising is how refreshing and different The Witcher feels compared to preceding established RPG franchises. The reasons are varied but well worth exploring.

The primary (and perhaps most obvious) gameplay aspect that sets apart The Witcher from its peers is the mature and admittedly sexist content. Gamers can only play as the titular male protagonist, Geralt of Rivia, a two-fisted aloof sword-wielder monster hunter whose passion for monster-slaying seems only matched by his ability to score with the ladies. These “extra-curricular” opportunities abound throughout the game. If you’re careful and clever enough with your witty dialogue choices, you’ll share many an enjoyable evening with a wide variety of attractive and interesting female characters. You’re actually rewarded for this behavior with a card-sized picture of your, er, “conquest” in partially nude form, to show around to all your Witcher buddies. While this may be unpalatable to some, it lends The Witcher‘s world of Temeria a lusty medieval fantasy ambiance that catches one’s interest a bit more than the usual fare and even becomes a sort of mini-game unto itself for those so inclined.

Aside from the horizontal shenanigans, there are plenty of tricky moral dilemmas to tightrope across throughout the course of the remarkably involving storyline which involves a calculated plot to discredit and destroy the few remaining Witchers in the world. While the plot teeters on a trite precipice from time to time, the journey there is very much worthwhile, and things pick up towards the latter of the game’s segments. Dialogue is delivered by voice-acting that’s better than expected, but occasionally suffers from the random wonky performance. Adding to the game’s mature feel is the haphazard usage of fairly modern swear words. It’s one thing to hear an NPC cry out for your head on a stake but it’s an entirely different situation when some surly street-fighter tells you that one of your close familial members uh….sucks (that’s not what he said). If the cuss words were sprinkled evenly throughout this game and were more consistent with the flavor of the time-period, they would allow the player to be better absorbed in the game.

Another small but bizarrely anachronistic aspect of The Witcher‘s story is the frequently mentioned and apparently well-understood aspect of genetics. Last I checked, medieval peasant types lacked the basic understanding of even the most rudimentary forms of science, let along the nuances of a highly complicated scientific field. Not only is the term “genetics” mentioned verbatim but the characters referring to this challenging science seemed remarkably well-versed in it. It’s not a major gripe, by any means, but something odd that ruins a bit of the game’s ambiance.

The unique combat system takes time to get used to. Unlike traditional action-based click-fests, The Witcher provides a novel and approach to combat that involves the use of proper timing in order to chain a series of attacks together. To further enhance combat variety and boost the element of strategic thought while slugging things out, players need to be able to understand (and have researched) the monsters they’re facing in Temeria. Foreknowledge helps you know which type of sword and potion will best suit Geralt in even his easiest battles. Geralt fights with either a special Witcher’s steel sword (mostly for human or humanoid creatures) or a more monster-unfriendly silver sword. Each offers three styles: fast for quick-hitting, lightly-armored foes, strong for buff, muscle-bound sluggers, and group for tackling multiple enemies. Unfortunately, you never really seem to have any use for the other weapons you stumble across during the game – The Witcher‘s swords are far too potent. One cool aspect of combat that doesn’t seem to be getting a lot of review coverage is that CD Projekt actually enlisted the motion-captured aid of several bona fide medieval sword masters, so the wickedly cool combat animations that Geralt routinely performs look even better than they normally would. It’s something better seen to be appreciated but it ramps up the visceral enjoyment that much more.

Though it’s a small thing and something expected of these type of genre games, the leveling-up process is both thought-provoking and difficult to abuse. Every player’s version of Geralt by game’s end will look and play differently because The Witcher doesn’t strive to provide a fully-realized talent path as much as it does a “Jack-of-all-Trades” talent progression. Some may find this frustrating but it leads to characters better able to handle everything the game may throw at them, so in that regard, it’s definitely a good thing.

I also mentioned “potions” because one of the important tools every good Witcher learns to employ during his career involves the careful brewing of powerful magical concoctions that provide useful buffs or enhancements during combat. Everything from night-vision, to Matrix-style slow-motion perception and reflexes can be whipped up with enough of the right natural ingredients. This adds an amusing diversion to all the monster-mashing you’ll do while solving the game’s primary plot. This isn’t the only fun little mini-game, though – along the way you’ll be able to engage in gambling, drinking, and street-boxing events that offer experience, money, or sometimes both. These bring a variety to the proceedings that is sorely missed in other more determinedly single-minded RPGs. For those who hanker for a bit of spell-slinging, Geralt also utilizes a variety of different “signs” (read: Spells) to aid him during combat. However, these are all rather basic and in some cases they feel more like an afterthought than a useful addition.

Graphics seem to scale well, even on lower settings, while the highest settings are impressive enough to make combat just that much more enjoyable. Sound is another strong aspect, as ambiance-supporting musical themes grace many important areas while never reaching a level of annoyance. One unfortunate issue is that under Vista (at least) the game regularly crashes during loading screens. Thankfully a PC-friendly save-anywhere type system keeps this frustration mostly at bay but it doesn’t address the other main complaint – the annoyingly frequent need for loading screens. These loading screens seem less bothersome if you’re running at least 2 gigs of RAM but those without that amount should be prepared to be patient.

One final issue to consider is that CD Projekt has recently announced the future release of an “Enhanced Edition” of The Witcher, with improved graphics, better stability, and many other gameplay-improving changes. In light of this newly announced version, gamers interested in trying out The Witcher may want to wait for that version. It’s also worth noting that the North American version of The Witcher has edited out any nudity while the European versions have toned down the gore a bit – though the Euro version seems to have much better scripting and translation than its North American counterpart. Regardless of which version you eventually decide to purchase, one thing is clear: this is hands-down one of the most enjoyable, refreshing, and depth-filled role-playing games in years. Fans of the genre or even those just looking for an engaging story or setting will find plenty here to amuse them.

The latest incarnation of the Mario Kart franchise is an easy game to love and an easy game to hate, often in the same session. For every successful innovation, there seems to have been either something lost or something broken in the process. The net result is a paradoxical much-purchase AAA title that is far from ideal, especially for long-time fans of the franchise.

Let’s start with the outright positives. Motion-based control via the included Wii Wheel takes some getting used to, but is easy and intuitive enough to learn if you stick with it; fortunately, the game also supports GCN Pad, Classic Controller, and Remote/Nunchuck control options if you’d rather stick with what you know. Speaking of what you know, Mario Kart Wii (MKW) features 16 classic tracks picked from throughout the franchise in addition to 16 all-new tracks; the new tracks are all awesome and the older ones are just as solid as they always were… although they do seem a bit flat by comparison (especially the SNES and GBA tracks). The other major innovation to MKW is the option to race on motorcycles in addition to the usual karts; at first, the 50cc engine class is restricted to only karts and the 100cc only bikes, but 150cc allows both to share the road. MKW also introduces speed-boosting stunts that you perform with a flick of the Wheel/Remote/Control Stick any time you gain significant air off the game’s many ramps, bumps, or other conveniently/cunningly-placed opportunities (including a few tweaks to some of the classic tracks); bikes can also gain a quick boost on straightaways by executing wheelies, but can only achieve one stage of drift slide mini-turbo to compensate.

On the subject of mini-turbos, a major change made to the series’s trademark mechanic (ever since the N64 days) begins the discussion of MKW‘s mixed blessings. In MKW, you don’t manually charge up your turbos by turning in and out of a slide; instead, the charge builds up over time as you hold the slide, up to two stages on a kart. This change was mostly made to reduce (if not eliminate) the controversial advanced “snaking” technique that made online play on Mario Kart DS unfun for more casual players. Unfortunately, it also took some measure of skill out of the actual gameplay, which can be frustrating at the more difficult settings. Further making the upper difficulties a tedious chore is the addition of four extra karts to the Grand Prix mode. While twelve total racers might seem like a plus, in reality it just means that there are four more players’ worth of game-swinging items ready to be launched up your tailpipe; these items include all of the mainstays of the franchise plus a few devastating new ones like POW Blocks and and Mega Mushroom. The change in mini-turbos and the additional racers — and their lead-punishing items — combine to make 150cc Grand Prix competition a swingy, luck-based competition rather than one that rewards any kind of real skill. Fortunately, the 50cc and 100cc classes don’t seem to be as affected by this.

Bizarrely, Grand Prix mode wasn’t the only one affected by the change to a twelve-racer system. The classic Battle Mode has been twisted beyond recognition, with two teams of six going at it rather than just you and up to three buddies… with a time limit. The end result is a chaotic mess, with up to eight AI-controlled bots getting in the way, coming out of nowhere, and generally taking up space, whether you go with the traditional Balloon Battle or Coin Runners mode. Versus races can also feature AI bots, in either solo or team play, but at least there you have the option of disabling them as well as setting how many races you will use for your competition. This is fortunate, as unlike previous editions, Versus races are also the only way you can participate in anything resembling a two-player Grand Prix. Regardless of the chosen mode, MKW is still a blast to play with some friends over, although the loss of the ability to pull back the camera (last seen on Mario Kart 64, I believe) makes four-way split screen play somewhat inconvenient. Fortunately, it is no longer the only option for console-based multiplayer Karting.

The ultimate rationale behind this twelve-racer system is MKW‘s exceptional online play, which allows you to race against up to eleven human opponents, both with and without Nintendo’s ubiquitous Friend Codes. Online play is seamless and, in my experience, pretty much lag-free. I’ve raced with the full allotment of twelve participants, found myself in a one-on-one encounter, and run everything in between as players (and up to one “guest” per console) dropped in and out of competition between each race. Online Battle modes are also possible, and there is a limited sort of Tournament feature wherein Nintendo will send out challenges via WFC that you can take on at your leisure and upload your best time. You can also brush up your skills by downloading top-ranked ghost runs for your Time Trial practices, which includes ghosts from Nintendo staffers as well, or even submit your own ghosts for bragging rights and/or challenges of your own. Even better, if you have 70ish blocks free on your system memory, you can install a Mario Kart Channel that can monitor your MKW friends and challenges without needing the MKW disc to be in the system. If only they had thought of that option for Super Smash Bros. Brawl

In the end, and despite its lingering troubles, Mario Kart Wii continues with the franchise’s history of solid titles. The franchise that created the mascot-based racer pretty much perfected it on its first try, with each new iteration trying something different, whether it be three dimensions and analog control, tandem racing, or motion-controlled online play. While MKW is perhaps the most potentially-frustrating edition thus far, that doesn’t make it any less of an amazing experience.