November 2010

I remember when I was a kid my brother and I had an NES. Christmas was the one time of year when we got new games for it, one each, and we were supposed to share them.

This made sense seeing as the NES was for sharing, too. My parents were careful to make sure that at least one of the two games we got had multiplayer so we could play together. Playing this idea forward, I now have kids of my own and a Nintendo Wii. If I were buying video games instead of diapers and formula, these would be the two games I picked up:

New Super Mario Bros. Wii

Why? Because it is good, clean fun. The multiplayer is a riot when people start bopping one another on the head and picking each other up with the intent of tossing them in a pit. And when played solo, it has a neat feature where if you die five times in a single level the game will show you how to pass the section you’re stuck on. I can’t think of a better way for a young kid to play a favorite game, progress where he can, and still feel like he’s having fun.

Why Else? Because it has four-player cooperative play. This means that for me, all of my kids could be playing at the same time, and for most people, the whole family could play simultaneously.


Why? Because NBA Jam was my favorite game as a kid. My brother, my dad, and I all used to crown into my bedroom, root around for the multitap, and then play game after game. Whoever was teamed up with my brother usually won (to this day I have no idea how he was so good at that game), but we all had a great time, and Jam sessions hardly ever ended until my mom yelled that supper was ready. 

Why Else? Because like NSMBWii above, NBA Jam can be played by four people simultaneously. Also, I really want to play it, and I know that some of the games my brother and I got as a kid really should have said: “To Dad, Justin, and Jordan… From: Santa” instead of “To: Justin and Jordan… From: Santa” on them.

R.C. Pro Am, Brunswick Bowling, and Rollerball are now obviously colored by my dad’s taste in games. And I’m glad that that’s how he shopped – because it shows me now just how much he wanted to play with my brother and me and how much he wanted to pass on the things that he thought were fun. What I’m really trying to say here is that I hope my kids end up liking arcade basketball and pinball because if they do, my wife will be yelling down to us that supper is done while we play just one more match for years to come.

Visual novels are a tricky genre to evaluate. They are typically long on reading and short on action; how much you enjoy the experience is largely dependent on how much text you can tolerate. A good plot and interesting characters help, and fortunately 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors (hereafter sanely abbreviated as 999) has both. Developer Chunsoft has a reputation for quality visual novels, and although this is the first to be translated and released outside of Japan it certainly lives up to that standard. 

In the narrative of 999, you make the decisions for Junpei, a 21-year-old college student who has been abducted by a mysterious masked man. He wakes up in a strange, sparse bedroom that he later learns is on a Titanic-like ocean liner. Of course, since he learns this thanks to a porthole springing a leak and rapidly flooding the cabin he has other, more pressing issues — like getting the heck out of this locked room. The gameplay elements, outside of some minor “choose your own adventure” path branching, consist of this point-and-click escape sequence and others like it. Junpei will be confronted with strange puzzles and all manner of locked doors, but every solution makes logical sense and your companions often provide hints and suggestions if you need them — after all, they are literally in the same boat.

There are eight other characters, each one wearing a watch-like bracelet bearing a single digit (from one to nine; Junpei is number five). Their host/captor, called Zero, has assembled them all for reasons known only to himself (or herself?), placed them this boat that will sink in nine hours, and tasked them with finding the exit while following his insane rules. Part of the quirk of this deadly, Saw-like experiment is that there are certain doors bearing large numbers; only certain combinations of characters/numbers can pass through these doors, with the others needing to seek an alternate route (typically one of the other doors in the same area). If anyone “unauthorized” passes through such a door, his or her bracelet will detonate an explosive device that they were all force-fed while unconscious. This is demonstrated in no uncertain terms as soon as the nine are first assembled, in the first of many potential casualties.

While the game never actually shows the resulting carnage (other than an impressive splatter of blood), it does describe what is left of the corpse in grisly detail. 999 is rated M for all kinds of justified reasons, but it is easy to forget that until one of those reasons suddenly assaults your eyes. In addition to the violence and blood, there are also references to drug and alcohol use plus some strongly suggestive conversations (all characters are 18+) and profanity. This allows the story to progress naturally, without pulling any punches that similar games (like Hotel Dusk) might have to.

Of course, you might not like where and/or how that story progresses. 999 has multiple endings, and the nature of the plot dictates that you cannot achieve the “best/true” ending on your first playthrough. If you follow the correct path, you’ll receive a post-credits hint directing you to how you should next play to further advance the overall narrative. Needing to play through the game at least twice (if you are lucky) is made somewhat more palatable by a few neat features. The game allows you to fast-forward through any wall of text that you have already seen, although it has to be the exact passage, so minor variations will make you sit through some repetition from time to time; you will also have to repeat any escape sequence, although the solutions never change and you can actually shortcut a couple (especially Junpei’s initial escape) if you remember (or wrote down) what you need to know. Repeat playthroughs will also remember the choices you made in previous runs and gray them out to remind you what you have yet to try. Of course, since there are clearly multiple paths built into the game, you will not be able to experience all of the escape sequences in one go anyway, so the first two replays are essentially “free” if you want to try them all (it will take at least three to visit all of the rooms). Once you complete a run, all of the escapes that you’ve completed will be accessible directly from the menu should you want to replay them without the narrative for some reason; this also serves as a reminder as to which doors you have yet to try.

There are five potential endings in total; the sixth is a “to be continued” version of the true ending if you have yet to experience the correct lead-in ending (to which it will then point you). The actual plot of the game can be quite dense, and may not make complete sense once you discover it (one small aspect was literally lost in the translation, thanks to a Japanese-specific homophone), but 999 is a wild enough ride that the ending is worth the journey. Each path reveals something about the characters accompanying Junpei; I really wanted to uncover all of their secrets and tore through the game in the space of a single weekend, seeing all endings (in approximately “worst to best” order, through sheer accident). It might be difficult to find this game in retailers, but that at least is one puzzle that should not provide too much of an obstacle.

Pros: Intricate, mature storyline; forced repetition made tolerable by some design aspects

Cons: Much, much more text than actual gameplay



November 29, 2010

If someone makes a board game version of Bronze, I’m in for one in a heartbeat.

I wanted to get that out of the way. And it makes sense, because Bronze is practically a board game already. The game, from Dreamspike Studios and Shrapnel Games, is nominally about early civilizations, but it’s really an area control game very similar to the classic Reversi. 

Players start with control of one or two tiles (usually near the board’s corners), then they can take control of an adjacent tile on their turn. Of course, just that would be incredibly boring. On each tile, players choose a building to construct, each having a different gold value. Some, like mining villages, add gold to your supply, while others cost gold but have various effects. Towns acquire unclaimed adjacent tiles. Armies convert adjacent enemy buildings to your control. Bridges let you cross rivers. There are more, including some that prevent buildings from being converted and others that, well, do nothing. Your goal is to control more land tiles at the end of the game than your opponents. 

Each civilization has a different set of buildings and costs, making them play differently and have dominant strategies. Some have free armies but little else. Others have cheap towns. It’s hard to say they’re all balanced, but there are times when a lopsided battle can be interesting.

The game is supposedly not designed with a multiplayer focus, but it doesn’t feel that way. (Only hotseat is available, though, which is unfortunate for a game that feels like a board game. Fans of board games always look for ways to play when gathering a group isn’t an option.) There is an extensive set of single-player campaigns, each designed to make you familiar with a faction’s strengths and weaknesses. The AI is smart (and sometimes too smart), but it leads to a real feeling of satisfaction when you pull off a particularly difficult map. There’s a map editor, so you won’t run out of maps, but most possibilities are covered in the many campaigns. 

The production values were, put bluntly, not a priority of the developers. The interface is functional but not at all impressive, the graphics have a clear focus on usability but look about eight years old, and the sound is passable. Because it’s a board game, and that stuff doesn’t matter too much. 

Bronze targets a very small segment of the gaming population, and it targets it hard. At $30 it’s hard to recommend a game with no online multiplayer, but there’s no denying that the base here is interesting.

Now just print everything out and throw it in a box already.


Pros: Solid base game design, challenging AI

Cons: Production values, limited multiplayer

The Undergarden

November 28, 2010

The Undergarden isn’t a game so much as it is an experience. There’s no story, no death, and no losing. It does, however, provide a very nice experience. As a result, The Undergarden is a surprisingly hard game to review.

In The Undergarden, you play as an underwater fairy, tasked with growing underwater gardens with pollen you’ll collect from green pollen sacs that are spread throughout the levels. That’s the entire purpose of the game, to grow undersea gardens. Along the way a variety of physics puzzles will present themselves, though none should be hard enough to stump anyone. And, as mentioned, you can’t die or lose during a puzzle, though you can reload the game from checkpoints if you need to start a puzzle over from the beginning.

On the other hand, the visuals and audio are vibrant and wonderful. The entire point of The Undergarden is geared toward delighting your eyes and ears with sensory pleasures whenever you explore the levels and grow your gardens. By exploring, gardens will pop up as you pass by, exploding with colors and shapes. By finding and dragging around other fairies called musicians, you can change the music and interact with the plants you’ve just grown, changing the way they bloom or grow, even regrowing them into completely different plants sometimes.

The Undergarden is a great way to just sit back and relax. However, that’s all there is to it. That makes it hard to play for long periods of time, especially without any kind of challenge to the puzzles. 

It is unfortunate that Undergarden is hard to play with a keyboard and mouse. There is no way to customize your control layout, and the awkwardness of it shows that it was really designed to be played with a controller, not a mouse and keyboard. Even worse, Undergarden never teaches you what the controls are, so it is mostly guesswork on finding out some of the controls.

In the end, what you get out of Undergarden is entirely dependent on your expectations. If you are looking for a challenging puzzler or a game in the standard sense of the word, you will probably be better off with a different title. However, if you want a relaxing sensory experience unlike any other I’ve seen, get The Undergarden, and play it with a controller if you can.

Pros: Visuals are vibrant and pleasing; Audio is wonderful and relaxing

Cons: Controls are awkward unless you have a controller



November 28, 2010

There are defining installments in game series. With most, there’s a rise to greatness and a fall from grace. Somewhere in the middle is the game’s peak, where the right elements fell together in the best combination. For Midway’s basketball games, this effect was more pronounced than most. The original title, Arch Rivals, had that special something, but it was a rough title that lacked polish. Then there was NBA Jam. After that, the series tried and failed with new ideas in Hangtime, Showtime and the disastrous Hoopz

So now that EA has revived the Jam moniker and gameplay, we have a lot of attempts to compare it to, and a lot of cautionary tales. 

So let’s get this out of the way: the game’s amazing. 

EA Canada worked hard to become students of the original, duplicating as many elements as possible that made that version special. The core is the same: two-man teams face off with crazy dunks, frequent blocks and a bit more pushing than is allowed in the actual sport. They brought back the obvious structural elements like going “on fire” and turbo shoes, but it doesn’t stop there. The team signed many of the players in the original title as unlockable “legends” (including secret characters like the Clintons and the Beastie Boys), added many of the powerups and Big Head Mode and signed Tim Kitzrow as announcer.

Kitzrow’s return was huge for the title’s nostalgia factor. Now that he’s less restricted by memory, he can go on a little longer and with more variety, and it works well. As for the rest of the sound, well…it’s adequate. The soundtrack won’t wow you. It’s unobtrusive, though, and it’s better that way. The visuals are crisp, with everything running at 60 frames per second and the styled graphics polished up to look nice at any resolution.

Just as the announcing benefited from technological advances, the gameplay can too. Added to combat the effectiveness of blocks, pushes and steals are pump fakes, spins and crossovers. It’s subtle, but it makes the game a bit less abusive to the new player. Also added is an alley-oop, but it feels right at home in the Jam festivities.

The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of NBA Jam are practically identical, aside from the differences in controls, an HD makeover, and the addition of online multiplayer. The use of the right analog stick substitutes the motion controls of the Wii Remote. You flick the stick up to start shooting, then push it down to release the shot. Most will end up sticking with the buttons for the majority of my game time. The online features seem robust, but there just aren’t enough people actually playing the game online, which is troubling.

The game has two campaigns: Classic Campaign, modeled after the old title and consisting solely of vanilla two-on-two matches, and Remix Tour, which shakes up the formula pretty radically. Remix Tour has five game types: Elimination, a free-for-all scoring competition where the low scorer is eliminated each round; 21, another free-for-all where the winner is the first to score that number;  Backboard Smash, in which the boards have hit points and more violent dunks do more damage; Remix 2v2, which adds powerups to the base Jam game; and Domination, where teams try to control points on the court by being the last to score there. The three half-court modes (Elimination, 21 and Domination) are interesting minigames but hold no long-term potential.  Remix 2v2 is not that much more interesting than normal Jam, but can be fun. Backboard Smash is a cool change to the gameplay, especially if you’re frustrated by goaltending. None of them are clear improvements, though. All in all, Remix Tour was a nice try, but it was smart for the team to set it aside in its own mode.

A few gripes: Tag Mode is gone (though you can still tell opponents to shoot and pass), the traditional controls don’t have the exhilarating feel of the Wii’s motion-based ones and the team didn’t implement quite as much password record-keeping as was in the arcade classic. 

Ultimately, you want this game, and you should play it with three friends. It’s not an epic title to play on your own, but there are other games that do that. This is tailor-made for groups, and it works as well as it did in 1994. 

Staff writer Andrew Passafiume contributed to this review.