Robert Franklin

Super Swing Golf

January 9, 2007

Throughout the holiday season, Wii Sports acted as an ambassador for gaming. Jaded old gamers were introduced to something truly innovative for the first time in years, and in many cases friends and family who would normally never pick up a controller found themselves fighting for one instead. That little collection of bowling and golf minigames brought people into our hobby and sold consoles for Nintendo. Wii Sports’ take on golf was a great appetizer, but what will gamers find for the main course? Many will pick up the first thing on the menu, Tecmo’s Super Swing Golf. Those who do will find a game that is frustrating, but still shows enough moments of brilliance to keep everyone around for the next course.

At first glance, our imaginary gamer upgrading from Wii Sports will find plenty of reason to doubt if Super Swing is right for them. With obvious anime heritage (it is actually based on a popular Asian game), the cartoon-inspired character style will raise immediate red flags with the Tiger Woods crowd. The focus on the pseudo-RPG Story Mode, which centers around characters being whisked to a fantasy land to reenact the heroics of ancients who somehow saved the world by plugging holes with little magic balls, doesn’t help a bit.

At this point most of our imaginary gamers who aren’t fans of Japanese cartoons are probably putting down the box and wandering off to look for the latest of EA’s Tiger Woods titles on other machines, or are going back to play the 9 holes of Wii Sports a few more times. If they do, they will be missing out on one of the most unique and natural feeling control mechanisms to ever grace a golf game. The swing system is Super Swing feels amazingly like swinging a real club. Players take a stance as if they are stepping up to the ball, then swing the Wii remote backward as they would a real club. This moves a marker on an on-screen power bar; the larger the backswing, the farther across the bar the marker moves. Once the desired power level is reached, the golfer (for he or she is feeling less like a simple ‘player’ all the time) holds down the A button to set the marker. That mark determines how far the ball will go if the swing is perfect. From there the golfer swings back down toward the imaginary ball and follows through the rest of the swing.

To a spectator the action looks much like a real golf swing, and when it all goes right it feels like it too. Swinging too slowly will keep the full potential of the power bar from being used, and a slight curve of the swing or twist of the wrist will send the ball hooking or slicing far off center. To anyone who has swung a real club before the effect can be uncanny, bringing the game home in a way that has never been achieved before. Listening to friends controlling chibi schoolgirls with pink pigtails give each other advice concerning the right way to swing their arms and move their wrists, with the same seriousness they would discuss their real swing at a driving range, is almost worth the price of the game by itself.

Not everything about the swing mechanic is perfect, however. The most critical point of the process is also the hardest to control; setting the mark on the power bar at the top of the backswing. The way Super Swing’s physics work, it is nearly impossible to beat the computer players without hitting the correct distance every time. Hitting the mark at the precise moment you want with the Wii remote nearly upside-down and behind your head, at the end of a long swing, isn’t an easy task. As with many Wii games, ingenious players will find many ways to make the process easier by taking other actions that register as the same motions. Those who don’t want to deviate too much from the A

There are plenty of reasons to dislike Chromehounds: the single player section feels more like a long tutorial than a campaign; the massive robots plod along too slowly for fast-action fans; sim fans will be disappointed by the thin manual and apparently simple controls; online matchmaking leaves long downtimes between between battles, while the undocumented and unfriendly online interface remains annoying even to veterans; and it is less forgiving of misconfigured internet connections than most other Xbox Live titles.

Despite all this, Chromehounds still succeeds and is nearly impossible to put down thanks to one simple fact: it boasts some of the most deep, unique, and compelling online play the Xbox 360 has seen so far.

At first glance, Chromehounds looks like most other formulaic G.S.R. (Giant Stompy Robot) games. Three nations are joined in battle, each trying to overrun the other’s territory. They gain ground yard-by-yard, fighting with tanks, turrets, and massive human-piloted robots. The robots (called HOUNDs) bristle with weaponry derived from today’s technology. There are no particle cannons or lasers here, but giant machine guns, sniper rifles, artillery pieces and rocket launchers abound.

Bolting these pieces together to make a custom HOUND is the first place the game’s flaws and magic both become apparent. Neither the in-game descriptions nor the paltry manual explain what most of the various parts do. Only a dangerous game of trial-and-error reveals what a condenser does or whether adding a second radiator will make you a harder target. Once familiar with the gear, however, the enjoyment from designing a blazingly-fast hovering scout or fire-raining heavy gunner is nearly unending. Not limited to simply installing parts into slots on a pre-built machine, players can capture, buy, and trade for hundreds of parts to make sure that their next creation won’t look or fight like their last. HOUNDs, like everything else in the game, are rendered with great detail and look great in motion. These aren’t stunning graphics, but they are undoubtedly next-gen and add exactly the right weight and believability to this world.

There is little need to build a HOUND in the single player missions. The seven missions per HOUND class (soldier, sniper, defender, scout, heavy gunner, and commander) are basically training missions, and the HOUNDs available for the tasks will do the job. Early in the game new players are saddled with some of the least interesting loadouts, and don’t yet have the experience or spare parts to build something better. More parts can be earned by advancing and achieving secondary goals, adding some replay value to these missions. In the end, however, only those players without a Gold Xbox Live account will focus on the the offline portion of the game.

Everyone else will feel sorry for those saps, as they turn their attention to the game’s online multiplayer faculties in the jungle that is A


April 18, 2005

Polarium, the newest addition to the expanding lineup of puzzlers for the DS, is really three games in one. It is a falling block game, but without the infinite addictiveness of Tetris. It’s also a short but devious set of mind-bending puzzles. Finally, it’s a multiplayer game that can only exist on the DS. Individually each of these is fun, but do they join together to form a cohesive game worth paying full price for?Polarium‘s core design is as basic as games get. Arrayed on the screen is a grid of square tiles, each either white or black. Drawing a line across tiles with the stylus selects them, and tapping again on the last highlighted tile makes all of the selected tiles reverse color. Turning a horizontal row to a solid color, either black or white, makes that line disappear. Though it may be possible to clear a screen by tapping on individual tiles a few at a time, the true feeling of grace and accomplishment is only achieved when one looping, twisting line is able to clear the entire screen.

That synopsis describes the bulk of gameplay, including the entire puzzle mode. Puzzle mode is the most intriguing section of the game. One hundred patterns of black and white tiles await challengers, most with a single elegant way to drag the stylus through and complete the round. For those who enjoy banging their heads against difficult challenges, there is little better in life than these arrays of little squares. The rest of us will enjoy the available mental crutches, including hints on every puzzle and a replay of the last failed attempt.

Unfortunately, diligent players will exhaust the 100 static puzzles far too quickly. That leaves the challenge mode, with its blistering difficulty and unrelenting rain of tiles. Challenges in this mode begin with a simple array of tiles to be cleared from the screen. As soon as those are out of the way, another few layers of tiles fall from the top of the screens, then another and anotherA


March 26, 2005

Since the Tetris/Game Boy bundle in 1989, block-dropping puzzles have been used to show both the hardcore and mainstream markets what handheld systems are capable of. Following this trend, Ubisoft’s new puzzler, Lumines, exemplifies the evolution of gameplay and style that Sony seems to be reaching for with its new PSP console.Designed by Testuya Mizuguchi, the creative mind behind Rez (a cult favorite on the PS2), Lumines combines the familiar controls of falling block games with elements of rhythm games. Your task is to position squares as they drop from above, and to keep them from piling up to the top of the screen. Each square is composed of four smaller squares in one of two different colors. Creating a 2×2 or larger block of the same color will allow that block to be cleared from the screen, thus making room for more pieces.

Lumines is unique, however, because of what happens after your pieces are ready to clear. Completed blocks don’t immediately disappear, but instead change color and stay on-screenA

The devil is in the details, and sometimes those details can make the difference between a mediocre game and a respectable one. Released just months ago, Duel Masters: Sempai Legends was a decent but ultimately forgettable addition to the card-battle genre. Its successor, Duel Masters: Kaijudo Showdown, gets the details right and raises the bar for the inevitable sequels to follow.

Originating in Japan, the world of the Duel Masters follows the familiar pattern of collectable card games. The Game Boy experience plays out much the same as both the television programs and real-life card games. Players collect and manipulate massive machines and imposing beasts in a never-ending struggle to prove themselves the best battlers in the world. There is, of course, an evil plot to stop and glory to be won in this card-obsessed world.

Kaijudo Showdown begins with a passing of the torch, as an older brother gives his collection of cards to his sibling and charges him with upholding tradition and becoming the best card battler around. From here, things progress in a fairly linear story that will feel amazingly familiar to many players. Everything revolves around the neighborhood card shops, where cards change hands and reputations are built through one duel after another. Only after building a strong enough deck to win the local tournament can a player receive sponsorship to move on to another shop, another tournament, and eventually down the path to explore an age-old mystery.

The battles themselves are fairly straightforward, with enough variety to keep things interesting without slowing things down with too many rules or variations. Each player begins with a shield made of cards drawn from his deck, and a handful of cards to act with. Cards from the hand may be turned into mana, the universal resource needed to bring cards into play. If enough mana is available, creatures may be brought into play and spells may be cast to interfere with the enemy. Depending on their mana cost and which of the different colored civilizations they belong, creatures may be able to block, attack, or use special abilities in combination with each other. Players take turns trying to bring down their opponent’s shield, until a final blow is struck and the opponent must surrender.

Although these basic mechanics work identically to the earlier Duel Masters title, they seem to flow a bit more smoothly in the new one. The opponent AI seems to make better decisions, particularly when deciding when and how to block an attack. Decisions regarding which creature to attack also seem to make more sense, matching more closely to what a human player might do than following simplistic rules. The process of building a successful deck has become easier, as a number of starter decks may be purchased from the card shops. These static decks can’t be altered, but they do provide a good foundation for learning the game and winning prizes to improve the overall collection.

The presentation of the cards has also improved. Though the battle animations are still very simple and unexciting, it is now possible to view the interesting artwork from the real-life card game, instead of only seeing the simplified versions available in the earlier title. The bland card management and information screens from Sempai have also been replaced with a polished PDA-style interface called the Gizmo. It is now possible to manage multiple decks from the beginning of the game, as well as read small reference books about the game and receive advice on whether or not a trade is a good deal. The Gizmo also allows access to emails sent from game characters, an in-game magazine website, and practice versions of minigames that can later be played in card shops for prizes. Even these simple distractions, like the card trivia minigame, add some depth that had been missing in the series.

Still, many of the smaller complaints from Sempai are still valid. The crisp graphics are marred by the disappointing animation, and the sound is still quite forgettable. Multiplayer battles are possible via link cable, though they exist without many options or Pokemon’s support for the wireless adapter. Names familiar from the television series may be found, but in the end the RPG portion of the game still boils down to an extended excuse to string battle after battle together.

Overall, Kaijudo Showdown is a worthwhile title for Duel Masters fans, even those who may have bought Sempai Legends not long ago. The addition of expansion sets raises the total card count to over 300, but it is the small improvements that bring life to the game and make it more worth playing. Newcomers to the series will find a more accessible and friendly interface, and a better world to learn to duel in. Kaijudo Showdown isn’t for everyone, but those who love collecting and fighting with cards could do much worse.