Roger Helgeson

Sam & Max: Season One

September 24, 2007

Longtime graphic adventurers have no doubt heard of Sam and Max, two lovable and memorable mid-90s creations of Steve Purcell who starred first in LucasArts’ Sam and Max: Hit The Road. Sam and Max have had a full, yet rocky career, which has included a print comic, a cartoon on Fox (which is also now available via Gametap), the aforementioned LucasArts game, and most recently a six-episode season of new game titles. These episodes packed quite a punch on their own, but they’ve now been bundled into one set, and delightfully so. Sam and Max: Season One towers above the competition.

For those not in the know, Sam and Max are, respectively, an erect, anthropomorphic dog and bunny who comprise a A

Few developers have the audacity to go against the grain, but Atlus is one of the few that manages to get away with it consistently. In fact, their Shin Megami Tensei (Megaten) line of RPGs basically thrives on its distance from the happy go-getter fantasy worlds or angst-riddled, steampunk universes that comprise the overwhelming majority of today’s Japanese RPGs. And while some standard JRPG fundamentals worm their way into Persona 3, the game is certainly unique, both from other JRPGs and even from its Megaten brethren.

Anyone who has played one of the long-running Megaten titles knows, generally, what to expect, and Persona 3 does not disappoint. A large and diverse cast of weird demons? Check. Some irreverent and usually twisted historical, religious, or sociological allusions? Check. Combat strategy centered on exploitation of enemies’ elemental weaknesses? A lot of weird items to collect and quests to accomplish? An overly sardonic tone? Tons of abilities that work in tandem? Check, check, check, and check. Persona 3 has all of this; players familiar with Nocturne, Digital Devil Saga, Devil Summoner, or the previous Persona titles will feel right at home here. After all, what other series would force characters to literally shoot themselves in the head with an Evoker (which looks exactly like a revolver) every time they want to use a skill or spell?

Newcomers, though, need not feel overwhelmed; Persona 3 features a few allusions from the Megaten and Persona series, but it is very much its own game. Likewise, Megaten followers will not feel as though they’ve already been down this particular road. In short, the game takes place over a school year. The protagonist and his allies all belong to a secret club in their high school devoted to repelling the shadows that infest the world during the A

As represented by the turnout at the recent Pac-Man Word Championship, Namco Bandai’s iconic yellow dot is a cultural phenomenon whose influence is still felt by gamers and developers alike. Everyone knows Pac-Man; in many ways he is the industry’s mascot, and while others have risen other the years, including Mario, Sonic, and even Master Chief, none can hope to gain as much popularity as the unmistakable yellow circle with an insatiable appetite for dots.

One could speculate on why, and many have, but the simplicity of the original version – a simplicity belying a need for a deep logic, strategy, and quick reflexes in the player – is probably what lent itself well to Pac-Man‘s rise to popularity. This deceptively-addictive game pit the yellow disembodied hero against four ghosts, with somewhat-predictable AI, who would chase him around various mazes in his quest for dots and power pellets. On eating a power pellet, Pac-Man would become the aggressor, able to eat the ghosts for score combos. Simple, elegant, and pure.

So, how could one improve on this formula while simultaneously appealing to newcomers and the already-existing and very widespread Pac-Man fan club? This is a general question that developers trying to re-imagine the A

Pac-Man, a name with which nearly everyone is familiar. While video gaming hasn’t yet taken over the entire household as the hobby of choice, somehow the mere mention of Pac-Man will almost without fail conjure images of the iconic yellow circle happily (or unhappily – who could tell?) chomping dots while evading and eating ghosts in a variety of mazes.

Just about every member of every living generation at least knows of Pac-Man; since its release in 1980, the game has appeared in pizza parlors, arcades, and eventually on consoles the world over.

Even those who have never played a video game, or those who are old enough to have missed this newly-emerging cultural phenomenon, have at least some scant knowledge of Pac-Man. As the most-played game in video game history, no other game comes close to such recognition – not even the oft-cited Pong – though many developers and publishers still aspire to it.

As with all such things, an entire subculture devoted to Pac-Man arose from its early-80s debut. What is astounding is that this movement still exists to this day, and possibly even stronger than ever before. At the first ever Xbox 360 Pac-Man World Championship, I had a chance to meet some of the old, and some of the new, faces that have defined and shaped the Pac-Man championship circuit for so long, and will continue to do so in the future.

For instance, gaming professional Billy Mitchell was on hand, now with his lovely wife and children, as one of the ten finalists in this competition. Mr. Mitchell was the first person to ever officially achieve a perfect score in Pac-Man, which meant playing through all 256 original levels without losing a single life, without missing a single fruit, and eating every single ghost four times per level, an impressive feat to consider.

It is no surprise that he would have made it far in this competition, as mastering Pac-Man is something that, like riding a bike, apparently stays with someone with a little ongoing practice. Indeed, the community of Pac-Man experts here seemed to be fairly reminiscent of an all-star locker room, throwing each other jibes and jests while offering constructive tips as they all surrounded the classic Pac-Man arcade cabinet in the lobby.

It was interesting to watch how new, younger Pac-Man fans took up residence in the main area, its perimeter surrounded with comfortable lounge chairs, widescreen LCD TVs, and Xbox 360s, on which the newly-revealed Pac-Man: Championship Edition for Xbox Live Arcade was playing, while the original Pac-Man masters gathered at one age-old Pac-Man machine, competing with each other in true arcade A

Racing games that place an emphasis on hard core simulation mechanics are rare, much more so than the arcade style, over the top racers that have proven so popular with today’s consumer. Given this, the challenge faced by a developer interested in creating a simulation style racer is how to appeal to a gaming public that may not be outwardly predisposed to this type of game. Forza Motorsport 2, Microsoft and Turn 10 Studios’ sequel to 2005’s distinguished Xbox racer, may offer the best possible answer with an intriguing mix of complexity and accessibility not often seen in this type of game.

Of course, as an Xbox 360 showpiece, the attention paid to the game’s graphics is immediately apparent, with a level of visual fidelity lifting Forza 2 up as yet another feather in Microsoft’s next-gen cap. The cars are beautiful, the tracks and the environments are simple but elegant, and the game does a good job of arresting disbelief.

Additionally, while comparisons between Forza and Sony’s Gran Turismo are unavoidable, Microsoft’s effort manages to stand out for its inclusion of vehicle damage, which can visibly and realistically ruin a car’s appearance; rear ending another car with enough force might cause the front bumper to fall off, while hitting the side of something could cause the vehicle’s body to cave in, offering a level of realism not found in most other racing sims.

Also impressive are the numerous licensed cars available to be purchased and customized. Besides each carrying its own distinct look, each car also behaves and performs differently on the track, permitting players to naturally gravitate towards a certain type of car over another to suit their particular driving styles.

Racing a circuit with a car of a particular class or transmission type can feel very different than when put behind the wheel of another entirety different vehicle. Here the developers have emphasized that the differences between the cars go deeper than simply body styles and a new coat of paint. These racing machines all carry their own distinct characteristics such as weight class, horsepower, aerodynamics, engine class, body family, and so forth, and to some degree most of these attributes can be upgraded or tuned given enough credits, the right mechanical know-how, and patience.

In Forza 2, automotive tuning covers every intricacy from springs to differential to aeronautics, and nowhere is the importance of tuning more apparent than when racing online, where the right upgrades, which range from spark plugs and engine components to tire width and racing compound, often define who crosses the finish line first.

One of the most impressive, and perhaps most addictive facets of car customization lies with the game’s paint shop. While most earned vehicles in the game come assigned with some pre-designed paint job, the vast majority of player-purchased vehicles begin life looking rather nondescript. However, through Forza 2‘s paint shop, which allows for some of the most intricate design work available in a racing game, players can turn a forgettable roadster into a work of fine art, a gaudy showpiece, or simply a billboard on wheels.

Players can, of course, quickly dump a full coat of paint on the entire car or paint each section separately, but the real joy is in the decals. Forza 2 offers an assortment of pre-made decals, but it’s entirely possible to make some more complex, even three-dimensional designs. The game also allows users with Xbox Live to snap photos and painlessly upload them to the game’s official community website for others to see, and users seem to be having almost as much fun with this feature as with the racing itself.

Of course, customization is only half of what Forza 2 is about, and when it comes to racing, this game has quite a lot under the hood. Forza 2 offers a variety of different events and cups, everything from the simple (though certainly not easy) A