Since the first game for the Super Nintendo, the [i]Harvest Moon[/i] series has grown in popularity. You either know it as a classic favorite or as that one game where you plant vegetables. The series is back for another go with [i]Harvest Moon: Magical Melody[/i]. [i]Magical Melody[/i] hopes to take the series back to its roots after [i]A Wonderful Life[/i] bored fans to tears, while adding in a few new things along the way. Fans will appreciate a lot of the things added into the old formula and still have fun the same way that they did with previous titles in the series. The repetitive nature of the series will continue to drive away most gamers, but fans can expect one of the best games in the series yet.

[i]Magical Melody[/i] begins with your character moving into town to take part in a farming program. After purchasing a plot of land, you are greeted by three little elf creatures, who take you to a petrified statue of the Harvest Goddess, turned to stone because people no longer believe in her. It’s up to you, as well as your rival, to collect as many Happiness Notes in order to revive her. While this is the overall main goal of the game, you are still charged with building up a successful farm, marrying one of the many men or women in the town, and generally leading a successful life. Notes are gathered by doing general tasks within the game, so collecting almost comes naturally (or sometimes by accident) and doesn’t really hinder the main focus the series is known for.

All of [i]Magical Melody[/i] is sort of a tribute to the entire [i]Harvest Moon[/i] series as a whole. You could probably look at the game as being fan service to those faithful enough who have played since the first game on the Super Nintendo. All of the characters within the game are composed directly from previous games in the series, although there are a few completely new characters and some seem like re-tooled versions. You are given a choice to play as a boy or a girl, but those who choose to play as a male will be able to choose from ten different guys, all of which are drawn directly from [i]Harvest Moon[/i] for the SNES or [i]Harvest Moon: Save the Homeland[/i]. Female players also have ten choices, and although some of them are technically new to the series, they all are obviously crafted after characters from [i]Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town[/i].

Some new things have been added that are drastically different from previous games. The most evident addition is the ability to build your farm in a number of different locations around town, each having different advantages and disadvantages. This leads the series into a kind of free-form feel, and takes away a bit of the linear game play the series is known for. Once you get enough money, you can essentially purchase much of the town’s land and build as many different farms as your feel, designating one area to animals, another to growing crops, or just setting up a vacation home up in the mountains. It is certainly one of the better updates the series has seen over the years, and actually adds in a bit more strategy into the game.

Of course, all of the staples of [i]Harvest Moon[/i] have made a return in [i]Magical Melody[/i]. The game returns to the traditional formula of days lasting a few real-time minutes, as opposed to [i]A Wonderful Life[/i]’s twenty-four real-time minutes to every day. Crops, animals, and just about everything else have reverted back to the traditional game play, and really, [i]Magical Melody[/i] seems like a completely different game from its predecessor, [i]A Wonderful Life[/i]. Fans will no doubt have few issues with what’s to be had in [i]Magical Melody[/i], but those who haven’t been turned on by the series so far will have little reason to try again with this game.

Another contributing factor to the fact that only fans will be attracted by this game is the graphics and art style, which, quite honestly, look to be straight out of a child’s picture book. To put it bluntly, the look of the game may very well turn off many people. Things look reminiscent of a more refined Animal Crossing, and characters take on the, what’s called in anime circles, chibi look (that is, they look like children with huge heads and very separated legs). Fans will probably not be phased by the looks of the game, or if they are, they probably will not think much of it. The game still remains the same as always, even with the quirky graphics style. Just don’t expect to get your friends hooked on the series when they take a look at [i]Magical Melody[/i]. It will probably only end in pain.

Overall, this is a perfect game for fans of the series. It takes everything from past games in the series and reinvents the formula to give us something new. Again, [i]Magical Melody[/i], combined with the graphical presentation of the game, will probably not convert those who look at the game with eyes rolling upward. Even so, if Natsume hasn’t gotten those people hooked on the series yet, they probably will never do so, and know that appeasing the fans will be enough. In the end, [i]Harvest Moon: Magical Melody[/i] is a game for the fans, and acts as a tribute for those fans. And those fans will no doubt find a lot to love in this new installment.


May 3, 2006

One of the swiftest ways to kill your enjoyment of a game is to get your hopes up too high before playing it, especially when there isn’t a lot of company hype getting in the way. When I pre-ordered [i]Odama[/i] — solely to ensure that my local EB would even have a copy, since I knew that this was going to be a niche title at best — I was eagerly anticipating some “demolition derby” pinball set on the backdrop of feudal Japan. Being able to give my troops commands to enable various areas of the board seemed like just the kind of odd twist that would make the game unique.

The first hour of actual play, therefore, turned out to be a prolonged series of swift kicks to the junk as my expectations were shattered time and again. [i]Odama[/i] is more a strategy title with a pinball interface than it is a pinball table with strategy elements, and that’s a rough paradigm shift for devotees of the silver ball like myself (ever since I was a young boy); sadly, we’re also the group of gamers most likely to give [i]Odama[/i] a shot in the first place. What we encounter, instead of our beloved physics, is something wearing a familiar skin and yet clearly alien underneath: targets that you should try to not hit; obstacles that are destroyed upon impact instead of redirecting your shot; power-ups like some sort of “shmup”; slightly-stupid AI that needs your nearly-constant verbal attention while you’re trying to keep the ball in play; a victory condition that has absolutely nothing to do with your flipper accuracy; and perhaps the most egregious crime (nay, sin) against pinballers everywhere, [b]a time limit[/b].

Nothing else is really a factor here. The graphics are small and at times undetailed, but they serve their purpose of mixing a battlefield and pinball table well, with “ramps” and other targets somewhat innocuously masquerading as natural formations or structures. The physical controls are also simple and intuitive, with the L and R buttons operating their respective flippers and the control stick both “tilting” the table and aiming your cannon for firing replacement Odamas — or tasty rice balls — on to the field; the Z button summons forth reserve recruits if you have any and do not already have too many on the field. On a couple of stages, the C-stick moves the camera to a different segment of the field, as these sieges feature multiple “fronts” for your assault. Finally, the D-pad is used to select targets for your troops, like keys, catapults, additional flippers, and enemy generals; once you’ve selected the target, hitting X and issuing the “Rally” command will send some of your men over to complete the task.

Ah yes, the infamous voice commands. [i]Odama[/i] comes with the GCN Microphone, which you might already own if you’ve played Mario Party 7 or Karaoke Revolution. It also comes with a convenient clip that affixes to the top of the GCN pad (or Wavebird) to provide convenient hands-free access, since you’ll want both hands on the pad for flipper duty. On the first few stages, you’ll need to fire the [i]Odama[/i] at glowing scrolls in order to learn new commands for your troops; until you learn “Press Forward” (which should be the second scroll you hit), you will not be able to convince your forces to make the final push through the gate on each map, so keep an eye out for them. Other commands include “March Left/Right”, “Company Halt”, and “Charge!”, plus the aforementioned “Rally” and other, lesser-used directions. The voice recognition is solid, and you don’t need to shout your orders (although you might be screaming for other reasons).

Sadly, the gameplay itself is the biggest obstacle to enjoying [i]Odama[/i]. For many, the first hour of play is also the only hour. The game is just too difficult, too unwieldy, too bizarre, and/or too “not what I wanted it to be”. And these are all fair assessments. There is also the matter of extensive damage to personal property and/or physical health due to fist-smashing and blood-boiling frustration to consider. But those who stick it out, who learn the ways of the [i]Odama[/i] and the Path of Heavenly Duty (also called the “Way of Ninten”… or “Ninten-do”), and who take up the cause of reclaiming the lands and honor of the Kurasawa clan by delivering the Ninten Bell through ten enemy-filled battlefields… they will not be completely unrewarded. Especially not once they find the spoiler-worthy “bonus stage” on the final level and have their “Godzilla meets pinball” dreams finally fulfilled without any of those other distractions, even if only briefly.

I’m not going to lie to you, though: for a majority of players, it won’t be worth the effort. [i]Odama[/i] is a game that demands near-military levels of concentration, and at times Budda-like levels of patience and tolerance. Little by little I had my initial doubts and frustrations fall by the wayside as I progressed — and in some cases, regressed, as I occasionally felt the need to retrace my steps in order to advance to the next board with a better army — through the intricacies of the interface, until finally, via hard work and determination, victory was mine. And it was indeed a sweet sensation. But “hard work and determination” isn’t everyone’s idea of a fun gaming experience, and I wouldn’t fault you for abandoning the game after your first few tries. Give it a rent first and see if you can find the motivation to see this game through to its conclusion.

The ending of the game suggests a sequel, as “The End” is crossed out in favor of “To be Continued”. I hope that, if nothing else, Vivarium abandons the time limit for any [i]Odama 2[/i] that might come down the line. As I learned tricks to overcome obstacles (like the proper use of rice balls), I was able to forgive just about every other transgression that [i]Odama[/i] hurled at me, from seemingly poor AI to questionable pinball physics, but no pinball-based game should ever have a time limit placed on what is an inherently wildly-inaccurate interface: you’re supposed to lose when the ball goes between the flippers (or in the additional case of [i]Odama[/i], when the Ninten Bell is forced between them by opposing forces) and not for any other reason. I lost far too many boards by not being able to hit a crucial ramp or target in a timely manner, and that’s simply unfair. The only use I could see that [i]Odama[/i] even has for the time limit — other than as an arbitrary inflation of difficulty — is as an impromptu scoring device (every 100 seconds you have left over after each board results in an “extra ball”) that could easily be replaced by an actual score tally.

When I found my copy of [i]Super Mario Strikers[/i] in my mailbox I was genuinely excited. I looked forward to popping it into my Gamecube and getting sucked into its multiple game modes and surprisingly deep gameplay for hours and hours. I soon found out this isn’t what we have come to expect from a Mario game. SMS is the latest in the Mario series of sports games. This time around Mario is trying his hand at soccer. The only question is: Will this title compare to the likes of Mario Tennis or Mario Kart?

Both visually and audibly, [i]SMS[/i] is just what you would expect from a Mario game. The visuals are polished, bright, and very “kiddie”. Character models are pretty simple but look nice and the stadiums are unique and very nicely done. The audio is much the same with nothing to complain about or praise. You’ll hear plenty of the usual sound bites, along with solid sound effects in-game as well as when navigating menus.

The game is as average is it gets. Unlike most other Mario sports titles this game doesn’t have any fun mini-games or handfuls of different modes. You are relegated to play now, play against a friend, or play in Cup Mode. You can work your way from the Flower Cup all the way to the Bowser Cup unlocking new arenas as you go. Once you take the Bowser Cup you will unlock one more tournament where, if you win, you will unlock the ONLY unlockable character in the entire game.

Now while this may sound fun, the game’s simplistic controls and extremely easy gameplay make it fly by in all its mediocrity. The game is played basically with just the left analog, along with the A,B, and Y buttons. If the opposing team has the ball all you need to do is slide tackle or just plain hit them to get it back. Once you get the timing of the “super strike” down you will score at will.

Now as I’ve sat here and written this review it feels as if I’ve missed something or left something out. Well, that’s the same feeling I get as I play through this game. It’s not a bad game, it’s a solid title to pick up and play when you need to kill 30 minutes before work, but it’s as if Nintendo forgot to put the rest of the game on the disc. It won’t keep your attention for long, but if you’re looking for a game for the young ones or to just kill time with here and there, this wouldn’t be a bad choice.

Games with Sonic in them are cool. The ‘blue streak’, as he is sometimes called was one of the coolest console mascots back in the days of the Genesis. The games focused on him, and only him (with the exception of Sonic & Knuckles). [i]Sonic Adventure 2: Battle[/i], however, is not cool, as we will find out as this review goes on.

The first thing you might notice about this game is that it’s a Sonic title… on the Nintendo Gamecube console. Yes, now that the Dreamcast has gone under, the blue hedgehog has made his way onto a Nintendo console, but with mixed results. [i]Sonic Adventure 2: Battle[/i] is merely a simple port of the Dreamcast’s [i]Sonic Adventure 2[/i] released a year before in 2001. While there are some changes to the game in [i]Battle[/i], it really won’t matter which system you play this on. As the title suggests, [i]Sonic Adventure 2[/i] is the sequel to the Dreamcast hit Sonic Adventure. However, this time around, the developers have changed around the game a little. In the first installment, you could choose which character you want to play as after you unlock them by playing as Sonic. In [i]Sonic Adventure 2[/i], instead of choosing which character you play as, you choose from two different stories, the Hero story, or the Dark story. Each story takes three different characters going through two different stories, each story meeting with the other from time to time and eventually, clashing at the end to see which side wins. The Hero story stars Sonic the Hedgehog, Miles ‘Tails’ Prower, and Knuckles the Echidna, while the Dark story stars Dr. Eggman, and two new additions to the Sonic universe; Rouge the Bat and Shadow the Hedgehog, Sonic’s alter-ego.

The three characters in each story go through their own different types of levels. Sonic and Shadow play through corridor-like speed levels, while Tails and Dr. Eggman pilot mechs through simplistic shooting levels. Knuckles and Rouge go through huge levels, looking for different items ranging from Chaos Emeralds to keys. This is where [i]Sonic Adventure 2[/i] and [i]Sonic Adventure 2: Battle[/i]’s first problems emerge.

The shooting levels that you take Tails and Dr. Eggman through are incredibly simplistic. In [i]Battle[/i]’s case, all you really do is go through the level, hold down the ‘B’ button, lock on to enemies and other objects, and release to fire missiles at everything that your laser-sight picks up. Older gamers will easily complete these levels, and they seem more suited to the younger audience. The levels that you take Knuckles and Rouge through are just plain annoying. Those consist of you taking either character and running around the level until your locator at the bottom of the screen begins to flash, playing the ‘hot or cold’ game basically. These levels become incredibly tedious, and as luck would have it, the game chooses to play these kinds of levels the most.

However, as boring as the other two gameplay types are, Sonic and Shadow’s levels are very fun to play through. In fact, these levels are probably the only fun part about [i]Sonic Adventure 2[/i], as they are much more compelling than Tails’ or Rouge’s levels. The problem is, Sonic and Shadow’s levels are scarce compared to the other character’s levels, and since their levels are really the only fun levels in the game, it’s a real blow to the overall quality of it. Most platformers are praised for making games with a variety of gameplay genres, but [i]Sonic Adventure 2[/i]’s gametypes get very tedious and are just plain unchallenging.

As mentioned earlier, [i]Sonic Adventure 2: Battle[/i] is a port of the Dreamcast’s [i]Sonic Adventure 2[/i], so you might be wondering if there is any sort of difference between the two. In short, yes, there is a difference, but if you played [i]Sonic Adventure 2[/i] on the Dreamcast, the Gamecube’s version is really no different. The Gamecube version contains a multiplayer section, but compared to other great multiplayer games like Super Smash Bros. Melee, [i]Sonic Adventure 2: Battle[/i]’s multiplayer is lacking, and isn’t really that interesting in the end. The graphics are slightly better than the Dreamcast’s version, but they are by no means incredible. The framerate is higher than the Dreamcast’s version, so there is a plus, but again, it is really no reason to play it again on the Gamecube. The game has horrible voice acting. All the characters seem pretty lifeless when they talk, especially Shadow, who has that ominously dark, evil dialogue, but fails to back it up with an ominously dark, evil voice. I’m going to use Knuckles as an example though, as when he talks, it sounds like he really isn’t aware of what’s going on around him, and sounds completely random. The voice actor who played Knuckles’ voice obviously is not very good at bringing his characters to life. To top things off, the models still move their lips like they are talking in Japanese, so the dialogue looks strange and off because of it.

Now, while Knuckles and Dr. Eggman’s levels are bad enough on their own, they are worsened by the horrible camera angles. Knuckles and Rouge’s levels are especially hurt by the camera. In fact, the camera in [i]Sonic Adventure 2: Battle[/i] is one of the worst cameras I have ever seen in a video game. Strangely enough, the camera really isn’t a problem in Sonic and Shadow’s levels, which is probably one more reason why they are so much better than the other character’s levels.

The music in the game has a mixed reaction from me. Each character’s level has a different form of music. Sonic’s music has a lighthearted pop-rock feel to it, while Shadow’s is the same, only darker sounding. Knuckles has hip-hop and rap music, while Rouge has annoying pop sound to it, and Tails’ is mostly rock while Dr. Eggman’s seems like a sort of mechanical grunge. While most of the songs (save for Rouge’s songs) are slightly catchy, some are marred by lyrics like ‘I’m gonna follow my rainbow’ and ‘live and learn’. One problem with the music is that, at times, the character’s dialogue is drowned out by the music, although with the horrible voice-overs, that may be a blessing in disguise.

[i]Sonic Adventure 2: Battle[/i] is very disappointing. Its storyline is compelling enough to keep most people interested, but the voice-overs will make it hard to enjoy cutscenes. Combine this with simplistic gameplay and a bad camera and you’ve got a perfect candidate for a weekend rental. While some may be drawn in by the challenge of making all ‘S’ grades in every level or the Chao Garden (which is surprisingly interesting), it really doesn’t take very long to complete the game, and unfortunately, has very little replay value, unless you are intent on a perfect score on every level. It’s quite obvious that any future Sonic title should focus itself on the blue hedgehog and his trademark speed alone, rather than the other minor players in the Sonic universe.

Sonic Heroes

February 19, 2006

There once was a time when Sonic the Hedgehog was a contender. Back in the early days of console gaming, there was no rivalry greater than that of Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog and Nintendo’s Super Mario. But where Mario made the transition into a three-dimensional environment almost perfectly, Sonic, sadly, did not.

Ever since Sonic went 3-D in [i]Sonic Adventure[/i] for the Sega Dreamcast, there’s been something missing from the series. While the game received much acclaim from gamers and reviewers alike, it was very obvious that the series had taken a drastic turn. The frenzied speed of the original Sonic titles for the Sega Genesis was gone, replaced by slow moving action of Knuckles searching for shattered Emerald pieces. Even Sonic’s part in Sonic Adventure had slowed to a crawl, with the classic corridor-style level replaced with spacious, full blown-out 3-D levels. The excessive amount of new characters didn’t do the series much good either, taking the main focus away from Sonic and more on side characters. The series has also seen some of the most annoying camera angles and horrible voice acting in gaming. Now, nearly 5 years after the release of Sonic Adventure, [i]Sonic Heroes[/i] tries it’s best to revive the original speed of the 2-D era, and while it does succeed in doing so, it fails in other areas.

Note the ‘Heroes’ part of [i]Sonic Heroes[/i]. Yes, it’s plural, meaning more than one. [i]Heroes[/i] separates itself from Sonic’s previous installments by letting you control three different characters at once. The game has four different teams, which we’ll cover later, and each of the three characters in a team has different abilities that must be used to progress through the story mode. There are three different types in each team; Fly, Speed, and Power. For example, in Team Sonic, Knuckles is classified as the Power character, and is used to fight enemies and break obstacles that the others cannot. Tails is classified as a Flying character, and helps Knuckles and Sonic up to higher ledges. And Sonic is the Speed character of the bunch, used to speed quickly through loops and pathways. You need to learn how to effectively switch between characters in order to complete levels, and while it takes some getting used to, it will eventually become second nature.

As said earlier, [i]Heroes[/i] has 4 different teams to choose from. Team Sonic is made up of Sonic the Hedgehog, Miles ‘Tails’ Prower, and Knuckles the Echidna. Team Dark is made up of Rouge the Bat, and Omega, the only robot made by Eggman that has actual emotions. Team Dark also has Shadow the Hedgehog, Sonic’s alter-ego, who was supposed to have died in space at the end of Sonic Adventure 2, but somehow survived to be in this title. Amy Rose, Cream the Rabbit, and Big, the… I don’t know what Big is exactly, make up Team Rose. Team Rose is by far the most annoying team in the game, with Cream sounding like she’s voiced by a 30 year old man trying to sound like a little girl at times, and Big, who has the brains of an infant and is obsessed with his Froggy. Then we have the most questionable team in the game, Team Chaotix. Chaotix is made up of Vector the Crocodile, Espio the Chameleon, and Charmy Bee. If you have never heard of these guys, don’t worry, you haven’t missed a new addition to the character pool in the last few years, nor are they newly introduced to [i]Heroes[/i]. These guys were last seen in Knuckles Chaotix, for the ill-fated 32X add-on for the Sega Genesis. The only people who might remember these guys are die-hard Sega fans who bought the 32X, or perhaps people who read Sonic the Hedgehog comics back in the day.

All these characters and team selections bring up [i]Heroes[/i]’ first problem. For a Sonic game, [i]Heroes[/i] really doesn’t focus on Sonic. In fact, in its entirety, Sonic is almost treated as a minor character in the game. The only time Sonic shows up is when you play as Team Sonic and during other team’s cut scenes (which isn’t often). Even when you’re playing as Team Sonic, since you have to use all three characters, you’ll only end up using Sonic one-third of the time. On the plus side however, [i]Heroes[/i] doesn’t add any new characters to the Sonic universe, although it does take existing ones from Chaotix, Sonic Advance 2, and the Sonic Adventure series.

One of the things [i]Heroes[/i] does right is bring back the speed of the original Sonic titles. Compared to its previous 3-D titles, [i]Sonic Heroes[/i] is easily the fastest and is the first 3-D Sonic title to come close to the frenzied speed of the Genesis’ Sonic. However, the team swapping slows down [i]Heroes[/i] considerably. As soon as the speed begins to pick up, you will usually have to switch characters and stop to fly over obstacles, or find a switch to activate a door. It’s a good feeling of Sonic nostalgia when you begin to pick up speed and go through loops at lighting fast speeds, but just as soon as it starts, you’re forced to switch characters to compete certain tasks. It really slows down the speed of the game.

Another big problem with [i]Heroes[/i] is that, aside from difficulty settings, every team plays through the exact same levels in the exact same order. The only real difference is that some team’s levels are longer while others are shorter. Team Sonic’s levels are moderate in difficulty, while Team Rose’s levels are shorter and much easier. Team Dark’s levels are just like Team Sonic’s, but they have more enemies, some being more hazardous. The only team that really sticks out is Team Chaotix, which plays through the same levels, but has different goals, such as destroying every robot in a level. [i]Heroes[/i] still goes by the harsh level grading system that the first two installments had, and in order to get all A’s, you’ll have to play a good long time.

The camera angles were very awkward in the previous Sonic Adventure games. [i]Heroes[/i] improves slightly on the camera, but for the most part, it’s still flawed. At times, it won’t lock onto an enemy, specifically bosses and you’ll be forced to navigate the camera manually. Other times, it will get stuck at an awkward angle and you won’t be able to see what’s going on 50 feet away from you. The voice acting is much improved over Sonic Adventure’s horrid voice overs, but it is by no means tolerable. The game even has some major glitches in it, although they rarely happen. One such glitch was at the beginning of a fight against another team, the opponents started out over the water. As soon as the fight began, they dropped into the water, giving me the victory. Other glitches include your character falling through the floor. The spastic controls don’t help the game much either. At times, you will press the B button only to fly all over the place, and most likely off the edge of a platform. The controls are one of the more intolerable features of [i]Heroes[/i].

[i]Sonic Heroes[/i] is one of the more disappointing Sonic titles to come out in recent years. Die-hard fans of the original Sonic titles that didn’t enjoy the previous 3-D Sonic titles may get a kick from the revived speed, but be cautious. Be aware that the Gamecube version is supposedly the best version you can get, while the Xbox version is mediocre. The PS2 version however suffers from poor frame rates and is generally lesser in quality than the Gamecube and Xbox versions. [i]Sonic Heroes[/i] may serve many better as a rental.