October 2007

Front Mission

October 30, 2007

The Front Mission series should be more popular than it is. It’s got giant mechs (wanzers in the in-game parlance), deep customization, and a history of solid titles. Front Mission DS is actually a port of the original Front Mission, a Japanese-only release, and while it’s obviously not as advanced as its sequels, it’s arrival in the U.S. is a welcome sight.

Front Mission shows its age a bit in its battle system. In today’s SRPG’s, activity points dictate how far you can move and whether you’ve got enough energy left to fire a weapon or use an item, but Front Mission is a product of a simpler time. Each unit, in sequence, gets a two-phase turn: movement followed by action. This makes the game simpler and places a focus on unit capabilities instead of tactics. This unit-oriented focus lets the wanzers and your customization thereof take center stage. As much fun as it can be to destroy enemy wanzers there’s a lot of enjoyment to be found in Front Mission‘s customization system. Just make sure that you decide on each character’s specialty and stick with it; your pilots level alongside their wanzers and switching your shotgunner to a machine gunner means that your pilot won’t be as effective in battle.

It’s a good thing that FM’s customization is well-implemented because you’ll be spending a lot of time in the menu system trying out new arms, legs, missile pods, and guns. Wanzers have three key parts: body, legs, and arms. Each can be changed out so long as the end product is light enough to be moved with your power allotment. Weapons and shields (both handheld and shoulder-mounted) are factored into the weight/power equation as well.

Pacing is hard to get right in an SRPG, but Front Mission‘s alternating focus on grid-based battles and menu-driven cutomization makes for a game that is fun to play and doesn’t feel boring during an extended play session. Stylus controls are supported but not forced on the player, which is good, because they don’t add much. Buttons are small and it’s easier to just use the directional pad and face buttons. There’s also a multiplayer mode included, but 1-on-1 local play is the only mode supported.

Front Mission is a good game, but a bit dated. If you enjoyed FM3 and FM4, then seeing how everything got started should be a treat. For everybody else, take a chance on it. It’s got giant mechs, explosions, and two campaigns. There’s enough here to keep players busy, and Square knows how to put out a good product.

I Am Now A Victim

October 30, 2007

My wife just called and asked me this:

“What does it mean when the Xbox has red rings around the circle?”

I have now joined the ranks of people with a busted 360. I am not a happy gamer right now.

Speedball 2 is a faithful translation of the 1990 Bitmap Brothers futuristic, ultra-violent sports game, but what passed for good gameplay has changed a lot in 17 years. Like many other XBLA remakes, Speedball includes a straight port and an enhanced version. If the enhanced version offered more than updated graphics, it might have appealed to everyone, and not just fans of the original. Speedball shows its age, and it’s just not as fun as many of us would like to remember.

There are many scoring avenues available to the player: throw the ball into the opposing team’s goal, throw the ball into one of the targets scattered around the field, or injure a player severely enough that he is removed from the game. The concept is great, but its execution is flawed, particularly when taking the 360’s control pad into account. There’s no reason for almost every function to be mapped to the A button when you’ve got four face buttons, two triggers, and two shoulder buttons to work with. Leave the controls alone in classic mode, but a control upgrade would be a welcome addition to enhanced mode.

Each team is composed of five players. Most sports games either let the player control only one player or whichever player he or she chooses. Speedball chooses for you. Control is constantly shifted to whichever player is closest to the ball. When the insanely talented AI has the ball it isn’t uncommon for the player-controlled team to do nothing but switch which man is controlled by the player while the AI runs the ball all the way down the field. These abrupt changes are particularly noticeable and bothersome when control is shifted to the goalie with no warning. Play is more fun against a human, but like most other retro ports Speedball has very few online players.

Speedball isn’t a good game anymore. It’s a classic, but unless you played and loved it in 1990 it’s difficult to recommend that anybody drop $10 on it. Games used to be simpler, and it’s easy to look back on them through rose-colored glasses. Speedball 2 is proof that games don’t always age as gracefully as we’d like.

DK Jungle Climber

October 30, 2007

The Donkey Kong franchise has run the full gamut of game types since its debut so long ago. One of the more interesting and unique games to come out of the franchise was 2004’s GBA release, DK King of Swing. Featuring almost exclusive use of the shoulder buttons for controlling DK, King of Swing showed that an old dog like the GBA still had a few new tricks left up its sleeve. King of Swing was the first DK title by developer Paon after Rare’s departure to Microsoft and they’ve followed it up with a sequel titled DK Jungle Climber on the DS.

Jungle Climber has a pretty shallow story that begins with DK and company on a vacation and progresses with the appearance of a massive floating banana atop a nearby mountain. DK and his friends head on over to check things out and their adventure begins. From that point, things get very fuzzy as the story dissolves into an almost random series of events that seem to do little more than give you a poor reason for playing through each level.

Jungle Climber sports 4 unique gameplay modes including a single player story mode, a challenge mode featuring a collection of mini-games, a multiplayer versus mode, and an extras mode that contains Cranky’s lectures, the story videos, and even a collection of cheats you can enable. The Adventure mode is broken up into different islands each with many stages. To progress to each subsequent island you will need to complete all the stages and defeat the boss at the end of the final stage. Most stages can be completed on the first playthrough and require nary more than a few minutes to complete.

The mechanics of the game are quite simple. Use the L and R shoulder buttons to move side to side. Basic movement can also be accomplished through the D-Pad. To jump, press both shoulder buttons simultaneously. When one of DK’s hands is over a peg, press the corresponding shoulder button to grab that peg. Pressing both shoulder buttons will result in DK grabbing 2 pegs if they line up with DK’s hands. Grabbing a single peg will result in DK spinning around the peg, clockwise from his right hand and counterclockwise from his left. You can also jump from a peg by releasing the button.

Early in the game you will be introduced to additional features like invincibility and the appearance of Diddy Kong. While invincible you can fly through the air, guiding your way with the shoulder buttons. Diddy Kong is used to execute a spin attack or to collect far off items that DK can’t reach. The game does feature a moderate learning curve, but the game introduces you to each new action available to you and should be simple enough for gamers of all ages to pick up rather quickly.

Adventure stages include the standard DK items such as barrels, bananas, DK Coins, and many more. These items, while sometimes essential to completing the level, are more or less there to give you a reason to go back and replay any stages that you don’t complete on your first pass.

As you complete stages in the Adventure mode of Jungle Climber, you’ll unlock new mini-games in the Challenge mode. There are 6 total mini-games available to play and they range from Banana Grab, which challenges you to grab as many bananas as you can, to Rolling Panic where you are jumping over logs rolling down the hill. Each mini-game has different difficulty levels that are unlocked as you beat the current level. Each new difficulty level has an increasingly difficult goal to unlock your next level. Some of the mini-games are entertaining, but the upper level difficulties require an almost flawless performance and can become frustrating very quickly.

The multi-player mode in Jungle Climber allows you to play with up to 3 of your friends with a single game card. This is definitely a nice touch, but the total lack of multi-player game types makes this mode lackluster at best. The variety of modes is limited to Speed Climb and Booster Battle, both games which feature a short race and are ultimately not enough to keep you coming back.

Graphics are 2D and pretty average, as is the accompanying soundtrack. The DS’ second screen merely expands your view of the current stage. Touch controls are used sparingly, but are used when activating invincibility.

DK Jungle Climber represents a relatively unique gaming concept that Paon seems intent on refining. With their second attempt, they’ve put out a relatively solid game that has a broad appeal with its subject matter and its execution. Jungle Climber does a great job of presenting a fun gameplay experience, but doesn’t present any real reason to replay any of the levels after their initial completion. This lack of replay value really pushes Jungle Climber down a notch as you can no doubt zip through this title in a week or maybe even a weekend. Jungle Climber is a good game, but ultimately suffers from being too short with not enough substance to justify a full price purchase.

Geon: Emotions

October 30, 2007

What do you get when you combine Pac-Man and Street Fighter? Geon: Emotions. Every game is a 1-on-1 contest to see which player can pick up all of his emotes (pac-pellets, but without the copyright infringement) and get back to the goal five times. So far it sounds like a race, and – in part – it is, but each player can also pick up power-ups to interfere with his opponent’s dot gathering. The whole package sports a very trippy look, and the game is fun to play – especially in multiplayer.

Geon started life as a PSP title, and it shows. It’s very vibrant, feels like it would control well with the PSP’s directional pad, and it fits with the PSP’s great stable of puzzlers (Exit, Loco Roco, and Lumines, for example). I don’t know who decided to shift development to XBLA, but they were right to do it as the multiplayer absolutely makes the game. It’s much more satisfying to lay a well-placed trap when you can hear your opponent’s reaction to it, and victory is always sweeter when taken from a real person instead of the computer.

Geon features several modes. There’s multiplayer duel, which is just like it sounds. Two player compete to collect their emotes and score their goals the fastest. Each picks a character that is strong to only one of the game’s power-ups (Envy is good with the vacuum, Rapture is good with the speed boost, etc.) and the two go at it. Each player owns one side of the field, his opponent owns the other, and each player can see what the other is doing because the playing field is translucent. At first, I thought this was just a nice graphical touch, but it’s actually very strategic. If my opponent has no emotes on his side of the board then I shouldn’t waste my trap on this platform. Geon‘s single-player mode is the same as its multiplayer duel mode with your XBL opponent replaced by the computer.

Multiplayer boasts two additional modes: last man standing and team duel. These two types are only playable over Xbox Live, but they’re a blast to play. Last man standing is a free-for-all type where players are eliminated as they fail to score goals (think musical chairs) while team dual is a 2v2 variant of the standard duel. There is one annoyance to be found in multiplayer, however, and that is that inviting friends to play must always be done by opening up the guide, navigating to your friends list, and inviting them to the game. Most other games have implemented a call straight to the friends list, and its absence here – although not crucial to the game’s enjoyment – is obvious and annoying.

Single-player isn’t just a watered-down version of the multiplayer either. There are also two additional single-player game types: time attack and minigame. Time attack is single-player duel where the focus isn’t just to win the bout but to win it in a preset amount of time. It’s a change to be thinking about both how to keep the computer from screwing you up and the most efficient way to collect emotes and get back to the goal. Despite not being first on the menu, this is the meat of the single-player game. Minigames are unlocked by doing well in time attack, and they are puzzle levels that feel like trippy 3D Pac-Man. These levels are frustrating, but there’s an achievement at the end for those of you looking for additional GamerScore.

Geon is exactly what XBLA needs: an original, innovative game that takes advantage of the Live service. It’s fun, it can be played in short bursts, and with a price point of only $10, it’s hard to pass up. Come on, you’ve all played Tetris before, but how many of you can say you’ve played competitive Pac-Man on acid?