August 2010

Metroid: Other M

August 30, 2010

Following the Metroid Prime series on the GameCube and Wii, Nintendo handed Samus Aran to Tecmo’s Team Ninja, most famous for its Ninja Gaiden series — and perhaps most infamous for its Dead or Alive jiggle-fests. Fans of the space adventure series were hoping to get more of the former than the latter, and for the most part that’s what the collaboration delivered. With a return to Metroid’s third-person perspective, but with a mix of the first-person targeting first introduced in the Prime series, Metroid: Other M bridges the lengthy gap between Super Metroid and Prime‘s Game Boy Advance sister title, Metroid Fusion

Like Fusion, Other M has a larger emphasis on story development than most Metroid offerings, which is its most controversial aspect. Fully-voiced cutscenes appear throughout the adventure and, while passable, they are definitely stiff and awkward at times. Most of the real fanboy teeth-gnashing comes from the characterization given to the previously blank slate heroine; I didn’t let that distract me and instead focused on the gameplay.

Most of the game is in a third-person perspective, with Samus able to move in all directions as space allows. The Wii Remote is held in the “classic” sideways alignment for this action, with the morph ball mapped to the A button since the down direction actually moves Samus. Beams/bombs and jumping are handled by the 1 and 2 buttons, respectively. If you want to use missiles or Samus’s grapple beam you have to shift into a largely immobile first-person perspective by pointing the Remote at the screen. You can still fire your beams in this mode, and by using the B button to look around you can lock on to enemies and objects; only when locked on can you fire missiles. While the missiles — and especially super missiles — pack an enormous punch, you have to offset that advantage with the drawback of being a sitting duck while you aim. It’s an interesting tension, but for the most part unnecessary except in specific circumstances. The charge beam will usually get the job done, even if it takes a few more hits, and it’s much easier to use the new Sensemove evasion technique and finishing blows when in third-person mode.

Sensemove causes Samus to automatically evade an enemy’s attack by pushing any direction on the D-pad just before that move hits. If Samus is charging at the time, her charge increases dramatically to provide a potent counter-attack. That’s not to say that Samus is invincible while she’s moving, but this dodge-and-blast is often a crucial tactic that will carry you through almost any battle. Sensemove does work while aiming, but it is trickier due to the perspective change. Finishing blows can be performed against most enemies that are Samus’s size or larger, either by jumping on top of them (not advised against spiny enemies, obviously) or by running into them while charging your beam. If the enemy has been weakened enough, Samus will put it away much earlier than just blasting it would have.

These new additions, along with the fact that Samus does her own aiming when in third-person, combine to create insanely fast-paced, fluid combat that is really fun once you get the hang of it. In exchange for her new evasive moves, however, Samus has lost much of her ability to recover energy. There are no power-up drops in Other M; instead, Samus can concentrate (hold the remote straight up and hit A when her health reaches a certain threshold. If she doesn’t get hit while in this stationary condition, she recovers to a given energy level — which is a mere one energy tank until you find some upgrades. Concentrating also replenishes missiles, and while this can be done at any time it isn’t that helpful if you’re not using that many missiles. In fact, the missile upgrades Samus picks up only add one more to her payload rather than the traditional five and it’s hardly noticeable.

There are two other main types of hidden upgrade in Other M: the standard energy tank returns as usual, along with “energy parts” that function like a piece of heart in the Zelda series, and “accel charge” items increase your charge rate. And outside of two specific upgrades — a diffuser beam and seeker missiles — that’s all you get. Samus actually has retained all of the upgrades she earned in Super Metroid (minus the X-ray visor, it would seem), but isn’t allowed to use most of them when she reunites with her old Galactic Federation commander Adam Malkovitch. His reasoning is sound — especially his strict forbidding of her extremely dangerous power bombs — and this is actually one of the few times that Samus being de-powered at the start of a new adventure makes any sense.

Unfortunately, what doesn’t make sense is the way she regains them. As Samus progresses, Adam will give her the go-ahead to use equipment that will aid her. However, he doesn’t do this right away, and often will make some maddening timing decisions. For example, Samus has to rush through several rooms (without the help of her speed booster) filled with the energy-draining heat of scorching lava before he finally allows the use of the entirely defensive Varia suit. Even worse is the time after Adam is removed from the narrative (which would probably be expected by anyone who has played Fusion); the fact that Samus doesn’t immediately return herself to full power at this point is downright absurd, and she takes some truly unnecessary punishment because of it — although one section is admittedly much cooler before she activates the appropriate upgrade.

Logic issues and largely shaky storyline aside, the action in Other M is enough to carry it through to a recommendation. The occasional break in that action, like when Samus is locked into first-person mode while you hunt down whatever key plot element you have to find, or when she’s in the slow-moving “exploration mode,” actually detracts from the experience much more than the story for that reason. Still, the boss battles are all epic, the minibosses challenging, and the last portion of the narrative overcomes the general weakness of the presentation and is quite gripping. If you can avoid focusing on the cutscenes, the only obstacle should be the awkward control scheme, but you should have that nailed down within the first hour. My playthrough lasted around ten hours total and I managed to collect less than 50% of the missile and energy upgrades — some of which are only available via the post-credits extra mission in which you have full access to the station with all of your cool toys. It’s not quite the ground-breaking achievement that Prime was or the timeless classic of Super Metroid, but Other M holds its own in the Metroid mythos and is worth a pick-up if you’re a fan of the series.


Major League Gaming’s 2010 tour stopped near Snackbar East’s North Carolina headquarters this weekend. We thought you may want to know what it’s like, so we checked it out.

After a hard-fought victory, a man in a jersey and a headband jumped, shouted and celebrated as a crowd looked on and cheered.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember that the guy in question was playing Tekken.


But at Major League Gaming’s Pro Circuit, the goal is to feel like a true sporting event. Professional players with sponsors and team logos battle on stages with stands of spectators and live broadcasts. Product logos are everywhere, seemingly providing more legitimacy to the competitions as sporting events. Testosterone flows freely here, as do the free chips and soda, and the competitors all have this look on their faces that says “I’m a pro, and I want everyone around to know it.” READ MORE

Worms Reloaded

August 29, 2010

The Worms series hasn’t changed much since the original released in 1995. Wait. Actually, it has, but the deviations into 3D were so bad that the gaming community as a whole has blocked them from its memory. So it’s understandable, then, that Worms Reloaded doesn’t try anything risky.  

Reloaded, the first two-dimensional Worms on the PC in almost a decade, is full of nostalgia. Everything you remember is here: teams of up to four worms each duke it out on two-dimensional battlefields, taking turns sniping at each other and causing mayhem with exploding sheep. Series veterans will be happy to learn that most of the fan-favorite weapons are back, from the Monty Python-inspired Holy Hand Grenade to the incredibly destructive Armageddon.

The entire thing is based on the engine used for the console Worms titles, so it’ll look familiar to those who’ve played that version. Everything is simplified and slick to be optimized for small screens as well as spacious plasmas. Team17 has added some new environments, but they’re purely aesthetic.

There’s a single-player campaign, but it serves largely as an extended tutorial, showing off techniques as well as the game’s new modes and weapons. There are increasingly difficult team battles, as well as timed or turn-limited challenges that show off advanced tactics. Everything ramps up to the multiplayer component, which is obviously the focus of the Steam-exclusive release. (There’s a second campaign mode with particularly maddening challenges as well.)

To bring itself into the current gaming climate, Reloaded introduces many customizable elements, from worm color to hats to user interface themes. Your worms now stick out in multiplayer, and not just because of the colored names floating above their heads. In addition, the level editor has much more detail than previous versions, as bridges have returned and start positions and item drops are customizable.

Ultimately, though, it’s still just Worms. The gameplay’s just not that much different from the originals. If that bothers you, then walk away. But that really won’t bother most people, and now that there’s a modern online system through Steam, expect a lot of multiplayer support. 


Modern strategy games can make a game out of just about any theme you could imagine. Farming, virulent outbreaks, colonial settlements, electric grid management… the list goes on. So it should come as little surprise when you learn that Thurn and Taxis is about setting up a postal carriage service in 16th-century Bavaria and its surroundings. 

Thurn and Taxis, designed in 2006 by Andreas Seyfarth (the creator of the top-rated Puerto Rico, among other titles) and his wife Karyn, earned several awards in 2006-7, including the prestigious 2006 Spiel des Jahres. 

The board consists of twenty-two cities connected by a network of roads and spread over nine color-coded regions. Each city is represented in the deck by three cards; six of these cards are arranged face-up as options for your mandatory draw each turn (or you could take a gamble with the top card of the deck, sight unseen). You must then place one card from your hand either on one end of your current route (towns must be connected by a road and the route cannot cross itself) or on a new route (trashing any previous route you may have at the time). Finally, you may then close your current route (if it is at least three cities long) and set up offices along it in one of two ways: 1) place in office all cities within a single region of the route; or 2) place one office in a city of each region spanned by the route. After closing a route discard down to three cards in your hand. If you close a region of sufficient length, starting at three cities and working up to seven, you may upgrade your carriage house one level.

In addition to the unique office placement rules, Thurn and Taxis also makes one of four special abilities, represented by various post office personnel, available on each turn: the cartwright allows you to virtually extend your current route by two cities for the purposes of upgrading your carriage house (the route must still be at least three actual adjacent cities); the postal carrier allows you to place two cards on to your current route (on either end); the administrator allows you to discard all six of the face-up cards and replace them with new ones before you draw for the turn; and finally there is the postmaster, who allows you to draw two cards in the same turn — and which must be selected if you begin the turn with no cards in hand, such as on each player’s first turn.

The game ends at the end of the round in which at least one player either obtains his fifth carriage house or places his last office; the highest carriage house obtained by each player is the only one scored. Setting up an office in each city within a region (or within two smaller neighboring regions) earns bonus points, as does having at least one office in each region. Additional points can be awarded by completing routes of certain lengths. All of these bonus points decrease in value as subsequent players earn them, rewarding those who can accomplish the various challenges with speed. There is also one final bonus point awarded to the player who first achieves a game-ending condition. Unplaced offices are then deducted from your total — a potentially harsh penalty if you’re not ready for the game to end — and whoever has the highest score wins. 

What makes Thurn and Taxis fun to play are all of the strategic choices at every turn. Which power will help you the most? Do you want to close your route now or try to extend it another turn for additional points and offices?Can you even extend your route with any of the cards available to you… and will those cards still be there by the time you get to draw them? What’s the most efficient way to score this route that contains two cities in three different regions? Careful use of the various powers usually helps to mitigate the luck factor in not drawing any useable cards, but trashing a route does still happen from time to time. 

A typical game of Thurn and Taxis will last from 45 minutes to an hour, and is best with three or four players (two is also supported) of ages 10 and up. Copies can usually be picked up for under $30 at gaming stores, or for under $25 on Amazon.

Ys Seven

August 27, 2010

Much like the PS2 was last generation, the PSP is my go-to platform for Japanese RPGs. With Ys Seven, the folks at Falcom understand that they’re developing for a portable system, and it shows. You can save just about anywhere, almost all dialogue and cinematic sequences can be skipped (even on the first viewing), and combat flows quickly enough to feel at home on a device that might need to be shut off at any moment because the bus is about to arrive at my stop. 

The narrative is standard JRPG fare, but it’s hard to mark a game down for sticking to the standards of the genre. Ys Seven’s hero, Adol, finds himself thrust into an adventure where he’ll come face-to-face with dragons, screen-filling bosses with obvious weak points, FedEx quests, and seals that must be broken. What’s truly impressive is that Ys Seven manages to feel fresh and modern despite the by-the-numbers story. All games, but JRPGs specifically, have needed save anywhere (or nearly anywhere) for a good, long time, and Ys Seven makes that need a feature. Yes, you can always put the PSP into standby mode, but it’s great to see a developer look at the target platform and realize that their game may in fact be played in 10 minute segments.

I don’t usually prefer action RPGs, but Ys Seven’s battle system is simple and elegant. Taking a cue from rock-paper-scissors, your three party members are all very strong against certain types of enemies while doing almost no damage at all to other types. Adol and his sword are great against squishy enemies, Dogi and his armored fists are suited to armored enemies, and Aisha deals with flyers wonderfully thanks to her bow. Push square for a standard attack or hold and release for a charge attack. When you’re controlling Adol and all the soft, unarmored enemies are dead, simply press circle to switch over to Dogi to dispatch the armored baddies. You can only directly control one party member at a time, but the AI does a fairly good job of keeping your compatriots out of trouble. They won’t be bringing the house down on their own, but you won’t be traipsing back to town for a revive because they insisted on fighting with the wrong foe either.

After the dust clears you’ll run around and pick up loot. These components will be used to craft various useful items. The crafting system is pretty deep and every item you run across is part of a recipe so you’ll find yourself running around and picking up every shiny trinket dropped by the enemy. You never know when the next item dropped will lead to a new piece of armor and the skill that comes with it. You’ll want to use that skill quite a bit, too, so that you can continue to use it after you’ve traded your cloth armor for leather. I love unlocking skills for use later, and every item in Ys Seven has a skill associated with it that can be yours forever if you use it often enough.

Ys Seven won’t win any awards for visuals, though it is far from ugly. The soundtrack is the real standout here. I’m a sucker for violin music, and the game delivers it in spades. Play with headphones on and let the violin set the tone for your adventure through various dungeons full of screen-filling bosses who all require specific and varied strategies to take down. It’s on the short side as JRPGs go, but that’s okay. By the time your 25-hour journey is over, you’ll see that all you’ve missed is extra fetch quests and grinding, and neither of those were really necessary anyhow.

Pros: Battles are quick but strategic, cinematics can be skipped, and the AI is capable of keeping your partners alive.

Cons: The story isn’t breaking any new ground, and the visuals aren’t up to par with other PSP titles.