Saturday, June 13, 2009

E3 2009 Impressions (One): Controlling Interests

It's a good thing I waited until the big press conferences (and the entire show) were over and done as there were plenty of surprises dropped that are clearly going to change the way the interactive experience in the near future and beyond. Of course the ton of new games on the way that still use traditional control methods will do nicely at assuring "hardcore" gamers that analog pads are not yet going the way of the dinosaur. The one important fact about what was shown at E3 2009: there's absolutely no need at all for a new console generation for at least the next five or so years.

Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony each have separate strategies in play for the future of motion control gaming and it only remains to be seen who makes the best usage of their respective technologies. Microsoft introduced the tentatively named Project Natal, an innovative console add-on that adds real time live motion capture, voice recognition, chat and other nifty features to the Xbox 360. While seeing assorted Microsoft employees flail about on stage while demonstrating this nascent version of Natal was quite amusing, the potential is absolutely there for some amazing gaming experiences not before seen or played.

Seeing Lionhead Studios' fantastic “Milo” demonstration really made for an essential, pure emotional moment for me. Not about “him” personally, but for the wave of game ideas that flooded my brain when I saw how well the Project Natal technology could be adapted. Forget about “point and click” or "context sensitive" elements, folks – Natal looks as if it will make any game experience truly fully interactive. While watching Milo fully interact with a Lionhead Studios tech, I immediately thought of Yu Suzuki and how he may want to revive his aborted Shenmue project now that the technology exists to fully immerse players into that game's world and characters.

Naturally, the Internet went wild with message board yappings, calling Natal everything from "vaporware" to a "Wii rip-off", both which are incorrect. Behind closed doors at E3, Electronic Arts had a demo of Burnout Paradise hooked up to Natal and while I didn't see the game in action then, Jimmy Fallon had the same demo on his show this past week and went bonkers over it. Microsoft's Kuno Tsunoda was there with that kooky yet fun brick-breaking game (Ricochet) which online yobs hate because, yes, people do look quite silly flailing away at a TV screen. On the other hand, the fact that even this prototype version of Natal makes games accessible to anyone within seconds means Microsoft can broaden their audience without alienating smarter core users who don't care if Grandma gets herself a 360 at some point.

Announced last year, but finally fully realized, Nintendo's Wii Motion Plus add-on adds even more precise control to their top-selling home console. However, the device's main flaw is it's not compatible with older Wii software. This disappointed me because the Wii should have had that more precise control from the start. That and the fact that a number of upcoming releases about to hit retail don't use Motion Plus and play incredibly fluidly (The Conduit being the absolute best example of this). Of course, the focus of Motion Plus from Nintendo's view is to show off how well Wii games can stand up to current as well as future games from its competition and on that front, it succeeds. Wii Sports Resort may not scream out to "core" gamers, but that super precise control bodes quite well for that Pilotwings sequel many have been calling for.

All of the Motion Plus-enabled games play amazingly well and I'm really looking forward to Red Steel 2 finally delivering on the promise of the first game. I'd have to say I was most surprised by this overl every other Motion Plus game. even though the game looks like a mash-up of two of my personal favories, Rising Zan: The Samurai Gunman and Samurai Western with a more modern twist.

To me, Sony's motion controller/USB camera combo was the biggest surprise of the three companies. A bit further along in development in terms of its pinpoint controls and ability to change on screen in real time into everything from a baseball bat to a gun or sword means no flailing away and some very innnnnteresting possibilities for developers. Watching one of the team hack away at a skeleton before tossing shurikens then switching to a super bow demonstration immediately made me wish for a new King's Field game as soon as possible. The again, I may be the only editor-type who remembers King's Field these days, but I can certainly see the first-person RPG landscape change significantly with the help of this peripheral. Of course, that glow-ball prototype version shown at the show will need a drastic new design, or else some folks will never take it seriously. Knowing Sony, the final version will no doubt be sleek and even more impressive.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Review: 101 in 1 Explosive Megamix

Platform: Nintendo DS/DSi

Developer: Nordcurrent

Publisher: Atlus USA

Players: 1 – 2 (Wi-Fi)

Rating: E (Everyone)

Official Site

Score: A

With 101 in 1 Explosive Megamix for the Nintendo DS, Atlus reaches a new low. A new low price point, that is. Retailing for a mere twenty dollars, this is a great deal for value conscious gamers on the go as well as any fan of mini-games galore. This budget priced collection (of yes, 101 different mini-games) is addictive and amusing, absolutely offering up some of the best fun you'll have on the handheld without a licensed character in sight. Designed for pick up and play action (and often quite challenging), it's a near perfect diversion for those otherwise dull commutes, waiting rooms or anywhere else you can tote that DS or DSi.

The no-frills presentation gets you right into things with ten initially unlocked mini-games. Some are simple variations on familiar “classic” arcade hits with platforming, puzzle, shooting or driving elements. Other games
look super easy but can be ridiculously baffling until you get the proper stylus motions and/or timing down. While you can skip the games that give you grief, the only way to unlock new games is to match or top each high score. Of course, you can simply replay the games you like over and over until you slowly can rack up points and coins, but where's the fun in that?

I'll admit that more than a couple of the games initially threw me for a loop. For example, it took me a while to figure out the right way to flip those blasted basketballs into the hoop the very first game. However, by the time I went back to try my luck, I'd already completed around 50 or so other events. Another game, Diamond Box, has you rotating a box in order to retrieve a gem yet manages to remain quite tricky even when you figure out what to do. The juggling or flipping games that require extreme precision will be the most pesky for less skilled players, but the more you play, the better you get (even when you still don't notch that high score).

Reaching or topping a high score for the first time nets you a ton of bonus coins, so unlocking everything shouldn't take more than a few days or so for the average gamer. I liked the throwbacks to childhood gaming memories such as the sliding tile puzzle
Fifteen, Dragon Jigsaw, Space Memory (a Simon homage) and Sudo Master, a randomly generated Sudoku board where the faster you finish, the higher your score. A few games require you to turn your DS or DSi on its side such as Crazy Burger (a fast food version of Tapper), Hurdles (a Track & Field inspired runner) or Skateboarder (sort of a one life Skate or Die).

Some of the hilarious settings many of the mini-games take place in definitely add to the fun factor.
Romeo's Plan has you attempting to catapult a lovestruck avatar into the arms of his plus-sized Juliet, Log Runners pits you against a hefty grizzly in a log rolling challenge, and Noisy Neighbor riffs off games like Guitar Hero or Rock Band in a much simpler timed tapper. There are a series of brief space shooter or space-based challenge levels that might make a decent stylus-based full game at some point. The games I enjoyed the most, Shuffler, Flying Fruits and Winter Fishing are all excellent for racking up a tremendous amount of points in a short time. Progress is automatically saved after each mini-game so you don't need to back all the way out to the title screen or remember to record your progress.

The credits list Nordcurrent as the developer and a lone programmer named Sergej Kravcenko, so I'm guessing he also did much of the game's whimsical art. While the visuals may remind some of you of those annoying “Punch the Monkey, Win a Prize!” Flash-based games, the colorful, comical cartoon style fits flawlessly. Even when you're playing a game you're having trouble with, you'll more than likely wearing a wide grin. There's a looping main theme that's a bit grating if you stare at the menu screens too long, but some of the mini-game tunes are catchy while they last.

There's also Wi-Fi play for two, but with only a single review copy of the game, I ended up sharing it “hot-seat” style with a few friends who all had a blast taking turns trying to beat my new high scores on a few events. Overall, the twenty bucks this costs is money well spent thanks to infinite replay value. While you don't get any bonuses for unlocking everything, there's more than enough here to keep players of all ages quite entertained. A quick click around the Internet shows that sometime this October, Atlus will be publishing a Wii version featuring a different format and mini-games called
101 in 1 Party Megamix, so keep an eye peeled for that one, folks. If it's as fun as this collection, Nordcurrent might become something of a household name among those looking for some Euro-style party action without eardrum busting beats, overly huggy party people or waving glowsticks.