Tuesday, December 27, 2011

2011: A Year In Review

With the end of 2011 fast approaching, I figured I'd stop looking for my late Christmas gift to arrive in the mail and go through some of my favorite gaming stories and favorite games from this past year.

The Fighting Game is back for the foreseeable future after two important games hit the market. First, Capcom releases Marvel vs. Capcom 3, then turned around and announced an update mere months later. It rubbed a lot of gamers the wrong way, but many of them bought it anyway. Secondly, almost 20 years after the original game released, Warner Bros. resurrected the Mortal Kombat franchise in a major way. This latest Mortal Kombat has proven to be one of not only the best fighting games of the year, but one of the best games of 2011 period. In addition, THQ released WWE All Stars, which gave gamers a great blend of modern graphics and old school arcade wrestling fun, and SNK Playmore righted the ship with King of the Fighters XIII. It was a great year for a genre that went dormant for some time, and with games like Street Fighter X Tekken, Tekken Tag Tournament 2, and Soulcalibur V coming in 2012, it looks to be another banner year for the fighting genre.

Activision's juggernaut, Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, had one of the biggest first weeks in the history of gaming. The game, which received it's typical great reviews, sold upwards of 12 million units over 4 consoles in it's first week on the market, easily making it one of the best game launches in history. Not to be outdone, Electronic Arts attempted to take on the king with it's latest entry in the venerable Battlefield series. While not as successful commercially, Battlefield 3 proved to be a critical success. Microsoft also celebrated the culmination of one shooter Trilogy with Gears of War 3, and the re imagining of the first game in it's venerable Halo series with Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary Edition. Microsoft also announced that the first Halo game since Bungie left their umbrella, Halo 4, would be coming soon.

After a development cycle that included every bit of controversy that a game can endure, 2K Games finally released Duke Nukem Forever, and nobody was ammused. The title felt dated, offended some gamers and may have pretty much killed the property for good. Meanwhile, Croteam released Serious Sam 3 and it has proven that a throwback First Person Shooter can work if it isn't bounced around for a decade.

Sony and Nintendo both announced new consoles, and Nintendo released a handheld that was effectively bashed by gaming journalists and messageboard fanboys all over the western hemisphere. During E3, Sony formally unveiled the successor of their Playstation portable handheld, the Vita. The Vita featured a touchscreen and a touchpad on the back of the console. Loads of potential and hype that will either be fulfilled or falter when it's released in the US in the Spring. Nintendo announced the followup to their high selling yet much maligned Wii console, which featured a controller with a 7 inch touchscreen right in the center. The console, named Wii U, was touted to have graphical horsepower superior to the Xbox 360 and PS3, but many folks speculate that the hard time developers are reporting to have with the systems development kits are pretty unsettling news for fans of Nintendo consoles.

Finally, this was a solid year for sequels. Gears of War 3, Modern Warfare3, Battlefield 3, Skyrim, Portal 2, Arkham City, Infamous 2, Sonic Generations, Rayman Origins, Zelda, Kirby, and Uncharted 3 all proved that sequels equal success if done correctly. It also proved that fewer new IPs are being created by developers, which makes for familiar yet eventually boring experiences. These are exciting yet precarious times for gaming, so here's to hoping 2012 brings a blend of great sequels and strong new IPs.

Happy New Year From The 8-Bit Animal

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Skyblazer: Sony's 16 Bit Gem

Once upon a time, before the Super Nintendo CD-Rom debacle that gave birth to the Playstation, Sony was a hit or miss game publisher who released games under their Sony Imagesoft label. Most of their games were basically cash in merchandising that was attached to movies. Those games ranged from Good but not great (Hook for the Sega CD) to utterly abysmal (Hudson Hawk for the NES). Their best achievement as a third party in my humble opinion is a little known SNES platformer named Skyblazer. It is a well crafted platformer that gave gamers a pretty good spin on the tried and true gameplay and storytelling mechanics found in earlier games. What makes Skyblazer such a great game is the way those well worn components are pieced together.

Every piece I've ever read on this game talks about how minimal the story is, even though the game tries to force it's reliance on the story early on. I tend to agree, since it's used as nothing more than a device to justify Sky(the main character) going through the land fighting monsters. Like I stated a few sentences back, Skyblazer follows the well worn damsel in distress pattern made popular by dozens of other games before. This time, instead of saving a princess, Sky is charged with rescuing a sorceress. The main antagonist, Raglan, is very reminiscent of Satan from the Ghosts 'N Goblins games. Come to think of it, This game has moments where it feels like a much easier version of Super Ghouls 'N Ghosts for the SNES.

Gameplay wise, Skyblazer is as solid a game as you can find on the SNES. The platforming feels solid and the inclusion of a climbing mechanic adds a little strategy to a sometimes formulaic gameplay style. combat is handled using standard punches and kicks, as well as special moves acquired after beating boss characters. There's also a sprinkling of shoot em up levels throughout the game. The level design in Skyblazer is actually pretty good, even if most of it is very linear, and sends Sky through treetops, under water, over cliff sides and valleys, and other diverse environment types.

It says a lot that a game like Skyblazer had a production staff of less than 15 people, and the graphics and gameplay still hold up after almost 20 years. If you interested in tracking down a copy, it typically goes for far less than $20 on most auction sites, a mere pittance for such a fantastic game. Skyblazer may be one of the last gems released by Sony before they got into the console business themselves.

Monday, December 12, 2011

I Watched A Train Wreck...And I Was Too Stupid To Look Away

Saturday night was quite the learning experience for me, as I gathered with the folks from Character Select and Nerdgasm Noire Network to view the 2011 Spike Video Game Awardshttp://youtu.be/xMV5FiFa1c0. I went in not expecting much, so in preparation of the train wreck to come, I went up to the nearest corner store and bought an alcoholic beverage. I should have bought two. During the course of the 2 hour award show, only five awards were actually given out on screen, with two(character and game of the year) being dragged out during the course of the show. The audience we were able to see was filled with industry folks who seemed to be so disinterested in the idea of being there, celebrity presenters who were only there to tell us that another trailer was about to air, and a host of other issues basically kept the show from being enjoyable. The banter between us over Skype while we watched and the alcohol made it bearable, because I don't think watching alone would be possible. The best part of the entire miserable affair were the trailers and only a scant few of them proved to be worth wasting two hours in front of a television without a controller in hand.

Now you may be saying: "Mr. Animal, how do you propose we fix the problems with the VGAs?" Well, Kahlief Adams said it best in his post http://thespawnpoint.wordpress.com/2011/12/11/un-occupythevgas/#wpl-likebox when he stated that Spike should pay attention to the steep decline in viewership that G4 suffered as a result of them abandoning legitimate video game conversation for low brow, bottom denominator garbage television. G4 has irreparably damaged it's relationship with a lot of gamers, and Gametrailers' involvement with the VGAs will result in the same if changes aren't made. One of those may be to further trim the show if you aren't gonna give the awards out on air. The brief section where they rattled off award winners fired off about 10 to 15 awards so fast that I don't remember who won what. either spend the 2 hours talking about more than trailers and give out some awards or just do a show building hype for upcoming games, because your "awards show" isn't really doing either well.

I don't want to dislike the VGAs, but they make things so easy. The good thing is, they are in a great position, because the show can be tweaked to make it worth watching by more than a few "dude bros" who are killing time before they hop onto Xbox Live or PSN and yell ignorant things at each other over Call Of Duty.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Clash At Demonhead: All Awesome, No Filler

Have you ever played a game that was so ahead of its time concept wise that it flew completely over your head for years before you understood how awesome it was? That was pretty much what happened when I played Clash At Demonhead for the first time. I had heard stories about how awesome this game was, but as a side scrolling platformer, it gave off the same vibe that many other games in the genre do. For those willing to explore, they were in for a major treat, as this game had incredible depth for a platformer from a publisher that wasn't Capcom or Konami.

The first thing one will notice about Clash At Demonhead is the incredible tight control. Jumps and attacks are precise and the hit detection is spot on. There is nothing that feels off about this game as far as the control mechanics. I'd venture as far as to say this game has some of the most responsive controls I've encountered in a video game, and I've played a bunch of them over the years.

Oh, I almost forgot an important thing about Clash At Demonhead. THERE IS A SUIT IN THIS GAME THAT LETS YOU SWIM THROUGH LAVA!!!
Story wise, it's nothing out of the ordinary with other games of that era, as it starts out as a simple rescue mission, but evolves into something much more. There's a demon that tries to control the main character, Billy Blitz, through mind control, and something about a doomsday bomb. The story is pretty random, but it just gives us a means to an awesome game.

Clash At Demonhead had some pretty good level design, as it required players to have to take multiple paths and do a bit of backtracking (much like in Metroid) to find the right items needed to advance. There's also an in game shop system that can be accessed whenever a player has a "shop call" from this shop, a player can purchase a wealth of items (much like the classic Sega shooter Fantasy Zone), which can also assist in gaining access to some seemingly unreachable areas. this shop system and the occasional grinding for money to buy items gives Clash At Demonhead a feel similar to Zelda II, and adds a mild RPG feeling to the run and gun gameplay.

So, tight controls, deceptively deep gameplay, and a story that seems pretty deep for an NES game all make Clash At Demonhead sound like one of the great games on the NES. Why wasn't it? That's a hard question to answer, as many folks only know the name because of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. Regardless of how one knows of the game's existence, I highly recommend Clash At Demonhead as it is one of the absolute best things I've played on the NES.