Finally, a reason to power up my Playstation Vita! I like this system, I really do. It has a great screen, great hardware in general, and finally dual analog sticks. There haven’t been any games I’ve purchased for my Vita since launch, until Retro City Rampage. For anyone with a Vita who lived through the 80s, this is a must purchase title.

When I was twelve or thirteen, I had two favorite things; NES games and Saturday morning cartoons. I still remember how excited my brothers and I were when Burger King sold single Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle episodes on VHS for $3. We wore those tapes out, never tiring of blaring the theme song on days other than Saturday. Retro City Rampage gives me the same feeling, like I snuck a piece of 1987 magic into 2012 that I can play whenever I want.



Retro City Rampage
is a top down open world driving/shooting adventure that begs comparison to the original Grand Theft Auto. There are two driving control options, and shooting is either assisted lock on or dual stick.  The game controls well in all modes, but that isn’t what makes it special. All of the buildings, cars, and characters are lovingly crafted with old school sprites, all of the music is fresh work from great chiptune artists, and the game even includes alternate screen modes like an old computer monitor or an original Gameboy system. This game is a love letter to gaming and life in general in the 80s. I simply lost track of the cultural references from that decade, whether from video games, movies, music, or TV. Quick example: I’m on a mission from the game’s version of Doc Brown, reassembling the Flux Capacitor. While driving by the Thunder Hats store, I jump out of KITT from Knight Rider and steal Peewee Herman’s bike. The game also has many special stages patterned after classic Nintendo NES era games.

Old computer CGA monitor mode

All of the pop culture nods and game modes are great, but fortunately the game is fun to play as well. I often play for 10-15 minutes, completing just a few missions, and have a great experience.

Tight controls, short fun missions, a colorful and humorous world, retro-nostalgic sprites and chip-tunes combine to give the player great bursts of pick up and play fun.

Retro City Rampage is available on Wii, Xbox, PC, and Playstation 3, but the sprites look great on a smaller screen, and the quick play sessions make it easy for me to recommend the Vita version. It should be noted that this is one of Sony’s first crossbuy titles, which means if you buy either the Vita or Playstation versions, you get the other version free as well, and you can move game saves between versions! No matter what platform you decide to play Retro City Rampage on, you are in for a great time, especially if you remember the 80s with fondness.

 

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The modern gamer has many independent puzzle platformers to choose from, and an unending amount of digital boxes to push and virtual switches to pull . While Papo and Yo has these boxes and switches, it sets itself apart by jumping past the obstacle of the TV screen, and tugging switches in the player’s heart.

As Quico, you explore a colorful version of Brazilian slums aided by his toy robot, Lula. This unlikely setting for a game under Minority Media‘s art direction becomes a wonderful place to explore as seen through a child’s eyes.

Quico explores this landscape finding switches, doors, and gears drawn in chalk by a mysterious stranger. Interacting with these chalk symbols allows fantastically dramatic changes to the environment. One room shanties fly through the air, stacking to form a bridge, or crawl like spiders to bridge a gap. The puzzles have a dreamlike logic, and stacking boxes changes from the mundane to a child’s daydream.

Early in the game, we are introduced to the giant pink Monster. He seems mostly indifferent to Quico, occasionally tossing back a kicked soccer ball, or in sleep, allowing Quico to bounce on his tummy to reach a high spot. Monster’s indifference changes terrifyingly after he spots poisonous frogs. Monster devours the frogs, and instantly becomes a flaming, rage-filled version of himself, attacking Quico ruthlessly, throwing him around like a ragdoll.

The game’s title hints and the end of the game leaves no doubt as to who Monster represents. Hopefully many of you reading this will play the game, so I will not fully discuss the ending. As I watched the credits roll, I pondered with sadness my relationship with my estranged father, and I think my 8 year old daughter summed up my feelings succinctly. “Sometimes you have to let the people you love go.”

 

Nintendo’s new portable console launched last week, the 3DS XL, and I thought I’d share my quick impressions. The XL plays the same software as the original 3DS, so are the changes enough to spend an extra $30 on this model?

The obvious difference between models is the size. The XL includes a screen that is 90% larger than the original model, which when unfolded becomes about the dimensions of a small tablet like a Nook or Kindle, although more square. I found the larger size fit more naturally in my hand than the original. I was concerned the larger screen would mean larger pixels, and indeed the pixels are larger when I compared the two machines beside each other. When I stopped comparing, and simply played a game on the XL, I quickly forgot about the pixel sizes, and enjoyed the larger field of vision. I find it easier to keep the 3D viewing angle in the sweet spot in the XL, and it would be hard for me to go back to the smaller screen.

The next difference that stood out to me was form. The original 3DS has an unfinished, industrial look to it, almost as if it was the prototype model given to developers. It is square on some surfaces, beveled on others, and the top screen overbites the lower significantly. In contrast, the XL is perfectly symmetrical, thin, and has rounded, smooth edges. This may not seem like a big deal, but it affects the next area of contrast.

So which portable console fit better in my pocket? The answer might surprise you. The XL is clearly larger than the original 3DS because of its larger screens, but it was considerably thinner. The uneven edges of the original 3DS coupled with the Nyko extended battery made the original 3DS create a much larger bulge in my pants than its sleek newer cousin. Some would say that this is not a fair comparison because of the added bulk of the battery, but I would argue the extended battery is necessary to use the 3DS as a portable system. I was getting about 3 hours of playtime per charge before I added the extended battery, which often meant I missed gaming opportunities if I hadn’t charged the night before.  With the extended battery, I got about the same amount of play time per charge as I do with the new XL, about 5-6 hours.

Original 3DS bulge

3DS XL Bulge

So which system would I buy now, assuming I had neither, and knowing what I know now? Without hesitation, I would pick the 3DS XL over its smaller, undercharged cousin. Better form factor, better graphical presentation, and better battery life make this the system Nintendo should have launched. The larger screen really does make enough of a difference to make me go back and play some DS and 3DS games  I never finished. Once again, as with the original DS versus the DS lite or the Game Boy Advance versus the Game Boy Advance SP, it benefits the consumer to wait for the second version of Nintendo’s handheld console.

 

 

 

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PAX Prime is a great event that lets gamers try out games that won’t be in the market yet, socialize with other gamers, go to concerts, play old school games or board games in the freeplay rooms and generally have a good time. The passes are reasonably priced at $65 for all 3 days of the weekend and $35 for an individual day.

Last year, there were quite a few shady characters outside the convention center shilling passes for anywhere from $100-150, and even worse, it turns out a lot of these were fakes, which led to people being ejected from PAX, and greater scrutiny of everyone’s badge, which meant longer lines.

This year, the 3 day passes sold out in about 4 or 5 hours, and by the time I finish typing this, the single day passes will probably be sold out as well. Part of the reason that the passes sold out so quickly may have to do with a League of Legends Regional Finals on the first day of PAX, but I suspect a large percentage of passes were bought by people who have no intention of enjoying PAX. Douchebags like this guy, this guy, or this guy.

I really loathe scalpers.

 

This week, North Korea will launch a “satellite” that tests their country’s intercontinental ballistic missile system.
The $850 million spent on the launch could have bought 2.5 million tons of corn of and 1.4 million tons of rice, which would have been lifesaving for the estimated third of North Korean children that will be permanently stunted due to malnutrition. Clearly over-nourished Kim Jong-un plans to continue his father’s policy of aggression, striving  to unite North and South Korea, and strike out against the Western world.

Homefront for Xbox 360 or Playstation 3 places the player in a near future where Kim Jong-un succeeds in conquering and creating a Unified Korea, and through a series of nuclear strikes, disrupts American infrastructure effectively enough to allow its million man army to splinter America, and occupy several key areas.

As a resistance fighter, the player escapes from a processing facility, travels through war torn suburbs to a safe house, hijacks a convoy of fuel tankers, and retakes the Golden Gate bridge. While not a huge story arc, the plot serves adequately to move the action forward.

It was gutwrenching to see an airstrike on an average looking American neighborhood, and motivated me to fight. It was compelling to play through boarded up homes, overgrown backyards, and abandoned playgrounds. I also enjoyed a firefight in a computer parts big box store.  Store displays come in handy for cover!

Homefront offers little in innovation to the first person shooter genre. Weapons feel very similar, the only major difference being that some have better scopes than others. Enemy troops are mostly content to stay in one spot until you shoot them, sometimes even with their backs turned. There is a brief stage where the player controls a helicopter, but for the most part, Homefront is a standard shooter.

I don’t typically play multiplayer, and I suspect that may be where the majority of the game’s content lies. Although it was a short 4 hours, I enjoyed my time finishing the campaign of Homefront, and could recommend it to those who are looking for a quick experience, and are interested in the setting.

Liked
Simple, short story. Play Red Dawn in a modern setting!

Disliked
Dense AI, boring weapons.

If I could change one thing:
The horrors of war were overemphasized in a few scenes. There doesn’t need to be children crying in a videogame.

 

The Legend of Zelda is the game that sparked my life long hobby of video games. Way back in 1985, I stood before a demo model Nintendo Entertainment System in Sears and played through the first two dungeons of the game in one sitting (standing). From that day on I was hooked. I loved the world of Hyrule,  searching through each screen to find the secret treasure or hidden passage, fighting monsters, collecting Rupees so I could buy tools to explore further. I convinced my family to buy their first ever 13 inch color TV, and I mowed lawns all summer to buy that first NES, all so I could bring home The Legend of Zelda.

legend of zelda baby outfitlegend of zelda link to the past

I still have a great deal of nostalgia for the Legend of Zelda. My mother-in-law knitted a wonderful Link outfit for my son, and I have framed maps from the Legend of Zelda and the Super Nintendo sequel, A Link to the Past hanging proudly in my gaming den. Naturally I was thrilled to hear the Land gallery in Portland was going to be hosting a Zelda inspired exhibit called The Legend of Zelda: a Triforce Tribute.

It was wonderful to see so many different artist’s interpretations of my favorite video game, and if you live in the Portland area, I encourage you to visit Land gallery before April 21, 2012. If you can’t make it, Land will be selling many prints of these works, and I hope you enjoy the gallery below.

 

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Every gamer has had the experience of being immersed hours into a compelling game, only to find themselves realizing their eyes are glazed, their shoulders hunched, and they are in a word exhausted. Even if we are doing what we love, we can be overstimulated, and need a break.

Occasionally I find myself exhausted from media and culture. There is always a new show to watch, someone is always saying something inflammatory on twitter, I have podcasts to catch up on, movies to watch, games to play, websites to visit, stupid cat videos, facebook updates…

STOP

That’s what I did for 90 minutes.

And it felt great.

I visited Float On tonight, and gave my body a hard reboot. No light, no sound, no sensation. Just me, alone with my thoughts, gently supported in buoyant, warm water.

The private room I was given was furnished with a shower, bench, robe, towel and other amenities, but the dominant feature was the sensory deprivation chamber. Similar in appearance to a sauna, a small hatch opened to reveal an 11 inch deep pool filled with blue-lit water.

Once inside the chamber, I pulled the hatch shut, turned off the blue light, and floated. The water is saturated with 950 pounds of Epson salt, and heated to about 94 degrees so it feels body temperature neutral. The sensation of floating is unlike lying in a bed, or even a bath tub. In both cases, you feel your body weight pressing against the surface below you.  In the chamber, I was weightless, free.

Floating in space.

My thoughts swirled around like leaves blowing in the wind, then settled for a while. Like the unbroken surface of a pond, my mind would be calm and still for a moment, and then an unseen pebble would send ripples of ideas out from my center.

As I first lay still and unmoving, I felt like my body was spinning clockwise, then counterclockwise, with no transition. Then I didn’t really feel my body at all. It began to be hard to tell where my hand ended and the water began. I had fun imagining myself melting into a glowing blue ooze, and I just drifted for a while. I don’t feel I ever fell asleep, but there was a period of time where I could not identify any conscious thought.

And that felt great.

Eventually the attendant turned on music in the speakers below me, and I turned on the blue light and opened my eyes. As soon as I could collect myself, I got out, showered, dressed, and slowly readjusted to the ever increasing stimuli as I left the lobby to the street, then to my car. I had to consciously speed UP to the the speed limit, but while my limbs felt pleasantly heavy, I was not tired or sleepy, in fact quite alert.

It was a great experience, and as I type this into the glare of a computer monitor, I find myself wanting to schedule another float in space.

 

 

 

Family Game Night 4: The Game ShowMr. Potato Head hosts a game show comprised of several remixes of popular  Hasbro board games. Contestants in Family Game Night 4 are represented by Xbox LIVE avatars, which personalizes the game nicely, and players interact with giant sized familiar game pieces like Sorry tokens, and a story-high Connect 4 board.

Players can either play each challenge separately, or play all 5 challenges one after the other, collecting Monopoly markers to cash in at the end of the game. Although the game is called Family Game Night, and most families are more than two people, only two players can compete at once.

Family Game Night 4 Basketball Connect 4 Four

Some challenges remain virtually (see what I did there?) the same as their physical counterparts, like Scrabble and Bop-it. Connect Four is livened up by allowing players to shoot tokens like basketballs, allowing errors and bounces to add unpredictability to the game. Yahtzee becomes a bowling game with 6 sided pins instead of dice. My favorite is Sorry Shuffle, in which players push giant pieces as in shuffleboard, requiring strategy and allowing players to bounce opposing players out of the scoring zones.

Family Game Night 4

Although playing Basketball Connect Four and Shuffle Sorry are both fun, each challenge only lasts a few minutes. This may be good for a family of 6, since only 2 can play at once, but after a while, the play experience feels rather shallow. Even though each challenge type has two modes, regular and extreme, a player can experience all the game has to offer in 30 minutes or less.

Family Night’s biggest flaw is the Kinect controls. Player motions are often not recognized, and the problem intensifies with two players. It can be very frustrating to have a word spelled out in Scrabble, and not get points because the time ran out, and the game did not recognize a left swipe. The game also frequently grinds to a halt when two are playing, and demands the players to painstakingly back up and fit themselves into silhouettes to be rescanned. Other games do not seem to have this issue, and it really takes players out of the experience.

Liked:
Familiar game icons supersized and thrown around by my avatar.

Didn’t Like:
Very few game modes, little replayability

Wish I could change:
Kinect controls.

Family Game Night 4 was provided for review by EA. 11/32 trophies were earned over the course of 2 1/2 hours. All modes were played, including multiplayer. Two 7 year olds contributed this review.

 

 

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I had a dream where I was with three monsters, and we had lost our heart-tree. The three monsters traveled through a splintered landscape, helping each other through various challenges, and discovering unique abilities along the way.

Actually, this wasn’t a dream at all, but a delightful little puzzle platformer on the PSP. Purchased as a PSP mini, you can actually play it on the big screen through your Playstation 3 if you wish, but with its retro sprite graphics, it looks much better on a small screen. This is a cooperative puzzle game, but you control all three characters, switching between them. The stages are broken up and rearranged in panels like a scrambled jigsaw puzzle, so jumping bast the border may place your character completely across the screen. This disorienting fracturing along with the games soundtrack gives the game its dreamlike quality.

This is by far the best PSP mini I have played. Most mini titles are clunky knockoffs of iphone games at 3 times the price, and I haven’t bothered to play them. This game is quite charming; the biggest barrier to my completion is that I seldom pick up my PSP.

 

Shadow of the Colossus is a game I force myself to play.

I love the barren, expansive landscapes of the world, empty of living creatures except for me, my horse, and a few birds and lizards.

And something else, but I’ll get to that.

I have spent many hours wandering through old forests, gazing on abandoned, crumbling temples. I have given my steed free reign to gallop over wind-swept grassy valleys, giant distant broken bridges, and marveled at the world’s simple beauty. So why did I never complete this game when I had it for Playstation 2, and why am I having to force myself to play it now?

I spend many peaceful hours exploring the terrain, but eventually I am confronted with the task before me, and I suspect I am the game’s villain.

The game begins as I ride up to a weathered castle with a lumpy package draped over my saddle. I place the package on an altar in a great hall lined with 16 statues, and it becomes clear that the shape in the cloth is a woman, eyes closed, dead or unconscious. A booming voice from the ceiling tells me to reconnect her soul to her body, I must slay all the Colossus.

The game falls into a pattern after that. Raising my sword in the air, a beam of light guides me through forest, hill, and gorge to the Colossus I must slay. Sometimes, they’ll be in a cave, or atop a hill, or at the bottom of a ruin. Towering several stories high, they are some strange amalgamation of stone and fur. Their craggy faces look chiseled as if a statue’s, and rock juts out from their joints and spines. They come in many shapes, some on two legs, others on four. At least one flies. For the most part, they ignore me, stomping slowly on some unknown task.

Finding some purchase on their lower extremities, I climb up their furry backs, high above my  anxious horse. Irritated, the Colossus rolls its shoulders, shakes its arm, plunges into the water, anything to get me to slip off.

This dance is the most challenging and fun aspect of the game. Each Colossus becomes a puzzle. When do I dare let go and rush further forward before the shaking begins again? After many failed attempts, I reach the head and plunge my sword into a glowing crest. The creature bellows, and slowly topples, still graceful, into a heap. And I feel like a jerk.

Why do I have to kill these majestic creatures? Why does a statue crumble in the great hall every time I slay a Colossus, and a continuous beam of light shine up from where it was slain? What if I am slaying the guardians of the land? I have no assurance that the voice in the great hall is benevolent and good, or even that it has the power to revive the woman I love. Even if she is revived, will the price I paid be worth it? I can’t shake the feeling that I am the monster in this game, not the lumbering giants.

When I first played this game, I stopped after killing seven Colossus. I have now killed ten. Judging from the six remaining statues in the great hall, I have six more to kill.

I’m not sure I can do it.

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