Pixel Junk?

January 30, 2008

Q-Games has this line of games hitting the PlayStation Network Store that trade under the name PixelJunk. So far there are two titles, PixelJunk Racers and PixelJunk Monsters.

Racers is a sort of a slot car racing game, sort of not. You only control how fast the car goes and which lane you drive in. Rather than simply race against other similarly handling cars, the game is divided up into different challenges. Sometimes you have to drive as close as possible to the car in front of you without hitting it. That gives you boost and you use that to finish the race under a specific time limit. In another race, you might have to simply complete a set number of laps in a certain amount of time.

Ultimately, it’s a lot less rewarding than you think it should be. I loved slot car tracks when I was a kid, and still love playing with them now as an adult. PixelJunk Racers isn’t really like those tracks at all and that ruined my expectations for the game. It’s alright for what it is, but what it is isn’t what I wanted given the descriptions I had seen of how it plays. Fortunately I only got the demo for that one and it didn’t cost me anything to find out it wasn’t my thing.

PixelJunk Monsters on the other hand is a superb riff on the Tower Defense genre that so many people have discovered for the first time in 2007. Instead of simply pointing and clicking where you want to place your towers, you have a little turtle man that has to be moved onto trees for placement. He can dance to upgrade towers and has to collect the coins that dead monsters drop. There are also gems that can be used for upgrades or to buy new types of towers. There’s a lot of risk in grabbing coins and gems, since one touch with a baddie sends some of your coins spewing out everywhere. The rewards can be the difference between winning and losing though, so you’ve got to get in there and snag as much of the coinage and gems as you can.

Games like these are one of the best benefits of online enabled consoles. Between these original titles on PSN and Xbox Live, and the very awesome Virtual Console on the Wii, I’ve found myself enjoying games in genres I had all but forgotten. They’re priced reasonably, but also give more instantaneous satisfaction since they’re more narrowly focused on great gameplay instead of stories and drama. Games create their own drama in the play. I don’t need stories to do that most of the time.

To answer the question in the title of this post, neither of these games are pixel junk at all. Racers seems to promise something it doesn’t deliver on, but it’s still a middling game. Monsters is a tough, smart, puzzle and action game that makes the tower defense genre work really nicely on a console with gamepad controls. It’s notable that the programmer is the same Dylan Cuthbert who played a large role in the development of Star Fox on the Super Nintendo. I’m looking forward to more games in this line from Q-Games and I hope they’re all as good as Monsters.

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Three Red Lights of Misery

January 27, 2008

I suppose it was inevitable that my second Xbox 360 would fail.

During my time sharing the hell out of things yesterday, I probably had the 360 on for a few hours, most of it unattended. I also had the PlayStation 3 on for a similar amount of time. During those hours, I downloaded the demos for Devil May Cry 4 and The Club on both systems. The plan was to compare them in a blog post sometime this week. After watching Live Free or Die Hard last night, I wasn’t real tired so I decided to start on that project.

The PlayStation 3 versions of the games have superb framerates and gorgeous looks. Devil May Cry 4 is as stunning as its prequels but of course with high-definition graphics. It’s not exactly breaking any new ground, but what’s there is good.  

The Club on the other hand is a an altogether unusual bit of shooting. It’s essentially a first-person shooter time trial. You fight your way through a level as fast as possible and with as high a score as possible, racking up combos and mowing down non-descript dudes along the way. The concept is pretty much the idea of speed running a game mated with high-score contests of the arcades of yesteryear. I found it refreshing to play a shooter designed that way because it’s just not how most of them are designed. Usually the skills you need are focused on multiplayer, but here, you have to focus on sharpshooting and awareness with uncanny accuracy at speed.

Once I got my fill of the games on the PS3, I flicked on the 360 to try out The Club first and Devil May Cry 4 second. I only saw about five minutes of The Club on 360. My system started screeching and the graphics froze up with digital squares of crap everywhere on the screen. I turned it off immediately and when I turned it back on… three red lights. I tried it two more times with the same result and then cursed, again and again. This is my second system that’s kaput. The thing is a piece of crap. Monday I’ll put in the call to see if I can get it fixed/replaced. This was a refurb replacement for the one I bought at Christmas in 2005 and it lasted about a year and a half, though I really didn’t use it too terribly much in 2007, probably extending its life through lack of usage.

Either way, the Xbox 360 is the single worst console in the history of videogames in terms of reliability. I think Microsoft has an insulting contempt for its customers given how these things still break even after being replaced. If I didn’t need a system for future work, I probably would simply call it quits with the whole thing.

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Sharing the Hell Out of Stuff

January 26, 2008

Dunno why I never set up networking among all the devices in the house before today, but that’s what happened as I started messing around on my wife’s Sony VAIO laptop. I discovered that there was a Memory Stick Pro slot on this computer, something that was always an impediment to messing with the PSP as a music player for me. I just never had the cable there to hook it up via USB to my desktop PC, so this card slot actually made it easier to put some music on a stick.

…well, that was provided I had set up music sharing on my network which I hadn’t done yet.

After a trip around the house to the 360 for the appropriate URL to get the info on how to set up music sharing on my PC, I got that configured and was listening to Nonpoint on the 360 through the TV. While that played, I got the laptop connected to the desktop PC, too. I started my music transfer via the network directly to the memory stick. As that continued, I went in and turned on the PlayStation 3. One more device configured and now I had music playing through that one while I was downloading the Devil May Cry 4 demo on the 360.

It doesn’t stop there, though. I also downloaded the free Undertow as well as the demo for The Club. The Club should be done by now, but I was also downloading Devil May Cry 4 on the PS3 at the same time. Gotta compare the two, right? You can probably see where I’m going here… I’ll be downloading The Club on PS3 to also compare those two. Expect some impression on the blog sometime around Monday.

Back to sharing… after every device was talking to every other device, I heard Nonpoint on everything in the house. That includes the PSP, which required me to connect to the network to so that it could authorize me via the Internet to listen to WMA files on there. Somehow all this nonsense was ultimately pretty rewarding. It just plain worked everywhere I went. I got some pausing while streaming in the PS3 so I’ll have to investigate that, but for the most part this was pretty cool.

Next step, finally get a surround sound system for the living room. Dunno when that’ll happen, if ever, but it would put the exclamation point on all this sharing the hell out of stuff.

Hope you’re having a great weekend, and don’t miss last night’s update, too.

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A Pirate and a Monkey

January 25, 2008

My middle son used some of his Christmas dough to purchase Zack & Wiki: The Quest for Barbaros Treasure for the Nintendo Wii. Over the last couple weeks, we’ve been solving some puzzles and enjoying the game’s humorous moments. It wouldn’t be that special of a game if it had been an action-platform game or some kind of role-playing title, but because it’s carrying the flag for a long lost genre, it really stands out.

Zack & Wiki is a point and click adventure game in the mold of LucasArts greats like Monkey Island or Maniac Mansion. Using the Wii remote as a pointing device, you tell Zack where to move onscreen. Wiki, his monkey sidekick, helps you out with small hints and by turning into a bell. When you ring that bell, you can turn animals and other creatures into tools that help you solve puzzles. Zack can only carry one tool at a time, and when he uses them, you perform their motion with the Wii remote. A centipede becomes a Centi-saw. A frog turns into a time bomb. Snakes become a grabber allowing you to reach things you couldn’t otherwise get to.

It’s classic adventure game interaction, and it’s really well-designed. The puzzles reward you with HirameQ points and you get more or less points depending on the amount of actions you perform before you figure out the right one. If you get it correct the first time, you’ll get the max points, thus making it really important to consider everything before trying something. The game is also gorgeous to look at, featuring a lot of personality in the characters and locations, but the best part is the motion controls. It’s one thing to solve puzzles by clicking on an object while holding another and having the game show you solving the puzzle. It’s another entirely to build a key out of ice and then insert and turn it using real-world actions that match the onscreen motions. It’s satisfying in an entirely new way than we’ve ever gotten in the point-and-click adventure genre. It also takes advantage of the Wii’s four-player functionality by allowing other people in the room to point at things to help the person in control.

Zack & Wiki

This is one more notable game that takes an old PC genre and updates it to modern standards that you can find on a Nintendo platform. Without Advance Wars hitting the Game Boy Advance and starting a resurgence of turn-based strategy gaming, where would that genre be now? As it stands, turn-based strategy has really flourished on handhelds and home console since. Capcom has done their part for adventure gaming where Nintendo did theirs for turn-based strategy. In addition to Zack & Wiki, the Phoenix Wright games have added their own unique twists to the adventure genre. Nintendo got in the act with Hotel Dusk and Trace Memory on the DS, too.

 What do all these games have in common? They come from Japan, where gameplay always seems to be king over graphics and the realism that seems to dominate western game designs. Sure, there are pockets of turn-based strategy here, and some folks still make adventure games, but none of the major wester publishers is putting those kinds of titles on home consoles, portables or even the PC for the most part. That’s despite the fact that these games seem to do pretty decent business at the retail counters. I suppose it’s not spectacular enough to warrant shifting some resources to these types of games, but it should be.

After the inundation of gaming with shooter after shooter in 2007, it’s really time to get outside that particular box, especially for western publishers who seem to be having a hard time doing so. More titles like Zack & Wiki would really be welcome and I can definitely recommend that you get the game for the Wii if you have the system to play it on. It’s one of the highlights of last year and well worth your time.

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In Color!

January 23, 2008

I really don’t care too much about videogame manuals anymore. I just don’t read them. Of course, last night while trying to play Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity, I absolutely had to read the manual just to get past the “Push + To Play” screen. I flipped open the white case and got out the book. As usual, it was all in black and white. It was probably as chintzy as it could be while still being included. This has been the norm with most non-Nintendo Wii games.

If there’s one thing about the PlayStation 3’s status as a high-end videogame machine that Sony has taken to heart, it’s the packaging of the games. Both Ratchet and Uncharted contain a full color instruction manual, and while I just don’t look at them that often, it’s a noticeable inclusion. That doesn’t excuse $60 new games, though. That was also something that struck me today when I picked up No More Heroes. $52.99 including tax seemed awfully reasonable having just paid roughly the same for a used copy of Ratchet and the $63.59 for Uncharted.

Oh yeah, back to Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity. It’s got this great cinematic opening sequence, for a Sonic game anyway. I get to the title screen, press the requisite + button and… nothing. The game went into its demo/attract mode and I’m sitting there dumbfounded. I had my oldest swap it with Mario Strikers Charged thinking something was wrong with the game. Strikers worked fine. Then I had him get me a different Wii remote. Hey, stranger things have happened in PC games causing the mouse not to work, etc. No change in Sonic Riders at all. Still can’t get the game to start.

By this time I’m considering calling up the Sega rep and asking WTF is up? No way they shipped this game without controls functioning. I would’ve at least seen something online about that by now anyway, right? Then it hit me… I told Calvin to take out all the Wavebird remote sensors from the Wii’s Gamecube controller ports. Bingo. Suddenly I’m in control with the Wii remote.

In their infinite wisdom, Sega’s developers default the game to the Gamecube controls if there’s one plugged in. Hey guys, it’s got Wii written on the friggin’ box! I’m not going to expect it to default to Gamecube controls unless I specifically make it do that in the options. Fortunately for me, I recalled out of thin air that this game was going to support the Wii remote, the Classic Controller and Gamecube controllers. Imagine some other less-informed family sitting down to play and not being able to get the game started. Good job, Sega. Ugh. I looked in the manual and sure enough, it’s confirmed in there in small print near the controls section. I guess I should pull those manuals out more often? Then again, as ugly as they usually are, can you blame me for not looking there first? *sigh*

As an aside, if you haven’t already, get yourself on the mailing list for this site. You’ll be happy you did.


Eve of Heroes

January 21, 2008

This is going to be one of those stream of consciousness posts, so if you don’t dig those, flick away now…

I’m still messing with the PlayStation 3, a lot. It’s got a strange magnetism to it that makes me want to just tinker in the XMB. I dunno what it is that drives it? It’s kinda like when I first got the Wii and would be hopping around to the different channels to see if more Miis showed up in my parade or wanted to know the weather in Tokyo. I still do that stuff on there, too. I wish sometimes I’d get more focused on the games when I turn one of these machines on.

There are still about a billion things hidden in the PS3’s interface that I’m finding as I mess around. So many options for messing with your video output, your audio and everything in between. It’s a little overwhelming. I always end up wondering what I’ve got screwed up and should fix. It’s more and more like a PC, where you’re never satisfied with things and always have to do some kind of tinkering. When I finally do start playing a game, I’m happily twiddling sticks, but I think I’m wasting too much time with extraneous junk before and after.

Speaking of games, I bought a second one for the PS3 and promptly returned it today. I kinda enjoyed Full Auto on the Xbox 360. It was one of the early releases and it had a pretty cool combination of racing, destruction and shotguns. I read some reviews of the PS3-only sequel and thought that it sounded good, especially for $30 used. It took me all weekend to find it, and I was all excited. When I finally got to try it last night, I was devastated. The interface is horrible. It’s slow and unwieldy. Worse, there was extra loading time before all the races. Combine those two things and it was a chore to get behind the wheel. The driving itself was ok, but the circuits were retreads of the 360 version and they put some stupid story layer on top of it all turning it into a total mess.

When I get a game that features cars with shotguns, I don’t want to hear about some gang of dudes taking over the city to have some supposed legit reason to destroy their cars. Just set up a bunch of races as fast as possible and keep me playing, not listening to a disembodied voice explain why I’m playing. SHUT UP AND LET ME PLAY. It irritated me so much I wanted to scream. In an attempt at sanity, I went online looking for some arena games. Nothing. Zero people online. Right then the thought crept into my head… “return it”.

Fortunately, Gamestop allows used games returns for any reason within seven days of purchase. This is one of the biggest benefits of buying used. So today I went and exchanged Full Auto 2 for what I should’ve bought in the first place, Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction. I’m sorry, but $29.99 was too much to pay for Full Auto 2. After I’m done here, I’ll give Ratchet a try. The demo was great and I expect the same from the game. Shouldn’t have been such a cheapskate and bought that the first time instead of messing with Full Auto 2. If I had bought the Warhawk I saw used over the weekend, I probably would’ve been just as happy with that as I’ll be with Ratchet. Sometimes you have to learn the hard way.

If I hadn’t gotten the PS3, I probably wouldn’t have bought anything this past weekend, because tomorrow I need to hit the Gamestop for No More Heroes. If you don’t know what that is, you’re probably going to hear about it a lot in the next few weeks. The game’s creator is Suda 51 (real name Goichi Suda), famous for the criminally undersold Killer 7 on Gamecube and PlayStation 2. It’s a game that is better shown in pictures than explained. It’s also one of the few hardcore M-rated titles that the Wii is getting in the first half of 2008. I plan to dive in heavily tomorrow night. It’s something I’ve been anticipating for a pretty long time. Can’t wait.

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NPD Videogame Hardware Sales

January 18, 2008

Just about every third week of the month you can expect the NPD Group to report videogame hardware sales for the prior month in the US. December is always the biggest month of the year so we usually get to see the ultimate selling power of each console platform. This year though, there was the anomalous Wii sales throwing everything into disarray. Never before has a console been esentially sold out since the day it first hit stores. That means we still don’t know how much Nintendo can actually sell in a given month if they were able to produce enough consoles to meet demand. That data point makes any and all analysis of the videogame industry difficult and seems likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

With that in mind, here’s how things shook out for December. Note that it’s a five week month and three and a half of those fiscal weeks came before Christmas while another one and a half came after. In the game industry that might not mean too much because so many people get gift cards from parents/friends that don’t like to shop for games and would rather let the gamers get what they want. Click through for the numbers… Read the rest of this entry »