Dragon Quest IX (DS)

Dragon Quest IX cover
Dragon Quest IX. You forget it’s a DS game.

Now that Ni No Kuni is finding success on charts on its Western release, perhaps it’s time to discuss the Japanese roleplaying game, the “JRPG”.

While the genre enjoys immense popularity in Japan, it’s never been as popular over here, even with the odd exceptions of titles like Final Fantasy VII. Whereas Final Fantasy has made overt moves towards appealing to a global audience, the JRPG crown prince has always been the Dragon Quest series, which only really saw a release in the West with the PS2 title Dragon Quest VIII (2005). From what I gather, Dragon Quest is to the RPG in Japan what D&D is to the RPG in the West. It’s so iconic, it needs no explanation. It never changes.

I would wager a large part of the series’ continuing appeal in Japan is precisely its traditional, set ways. Asian peoples are much more traditionalists and conservative than Western peoples, and perhaps the game’s ways speak so strongly to that characteristic. The same assumptions that guard it against imitators and the creeping progress of time make it hard to approach to outsiders, especially as the shape of games moves on. In a way, I see it much as the Japanese culture and people in general.

The way the JRPG genre is explained in the Western gaming media tends to be about three things: endless grinding for XP, endless random encounters, and childish plotting that revolves around children. Apologists of the genre point to grinding being… less interminable, random encounters being… less random these days and plotting being… unparalleled great storytelling, for the most part.

I completely disagree with all of that. Dragon Quest IX is a great game because of these things, not in spite of them. This is coming from someone who is not hugely into the genre. I’ve played my share of Final Fantasy (emulated IV – VI, played VII, VIII, XII on their original platforms), but that’s really about it. Dragon Quest IX is my first brush with the series and I do like it a great deal.

The endless grinding for XP over endless random encounters is archaic design. It can admiteddly get a bit much. DQ IX alleviates things by usually showing the monsters to you before they attack, so you have the option of avoiding combat. You can also get items which shield you from these mostly inconsequential battles. But once you play with the system instead of against it, the random battling for XP achieves a number of things.

For one, it’s the main gameplay there is on offer. Everything else is exploration and following narration from NPC to NPC with no real decisions to make. It helps that the battling is good. With all the stacking status effects and differently behaving weapons and powers, there’s a lot to digest and orchestrate here. If you sleepwalk through battles, you will quickly find yourself running out of magic points for healing. The random battles become a difficulty slider – if you push on quickly as you can, you will find the battles in the longer dungeons (where you can’t rest to regroup) tough going, and especially bosses at the end of those long dungeons can be nail-biting encounters, with the latest save half an hour away. If you want to play it safe, you take your time levelling up and make sure you have the best available gear before pushing on. In most cases it’s obvious where you should be going, and it’s your own decision whether you would rather get stronger first.

Even when exploring, the random battles maintain their interest as the stingily replenished magic points become a resource you want to manage very carefully. There is a ton of optional side quests related to dealing with different kinds of monsters, such as proving your worth as a martial arts student by scaring five werewolves with a war cry before taking them out bare-handed.

If you ignore the additional depths of the battling and just try to push on through it, it does become very repetitive and a nuisance. I can use the battling to help me go to sleep, just by ignoring the optional stuff. It is a game about battling randomly spawning monsters for XP. You should be fine with that before signing up.

I’ve always found it ridiculous when people are talking up Final Fantasy storylines. It’s just not good at all. If you like it, fine, but it’s likely not because the storytelling is good. The plots are world saving cliches stacked on top of more cliches, carried around by moping childlike caricatures. The only Japanese RPG story I’ve found truly affecting is from Vagrant Story. Regardless, I do understand why people like them. The stories may be superficial, but they’re often very genuine. The JRPG stories wear their hearts out in the open, and their melodramatic characters are easy to understand. Like a good children’s story, it’s relatable. (It’s perhaps worth pointing out that I don’t hold most Western storytelling in games in any higher regard. They tend to be just as bad, except ridiculously serious about it all.)

What DQ IX does way better than any Final Fantasy title, or indeed any Western RPG, is the way it’s structured. You have a feather-light, cosmic, over-arcing story that’s providing you motivation to go about the world and poke your nose into things that are really none of your business. You’re essentially looking for glowing fruit (really) and helping people because as an angel that’s what you’re supposed to do. Fair enough.

The situations that reward you with glowing fruit have been very smartly written into bite-sized pieces, something you can play through in a single evening. It’s typically a single city location and an accompanying dungeon. The stories they’re built around are never complicated, but they’re always fresh. I’m actually interested in seeing what kind of situation I’m walking into next. The destinies in play are always affecting, everyone’s motivations easy to relate to. Often, they leave you feeling sad.

It’s important that these small stories are separate. There is no complex web of uninteresting characters to lose track of, much less a paper-thin make-believe world’s fake politics to endure. You grasp the new story and see it through, typically bringing closure to parties involved, and be rewarded with your glowing fruit. Emotionally, it just works. Every boss felled and fruit pocketed, you feel like you’re achieving things. Your own victories don’t feel that important, but the way you’re helping the characters involved is important. Your carte blanche of a protagonist, without a conflict to speak of, is not a problem here – it leaves you room to concentrate on the small tragedies and fates on stage.

In the small world of Dragon Quest IX I’ve felt more things than in games dozens of times its size and scope. By daring to keep things small, it makes them matter all that more. It helps that the localization is just sublime, keeping a marvellously light tone all through.

Oh, and I imagine a large part of the appeal of the genre is the staple of the opening of the world map. After funneling you through it in corridors and dungeons for a couple of dozen hours, at some point all JRPGs open up, typically giving you a neat means of transportation – a ship or a train or an airship. Not unlike getting the keys to your first car in real life, the feeling of freedom and endless possibilities is sublime, something no other game type can offer.

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What I’ve been playing this summer (part II)

Mystery Dungeon: Shiren The Wanderer
Mystery Dungeon: Shiren The Wanderer
Brütal Legend
Brütal Legend

Alan Wake (Xbox 360)

Alan Wake finally came out and for me, it was well worth the wait. Top of the line storytelling all through, with unparalleled pacing and cinematic conventions. Great setting, great writing, great characters and good gameplay. It could have used a bit more variety in the combat mechanics towards the end, but aside from that, this is one of the best adventures I’ve been on in years. One of the setpieces is an instant classic (the farm fields), and the other scenes don’t fare much worse. They have clearly cut all the fat and only kept the very best parts. Remedy are really the masters in what they do. Must play, if you have a 360.

I’ve recently been replaying Max Payne 2, and everything that’s great about Wake is evident there. It may be hard to recall what an ambitious step in storytelling the sequel to Max Payne was, despite a short development time. If you’re thinking about a revisit, for a seven-year old game, on the PC it has stood up graphically amazingly well.

Dead Or Alive 4 (Xbox 360)

I initially disliked (whoah, four years already!) DOA4 because the computer is super hard. But this time I stuck to my guns and learned how to play it. It’s easily the best title in the series, in every way an evolution. I’ve been playing single player and grown to not be frustrated with the CPU. My wife has become rather proficient in it, as well, usually soundly beating me. (I think I’m thinking too much.)

I’ve also played some online, but that’s just harsh. The guys still online are way too hardcore for me.

Mystery Dungeon: Shiren The Wanderer (Nintendo DS)

All the way from 1995, this DS port of a 15-year old SNES game just sucks me in. It’s a graphical, less complex roguelike, which does not make it the slightest bit forgiving. A really hardcore experience, you’re supposed to perish dozens if not hundreds of times before making it to the end. Every time you die, you start from the beginning, although if you’re clever, you can carry over some of the stuff you’ve accumulated in your previous adventures. The narrow scope with lots of depth makes it very compulsive to play.

Soul Calibur Broken Destiny (PSP)

Still a great game. Both the fighting and the character building are fun and really at home on the PSP. If you have a PSP and like fighters at all, I’d say it’s a must have, even if you don’t have anyone to play it with locally.

Brütal Legend (PS3)

Tim Schafer’s heavy metal tribute is built for guys of my age (born in late 70s). I can’t help but smile! Right from the start menu, you’re in a world of metal, and it feels good. The writing is very good, often laugh out loud funny, and very well acted. The gameplay works, although it isn’t anything really special. If you’re into metal, you need this game.

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E3 2010

E3 2010

I went to my first Electronic Entertainment Expo this year. Los Angeles was loud, slow and relatively cold, with only the rioting Lakers fans generating some excitement outside of the show. I don’t much care for the city. We stayed in Santa Monica, which is a lot nicer, but the over one-hour transits on the freeway to pretty much anywhere begin to grate in no time at all.

As for the show proper, there were definite highlights and definite disappointments.

Bad: Front Mission Evolved

I am a sucker for mecha and I’m sad to say that it looks like there’s no way I’ll be picking up Front Mission Evolved, not unless it comes with Front Mission 3. Everything from the handling to the setting to the mech designs and animation was seriously lacklustre. It’s a shame.

Bad: Twisted Metal

The new Twisted Metal looked like it was from the previous generation. Barebones arenas with little effects or satisfying destruction going on, it feels like it’s trying to ride on its bygone charms alone.

Bad: MotorStorm Apocalypse

MotorStorm Apocalypse in 3D should have been a wild ride, but turned out to be a poor framerate show of questionable worth. Some of the rollercoaster pacing was spot on, but overall I wasn’t impressed at all. The story mode does sound intriguing, though, and I’ve been expecting them to deliver on the initial promise of the franchise for three games now. Still one to watch.

Bad: 3D | Good: Nintendo 3DS

Speaking of 3D, I am not impressed. Some of the games are nice enough, but they really need to be 60 FPS to work. Super Stardust HD and Gran Turismo 5 are probably the best examples so far. But you won’t see me wearing a pair of glasses.

Which is one of the main reasons that the Nintendo 3DS was so impressive. No glasses required, great 3D effect, some great demos. Pilotwings was the best one. I am likely going to finally upgrade my DS Phat. Sony and Apple have some catch-up to do!

Bad: movement

Both Microsoft Kinect and Sony Move failed to generate much buzz. Not very surprising as there were no proper games on show. Out of Kinect only Ubisoft’s yoga exercise program and Harmonix’s Dance Central seemed to interest people. Somebody did mention Kinectimals in a positive manner, but that’s about it. I didn’t see anything I would’ve been interested in on Move.

Bad: Epic Mickey

Epic Mickey was featured in a major way, with a huge booth, plenty of demo pods and live performances. Too bad the actual gameplay failed to interest at all. It doesn’t help that it’s on the Wii – the lack of HD is beginning to really hurt Wii. (Some of the Nintendo booths did have very high quality visuals, though, I can’t figure out how they did that.) When it looks and feels like a barebones platformer, it’s hard to get that much into it. But then it might be a game which just needs more time than what you get at an expo.

Good: Dance Central

Kinect was going to play host to a good dance game and I’m super glad that it’s Harmonix doing it. I am a Rock Band fanboy and in my eyes Harmonix can do no wrong. There was a very nice buzz to the title. It feels like a title I might have to get and it’s the only Kinect game which felt like a potential system seller to me. But that’s mainly due to Harmonix’s pedigree, too early to say how it’s going to properly work. But four friends dancing together and Harmonix’s taste in music – it probably can’t go wrong.

Good: Need For Speed Hot Pursuit 2

Need For Speed has been on the wane for years now, the golden days of Underground and the original Hot Pursuit a fading memory. EA has now put Criterion on lifeguard duty and what do you know – returning to Hot Pursuit, the game the fans have been crying out for for years now, seems to work. The game mechanics aren’t quite there yet, but it sure looks and feels nice. The handling isn’t as twitchy as Burnout, but a huge improvement over the previous NFS titles nevertheless (Shift excluded). The simple cops versus racers scenario just works.

Super good: Vanquish

Game of the show for me was Platinum Games’ Vanquish. Whereas Tecmo Koei’s Quantum Theory looks like a poorly deconstructed rip-off of Gears Of War, Shinji Mikami’s new title is Gears on amphetamine. It’s a sci-fi third person shooter, but this kind of speed and spectacle is not on offer anywhere else. Apparently the section on display was the first level of the game and I find it very hard to imagine the action becoming even more intense later on. Everything in the game is a sci-fi off-white, and yet it looks more spectacular than anything else on show. Certainly the days of Japanese developers not being able to wring power out of the current-gen consoles are over.

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The best of 2009

My 10 best games of 2009
My 10 best games of 2009

For the most of 2009 I spent my gaming time playing games from 2008 – Far Cry 2, Fable II, Rock Band 2, lots of cheap PSP & DS titles, Company Of Heroes, Dawn Of War (the first one) – but I thought it could be fun to put together a list of what was the best 2009 had to offer. For future reference, see.

I have not played many of the big hitters of 2009 so there’s bound to be holes, but these days, gaming is too big a pastime for one man to wholly take in with his free time (and income). Major omissions include Halo: ODST, Modern Warfare 2, Resident Evil 5 and Dragon Age: Origins, to name a few.

My ten best games of 2009:

  1. Space Hulk (board game)
  2. Batman: Arkham Asylum. I haven’t written about Rocksteady’s phenomenal take on Batman (because I’ve been too busy playing it), but it ranks as one of my all-time favorite games. Play it.
  3. Demon’s Souls
  4. GTA Chinatown Wars (DS)
  5. Shadow Complex
  6. Torchlight. I’ve been playing this for most of the holidays, it’s crazy good. Too bad about the lack of variety and the still missing multiplayer.
  7. Killzone 2
  8. Plants Vs Zombies. This Popcap title stole a ridiculous amount of time this year. Probably the best value for money all year. [Update April 2018: looks like the original isn’t available anymore. This Flash version looks like it might work:]
  9. Street Fighter IV
  10. Rock Band Unplugged

I’m surprised by how many “small” games there are – mobile games and cheap PC games. Remarkably, the only one I was looking forward to before it hit was Killzone 2, the rest of these have been more or less very happy surprises.


Bangai-O Spirits

I could not finish the tutorial of Treasure’s puzzle shooter Bangai-O Spirits without a trip down to GameFAQs.

This is a brutal game. If you do not succeed at a level, you typically die within a couple of seconds, the screen so full of missile fire that your DS chugs along at a sad framerate. Then you hit retry and change one or more of your four weapons to try a new loadout. You take a deep breath and go in again. There are 160 levels and a level editor. You can transfer levels by recording them as music you can play back to another DS’s microphone.

You are a giant robot, although very tiny on the screen, and make your way through small levels of ingenious death traps, wielding plasma missiles and power swords and baseball bats and bouncing balls of death. Ninja robots and buildings fall in your two-dimensional barrage. Then a screen-sized enemy robot closes in and swipes the whole screen in the span of perhaps half a second, whacking you to within an inch of your life. You freeze time and bombard it with plasma missiles, closing in to bounce now stationary enemies at it with your baseball bat. It’s not enough, and you die, and the game laughs at you.

I picked this now rare game up on the same trip to the US west coast as Demon’s Souls (which is pretty much sublime and worth a post in the near future, once I’m in a little deeper). Surely that’s enough self-punishment to buy me some good karma down the road.

culture DS Freeware PC

Post I.T. Shooter

Kloonigames has a new game up. Falling resolutely on the “art” side of the “games as art” debate, it’s an experience you shouldn’t miss. It’s a scrolling shooter presented as a stop motion animation, composed of Post-It notes.

Coincidentally, I just bought Space Invaders Extreme for the DS and have been playing that. Pretty great stuff, actually. If only my trigger finger could be pressed to service like in days long gone. Nice tunes, great rhythm and suitably hard.


Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars

GTA Chinatown Wars
GTA Chinatown Wars

GTA Chinatown Wars is the best portable game I’ve played in years. Its status as not just a disappointment in sales but as an actual flop is a lesson in marketing. Take2 and Nintendo really haven’t understood the DS demographic, as their marvellous outing just isn’t finding an audience, despite stellar reviews and huge brand recognition. Huge on other platforms, that is.

It’s not like they’re doing anything wrong. The Rockstar Social Club is a great way to extend the game’s appeal beyond the initial purchase and something I’m hoping other developers and publishers take note of. I didn’t know you could do such things on the DS, such as the Rampage Tracker, which shows you on a cool map which side missions you’ve found and which you have yet to find and which rating you’ve got on them. So you’ve got to manually sync your progress over Wi-Fi, but it’s an easily accessible feature and it only takes a couple of seconds. No need to input any passwords or anything. (Obviouly you still need to link your DS friend code with your Social Club account.)

The game itself is just as great as everyone’s saying. It’s easier to get into than its big brothers and its exceptionally well-written dialogue and missions are always entertaining. The controls work very well and the numerous touch screen mini-games are all excellent diversions. This is how you should bring a big-screen franchise to the DS.

But the Nintendo crowd doesn’t seem to care. In most games stores, I don’t even look at the DS/Wii shelves as they’re full of shovelware, except of course if I’m looking for something. Of course Take2 is too smart to not be aware of the Nintendo dilemma and they’re counting on the word spreading and the sales picking up over a long period, but the initial numbers do seem damning.

Also, region-free gaming? I bought this game in the United States and put it into my European DS and it worked, somewhat to my surprise. I did the same with a couple more DS and PSP games on the same trip. Someone explain to me why it is such a bad thing to be able to do this on my PS3 or 360.

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Summer pursuits

I’ve been busy with renovating the apartment, going for more than a week without a functioning computer, not checking my RSS feeds for over two weeks. Despite the exhaustion, gaming has been going on.

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns Of The Patriots (PS3)

I’m not sure what I was expecting from MGS4, probably because I skipped MGS3, despite remaining a staunch fan of the first two games. I didn’t know what to expect, but it wouldn’t have mattered, because right from the second it begins, MGS4 works very hard at breaking your expectations until you give in and just take it as it comes. I did not buy into the hype at all and had read very little of the game beforehand, but my god – Kojima has outdone himself in every level.

I’m trying to avoid spoilers here, but if you’re over-sensitive to such things, just skip to the next paragraph. The game is full of inspired, marvelous moments. The section where you replay your insertation to Shadow Moses island from the original game is just genius, blurring the lines between yourself now and a decade a go, between consoles now and two generations ago, between control schemes, between your expectations of a videogame now and then. The re-staged finest moments (locations, setups, boss fights, feelings…) from the previous games are used masterfully, bypassing the worry that it would feel like backtracking. The way your original bewilderment upon first witnessing the Metal Gear Rex is used in the cathartic, epic exit from Shadow Moses just blew me away. I can’t resist this kind of playing to my heart.

There are a lot of very long cutscenes. For the most part they’re executed very well. The game is a whole, not something that’s “padded out” with CGI. The mission briefings are far too long, however, and the first meeting with Drebin the gun launderer is just way too long and boring. But all told, of my about 18 hours with the game so far, I’ve spent perhaps a couple of full-length movies’ worth of time just watching the story play out, and I don’t mind. It often spins your expectations and blurs the lines between gameplay and cutscene. The mix-up is handled much better than previously, usually giving the player plenty of time to explore the gameplay. Codec discussions are pretty rare and certainly never jarring like in MGS2.

Speaking of gameplay, they’ve finally figured out how to control Solid Snake. I’m sure it can still be a bit much for a newcomer, but you can now have actual gunfights in the game, effortlessly switching between third and first person. Indeed, it’s often possible to just shoot your way through, if you’re so inclined. Even the camera plays nice.

Metal Gear Online (PS3)

Considering the near-unplayable control schemes of Metal Gears past, I was not looking forward to online Metal Gear action. After the ridiculously long and complex process of getting your free online MG passes (whatever they call them), the game proved to be rather engaging and accomplished. I neglected to complete the story mode of MGS4 on my vacation due to playing this too much. I am left wanting some sense of progression, á la Call Of Duty 4 or Battlefield, though. A suitably tactical and slow-moving affair, it looks like it’s going to become a steady component of the PlayStation Network game. It offers a lot of possibilities and maintains a distinct Metal Gear flavor, despite remaining accessible. The kind of MG humor that’s in it sets it apart. You can’t beat human catapults in an apparently serious military setup.

I understand that they’re going to support this barebones start with downloadable maps and whatnot, and let’s just say that I hope they’re ready for deployment – what’s here is good, but it’s woefully short on quantity.

Ridge Racer 6 (Xbox 360)

I have not played Ridge Racer before, I’m ashamed to admit. Being an OutRun fanboy, I felt right at home with the on-rails handling model, although this is definitely an acquired taste. They don’t get more arcadey than this. After my first session with the game, I felt very underwhelmed with the cool, laid-back presentation and Namco insider humor. After a couple of hours it really grew on me and now I can’t wait to get back to the “World Xplorer”. This single-player mode where you complete races and uncover a map of sorts while doing it is proving to be very addictive. I’m not crazy on the music and many of the car designs aren’t really to my taste, but nevertheless, there’s something about this 60 frames per second smooth ride that beckons me. It’s just so very relaxing, even when you’re trying the same race for the twentieth time, before realising that you just need to unlock a faster car to stand a chance.

Guitar Hero On Tour (DS)

When I first heard about this instalment of the Guitar Hero franchise, I took it for a joke. When I actually saw it in my hand, I just thought that it wouldn’t work. The problem is, it does, but it could have been so much more. The add-on to your Nintendo DS works fine. You plug it in and presto – you have four fret buttons on your DS, just like what you have on your guitar controllers. There’s one button less, because your frethand is also supporting the DS and you can’t move it. The guitar pick shaped stylus is excellent. Strumming on the touch pad works fine. Activating Star Power is achieved by shouting or blowing into the microphone or hitting just about any of the DS’s face buttons. (Blowing or shouting works best.) With the functionality in check, the problem lies with presentation.

The game does a good job of replicating the look and feel of the main series. However, the dark 3D graphics do not sit well on the relatively tiny screen of the DS. I have zero interest in modifying my character, because I can’t really see her at any stage, much less her instruments. Constrained to the small size, the 3D models of the characters are utterly charmless. Most of the time, I can’t see anything going on apart from the actual note track, especially since the DS is shaking around with the fretting and strumming.

The game could have been improved a lot by adopting a brighter, less serious style. What with the fewer frets and the feel of playing a fake guitar on the DS, a “jamming” or backstage approach would’ve been more at home instead of the miniature version of rockstardom that’s on offer. Now it feels like a lesser substitute for the main series, which is a shame.

Echochrome (PSP)

The black and white, Escher-inspired, “what you see is what you get, despite what your brain thinks is there” puzzler feels like it might be a cool game. As it stands, there are a couple of problems with it. For one, the basic controls don’t quite work. It can be far too difficult to spin the view into a working angle, even if you know what you want to achieve, even if you keep the “snap” button pressed at all times. Then there’s the unpredictability of the design – sometimes what you see is not what you get, and this basically breaks the game when it happens. Finally, the basic structure of the game is not rewarding and I find it hard to get excited about beating another level. All this said, a noble effort and I trust to come back to it every once in a while.

Rock Band (Xbox 360)

We’ve played a lot more of Rock Band with my wife. I’ve completed the guitar solo tour, we’re pretty far in a guitar and bass powered band world tour and I’ve dabbled in the singing solo tour. The game is still great and I haven’t even really gotten into the drums yet. Having played some more with the Rock Band Stratocaster controller, it just doesn’t work as well as the Guitar Hero III wireless Les Pauls, even if the effects switch is fun to play with at times.

PlayStation Portable online

I’ve mucked around with the PSP quite a bit, using it for my internet needs when I couldn’t hook up a computer. I also like the fact that since it’s hard to type on the thing, you’ll mostly just browse stuff, not getting too involved – perfect for a holiday. I played some games, as well, getting frustrated with the (presumably) final fight of the otherwise excellent Killzone: Liberation and getting closer to finishing God Of War: Chains Of Olympus, which is still rock solid.

PlayStation 3 online

When I absolutely needed to type during my vacation, I used a USB keyboard plugged into the PS3. The web browsing on the PS3 works just fine and all I missed was support for my Scandinavian keyboard layout. I had to switch to a new wireless box and had zero problems with my PS3 setup – completely effortless, just the way it should be. (My Xbox 360 still won’t talk to my computer.)

What I continue to loathe about the online enabled PlayStation is the updating and installing. I’d be playing on the PC if I wanted to spend time installing games. The time it takes to update the PS3 is ridiculous and the bloody thing is updating itself every time I turn it on (which hasn’t been very often, not until MGS4). I’m not sure how Microsoft does it, but for some reason the Xbox 360 updates are never this bothersome. Granted, it’s usually just a couple of minutes, but the time I wanted to get down with Metal Gear Solid 4? Over an hour of installing and updating, both the console and the game, further extended by the unbelievably convoluted process of registering for Metal Gear Online. Exactly why do I need two additional IDs in addition to my PlayStation Network ID to play one goddamn game? This shit wouldn’t fly with any other game than MGS.

DS Wii

First impressions: Geometry Wars Galaxies (Wii, DS)

Geometry Wars Galaxies cover

I love Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved on the Xbox 360. I’m not very good at it, but it’s a thrill regardless (like with most shmups). I was skeptical of how it would translate to a full-blown retail game, considering that it only has one level which always progresses in the same linear fashion.

The DS version is hard to judge because I can’t play it for any length. I blame the DS Phat, which is just misery for my fingers in such an action-packed game. The imprecise D-pad doesn’t help things. I trust that Lite does not have these issues.

The Wii version, however, really surprised me. They’ve managed to extend the game without breaking anything. All of the levels are variations of the same theme, many with considerable thought gone into them. Since there are so many levels, it’s inevitable that you’ll like some more than others, but thankfully you’re not forced to go through all of them. The Wii controls work fine, although again requiring more concentration than with a pad. It looks pretty neat, too.

The one thing I’m not sure about is the drone that follows you. In the couple of hours I’ve put in, it’s been more of a distraction than anything else, and the upgrade mechanic makes me wonder about game balance, considering that this is scoring game first and foremost. Then again, it does provide variety.


The Legend Of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (Nintendo DS)

The new Zelda is released on the DS only and according to many a gamer’s opinion (Edge, Eurogamer forums), wipes the floor with the previous instalment, the Twilight Princess. I haven’t played Twilight Princess so I wouldn’t know, but Phantom Hourglass certainly seems like worth the wait.

It is the first DS game since Animal Crossing: Wild World and Advance Wars: Dual Strike that I’ve played for more than an hour at a time, actually looking forward to playing more. In all respects it feels like a proper game, not merely a hand-held version of Zelda.

I have a DS Phat and often suffer from aching hands when playing on it. The new Zelda has not done that to me, despite being all-stylus controlled. They have really nailed the stylus controls. Being left-handed doesn’t matter and there’s just the right amount of auto-aim. Until now I’ve always felt that the touch screen is nice but rarely better than a D-pad – not so here. Nintendo is really using their machine’s features to the max, showing the way for thirdparty developers.

And it looks gorgeus. They have wisely returned to the deliciously cel-shaded look of the Wind Waker on the Gamecube, adding tons of charm while at it, writing it all wittily and even managing to pump out great music from the tiny speakers. Certainly a game I hope to finish. Although I expect several trips down to GameFAQs to clear the dungeon puzzles.