Friday, 22 April 2011

The Great Genre Expedition: Puzzle Games

This Article has also been hosted at The Yorker and the VG Resource.

Admittedly, puzzle games aren’t quite so ‘out there’ as game genres go, but the market doesn’t really extend outside of Bejeweled – and even the 30-something ‘non-gamer’ market is getting tired of matching three coloured gems. Angry Birds is the new popular mainstay, but I feel it lacks substance. There are other – and better – cerebral thrills to be had.

In this day and age, video game production isn’t solely about the big names any more. Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony will always hog the limelight, but ‘Indie Devs’ – small developer teams that survive by creating games that the bigger teams might overlook – are making waves, and Digital Distribution services like Steam are the best medium for them to reach an audience.

At first look, Puzzle Dimension has little to it. You roll a ball through tiled mazes, collecting flowers (Why? Who knows), and reaching the goal to progress to the next stage. They do a lot with this simplicity – stages ease you into increasing complexity (ice tiles you slide across, tiles that crumble or ignite, invisible routes…), the background music swells and changes as you complete more of a stage, changing them from blocky and retro to rough and realistic. Later stages will have you fail. A lot. Despite that, muddling through stages is still compelling.
Puzzle Dimension is available on Steam.

The Street Fighter series is world-renowned for its competitive multi player status. Countless versions and revisions to the franchise has tweaked and refined the mechanics of the game to keep everything balanced. Apply that ethos to a puzzle game, and you get Super Puzzle Fighter.

Similar to the Puyo Pop series, the aim is to beat your opponent by building up large masses of blocks (‘Gems’ in this game), and clearing them all at once, giving you huge score bonuses and punishing your opponent. Trash sent by your foe can be converted back into Gems and sent back in sweet revenge. It’s a simple system, but as you learn how to play, setting up lengthy combos toes a thin line of finishing a gigantic assault and a misplaced Gem meaning defeat. The no-nonsense game play has made the game both adrenaline-pumping and very popular in competitive circuits. Plus, the cartoony Street Fighter and Darkstalkers characters are just adorable.
The most recent incarnation, Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo HD Remix is available on XBLA and PSN.

Puzzle League comes in many guises. Initially a Japanese-only game called Panel de Pon; the SNES western release was re-branded with characters from Yoshi’s Island characters and confusingly named Tetris Attack. But the series didn’t really take off in the west until the Nintendo 64 release of Pokémon Puzzle League. The series has been known as Puzzle League ever since.

The game plays like a more demanding form of Bejeweled. Blocks steadily rise from the bottom of the screen, and by swapping two horizontally adjacent ones (no vertical swaps for you), matching up 3 or more of a kind will make them vanish. Tactics come in where you think several steps ahead, setting up elaborate arrangements of colourful block destruction. This is one of the few games that will get me into the fabled ‘gaming trance’. Where the control and skill required to play just comes naturally and easily. It’s both relaxing and stimulating – It’s both got my brain whirring in the morning, and winding down before bed. Maybe having ‘Tetris’ in the initial title wasn’t a bad idea.
Puzzle League is available on most Nintendo consoles. I recommend Planet Puzzle League for the DS. Pokémon Puzzle League is available on Wii Virtual Console.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Android's Dream - ASUS Eee Pads

This article has also been posted at The Yorker and the VG Resource.

With technology, new hardware is made to compete with old rivals. For example, it’s clear the similarity of the Playstation Move to the Wii Remote is no accident or coincidence. Similarly mobile phones were being influenced by the Blackberry and (later on) the iPhone. And now with the iPad, an era of Tablet Computers has come to public attention. Apple has the advantage of a high-profile and brand name, so other companies need to think of other methods to compete.

ASUS, the fairly prolific laptop and netbook producer, has jumped whole-heartedly into the tablet computer market with two different Eee Pad models, the Eee Slate and the Eee Pad Transformer.

The Eee Slate is the simpler of the two. A 12-inch screen and running Windows 7 Portable, it’s very much a downsized laptop – complete with USB Port and SD card reader. However, the Win7 Portable operating system (OS) isn’t a stunning one. The main reason why the iOS system (that powers both the iPhone and the iPad) is so popular is because of its ease of use, a design specifically to be used out and about. This OS is the ordinary Windows 7 with added touch-screen functionality. It feels slower and clunkier than just using a mouse, and the keyboard program is especially sluggish.

Fortunately, the Eee Pad Transformer deftly avoids these problems. Smaller and more lightweight – with only a 10-inch screen – the most notable feature is that it comes bundled with a detachable keyboard. It’s no larger than the tablet itself, but it’s where all the magic happens. It functions as a charging dock with all the ports and connectors you’d expect from a proper laptop. For someone like me who resents the cramped and unresponsive keyboard approximations that touch screen systems normally offer, this is a godsend.

The OS is the Android 3.0 Honeycomb, the latest of a system ordinarily used for mobile phones. Its design is a cleaner layout, and closer to the look of desktop Macs and PCs. This is bolstered with pre-installed software from ASUS. Software installed by a hardware company is often terrible – existing to slow down your computer and pelt you with advertising (Toshiba does this with their laptop range, and it’s a crime against humanity) but this appears to be a rare exception.

The most interesting app is Waveshare, an online storage program. Offering unlimited storage space for your music, movies and files for no cost in the first year, it’s a great offset for the Transformer’s limited memory (16 or 32GB); but there’s an (at time of writing) unknown monthly charge after that year. Freeloaders like me can use the free Dropbox app for Android as an alternative.

The other aspect of Waveshare is the ability to connect with any computer, monitor or projector that uses DLNA, allowing you to stream your media from your Transformer to the big screen, or through your sound system. Even cooler, you can set up your home computer to have Remote Access with it, so if you leave that presentation back at home, all is not lost. It’s a very decadent (and a little pretentious) approach to modern computing.

In an attempt to one-up the iPad’s weak notepad app, the Transformer comes with its own word processor, spreadsheet and presentation software. It’s incredibly bare bones, so while it’s a very good way to take notes or edit essays on the fly, you won’t want to write your dissertation on this thing. If you use Open Office to do your work, you’ll be sad to find these programs can’t read .odt files. Ouch.

The Eee Pad Transformer performs well as both an Android device and netbook. Considering its £429 price tag, it’s great value for the practical design and useful software, but it’s way beyond the average student budget – especially if you’re already rocking an iPad or Samsung Galaxy Tab.

By the time you read this, the ASUS Eee Tablet Transformer should be on sale (£429, £379 without the tablet). The Asus Eee Slate is already on sale online only (£999!).

Sunday, 3 April 2011

The Great Genre Expedition: Beat 'Em Ups

This feature has also been posted at The Yorker and the VG Resource.

Like any other media, the range of genres in video games is vast, and they don't get equal representation. Everyone is aware of the Pop/Rock section in record shops, the Crime section in book stores, and if games stores sorted their stock by genre, you'd find FPS and Brain Training games dominating the shelves. But other genres can't be ignored - there may be something that you never knew you liked.

Unless you grew up near an arcade in the 90s, the Beat 'em Up is one of those under-represented genres. The name is apt; you roam across a level, beating seven bells out of any thugs, monsters or robots that stand in your way, with a mean-looking and tricky boss at the end of each stage. Showing up mostly in arcades, many games offered addictive, but incredibly difficult game play, enticing you to put another coin in to keep going.

Between the comic books and the film, Scott Pilgrim has become a (self-professed) paragon of the 21st Century Nerd. So it makes sense that when a video game was made, it would be based on such a retro genre, complete with chunky, brightly-coloured pixel art, and music done by Chiptune/Rock band Anamanaguchi.

Playing as the series' four main characters, they fight through locations of the comic, to take on love interest Ramona's 7 Evil Exes. There's a lot of divergence from the original story, but that results in a level where you beat up overweight ninjas in a restaurant - so I'm fine with that. The game is easier than old-style beat 'em ups, but more involved. Your characters level up as they cave in the faces of hipsters and street thugs, gaining new moves and growing stronger as you progress. This makes later stages much easier; but much more accessible.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is downloadable from Xbox Live Arcade and Playstation Network.

This is one of the more iconic games in Beat 'em Up's history. Released in 1993 for the Sega Mega Drive, it outshines its predecessor by introducing characters with more unique strengths and weaknesses, which has become a staple of the genre (and even influencing other genres) ever since.

By today's standards, the game is pretty difficult. There are a limited number of lives and continues, and once you lose them all, it's back to the start of the game for you. The bosses you face are challenging on first appearance - and then quickly become regular foes in later stages. Playing with a friend makes things easier and more entertaining, but be aware that you can attack your partner. Accidentally fitting them with a flying kick, or taking their health item when they're near death is how rivalries are born.

Streets of Rage 2 can be played on as part of Ultimate Sega Genesis Collection (PS3/360) or downloaded from the Wii's Virtual Console.

 There are a lot of bizarre arcade entries I could put here (The Simpsons beat 'em up comes to mind), but something about this game that wowed me, beyond the ridiculous name. Based on a comic book, the game reflects this by having over-the-top characters and action sequences. Losing a life is accompanied with an airstrike hitting everything around you - whether you're above ground or not. Dinosaurs roving the city fly into a rage, and are placated by punching them in the face. It's a great experience.

However, the game pulls no punches. Any of the four playable characters are capable fighters, so the game balances things out by giving them very little health. A game for those who enjoy taking on a challenge.

Cadillacs and Dinosaurs is an Arcade game, but can be emulated on your PC! Read up about it here.