Author Archive

Gamers on the Go: Chase’s Top 5 Handheld Games… Ever

Sunday, June 30th, 2013

Hi all,

It’s with a heavy heart that I must declare this my final regular Gamers on the Go column here on Games are Evil. I’ve been hired as a copywriter for an advertising agency in St. Louis (yes, corporate shill), and my new job is requiring much of my attention.

Though it doesn’t feel like I’ve been here all that long, I have felt very included by the staff and the community the throughout my entire time here. I appreciate you allowing me to evangelize handheld gaming to you every other Saturday.

I’m not completely disappearing into the ether though. I will still be recording my podcast (also called Gamers on the Go) when time allows. You can keep up with that on the Gamers on the Go Tumblr.

Now, if you would allow me one last time, I’d like to share with you my top five handheld games ever (something I probably should’ve done for my first article so you could’ve gotten an idea of where I was coming from).

Narrowing the list down to five was a herculean task in and of itself, so to save what’s left of my sanity; these are in no particular order.

fireemblem

Fire Emblem Awakening (3DS)

In a move that should be no surprise to regular readers of Gamers on the Go, Fire Emblem Awakening easily earns its place in the top five.

Normally, I’d feel putting a game that came out just this year into a list of all-time greats to be a bit premature, but I feel no such apprehension with Awakening. Intelligent Systems really outdid themselves on this one, allowing players to play Fire Emblem the way that suited them best.

A metric ton of fan service (Editor’s note: when applied to abstract entities, a quantity measuring 7 or more – according to university experts) built on top of refined mechanics, Fire Emblem Awakening is the holy grail of turn-based strategy games, regardless of what those Final Fantasy Tactics fanboys tell me.

My only disappointment is that the greatness of Awakening keeps Advance Wars: Dual Strike (another Intelligent Systems masterpiece) from making the list.

drop7

Drop7 (iOS)

Despite my preference of handheld games over iOS fare, Drop7 is a game that just cannot be ignored. I’ve easily put more time into it than any other game on this list. Everything about Drop7 has been engineered into a finely tuned machine of a puzzle game.

Functional minimalist visuals, multiple modes of play (though you should only be playing on Hardcore Mode), stats that track your average score, leaderboards for both friends and the world, and one cool-ass song that loops forever and ever, Drop7 is a game I will never stop playing: The ultimate “I’ve got five minutes to spare” game.

goldensun

Golden Sun (GBA)

It was a dead heat between Golden Sun and Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies for this spot. Both games have a bevy of interesting and well-executed mechanics and systems.

But the amount of cool stuff Golden Sun allows you to do without penalty give it the slightest of edges. I’ve already written a fair amount about Golden Sun, so I shan’t repeat for you here. Suffice it to say, I hold it up as one of the best RPGs of all time, on any console.

peacewalker

Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker

As the rest of this list no doubt dictates, I have a definitive appreciation for turn-based games when it comes to handhelds. However, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker manages to buck the trend by being just a fantastic, goddamned game.

Before Peace Walker, my only experience with the Metal Gear franchise has been a couple of hours with Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance for the original Xbox, which I did not enjoy at all.

Even with the wonky control scheme due to the PlayStation Portable’s single analog nub, Peace Walker still managed to be the best play smoothly and intuitively. But what really grabbed me were the RPG-elements.

An unlockable and upgradeable arsenal of firearms, health items, and equipment, special camouflages and costumes with different stealth stats, the ability to recruit enemies for use in other missions, and the chance to build and spar against your own metal gear: Peace Walker is packed full of amazing content. I spent over 100 hours on the PSP version, and when the game came to home consoles in the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection, I put in another 100 on my Xbox 360.

Now that it’s available to download on Vita (and takes advantage of the additional analog stick), I’m ready to dive back in for another 100 hours.

pokemon

Pokemon Red & Blue

And, of course, no list of great handheld games can be complete without mention of Pokemon. So why Red and Blue over Gold and Sliver or even the revamped FireRed and LeafGreen?

Red and Blue were the first games I played where discovery was at the core of the experience. The game told you just enough to get you going and then let you go to explore (albeit in a very designed way where completely screwing yourself over was nigh impossible). If you played without a guide like I did for the longest time, a surprise could be waiting for you around every corner. What Pokemon will be available in this cave? How do I get Pikachu to evolve into Raichu? Why is this “Dragon Rage” attack seemingly getting weaker as I level up? Why would anyone use Magikarp? OH, THAT’S WHY SOMEONE WOULD USE MAGIKARP!

It was a game where information was a commodity among your friends. “I’m not telling you how I evolved that Haunter you gave me into a Gengar (I’m not quite sure myself, really.)”

And it was a game of incredible secrets and glitches, both real and made up. Who among you believed there was such a thing as MISSINGNO until you had seen it with your own two eyes? How many times did you try using “Strength” on that truck hoping it would house a Mew? Was there actually a way to catch that Marowak in Pokemon Tower?

It’s questions like these that made the first Pocket Monsters game the best. No amount of refinement found in the later titles could make up for the pure discovery found in the first.

Editor’s Note: It is of course with sadness and good wishes that we see off Chase. Rest assured, when a massive change in the handheld universe inevitably occurs, Chase will hopefully be here to share his wisdom. We wish him the best of luck!

Gamers on the Go: Indulging in Ports

Saturday, May 25th, 2013

One of the first things I mentioned in my very first column for Gamers on the Go was that portable games are at their finest when they don’t just attempt to be a port of their console brethren. I stand by this statement, but that doesn’t mean that we should turn our collective heads at the idea of a port, especially when a game feels more appropriate on a handheld system than its original platform.

An example of this is the minimalist, narrative-driven puzzle game, Thomas Was Alone for the PS Vita. Its bite-sized level structure and platforming elements are right at home on the Sony portable. I can’t imagine the original PC version could top it.

No matter your platform though, you should really play Thomas Was Alone.

No matter your platform though, you should really play Thomas Was Alone.

The recently released 3DS game, Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D, has a chance to be in a similar position. Players of the original Wii title found some of the motion controls to be imprecise, something that’s less a worry on the waggle-free 3DS. I snagged the downloadable version off the eShop (the full 2GB file!) and will report back next column to see how it stacks up.

dkcr3d

More often than not though, handheld ports of full console games just aren’t quite up to snuff. Despite the ridiculous number of hours I’ve put into the Vita version of Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3, I only tolerate it until I can get back to my Xbox 360. The lack of triggers on the Vita make dashing an exercise in frustration that eclipse even the exclusive (and really well done) Heroes Vs. Heralds mode.

It’s so close to something special, but comes up a little short.

It’s so close to something special, but comes up a little short.

Ports end up being a junk food equivalent for handheld systems: something to be indulged in sparingly, but not something you should feel particularly proud of. Am I pumped for Spelunky on Hotline Miami to get Vita versions? You bet your ass, but would I rather see more, great, original instead? Definitely. A handheld system cannot survive on ports alone: Just ask the PSP.

On a slightly different note, you may have seen the link below that accompanies these columns. It’s to my podcast, also called Gamers on the Go. Since I started writing this column, I hadn’t had the time to produce any new episodes. But that recently changed with the release of our 14th episode.

If you’re interested in an exploration of LocoRoco, one of the PSP’s most interesting and charming titles, and the suspiciously similar Rolando for iOS, you’re in luck! With summer opening my schedule up somewhat, I’m planning on releasing a lot more shows with a lot higher frequency.

Now go out and enjoy your Memorial Day weekends, but make sure you take your handheld device with you for those car trips!

Gamers on the Go: Diamonds in the App Store Rough

Saturday, May 11th, 2013

Whether it’s left traditional handheld gaming alive, dead or soon to be dead, one thing we can all agree on is that mobile gaming has exploded in popularity. From five-minute distractions to multi-hour epics, it is an incredibly diverse platform.

That diversity is what I find most interesting. Sure, you’ll have platform standouts like Angry Birds and Plants Vs. Zombies that seemingly everyone owns, but those are few and far between. What’s more likely is that your iOS games folder/screen will look completely different than that of anyone else. There are so many small and mid-range projects of great quality flooding the App Store (and countless more of questionable quality), that everyone can discover their own hidden gems and no one will have seen or played everything.

Similar to the old Pokemon days, half the fun of these great little mobile games is showing them off and trading them with others. In that spirit, I would like to present you with my 10 favorite mobile games, and encourage you to leave a comment with your own list. Perhaps we’ll all find some buried treasures.

A couple of notes: First, I am an iOS user, so you won’t be seeing any Android-exclusive games here. Second, I’m only counting games I’ve actually played on my mobile device. I’ve only played a tiny fraction of all the good stuff out there, so don’t be surprised if your favorite doesn’t make my list. And lastly, along the same lines, I’m not counting games I first played on other platforms. As much as I love The Walking Dead and Peggle, those are still PC games from my point of view.

10. Kingdom Rush ($0.99)

Tower defense games are a dime a dozen, but Kingdom Rush is one of the few that actually deserves 10 of your dimes. With a clean, cartoony-yet-not-cutesy art style, and an expanded amount of options over a tradition tower defense game, Kingdom Rush shows there’s still innovation to be found in the exhausted genre.

You not only are able to upgrade the various types of towers, but you also get a special hero unit that can be manually moved around the battlefield. It ends up playing a lot like Double Fine’s 2011 XBLA title, Trench—I mean Iron Brigade, except still in the traditional, top-down view. And that is most definitely a good thing.

9. Groove Coaster Zero (Free)

Groove Coaster is a rhythm game, another genre that is pretty tired when it comes to mobile releases. What sets Groove Coaster apart from its competition is the insane production values it offers. Flashy visuals, stellar soundtrack and tight controls: Everything about the game just works.

gc

Lucky you, I paid $2.99 for the original Groove Coaster when it first came out, but now there is a new free-to-play version that includes all the tracks from the first game, with added microtransaction songs to expand your library.

8. geoDefense ($1.99)

The second and final tower defense game to show up on my list, geoDefense relies on its Tron-like graphics and finely tuned strategy to overcome its fairly traditional structure. It’s pretty. Like…really pretty. Just don’t get suckered into buying its equally pretty, yet frustratingly un-fun sequel, geoDefense Swarm.

7. Space Invaders Infinity Gene ($4.99)

spig

Despite what the name (and first level) might suggest, this is not a Space Invaders game. It’s a music-based shooter with a ton of varied enemies and patterns. The music is a little overbearing at times with its fast beats, but you can also play custom stages to your own music. Don’t expect them to be tailor-made, like in Audiosurf, but it’s a great touch that expands the replayability infinitely.

6. Ridiculous Fishing – A Tale of Redemption ($2.99)

Imagine a cross between fishing and skeet shooting and you’ll start to get an idea of what Ridiculous Fishing is all about. Absolutely gorgeous and using the iPhone’s accelerometer for peak precision, Ridiculous Fishing is fresh and well-executed take on fishing games.

5. Tilt to Live ($2.99)

Another game that makes full use of the accelerometer is Tilt to Live. You literally tilt your iOS device to move your ship around the field, avoiding the evil red dots. But though finesse is an essential skill in Tilt to Live, it won’t earn you any point. You must destroy the dots with random power-ups that appear around the screen. Chain kills together for combo points, and increase your score as much as you can until you are finally overrun.

ttl

With a ton of modes and options, you’ll be sure to find something to your tastes. And the short, addictive gameplay loop will make “just one more game” your new life motto.

4. Game Dev Story ($3.99)

The thing I like most about this game is the attachment you have to the fake games your development studio creates. For example, I started a franchise of pirate-themed RPGs called Oceans & Octopi that spanned over multiple fake consoles. Despite Game Dev Story only allowing me to pick a genre, theme and name, outside of the app, I was thinking up mechanics and characters and all sorts of other things that weren’t even options.

It might be a silly simulation, but the stories you get out of Game Dev Story will stick with you for a long, long time.

3. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP ($2.99 iPhone-only, $4.99 universal)

The first iOS game that showed me there was more to this platform than tiny time-wasters, Sword & Sworcery is a fully fleshed-out experience. A point-and-click adventure game with a musical focus, this is one of those games where headphones are strongly recommended.

ssasep

And I just can’t get enough of that art. Its tall-pixel style and muted palette gives it retro roots without looking like every other pixel-art game on the App Store (of which there are an unending amount).

2. Words with Friends ($2.99)

Not a “hidden” gem, to be sure, but as a kid who grew up on word games such as Scrabble and Boggle, I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff. And while games like Puzzlejuice, SpellTower and Writer Rumble are unique and fun, I find myself continually coming back to the granddaddy of all iOS word games.

1. Drop7 ($2.99)

d7

Drop7 is my desert island game. A simple puzzler you could play forever, I end up playing it about 10 times a day. Completely turn-based (you know how much I appreciate that in my handheld RPGs) with one-touch controls, it’s the perfect companion to watching TV, waiting for food to cook, and yes, even for the bathroom.

While there are daily and all-time leaderboards, the stat I most obsess over is my personal average. I can see how much better I’ve gotten with practice, which just incentive-izes me to play even more. It’s easily my pick for the top spot.

So that’s my top 10. Again, I encourage you to fill in the gaps of my mobile experience with your own favorites in the comments.

Gamers on the Go: Guacamelee!

Saturday, April 27th, 2013

Gamers-on-the-Go-banner

Confession time: When I wrote that article on the PlayStation Vita and its future, I hadn’t actually played my own Vita very much at all. For the first month, it was a dedicated Sound Shapes machine, which while awesome, was not a permanent fixture. Eventually, I moved on to greener, more Fire Emblem-esque pastures (yes, I’m still playing it and yes, I have a legitimate problem.)

But after writing my Vita column, I have been bolstered to try again. I’ve played quite a few hours of WipEout 2048 and Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom’s Heroes Vs. Heralds mode. I’ve started Persona 4: Golden (my first real Persona experience since I don’t count the hour I put into a friend’s copy of Persona 3 Portable), and I purchased Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker yet again (to go along with my PSP and Xbox 360 copies).

And other than struggling with opening the little door covering the game card slot, I’ve been having a great time. But no time has been greater spent with my Vita in these past two weeks than with Guacamelee!, the downloadable, cross-buy, Metroidvania platformer by DrinkBox Studios.

Guacamelee

Despite not actually liking either traditional Metroid or Castlevania games, I do really enjoy the Metroidvania sub-genre. If you haven’t played Monster Tale, a game that came late in the Nintendo DS’ life cycle, you should probably just stop reading right now and track down a copy of that before we go any further.

If you insist on continuing to read, I suppose I should talk about the game this column is actually about. Guacamelee! is a pretty simple yet well-made platformer with a fantastic coat of paint and a couple clever ideas.

The thing I like most about Guacamelee! is how “low-impact” it is. The game provides you with a really nice, helpful map that always lets you know where to go. It’s not quite as intrusive as Fable’s golden breadcrumb trail, but it functions in a similar way, allowing you to explore the various nooks and crannies of the game world without fear of getting lost. The map also keeps track of any hidden paths you’ve discovered, but can’t as of yet get to. This lets you just enjoy playing the game without worrying about a ton of memorization or collecting a ton of graph paper to make maps of your own.

You’ll see copious references to others games, like this almost copyright infringing Metroid one.

You’ll see copious references to others games, like this almost copyright infringing Metroid one.

There’s definitely a case to be made that this oversimplifies the game way too much. And in many ways, these people would be right. There were multiple times where I felt like a teenager participating in an Easter egg hunt for babies. Hidden areas don’t really seem so hidden when they are blocked by brightly colored doors and are right out in the open. But where the platforming lacks in difficulty, it attempts to make up for with combat.

As a luchador, your character has a number of wrestling moves, including such fan favorites as the piledriver and the suplex. These combat skills, when paired with special moves obtained throughout the game, open up some real combo potential. Add in the ability to throw damaged opponents into other enemies or up in the air for juggles, along with a decently varied amount of foes with unique tactics, and you start to see the real meat of the game.

It’s a pretty good deal for $15, and gets even better when you consider that you’ll also get a free PS3 copy of the game when you buy the Vita version (or vice versa — this is the good type of Cross-Buy we’re talking about). In fact, the game also supports Cross-Saves and Cross-Control, meaning you can take Guacamelee! with you on the bus, then bring it back to your apartment, sync up the saves, and continue playing on your TV, using either your Vita or a DualShock as the controller.

I’d imagine that co-op makes difficult boss encounters like this one more manageable.

I’d imagine that co-op makes difficult boss encounters like this one more manageable.

Hell, give the DualShock to your friend, as the PS3 version even has co-op (why you can’t co-op on the Vita is a mystery to me). Not having a PS3, I didn’t get a chance to play any co-op, but the general consensus seems to be that it’s a lot of fun in combat sections, and somewhat lousy in the platforming bits. Even with the added PS3 functionality, I think it’s best played on the Vita where you can really get up close and personal with it.

In short, Guacamelee! is a lot like Taco Bell: While far from an authentic Mexican experience, it’s still a satisfying product with a lot of pizzazz. Unlike Taco Bell however, you’re not going to hate yourself later for indulging in it.

____

Gamers on the Go (an extension of the podcast of the same name) is Games Are Evil’s bi-weekly examination of handheld games, written by Chase Koeneke. Follow Chase on Twitter here.

Gamers on the Go: Turn-Based RPGs

Saturday, April 13th, 2013

Gamers-on-the-Go-banner

After crossing the 300th hour mark in Fire Emblem: Awakening — with no end in sight now that new DLC allowing previously maxed out characters to be leveled even higher has just dropped — I’ve been pondering a lot lately what it is that makes the game so addictive. One thing that jumped out at me is how the game works around my busy lifestyle.

Part of this is due to its bite-sized nature, but that doesn’t really give it much of a leg up since the vast majority of portable games are built in a similar, segmented style. But having a turn-based battle system seems to be the real culprit.

And then I remembered I had written a piece about why, for me, turn-based RPGs always trump action-oriented ones when it comes to handheld gaming. After digging it up and reading it again, I think it covers — however shallowly — why I find turn-based games so superior.

This article originally appeared on Bitmob (now GamesBeat) three years ago. If you want to judge me as a writer back then, feel free: I know I certainly see some sloppiness 2013 Chase would never let fly (hopefully).

____

Like a lot of gamers out there, my first console was a Nintendo Entertainment System. But while I loved playing that Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt dual cartridge, it didn’t completely entrance me. There was still a chance that I’d grow up to love something else, football perhaps. Who knows?

But then I got my hands on a black, original Game Boy and my fate was sealed. I was a gamer through and through.

My portable devices still demand the majority of my gaming time and with those hundreds (probably closer to thousands) of hours of mobile entertainment experience, I learned a few things:

  1. A Game Boy cartridge can withstand just about anything. (So can an N-Gage cartridge, I literally dropped one under a bus once and it still worked fine — Pete)

  2. Just because a game was good on a console does not mean the portable equivalent will be as up to par. And…

  3. RPGs for mobile devices absolutely HAVE to be turn-based.

The first two are quite possibly common knowledge, but the third deserves some explanation.

When I say “turn-based,” I mean something very particular. I don’t consider Square Enix’s “Active Time Battle” system to be turn-based. Argue semantics with me all you want, but my definition of a turn-based RPG is one allowing me infinite time to choose my next action, like Pokémon or Golden Sun (two of my favorite RPGs, by the way.)

I may have mentioned my love for Golden Sun before...

I may have mentioned my love for Golden Sun before

What reason do I have to dismiss all portable versions of every Final Fantasy after Final Fantasy III and what is generally considered the best RPG of all-time, Chrono Trigger? The answer is quite simple: I’ve got shit to do!

When I’m playing my PSP or DSi XL or iPod Touch (and now my Vita and 3DS as well), I’m either sitting on a couch watching TV or I’m travelling. In either case, I’m unable to devote my full attention to the game, looking up quite a bit to peek at the score of the baseball game or to have a conversation with my travelling companion.

When I do take that glance, that chimera beast in Final Fantasy V Advance will usually decide I’m taking too long and blast my entire team with bubbles, crippling me. In a game like Chrono Trigger, I must constantly be “on” during combat. Unfortunately, I’m not always in a secluded room, devoid of distractions.

With Golden Sun, I can basically look up at any time, even during my opponent’s turn, without fear. Not only do I have the proper time to craft a winning strategy, but I can also be as social as I want to be (or more accurately, “as I have to be.”)

The scourge of Final Fantasy V's desert.

The scourge of Final Fantasy V’s desert.

I understand why Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger have the combat they do. They actively engage the player more than a game like Pokémon ever could. It makes perfect sense for their original platforms — consoles — which bank on their players being constantly engaged. But it also makes them subpar portable games in my opinion.

I have had people try and tell me to use the “Wait” function in those Final Fantasy games to fix my issues, but I’ve found them to be poor substitutes to the good old-fashioned turn-based system.

And for those that argue turn-based games are dinosaurs that should be put out to pasture (an interesting mixed metaphor if I do say so myself), I would point you in the direction of the aforementioned Fire Emblem and last year’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown (which is getting an iOS port soon), two of my favorite games in recent memory, and politely decline your assertion.

____

Gamers on the Go (an extension of the podcast of the same name) is Games Are Evil’s bi-weekly examination of handheld games, written by Chase Koeneke. Follow Chase on Twitter here.

Gamers on the Go: The Redemption of Sony Handhelds

Saturday, March 30th, 2013

Gamers-on-the-Go-banner

You’ll rarely find any praise for Sony with me. I’ve always fancied myself a Nintendo guy instead. I’ve never owned an original PlayStation, nor have I pulled the trigger on grabbing a PlayStation 3. The only reason I have a PS2 is that I found one at a yard sale for $20, and save for Shadow of the Colossus, I’ve been less than impressed with its offerings.

This apathy towards Sony has extended to their portable platforms as well. The PSP I own was bought off a friend at an extreme discount, and other than Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, I never purchased a PSP game at full price.

Yet, despite being down on Sony for so long, the PlayStation Vita intrigued me. Unlike the PSP, the Vita actually has the power to deliver on its promise of a home console you can take with you (which I suppose could be something to lament, as it lets developers off the hook from making clever unique games if they don’t want to).

Games like Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 and WipEout 2048 don’t feel compromised at all in comparison to their home console brethren, and Persona 4 Golden actually eclipses its original version on the PS2. In fact, it was a game that played 1-to-1, exactly the same on Vita and PS3 that got me to purchase a Vita at full price: a little game known as Sound Shapes.

YouTube Preview Image

Sound Shapes is a music-based, DIY platformer. Imagine that LittleBigPlanet and MTV Music Generator had a really good-looking baby, and you’ll start to get a pretty good idea of what Sound Shapes is all about. Like LBP, finishing the polished levels provided out of the gate is only a fraction of the fun. Finding new levels from the community is a snap, and building your own levels isn’t as ridiculously difficult as you might imagine — I even designed a pretty serviceable rendition of Mega Man 2’s Wood Man stage with relative ease.

And while I admit the recent dearth of quality titles for the handheld has been disappointing, recently, there have been developments that have renewed my faith in the system.

Peace Walker is finally officially available on the Vita’s PSN store. In the past, there was a really awkward workaround that required a PS3 and some perseverance, but now it’s as easy as hitting the download button to play the best game for PSP (and the best game of 2010, in my opinion).

Alongside this, Sound Shapes just received a new free update and a new DLC pack. The update, named the Community Milkcrate, adds 35 of the best and most creative community levels to the main game for everyone to play and enjoy while the DLC adds two car vehicles and lots of new building parts to the game’s already sizeable library, as well as a few campaign levels to get you started. Definitely worth a look no matter if you’re playing on your Vita or PS3.

YouTube Preview Image

If quality ports are more your thing, the Vita has you covered these next few months. Muramasa Rebirth, an updated version of the Wii’s Muramasa: The Demon Blade, is in the works. Maybe on Vita, it’ll finally grasp the audience it never seemed to find as a Wii exclusive.

A port of Terraria is also on the way. I can’t allow myself to play Terraria for the same reasons I can’t allow myself to play Minecraft: I would lose myself in its Lego-like world and never look back. But I’m sure someone with more willpower than myself will be able to enjoy Terraria responsibly.

The game with the best soundtrack of last year, Hotline Miami, will also soon find its way to the Vita. Being ported by Abstraction Games, the award winning, ‘80s-inspired, brutal top-down action title will blow you away both literally and figuratively.

And then there’s Spelunky, a game I seemed to keep coming back to time and time again last year on Xbox Live Arcade. The challenging, roguelike-esque platformer has that addictive, “one more try” hook that makes it hard to put down, and evokes classic platformers of old with its colorful visuals and music that would be right at home on a Sega Genesis.

spelunky

All of these games (save for Terraria which has no official release date) are slated for spring and summer launches, ensuring that your vacations will always have a suitable back-up plan.

And if ports aren’t your thing, two indie games that are really staring to get my blood pumping are the infographic-styled, visual feast that is Metrico, and the hyper, action-filled dogfighter Luftrausers (and when I say “dogfighter,” I mean that in the air combat sense, and not the Michael Vick sense.)

Here’s Metrico:

YouTube Preview Image

And here’s Luftrausers:

YouTube Preview Image

All of these games seem primed to make the Vita a haven for bite-sized indie games. The only issue I have is with the Vita’s high barrier of entry. It’s still a $250 investment, not counting a $100 proprietary 32GB memory card, which seems to be a must for all these great downloadable games. I mean, you could purchase a smaller card, but those are going to fill up incredibly quickly.

In fact, the memory card issue is one that has kept me from truly embracing the Vita in any tangible way. So far, it has just been a $250 Sound Shapes machine for me, and despite how much I love Sound Shapes, it’s not worth a $250 investment on its own.

If you can manage to get past the initial wallet gouging, the Vita will not let you down. This is no disaster like PSP was. And even though my heart still belongs to Nintendo when it comes to handhelds, I find that I can still carve out a little room for Sony.

____

Gamers on the Go (an extension of the podcast of the same name) is Games Are Evil’s bi-weekly examination of handheld games, written by Chase Koeneke. Follow Chase on Twitter here.

Gamers on the Go: Golden Sun

Saturday, March 16th, 2013

Gamers-on-the-Go-banner

Back in December of 2001, my family was getting ready to begin our Christmas vacation to Florida. Before we left, I asked my father if we could go to Best Buy so I could use the last of my October birthday money to purchase a game I’d be able to play when we were on the plane. He graciously agreed.

When we got to the store, I headed right to the Game Boy Advance aisle. I knew exactly what game I wanted: a colorful looking Japanese role-playing game that had just come out the previous month. The game? Golden Sun.

Golden Sun

The game had initially caught my eye with its gorgeous, faux-3D graphics and vivid color palette. What I didn’t realize though was that what should’ve snagged my interest was the game’s pedigree.

Golden Sun comes to us from Camelot Software Planning, a partner of Nintendo known for its Mario Tennis and Mario Golf titles. This wasn’t always the case though. Camelot was originally known as Sega CD4 (standing for Consumer Development Studio #4), a part of Sega. Before their first release, they changed names to Sonic! Software Planning.

That first title would be Shining in the Darkness, a dungeon crawler for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive that would kick off the Shining series of games, all made by Camelot before they jumped ship to Nintendo after they finished up Shining Force III for the Sega Saturn.

You can easily see the Shining influences in the Golden Sun series. Text boxes, fonts, and battle perspectives all make the jump over, but the newer franchise eschews the Shining series’ Fire Emblem-esque tactical combat for something more in the traditional RPG realm.

That's Golden Sun on the left, Shining Force on the right.

That’s Golden Sun on the left, Shining Force on the right.

“Traditional” is an apt term, as it can be used to describe most aspects of Golden Sun. You’ll get four, fantasy-themed protagonists with spiky hair and a “we can do it if we all band together” philosophy, pretty run-of-the-mill turn-based combat and a save system that takes a page straight out of the Dragon Quest book.

But in addition to these staunchly traditional elements, Golden Sun also brings with it two big coups: Creative and intelligent puzzle design, and a commitment to style and flair.

Truly clever puzzles aren’t usually something you usually find in JRPGs, but in Golden Sun, there are all manner of traversal puzzles that will test your wits in various ways. The closest analog I can come up with it something akin to Pokemon’s Strength Boulder puzzles, except much more complex and rewarding.

But my favorite aspect of the game (and the series for that matter), by far, is the cool stuff being showcased at all times, with no drawbacks whatsoever. If you play games like me, you’ll find yourself constantly hoarding resources for the right moment (which usually never comes). Often, I will save the TMs in Pokemon waiting for the best creature to give it to. In Fire Emblem: Awakening, I am yet to use a weapon with greater than a “B” proficiency (despite crossing the 200-hour mark this last week). In Final Fantasy games, I’ll grind until I can beat things with vanilla attacks because I don’t want to waste mana for the boss. It’s a nasty habit I have, and one that robs me of possible enjoyment from flashy sequences. (Somebody needs to play Hyperdimension Neptunia — Pete)

But Golden Sun does everything it can to subvert that way of thinking. You’ll often find specially named weapons that will sometimes “let out a howl” and instead of using a normal attack in battle, will bring forth a free summon that does an area-of-effect attack, or imbues status effects to their victims. Each of these special abilities has its own, unique animation and costs nothing to activate: it’s just a happy, little bonus.

YouTube Preview Image

And while there is a conventional magic/mana system in place, Golden Sun finds a way to subvert that too with the Djinn system.

The Djinni are small creatures representing one of the four elements (earth/Venus, water/Mercury, fire/Mars and wind/Jupiter. Catching these creatures will add them to one of your characters where they will enhance that character’s stats. In battle, each Djinn also has a special move that can be used. These moves vary from Djinn to Djinn, but include stat buffs, healing, negative status effects for enemies and attacks that can hit one or multiple foes.

After pulling off these special moves, the Djinn will be set to standby mode. In this mode, they offer no stat bonuses to the characters on which they’re equipped, but they may be used for the game’s summons, which cause all sorts of giant, mythological-based carnage. And none of these Djinni moves or summons costs you any magic energy so you can still pull off you own magical attacks on another turn. This turns combat against even the most boring of enemies into a battle with the potential for something awesome.

One of the many spectacular summons from the series.

One of the many spectacular summons from the series.

Fire Emblem: Awakening has a somewhat similar system, with powerful skills you can equip that will activate on correct dice rolls, but even it fails to compare to the visual feast you’ll get from Golden Sun.

I suppose other than a look into a couple of the interesting systems available in Golden Sun, I haven’t really told you very much about the game. And you know what? I’m perfectly fine with that. I think I covered the real selling points of the series.

If you’re interested in playing the Golden Sun games, the first two are available on the Game Boy Advance. The third game in the series, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn, is for the DS. Despite all the games in the series being absolute winners, I’d suggest playing the original first, as I think it has the best story and characters of the three games (though if you want something real easy and casual, the DS iteration is the way to go).

Golden Sun, for me, is right up there with Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest in the JRPG elite. They prove that Camelot has earned its place as handheld game development royalty.

Trivia

Golden Sun was originally going to be an N64 game, but when it was clear the Gamecube was going to make the N64 obsolete, Camelot shifted development to the GBA.

Golden Sun and Golden Sun: The Lost Age were also originally planned to be a single game, but due to GBA cartridge limitations, as well as the developers’ expanding ideas, the game was split into two.

Isaac, the main protagonist of the first Golden Sun, is used as an assist trophy in Super Smash Bros. Brawl. He uses the spell Move, creating a huge hand that shoves opponents off the stage.

The world of Golden Sun is actually flat. The oceans on either side of the world eventually spill over into nothingness.

The idea for the TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender was conceived in 2001 according to co-creator Bryan Konietzko. The very same year Golden Sun came out. I realize that earth, water, wind and fire mages aren’t necessarily the most original idea, but I’d be surprised if the creators hadn’t heard of Golden Sun.

The DS title, Dark Dawn, has a really innovative encyclopedia feature in which names and terminology can be selected and link to pages that give definitions and background info, cutting down on repeated lines of dialogue a bit.

____

Gamers on the Go (an extension of the podcast of the same name) is Games Are Evil’s bi-weekly examination of handheld games, written by Chase Koeneke. Follow Chase on Twitter here.

Gamers on the Go: Lumines and Meteos

Saturday, March 2nd, 2013

Gamers on the Go

Despite crossing the 120-hour mark of last column’s featured game, Fire Emblem: Awakening, I’m back to talk about a pair of portable puzzle games that played a big part in defining the consoles for which they were made: Meteos for the Nintendo DS and Lumines for the Sony PlayStation Portable.

Lumines and Meteos

Both games come to us from Q Entertainment, a group of ex-Sega members headed by Tetsuya Mizuguchi, the man behind such classics as Space Channel 5 and Rez. Both games served as Q Entertainment’s debut titles, releasing just a few months apart from each other in 2005. And both games are excellent examples of Mizuguchi’s ability to develop with the unique features of different hardware in mind.

Since Lumines hit our shores first, let’s start with it. When designing Lumines, Mizuguchi took a lot of inspiration from Rez, specifically the idea of taking a relatively simple mechanic (Star Fox-style lock-on for Rez, puzzle game block dropping and color matching for Lumines), and utilizing it for rhythm-based gameplay meant to set a mood. And so this experiential cocktail made its way to the PSP, where Mizuguchi and Q could take advantage of the widescreen, high quality sound and graphics capabilities of the system.

You can't get graphics like this on a DS.

You can’t get graphics like this on a DS.

Lumines served as a launch title for the PSP and was easily the standout star in the lineup (for some perspective, Lumines is still the fourth highest rated game on Metacritc for the PSP, only trailing behind God of War: Chains of Olympus, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, and Persona 3 Portable). And while each individual PSP owner might have gone with Ridge Racer, Metal Gear Acid or Wipeout Pure for their first game, it seemed like everyone who was anyone made sure to pick up Lumines as their second.

On the other hand we have Meteos, a game that didn’t quite make the DS’ launch, but did come out extremely early in the console’s lifecycle, when many people were still down on the DS for its mediocre launch titles, dual screens, and comparatively lacking graphics. It was Meteos (along with Mario Kart DS, Advance Wars: Dual Strike, Nintendogs, Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow and a few other great games) that really turned the tide in Nintendo’s favor.

Inspired by the TV show 24’s use of split screen to show multiple scenes at once as well as the dripping code intro from The Matrix, Mizuguchi collaborated with famed Smash Bros. and Kirby director Masahiro Sakurai to come up with the idea for Meteos: a Tetris-style game where you are able to shoot the falling blocks back into the sky.

Just try and tell me these games weren't designed by the same guy.

Just try and tell me these games weren’t designed by the same guy.

While Lumines can be considered more methodical and groove-based, Meteos is all about frantic speed and craziness, often forcing you to juggle multiple catastrophes at once.

It's hard to explain, but know that this person is playing really well.

It’s hard to explain, but know that this person is playing really well.

Both franchises would go on to add more games to their respective series. Lumines would be wrung dry, receiving a direct sequel in Lumines II for the PSP, but also get XBLA (Lumines Live!), iOS (Lumines: Touch Fusion), PSN (Lumines Supernova), and Vita (Lumines Electric Symphony) versions. All versions would stick quite close to the original formula.

Meteos would get a couple of updates as well. Meteos: Disney Magic saw the game get a Disney makeover. The game also required players to turn their DS in book mode (as you would for games like Hotel Dusk, Brain Age and Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword), and fundamentally changed the way the game was played, allowing blocks to be moved side to side in addition to the classic up and down movement of the original game. Meteos would also come to the 360 in the form of XBLA release, Meteos Wars, which went back to the original style and added online multiplayer. Both Lumines and Meteos would get mobile phone versions too — though these all but vanished in obsolescence once smartphones took over.

Q Entertainment would not be beholden just to these two franchises though. Q also developed titles like Every Extend Extra and Child of Eden, and co-developed games such as Rez HD, Ninety-Nine Nights, and the DS version of Peggle.

Maybe it’s the Nintendo fanboy within me, but I’ve always seen Meteos as the superior game and series. Despite the ultimate sellout (Disney), Meteos hasn’t outlived its welcome, something I’m not sure Lumines could say. And while both games are certainly unique takes on the puzzle genre, I find it much more difficult to put into words exactly how Meteos works — I don’t think the short description I provided above did any justice to its complexities.

No matter your preference, though, if you own a DS, 3DS, PSP, or Vita, go get yourself one of these fantastic little games. The original versions are both extremely cheap right now, and even the newest iterations (Lumines Electric Symphony and Meteos Wars) can be had for less than $15 each; a pittance of a fee to see two games that brought life back to handheld gaming.

Bonus Stage:

  • While Meteos has a pretty standard Puyo Pop-style multiplayer mode, Lumines does something a bit different. In Lumines, both players play on the same field. The player with the most blocks eliminated after each sequence is awarded more of the playing field, leaving his opponent with less space with which to work. This makes matches heavily momentum based, and provides a bit of a twist to more traditional win conditions.
  • In Lumines, pausing the game would result in no audio being played for the first few seconds after being unpaused as the sound data had to be read off the UMD again.
  • The core development team behind Lumines is the same core team Mizuguchi worked with during the development of Rez.
  • Though not completely relevant to this column’s games, I was surprised to learn the Nintendo “DS” originally stood for “Developer’s System,” not “Dual Screen” as it is commonly thought.

____

Gamers on the Go (an extension of the podcast of the same name) is Games Are Evil’s bi-weekly examination of handheld games, written by Chase Koeneke. Follow Chase on Twitter here.

Gamers on the Go: Fire Emblem Awakening

Saturday, February 16th, 2013

Gamers on the Go

At the risk of coming off as a Nintendo fanboy (a real problem when you’re an advocate for handheld gaming), I’m going to spend my second column the same way I spent my first: talking about a Nintendo published game. This week, the game I’ve devoted 77+ hours into in the less than two weeks it’s been available: Fire Emblem Awakening.

Fire Emblem Awakening

I, like I’m sure many of you, got my first taste of Fire Emblem with the inclusion of Marth and Roy in Super Smash Bros. Melee, as for whatever reason, Nintendo limited the series’ early releases to just Japan. But with the popularity of the Melee characters in addition to the success of sister franchise Advance Wars for the Game Boy Advance, Fire Emblem finally invaded our shores in 2003.

I’m a little ashamed to admit that I missed out on Fire Emblem, and further saddened to have also missed out on its GBA sequel, Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones the next year. In fact, I wouldn’t play a Fire Emblem game until Marth returned for the DS remake of the original game: Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon.

 

For many Western gamers, this was the first they heard of Fire Emblem.

For many Western gamers, this was the first they heard of Fire Emblem.

The game was great, but as a bigger fan of both Advance Wars and Pokemon, there were a couple tweaks I needed to be made before I could declare Fire Emblem as one of my favorite franchises.

My problems stemmed from the games’ finite number of chapters (though The Sacred Stones did try to do something about that) and, to a much lesser degree, the series’ trademark permadeath, leaving me unable to see some really interesting side stories and thus lessening my enjoyment of the games.

And to my utter amazement, Nintendo and developer Intelligent Systems took my wishes and went way beyond what I could have ever dreamed with Awakening.

Tactics-wise, the disposable nature of the units in Advance Wars is much more my speed.

Tactics-wise, the disposable nature of the units in Advance Wars is much more my speed.

If you’re used to more of the free wheeling, do-whatever-it-takes-to-win tactics of an Advance Wars, Awakening caters to you with the new Casual Mode, allowing characters lost in combat to return after the battle is over. If you’re more staunchly traditional, the Classic Mode will give you all the tension-filled permanent death you could ask for.

If you want a focused campaign, you’ll find it in Awakening. If you want a game that will populate the map with skirmish battles over time, allowing you to play it forever, you’ll find that in Awakening too.

And though there is a pretty short level cap for your characters, you are able to upgrade them to advanced classes or change to a different class entirely. This “prestiges” them in a way, sending them back to level one, but they are allowed to keep skills and stat boosts they’ve accrued, giving you the opportunity to make some beastly characters if you have a lot of time on your hands. There was a similar “reclassing” feature available in the Shadow Dragon remake, but it has been greatly expanded in Awakening.

But the real genius of the game is the amount of fan service funneled into the experience. The whole campaign makes copious references to series-favorite Marth and the plot of Shadow Dragon. And past games’ units will show up to add to your army in both free daily content through SpotPass as well as paid downloadable content. Imagine having Ike, Roy and Marth all on the same army. It’s a reality you can take advantage of right now.

The game also takes advantage of the StreetPass feature of the 3DS. Crossing paths with another Awakening owner will have their army invade your world. If you are able to defeat them, you can recruit their leader for your side. Living in Missouri, I’ve been lucky to get two, but they’ve gotten me extremely excited about my upcoming trip to PAX East. If you meet a sandy-haired Chase out on the battlefield, good luck stopping him.

This will be my PAX East. I’m not sure if I’ll be the sheep or the slaughterer though.

This will be my PAX East. I’m not sure if I’ll be the sheep or the slaughterer though.

I realize this week’s edition of Gamers on the Go comes off more as a review (or hand job, depending on your perspective) (Nice — Pete), than it does the archival column it’s supposed to be, and I promise to get back to our regularly scheduled trip down memory lane next time, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t take the opportunity to shout from the rooftops of the Internet about the brilliance of Fire Emblem: Awakening in hopes that Nintendo will never again keep an installment from the West again.

Bonus Stage:

  • If you’re interested in hearing a ton of great development stories about Fire Emblem: Awakening, be sure to check out this Iwata Asks with the design team.
  • There are also some cool stories from the team at 8-4 that localized the game. They discuss it on their most recent podcast.

____

Gamers on the Go (an extension of the podcast of the same name) is Games Are Evil’s bi-weekly examination of handheld games, written by Chase Koeneke. Follow Chase on Twitter here.

Gamers on the Go: Super Mario Land

Saturday, February 2nd, 2013

Gamers on the Go

Hello, dear readers, and welcome to the debut installment of Gamers on the Go, an archive of handheld games, both new and old. I started GOTG as a podcast series in mid-2012, and am pleased to be expanding that coverage to a regular column for Games Are Evil.

Gamers on the Go is all about finding a new appreciation for the portable games of the past and proving that today’s handheld scene is far from dead (like some doomsayers might have you believe).

In the same fashion I began my show, I’ll begin my column exploring the oddball Super Mario Land for the Game Boy.

Super Mario Land

Super Mario Land is a traditional Mario 2D side-scrolling platformer, but in a lot of ways, it’s not a Mario game at all. It’s more like a cover version of one of your favorite songs: Very reminiscent of the thing you fell in love with, but a new group has put their own unique spin on it.

You won’t find Bowser, nor Peach for that matter. In fact, the whole Mushroom Kingdom is nowhere to be found. No fireballs, Goombas, Koopa Troopas, or Toad informing you that “our princess is in another castle” either.

That might look like a Goomba, but according to the Virtual Console port of the game, Nintendo classifies them as “Goombos”: A sub-species of the well-known enemy.

Goombos abound!

Instead, you’ll find a smattering of slightly altered facsimiles. Your archenemy is Tatanga, a small, purple alien that (with the exception of a brief appearance in Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins and a single comic in the oft-forgotten Game Boy mini-series from the Nintendo Comics System) all but vanishes from the Mario universe. Princess Daisy takes the role of damsel in distress and Sarasaland, with its odd African and Eastern-inspired culture serves as the backdrop for your adventure.

You’ll travel not only by foot, but by plane and submarine too in Mario’s first ever vehicle sequences (that are surprisingly well done for simple side-scrolling shooter vignettes).

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s…well actually, it is that second one.

One of Mario's few vehicular forays.

Even the design team is made up of proxies. Producer duties went to Nintendo’s other mad genius at the time, Gunpei Yokoi (who, as the father of the Game Boy, will assuredly be brought up in many future columns) and Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka composed the soundtrack instead of the more familiar Koji Kondo (though I challenge you to not get the Land 1-1 theme stuck in your head just as much as the Bros. one.

It’d be easy to classify Super Mario Land as a “B Team” game made by a “B Team” crew for a “B Team” console, but what makes Super Mario Land, the Game Boy, and the idea of handheld gaming itself so special is that it’s not a second stringer, it’s just another perspective: a parallel.

With the exception of maybe a few choice titles on the PlayStation Vita, handheld devices have never been able to perfectly recreate the latest console experience, and attempting that has ultimately been a fool’s errand. When portable games are at their best, they are either built with their device in mind (Pokemon, Lumines, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP), or they find a way to capitalize on the essence of a console game’s experience (Mario Tennis, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker).

Super Mario Land

Bonus Stage

(a space where I’ll hit you with extra trivia that didn’t make it into the main article):

  • Nintendo was going to provide Super Mario Land as a pack-in game with the purchase of any Game Boy, but Henk Rogers, the man who secured the exclusive rights to Tetris, convinced Nintendo that the Russian puzzler would have a more mainstream appeal.
  • Super Mario Land is one of two Mario games (the other being Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins) that doesn’t make use of the classic Starman theme. Instead, it uses “Galop Infernal” (also known as the song from the Can-Can) for its invincibility theme.
  • In the Easton Kingdom, you’ll find statues similar to the monolithic Moai heads of Easter Island. Did you know the real life statues actually have bodies? Crazy world we live in.
  • Canonically (if Mario really does have any sort of canon), during the events of Super Mario Land, Wario is in the process of taking over Mario’s castle, setting up the events of 6 Golden Coins.
  • Super Mario Land is one of the least critically acclaimed Mario platformers to date despite still being extremely well revered (about a 78% on GameRankings if you put much stock into that sort of stuff).
  • Even with the lower than Mario-standard reviews, Super Mario Land sold ridiculously well (over 18 million copies worldwide making it the fifth highest selling Mario platformer, outselling Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel combined).
  • One of the first Virtual Console releases on the 3DS eShop, you can get Super Mario Land right now for $4.
  • And unless the Virtual Console version is the one you get, be prepared to finish the game once you start it, as it’s the only Mario game without any sort of save functionality.

I hope you enjoyed this first edition of Gamers on the Go. While I have a big list of games for potential future columns, if there is a specific game you want to know more about or hear my opinions on, please post about it in the comments section.

____

Gamers on the Go (an extension of the podcast of the same name) is Games Are Evil’s bi-weekly examination of handheld games, written by Chase Koeneke. Follow Chase on Twitter here.