Intermission

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Getting tired of the semi-hiatus here at Retro(spective)? (All five of you, I mean). Me, too! I did warn everyone though, so I’m not losing too much sleep over it, but still, nothing worse than dead air. What can I say, school has been a beast lately, Nintendojo (which you all should be reading) always has something percolating, and well, I can’t write about games if I don’t play them! Summer approaches, though, so expect things to start getting livelier as we move deeper into June.

Mario Kart 8 will be getting the old review treatment, and expect the same for Tomodachi Life, too. Beyond that, E3 is going to be huge. What I don’t post for Nintendojo will be here, so look forward to hands-on time with whatever amazingness lies in wait for this year’s show. I’d also like to point out, Retro(spective)’s one year anniversary is also fast approaching! Maybe I’ll… give something away in celebration! Exciting times await, dear readers! I hope you’ll all be along for the ride.

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Speculative Ops

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I decided I’m going to give Spec Ops: The Line a try on my PS3 this week. Sort of left field, I guess, but during IGN’s spate of personal “top ten” lists a couple weeks ago, one of the editors listed Spec Ops and it got me intrigued. It was an interesting look into the game, bereft of the usual grandstanding found in a review. Just a person talking about a video game that had a personal impact on them.

I remember when Spec Ops came out, a big controversy that sprang from it was how online multiplayer was shoehorned in against the developers’ wishes. Lead designer Cory Davis went so far as to decry the addition as a “cancerous growth”. Ouch. Honest, though, which is something that just about any medium of entertainment could stand to see a little bit more of, these days.

In this maddening “me too” era of desperate Call of Duty wannabes, Spec Ops was a victim of not being ambitious enough in terms of head shots and leaderboards. Where Spec Ops did push the envelope was its brutal narrative. It’s disappointing that any developer should try to say something more in a shooter and be ignored, and worse still that the message be buried by its own publisher. Of course, if the game isn’t fun, I guess there’s no point in defending Spec Ops as much as I am, but I think the principle here is more important than the gameplay.

Don’t get me wrong, though; it’s important (paramount, even) that a game is as playable as it is inventive or trend setting. Going in a different direction for a moment, given Spec Ops storyline, and its overall message about the permanence and consequences of a soldier’s actions in battle, it’s tough to determine how much fun a player was even supposed to be having. The mechanics of a video game are supposed to impart some sort of satisfaction, after all, so if Spec Ops wants the player to feel every shot, it seems contradictory to make shooting fun.

Games like Modern Warfare 2 found a decent balance between engaging gameplay and communicating a deeper message. The “No Russian” mission was very hot-button when the game launched, but having played it myself, I thought it was a potent and surreal moment of gameplay. Suddenly, all the fun I’d been having taking out enemy troops was replaced with feelings of guilt as the crowd of innocent people and cops crumpled before my eyes. It was a small part of MW2, as opposed to an entire campaign like Spec Ops, but it demonstrates how the message can be communicated if done right.

So, Spec Ops, here I come, and whether you rock or suck, I hope that more devs can take a page from your playbook and try something different. Shooters should be able to do something more than amass a digital body count, after all. Video games in general should be able to play against stereotype more often than they do, too.

The PlayStation Platforming Treasure Trove

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I’ve said it before, but I can be late to the party. Like, really, really late. Like, the janitor is gone late. Case in point; Sly Cooper, Jak and Daxter, and Ratchet & Clank are some amazing platformers that I never had bothered to get into before. I’ve been having a lot of fun playing LittleBigPlanet and Tearaway (more on that in the future) on my Vita these past couple weeks, but I wanted something a bit different. I’ve been staring at the Sly Collection sit on the shelves in my local GameStop for eons now, and I figured, what the heck, time to give it a try.

Wow. Not perfect, mind you, but the Sly games are just so dang pleasant. The controls are solid, the graphics are pleasing, and the characters are fun. It feels very much like the antithesis of what Nintendo does so well with its Mario platformers, but it still works. Playing Sly made me realize I had to be misjudging Ratchet and Jak, so I quickly snatched up the respective HD collections of those, too, and was even further surprised by their quality.

I know a lot of people enjoy the three of these series, but it feels like they’re deserving of more praise than they’ve received. I’m loving the look and feel of all three franchises, and I’m only getting into their PS2 origins. Outside of Ratchet, it’s a shame that Sly and Jak didn’t get more exposure in the PS3 era. I know that demographics and players’ tastes have changed over the years, but, well, these games are fun! Fun should be embraced, fun should get sequels. If you have yet to try any of these games, please go pick them up; you won’t be disappointed.

Overlooked Games of Last Gen

It’s easy to overlook that backlog of games many of us have with Wii U, PS4, and XBox One providing a whole new assortment of titles to play. Even easer, though, is to forget the games that weren’t spotlight stealers even when Wii, XBox 360, and PS3 were in their prime. Let’s look back on some great, overlooked titles that many people might have missed back in the day!

Spyborgs | Wii | 2009

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Brawlers can be a tricky nut to crack, and not everyone’s idea of the perfect slugfest is always going to mesh with other people, but I really had fun with Spyborgs. The graphics were polished and vibrant on Wii, and the controls were solid. Pummeling foes was smooth and satisfying, as the best beat ’em ups should be, and I had a soft spot for the over the top heroes Clandestine, Bouncer, and Stinger. It’s also a good co-op game for those wanting some buddy time on Wii!

Z.H.P. Unlosing Ranger VS Darkdeath Evilman | PSP | 2010

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PSP might not have quite the library of games that Nintendo’s DS does, but that doesn’t mean the system is devoid of overlooked gems. Unlosing Ranger is one of them, a sort of cooky tactical RPG filled with character and excellent combat. A lot of common convention of the RTS subgenre of RPGs were thrown out of the window for this game, making it much more accessible to a wider variety of players. Plus, it’s pretty and funny! At the same time! Nice.

Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands | PS3/XBox 360 | 2010

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The aptly-named Forgotten Sands remains an under-sung highpoint of the franchise.  Excellent play mechanics complemented the game’s immersive, sweeping visuals, and, with its engaging story, made it a real can’t-miss experience. Except, quite a few people did, and the Prince has been MIA ever since. Don’t let this collect dust when you pass it in a GameStop; it’s easily worth your time if you enjoyed The Sands of Time.

Alice: Madness Returns | PS3/XBox 360 | 2011

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This is a title that was really failed by reviewers. The narrative was creepy, dark, and gripping, which isn’t easy for a lot of games. It didn’t hurt that combat was a blast and the psychedelic, intricate visuals were wonderful eye candy. This is a game that has to be played to be appreciated. Keep your eyes peeled for shout outs to other video game series while you play!

Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective | Nintendo DS | 2011

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It’s absolute murder that this game didn’t sell better. Ghost Trick remains at the very least an equal to the Phoenix Wright series, with clever writing, beautiful visuals, and a nice twist ending. The play controls put a wonderful spin on the visual novel genre, while the character animations are something else. People who complain that the video game industry doesn’t experiment enough should slap themselves if they never picked this one up.

Honorable Mention- Klonoa: Door to Phantomile | Wii | 2009

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The Klonoa games in general don’t get enough love, but this Wii remake of the PlayStation original was a standout experience. Its 2.5D gameplay is as fun now as it was when it debuted, mixing 2D platforming with 3D environments. It’s cutesy, but that’s no crime, and shouldn’t be a deterrent to anyone who wants a solid platformer. Seek out the Game Boy Advance titles, too!

There are lost of overlooked games waiting to be played; go get your hands on some today!

Building a Better Uncharted Game

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The Uncharted series is often praised for its pleasing mixture of cinematics and gameplay. Players spend half their time engaging in traditional third-person shooting and exploring, while the remainder of the game is devoted to taut storytelling and impeccable voice acting. Yet, despite continued accolades and huge sales, there are things about Uncharted that could be tweaked to make it an even better experience, though few those tweaks might be. Here’s how Naughty Dog can take Nathan Drake’s next adventure to the max!

Less Killing

A reviewer of Uncharted 3 pointed out how they had wished, during the course of the game, that they could have spent a little less time shooting and more time exploring and experiencing the story. It’s become evident over the course of four Uncharted games that the titles are hampered by an unnecessary fixation on gunplay and ridiculous amounts of dead bodies piling up.

I get that there are parallels between Uncharted and films like Indiana Jones, including how Harrison Ford racks up a decent body count of his own, but Nathan Drake’s exploits could fill a crematorium through sheer volume. When there’s such an emphasis on narrative as there is in the Uncharted games, it makes little sense to have Drake take down waves of baddies when it ultimately doesn’t enhance gameplay and distracts from the story. I say less shooting for the next Uncharted so as to make the times when you are in a gunfight more meaningful.

Don’t Be Such a Crook

I had some trouble getting into the story when I played Uncharted 2 because at times I just didn’t feel sorry for Drake. This issue is acknowledged within Uncharted 3‘s narrative, but when Drake is just a straight-up crook, it makes it hard to root for him. Of course, I know that’s sort of the point with Uncharted; Drake and Sully aren’t necessarily the good guys. They live in a dark world and make some shady choices. Unfortunately, Uncharted’s unique take on the concept of the protagonist in a video game makes that a tough pill to swallow.

Like The Last of Us, the purpose of the protagonist in the Uncharted series is to be a character and not a projection of the player. This is part of the reason the narratives that Naughty Dog puts together are so entertaining and compelling, as the traditional emotional cipher of so many other games is replaced with a genuine person. The only problem is that in The Last of Us, Joel’s choices are distinctly framed by what he believes to be right; as a result, no matter how horrifying some of his actions might be, it’s reasonable to want to root for Joel anyway. With Nathan, it can be a little tough, because the particular shade of gray he exists in can often be too unflattering.

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Being an antihero is fine, and exploring a morally ambiguous protagonist in a video game isn’t unheard of, but Uncharted can sometimes simultaneously portray Drake as likable and irredeemable, which is frustrating. It’s unrealistic to expect a player to cheer for Drake when he’s done something out of pure greed and is killing a bunch of people for selfish reasons and nothing more. In fairness to Naughty Dog, the studio does try to stymy this feeling when Drake’s targets are revealed to be the worst of the worst, as it facilitates sympathy that otherwise wouldn’t exist when he goes at them. That said, as a narrative device it can appear lazy when Drake is being blatantly bad, but conveniently is shown as not being as bad as the guy he’s about to blow away.

If Naughty Dog wants to give Drake that classic, charming scoundrel type of personality, it has to be tempered with less acts that come across as totally unheroic. If the intent is to shine the spotlight on Drake being a bad guy, then keep the presentation more even. Drake’s got plenty of personality, Sony; now just make sure it’s a consistent one.

Arkham Uncharted

I think that hand-to-hand combat in the series has gotten better with each installment of Uncharted, but there’s plenty of room to grow. First off, going back to the idea of not killing everyone that crosses his path, Drake’s fisticuffs should get pushed into more a combo and counter system like the Arkham series of games in order to put gunfights on the backburner. Uncharted 3 played with this to a certain extent, but the results could have been better. Button prompts for blocking mixed with the satisfying beatdowns Drake is known for would be a great addition to make the games less dependent on gunplay. With that said, Drake also doesn’t need to snap necks or start strangling every time he sneaks up on a baddie. Deepen the fighting and make shooting less of the go-to during gameplay and encounters will become that much richer.

The Uncharted games border on perfection each time out, but making these adjustments could push them that much further. Tone down the senseless slaughter, make hand-to-hand combat more satisfying so that gunfights aren’t the focus of every battle, and provide Drake with something a little more meaningful to compel him to action, and suddenly The Last of Us has company at the top. Here’s hoping Naughty Dog can bring Uncharted to PS4 better than ever.

Is The Sonic Cycle More Myth Than Fact?

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The Sonic Cycle, as illustrated above, is a circle of pain and anguish in which loyal Sonic fans anticipate a new game, get worrying glimpses of it in previews, then play it and are horribly disappointed. With IGN’s reviews of Sonic Lost World on Wii U ( which described the game as a “big blue speed bump”) and 3DS garnering scores of 5.8 and 6.8, it seemed that the Sonic Cycle was in full swing yet again. Or was it? There’s no denying that some low-quality Sonic games are out in the wild, but there have been more hits than misses in recent years than most videogame journalists care to acknowledge. It’s time to peel the curtain back and reveal some of Sonic’s best games in recent history!

1) Sonic Colors (Wii/DS, 2010)

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This Nintendo-exclusive title is a true triumph of Sonic Team, with beautiful production values and intense gameplay. Unlike many of Sonic’s 3D outings, Colors eschewed an unnecessary play control gimmick in favor of unadulterated Sonic speed and action. While the development team did slip in color-themed powerups, they’re largely enjoyable to use and aren’t always required to proceed through a level.

For the DS version, SEGA opted to keep Colors a 2D adventure, which was a wise choice, as it played to the strengths of the handheld. Developer Dimps (who you’ll hear more about in a bit) was known for making excellent, traditional Sonic games and maintained that reputation with this fun, albeit short, take on Colors. The powerups carried over to this version, too, but like the Wii’s Colors, they’re generally fun to use and not always required to progress.

2) Sonic Generations (XBox 360/PS3/3DS, 2011)

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SEGA followed-up Colors with another gem for Microsoft and Sony’s consoles with Sonic Generations. Like Colors, Generations also abandoned a play control gimmick in favor of focusing on pure running/platforming, but rather then use powerups to spice things up, they split hero duties between modern and classic Sonic, instead. Half the game features 3D gameplay, with the other 2D, and is set in multiple stages based on Sonic’s classic outings from the Genesis all the way up to the present (well, then-present). It was a treat to see Green Hill Zone in blistering HD, and even modern classics like City Escape from Sonic Adventure 2 made an appearance.

For the 3DS iteration of Generations, SEGA again turned to Dimps but focused only on 2D gameplay, with a twist. The duo of modern and classic Sonic was maintained, but the former had his homing ability in tow while the latter speed dashed across the screen. Some of the joy of the console versions was lost in removing the 3D segments, but the handheld take on Generations is still a great Sonic game worth experiencing.

3) Sonic 4: Episode I (Wii/PS3/360/Mobile, 2010) & II (360/PS3/Mobile, 2012)

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SEGA’s revitalization of the original Genesis numbering was a smart move, as it declared quite clearly their intent to return classic, 2D Sonic platforming to home consoles (and even cellphones!). Both installments were a blast, with lush graphics and solid controls. Some complain that Sonic’s jumps don’t feel like they did on Genesis, but it’s not such a glaring difference that it detracts from an excellent experience. Oh, yeah, and Metal Sonic. He alone is worth the price of admission! Just to note, the mobile versions are good, but there’s no substitute for a physical controller, so make your purchases accordingly.

4) Sonic Rush (DS, 2005) & Sonic Rush Adventure (DS, 2007)

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Dimps has long been a stalwart Sonic developer for awhile now, and they’re crowning achievements remain the awesome DS 2D Sonic games. The Rush titles feature pure, classic Sonic gameplay, but the emphasis is on speed more than platforming. The resultant adrenaline rush (a pun!) from sending Sonic blazing across the two screens of the DS is a sight to behold. There’s also a new sense of verticality to the levels in the DS games, as both screens are utilized simultaneously. Rush Adventure is the weaker of the two titles as it, unfortunately, has some awkward 3D segments crammed in, but they’re brief and shouldn’t deter you from checking out both.

5) Sonic Dash (iOS, 2013)

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Temple Run might have been first, but Sonic’s turn as an endless-runner is as fun as it natural. The graphics are crisp, the controls are precise, and the genre is really just an excellent match for Sonic on mobile. That’s not to say 2D Sonic platforming can’t be done on a tablet or phone (see Episodes I & II above), but the lack of buttons makes Dash‘s control scheme much more tenable and enjoyable on the go. Definitely a nice way to pass some time on your commute, or just to blow off some steam at home.

Sonic Lost World might have disappointed some (and I’ll be letting you know how I feel about the 3DS and Wii U versions myself, soon), but there are plenty of good Sonic games out there if one knows where to look. Give these titles a try and see why Sonic has been such a beloved character for all these years. One last thing; they’re older and a little harder to come by, but the Sonic Advance series is also a wonderful take on classic, 2D Sonic platforming. If you have a DS Lite or Game Boy Advance, all three games are well worth your time!

Retro(spective) 14-Resident Evil 4

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It’s interesting that such a beloved game as Resident Evil 4 should have as chaotic a development history as it does. RE4 as it’s known today is the end result of at least four different builds over a six year period. The culmination of Capcom’s efforts remains one of their greatest achivements, as RE4 is widely considered to be a landmark videogame for its advances in play control, narrative, and graphics.

When development of RE4 began in 1999, series director Shinji Mikami had handed control of the series to fellow Capcom veteran Hideki Kamiya. At the time, Resident Evil was arguably Capcom’s biggest and most successful franchise, so expectations were high for the impending PS2 sequel. Management’s orders were simple; RE4 needed to be cooler and edgier than anything that had ever come before. Kamiya and company set out to deliver exactly that, when suddenly they hit a snag.

The problem with Kamiya’s RE4 was that it became too cool and edgy to ever be considered a proper installment in the series. The game was packed with action and skewed heavily away from the survival horror elements that put Resident Evil on the map. Kamiya knew, however, that even though the game couldn’t work as RE4, it was good enough to be its own thing. A nip, tuck, and rebranding later, and suddenly the world was introduced to Devil May Cry. Not bad for a failed game build!

Birthing a new franchise was great, but Capcom still had to turn out a proper sequel to Resident Evil 3. At that point it was 2001 and many changes were coming to RE4. Rather than continue as a PS2 project, RE4 was now a GameCube exclusive and being helmed by a different director, Hiroshi Shibata. His team developed what some refer to as the “fog” version of RE4, which featured Leon S. Kennedy infiltrating Umbrella’s secret headquarters using a mysterious power in his hand to survive. Certain elements of the game became cemented at this time, particularly the use of Leon as the main protagonist. Shibata’s take was certainly visually impressive, but it lacked the spark needed to be what Capcom envisioned.

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Another build, another restart, as 2003 brought with it more tweaks to RE4‘s development. The setting was altered again, this time placing Leon in the eerie halls of an abandoned house, plagued with spirits and otherworldy enemies to fend off. An iconic aspect of this build was a ghostly hook-handed man that chased Leon through the environment. While progress seemed to be being made on the title, it wasn’t enough to save this version of RE4. Hallucinations, the paranormal, and a haunting ambiance failed to impress Capcom, and their rising frustrations were about to yield the biggest shakeup yet.

Crunch time had come to RE4, with Mikami reinstated as director for the game as an emergency measure by management. For Mikami, it was a bittersweet return to the director’s chair, as Capcom wanted results-or else. There would be no more restarts once Mikami took over, as management wanted the game both finished and successful or it would be the last hurrah for Resident Evil. Mikami, perhaps in an effort to match the zeal of his bosses, shocked everyone when he dictated RE4 was to now be an action horror game.

Mikami’s first step in realizing this new direction was the implementation of a third-person camera system for movement and combat. Mikami had actually intended to utilize a control setup very similar to RE4‘s for the first Resident Evil game, but tech limitations on the PlayStation prevented that from ever happening. With the power of GameCube, though, Mikami was able to remove the infamous “tank” controls of the first three games. The added horsepower of the system also freed Mikami to fully-render the environment of the game. Previous Resident Evils (with the exception of Dreamcast’s Code: Veronica) had featured static, pre-rendered backdrops. While certainly impressive in their own right, the pre-rendered imagery was unnecessary on GameCube, and creating a fully 3D-environment opened up new design possibilities to the team.

As if implementing the new tone and controls for RE4 weren’t enough of a departure, Mikami would take things a step further by replacing zombies with the new “Ganado” enemies. To Mikami, the new third-person shooting elements meant that the traditional, shambling hordes of the dead weren’t going to remain viable; he had vision of intense thrills and action, so the enemies had to change. He wanted to challenge players with a smarter breed of foe, one who would move more quickly and deliberately in their attempts to kill Leon. Combat was also amplified with quick time events, or timed, precision button prompts that allowed for more elaborate fight scenes. Some games have shamelessly spammed the use of quick time events, but for RE4 they were refreshing and different. After six years of development, RE4 was finally coming together, but Mikami had no idea just how big of a hit he had on his hands.

When RE4 finally released to the public in 2005, fans weren’t quite sure what to expect of the title. Hype had built to a fever pitch and no one knew if Mikami’s new take would mesh with their memories of PlayStation’s Resident Evil trilogy. It didn’t take long, though, for players across the world to fall in love with this new direction. The controls were exceedingly sharp, allowing for more precision than anything before it. The graphics alone were stunning, but the brilliant character and monster design made them truly shine. Leon was intentionally made a more appealing leading man than he was in Resident Evil 2, endearing himself to fans and helping make the transition a bit easier for holdouts.

RE4 isn’t without it detractors, of course. Some complain that the heart of Resident Evil was lost by foregoing tension and dread for adrenaline and excitement. There’s no denying that RE4 empowered the player more than ever with its generous ammo and health drops. Gone were the days of clinging to a clip of ammunition for the most dire of circumstances, and with it went the sense of fear helplessness that was so instrumental to Resident Evil’s ascension. While I can appreciate that some fans might have felt betrayed seeing Resident Evil stray so far from what had come before, I truly believe that RE4 struck the perfect balance between action and survival horror that all subsequent sequels have struggled to recreate. RE4 was as scary as it was thrilling and remains the perfect evolution of the series.

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RE4 is probably the most ported version of any Resident Evil game to date. Originally a GameCube exclusive, the title saw ports to PS2, Wii, PC, iOS, PSN, and XBox LIVE. There are actually two limited editions of RE4; the GameCube version was released in a special tin case while the PS2 version came in a steelbook. They’re both pretty awesome, but the GameCube one is harder to find. The Wii version of RE4 is particularly loved, as it introduced fluid and natural motion controls in addition to exclusive content from the PS2 edition. Second to the Wii version would have to be the HD remakes on the PS3 and 360’s digital marketplaces. The graphics have been lovingly updated and make the experience look better than ever. Regardless of how you play RE4, you owe it to yourself to experience this masterpiece of a game. The story is campy but engaging, and features some of the most memorable and intense boss fights in all of gaming. Whether a fan of the series or playing it for the first time, you will find very little to hate and so much to enjoy. Go play RE4 today!

Developed and published by Capcom, 2005.

Resident Evil 4 is available on the GameCube, PS2, PC, and Wii. An iOS version of the game is also available, along with HD remakes on PSN and XBox LIVE.