What I’m playing right now: Swords, Courts, and Karts

My father-in-law’s now recuperating in the comfort of his own home and bed, which is great, but my wife came down with a pretty bad case of food poisoning last night. Long story short, we were up until dawn, and didn’t get to sleep until about 6 this morning. As they say, when it rains, it pours. Yin and yang, or something like that.

Anyway, after such a stressful week, I’m looking forward to some quality game time this weekend. Here’s what I’ll be playing:



A couple weeks ago, I started Fire Emblem: Awakening on the 3DS, even though I’m not a big fan of strategy games. I just finished The Exalt and the King (Chapter 5), so I have a long, long way to go, but I’m enjoying it so far. I’m playing it on Casual, even though I’m sure this irks Fire Emblem purists to no end. The game is still pretty tough, however, and vital units can get wiped out in a single turn if you’re not careful.

The amount of content in Awakening is impressive. In addition to the main quest, there are a number of sidequests to complete as well, so this game will be keeping me busy for quite some time. I’m extremely impressed by the game’s production value. The animated cutscenes by Madhouse are gorgeous, and put a lot of regular console games to shame. The soundtrack is equally impressive, providing great drama and tension to story and battle scenes alike.

About the only thing I don’t care for is the sporadic voice-over. It’s distracting, and tarnishes the shine of what is an otherwise superlative game. I’m also feeling slightly overwhelmed by the already high number of units I have at my disposal, but I’d rather have more to deal with than too little.



I played and finished the first Phoenix Wright game back in 2012. While I really liked it initially, it became tediously long and definitely wore out its welcome by the time it was over. This could be due to the DS version’s extra content, but whatever the case, I was relieved when it ended, only giving it a C+.

Now that a couple years have passed, I felt ready to jump back into the series. It’s very familiar so far, and I’m liking that. The mildly remixed music is nostalgic, and it’s great to see old friends and colleagues return. I’m enjoying the story so far, and the new cast has been quite eccentric. I wouldn’t expect anything less after the crew from first game.

I’ve only completed the first case, and that trial had a good flow with testimony and cross-examination that made sense. Some of them were so vaguely indeterminate to me in the first game that I had to resort to using a guide on more than one occasion. I’m hopeful that I won’t have to do the same here. So far, though, I’m digging this.



Finally, my copy of Mario Kart 8 should be arriving at some point today, and I’m very excited to start playing it! I’m not really the target Mario Kart player, though, since I like to play solo most of the time. I suppose that’s why most games in the series haven’t really done much for me. I’d rather have a goal/adventure-based format like Diddy Kong Racing instead of straight classes and groups of tracks. Seriously, why haven’t they made more games like that Rare classic?

In any case, I’m hopeful that MK8 rekindles my love for the series. I was addicted to Super Mario Kart on the SNES, and I haven’t liked any of the subsequent entries nearly as much. Maybe this will be the one that breaks that cycle. By all accounts and reviews, it looks like an undeniable gem of a racer. As a Wii U owner, that’s very, very good news.

Have a great weekend, and thanks for your continued support and readership here at GHG.


Backlog Blitz: The games of March 2014

It’s been a rough week. Even though every fiber of my being wants to just rest and resume business as usual on Monday, I think it’s important to keep things going here at GHG. Taking a break can make it that much harder to get back into it, and I know me: I’ve tried and quit a lot of things, so I can’t let that happen again.

Anyway, March was a good month. With only 5 purchases and a decent completion tally of 7 games, I pushed my total upwards a bit. The format, like January and February, is Game Title (Platform, Purchase Price, Play Time).

20140529_marchblitzGames purchased (-5, $67.50 spent):

  1. 20140529_pokemonxPokemon X (3DS, $20.00)
    Tough to resist a good 50% off sale, and so even though I have never really played or finished a single Pokemon title, starting with the latest one is probably an OK place to begin. My friends told me to get X instead of Y, so get X I did.
  2. The Humble Mobile Bundle 4 (Android, $3.00)
    Although I’m getting to the point where I have most of the games offered by current Humble Bundles, I’ll still pick them up. This bundle included BADLAND Premium, Breach & Clear, Catan, Color Sheep, Gunslugs, OLO, Riptide GP2, Vector, and Zombie Gunship.
  3. The Humble Weekly Sale: PopCap (PC, $6.00)
    I bought the vast majority of these in a PopCap bundle for my wife years ago, but decided to add some of them to my library as well. Pretty good selection: Peggle Deluxe, Bejeweled 3, Bookworm Deluxe, Escape Rosecliff Island, Feeding Frenzy 2 Deluxe, Plants vs. Zombies GOTY Edition, Peggle Nights, and Zuma’s Revenge.
  4. 20140529_psplusPlayStation Plus (12-month, PS3/Vita/PS4, $35.00)
    It took me a long time to finally sign up, but a 30% off sale made me pull the trigger. This is only my second month with the service, but the free games alone across all three of Sony’s platforms makes this one of the best deals in gaming. It’s no wonder Microsoft had to bring out Games With Gold, to which Sony has already countered by increasing the number of PS4 games per month to 2 instead of 1 starting in June. How long this kind of great value can be sustained in anyone’s guess, so you’ll never see me complain about it.
  5. Thomas Was Alone: Benjamin’s Flight DLC (Vita, $3.50)
    As part of PlayStation Plus, I finished Thomas Was Alone (see below), and immediately had to purchase its follow-up DLC.

Games finished (+7, $44.50 value):

  1. SpellTower (Android, $1.00, 2 hrs.)
    This one’s a nice cross between Tetris and Bookworm. It’s a fun diversion that I still find myself playing while out and about, waiting for a table at a restaurant, or any instance where I need to kill a few minutes. While word games aren’t my favorite, it’s still very well-made with a number of different modes, multiplayer, intuitive touch control, style, and challenge. Overall: B
  2. Grand Theft Auto V (PS3, Free, 40 hrs.)20140529_gta5
    This is the first Grand Theft Auto game I’ve ever finished, and it’s easily one of the best games I’ve ever played. I was at first overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff you can do, but Rockstar has designed it in such a way that you almost always feel naturally led to the next activity. A wealth of variety, entertainment, and quality is in no short supply here, and each subsequent mission continued to blow me away. I have a feeling I’m going to be completely ruined on most other open-world titles from this point forward. Great characters, expertly designed missions, hilarious lowbrow gags, and the underlying technology driving everything in this game is impressive. It’s crazy to think that this is running on hardware that’s nearly 8 years old. Overall: A+
  3. Batman: Arkham Asylum (PC, $7.50, 30 hrs.)
    I had previously tried to play this two times, but for different reasons that weren’t related to the game itself, I stopped playing. After enjoying the open world of GTA5 so much, I wanted to go back and play this one before tackling the bigger Arkham City. I loved everything about it, especially the hand-to-hand combat, which is just so fluid and intuitive. I’m no Batman expert, but outside of the comics, this series is the best treatment of the license I’ve ever experienced. The in-game dialogue scenes are comically amateurish, which is too bad since the rest of the game is so good, but they don’t detract from what is an otherwise perfectly crafted action game with tons of collectibles and things to do. Rocksteady’s treatment of The Joker and Scarecrow are particularly memorable, too. Overall: A+
  4. 20140529_brokenageBroken Age: Act 1 (PC, $25.00, 5 hrs.)
    I hopped aboard the Broken Age train really late because for some reason, my Kickstarter backing didn’t take initially. No matter, though — this is a charming adventure game that leaves the player with one heck of a cliffhanger ending. It’s almost unfair. I remember reading about how backers thought it was too short and easy, but since I’m not the biggest adventure game purist and I can’t stand obscure puzzles, I found it to be just right. Most of the puzzles are pretty simple, but they’re also intuitive, and they’re not all easy: there were a couple that almost pushed me to look at a FAQ. Yes, it’s a short game, but not if you take your time and enjoy everything the designers put into it. It’s at its best when you’re left to just experiment with item combos and usage to see what the characters will say. They all have great dialogue that must have been a lot of fun to write.  The soundtrack is terrific, the art and animation are well-crafted, and it’s just a cool throwback to the type PC adventure games so many of us played in the ’90s. Overall: A-
  5. 20140529_batman_acBatman: Arkham City (PC, $7.50, 60 hrs.)
    I loved Arkham Asylum, and Arkham City delivered on the promise of a bigger world to explore, more gadgets, and lots of things to do. It had a nice Legend of Zelda vibe to its world structure and game flow. Its depiction of the Penguin, Ra’s al Ghul, and Mr. Freeze were fantastic, and although the story takes a Batman-like nosedive into predictable cliches at the end, I enjoyed the game itself just as much as its predecessor. Side missions were fun, and some of the Riddler trophies were downright diabolical. I loved that they were turned into puzzles themselves, taking some good timing and ingenuity to collect. Traversal in Gotham City was painless, and I really liked all the refinements made since Asylum, particularly to the combat. Keeping Riddler informants alive adds a nice layer of strategy to the mob fights, and it’s addicting grabbing all the subsequent collectibles. Although the size and length of the game inherently makes the story feel less refined and focused as Asylum‘s, I still thought this was as good a game as the first. Overall: A+
  6. Thomas Was Alone (Vita, Free, 6 hrs.)
    What a surprise. Included for free as part of March’s PlayStation Plus offerings, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I thought it was just going to be your typical minimalist platformer with some indie quirkiness thrown in for good measure, but what I got was one of the most charming and memorable games I’ve played in a long time. While it’s not the most challenging platformer — this isn’t Super Meat Boy — it’s still fun and provides a lot of rewarding gameplay. I found myself compelled to complete it primarily for its wonderful story and characters. It’s pretty short, even after going through it twice to listen to the Developer Commentary, but it’s worth every minute. I think that anyone who has even a passing interest in game design should play this twice. Overall: A
  7. Thomas Was Alone: Benjamin’s Flight DLC (Vita, $3.50, 1 hr.)
    The follow-up DLC for Thomas Was Alone adds some new characters, play control, and good narrative, but it is extremely short, and unfortunately (for now), doesn’t include Developer Commentary, which was one of my favorite features of the original game. It gave such valuable insight into Mike Bithell’s approach to both game and character design that it almost feels like the DLC is missing a limb. Still worth the cost of entry, despite its lack of length and features. Overall:

So that was March in a nutshell. It was thankfully a very light month in terms of how much I spent, and I was rewarded with some of the best games I’ve ever played. It will certainly be a tough month to beat!


Cancer sucks


Updates at GHG will be light this week since my father-in-law goes in for radical prostatectomy surgery tomorrow morning. This will change his life and the lives of those who are close to him in ways we don’t even know yet.

Although I am not ready to talk about it, one day soon I will. In the words of Wil Wheaton from one of my favorite films Stand By Me, my message to all cancers of the world: “Suck my fat one, you cheap dime store hood.”

20140527_va_parking5/28/14 Update: Well, after a long two days, we are back home.

My father-in-law had the surgery done yesterday at the Portland VA Medical Center. He went in for pre-op around 9:30 in the morning, and we didn’t see him until about 9 that night, so it was a long, long day.

The good news is that everything went really well, and that there was no indication that the cancer had spread anywhere else, which was a huge relief for all of us to hear! Almost miraculously, he was already up and walking around a bit today, had a good appetite, and his pain meds were kept to a minimum.

He was his usual joking self, although laughing would make his abdominal area hurt, so we tried — and our attempts were futile — to limit the funnies. We justified it by saying that laughing would strengthen his core and speed up his recovery, which of course, caused more laughing.

Anyway, with any luck, he’ll be coming home this Friday to continue the long road to 100% recovery. We are all very, very thankful for the doctors and staff at the VA. They were all caring, knowledgeable, and took great care of my father-in-law before, during, and after his surgery.

Despite the stress, lack of sleep, and emotion of the day, I did get some “gaming” in while we waited yesterday. Although I can’t claim to have completed the entire thing, this puzzle kept us busy into the evening hours:


It actually made me want to put more puzzles together, so I might have to buy a few in the near future. Videogame-themed ones, of course.

Thank you so much for the kind emails, messages, and calls we received over the past few days. In times like these, having so many caring and loving people around us has made all the difference in the world.


Elgato Game Capture HD: Sample images

This will be a very short weekend update, but here are a few screenshots I took today with the Elgato Game Capture HD. I’m pretty happy with the results, even though you have no choice but to grab them after they’ve been processed automatically via H.264 compression. I’ll be writing a full review on the device, setup, software, and image quality later this week.



The Sega Master System, Part 1: Odd man out

20140523_smsYou’ll never believe the reason why I wanted a Sega Master System so badly back in 1986. I had seen a Toys R Us ad for it not too long before Christmas that year, and sure, the system itself looked pretty cool. However, it was the game I saw plugged into it that grabbed my attention: Cobra Command. Yeah, the LaserDisc arcade game.

As a young, impressionable 7th grader who didn’t have a modem yet, I didn’t possess much knowledge about technical limitations, data storage, etc., so I surmised that sure, they could fit an entire LaserDisc game onto a cartridge. I mean, why not? Or better yet, use one of those nifty little Sega Cards! I later learned that Master System cartridges started out at 128KB (1 megabit) and those Sega Cards only held a fourth of that at 32KB.

Needless to say, I wouldn’t be playing stuff like Space Ace on the Master System anytime soon, even though I was convinced that it would happen. It didn’t.

While today’s consoles cost $400-500+ and only come with one controller and no games, the 8-bit era was more generous. For $200 at launch, you got the Master System console, 2 controllers, the Light Phaser gun, and two games: Hang-On & Safari Hunt. Nintendo offered a great value for the same asking price, sweetening the deal with R.O.B. No matter what you thought of that robot — or how poorly he “worked” — he was one of many strokes of genius in marketing the NES.

Anyway, Christmas Morning arrived, and even though I wouldn’t be fighting Borf, saving Daphne from the clutches of an evil dragon, or even stomping on Goombas, I was still in gaming bliss. Not counting our Apple //e, the only other gaming device in our household was an old Atari 2600, so going from that to the Master System kinda blew my mind.


The first game I powered up was The Ninja, based on Sega’s similarly titled arcade game. I remember the opening like it was yesterday, with the stylish, scrolling text reminiscent of Broderbund’s Karateka, except now with catchy background music and drums! Percussion in console games was still new to me, and hearing that snare along with clear, multi-channel melodies was amazing.

I loved that game so much, and it’s one of my all-time favorites on the Master System. It was very challenging, with good level design, diverse enemy types, hidden secrets, tight controls, and lots of style. It was similar to other vertically scrolling “run & gun” titles like Ikari Warriors, but I liked the pacing and variety of The Ninja better.

20140523_transbotTransbot, one of only a handful of Sega Card games I would ever own, was another I received that Christmas. Sega got me with their marketing when I saw a clip of it in one of their TV commercials. When I saw the Star Wars-like AT-ST, I knew I had to have it. The game itself controls well, has several different weapon types, decent graphics, and a few interesting enemy patterns, but it’s an otherwise boring and repetitive game that I tired of quickly. Compared to The Ninja, or even the pack-in games, this one was disappointing.

Its quality would be consistent with the few other Sega Card games I would risk asking my parents for, like My Hero and Ghost House. I actually liked My Hero better than the arcade version, but it too was repetitive. I seem to remember Ghost House having a little more challenge and variety, but the fact that I barely recall any details about it speaks for itself. That was it for me and Sega Cards.


Ahh, but then there’s Alex Kidd in Miracle World. This was, in my opinion, the “must have” Master System game. Before playing it, I really had no idea what it was about. Sega’s cartridge boxes are infamous for their atrociously terrible art, but something about the name still intrigued me. From the moment I turned it on, I knew this was going to be great. The title screen was so colorful, the music was extremely upbeat and catchy, and the world map inspired a great sense of adventure.

The platforming gameplay was also lots of fun, with sprawling levels going in every direction, different vehicles to drive, shops to buy items, and one of the more unique (and frustrating) features: playing rock-paper-scissors against the game’s bosses. It was all very unique, and I enjoyed it as much as Super Mario Bros., perhaps even a little more due to its more varied styles of gameplay. This was Sega’s attempt to eat into Nintendo’s success, but there was just no way. Still, this is a classic and one of my favorites of the 8-bit era.

Meanwhile, my neighbor across the street also got a Master System that year, which in hindsight was miraculous, since he would end up being only one of two people I knew at school who had one! We’d trade games every now and then, which was fun. I miss that about childhood: bartering in the playground bazaar.

20140523_blackbeltI remember borrowing Black Belt from him, which I would later find out was re-skinned from the Japanese Fist of the North Star original. It was a pretty straightforward and short side-scrolling beat-’em-up with mid-bosses and power-ups that you had to be quick about grabbing out of the air. My friends and I would laugh at the way defeated enemies would “explode” into a spray of square tiles.

The highlight, however, was definitely the one-on-one boss fights. Some of them were tough, and looking back, they were pretty impressive for still being part of the pre-Street Fighter II era. The characters were large, their movements were smooth, and when you would finally defeat them, they’d be on the receiving end of a satisfying flurry of punches and kicks. The only thing missing was Kenshiro’s trademark, “Atatatatatata!”


Finally, another early favorite of mine was Fantasy Zone. A port of the Japanese arcade game, I would not play the original until years later on the Sega Saturn and in MAME. That wouldn’t matter, though, because the Master System version was terrific. In fact, after having played both, I like the Master System version better.

Graphically, the game was lush, detailed, and it certainly captured my imagination. The player’s ship — Opa-Opa — was also unique with its different wings, weapons, and one of my favorite touches: little feet that would come out and touch the ground, letting you stroll around the bottom of each level. You can tell that Sega’s artists had a blast visualizing the world and its inhabitants.

Fantasy Zone‘s soundtrack deserves special mention. In addition to each level having its own unique look, they all had their own distinct musical themes. This was pretty amazing in the day and age where many games used the same music over and over throughout, and this helped make these alien worlds memorable. Well-designed bosses provided a good level of challenge, all leading to the game’s surprisingly touching ending.

As much as I loved that first wave of Master System games, the best games were yet to come. Specifically, a $70 RPG that would blow away my expectations and change the course of my life: Phantasy Star.

See you next time in Part 2!


The Apple //e, Part 3: Quest for 16 Colors

The Apple //e might have been the most popular computer in the mid-’80s, but it certainly wasn’t the most technologically capable when it came to gaming. Armed with a standard array of 7 colors in high-resolution mode (jokingly referred to as the “Big Seven” in development circles), it was only slightly better than the paltry 4-color CGA spectrum on IBM computers.

Its built-in speaker didn’t exactly set ears ablaze either with its output, and while multi-voice sound was achievable, it paled in comparison to the audio heard through the Commodore 64’s legendary SID chip or the equally excellent, but perhaps lesser-known POKEY chip in Atari’s 8-bit computers.

Games on those competitor systems blew my mind back then, and it would be depressing playing games like M.U.L.E.Ghostbusters and Moon Patrol on my friends’ computers and then come home to the weaker looking and sounding versions on the Apple.

While we would never get a Mockingboard sound card either — and let’s face it, very few games actually supported it — we did get an Extended 80 Columns Card, which gave it 128K instead of the standard 64, and enabled support of 16-color high-resolution graphics, a holy grail of sorts for Apple games back then.

That doesn’t mean that the Apple didn’t have great games, though. Quite the contrary. It’s just that they didn’t look or sound as good as they did elsewhere, especially when it came to action and arcade games.  I know the saying goes that graphics shouldn’t be the main focus, but I don’t think you can debate that they can only help if they’re done well.


The first game I ever played with the Apple’s enhanced graphics was Penguin Software’s 1984 adventure Transylvania, based on the original non-enhanced version from 1982. For some reason, this game — along with Oregon Trail and Carmen Sandiego — was commonly found in elementary school classrooms, despite its somewhat graphic nature and adult themes. It did “teach” map navigation, comprehension, and problem solving, but we all played it for the cool graphics. It was also fun to watch out for the menacing werewolf, who would always appear at the most inopportune times.

In hindsight, the enhanced 16-color version doesn’t really look that good, held back mainly because it was based on an older game, but it did have a very ominous, new title screen, complete with an animated splash of blood, so props to Penguin for that.


Around the same time, I got what would become one of the most famous games of all-time, Sierra’s King’s Quest (1984). This one was a life-changer for me, since at the time, playing it was the equivalent of being transported into an animated storybook or movie. It totally shifted my view of what a computer game could be. Your character Sir Graham was drawn and animated beautifully, the colors were rich, each scene had a wonderful sense of depth, and the simple act of moving Sir Graham around objects and behind buildings in each area was really advanced stuff back then.

One of my best memories about King’s Quest was how each scene was drawn.  The Apple wasn’t a particularly fast computer, so each image looked like it was being drawn on the screen by hand, filled in with color, and additional details would be splashed on the end. Seeing each one come to life like that was a treat.

The text parser was also intelligent, and for the most part, understood plain English, compared to other more simplistic graphic adventure games that only accepted two word inputs. This also helped give King’s Quest a more natural and organic feel, and it made a strong impression on people who played it. I re-bought this series a few years ago on GoG.com, and while certain aspects of it don’t really hold up that well — like obscure puzzles and vague pathways — it’s still a wonderful game full of humor and adventure.


It wasn’t all gaming, though. Broderbund’s Dazzle Draw (1984), a computer art program that would later lead me to Deluxe Paint II Enhanced and beyond on the PC, was fantastic. I didn’t have a drawing tablet like a Koala Pad or anything, so I tried my best using a Kraft analog joystick. It was far from refined, but I thought it was just so cool to be able to have drawing tools like this on our computer. It also had a menu system that mimicked the feel of a Macintosh, so that made the entire package feel very premium and professional.

I still have my drawings on a 5.25″ floppy disk somewhere in storage. If I can find them, I’ll share them in a future post.


Like I’ve said once or twice before, Broderbund’s output on the Apple was impressive, not just in terms of quantity, but they set very high quality bars too. Dan Gorlin’s Airheart (1986) represents the pinnacle of Apple action games for me. I was already a big fan of Choplifter, but Airheart took things to a whole new level. Not only did it sport gorgeously immaculate 16-color graphics, but the animation quality was absolutely stunning. The first time I loaded it up, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing!

Not only was the art and animation fluid and cinematic, it was also really funny and full of great little details. From the way your character would slip on his backpack to the realistically flowing robes on your “guardians”, they showed just how much Dan Gorlin cared about the look of this game. It also conveyed an impressive sense of depth as you sped over and under the sparkling ocean, your character shaking water from his head after surfacing.

One of the most unique features was how each enemy would cause a different type of end for the player. You didn’t simply blow up, but if you got hit by a bubble, you would struggle inside it trying to escape until it eventually exploded, taking you with it. Or you’d get trapped by a vacuum-like enemy, which would ingest your ship, but eject you out, leaving you to endlessly swim to your demise. All of these touches made the game such a treat on the eyes, and is one of my all-time favorite Apple games.


Wings of Fury (1987) was another Broderbund game that required 128K to run. While it had the 16-color title screen pictured above (which really isn’t very good), the game itself ran in standard 7-color high-resolution mode, which for me was pretty disappointing. The game was lauded for its realistic physics and gameplay, but I was never able to truly get the hang of it, and only played it a handful of times before moving on to something else.

It reminded me of Star Blazer, Choplifter, and other side-scrolling Apple shooting games, but its focus on realism and slower pace made it less fun for me when I was younger. I’d be curious to try it out again now to see if my opinion has changed. It did have some novel ideas like a view that would go super-wide as you gained altitude, a pseudo-3D terrain map HUD, and a flight model that made your plane feel nice and weighty.


Next up: New World Computing’s Might and Magic II: Gates to Another World (1988). New World had already shown players that it could produce a beautiful-looking RPG with the first Might and Magic, but this one took the series’ graphics to new heights on the Apple. The title screen alone made my jaw drop, and the huge in-game animated graphics were a revelation. Compared to most other RPGs at the time, this was the undisputed visual king.

I played it a lot, but I don’t remember ever finishing it. That was pretty common for me back then, as I would often get frustrated with traditional computer RPGs and either quit or start using things like hex and characters editors to cheat. Anyone remember The Bard’s Tale Workshop?


Finally, Interplay’s Dragon Wars (1989) took the successful formula and look of The Bard’s Tale series and gave it a fresh coat of paint. I admittedly did not put a lot of time into this game, even though I do remember it being very good. 1989 was a pivotal year for me, since it would see the release of the Sega Genesis, me getting my driver’s license, and our family’s first IBM-compatible PC: a 386/33 with VGA graphics and a SoundBlaster.

My eyes and ears would be ill-prepared for what I would play next.


Unboxing the Elgato Game Capture HD

Over the weekend, I debated whether I should buy a PlayStation 4 or not, even going so far as to write a rather pathetic justification for one here on GHG last week. Well, self-control won, and for the time being, I’m sans a PS4. If I don’t have one before Batman: Arkham Knight comes out, I certainly will. That game looks amazing, and likely Game of the Year material.

Instead, with the blog now in full-swing, I decided to get something that would help make it better. At least visually, anyway. Taking screenshots in PC, Wii U, and most Vita games is a snap, but doing the same thing in Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 games is less elegant. I’ve been using my phone and bulky camera to take off-screen pictures of games I’m playing, which is a difficult and tedious process. Having to quickly take my hands off the controller to snap pictures is a pain, and limits the types of shots I can get. They usually involve an in-game character standing around doing nothing.

After doing a great deal of research on the various HD capture devices on the market, the Elgato Game Capture HD was the near-unanimous choice for video capturing and streaming enthusiasts. I pulled the trigger this past Monday, and received it today. You gotta love Amazon Prime.

For those who care about packaging quality, you won’t be disappointed here. The device and its accessories come in a nice, full-color slipcase with a clamshell insert made out of the same material. 4 sets of cables are included: HDMI, Mini-to-Standard USB, Component/Stereo adapter, and PS3.

The device itself comes wrapped in clear protective tape to prevent in-transit damage, and is finished in a classic gloss black with rubberized feet to keep it from sliding around. All input and output terminals are clearly marked.

The only documentation included is a single Quick Start card, which is par for the course these days with small electronics. I know it saves on paper and weight, but I do prefer something a little more informative with my purchases. No CD software is included either, and has to be downloaded directly from Elgato’s website.

However, one thing I really do like is that the Game Capture HD doesn’t require any external power supply, so that helps keep your gaming area clear of one more cable and potential power brick. It’s a small touch, but a welcome one.

For now, here are some pictures I took today, which let you see everything close-up. I’ll report back on how the device actually works after I give it a thorough workout.

Pictures taken with a Canon EOS 40D DSLR, EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens, and 1 580EX II on-camera flash.


The Nintendo Entertainment System, Part 1: The cool kids

Whenever I see forum threads to the tune of “What are your most shocking gaming secrets?”, the first thing that comes to mind is the fact that I never owned a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). No, I instead chose to ask for a Sega Master System for Christmas back in 1986. In a lot of ways, owning a Master System was similar to what it feels like to own a Wii U today: a trickle of good first-party support, but that’s about it.


But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. While I have a lot to say about the Master System, I want to talk about the NES. Out of the group of friends I hung out with back in junior high, at least half of them had one.

While almost all of us had an Apple // computer of some kind, the NES was different. Its primary killer app was Nintendo’s own Super Mario Bros., which for all intents and purposes, was a pixel-perfect translation of its arcade counterpart. Full of variety, tight gameplay, colorful graphics, and a catchy soundtrack, owning this game — and knowing all of its numerous secrets — immediately put you in the “cool” category among your peers.

20140521_kung_fuI’d be lying if I said I wasn’t jealous of my friends. It’s not like I could simply ask my parents, “I know you just bought me a Sega, but how about that Nintendo too?” Out of the question, and I would never build up the courage to ask. That left me with the obvious alternative: play them all at my friends’ houses!

And play I did. A lot. The NES simply had the better games, and so many more of them. The difference between the two libraries was ridiculously comical, and it’s no wonder Sega moved quickly to release the 16-bit Genesis in 1989, a mere 3 years into the Master System’s short existence.

20140521_excitebikeThe first couple years for the NES were amazing. While many genres were still in their infancy, the quality on display even at that early stage was incredible.

Take Excitebike, for example, which was already a fun game to play with great pseudo-3D graphics, but they upped the ante by including a track designer. Although its save/load functionality was far from ideal, building that in as a feature added value, while being a fun way for friends to show off to one another.

20140521gngMeanwhile, Capcom had been releasing a number of arcade-to-home conversions at that time as well. I was a big fan of their arcade games like 1942, Ghosts’n Goblins, and Commando, but their NES conversions didn’t impress me. Their graphics were really choppy and the music was hollow and tinny.

I played them to death, of course — and they did play good, which is important to note — but it was disappointing that Nintendo’s home console wasn’t able to do justice to many of my favorite arcade games.

20140521rushnattackThat would all change when my friend received Konami’s Rush’n Attack for his birthday in 1987. Although I was already a fan of Konami’s games like Castlevania and Gradius, it was Rush’n Attack that for the very first time made me realize that home versions of arcade games could be better than the originals.

While the NES version’s color palette and animation weren’t as detailed, it ran more smoothly, felt better control-wise, and it blew my mind with one of the best soundtracks of that era, which still sounds great today.

It was from that point forward that Konami became synonymous with quality for me. They would really falter in later generations, but back then, it was rare for them to put out a complete dud.

The years that followed would further solidify the NES as arguably the all-time best videogame console. It would play host to many games that are to this day considered the greatest ever made.


Review: Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse (PS3, 1990 & 2013 Versions)

20140520_coi_gen_1I remember Sega’s Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse like it was yesterday. I played it for the first time at my cousins’ house around Christmas of 1990, and I sat there completely blown away by what I was seeing and hearing coming out of their Genesis. Its animation, music, and colorful levels made a huge impression on me, possessing all the qualities of a Disney animated feature. It was one of the first examples of a licensed videogame done the right way.

Last month, Sony released both this and the updated PS3 version from 2013 via their PlayStation Plus service. Today, I decided to play through each of them to see how they compared (and to relive my youth).

The original game is considered one of the standouts from the early Genesis years, following some of my favorites from 1989, including Ghouls’n Ghosts, Thunder Force II, and The Revenge of Shinobi. Sega and its developers got good at developing for it quickly, and Castle of Illusion is no exception.

20140520_coi_gen_2Playing through it in its entirety again today, I was reminded of all the things I loved about it, most notably the lovely animation found on Mickey Mouse himself. He is so full of life, and I was immediately transported back 1991, where I would obsessively study his various animation cycles and perfect sprite work. His walk is particularly good, and so different from the more mechanical walking animations in games back then. His overall look remains one of my all-time favorites, and it brought a big smile to my face today.

I forgot how big these levels were too, with lots of hidden areas and multiple paths to explore. My memory of it was that of a simple, linear game, but there is a surprising amount of variety to be had here. Each level is distinct, full of gorgeous color, parallax scrolling, and the soundtrack is one of the all-time greats, with bright, original instrumentation and melodies.

I struggled with the controls at first, which is a common problem for games that old, even the historically infallible Super Mario World. I got used to them by the end of the first level, but I still died a lot later in the game, where certain levels require precision platforming, else Mickey falls to his doom.

Overall, this is still as fun today as it was nearly 24 years ago. I also need to give proper respect to M2 here, who did an excellent job porting the game to PS3, with perfect emulation and a decent range of tweaks and options.

1990 Sega Genesis Version:
Graphics: A
Audio: A
Gameplay & Controls: B
Presentation: A
Value: C
Overall: B+



On the other hand, the 2013 version developed by the late Sega Studios Australia, is more of a mixed bag.

I enjoyed how it stayed true to its vision of re-imagining the 1990 classic on modern hardware. The characters are animated well, and the levels are beautifully constructed and painted. Many of them are sprawling, and like the original, have hidden paths to explore and hidden items to find. Their new 3D structure means that Mickey can now move in and out of the backgrounds, with some stages switching from side-scrolling to fully 3D on the fly.

The music — which includes both classic and modern soundtracks — is very familiar, and made me feel right at home. The game also has plentiful, context-based narration, which adds to its movie-like feel, as well as good voice acting throughout. These are nice touches that one would expect of a game starring one of the world’s most recognizable icons. Some key story segments are presented through semi-animated, storyboard-like sequences, which have nice art, but I think those would have been better fully animated via the game’s engine.

Unfortunately, this update suffers from a very average framerate. Running at about 30 fps, Castle of Illusion simply doesn’t look as polished as it should. The framerate drops even more when there are lots of objects on-screen, which is a big hit to its perceived quality, reflecting on its overall lack of optimization.

20140520_coi_ps3_2Controls are also borderline awful, with loose jumping physics, vague hit detection, near-nonexistent feedback when you take damage, and movement that makes it difficult to tell where you are in 3D space. This all makes traversal and precision jumping much more difficult than it should be.

The game provides a middling level of challenge and length, similar to the Genesis original. The new version adds collectibles, unlockables, and a decent set of Trophies for completionists, so replay value is better here.

As a free game included with PlayStation Plus, it’s passable, but I would have a very difficult time recommending its purchase.

2013 PS3 Version:
Graphics: A-
Audio: A
Gameplay & Controls: C-
Presentation: B
Value: B-
Overall: C


Review: The Room Two (iOS & Android)

Note: The Android version was used for this review. Played on a Google Nexus 7 (2012) running stock KitKat 4.4.2.


Fireproof Games’ 2012 puzzler The Room is one of my all-time favorite mobile titles. It’s one of the best examples of touch controls used expertly to interact with marvelously conceived puzzles. Everything was wrapped up in an enigmatic, atmospheric package with terrific visuals and sound design. When I heard that a sequel was planned for late 2013 (iOS) and early 2014 (Android), I knew it was going to be a must-buy.

20140520_theroom2_2The Room Two takes the successful formula of the original game and makes everything bigger. You’re no longer faced with just one intricately designed device, but with several that are intertwined throughout larger rooms. This change in scope is the biggest difference from the first game, with most of the core mechanics remaining the same. Fans of the first game will feel slightly disoriented at first, but will be immediately at home with the layered, waterfall-like gameplay.

I liked the variety of environments from room to room, and each of them has a distinct and memorable theme. They get progressively scarier, and Fireproof does an amazing job making your hairs stand on end through effective visuals, sound effects, and music. This game is best played with the lights off, headphones on, and the volume up. The Room was a more mysterious experience compared to The Room Two, which unlocks a door into the world of pure horror, and does so with aplomb.

20140520_theroom2_3The puzzle design itself is very solid, with the tactile feel and satisfying feedback that made the original game so memorable. With the rooms being larger and with more areas for the player to experiment with, I found that it made certain sequences too drawn-out and unfocused, requiring lots of back and forth navigation and repetition to solve. The original’s up-close-and-personal approach was highly engaging, where I quite literally felt like I was hypnotically falling deeper into each of its beautifully engineered creations. Here, things have shifted a little more towards a traditional first-person adventure game, albeit with superior, intuitive puzzle design and logic.

In terms of other features, Google Play and Game Center Achievements are supported, but they are story-based. Since the game is linear, you will unlock all of them through normal play. Cloud saves are a welcome inclusion, since I did have to wipe my Nexus 7 recently. It was nice being able to continue my adventure without losing progress. With the relative fragility of hard drive and flash storage, this should be a standard, non-premium feature for any handheld or console, and I’m very happy to see it being used more often for mobile games.

In the end, The Room Two is a worthy sequel. It does what most follow-ups do, by taking a successful formula, polishing it, and broadening its scope. It’s a wonderful experience slightly undone by making the player move around each room so much, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the best games available on mobile.

Graphics: A
Audio: A+
Gameplay & Controls: B+
Presentation: A
Value: B+
Overall: A-