Review: LEGO City Undercover (Wii U, 2013)

When Lego City Undercover was originally announced back in 2011, I brushed it off as a gimmicky Grand Theft Auto wannabe for kids. It didn’t help that I was already feeling let down by the Wii U after its disappointing E3 debut, where Nintendo seemed to be completely out of touch with reality and the rest of the industry.

The years since then have been a very different story for the console, having built up an excellent library of games, including Super Mario 3D World, EarthBound on the Virtual Console, Mario Kart 8, and this exclusive from Tt Fusion and WB Games.

2014 has been a good year for me and open-world titles. Tomb Raider, Batman: Arkham City, and Grand Theft Auto V are among the sandbox-style games that I’ve played and put extensive time into, and I’ve loved them all.

Like I said, I had initially ignored Lego City Undercover, but I had also seen the very positive reviews and forum threads on it, and figured now would be a good time to see what it was all about.


And I’m so glad I did! Lego City Undercover is one of the most purely fun games I’ve played on the Wii U, providing a wealth of variety and challenge for gamers of all ages.

Its format will be familiar to fans of open-world games. While there is a main storyline full of special missions and unique environments that keeps you moving forward through the game world, it is primarily comprised of a giant, living city that you can explore freely.

What I like about Lego City Undercover’s gameplay is that it blends together the vibrant feel of Grand Theft Auto V with the structural, dizzying traversal of games like Uncharted and Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider from 2012. It also does so through humor, creative design, and violence that doesn’t go beyond that of typical Saturday morning cartoons.


Like many other of its genre peers, collectibles are a big part of the gameplay. Not only will you be picking up a large supply of Lego bricks in order to build things, but you’ll also need money to unlock most of the game’s characters, vehicles, and special abilities.

That’s actually something I don’t like about Lego City Undercover’s design. You spend a lot of time finding all of these collectibles, but there is an additional step required, where you have to go to your home base to unlock each one individually for use within the game world.

I hope that if a sequel is developed, that unlockables can be used immediately once you find them. Compounding this problem is the actual unlocking interface, which is slow and unresponsive.


Then there are the load times, which can last up to a minute and a half. These occur pretty often, especially later in the game when you’re going back and forth out of levels collecting all the things you missed your first time through.

I consider myself to be a pretty patient player, but Lego City Undercover’s long, non-interactive loading screens definitely tested me. I give these a bit of a pass, however, since this is one of the Wii U’s earlier releases, so I’m sure if given the time, Tt Fusion would have been able to implement better streaming/preloading technology and get a better handle on the hardware architecture itself.


Graphically, the game looks very good, with excellent draw distance, nice environmental detail, and a decent framerate. It does often dip below 30fps, but given how much is being displayed on-screen, its performance hits aren’t entirely surprising.

There are some inconsistencies in quality when it comes to texture detail too, but for the most part, the game looks nice, and particularly shines during special missions and Super Build sequences, which show various structures being built brick-by-brick.


In terms of audio, Lego City Undercover gets most things right. The voiceover work is wonderful, with some sound-alikes that are pretty close to the real thing, like Morgan Freeman and Joe Pesci.

Music is also good, with a ’70s funk soundtrack that fits the story and style of the game perfectly. Additionally, there are some licensed tracks, and the music for the final stage is particularly amazing.


What’s bizarre, however, is the complete absence of music during most of the game’s open-world and driving sections. Fans of Grand Theft Auto and other open-worlders have become accustomed to different radio stations to listen to, and driving around Lego City without a single chord of music makes these sections feel sterile and incomplete.

It’s a giant missed opportunity, in my opinion, but on the flipside, because of how long it will take to 100% this game, maybe not having a repeating soundtrack during these segments is a blessing in disguise. It’d be nice to have the option, though.


The Wii U GamePad is put to good use in Lego City Undercover, and like The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD, it’s nice being able to use it as an interactive map and resource without having to pause.

It’s also used throughout the game to set waypoints, check in on your overall progress per area, listen in on conversations, and uncover important clues. It works pretty well, but I found myself feeling rather silly on multiple occasions holding the GamePad up in the air, spinning in my chair looking around the room. If a sequel is produced, it’d be nice to have the option to just use the thumbsticks for this functionality.


There is a lot to do in Lego City Undercover. While the main campaign will take most players about 15 hours to complete, it will easily take triple that — if not more — to 100% it.

The great thing is that most of those additional tasks are fun to do and discover. They usually don’t take that long to complete either, and abilities like fast travel, ability boosts, scanning upgrades, and other enhancements make the collectibles a joy to uncover.

The game does a great job of keeping track of what you’ve found, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself pulling your hair out trying to find that last character token in a given area. Try your best to avoid FAQs, since the game is at its most rewarding when you solve the game’s various puzzles and challenges on your own.


I had a great time with Lego City Undercover. While it doesn’t have the spectacle, controversy, or production value of similar open-world games, it’s certainly one of the most enjoyable in the genre, providing laughs, solid gameplay, varied locales, and no shortage of things to discover and do. I highly recommend it.

  • Graphics & Presentation: B+
    A believable world full of colorful characters, environments, and creative Lego structures. 30fps for the most part, with framerate dips when the screen gets busy. Nice animation, depth, and a fun story that will keep you going until the very end.
  • Music & Sound Effects: B
    A fun ’70s soundtrack with some licensed tunes as well. Excellent voice acting, good sound effects and believable ambient fill. No music during most of the open-world and driving sequences makes those parts of the game feel dull, so hopefully a more robust radio setup makes its way into a sequel.
  • Gameplay & Controls: A-
    The world is a pure joy to explore, and the controls are solid. Some platforming and judging of distance is vague, but with unlimited lives and convenient retry features, it’s rarely an issue. Grand Theft Auto could learn a thing or two from this game’s flying controls, which are wonderful. Tons of gameplay variation and abilities will keep you  going long after the credits roll.
  • Value: A+
    It will take about 15 hours to get through the main storyline, but 60 is more likely to 100% it. Tons of collectibles and post-game content will keep you going for days, if not weeks, after you finish it. Lego City Undercover represents a tremendous value.

Overall: A-



Five months at Gray-Haired Gamer

20140923_batman_originsDid I really start this in April? It’s funny looking back at some of my earlier stuff. My Batman: Arkham Origins review is so short, and my Persona 4 Golden review seems odd and doesn’t even read like a review.

I think this site is at its best when I’m writing about my past, or talking about the things that have influenced me. It gives me a chance to dive deep into things that mean a lot to me, or the people who have shaped who I have become, whether they are colleagues, friends, or family.

That’s not to say that I don’t like writing reviews or sharing my latest progress through what I’m currently playing. That’s also good, and it gives me an outlet for more structured pieces. For those progress reports specifically, I’ve found that YouTube has been a much better way to share them. It gives me the opportunity to not just show you exactly how I’m playing through these games, but it lets me share the thought process, mistakes, and other impressions of the series they’re based on or influenced by.

This has been highly rewarding and it only seems natural that the next step will be to set up a webcam to literally face the world when I speak. Soon, I promise!

Although my updates on the blog have not been daily as I originally set out to do, I have tried to post something daily across one or more of the other GHG outlets, so if there isn’t content being posted here, I’ll definitely be posting something elsewhere, whether it be YouTube, Twitter, or Google+.

If you follow me elsewhere, you might have seen the music video I put together last week:

I love doing things like this, and even though this video is mainly about the games I loved when I was in my early and late teens, it was also an exercise in synchronizing video to audio, which is a seriously time-consuming process.

I’m guessing there are better tools out there to make this easier, but I just did it all based on the song’s waveform. Anyway, I’m happy with the way it turned out, although I thought of at least a hundred other games I’d love to feature in future videos. I just need to figure out which songs to use.

As you saw last week, my Backlog Blitz progress for 2014 has been pretty solid. A few slips here and there, but I’ve managed to stay ahead up to this point, and I don’t intend on slipping before the new year!

So what’s next? Well, for one, I’m going to get back to my Industry Memoirs series. I’ve still only written up to the end of 1996, so there are many more years to write about. Lots of ups and downs to be certain, but mainly ups.

20140923_sh_sat_loadI’m also going to do some more in-depth videos on games or series that have influenced me. I’ve written about some of them, such as Space Harrier and Phantasy Star, but I’ve been wanting to do accompanying videos for them, which I think will be a lot of fun to produce.

I’ll likely start with Space Harrier, since it’s one of my all-time favorite arcade games, and I can’t wait to show and talk about the various versions I played, its sequels, and how it’s a series I hope Sega properly brings back in the way they did with Out Run 2.

Anyway, thanks for continuing to check out the blog. While I’ve expanded my horizons a bit and have definitely been focusing more on video content lately, I still very much love writing about games, so please look forward to many more updates.


Artist Spotlight: Travis Bolek

If you’ve seen any of my reviews on YouTube, you might have noticed a new piece of artwork being featured at the end of each video. Travis Bolek — one of my friends from Phoenix, Arizona — recently got in contact with me to collaborate on an idea that would combine gaming with music, and this here is the result:


I’ve dabbled with the ukulele and bass guitar over the past few years, so I thought it would be fun to have me playing the bass while our dog Marley Mae could be strumming along on her ukulele. Those with an eye for detail will also notice that my bass is themed like a Sega Genesis, while the ukulele is styled like the Nintendo Super Famicom (the Japanese version of the Super Nintendo).

I also wanted the colors to carry the overall themes from the other pieces of GHG art that have been produced by Crystal Ferguson and Laura Carberg, in order the bring consistency to the various social media outlets where I’ve been posting my content.

I’m really happy with the way it turned out, and last week, I had a chance to ask Travis some questions about his art, influences, and gaming:

pixel_pit_avatarGray-Haired Gamer: First of all, thanks for being able to do this interview! So to kick things off, how would you describe yourself in one “back of the game box” blurb?

Travis Bolek: Eye-popping, high-resolution graphics with Dolby Digital surround sound and mind-bending end-bosses!

GHG: What, no Blast Processing? Anyway, what or who got you into art?

Bolek: Definitely comic books and video games. Specifically Spawn, Spider-Man, and Mortal Kombat. Todd McFarlane was a huge influence on my early development as an artist, and I used to read the early to mid-’90s Amazing Spider-Man comics. I even had a subscription to them! I remember copying his poses from those books.

Mortal Kombat was huge for me as I would create characters with my friend for unreleased sequels. They were often terrible, generally being just a palette-swap of the ninjas. Who knows? I probably could have gotten a gig at Midway at that age!

GHG: I know the feeling. Do you remember the first thing you ever drew? What was it and do you remember why you drew it?

Bolek: Hmm, that would probably have to be a picture of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that I drew when I was like four. The only reason I remember this is because my mom framed that picture and it’s still hanging in the living room of my parents’ place! I drew the four turtles in a desert, floating up in the air and one of them is being stabbed by a very long cactus thorn.

GHG: That’s fantastic that it’s still being proudly displayed. I somehow managed to not get stabbed by any cactus needles while living in Phoenix. Agaves, though, skewered me plenty. So, what or who inspires your art?

Bolek: Seeing a lot of the modern digital artists from games and movies are a huge inspiration, as well as artists for album covers. I’m inspired by Mark Riddick. He’s an artist well-known for his death and black metal covers. They’re generally done in black and white in a very detailed pen and ink style.

Ed Repka is another famous metal album cover artist. He’s best-known for his art on the early Megadeth albums. His work is probably what could be considered “stereotypical” of metal themes and style, but he has really good composition, technique, colors and ideas that push what the content of the music is. He knows what to paint that will reflect the album — which I’m sure the musicians have their say — but he’s able to take and elevate it to that final stage.

Dave Rapoza is one of the more recent artists I’ve been into. He does freelance work for videogames and movies, and has done a lot of cool fan art, particularly of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He has a very gritty, hyper-realistic aesthetic to his work. Even though it’s digital you can still see his paint strokes, and his work looks like it could fit on a metal album cover, which as you can imagine, is another draw for me.

iron_maiden_sitThen there’s Derek Riggs, who is best-known for most of Iron Maiden’s discography. Again, he has a mastery of composition, technique, color, and a wild imagination. Somewhere in Time (pictured) is probably my favorite album piece; it’s full of hidden references to past Iron Maiden works and other pop culture references.

And of course there are the other usual suspects, like Frank Frazetta and all the classical greats. Basically, I really enjoy most fantasy and science fiction art.

GHG: Very nice! Speaking of fantasy art, Jeff Easley was one of my favorites growing up. In fact, I think I liked the art more than I did playing Dungeons & Dragons! Getting back to your art, what do you like to draw with and on?

Bolek: I typically draw on a sketchpad using a mechanical pencil with HB graphite (0.7 or 0.5mm width). It’s just something I’m used to doing at this point, and I like to ink my drawings occasionally, though I don’t consider myself to be a good inker.

On computer, I have a Wacom tablet and I use Photoshop for digital painting. I try to keep it simple by limiting how many brushes I use and not using too many layers in order to retain a traditional-looking quality. I do like the ease of digital painting especially when it comes to more mechanical and perspective pieces.

GHG: I’m particularly fond of being able to undo mistakes, of which I make many! Switching to gaming for a bit, are you playing anything right now?

Bolek: Yeah, I just recently finished Jazzpunk, which is a hilarious and quirky adventure game. I’ve also been playing through Spec Ops: The Line and Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne.

GHG: Never heard of Jazzpunk, so I’ll have to look into that one. Perhaps a cliched question, but if you were stranded on a desert island, what games would you bring and why?

Bolek: Probably the Mass Effect trilogy, with all of the DLC of course. The last two games are not my all-time favorites, but it is part of a great overarching story that really got me invested in the series. Plus, there’s enough to do in those games that it would keep me occupied for a long time. And Wilson can help me out with the multiplayer.

GHG: And you never know — there might be extra games in that FedEx box. I also have yet to finish any of the Mass Effect titles, even though I have them on at least two platforms. My embarrassing gaming confessions aside, are you looking forward to playing anything before the end of the year?

Bolek: Alien: Isolation, Evolve, and Citizens of Earth are looking pretty good to me.

GHG: Citizens of Earth does look cool! What’s your all-time favorite game(s) and why?

Bolek: I’m glad you added that ‘s’  in parentheses, as I do have a few all-time favorite games.

earthboundFirst up is EarthBound. It’s a very charming, cult classic RPG for the Super Nintendo. I’m sure most regular readers of your site are familiar with this game already, so I don’t have to get too in-depth as to why it’s one of my favorites. A short list includes its quirky humor, setting, art direction, music, battle mechanics, and overall story.

Xenogears is another one of my favorites. It’s a very long and engrossing RPG that has a fairly well done — although convoluted at times — storyline. Plus, I enjoy the combat system between it being on foot and in the mech or “Gear” as it’s called in-game.

Fallout 3 is also up there. I played the first one briefly, but the third one really sucked me in. I think it was the setting of it that really captivated me and the moral ambiguity the entire world had. It was good overall, but tainted by the nuclear fallout. Plus it has a wicked sense of humor and great replayability.

And I have to mention again the first Mass Effect. I know a lot of people like the second one because of the combat, but the first just has a better story, which really puts it above some of the minor gameplay flaws it possesses. It was about the journey and discovering oneself, particularly the human race on the galaxy stage of civilization. Plus, the way the Reapers were presented at the time as this absolutely terrifying, unstoppable force really got me. I actually loved the Mako sequences and even enjoyed the elevator rides which were masking the load times, but they added depth to the game world and characters.

GHG: Man, Xenogears had some great music too. Are there any games or genres you don’t enjoy?

Bolek: Genre-wise, I’m not a big fan of real-time strategy (RTS) games. I’ve tried getting into them with Starcraft and Warcraft III, but I’d always get to a certain point and just stop playing to go focus on something else.

I really don’t like Duke Nukem Forever. It’s one of those games that never should have come out. I find it to be juvenile, the poor reviews are a reflection of its quality, and it bugs me that other games that I wanted got canned instead of that one.

GHG: I’ve never been able to click with RTS either. What feature might make you take a second look at those games/genres you don’t like?

Bolek: For RTS games, maybe get rid of the 20 minute endurance missions. For Duke Nukem Forever? Uhh, next question please.

GHG: Fair enough! So, what’s your dream job?

Bolek: My dream job would be working at Double Fine Productions. I love San Francisco and I respect the work and ethic that Double Fine possess. It seems like a really fun place to work, and I’d love to do animation or maybe some modelling or concept art for them.

GHG: They were definitely a great team to work with! Anything in particular you want to say about the Gray-Haired Gamer piece you did?

Bolek: I really enjoyed the back-and-forth that we had with the piece, and I’m glad that my vision prevailed! Haha!

orange_goblin_by_guyinrubbersuitGHG: It turned out looking really cool, and it works so well at the end of the review videos. Speaking of which, I know music plays a big part in your life. What do you like to play and use?

Bolek: I have a couple of electric guitars, an acoustic and a banjo, which I haven’t really touched in a while. I tend to use medium to heavy gauge strings, as they work better with more aggressive music and down-tunings.

For picks, I use heavy gauges there too as I like the pick to be rigid when I pick fast. I have a few pedals (a digital delay, phase shifter, and distortion), but I don’t have them hooked up. I would like to get a wah pedal and a whammy wah pedal, which is something that Tom Morello and Dimebag Darrell use quite a bit.

GHG: Very cool. In addition to those folks, any other major musical influences?

Bolek: My favorite bands are my influences, so there’s Opeth, Iron Maiden, early Megadeth, Emperor, Death, Ihsahn, Nevermore, and Slayer. They all have songs that resonate with me for a variety of reasons, and I have written music that basically aped their style… in a good way, of course.

GHG: We never did get to jam in Phoenix, which I regret. I probably couldn’t have kept up, though! Any other stuff you’re really into?

Bolek: I love bad B-movies, particularly the ridiculous plots and the generally earnest attempts at filmmaking that they possess.

GHG: And finally, would you like to share any websites and/or services you offer?

Bolek: I don’t have my personal site up yet, but I’m working on it! I do have a deviantART page that has some of my work samples.

As far as services are concerned, I offer concept art and logo creation services.

GHG: Thanks again for taking time to do this interview, and please let me know when your website’s ready to go!

Bolek: Will do, thank you!


Where are the updates?

Remember when I said I’d treat this like a job and post something here every day? Yeah, I wrote a little bit about that here, and for several months, I did exactly that. It’s fun, and some of my most memorable updates were written over the course of the past few weeks.

But so far, I haven’t written anything this week, and I only had a couple updates before that. “So Mike, what gives?” Well, a couple things:

First of all, I’ve been applying and interviewing for a day job. As much as I love writing this blog and the “videogame vacation” I’ve been on this year, it doesn’t put food on the table. My wife works full-time, but I’d love to help ease those responsibilities and get myself back into the workforce as well.

It’s been an admittedly tiring and frustrating process. Being out of the videogame industry for nearly two years has been a huge Achilles’ heel as I’ve missed out on most of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One cycle, and I’m quickly finding out that my lack of development experience is another major strike against me. For those who don’t know, I’ve spent most of my career working for publishers or developer/publisher hybrids, but never at a discrete studio.

The intangibles of why I’m a good employee don’t translate well without the context to back them up, and it’s not only underscored just how fast the industry is changing, but how specific I am in terms of fit. Or at least that’s how employers have viewed me.

Times like these I feel pretty darn close to just finding something, anything, and focusing most of my energy on banding together with some of my former colleagues to create an indie game of our own.

Secondly, I’ve realized just how time-consuming producing content is. I’m also finding that I enjoy creating videos for YouTube quite a bit, and I’ve been formulating how to construct my first video review. I’ve become pretty comfortable talking over videos of me playing games — basically just winging it — but in terms of following a script, editing video to complement what I’m talking about, and making it all look and sound professional? That’s a bigger undertaking, and it, well, kinda stresses me out.

My first video review will be for Volgarr the Viking, and if I’m lucky, I’ll have it done before the weekend, but more than likely it will drop after the holiday break. Speaking of breaks, we’ll be out of town this weekend. Seattle’s our destination, and we plan on doing all things touristy, getting away from the dry heat and constant fire dangers of The Dalles.

Anyway, thanks for your continued readership, support, and understanding. This has been a great creative outlet for me, and I appreciate the interactions I’ve had with you along the way!

Oh, and I’m totally serious about that indie game thing. Contact me if you want in.


Review: Aban Hawkins & the 1001 Spikes (Wii U, 2014)

I love the Indiana Jones films. I’ve probably seen Raiders of the Lost Ark over 200 times, and if you have a couple spare hours, there’s a good chance I could recite the entire movie back to you. Temple of Doom gets a bad rap, perhaps for its lack of locales, Kate Capshaw’s often over-the-top performance, and a violently dark story. Last Crusade is like a love letter to fans, and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? Let’s just say that film’s like drinking the blood of Kali. I’m still trying to wake up from that nightmare.


Anyway, Atari’s own Temple of Doom arcade game from 1985 was also a favorite of mine. Remember the nice cabinets for machines like this, Star Wars, and Road Runner? Oh, I loved them. Atari arcade games were among my favorites, and there were just so many! A quick look on Wikipedia shows how prolific they were. 8-bit consoles like the NES were brand-spanking new, and with most folks still playing on aging Ataris, Commodores, and Apples, arcades were simply unbeatable.

And now, nearly 30 years later, it’s interesting to me that the game I’m reviewing today is not only inspired by one of my favorite movie franchises, but is also a throwback to 8-bit home console games of that era. There are a lot of games like this nowadays, most notably the recent Kickstarter success story Shovel Knight, which like 1001 Spikes, taps into the collective nostalgia of the ’80s, and delivers a gaming experience that is as good as — if not better than — the titles that influenced them.


1001 Spikes began as the Xbox Live indie game 1000 Spikes back in 2011. I’ve admittedly never played that version, and I didn’t even know of its existence before 1001 Spikes was announced. Developed by 8bits Fanatics, I’m glad it has now received a wider release via Nicalis, who has become one of my favorite publishers in recent years.

For those who don’t know anything about this game, in a nutshell, it’s a puzzle-platformer, where you guide your character through short stages full of traps, enemies, and other environmental hazards. You can jump either 1 or 2 blocks high using two separate buttons, and you can throw or slice with your knife. That’s it. The dual-jumping mechanic sounds bizarre on paper, but it’s a great idea that works beautifully during play.


In screenshots, 1001 Spikes doesn’t look like anything special, but I found it to be quite beautiful in motion. Animation is smooth, there is a a good deal of parallax scrolling, and background/foreground separation is very clear. Characters and enemies are comprised of very few pixels, but they possess a ton of character, with funny idle animations that further the game’s charm.

Music is also very good, but the Wii U version that I played is chock-full of annoying audio glitches. Sometimes the soundtrack will exhibit intermittent popping, and at others it will skip like a badly scratched CD (which you can hear at the 3:06 mark in the video below). A few times, the music stopped completely altogether! It’s very buggy audio code that really detracts from the overall polish of the game, and I’m surprised it was released in this bad a shape.

Thankfully, 1001 Spikes really shines in the gameplay department. Controls are ultra-smooth and responsive, and there was rarely — if ever — a point during my playthrough where I felt the controls failed me.

While I would sit there and curse the game at how cheap I thought it was at times, it always came down to me making a mistake or failing to remember the location of a particularly well-placed trap. You have very little time to react to most of them, so while I thought that 1001 Spikes had a tendency to rely on memorization more than pure skill as I went through it, it turned out to be a rewarding trial & error system in hindsight. One that I really appreciated the more I thought about it.


However, it can’t be stated enough: You will die. A lot. More than you’d like, perhaps! It’s funny that they give you 1001 lives to start, but you’ll come to appreciate them as you lose your first hundred, and then your second, and so on and so forth.

Fear not, though, as you are given 100-256 extra lives at the end of each set of levels, so you should be OK. Again, the game is rewarding in the same way that other tough games are. Think of the temples in Donkey Kong Country Returns, or the I Wanna Be The Guy levels from Super Meat Boy. They take many tries to get right, and the rush you feel once you get through them is hard to put into words. It’s highly rewarding, and will keep you coming back for more.


There are also a slew of unlockable characters, each with their own particular attributes and skills. They really change up the way each level is played, and as a result, they’re very distinctive and unique.

Like many indie games, there is cross-pollination going on here, and you’ll find all sorts of familiar faces from other titles. I won’t spoil the surprise for those who haven’t played this yet, but they bring with them their own stories, which adds a lot of incentive to play through the game multiple times.


Additional unlockables, including single and multiplayer modes beyond the main campaign also add a ton of value to what’s an already inexpensive $15 package.

These are a lot of fun, and feel easier than the main campaign, so they provide a nice break between some of the intense challenges that await in the game world of Ukampa and beyond.


Like many retro-styled games of this type, there is a speedrunning element — including an in-game displayable clock — so you can go for the lowest times possible for each level. Curiously, though, there are no leaderboards to be found and zero Miiverse integration, so you have to manually scour the internet to see how good you’re doing.  The best you can do is post screenshots and your times, but a built-in system would have been much better.

While we’re on the topic of oddly missing features, 1001 Spikes cannot be enjoyed via off-TV play on the Wii U. The GamePad only displays the world map during gameplay and remains completely black when you’re in menus. This is the sort of bite-sized game that is perfect for the GamePad, so its omission is surprising. Nicalis has said that a patch is forthcoming that will address numerous bugs and add this feature in, but as of this writing (over two months post-release), there has been no update.


In closing, Aban Hawkins & the 1001 Spikes is a very fun game, with surprisingly good presentation, multiple endings, and lots of different modes to play. Although some of it feels half-baked at this point on the Wii U, it is still a robust game at its core that delivers a ton of bang for the buck, and is one of the most challenging titles I’ve played in 2014 so far. Recommended.

  • Graphics & Presentation: B+
    Fluidly animated 8-bit sprites, sharp backgrounds, parallax scrolling, and gorgeous cutscenes give 1001 Spikes a wonderfully nostalgic look. No off-TV play is a big miss, however, especially when the game doesn’t require any GamePad-specific functionality.
  • Music & Sound Effects: B-
    A solid chiptune soundtrack and good sound effects convey the protagonist’s dire situation. Unfortunately, the Wii U version is plagued by a myriad of sound bugs that really hurt the audio presentation.
  • Gameplay & Controls: A
    Responsive, perfect controls make this a joy to play, with tons of different game modes, unlockables, and secrets. Ultra-challenging platforming with a focus on puzzle-solving is a nice change from many modern action games.
  • Value: A
    It took me about 15 hours to get through just the main campaign, and with a wide range of unique characters and storylines to experience, plus discrete arcade modes to play, 1001 Spikes represents an excellent value.

Overall: A-

For more impressions of 1001 Spikes, please check out my YouTube channel HERE.


Speaking About Games: It’s Getting Easier!

For a couple of weeks now, I’ve been recording gameplay footage and providing running commentary for each of them. Although I really fumbled my way through the first couple videos — which took countless takes to finally get right — they’re becoming a lot less painful to do, which is a good sign.

My first one, which is already kind of difficult to watch, can be found HERE. Just listening to it, I can tell I was very distracted by the sound of my own voice in the room, and I was also likely trying to be quiet since family was on the other side of my closed door. Focusing through distractions I surely wasn’t.

For my second attempt, I tried something a little different, opting to do a preview of the game I’m currently playing, NES Remix 2 for the Wii U:

I wanted it to be slightly more formal, but still feel casual, and I think it turned out OK. There are, of course, a lot of things I would change, but instead of iterate endlessly on the same thing and risk it losing any sort of spontaneity (and me getting burnt out in the process), I decided to stop with what I had and publish it.

One of the most important bits of advice I ever heard was from one of my favorite YouTubers, boogie2988, who said to just keep creating content and get it all out there, no matter how you’re feeling, and eventually you’ll build up a base of fans, subscribers, and new friends. Check him out if you haven’t; he has a lot of great things to say. He also partially inspired me to start this whole GHG journey.

Anyway, I like the overall flow of that video, and I’m glad I was able to squeeze in the parts about Super Luigi Bros. and Championship Mode, which I still haven’t really spent any time with as I continue through the main game. One thing I do regret is not getting the information about Championship Mode right. A little pre-recording research would have made me sound less like an ignoramus! Oh well, c’est la vie.

My third video was a singular set of NES Remix 2 replays for Zelda II: The Adventure of Link:

What I wanted to do with this one was showcase a single, focused theme, going through all of the game’s challenges in order. I was also admittedly pretty proud of some of my times, so it’s a mildly selfish opportunity to show off a little bit, which is tough, since I don’t like bragging about much.

My voice still sounds a bit hesitant, with odd pauses, mixed-up tenses, phrases that don’t go together, and the dreaded “speaking from the throat”, which is a clear sign of nervousness.

This took me quite a few restarts to get going, and after about the tenth fail, I almost gave up. Good thing I didn’t, because about 95% of the audio here is from the final take that followed.

Today, I did my fourth video, which walks through all twenty of the first Remix I stages from the same game:

I feel like I’m starting to catch my stride here. Not only did I get this in just two takes, but I think I’m sounding more comfortable and relaxed.

Much like my blog posts, I need to work on better word variety, stamping out fillers like “you know”, “uhh”, “yeah”, etc., and like the First Impressions video earlier in this post, doing more research and preparation prior to hitting the record button would really help. It’s a small detail, but it’d be nice to be able to call out the actual enemy names and such instead of falling back on generics like “that guy”, “those baddies”, and “the boss”.

This is also my longest video at just about 12 minutes. That’s a lot of talking from someone known for being a pretty quiet guy.

Anyway, I’m having a blast doing this, and apologies again for everything being so NES Remix-focused recently. It’s such a fun series that I hope we see more of in the future. Just between the Game Boy Color, Super Nintendo, and Game Boy Advance, the possibilities are endless!


More Playing, Talking, and Drawing

When you’re tired, it’s tough to get in front of the microphone. However, I bought one for a reason, so today I did a Let’s Play — or Let’s Replay, rather — for the Zelda II section of NES Remix 2:

A lot of my posts and social media updates lately have revolved around this game, and for good reason: It’s a lot of fun, and its short bursts of gameplay that focus on achieving the lowest times possible is highly addicting. It’s hard for me to think of another series — besides maybe the license tests from the Gran Turismo games — that have made me so obsessively replay stages over and over like this.

20140723_kid_icarus_boxartAs I mention in the video, I’m currently working my way through the Kid Icarus levels, and for me anyway, this particular title feels like the Ice Climber of NES Remix 2.

The controls are slippery and seem almost broken at times. There is a very specific way that you have to do things in order for the controls to work correctly, so I suppose it’s just a matter of getting used to them.

I hate fighting so much with a game, though, and hopefully it clicks before too long. It’s highly regarded in the pantheon of classic NES titles, but one that I’ve never quite been able to get good at.

At any rate, sorry for the short update today, but I’ll have a new entry in my Industry Memoirs section by the end of the week. It’s been a while since I’ve written one of those, so I’m looking forward to diving back in!

In the meantime, here are a few more Miiverse sketches that I quickly did last night and this morning while finishing up my Zelda II stages:



It doesn’t look anything like the Master Sword, but without any reference material handy, this is about all I could come up with off the top of my head. I’ll draw a proper one soon!



For this one, I “increased” the resolution of the Link stamp, added some more detail to him, and attempted to make it look like the bolt was cutting through the numbers. I reduced the number of bits flying off of them since it was starting to look surprisingly gruesome.



Here’s an extreme close-up of the Triforce, or maybe it’s just a rock monument to the actual Triforce? Whatever the case may be, I made it look aged, with cracks and other rough details.



Finally, this is another one using stamps with the addition of a sunset, stairs from the alter, and other little bits. Hopefully the time on the sign — which is from one of the Kirby stamps — is readable on the small screen when it displays in-game.


Bringing my voice to YouTube

When I was in high school, memorizing and reciting poetry was a big part of my junior year English class. I distinctly remember Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken, which now, over two decades later, not only remains in my memory, but the content resonates with me more strongly than it ever has. Age and life in general have a tendency to do that.

After standing up in front of the class for the first time to deliver it, my teacher made a passing comment about how he thought I had a good speaking voice. Teens don’t have a reputation for ignoring the older generation for nothing; I got embarrassed, shrugged it off, and quickly went back to my desk. He would go on to say this a few more times throughout the school year, at one point saying I really needed to be on the radio. I would just smile uncomfortably and try to forget about it.

Why do we do this? I’ve never taken compliments well, and my first reaction — instead of doing the polite thing and saying thanks — is instead to downplay them. I mean, who knows? Had I instead taken my teacher’s words to heart, I might have gone on to study Media Communications or Broadcast Journalism in college, like my best friend did. I think he has a terrific speaking voice, and he went on to do great things on the TV news channels down in Florida.

Those words from high school stuck with me over the years. I never particularly cared for the way my voice sounded, and as a result, I never pursued anything in that realm. It’s like Werner Brandes (Stephen Tobolowsky) said in the terrific film Sneakers about his own voice, “I always thought it was kind of nasal and pinched.”

But as they say, one of the worst things you can do is have regrets in your life, so with one of my New Year’s Resolutions for 2014 being to face my fears, this week I decided to tackle them both by bringing my own voice to YouTube.


After doing considerable research and of course, talking myself out of buying the most expensive microphone available on Amazon, I picked up a Blue Snowball USB microphone. With good reviews and an inoffensive price point, I bought one along with a Nady MPF-6 pop filter. I was going to buy a small acoustical microphone shield, but it’s an expensive addition, so for now, I’ll likely just buy a piece of foam and create a do-it-yourself one, or use a small pillow.

The microphone itself is of very high quality and is available in a variety of different colors. I went with the brushed aluminum finish, which has a beautiful, classic look to it. Packaging is nice, and although the microphone housing is plastic, it has substantial heft and does not feel cheap. It sits on a sturdy, folding desktop stand, which the pop filter can be conveniently attached.

PC installation is simple: Just plug it into an open USB port, Windows auto-detects it, and you’re ready to start recording.

There are three settings on the microphone, which are designed for speech, live music (activates a -10 dB pad), and environmental (omni-directional). Mine shipped in position 3, so if you pick one of these up, be sure to select the appropriate setting before you begin.


The pop filter came in a somewhat cheap and flimsy blister pack, and the flexible gooseneck has a disappointing tendency to float and not stay in place during adjustment. However, it’s one of the cheaper options available, and if you’re going to be doing a lot of talking, this is a wise investment. Additionally, the stand mount is very solid, and once it’s in place, it stays put.

On the software side, for recording and editing, I have the open-source Audacity, which is easy and very comfortable for me to use. In many ways, it’s similar to one of my old favorites, Cool Edit. Still image, video, and audio integration is all done in Adobe Photoshop and CyberLink PowerDirector.


So with those details taken care of, it was time for the real work to begin. I sat there at my desk earlier this week pondering what exactly I wanted to talk about. Yeah, it would be related to gaming, but how exactly? My mind raced, thinking about the massive amount of current YouTube videogame content creators, and what — if anything — I could possibly bring to the table.

Feeling intimidated, I watched some of my favorites for some inspiration. The most important thing I realized is that the ones that I really like and keep coming back to are incredibly passionate people. They don’t just regurgitate what’s been said before, and you not only learn about the games they’re playing, but you gain meaningful and lasting insight into them as human beings. Sure, some of them do it more loudly than others, but there are just as many who are quiet and introspective. For every expletive-weaving Rageaholic there’s a mild-mannered Pete Dorr, and I like that. I like that a lot.

It opened my eyes. I stopped thinking about it too much, and decided to simply talk about the game I was ready to 100% complete: NES Remix for the Wii U. Now, as I’ve said before, I didn’t really like the game all that much at first, but later on it became one of my favorites. Even looking at that re-review today, I feel the game is even better now, with fantastic replay value and very fun Miiverse integration.

I should have know this next fact beforehand, but yeah, deciding to do something and actually doing it are two very, very different things. While I knew I wanted to discuss the final stage of NES Remix, exactly what I wanted to discuss was difficult to figure out. Would I need an intro? Would I just talk while I played? Would I write a script? Would I edit out the bad stuff? Would I just do a play-by-play of what I was doing? The questions in my mind went on and on.

To get the easier part out of the way, I wrote a script for the brief intro, which went pretty smoothly. Recording it took a good number of takes, as I experimented with different inflections and emphasis, but it was more so because I kept messing up!

For the actual gameplay, I would end up trying every approach. On my first attempt, I immediately gained a new-found respect for people who can play games well and talk coherently at the same time. It’s really hard to talk when you’re trying to concentrate on not dying in a game, and after several failures, I stopped and decided to save that one for later.

Next, I recorded myself playing, and when I was finally happy with the footage, I jotted down notes and scripted out the framework for what I wanted to cover during each segment. This too ended up being a failed style for me since as I was talking about one thing, my eyes would scan ahead, tripping up what I was trying to currently get out. Similarly to what I said above, folks who can read scripts, anticipate what’s ahead, and make it all sound natural have a great talent.

Finally, feeling a bit frustrated and on the verge of quitting, I decided to just do it commentary-style on the fly. I worried about this approach since I’m not the most talkative person on the face of the planet, and am an introvert by nature. However, I set out to get this done, and get it done I did. It took a few tries, but it ended up being the most natural and comfortable technique for me.

After finishing recording and getting everything tidied up in post, here is the result:

For a first attempt, I think it turned out OK. Of course, all I can fixate on are the little mistakes, long pauses, weird choice of words, and other such nitpicks. That’s the double-edged sword of being your own worst critic, right?

In any event, it feels good to have finally broken through this long-standing sound barrier in my life, and I appreciate the comments and suggestions I’ve already received from my friends, readers, and now viewers. I look forward to creating more of these, and as always, if you have any game or topic requests, please let me know. It’d be tons of fun to cover games I would have never thought to play otherwise.


Three Months of GHG

You know, I’d be lying if I said there weren’t times where GHG felt like work. And not the kind of work you love, but the kind of work you dread. It took starting this blog to fully understand the laments of content creators not being able to create good content whenever they want.

It’s not the subject matter, though; I can write about games all day, every day. However, there are just some mornings where the topics don’t come to me, and even those I have stockpiled as easy backups? I’ll look at them, feel completely uninspired, and think to myself, “I’d rather take a nap.”

So what do I do when that happens? As much as I’d like to say that I run around town all Rocky-like with “Gonna Fly Now” pumping myself up full of ideas — which is a fantastic way to get energized, by the way — instead, I play something new.

I have a general rule where I like to stick to just 2 or 3 games at a time — usually from different genres — but if they’re longer games, that can get repetitive, even if I’m still having fun. I find that firing up something fresh is usually more than enough to break me out of that funk, and today, I was definitely feeling it.

So after about an hour of sitting around knowing I wanted to talk about the blog itself, I gave myself a figurative slap in the face, shook my head vigorously, took a look at my Steam library, and installed whatever jumped out at me. This time, it happened to be Guacamelee: Gold Edition.


Within the first few seconds, it was already making me smile with its clean, unique visuals and smooth controls. What beautiful music and funny dialogue too! I love it when games hook you like that, and you know almost instantly that you’re playing a great one.

I can’t wait to dive deeper into it. It’s been getting a lot of renewed attention with the Super Turbo Championship Edition that recently came out (but not yet for PC), and it’s always referred to as one of the better “Metroidvania”-style games, so it should be good. And if I do end up liking this, it will open doors for me to go back and play more of the Metroid and Castlevania series, many of which I have never played or finished.


In other news, I’ve been keeping my YouTube channel updated regularly with some random video clips, and I’ll be trying something new over the next week to make it a little more interesting, so stay tuned for that.

Editing the videos themselves has been a great experience, and it’s something I’ve enjoyed doing ever since high school. Although I haven’t done it for several years now, this has been a nice way to get comfortable with it again.


I use CyberLink PowerDirector 12, which is far from pro, but it gets the job done. Microsoft used to have a good built-in movie maker in Windows, but they ditched it in favor of something that became far too simplistic and limited. There’s probably a way to get that old version back, but that’s OK; it was worth upgrading to this instead. It’s stable, the editing tools are easy, previews are quick, and there are a lot of different output options, which is nice.

But I digress. Today’s update was supposed to be about the blog, right?


Last month, I was at 36,937 words across 48 posts. Today, it’s increased by 18,898 words across 20 new posts, or about 945 words per update. Total content has increased by 34%, so I’m keeping a pretty good pace in terms of new stuff. I wrote 7 reviews, which is the most I’ve done in one month. Previously, the most I’d ever done was 4, during the first month of GHG’s existence.

Thanks again for continuing to come back and read this little blog of mine. Your readership is important to me, so I’ll do my best to keep it interesting!


GHG’s YouTube Channel

Uh-oh, we have to watch and listen to him now?

No, not quite yet, but I’ve been thinking about it. See, I’ve never been all that comfortable in front of the camera, and I’d say, oh, I don’t know… all of the video interviews I’ve ever done have been borderline disastrous.

I promised myself earlier this year that I would face my fears. One of those is the paralyzing anxiety I experience when it comes to horror films and games. And how’s that going? Well, let’s just say I haven’t gotten more than 30 minutes into Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and I don’t know if that’s going to change anytime soon.

20140625_yt_textSo with that not-so-successful venture still fresh in my mind, I figured now would be the right time to step into the unforgiving — but totally fascinating — world of YouTube. I’ve been fine in the past speaking in front of large groups at work, but there’s something about that camera being right in your face.

Maybe it’s the permanence, or the fact that I’m just not used to seeing myself on video. With a blog, you have a protective shield of words and pictures around you, but with video, it’s all out there. It’s no longer just about the content, but equally about the talking head delivering it.

Even though that all does sound a bit terrifying, I’m really looking forward to giving it a shot! I think it’ll be a lot of fun, and perhaps I’ll discover a side of myself I never knew existed.

I just set up GHG’s YouTube page today. You can find and subscribe to it here:

I’ll do my best to keep it updated regularly with content, although the blog will remain my primary focus. And with any luck, I’ll still have time left over to actually play some games.