Thursday, October 20, 2016

Thoughts on Nintendo Switch

Nintendo unveiled their newest console, the Nintendo Switch, today, October 20, 2016. Cousins Matt and James react to the teaser trailer, seen below:

James: Oh, I think that looks awesome! I'll be buying it.

Matt: We need more details. I mean, Neo Geo X did the hybrid thing back in 2012. And Turbo Graphix 16 did it with the Turbo Express, granted that required a separate purchase. I don't find the hybrid aspect all that impressive in itself.

James: If your PS4 came standard with a Vita, you’d be pretty happy about that I imagine. And the specs and everything are important, but I’m very impressed by the three forms of play, especially the detachable mini controllers that let you play portable but not have to hold a big unit. That’s very appealing.

Matt: Sure, but it's not what I'd call revolutionary. And how much horsepower are we sacrificing for that? I know, I know, it's Nintendo's plan to just make fun games regardless of tech. Anway, I wish we’d seen more games. Any games. The Zelda one looks nice, I suppose.

James: I think it’s pretty impressive either way, but it could be game changing depending on the horsepower. If you have something as portable and functional as that, with the same or slightly better guts then the Wii U, that would be a first of its kind. It’s only a reveal, so I'm sure the games will be out soon. They wouldn't relaunch without a solid opening day lineup so to speak.

Matt: I don't know about that. N64 launched with two games: Mario 64 and Pilotwings 64. And here they go again launching mid-console cycle. Historically that his not worked well. See also: Dreamcast, Wii U. I want this to be good, I really do. But I have to look at it through the lens of someone who has been burned again and again by the Big N.

James: I’m not saying it can't be bad, but after one poor launch, and an early re-ignition, you'd have to think they've learned something. As someone who didn't hate the Wii U, I have confidence in them right now. This will be a big hit for them. Especially if there’s some kind of cross compatibility with 3DS.

Matt: This is checking all the wrong boxes in terms of their launch, including date (mid-cycle) and demographic. Is this meant for kids? Adults on the go? Why should I get this when I have a 3DS and a PS4? How is this better than just a cell phone? I'm afraid this might do so much that it loses its identity, you know? People want machines that do one thing really well, not a device that does a lot of things pretty well. I'm nervous for Nintendo with this.

James: I see what you’re saying, a jack of all trades is master of none. But I think its uniqueness will overcome that possibility. And as far as marketing, this looks like they're shooting for more young adults like the Vita. They'll always have kids because of their first party stuff, but marketing and designing for teens and up seems like the way to go. Looking at this ad, I think that’s the route they’re going. If it fails, it will be due to people not giving it a chance because it’s too different. They’re not the company that makes the heavy duty game machine, and once people learn to accept that, maybe they can enjoy Nintendo for what it is and stop pining for what it isn't and hasn't been since 1995.

Matt: If it fails, it might be because people didn't give it a chance, but it also might be because it sucked. I know you like Wii U for what it is, but can you honestly say it doesn't suck? Mario, Zelda, and not much else. Like you know I love Sega CD, and there are some really strong games, but overall it sucked. It all comes down to software. Dreamcast had another year or more of life, but they cut software support, so it died. Original Wii had some great games, but mounds of shovelware, so it became irrelevant. We're still getting some quality software on PS3, so it coexists with PS4 and Xbone.

James: I don't think it’s fair to say the Wii U sucks at all. In 20 years, it will be looked at the same way the GameCube or Dreamcast is viewed today. Underappreciated in its own time, overshadowed by two behemoths. It had superb first party support and little else, but that hardly constitutes "sucking" and to compare it to Sega CD is a bit unfair. Wii became irrelevant to you and I, but it made big money and kids/families still play the Wii. So again, I can't say its anything resembling a fail. The Wii U’s biggest drawback was being too niche and straddling the fence between old and new hardware. I think the Switch will correct that error. Have faith!

Matt: I see what you're saying, but no one is going to look at the Wii U with the same reverence as the Dreamcast. DC was seen as revolutionary. Maybe people will recognize its missed potential, sure. I agree there. And I think the Sega CD comparison is fair enough: both were supposed to be a big company's next Great Thing, both had great potential and some awesome first party games, and both died young.

James: But the Sega CD was never on par with its competition. The Wii U could hold its own, but the CD was complete gimmickry.

Matt: What do you mean by "on par?" I could argue that Wii U was never on par with the competition. And to call the CD format gimmickry doesn't hold much water when you consider that it went on to become the standard in gaming for nearly a decade. Now, did Sega CD use the CD format to its fullest potential? Hell no.

James: FMV games are not the same as what games on PlayStation were though. Just because it was a disc doesn't mean anything. The Wii U may not have been the preferred choice, but it had ports of games that were comparable or equal to the Xbone or PS4 version. And if they weren't as great, they didn't feel massively behind. Nothing the Sega CD did made it competitive.

Matt: The problem is, what was Sega CD competing against? PCs? Turbo Graphix CD? Sega CD outsold TGCD five to one. But was it going against SNES too? Was it in addition to the Sega Genesis, or a separate system? Nobody knew then, either. But there WERE killer Sega CD apps like Sonic CD and the Lunar games, just not a whole lot, which was the second issue. As for format, one of the big reasons N64 didn't sell as well as PSX was because the 64 used carts. And the GameCube used minidiscs that no one liked. Sega CD games being on CD was important. Format DOES matter.

James: Of course format matters, but did it matter in THAT instance? No. The system still mostly sucked and people didn't like it by and large.

Matt: People didn't like it, same with Wii U. And looking at the Wii U software catalog, it mostly sucks, with some great games here and there. In terms of format, Sega CD couldn't have done FMV games without the CD storage space. You couldn't have gotten the soundtracks, or the near arcade perfect ports like Final Fight without the extra CD space. Sonic CD wouldn't have been the game it was without that CD space.

James: It had a few hits, but categorically it’s a much worse system. Wii U is a lot closer to PS4 then Sega CD was to PlayStation. Wii U and Sega CD will both be cult hits, but I think the Wii U will be remembered the same as the GameCube. In 20 years, people will still be dying to play Mario Maker again. I really think your Nintendo bias/ Sega-love is clouding your judgement a little.

Matt: Wii U will hold up better than SGCD, I agree.  But I also see both as failures. Or at least severely misunderstood.

James: Commercial failures.

Matt: Yeah, I hear both systems have their fans.

James: Never met one.

Final Verdict on Nintendo Switch:

James: Buy one! Nintendo is great!

Matt: Sonic CD was awesome.  

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Back to Basics with Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary World Tour

(Version reviewed: PlayStation 4)

A little more than 20 years ago, the skies over Los Angeles danced with flames as ‘80s action star amalgam Duke Nukem came crashing back to Earth. Duke bailed out of the wreckage of his ship, slapped on his sunglasses, and declared war on the alien maggots who had taken over the world in his absence. Thus was born one of the most influential action games of the ‘90s, arguably toppling the aging DooM franchise from its perch as king of the first person shooter hill.

Duke’s fallen on hard times recently, with longtime industry joke Duke Nukem Forever finally hitting store shelves after a 14-plus year development cycle to nearly universal criticism. But after a little R and R, it seems Duke Nukem is ready for more action: Gearbox software is hoping to rinse the taste of Forever out of our collective gaming mouths with Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary World Tour, an enhanced rerelease of the alien ass-kicking original.

But less than three years after the content rich Duke Nukem 3D Megaton collection nuked its way to PCs and the PlayStation 3, why would anyone plunk down $20 this?

Sweating the Small Stuff
For starters, World Tour is a far cry from the buggy mess that was Megaton collection on PS3. Also, the rewind feature is back from older console versions, meaning that players need not constantly save their game in fear of losing progress.

Disappointingly, the new “3D” effects promised in promotional materials are nothing special. This new look is supposed to make the game in “true 3D” according to the trailer, but frankly, I sometimes can’t tell the difference between this and classic mode. However, these enhancements truly shine with lighting effects (pun intended). Enemy laser blasts illuminate dark hallways, explosions glow with heat, and atomic health shines with, uh, radiation I guess. You can swap the new graphics with the original look and vice versa on the fly by pressing down on the D-pad.

The director’s commentary is interesting but out of place. It’s a nice addition to be sure, but impractical when mixed with Duke’s run ‘n’ gun gameplay. I started with commentary on, but after getting murdered several dozen times while standing around listening to programmers talk about minutia, I switched it off. (Guess I’ll use God Mode one of these days and do a commentary run.)

All Out of Gum?
The game’s biggest draw is the new fifth episode, Alien World Order. Created by Duke 3D’s original level designers including “Levelord” Richard Gray, this is probably the main reason why World Tour is $20 while the earlier Megaton release – which includes more content overall – can be had for half the price.

The new levels look great and play well, with large, complex areas you’d be hard-pressed to find in the original game. I don’t want to say a whole lot because I don’t want to spoil your experience, but the end boss is probably the most disappointing thing in this release. Remember the Cycloid Emperor, the final badass in the original Duke 3D? He’s back, he’s red, and he’s a huge pushover. What a joke.

Alien World Order also features an exclusive new “fire fly” enemy and the incinerator weapon. The new gun is ok, acting more like a short-range lava launcher than a flamethrower and damaging enemies over time. A crumby firing arc makes it an impractical choice; it’s more fun than effective. And it’s really lame that this just a red palette swap of the original freezethrower.

Finally, Jon St. John, the legendary voice of Duke Nukem, recorded new lines and freshened up the old ones for this release. If you’ve played the hell out of Duke in the last two decades, this is really jarring at first, and the new recordings lack the gritty quality of the originals. Also, St. John’s crisp 2016 voice overs seem out of place with 1996’s muted explosions and grainy, Sega Genesis-like speech clips.

So while the majority of your time playing this episode will be a pleasure, it leaves you wondering: after going through all the trouble of getting the Duke 3D band together, why couldn’t more time have been spent polishing things up?

Who Wants Some?
What World Tour is really offering is a very, very late expansion pack to the same DN3D you’ve been playing for two decades. Considering that I paid $25 for the one-episode “plutonium” upgrade in 1997 and that didn’t come with the original three episodes, Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary World Tour is worth my gaming dollars. Then again, I’m an unapologetic Duke devotee and enjoy any excuse to jump back into the oversized, atomic boots of Mr. Nukem.

If you’re satisfied with your older version of Duke 3D or think that sprite-based shooters are better left in the ‘90s, World Tour isn’t going to be the game to change your mind. Also, PC gamers might have little reason to pick this up when they could just play any of the million user levels that have been available for free since 1996.

For everyone else, World Tour is the definitive console version of the classic Duke Nukem 3D. If you’ve got an itch for some alien smashing action, come get some!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

On Memories

One of my earliest memories is waking up and walking out of my room while Mom and Dad were hosting some kind of party. I weaved through a sea of unfamiliar faces, and when I found my mother, I said, "I thought everyone would laugh at me in my diaper." It irks me that shame is one of the two things my young mind chose to record forever. The other is urinating in a plastic pencil box and waiting for my brother to find it. (If you’re reading this Ian, hope you never used the yellow plastic one with the red map of the United States on it.)

I have few childhood memories that don't somehow involve Nintendo, Sega, or PlayStation. Example: There was this really cool summer rainstorm once, and I opened my bedroom window to listen to the thunder rumble through the streets. I was in the middle of Ice Cap Zone in Sonic 3 at the time. Though unrelated, the two events have fused into a single entity in my mind, as if it was raining because I was playing Sonic. Like that’s the way it was supposed it be from the start.

In a way, video games are memories I can keep forever, but not the way you think. I can't print and file away the freedom I felt during the Summer of '95, but playing Earthbound brigs back those sunsets and chocolate bars of my youth. And I can't use a spray bottle to get the scent of a foggy April morning at my parent's house, but playing Brutal on Sega CD can bring it right back to me, fresh as the day it happened. Eternal Champions is an epic snow day; Dragon Warrior is a bee sting; Darkstalkers is fireworks on the 4th of July from mom's front stoop.

How do normal people remember things?

Friday, September 23, 2016

On Summer

Even without a months-long vacation – a concept rendered impossible by my desire to do things like eat and pay rent – I find myself mourning the end of the summer season. Maybe’s is a holdover from when I was a kid, but for me, summer sunrises have always blazed with endless promise, and summer sunsets howl with the potential for adventure.

The second the weather is anything but sub-zero, my mind fills with images of Street Fighter, Super Mario, and Sega Genesis.

The sun shining through my office window right now is a poor substitute for the lazy summer days of my youth. Hot breeze through the window and limitless levels of Duke Nukem 3D; sweat pouring down my face and condensation on an icy Coke Classic; sitting on my mother's bed with a magazine in my hand and the smell of fresh cut grass wafting around the neighborhood, reading about video games I never did play but remember loving anyway; and a quick sun shower to wash it all down with Blind Melon's "No Rain" playing in the background, an irony I'm only noticing now.

Yet my days are no longer shaped by saving the princess, scrounging up magic spells in Final Fantasy, or searching for the Sword of Kings with a bunch of psychic preteens in Earthbound. My kingdom for a Super NES, a cheap dial-up connection and no worries.

But welcome, autumn. Without you, your doppelganger spring, and Old Man Winter, I suppose my memories of those long days of Mario and chocolate milk and sunning myself with a Gameboy in-hand wouldn’t be nearly as precious.  

Friday, September 16, 2016

A Kautionary Tale

One of the things I regret most is not purchasing hundreds of copies of the Super Nintendo game Earthbound in the late ‘90s, when Best Buy was selling them new for $5 a pop. If I had, I could have sold them on eBay for ridiculous amounts of cash in the early 2010s, and been able to retire to a life of Assassin’s Creed and cheap whisky by 2013.

Instead, I just finished writing my fourth press release of the day while my two trolling coworkers Tweet me insulting gifs. Meanwhile, having just returned his 1,000th meeting today, my boss secretly considers running away with nothing but his guitar and a case of club soda.

Well, at least I was able to achieve the cheap whisky part of my dream life.

The thing is, there was really no way for me to know what my Earthbound inaction would lead to. Today, I’d like to share with you a similarly blindsiding tale, this time a warning for the overenthusiastic. If I can save just one life, the ten minutes I spent writing and promoting this article on my anemic Twitter account will all have been worth it.

The year was 1993. I was in fifth grade, and Mortal Kombat was the hot new fighting game everyone was talking about, even the teachers and possibly their dogs as well. While discussing the game’s brutal and varied fatalities, such as Johnny Cage’s decapitation move, Sub-Zero’s decapitation move, and Raiden’s decapitation move, my friend Eric casually mentioned that if you preordered Mortal Kombat on a home system, you got a T-shirt.

“That sounds awesome!” I presumably yelled. I can’t remember. It was 23 freaking years ago.

“You don’t want it,” replied Eric.

As it turned out, Eric’s uncle (who was somehow only two or three years older than Eric) had preordered MK on the Genesis, and received his shirt. He cheerfully pulled it on and jumped on the school bus the first chance he got.

However, upon showing his face at school, he was pummeled mercilessly by classmates as they exclaimed “MORTAL KOMBAT!” over and over, again and again. I’m told this went on literally all day.

This story taught me a very important life lesson that I’ll never forget: Don't forget to use the block button.

You have been warned.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Video Vignettes – “Night Trapped”

Video Vignettes are 500 to 1000 word short stories about one or more video games. "Night Trapped" features elements from "Night Trap” and “Luigi’s Mansion,” and borrows elements from TV’s “Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.”


The foreboding mansion stood before him, eerily quiet in the still summer night. A breeze broke the silence, gently rattling the shutters and rustling though the naked trees below.

A subtle earthen scent rode the wind and made the man’s nose twitch. Without him realizing it, his teeth began to chatter. Any willpower he had mustered earlier drained out of him, literally gone with the wind. He imagined his face had become as green as his shirt.

But no matter how scared the man was, his brother had vanished – and all signs pointed to him being trapped in the odious dwelling that stood before the man in green.

Each step down the overgrown walkway filled him with dread. Why couldn’t this have been like the last time his brother was missing? All he had to do then was search a few well-known locations thorough the world. Heck, it would have been enjoyable had it not so mind-numbingly boring.

Finally, the man in green stood outside the front door. He tried to peek through the small, square window adorning it. Though the darkness, he could see a tiny, flickering light.

The knob slowly turned and the man poked his head into the mansion, the brim of his hat piercing the darkness first. He put his hand to his mouth and muttered weakly, “Mario? Maaaario!”

There was no response.

He slithered into the void, moonlight illuminating his path. Finally, he stood mere feet away from light, a single candle. As his white gloved hand reached out to grab it, the fire disappeared with a sharp puff of air.

All the lights in the house popped on simultaneously, blinding the man in green. “SURPRISE!” exclaimed a choir of unknown voices.

He let out a terrified yelp and crouched for protection, one hand over his head, and another, protecting his squishy rump.

Through the sound of laughter and loud music, he slowly opened his eyes. In front of him, a group of college age women were dancing together. One was playing a tennis racket like a guitar and lip syncing to the worst song the man had ever heard, something about catching boys in traps at night.

As he starred in bewilderment, one of the women broke from the crowd and put her hand on his shoulder.

“Hi, my name is Dana,” she said. “What’s yours?”

“It’s… it’sa me, Lu-”

“Well, Lou, welcome to the slumber party!” Dana exclaimed. “What brings you here? Food? Fun?” Her eyes narrowed accusingly. “Drinking our blood, perhaps?”

“I’ma just looking for my brother!” he replied, confused.

Dana’s eyes lit up. “Oh, you mean the guy in red? He’s right over here!”

The man in green leapt to his feet and excitedly followed Dana through the giant mansion and into the lounge. From the doorway, he could see the back of a red capped man, sitting on a couch and watching the flames flicker in the fireplace.

“Mario!” he exclaimed. “We gotta get out of here and…”

DING! DING! CLANK! The odd noises gave him pause.


The man in green cautiously headed over to the figure, reached out, and pulled off its hat. Sitting in front of him was someone he’d never seen before, much younger than his brother. The impostor hadn’t been watching a fireplace at all, but instead playing a pachinko machine. Emblazoned on the machine’s side was a word the man in green had never seen before: “Konami.”

“Who… who is this!?” exclaimed the man in green. “Where’s Mario?”

“Mario has been sent to the Peace Conference, remember?” Dana replied cheerfully. “This is your new brother, Rocky.”

“But that doesn’t make any sense!” yelled the man in green.

“What do you think of the party, Rocky?” Dana asked.

“This is TOO FUN!” Rocky replied, before karate chopping a nearby lamp.

“As you can see, Rocky just wants to have fun,” Dana explained.

For the first time, the man in green could feel his fear turning to anger. “You can’t just put someone else in my brother’s overalls and expect it to be the same! This man is not Mario!”

Dana’s smile disappeared. She turned and started screaming at a nearby bookcase.

“Now!” she yelled. “Control, Control! You’d better use the trap!”

“Who are you talking to!?” the man in green asked. “What’sa going on?!”

By the time he noticed the camera stashed in the bookcase, it was too late. The man in green felt the floor beneath him and Rocky begin to rumble. He knew whoever was on the other end of the video feed had had sealed his and his “brother’s” fates.

The trap floor gave way, plunging them into the darkness.

Dana stated into the abyss. “You got caught in the night,” she said. “The night trap!”

Friday, September 9, 2016

What Dreams Were Made of - Sega's Dreamcast Celebrates 17 years

Seventeen years ago today, Sega's Dreamcast hit the shelves in North America. The much-loved, short-lived console fell victim to "middle brother" syndrome, coming at a time when it towered over current gen heavy hitters like the N64 and the original PlayStation, But revolution was in the air: the PlayStation 2 would arrive about a year later, a graphics and processing power juggernaut that eclipsed Sega's little white box by a mile.

Despite a user base of nearly 11 million worldwide, Sega pulled the plug on the Dremacast in March 2001, mere months after the PS2's October 2000 release in North America. Frankly, they could have kept it alive and profitable for another year or so, but Sega evoked its long established "drop it like it's hot" sales strategy that also marked the premature deaths of the Genesis and Saturn.

Sega's quirky console has since gained a cult following, thanks in part to its incompetent piracy protection. Though rampant piracy was one of the many nails in the console's coffin, today, Dreamcast devotees can download and play former retail titles, homebrew games, and a variety of wacky software ranging from MP3 players to grainy films reminiscent of another of Sega's old consoles, the Sega CD.

I enjoyed my time with Sega's last son to be sure, but I'm not sure why people wet themselves over the Dreamcast anytime someone so much as farts and it sounds kinda like the jumping sound in Sonic Adventure. (Two bodily function jokes in one sentence. Watch out world, Matt Frey is on fire.) There was some groundbreaking stuff for the time, but nothing really sticks out as classic in my mind. The aforementioned Sonic Adventure, for example, is fun for awhile. However, this was also the first title to start the series' inexplicable focus on Sonic's furry convention friends, like Amy Rose, a bargain bin Johnny Five from "Short Circuit," and Big the Cat, who is a big cat with a small brain and a fishing pole. (Fun fact: he's voiced by Jon St. John, who also voices Duke Nukem.) No one liked those other jerks, so clearly, Sonic's friends became the focus of every Sonic game going forward.

Artist's interpenetration of Big the Cat

From Street Fighter III and Marvel vs. Capcom to Last Blade and Fatal Fury; Mark of the Wolves, we got some excellent home ports of the final wave of great arcade fighting games. But you've seen a Dreamcast controller, right? It kinda looks like the Starship Enterprise from Star Trek, and it controls just as a cumbersome spaceboat might. I guess what me and my strained comparison are trying to say is, don't expect to the next Evolution Championship to be fought with stock Dreamcast pads.

Then there was PowerStone, a 3D fighter that was like Smash Bros. in many ways, but you don't know any of the characters and no one remembers it because it was on a dead system. It was a great party game if you could get anyone to play it with you, but most of the time, no one would, because DAMNIT, I KNOW IT'S NOT MARIO AND DONKEY KONG; GET OVER IT, MIKE.

When discussing great Dreamcast software, a lot of people like to bring up the unfortunately named Seaman, which did have some merit as being the first video game that asked my about my day and then yelled at me for responding appropriately. But in the end, it was just a glorified Tamagachi with a bad attitude. Not my cup of tea, but it gets bonus points for being narrated by Leonard Nimoy. Perhaps the DC's Enterprise-like controller motivated him to lend his voice to this game. Or maybe Sega just paid him heaps of money in an attempt to save a boring game. Probably that second thing.

Don't get me wrong, though. For a brief but memorable period, the Dreamcast was THE game system to own, sporting must-haves like Crazy Taxi, Shenmue, Resident Evil: Code Veronica, Soul Calibur, and more. Like a lot of early 3D consoles, I don't think it's aged very well. Yet the Dreamcast's influence and contributions to gaming history are undeniable, and for that, I have to hand it to Sega. If the House that Sonic Built was destined to crumble, the Dreamcast was a great console to end with.

It was a bittersweet end to the David that once challenged the Nintendo Goliath. Compared to the lukewarm games they've been making for the last decade and a half, nowadays, Sega's final console seems like it was just a dream.