Friday, December 4, 2009

The Scholastic Stylus: Nintendo DS in the Classroom

I was observing a committee on special education (CSE) meeting the other day, waiting for a parent to show up – turns out she thought the meeting was scheduled for 20 minutes later than it was – and the school psychologist blurted out something in passing that, unbeknownst to her, stole my focus for the rest of the meeting.

A few weeks before, she had been called to testify in a court case regarding one of the children in the district. The psychologist arrived at court at 9 a.m., but wasn’t called to testify until 4 p.m.

“Good thing I had my Nintendo,” she said.

The psychologist was referring, of course, to the Nintendo Dual Screen (DS) portable video game system. Armed with a built-in monitor and a “touch screen” located just below, most Nintendo DS games are controlled in part or in whole using a small stylus. Seeing as how the original incarnation of the DS is more than half a decade old at this point, that’s nothing astonishing anymore. But while immersed in the special education setting, an idea popped into my head: What if we used the Nintendo DS as a way for children with physical and other disabilities to build their motor skills? The stylus is held and operated just like a pencil – a skill that could transfer to school work – and in some games, like Brain Age, writing numbers and letters is the key to advancing.

“So what?” you might ask. “A pencil and paper is about $199 cheaper.”

That’s a good point. However, writing letters and numbers over and over again on a sheet of paper is about as entertaining as doing 500 pushups and it’s just as tedious. What DS games can offer today’s learners is motivation: There’s something highly satisfying about moving ahead and being able to measure one’s progress, whether that progress is deeper into the dank and dangerous dungeons of the newest Castlevania game or to new scholastic heights in Big Brain Academy.

Consider this: According to educational theorist James Gee in his book Why Video Games are Good for Your Soul: Pleasure and Learning (2006), as human beings, enjoyment plays a huge role in our learning. “Learning is a deep human need, like eating and mating,” he said. “So the real paradox is not that pleasure and learning go together, but, rather, how and why school manages to separate them” (p. 29).

Using DS games, then, could be one of the steps to reconnecting schools with the pleasure of learning. For students who find learning difficult – like possibly children with motor skill or other disabilities – an education that includes a little Nintendo DS learning fun might be just the thing to help invigorate their scholastic careers.

As my CSE meeting wore on, the parent now on her way, I also wondered if the educational applications of the Nintendo DS aren’t limited to special education learners. What about other types of students?

According to a July 11, 2007 article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Beyond Pokemon: Nintendo DS Goes to School in Japan” by Yukari Iwatani Kane, the DS has been helping English as a second language (ESL) students increase their grasp of the English language. As students write English words like “tree” and “woman” on their school-supplied DS systems, an electronic voice calls out “Cool!” if the student writes the word correctly or “Come on!” if he or she makes a mistake.

“Work sheets were such a pain,” said Minori Yamanaka, a 13-year-old student at Otokoyama Higashi Junior High School. “These exercises feel like a game” (Kane, 2007).

But it’s not just Japan that’s utilizing the Nintendo DS for educational purposes, and it’s not just for language acquisition: According to an article by Lousie Holden in the Irish Times entitled "How Nintendo Can Boot Your Child's Perfomance in Maths," published Nov. 10, 2009, at least two schools in Ireland are using the Nintendo DS to teach math skills to their middle school students. The results, she said, are encouraging.

“Three classes spent approximately 15 minutes a day using two games, Maths Training and Brain Training,” wrote Holden. “All three classes in each grade were given mathematical tests (Drumcondra tests) before and after the trial period. The results of the Drumcondra tests were as follows: In 6th-class maths, relative to their peers, the Nintendo group scored substantially better. Gains were ‘obvious and significant’” (Holden, 2009).

So if the DS really aids in grasping the English language with students in Japan, why couldn’t it work with ESL students anywhere? And if Japanese and Irish schools are already implementing the Nintendo DS in their classes with educational success as Kane and Holden point out in their articles, why not in American special and general education classrooms as well, with software specifically designed to achieve maximum educational benefits?

It comes down to a lack of time for teacher training and wide scale implementation of the DS devices, the stigma that Nintendo products are for entertainment only and, of course, a lack of cash for the hardware and software.

“There is definitely support for the idea, but whether we can get money for it at this time is questionable,” pointed out Robbie O’Leary, principal of Sacred Heart Senior National School in Killinarden, Tallaght (Holden, 2009). O’Leary’s remarks no doubt echo the concerns of other educators in schools across the globe.

Back at my CSE meeting, an overwhelmed mother was relieved as a set of important services for her child were put into place. As I left the meeting, I too was a bit overwhelmed, my mind abuzz with educational possibilities and problems of Nintendo’s popular portable.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Thinking Critically: A Link to the Past

Back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, my de-facto response to the assertion that video games are a waste of time was that gaming improved the player’s hand-eye coordination. Truth be told, I wasn’t sure how hand-eye coordination was going to help kids aside from making them better at Nintendo games, which in turn would help them build their hand-eye coordination even more. But generally, the hand-eye thing made naysayers shut up, so I was more than happy to just leave things at that.

It wasn’t until the early 2000s that I began searching for response that would not only quiet the scowling adults in my life, but something that would satisfy ME as well. With the advent of 3D graphics, CD quality sound and a more informed and critical society, the whole hand-eye coordination ruse was becoming stale. Thanks to new iterations of my old favorites like Final Fantasy and Castlevania, as well as fresh intellectual properties like Silent Hill and Metal Gear Solid, I was able to put together cohesive, accurate and compelling pro-gaming arguments that could be backed up by evidence found in the “texts.” English teachers had been drilling into my head for years that this is how one puts together a strong, viable argument, and I finally had something beyond “gaming help players utilize their hands better.”

But most of the benefits I’ve noted over the years have applied almost exclusively to titles from the late ‘90s through the current crop of PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii titles. I still had little with which to defend the Nintendo games of my youth other than the tired hand-eye coordination spiel.

Enter Nintendo Power, the one-time undisputed king of gaming magazines. Nintendo Power had rescued me plenty of times in the past with tips and strategies for games like Blaster Master, Metroid and Super Mario Bros. 3, and it was about to give me a final, important tip.

Having succumbed to my latest bout of nostalgia about two weeks ago, I found myself thumbing through the March/April 1989 issue of Nintendo Power, the one with Ninja Gaiden on the cover (the real one, not that Xbox thing). When I was younger, I used to skip the “mailbox” section of the magazine and dive right into the information on the new and future NES games I would soon be conning out of my parents. What kid wouldn’t?

But in my old age, I’ve come to appreciate things like thoughtful discourse and opinions beyond “this game rules” or “this game stinks.” Now one of the first things I do when I pick up an old issue of Nintendo Power is to read the letters. At the very end of the section in this particular issue was a letter from Steve Gibbs, a parent from Benicia, CA.

“I’m a high school English teacher [and] a newspaper columnist,” began the letter (p. 6).

Wait a minute! I’m a certified English teacher and I wrote for newspapers for five years. Mr. Gibbs had earned my attention.

“As an educator, I’m concerned with video saturation,” wrote Gibbs. “I’ve always been mildly approving of video games as long as the cash and time involvement was not too great.

“However, I want my son to develop more than hand-eye coordination.”

Gah! The eight-year-old inside me reeled from the titanic blow. Without hand-eye coordination to hide behind, I was nearly defenseless against my elementary school teachers, my dismissive relatives and the disapproving store clerks who reluctantly sold my parents overpriced Nintendo software! What I had left was the argument about games increasing reading skills, but the only games that didn’t butcher the English language at the time were Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior, and only the smart kids played those games anyway.

Emperor Mario was naked.

But lo! Just when things were looking bleak for young Matt, Gibbs pointed out something that has been so inherent in my way of life for so many years that I had failed to even think about it.

“I believe your company offers great potential for being accepted by parents as well as children because several of your game cartridges require so much more than simply quick reflexes,” he said. “I’m referring specifically to The Legend of Zelda and Zelda II – The Adventure of Link. The level of critical thinking and problem-solving required make these games an acceptable challenge for the son of a school teacher, and I whole-heartedly defend [Nintendo] against the critics among my peers.”

Gibbs goes on to suggest that “critical thinking is a hot issue in the educational world” and, therefore, Nintendo should create more “thinking games.”

Eureka! That was it, the argument I should have been using for years! Indeed, many Nintendo games force the player to think logically and critically, and to solve problems in ways beyond using brute force. The Zelda series is a good example, but so are games like Maniac Mansion, The Adventures of Lolo series, Solomon’s Key, Tetris, StarTropics* – the list goes on.

Of course, many "mindless" Nintendo games are about shooting your way though endless waves of alien spaceships or dudes punching out hundreds of ninjas to save the president. But before I get into that, let’s look at Gibbs’ parting statement: “Teachers and parents are stressing children’s deeper involvement in problem solving, strategic planning and inductive and deductive logic. This could be one of Nintendo’s trends for the future.”

Not only was Gibbs an English teacher and a newspaper man, but apparently he was a clairvoyant as well, because he predicted one of the most important trends in gaming history. Almost as if following his suggestion, Nintendo added more and more puzzle-solving and critial thinking aspects to their games as time went on. Other companies caught on too, and now you’d be hard-pressed to find a current generation title that doesn’t involve strategic elements in some form. Those “mindless” games I referred to earlier are almost a thing of the past.

In his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy (2003), educational theorist James Gee calls this aspect of gaming “one very important type of active learning” (p. 127). Gee outlines the steps of this kind of learning using the 2001 game Return to Castle Wolfenstein as a base, but his diagnosis can be applied to all video games that require critical thinking strategy, both past and present.

Gee’s observations, paraphrased:
1. The learner realizes the routine strategy will not work and stops using it.
2. The learner transfers skills and strategies from previous experiences by seeing the similarities between those experiences and the current problem.
3. Unlike school, where problems are obviously set up to transfer earlier solutions to later problems, the learner must adapt and transform earlier experiences to new problems “through creativity and innovation” (p. 127).
4. The learner also uses what he or she discovers, sometimes by accident, as soon as possible. This transforms the player’s strategy once again, producing a fluid, ever-changing problem solving approach.

On-the-spot problem solving influenced by old and new experiences: That sounds a lot like what one has to do to master driving, to succeed in his or her career, and to effectively communicate with other human beings. So, according to Gee’s active learning model, while I was searching for new warp zones in Super Mario Bros., finding more efficient ways to climb the girders in Donkey Kong, and discovering my enemies’ weaknesses and immunities to different weapons in Mega Man, I was also refining my critical thinking skills and opening my mind to new ways to solve problems.

Forget hand-eye coordination; critical thinking is where it’s at!

Though he’ll probably never know it, I’m very thankful to Mr. Gibbs for grabbing his pen or typewriter more than 20 years ago and writing into the then-fledgling Nintendo Power magazine with something he thought was important. It WAS important, Mr. Gibbs, because you and James Gee just helped me fill in an intellectual gap that’s been cheesing me off for the past two decades. And now that I’ve shared it with the people reading this, armed with my newfound knowledge, I’m going to look up my fourth grade reading teacher in the phone book (it should be easy because, for some reason, my hands always go where my eyes are looking) and tell her why she was wrong when she said that video games will rot your brain.

*Note: The first StarTropics title contains one of the most diabolical puzzles in gaming history. The game was packaged with a letter to the player from one of the game’s characters, Dr. Jones. Near the end of the game, the player receives a message from Dr. Jones that reads, “Evil aliens from a distant planet... Tell Mike to dip my letter in water...” Most players thought this was referring to an in-game object and spent hours searching for it, but to no avail. However, as you might have guessed, if the player dunked the letter he or she received with the game underwater, the information needed to proceed – written in invisable ink – was revealed.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Interactive Fiction: The Missing Link

From Ooze: Creepy Nites
While absentmindedly browsing through the content of the "abandonware" website House of Games one night before going to bed, I discovered a game called Ooze: Creepy Nites. Expecting some moderately entertaining, slime-saturated action game from the late ‘80s, I said “what the heck” and clicked the link to a description and download. There was probably slime there somewhere, judging by the screenshots, but something in the review made me forget all about cheap horror thrills: The game, they said, is an “interactive fiction” title.

For some reason, before seeing the phrase “interactive fiction” on that web page, it had never occurred to me that the genre is brimming with education possibilities – especially in the English language arts field. It was exciting moment for me, even more so than if Ooze had been the forgettable Super Mario meets The Blob experience I had anticipated.

For those of us who are late to the party, interactive fiction is a genre of video games that presents information and gameplay textually. The idea is to immerse the player in the story in the same way a novel would. Older games of the genre have no graphics, only text. Newer titles like Ooze: Creepy Nites utilize some graphics, but the words are still the most important part of the game. The player interacts with the game by typing commands such as “go west,” “take credit card” or “use hamster in microwave,” depending on what’s in his or her inventory and what's available in the surroundings. Interactive fiction games require the player to carefully read pages and pages of text, to keep track of many small details, and to creatively solve problems.

The swanky contents of The Lurking Horror game box
Games like Zork, Beyond the Titanic, The Lurking Horror and almost every other title ever made by the company Infocom belong in the interactive fiction category. I’ve always called games like these as “text-based adventures,” but that’s probably because I’m a console player at heart and these kinds of games are mainly PC/MAC affairs. I guess that before reading that Ooze: Creepy Nites review, I was sort of out of the interactive fiction loop.

You might be thinking: "Okay, so you play the games by reading text. Big deal."

But here’s where it gets really exciting for educators: According to Nick Manfort and Paulo Urbano, authors of an extensive article on interactive fiction called “A Quarta Era da Ficção Interactiva” originally printed the Portuguese magazine Nada about three years ago, interactive fiction works can be understood both as literary narratives and as video games. That’s a powerful assertion: Perhaps interactive fiction is the truest and most practical melding of education and video games to date.

I think one of the reasons that some students find the standard English fare boring is because they’ve grown up in an interactive world and the ELA cannon is about as linear as possible. In a era where entertainment comes in the form of minute-long YouTube videos and the user is basically in control of every second of his or her leisure time, the methodical pace of classic works like Dickens’ Great Expectations and Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is putting off our students. Interactive fiction games might be just the thing to reverse situations like this.

I’m not suggesting that we dumb down the classics by using interactive fiction versions to further fracture the attention spans of today’s youth; it’s quite the opposite, actually. By tapping into their need for stimulation by putting them in control of interactive fiction games, our students might be motivated to read the often sizable blocks of text in between player actions. As they get used to reading and comprehending – having been reintroduced to an ancient art though a modern medium – they’ll perhaps be more willing and capable to tackle the English cannon and reading in general.

Taking it one step further by having our students create their own interactive fiction games or websites is another wonderful possibility. Not only would the students have to keep track of plot elements, grammar, word usage and a host of other critical writing techniques, they would also have to learn programming techniques and game design mechanics. By combining the old with the new, teachers might be able to tap into a third set of emerging skills that could help define the next generation of authors.

You know, I still haven’t download Ooze: Creepy Nites, due in small part to the game’s atrocious spelling of the word “nights,” but mostly because my mind has been buzzing with the possibilities of interactive fiction in the classroom. I’m sure the game won’t be that great given the silly graphics and storyline, but it just might be the missing link between gaming and education that I’ve been searching for.

Yeah, I just ended a sentence with a preposition. I’m so exited, I don’t even care.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Les Misérables: The Fighting Game

If you ever wanted to beat up one of the characters from Les Misérables, here’s your chance.

Arm Joe, created by an amateur programmer from Japan, is a one-on-one fighting game in the same vein as Street Fighter II and King of Fighters. Based on the Les Misérables musical, the game features anime style representations of Les Mis characters like Jean Valjean, Enjolras, Marius, Cosette, Éponine, Thénardier and Javert. The physical embodiment of judgment serves as the game’s final boss.

In case you’re wondering, the name Arm Joe is a parody of the play’s Japanese title, Ah Mojou, meaning “Ah, cruelty.”

As someone who has daydreamed about a one-on-one fighting game adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and a first person, 3D version of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, there’s a certain amount of satisfaction in just knowing that Arm Joe exists. However, the game itself has some control and balance issues: Some characters are hopelessly underpowered and others can easily win matches using a single attack over and over again. The graphics and sound are excellent, though, and overall it’s a pretty decent game. Given the fact that Arm Joe is a free download, it seems a little inappropriate to criticize it too harshly.

Arm Joe brings the characters of Les Misérables to life in a way that’s virtually impossible in any other medium. Introducing students to Arm Joe might just be the key to getting some of them interested in the novel or the musical, or it could be used as a sort of enrichment exercise after finishing Les Misérables in class.

Purists might complain that this game isn’t a faithful adaptation of the Les Misérables novel or musical – and they would be correct. Just consider Robojean, the cyborg version of Valjean who fires rockets at his opponents, and Ponpon, a bunny creature who has nothing to do with the Les Mis mythos who is inexplicably tossed in with the rest of the characters. However, a creative teacher might take the opportunity to discuss the differences and similarities between the works, as well as talking about how ideas, stories and sensibilities change as they move to new kinds of media. After all, there are some key alterations between the stage version of Les Misérables and Victor Hugo’s original novel, so changes in new adaptations of the story are to be expected.

Teachers might also use Arm Joe to help explain the concept of parody to their students, given the humorous aspects of the game in contrast to the seriousness of the musical and novel.

I hope that more game makers, both independent and commercial, will use classic novels as inspiration for future video games. Faithful game adaptations of the classics might be one of the stepping stones in using gaming to educate our students.

Download Arm Joe.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Challenges of Implementing Gaming in the Classroom

There are plenty of formidable obstacles that educators and game developers must overcome before video games can be a viable teaching tool in traditional classrooms.

1. Most video games require skill.

You can tell this kid's got the skillz!
With a textbook, novel or handout, teachers can assign chapters for their students to read. Each student is given the same amount of reading, and baring any sort of disabilities, everyone has the same “chance” of completing the assignment. But with a video game, in which progress is skill-based, there’s no guarantee a student will be able to finish the assignment. Also, unlike a book, one can’t just skip to the next chapter if they haven’t done their homework the previous night. If the player cannot complete a task in a game, there is often no way to continue. Making the game easier is one way to even the odds, but that often deadens the impact and would rob the students of the full gaming experience.

A creative teacher might find a way around this by asking his or her students to poke around with no specific goals other than sampling the atmosphere of the game. Some games, like Myst, can be played for hours in a very satisfying way without advancing the plot.

2. No two players will have the same experience.

If everyone reading this blog decided to play through the same video game – even a more linear one like the first Super Mario Bros. – we would all have different experiences. A longtime player might finish the game in about ten minutes (warp to world 4-1 at the end of 1-2, warp to world 8-1 at the beginning of 4-2, then finish the game as normal). A first time player might spend hours falling down pits and cursing Nintendo, and without skipping levels, eventually finish the game by the skin of their teeth. Others still might decide to collect every coin they see and never make it past the first few stages.

Compare this to reading a novel or a textbook. There’s a definite beginning and end to printed material, defined by how many words and pages are in between Point A and Point B. While the reader can (and should) bring his or her experiences to the material, everyone who reads the assigned text will have been exposed to exactly the same content.

Obviously, divergent experiences might lead to some difficulties in uniform teaching. However, this situation could lead to a creative discussion or assignment where everyone’s experiences are melded into one main idea or project.

3. It’s a lot easier to read a boring textbook than it is to play through a boring game.

What was the worst book you had to read in high school? Was it a chore to finish? Did it hurt your head? Now imagine reading that book six times in a row. It doesn’t sound appealing, does it?

I hate you AND The Jungle, Upton Sinclair!

Some video games last for 100 hours or more, where as a textbook or novel will likely take much less time to complete. Anyone who’s ever dropped $50 on a bad video game may have found themselves slogging though it on principle, but that was by their own choice. Assigning a gaming experience that the student finds tedious might actually do more to push them away from education than assigning a dull textbook.

4. Games are expensive and require specific consoles to function.

Imagine that, as an English teacher, I ask my students to play up to the Returners’ Hideout in Final Fantasy VI. The school would have to provide each student with Playstation, a memory card, a controller and a copy of the game. Assuming the school is paying list price for the equipment, that’s approximately $85 per student without tax ($50 for a PS1, $15 for a memory card and $20 for the greatest hits version of the game). If I’m teaching 120 students, that comes out to be $10,200.

Hey, he's pretty good!
This scenario is for old hardware and an old game. If I wanted my students to experience a newer game like Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patroits on the PlayStation 3 platform, the price jumps to $39,600: $300 for a PS3 with 80 gig hard drive and $30 for the game. And unlike textbooks (especially those in the English language arts), gaming equipment can’t be used for very many years in a row; just look at what happened to EVERYONE'S Xbox 360s.

Clearly, there would need to be a different distribution method if gaming in the classroom is to be a viable option. Digital distribution is by far the cheapest, and a license for use by 100 or more students could likely be obtained for a fraction of the cost of hard copies.

Great for lit crit!
Conclusion: Though the educational potential of the video game medium is great, as gaming exists today, there are too many difficulties putting it to use in mainstream classrooms. My recommendation at this point is for teachers is to use gaming to enhance their lessons, just as they might use allusions to films or books to cement concepts in their student’s minds. For example, one might compare the events of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw to those in the Silent Hill series. In both, it’s never clear if the protagonist is hallucinating or if the supernatural events seen through their eyes are truly happening. Students familiar with Silent Hill will gain a deeper understanding of The Turn of the Screw, and those who aren’t won't lose anything. Similarly, a social studies teacher might suggest to his or her class that they spend some time with the History Channel video game Civil War: A Nation Divided. While it’s a fictional account of real events, the game can help illustrate the look and feel of the period and help bring history to life in the minds of our students.

For the younger crowd, video games can be used to enhance reading skills. Many role playing games like Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy and even the accursed Pokémon are text-heavy and provide wonderful motivation to improve the player’s reading ability.

Finally, remember that all knowledge is power. Think back to a time in your life when you solved a problem with something you learned from a game show, a film, or a novel. Consider that a student of yours might find themselves in the same situation, using knowledge from a video game to aid them.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Value of Gaming in Education

When you think of video games, what comes to mind? Tiny spaceships shooting down invaders from beyond? Bleeps and bloops? High scores?

Space Invaders, early 1980s
Times have changed. Game soundtracks are now orchestrated, the visuals are on par with anything one might see in a computer animated Hollywood film, and the storylines go far beyond shooting down aliens or saving the princess. Games are no longer relegated to the back of pizzerias and instead are found in homes worldwide. Just like the internet, children born after the year 2000 are growing up with interactive entertainment at their fingertips.

So if gaming is wide spread and accessible, and our students are compelled to complete Halo and Modern Warfare more than their homework, why, aside from a few uninspiring “edutainment” titles, haven’t we acknowledged the educational potential of this fledgling medium?

I am convinced that video games are one of many new texts of the younger generations, going hand-in-hand with web pages, blogs and other forms of digital media. If teachers do not embrace this and other forms of neo-literacy, I fear we will be left in the Stone Age of education, hardly able to reach our students.

Now you might be thinking: “Okay, so what can a student learn from a video game, aside from how to throw fireballs and blow things up?”

According to educational theorist James Paul Gee in his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, video games can aid in developing problem solving skills. In a speech at Vassar Collage on April 2, 2009, Gee used the game Portal as an example, saying that players must find unorthodox ways of getting their character from Point A to Point B. Those skills, he said, can be transferred to real life situations. Instead of moving a character in a video game, Portal players may one day use similar logic to move a building or find a new way to transport a large group of people.

From the game Portal, by Valve

Gee also said is that for learning to take place, one must be emotionally involved with the material. Video games fit the bill better than any other form of media available. Combining education and gaming would be an excellent way to provide an emotional component to what we must teach students. Gee used Sid Meier’s Civilization as an example: One might not feel much of a connection to an event like Custer’s Last Stand, but if one were to try to come up with ways to change the outcome of the event, he or she might feel much more “in tune” with it.

There are other applications as well. As technology improves, so to do the number of high-quality video game narratives that utilize foreshadowing, irony, metaphor and more – all the things that English Language Arts students must know to succeed – in ways equal to much of the cannon literature of the curriculum. For example, the games Silent Hill 2: Restless Dreams and Rule of Rose rival pieces like The Yellow Wallpaper and The Bell Jar in terms of delving into the psychology of a fragile mind; Braid and Earthbound pack as poignant and metaphorical punch as Animal Farm; and the Metal Gear Solid series, in ways just as memorable as any war novel I’ve ever read, makes real the horrors of battle and the effect on the individual, while also calling into question what it means to be a hero.

One of Braid's many puzzles

It will be a long, tough road to convince the masses that gaming has more value than just mindless entertainment. However, that day can and must come, lest our tech-hungry students become bogged down in the quagmire of educational malaise and our teachers fight an unwinnable battle.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Ghostbusters the Video Game: Bustin' Make You Feel Good!

If you’re anything like me, you used to spend your Saturday mornings in front of the television with a bowl of Cap’n Crunch waiting for The Real Ghostbusters (and that God-awful Slimer show) to come on, you dragged your poor mother to the theater the morning Ghostbusters II hit the theaters and you can practically recite the Ghostbusters film word for word. If that sounds like you, just get in the car and don’t take your foot off the gas until you’re at the mall, because Ghostbusters The Video Game is what you’ve been dreaming about for the last 20 years.

For the other six of you still reading this review, I can wholeheartedly say that the newest incarnation of the franchise is the definitive Ghostbusters gaming experience. Up until now, that was sort of like saying that it’s more fun to be beaten with an aluminum pole than with a steel one infested with tiny, venomous beetles. But with a story written by Dan Akyroyd and Harold Ramis, the men behind Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II, and the voice talents of Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts and wisecracker Bill Murray, Ghostbusters The Video Game will be sucking away your free time for days to come.

Its 1991, two years after Vigo the Carpathian tried to eat baby Oscar with a gooey bathtub and Lady Liberty took to the streets of New York via an NES joystick. The busters, now a city-funded operation like the police and the fire department, must track down the source of the newest surge in supernatural activity that’s crippling the Big Apple.You play as the new fifth Ghostbuster who’s supposed to represent the player, but it’s hard to feel a connection to a generic dude who communicates though frantic hand gestures and getting hit with debris. I’m sick of the silent protagonist shtick and I’m sure most people would have rather played as one of our four iconic heroes, but it’s a minor gripe: The guys come along with you every step of the way, although Winston shows up late to the party yet again. At least he made it this time – remember how Sega ditched him completely in the fun-but-flawed Genesis title?

As one would expect from seasoned comedians, the dialogue and voice acting is top notch. The script is oozing with nods to the films and the guys spout one-liners like a broken fire hydrant. Of course, Peter is as sarcastic as ever, and even item descriptions have a comedic kick. If the game itself becomes boring, the humor and the storyline will keep players engrossed until the game’s conclusion.

The graphics are excellent. The environments are crisp and detailed and the ghosts are slimy and disgusting. The character models share the likenesses of their on-screen counterparts, but after 25 years with the film, the gang looks a little weird with polygonal skin.

Perhaps the game’s greatest accomplishment is that it the player truly feel like he or she is a Ghostbuster. Fighting and incarcerating spirits a lot like wrangling cattle or tying to stop a child from running into a toy store: One must be patient, and at first, it’s more difficult than trying to push smoke into a bottle with a baseball bat. But within a half hour, the player has a good grip on the action, though the default control scheme leaves a bit to be desired in the weapons department. Movement is done via the two control sticks and can sometimes be a little chunky, but it’s nothing that can’t be forgiven, or a least ignored.

The action can be tense like Silent Hill as the player tracks down spirits with his or her PKE meter, or it can be frantic with waves of ghosts descending with reckless abandon. Both styles keep the player entertained on their toes.
The multiplayer is fun with teams of up to four taking on different tasks together, such as busting bunches of ghosts or protecting valuable artifacts from ethereal assailants. The team aspect helps players bond, but the action gets stale quickly. The story mode is where Ghostbusters The Video Game really shines.

Unfortunately, recycled elements from the Ghostbusters mythos give this title a “been there, busted that” feeling, knocking it down a notch. It’s a catch 22: It would have been downright sinful to make a Ghostbusters game without Slimer trashing a hotel and Staypuffed stomping through NYC, but it’s sometimes tough to accept Ghostbusters The Video Game as the sequel to the films like Aykroyd intended. Several parts of the game shamelessly play on two and a half decades of Ghostbusters nostalgia, but many players will eat it up with a silver spoon. The rest of us can’t help but smile and move on, hoping the rest of the game will be more of its own title than a shadow of things past.

That being said, Ghostbusters The Video Game stands up both as an entertaining extension to the Ghostbusters universe and a good video game experience. Existing fans and people new to the Ghostbusters mythos should take this one for a spin, because bustin’ really does make you feel good.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Puke Along with Panic!

Imagine if every time you pressed a button on your cell phone, chose a channel with your TV remote, or clicked a mouse, there was a 50 to 90 percent chance that it would backfire, filling your living room with zoo animals, blowing up Mount Rushmore or even sending you on a one way trip to visit Satan himself, who will puke on you. This is the crazy concept behind Panic! (known as Switch in Japan), Data East’s best contribution to any Sega system, and quite possibly humanity’s greatest achievement.

The gameplay is simple: You’re transported from scene to scene, where you pick from a set of a buttons on screen, press one and watch the consequences. That's it. It’s pure brilliance.

The Monty Pythonish graphics are a perfect fit for the bizarre action and the music adds to the humorous atmosphere. The short, high-quality tunes establish a plethora of emotions, from relaxed and whimsical to pressured and tense. Honestly, some of the scenes are harrowing to play though, like the one with an imposing alien standing before you, or the one with a Frankenstein monster lying dormant (not for long!) in a gothic castle. And it’s not just the scary scenes that can make the player a little uncomfortable. One of the best things about the game is that even in a normal scene like a snowy field or a motorboat on a sunny day, you’ll still have the constant fear that you’re going to press the wrong button and sumos will jump out of the ceiling and puke on you. Or your lawnmower will spin wildly out of control and eat your baseball glove, your house and even your dog, and then puke on you.

But you're also afraid you might press the “right” button. Though Panic!’s fun comes from never knowing what you might trigger by pressing a button, you also don't know which switches have gags, so sometimes, you're teleported out of a scene without viewing all of the possible tomfoolery. That's right, you'll WANT to screw up in this game, because "winning" isn't half as fun as having a hippo in a tutu crush your poor character into a pancake, say something incoherent, and then puke on you.

In an industry increasingly obsessed with making video games so realistic that players can alter the texture of their shoelaces and are docked points for forgetting to trim their character’s nose hairs, a game where you simply point, click and pray is refreshing. Do yourself a favor and play Panic! - I promise it won’t make you want to puke.

Friday, June 5, 2009

ESSENTIAL Guide for Earthbound N00bs

For anyone who has never tackled the massive challenges of the high-selling, smash hit SNES roleplayer Earthbound before, the thought of battling your way through the game tooth and nail is more than a little intimidating. Snarling, fashion-conscious crows block your progress right off the bat, mugging you and reducing fat pig boys like Pokey to quivering mounds of stupid. Later, the child-smashingly evil Dungeon Man eats your characters alive, forcing about 70 percent of people to go right at the first intersection IN HIS GIANT, FREAKISH STONE BOWELS. And don't get me started on the resort town, Summers. With all that LSD disguised as “magic cakes” and that horrible Club Stoic (read: gang), instead of Summers, it should be called SINNERS if you ask me! Anyway, you've probably wet yourself already just reading this. So, you ask, what’s an Earthbound n00b to do?

Well lucky for you, I, Matt, am here to give you a much-needed hand! (Or two... or three!) I know everything there is to know about this game! See, I've been playing Earthbound for at least 67 years, meaning that I haven’t shut off my Super NES since World War II. I’m 26 years old, practically an OLD MAN, so I MUST be wise.

And I am. So wise, in fact, that I’m going to help you get through the ordeal that is Earthbound. Sure, I could sit here and tell you to go to Onett and cook Pokey breakfast and equip Paula with the lead pipe in the conservatory, but being 26 years old, I HAVEN’T got much LONGER to LIVE. Besides, having played through Earthbound over the many, many years I’ve lived, I’ve learned that success in this game can be boiled down to obtaining three key items. What’s more, I’m going to tell you how to do it free of charge! This is as good as it gets, folks. You can’t even get a better deal from that reject hint man, and he sniffs glue!

The first item you should set your sights on is the picture postcard, which is a picture… on a postcard! (Diabolical!) If you throw one at your enemy, it has a good chance of cutting them in half, and an even better chance of setting them on fire. Giygas’s toadies won't be able to lay a hand on you with one of these babies in you inventory!

Although picture postcards are readily available at one of the shops in Saturn Valley, that’s nearly one-third of the way through the game. Not even Superman, Rocky Balboa, or a giant radioactive scorpion could make it that far without one of those potent postcards. Luckily for your frail behind, there’s another, quicker way get them. After trudging through Peaceful Rest Valley, there’s a girl who asks for donations for the Happy Happy Cult. If you oblige, she’ll give you a postcard in return. Since nothing else up to this point is nearly as important as the postcards, be sure to give her ALL of your money. Remember, the more money you donate at a time, the more powerful the postcard you will receive. I once donated $30 MILLION to her, and I got a postcard so big, it made that blue cow EXPLODE just by looking at it. And don't worry about not having money to buy food items, because you can always steal raw eggs from that lame-o self service stand in the middle of town. Besides, Salmonella builds character and fiber is overrated.

Anyway, be sure to fill everyone’s inventories with postcards! Except for Jeff. He’s a loser and would probably nerd them up with his stupid nerd germs if he touched them. In fact, you should have just left Jeff in the garbage can you found him in on the top of Twinkle Elementary!

Oh, wait. That was Loid in Earthbound Zero. But that doesn’t change the fact that Jeff is a wienie.

But don’t think you’ve it made yet, because we’re just getting started! Aside from the picture postcard, nothing stops sinister aliens in their tracks quite like the Suporma, which, when used, plays the DEADLY song “Ode to Orange Kid.” To get it, all you have to do is give the Orange Kid in Twoson the wad of bills you would normally give to the Runaway Five’s greedy manager. It’s kind of mean to leave the band rotting in the Topolla Theater for the rest of their lives and all, but that’s a lot better than letting the world be taken over by BLOODTHIRSTY ALIENS and the like!

Anyway, using this item in battle has been known not only to utterly destroy enemies in the current fight, but even enemies (and innocent bystanders) for miles around. One time I used the Suporma on Mondo Mole, and Ness was cleaning the charred remains of enemies, dogs and Mr. Saturns off his shoes all the way to Fourside. And another time I used the Suporma, it was so powerful that beams started shooting out of my television set. It blew up THE ENTIRE NEIGHBORHOOD and severed one of my brother’s arms, but it was okay because my brother had two arms at the time, and you only need one hand to play Earthbound anyway.
It's THE Screen shot!
The Suporma is indeed mighty, but be warned: Don’t have Poo use the Suporma, because instead of playing that rockin’ song about the Orange Kid and busting some heads, it only replenishes six of his hit points. However, the Suporma is the only weapon in the game that Poo can equip, raising his offense by a staggering three points.

Next up, the Video Relaxant. It’s the last and most important item an Earthbounder needs for success. Nothing short of a party of 10,000 Drunken Flying Men could even come close to its destructive power. When you have Ness check it, the description reads, “What the hay is this?” What is it!? What ISN’T it! At first glance, it might appear to be an item the programmers dummied out of the game, but it really holds not only the secret of defeating Giygas and winning the game, but the secret of LIFE ITSELF. In fact, the Video Relaxant is so awesome, no one’s ever received it before without cheating – except for me. And furthermore, I’m going to tell you all how I did it.

First, kill off Jeff. This has nothing to do with getting the Video Relaxant, but everything to do with the fact that Jeff sucks. Now, put down the controller, log on to, and send a personal message to RaveFury. (That's me.) This also has nothing to do with finding the Video Relaxant; I just like getting PMs.

Actually, the more that I think about it, I can't remember exactly how I got it. I think I cheated.

So, with these items in your possession, the three chosen ones and Jeff should now have a fighting chance against the universal cosmic destroyer, Ben Affleck. Err, Giygas. But don’t think you’re in for an easy time now that you have the three greatest items in the game, my brave but inexperienced friends! Giygas is strong and crafty, like Batman or Bill Clinton (or Bill Clinton dressed as Batman), and he cannot be defeated with the three power items alone!

Keep your inventory full of rulers, protractors and especially the devastating plain roll, because all of them will come in handy during the final conflict. Don’t forget to utilize those postcards WHENEVER you get the CHANCE, and if you particularly dislike your neighbors, feel free to use the Suporma!Also, be sure to use Edward’s/Gilbert’s “hide” ability eight times in a row, don’t allow Giygas to get all seven Chaos Emeralds, and if things get REALLY rough, cross the streams. It’ll be a tough fight to be sure, but take it from an Earthbound veteran: excessive nose hair might be embarrassing, but if you have enough of it, it can be braided and used as a makeshift rope in times of need.

Happy Earthbounding, good luck, and tell that clown Giygas that Matt sent you! Now go and make this OLD MAN proud!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

'Eternal Champions' CD: A Bloody Masterpiece

A lot of gamers think that Mortal Kombat, or one of its many sequels, was the bloodiest video game of the early and mid ‘90s. Sega CD owners, however, know better.

Eternal Champions: Challenge from the Dark Side, perhaps the most blood-soaked video game ever to grace a Sega console, is a drastic improvement over the original Genesis cart in virtually every way. Solid controls, dark, foreboding visuals, a rockin' soundtrack and yes, gallons of the red stuff makes the sequel to Eternal Champions not only the best fighting game on the Sega CD, but one of the greatest fighting games of the post Street Fighter II era. A large, genuinely interesting cast of characters comes together in one of the most absorbing storylines ever to grace the genre. The gameplay is deep and the player is rewarded for strategy, so button mashers need not apply.

Challenge from the Dark Side is also crammed full of extras, from hidden backgrounds and more than a dozen secret combatants to insane combos and devilishly clever finishing moves that often turn dying into an art form. The ever-present danger of a sudden, flesh-rending death while in mid-battle pumps up the element of danger, and the fear of being torn to shreds by the very background in which you fight is reason enough to win the match or die trying.

This is one of the best, most challenging, and most engrossing titles I've ever played. I loved it when it came out more than a decade ago, and I'm still caught in its mighty, blood-soaked grip to this day. Seriously, how cool is it to lay the smackdown on a futuristic cyborg kick boxer with a film-noir style, trench coat wearing ex-cat burglar from the '20s, then, seconds later, battle a Neanderthal as pterodactyls zoom around behind you? I have to hold back tears of gaming bliss just thinking about it!

Stellar gameplay and a host of other reasons that keep you playing way, WAY past your bedtime make Eternal Champions: Challenge from the Dark Side a must own for anyone who has a Sega CD unit. Just do yourself a favor and don't get too attached to the cast.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

MGS4: A Stunning Story Offsets Deja Vu Gameplay

We've all been waiting for years for a true sequel to 2001's Metal Gear Solid 2; a game that will hopefully tie up some of the loose ends Sons of Liberty left us with. Who are the Patriots? How are they connected to Solid Snake? Will Raiden's girlfriend ever stop whining? Will Snake continue to sport his rockin' mullet?

Some of those questions are answered and some are left up in the air; however, none of that really matters, because I'm convinced that thanks to its storyline, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots is already one of the most socially relevant games of the 21st century. Kojima's newest work paints a horrifying vision of humanity where perpetual war is the backbone of the world economy; a vision that comes uncomfortably close to current world events. Militia groups – soldiers for hire – now fight all of our wars. On the surface, it sounds great: Wars take place and citizens can rest easy, knowing only hired goons will be killed in action. However, when war is necessary for the economy to flourish, combat becomes commonplace, and it's not long before the lines between citizen and soldier are blurred. Behind all this is a familiar face or two, carrying on Big Boss's ideals and creating a world where soldiers will never be obsolete.

Outer Heaven lives once more.

Snake, now an old man thanks to his unstable clone DNA (and the FoxDie disease that was injected into him during the first game couldn't be helping much either), must infiltrate a remote Middle Eastern location to find and neutralize the cause of the resurrected Outer Heaven, but time is not on his side. His youth failing, the combat-weary “Old Snake” must fight one last time as an independent force, representing the closest thing to justice the world has seen for some time.

The graphics failed to impress me very much. Of course they're pretty good, with major attention paid to detail is in most of Kojima's works, but there's little about them that makes me want to stare in awe and drop my annoyingly-expensive yet sort-of-necessary Dualshock 3 controller. Everything looks as it should, with the Middle Eastern setting sufficiently “hot” looking and such, but I've come to expect more from both the PS3 and the hype surrounding MGS4. Then again, as any true gamer knows, graphics do not make a game entertaining; gameplay does.

And gameplay is an area where MGS4 certainly delivers. With wide open environments thrown into the mix with the standard enclosed environments MGS fans have come to expect from the series, the newest Metal Gear Solid title offers a welcome change of pace from earlier titles, playing like a mixture of Snake Eater and the aforementioned Sons of Liberty. With lead swapped between non player characters almost constantly and bombs flying feely through the air, confusion reigns supreme on the battlefield. Thanks to this mechanic, the player's tension levels reach an all-time high in the series, however, there's an in-game map to tell you what direction to go to reach your next objective. In this way things are a lot more liner than previous titles. Also, sneaking is even more imperative in these situations, forcing the player to really think about the route they're going or face the swift, deadly consequences.

The controls are much like the other Metal Gear Solid games, meaning that there're slightly confusing and unintuitive, but responsive overall and effective in the right hands.The sound is good too. Bullets whiz past the player in excellent stereo sound, going from one speaker to the other as they pass you by. The music is on target for the series, popping up at appropriate times and sufficiently suspenseful, but the omission of the main theme of the series made popular by the intro movie of the Sons of Liberty is a bit disappointing.

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots is not going to win over gamers who hated the other entries into the series, but it will please fans. The storyline is the main draw here, giving intellectual types hours of ammo for their late night thinking sessions. Those of us less inclined to question the world around us will still enjoy the game for the fun gunplay, the atmospheric sound and the nice graphics, but I wonder if these aren't the same people who would most benefit from Kojima's message. Metal Gear Solid 4 is a solid purchase for fans, action gamers, and those who want to wrap their heads around some veiled political commentary – and it just might mark the turnaround point for Sony's ailing PS3. Give it a whirl and salute the final appearance of one of gaming's greatest heroes.

Score: 8 out of 10


The special edition of Metal Gear Solid 4 is a Gamestop/EB games exclusive, and if you didn’t preorder it, you might be out of luck. It contains the game itself (duh), a soundtrack CD and a Blu-ray featuring two hours of additional content, including a making-of documentary. The release comes in a handsome, sturdy box, unlike the special edition of Devil May Cry 4 a few months back that crammed all the content into a cheap plastic sleeve (with a decent metal box under everything to be fair).

Without going into spoiler territory, the documentary is a nice outing for fans who want to know more about the project and the man himself, Hideo Kojima. However, chances are if you don’t know who Hideo Kojima is, you won’t get much use out of the extras that come with special edition. The included soundtrack is nice, if only for completeness’s sake, but it’s nothing one can’t live without – especially if one is a casual player who’s just looking for some quick espionage fun.

You really have to be dedicated to Metal Gear Solid as a series to appreciate the extras in the special edition box set. With no new game content, there’s little for the causal player to appreciate, and watching the documentary will become a chore for the player in this case.

The special edition of Metal Gear Solid 4 is a treasure trove of fun for fans, but an unnecessary expense for all others. Collectors, this box will look awesome on your wall, proudly displayed next to the other titles in the series; so buy with abandon! Everyone else, however, should be satisfied with the normal release.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Mortal Mediocrity: MK1 on Sega CD

It's bigger... than the Genesis cartridge.
While Midway Games was programming the Sega CD version of the arcade powerhouse Mortal Kombat, the publisher, Acclaim, promised the result would be "bigger, better, louder and meaner" than any of the other home versions available. What they finally heaped on violence-starved customers was essentially the old Genesis/Mega Drive version with a CD-quality soundtrack.

Soon after making a killing in the arcades, Mortal Kombat was released on several home systems, including the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo. Both of these ports underwent drastic changes in the process, including audiovisual alterations and downgrades in order to compensate for both of the home systems' limitations. The result was still Mortal Kombat all right, but the Genesis version lacked the visual punch of its big brother, and the graphically-superior SNES version suffered from watered-down violence and stinted controls.

But for the arcade perfectionist, there was a light at the end of the tunnel: The much anticipated Sega CD version was supposed to remedy all the problems of the previous releases and deliver a true arcade experience.

It didn't.

Those who had waited months for the definitive home version of the bloody brawler were sorely disappointed with the final Sega CD product. Instead of emulating the superior graphics of the quarter-cruncher, or even the problematic but pretty Super Nintendo offering, the programmers had simply added a few more frames of animation to the existing Genesis game. It seems like a cheap move, and it was. But thankfully, the reinserted frames turn the stiff, "cardboard cutout" characters of the Genesis version into much more fluid and realistic fighters. Kicks and punches flow much better, and characters bob up and down instead of performing the same three frames of animation indefinitely. Moreover, Sub-zero looks like he did in the arcade, meaning he no longer has to share his fighting stance with his palette swapped rival, Scorpion, in the name of saving ROM space.

It's the same washed out, grainy screen as before.

Unfortunately, the fluid animation doesn't save the graphics from looking grainy and washed out, thanks to the Sega CD's limited color choices and the already lacking Genesis game on which MKCD is based. Johnny Cage's portrait on the character select screen, for example, is a blotchy mess. His teeth are nothing more than a white blob, where as in the arcade version, one could practically count his fillings. Most backgrounds look decent, but some are mysteriously empty (such as the Buddha temple stage). Given the abilities of the Sega CD unit, there is no reason why the graphics couldn't have at least come close to those of the arcade original, yet we're left with a half-hearted hack job that rests somewhere between the Genesis and the SNES ports.

Mercifully, the sound fares much better. The music seems to have been sampled directly from the arcade game and it sets the stage for battle nicely. Foreboding, vaguely Asian tunes compliment the game's dark themes and seedy locales. The fighters grunt and yell during battles, but a few of the screams and groans from the arcade game curiously go missing. The sounds of combat are bland and uninspired, but they get the job done: Generic punching noises accompany every successful hit and a forgettable "wooshing" noise plays whenever a character whiffs a roundhouse kick or takes to the air.

Get over here!
Although there's not much in the way of extra features in the game itself, there is some extra content on the Mortal Kombat CD that can't be found elsewhere. When they first power up the game, players are treated to a grainy video splicing gameplay footage with the old Mortal Kombat TV commercial. (Laughably, the in-game footage is all from the SNES version.) While it's not much on its own, it brings back some fond memories for those of us old enough to remember these infamous ads. Also included are extra songs tacked onto the CD after the normal game music. These tracks are remixes of the now famous Mortal Kombat theme song heard in the intro video, tracks that aren't even on the official Mortal Kombat album! Lastly, the programmers were nice (or lazy) enough to leave the original Genesis cart's "bloodless" fatalities intact in the programming, accessible via a code. While they're all rather shoddy reworkings of existing moves, when you've seen Sub-Zero tear off everyone's head at least 14 million times, it's a fun change of pace.

While the extras on this disc shine, sadly, the actual gameplay doesn't. There are only seven selectable fighters versus the ten or twelve that were common in fighting games of the early 90s, and each character has the same set of basic moves. Ironically, the same uniformity that makes this game so easy to pick up also destroys much of its replay value. What few moves you are in control of are drastically overpowered. Uppercuts send players reeling, foot sweeps can easily be used over and over again to "cheap" your way to victory, and to quote what my friend Ian used to say, "Your jump kick is like a super move." The entire game can be easily conquered with these three attacks alone. There's not much in this game to keep head-to-head fighting freaks battling each other, and even less to keep the solo player interested. Mortal Kombat is fun for a while, but like bouncing on a trampoline, you're eventually going to get a headache from the repetitiveness of it all.

With a six-button controller, it's easy to make the characters do pretty much whatever you want. Impressive uppercuts, deadly fireballs, and crazy flying kicks are mere button taps away. Even the fatalities are easy to perform. Due in part to the simplistic design of the original, a three-button pad works better than one might expect with this game. A pause feature, however, should have been implemented. The start button is used to block incoming attacks on both pads, giving players with the six-button controller their choice of three separate block buttons. Call me old fashioned, but three block buttons is two too many.

Some players have a problem with the loading times in between battles, but it's actually not too bad. It takes about ten seconds for a fight to load, which is about the norm for CD games of the time. And the load time for the fatalities? Milliseconds. Actually, the time in between a successful fatality input and the actual execution (excuse the pun) serves to increase the player's anticipation. Like one of the Sega CD's other fighting games, Eternal Champions, once you hear that CD drive spinning, you know that digitized death is coming your way!

With Mortal Kombat on Sega CD, gamers received a mediocre port of a lackluster game. This disc delivers a better experience than the Genesis cart, but in the same way that Bush managed to defeat Gore in the 2000 United States presidential election: Barely. Though not without its occasional charms, like uppercutting hapless victims into a spike-filled pit below or catching the opponent off guard with Scorpion's notorious spear move, Mortal Kombat on Sega CD (or in any form, for that matter) will likely leave players unimpressed. However, if one boots up this game with few expectations, they're likely to catch themselves having a bit of fun, especially with a second player to face for Mortal Kombat supremacy. The game provides a decent challenge without being too difficult, and it controls easily enough that one can pick up a game pad and, within a few moments, have a fighting chance.

The era of Mortal Kombat dominating the arcades has come and gone, and without the hype (both negative and positive) we are left with a mildly entertaining martial arts romp that's more fun as a nostalgia piece than an actual game. If you can find a copy somewhere on the cheap, pick it up and give it a whirl, especially if you've played the Genesis cart to death. (Ha! That was a pun!) It won't be the best money you ever spent, but it's likely to inspire your friends to imitate whatever it is that Rayden yells during his "superman" move.

And that, my friends, is priceless.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Of Laser Beaks and Exploding Killer Bees

Kolibri, for Sega’s 32X, is your basic hummingbird-based shoot ‘em up.

I'll say it again: Kolibri is a hummingbird-based shoot ‘em up. I know it sounds ridiculous – and it is – but that’s just part of this overlooked title’s charm.

I feel I should start with a confession: I never liked Ecco the Dolphin. It’s kind of boring and I never know what I’m supposed to be doing. That’s why I’m so surprised that I like Kolibri as much as I do. Like Ecco the Dolphin, the goals of each stage are never very clear and rounds begin and end in nondescript areas, but the game’s asinine concept, stunning visuals and haunting tunes keep me coming back.

In a medium that prides itself on shattering one’s nerves, Kolibri sticks out as the most serene game I've ever played. The photorealistic graphics use the 32X's increased color pallet to the fullest. Foliage, water, animals and sunsets (the glorious sunsets!) are truly a sight to behold. Happyish, new age synthesizer music floats through your speakers during half the levels in the game and can be very soothing at times; the other tunes are panicky and urgent, but both sets fit the action in an odd, “I’m a badass, rapid-fire hummingbird off to save the Earth,” kind of way. The gameplay is only average, blending the action sensibilities of a spacer shooter with the free-roaming gameplay mechanics of Ecco, but it’s the atmosphere that keeps sucking the player back in.

The controls are decently responsive, with the d-pad taking on the movement responsibilities, one fire button and one “speed burst button.” Most of the cavalcade of available weapons are easy to use, but the few that aren’t pretty much kill any fun you may have been having before picking them up. Here’s a tip: Ditch the small bullets or the “ring beam” for something heat-seeking, like the laser beams or the blue and yellow sphere thingies. Trying to control the inferior weapons is akin to typing a midterm with just your nose – it’s possible, but why would you put yourself through the frustration when you could have had a much easier time of it all?

If you like Ecco the Dolphin (for some reason), if you’re looking for something unique, or if you just need a reason to take Virtua Fighter out of your 32X, give Kolibri a shot. Check it out: The manual even gives you tips on how to build your own hummingbird feeder. I’m just upset that when I made a feeder after buying the game 14 years ago, the hummingbirds that came to visit didn't start blowing up the beehives around my house with their laser beaks.

You lied to me about nature again Sega, (see: Sonic the Hedgehog, Dynamite Dux, Talespin, etc.) but it’s so much better than the truth that I forgive you.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Falling In Love Again with Castlevania

Ahh, Castlevania. How you used to frustrate me in my bright-eyed NES days with your impossible jumps and chunky controls. Every set of stairs was another potential death trap and jumping was always a leap of faith. And yet, I still loved you. But like the shining brilliance of a shooting star, our romance soon burned out. It was just puppy love, we thought. Time to move on.

Four years later, I heard about the newest Castlevania game, this time on the Sega Genesis. But Castlevania: Bloodlines, I was told, was not worth playing. “It’s not Super Castlevania IV!” exclaimed the masses, “therefore it isn’t fun!” But something inside me just couldn’t let it go, and I was drawn to that new Castlevania game anyway. I learned two things the day it finally found its way to my Genesis: the masses are pretty dumb, and Bloodlines is freakin’ awesome.

The sloppy controls of Castlevanias past have vanished; in their place is a responsive layout that hardly ever has my hero careening into a bottomless pit unless it’s my own stupid fault. The graphics are detailed and creepy, with rotting flesh, severed heads and bloody skeletons populating some of the most interesting locations early 20th century Europe had to offer. And let me tell you, that sunset over the lake in the second stage is permanently etched into my mind as one of the greatest video game moments of all time: Even with the Genesis’s limited pallet, the colors of the setting sun are brilliant. Combined with the urgency and hope inherent in the soundtrack, Bloodlines establishes a sort of heroic duty within the player that lasts throughout the offering.

Huge, detailed monstrosities await players who dare to infiltrate Dracula’s strongholds, leading to some truly epic – and often unexpected – battles. But perhaps the greatest surprise is that the standard whip-toting character, John Morris, is no where near as fun to use as his spear-wielding comrade, Eric Lecarde. As Eric, you can vault up to higher platforms in a single controller motion! You can spin your lance around and use it as a makeshift shield, shredding the undead (and innocent candles) with ease! You can finally stab demons where it hurts instead of just whacking them with a vaguely taboo piece of leather!

It’s great fun to square off against massive bosses, tear all manner of snarling fiends limb from limb, and find the rancid meat that Dracula hides in his walls. The only problem is this: Though by 1994 standards it was about average length, some might say that Bloodlines is kind of short. However, in the age of 200-hour-long epics that require refresher courses every time you play, a quick and moody action romp from the past might be just what the doctor ordered. Besides, both characters have their own somewhat different path though the game, a la Sonic and Knuckles, and there are three difficulty settings, so there’s still plenty to do after you finish the game for the first time.

Without a doubt, Bloodlines was, and still is, a great game. When I first played it, I couldn’t put the controller down for hours. And that’s when I knew I had fallen back in love. Hard.

I’ll never leave you again, baby. Never again.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

It's Itoi's World, Charlie Brown

For a kid who can’t do anything right, Charlie Brown sure does know how to capture the hearts of a nation.

Oct. 2, 1950, the first Peanuts comic strip ran in seven newspapers. Since then, Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang have become cultural icons, as synonymous with American culture as baseball, apple pie and the paintings of Norman Rockwell. Charlie Brown’s animated exploits are now an indelible part of our holidays, and rarely does a Christmas, Thanksgiving or Halloween go by without the likes of Linus, Snoopy and Peppermint Patty performing their yearly rituals on our television screens. Even before passing away from the complications of colon cancer in February of 2000, Charles Schulz, creator of Charlie Brown and the rest of the Peanuts gang, was an American legend.

However, it seems that the unlucky kid in the yellow shirt and his precocious beagle have been an inspiration to more than just the people of the United States.

Approximately 7000 miles away from the land of Rock n’ Roll, Superman and I Love Lucy lives Shigesato Itoi, one of the most talented writers Japan has ever produced. During the late 80s, Itoi found himself leading a new project for the Japanese electronics giant, Nintendo. In yet another new situation of his already eclectic career, Itoi’s first foray into the video game market was to use the formula of the massively popular Dragon Quest series of video games, but present a story and style completely counter to what Dragon Quest had been delivering to eager players for the past three years. Instead of a testosterone-laden title dealing with dragons and glory, Itoi named his game after the gentle woman who raised us all: Mother. Friendly neighbors and typical kids next door littered the urban landscape, and in place of swords, castles and brawny warriors from the “times of yore” were baseball bats, shopping malls, and four young American children who set out to save the world from an alien invasion – or have fun trying.

According to Phil Sandhop, head of the unreleased English translation of Mother, Itoi’s game was designed to have a Peanuts “feel” in both the graphics and gameplay. Apparently, it was the programmers’ intent to make Mother seem more authentically American by alluding to one of the United States most cherished creations. After all, what could be more American than good ol’ Charlie Brown?

“I don’t believe that [Mother] was meant to directly copy Peanuts,” Sandhop explained in an interview with the retro-gaming website The Lost Levels, “but that’s what the designers knew the typical Japanese game player would perceive to be a typical American boy growing up outside a small town.”

Although as Sandhop suggests, the game is far from a mere copy of Schulz’s comic strip, the Schulzian influence on Mother is undeniable. At first glace, Mother could easily be mistaken for a Charlie Brown game. Ninten, the game’s main character, doesn’t just look like Charlie Brown; he almost IS Charlie Brown. From his bulbous nose and boyish grin to his slightly chubby stomach and cartoony, oval feet, Ninten is the spitting image of everyone’s favorite blockhead. The only difference is Ninten’s trademark red hat and a blue – not yellow – t-shirt. Furthermore, many of the locales that he and his friends travel to in Mother, like small, rural homes and an unassuming elementary school, could have flowed directly from Schulz’s pen.

But the similarities aren’t limited to just Ninten and the game’s landscape: One look at some of the other inhabitants of the world of Mother conjures memories of Chuck and the gang as well. One female character Ninten encounters during his journey wears glasses and has short, black hair, just like Peppermint Patty’s yes-woman, Marcie. Another character is surrounded by a perpetual cloud of dust and has a mass of unkempt, “naturally curly” locks. He (or possibly she) is a cross between Fredia, a girl who appears briefly in A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Pigpen, a chronically filthy yet perpetually polite young man of the Peanuts universe.

In Earth Bound, the Marcie look-alike sports pigtails instead of her old, Schulz-inspired hairdo, and the Pigpen-like character has cleaned up his act, losing the dust cloud completely. As Sandhop said in his Lost Levels interview, the revisions were probably made during the translation process to “make the game Peanut-less,” for fear that a Schulz lawsuit might spring up otherwise. Yet, in a seemingly counterproductive move, Ninten was reworked to receive a very Charlie Brownesque stripe on his shirt. (Good grief, Nintendo! Make up your minds!)

One of the hallmarks of Schultz’s comic is the fact that the youngsters often act like the adults, revealing deep thoughts and saying poignant words, yet they still display the qualities inherent in all children. While kids in the Peanuts world drag around security blankets, play football, and worry about homework, they also ponder the true meaning of life in very mature ways.

Once again, Itoi takes a page out of Charlie Brown’s book with the children of Mother. While they are saddled with the gargantuan task of defeating an evil alien presence, just like the Peanuts gang, Ninten and his friends still find time to interact with other kids their own age, enjoy a home cooked meal, go to school and develop their first crushes.

Part II: “I don’t believe in pain.”

It all begs a very simple question: Why? Aside from the American flavor Itoi was searching for, why was Peanuts such an influence on Mother? Itoi isn’t one to haphazardly throw elements into his games, as evidenced by the harrowingly long development cycles they often go through. With this in mind, we are left with several unanswered questions: Did Itoi have other motives in adding many Schulzian elements to Mother? And if so, what were they?

In an interview with journalist Charles T. Whipple entitled “Words of Wisdom,” Itoi remarked, “I don't believe in pain. I don't believe things should be difficult. I don't believe perseverance conquers all.” Although Itoi was talking about his own philosophy, it’s interesting to note that this is basically the underlying ideology of the Peanuts comics in a nutshell. Every year, Lucy sets up the football, telling Charlie Brown that she’ll actually allow him to kick it this time – and every year, poor Charlie Brown winds up flat on his back, wondering why he always falls for the same trick. Linus forgoes Trick-or-Treating each Halloween to wait in the pumpkin patch for a visit from the Great Pumpkin, but all he ever gets is a cold and a broken heart. And Snoopy is constantly trying his hand at being an author, yet everything he writes is barely fit to line Woodstock’s birdcage.

There are many more examples, but Schulz’s lesson is clear: There is such a thing as too much perseverance. Many Peanuts strips and television specials illustrate the consequences of this – namely, unnecessary pain and unhappiness. Charles Shultz wasn’t telling the people of America to never try to reach a goal nor attempt to better themselves; he was simply saying that after trying our best again and again, there eventually comes a time to move on. Like Linus tells Charlie Brown when he blows the spelling bee in the film Snoopy Come Home, “And the world didn’t come to an end, did it, Charlie Brown?”

Itoi has definitely applied this philosophy to his own life. Through much of the 90s, Itoi put his heart and soul into crafting Mother 3, even moving it to the lesser Nintendo 64 platform when the company abandoned the N64 Disk Drive. But as the end of the N64’s life span drew near, however, the humble Itoi knew it was time to put his baby on ice. The cancellation came as a huge shock to Mother fans, but the project was becoming increasingly unfeasible and was causing Itoi much hardship and pain. It hurt him greatly that he was disappointing his fans, but it would have hurt much more to rush the project thought to completion and deliver a substandard product.

Knowing this, it’s not a stretch to infer that even during his work on the original Mother, Itoi lived by his “too much perseverance causes harm” philosophy. There’s probably no better representation of this ideology in the U.S. than Schulz’s comic characters, and Itoi knew Japanese players already associated Peanuts with the small town America setting of Mother. It only made sense then, for both Itoi and the players, for Itoi to reference his kindred spirit, Charles Schulz, on the video screen.

Part III: Itoi’s Charlie Brown Nation?

Does this mean Itoi views America as a carefree world akin to Charlie Brown’s? Put simply, no. However lightheartedly they do so, Mother games often delve into human nature – and the results are less than flattering to mankind. The series is rife with humanity acting badly, from miserly band managers and power mad policemen to self-serving politicians and gangs of wayward teens. Itoi may be a dreamer, but he’s far too intelligent to think that the innocence of a Charlie Brown lifestyle could exist fulltime on a planet full of hate, war and money.

More likely, the Peanuts-like world of Mother is the way Itoi wishes America – and for that matter, life itself – were. How wonderful it would be if the only woes we ever faced were simplistic, childlike difficulties, and the answers to our problems always lied within ourselves!

How wonderful indeed – especially for a man like Shigesato Itoi, who has plenty of problems and questions he can’t answer on his own. When Itoi was young, his parents were divorced. Later, Itoi rallied against Japanese tradition and left his school, Hosei University, in his late teens. Branded an outcast by society, Itoi was left with nowhere to go but the streets. Most people would have turned to their family for help – but, with the divorce, Itoi's family had been shattered; besides, he had quit University. How could he ever go home now?

It was kind of like Trick-or-Treating all night and coming home with a bag full of rocks.

"I got a rock."
In the end, the world of Mother has little to do with America or even Charlie Brown, although it does resemble it. No, Mother isn’t about Charles Schulz or Peanuts, it’s the video representation of what Itoi wishes his childhood had been. With a broken-up family, an unwillingness to attend University like everyone else, and no place to call his own, Itoi was forced to grow up fast.

Through playing his games and examining his other works, it’s easy to see what an introspective man Itoi is. It should come as no surprise, then, that Mother is just another part of Itoi’s endless search for answers; or at the very least, comfort. His hunt for fulfillment and his desire for the “normal” family he missed out on in his younger years led Itoi to create an alternate childhood, a better one, for himself – and anyone else who was looking for one as well. Ninten's got everything one could ask for – a sister, a loving mother, and a father who works hard to support his family – and now, so could Itoi.

A person’s mother is supposed to be the one who will always love them no matter what. Fittingly, Mother was Itoi’s labor of love; unlike most other video games of the time (and current games, for that matter), Mother wasn’t a generic piece of crap slammed together in six months for the sole purpose of generating profits. Itoi's opus was a gift to anyone who never had someone to call mom or dad, or those who came from a broken family. In fact, it was surrogate mother for everyone who needed one, regardless of why. Like the exploits of Charlie Brown, Mother presented players with a kinder view of life they could escape into whenever they choose.

Part IV: A Boy Named Shigesato Itoi

The first animated Peanuts special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, originally aired on CBS in the winter of 1965, when Itoi was about 17 years old. Near the end of this now-classic holiday tale, Charlie Brown is asked to bring back “a great big shiny aluminum Christmas tree” to be placed on stage during the children’s Christmas play. But good ol’ Charlie Brown goes with his heart, and instead of purchasing a more commercial product, he returns with a sickly, yet natural Christmas tree. At first, everyone is appalled with his choice. “I told you he’d goof it up. He’s not the kind you can depend on to do anything right,” says one little girl. “You’re hopeless, Charlie Brown,” adds another.

However, the Peanuts gang soon gives the little tree a second chance. “It’s not bad at all, really. It just needs a little love,” says Linus. They gather around and decorate it, and the once pathetic little tree stands beautiful and mighty.

In 1965, Itoi was a lot like that sad little tree. He was drifting through life aimlessly, with little hope. But, like that Charlie Brown tree, all he needed was “a little love” to blossom into something beautiful. By quitting University, Itoi had failed as far as conventional wisdom went; but after attending night school, putting in a lot of hard work, and a little help from his friends, he blossomed into one of the most sought-after copywriters in Japan. Soon, the kid who had dropped out of school was on televisions across Japan, reporting, hosting game shows, and more. And eventually, he would take the helm of the Mother series, a set of games that would inspire not only the people of Japan, but also fans in America. Against all odds, Itoi had become a Japanese cultural icon.

You know something? For a kid who couldn't do anything right, Shigesato Itoi sure knows how to capture the hearts of a nation.


Charlie Brown Christmas, A. 1965. Paramount.
It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. 1966. Paramount.
Offical Peanuts Website, The. (2005) Retrieved 12 Apr 2006. Retrieved 12 Apr 2006.
Whipple, Charles T. “Words of Wisdom.” Retrieved 12 Apr 2006.
Wirth, Jonathan. “Spotlight Earthbound.” (2003) Retrieved 12 Apr 2006.