Friday, 5 August 2011

Nintendo showcase

What a difference 12 months can make. In 2010, with the Wii’s position as this generation’s biggest-selling hardware already sealed, all the talk turned to how the 3DS would inevitably dominate the handheld landscape in much the same way. However there currently hangs over the gaming behemoth an undeniable air of uncertainty. Sales of the 3DS are sluggish, as the software library struggles to gain momentum. The Wii, all but dead as a going concern, has just one last hurrah on the horizon. And reception to its successor, the Wii U, has been more of confusion than outright excitement. Are things really so bad in Camp Mario?

Well, as more details about the Wii U trickle out the more it sounds like a genuinely radical new take on hardware (one publication has already called it the most “flexible” console platform ever). That “one last hurrah” for the Wii? Well, it’s only the small matter of Skyward Sword, the first Zelda title designed specifically for Nintendo’s ageing game-changer. And the 3DS? As Nintendo’s recent showcase set out to prove, the fortunes of the handheld could be about to change very quickly.

Kirby Wii

You wait ages for a new Kirby game, and then two turn up at once (or three if you count Kirby Mass Attack on DS)! Following the excellent Kirby’s Epic Yarn, the minimally titled Kirby Wii, developed by series creator HAL, plays like a cross between New Super Mario Bros. Wii – it’s a 2D side-scroller that allows for up to four players to play simultaneously, though only one can be Kirby – and Super Smash Bros Brawl – there are regular bursts of bizarre ultraviolence and flashy pyrotechnics. The essence of Kirby is intact, both in terms of the ability-absorbing strength of the main character, and in the game’s accessibility and skewed cuteness; not only is it extremely difficult to die, but the riotous level we played featured a large tree as it’s boss, a lone tear falling from its eyes as we defeated it, with Kirby wielding (and we’re not joking here), a meat cleaver almost as big as the screen. Chaotic and yet so compelling.

Luigi’s Mansion 2

Luigi’s Mansion 2 received an ecstatic response when it was unveiled at E3, and it’s easy to see why. This sequel to the semi-forgotten Gamecube classic makes excellent use of 3D, with one scene in a corridor, eerily stretching out to a closed door in the distance, particularly effective. The atmosphere, a blend of theme park theatrics and subtle ambience, is delightful, as are the vibrant visuals (the lighting deserves a special mention). From our brief hands-on, it appears that gameplay mechanics remain largely the same, with Luigi tasked with busting ghosts using his special backpack vacuum cleaner thing. The developers have seemingly created a world that demands constant engagement, with many inquisitive pursuits reaping rewards, be they an important key or, more likely, a troublesome ghost. Nevermind the headline-grabbing Karts and Super Marios, Luigi’s Mansion 2 could be the 3DS’s surprise trump card.

Starfox 64 3D

Lylat Wars may not have been an era-defining event on the scale of Ocarina Of Time, but after just a few minutes in the company of Starfox 64 3D it’s clear that, in terms of emotionally resonant reminders of a gaming youth, it’s still on a par with galloping across Hyrule Field. Simply put, Starfox 64 3D is a superb conversion of one of the Nintendo 64’s very best games. Controls have translated well, while the use of the 3DS’s gyroscope function feels natural to the swooping and ducking gameplay (though it doesn’t quite feel as integral to the experience in the same way that, say, the Rumble Pak bundled with the original game did). Having not played Lylat Wars since its original release we’re looking forward to taking the peak of Fox McCloud’s adventures through its paces again. Those unfamiliar with the 64-bit original will be merely left with the chance to experience one of gaming’s most exhilarating galactic action space-operas for the first time.

- Originally published on D+PAD Magazine.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Cars 2

Cars has the dubious distinction of being the one film when, it is widely agreed, Pixar were anything less than stellar. Perhaps it’s hard to care about talking cars in the same way as sad robots or the toys of our childhood come to life, but Cars, even some five years after release, still sticks out in the Pixar roster as a brash, noisy estranged cousin. The reason we’re here of course is that, of all the films, it’s Cars that Pixar has decided to follow-up this summer. Cars 2, by all accounts, is even messier and more headache-inducing than the first film, a globe-trotting journey of auto-destruction seemingly made specifically for six-year old boys. Perfect videogame fodder, then.

Last year’s Toy Story 3 tie-in was notable in that it was the first Pixar videogame in a long time that effectively captured the essence of its source material. Cars 2 follows in this tradition, albeit with the understandable restriction that a film about racing cars was only ever going to turn into one particular type of videogame. Yep, that’s right – Cars 2 is an existential journey akin to Flower. Only kidding, it’s a racing game built from some decent sources.

The bulk of the game takes place in the CHROME mission mode, a series of tiered events in which experience points are quickly accrued, leading to the unlocking of further modes and tracks. It does a good job at throwing a succession of varied game types at the player, from standard races to various styles of battle racing, which prove to be the highlights of Cars 2. Handling is responsive, tidy and is accessibly arcade-like; those looking for intricacy in their racing experience will obviously be in the wrong place here, but it’s also just as easy for developers to mis-judge issues of sensitivity and spoil what should be a breezy game, which thankfully isn’t the case here.

Although pure races do have their share of distractions in the form of alternate track routes and jumps (from which you can pull showboating tricks with the use of the right stick), it’s in the different battle modes that Cars 2 really starts to reflect the manic franchise upon which it’s based. Battle Races are like a normal race but with the added bonus of weapons, collected by driving over the power-ups dotted around the track – the weapons don’t have the variety of imagination as a Mario Kart, but it’s undeniably fun. Attack is an addictive high-score run in which extra time is added to the clock for every successful hit, while Hunter is a sporadic arena battle in which waves of enemies need to be successfully defeated. If I found it a pleasurable game than

Of all the recent games that Cars 2 reminds us of, it’s probably Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing that is the closest comparison. Sega’s game may be the more polished experience, but Avalanche Software (who were also behind last year’s aforementioned Toy Story 3 game) have done a good job with the license, and the entire package ends up being fairly substantial. Although the myriad amount of crests available to unlock, for such feats as driving a total of 250km, appeals to this OCD-happy writer, of more interest to younger gamers will be a garage which includes all the familiar characters (and many new ones), for them to pore over in a sort of pre-school version of Forza. There’s also a strong influence from last year’s sensational Split Second: Velocity, in terms of the boost-collecting mechanic and certain on-track set-pieces (a plane landing on the track anyone?). Split Second’s developer were of course also under the Disney Interactive Studios umbrella before their untimely demise, but whether there was overlap in development staff is one for the file marked ‘speculation’.

Overall then Cars 2 is a loveable excursion into the world of Pixar. Built with all the efficiency and character that you’d expect from the movie studio’s cinema work, it demonstrates that what may not work so well as a film (unless of course you are six, in which case Cars is the best thing ever) does just fine in the style of a knockabout children’s action racer. Grown ups can play as well.

- Originally published on D+PAD Magazine.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Post-it note Pac-Man

I've just returned from holiday, a week-long road trip that took me from the South of Spain to the tip of France. My only gaming companion during this blissful time was a DS Lite and a copy of Rhythm Heaven, which I was revisiting for a future Nintendo DS Club feature. Anyway, one of the most memorable sights, in amongst the beautiful cathedrals and winding, cobbled streets was this office window in Bordeaux; one employee has clearly too much time on their hands, but from their boredom has emerged a cute tribute to one of gaming's greatest icons. All hail the Post-it note Pac-Man:

This photo can (should) be used as a template by office workers the world over; I'll be starting my own Post-it note Pac-Man upon my return to work tomorrow.

It turns out that the above Post-it note Pac-Man wasn't a mere isolated case of office cubicle stupor, but just one volley in a wider French phenomenon that UK newspaper The Guardian has today dubbed 'Paris's Post-it wars'. You can read their article here, accompanied by a mini-gallery of selected Post-it note window artworks here.
French website, from which The Guardian's selection was gathered, has a huge gallery of them, and appears to be updated daily. The vast majority are grin-inducing tributes to 8-bit heroes of the past. including one depicting the dog from Duck Hunt! Productivity of the highest order.