Games 8/20/08: New International Track & Field, Braid, Bionic Commando Rearmed

New International Track & Field
For: Nintendo DS
From: Sumo Digital/Konami
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, comic mischief, language, mild cartoon violence, mild suggestive themes)

Eurocom’s multifaceted fumbling of the official Beijing Olympics video game is a sore disappointment for anyone waiting patiently for a contemporary evolution of Konami’s classic “Track & Field” arcade game.

Fortunately, Konami itself and Sumo Digital have rather stealthily produced a scratch for the itch by doing for the small screen what “Beijing 2008” utterly failed to do for the big one. For all “New International Track & Field” lacks, including next-generation graphics and any ties to the Beijing games, it masterfully embodies the addictive qualities that made the original game such a cult favorite.

For starters, how about this: “Field” includes 24 events and, despite diving headfirst into the potentially disastrous medium of touch screen controls, nails all 24. Sumo smartly gives players the option to use either the touch screen or simply press buttons, and it even more intelligently allows players to employ a mix of the two that often works brilliantly. Despite a wide range of event types — per series tradition, “Field” includes events from all corners of the summer games, not just track and field — most events’ control schemes will make sense after one glance at the tutorial. Only the pole vault, perhaps, requires a few secondary looks before it clicks.

“Field” also hits the difficulty nail on the head: Attaining respectable scores isn’t hard with even a minimal amount of practice, but breaking world records and taking on the online leaderboards will take practice, experimentation, and a level of mastery only a true “Track & Field” addict can conjure. Fortunately (maybe), “Field” makes it easy for obsessive players to keep retrying selected events until that sweet spot is found. No attempt is in vein: The game tracks personal and world records, and rewards you with play credits, no matter what mode you’re in.

The point about credits is worth noting, because “Field” is an unlockable junkie’s paradise. You can unlock new costumes for the game’s amusing cast of big-headed, cartoony athletes, and the truly dedicated eventually will be able to compete as classic Konami characters (Frogger, Solid Snake, Simon Belmont and others) in special events designed around those characters.

With so much to do and numerous (solo, four-player single-card multiplayer, full online support) ways to do it, “Field” fulfills and exceeds any reasonable gamer’s checklist for what a modern Olympics game should have. That it plays so well certainly doesn’t hurt, either. If you can live without the Beijing branding — and “Field’s” personality makes quite a case for not needing it — there is no reason not to snap this one up.

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Braid
For: Xbox 360 Live Arcade
From: Number None/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (language, cartoon violence)

The summer of 2008 will be remembered by some gamers as the first season in which downloadable games were both better and more buzzworthy than the big-budget stuff being sold at the same time in stores.

Perhaps no game symbolizes this shift more than “Braid,” which has garnered plenty of chatter for reasons both good and bad.

For some, the bad begins and ends with the $15 price tag, which makes “Braid” 50 percent more expensive than several recently-released downloadable games of equal or greater value. “Braid” lacks any immediate replayability beyond repeating the single-player adventure for fun or time attack bragging rights, so you’d best love what it does offer if you want a return on your investment.

Happily, the game makes a heck of a case for doing just that.

At first glance, “Braid” resembles a side-scrolling action game in the “Super Mario Bros.” vein. As Tim, your basic course of action consists of running from left to right and jumping on the bad guys, much as Mario did once upon a time. Refreshingly, “Braid” overtly acknowledges the connection through a handful of clever winks that also lend levity to a somber (and arguably excessively pretentious) storyline.

Ultimately, though, the nods to “Mario,” as well as the storyline and even “Braid’s” awesome living watercolor graphics, play second fiddle to the game’s real meat, which is time manipulation.

In each of “Braid’s” five primary levels exist 12 puzzle pieces, as well as a trick related to time control. In one level, for instance, you can rewind time simply by holding the X button. In another, walking to the right moves time forward while walking to the left rewinds it. To collect all 60 pieces — which, it bears noting, is the only way to see the conniving final wrinkle in “Braid’s” story — means to master each of these time tricks and either employ or overcome them and solve the riddles populating each of the levels.

If that sounds daunting, guess what? It is — but only to a degree. Some of “Braid’s” challenges seem impossible at first glance, but patience and experimentation reveal some ingenious cause-and-effect design at work. “Braid” absolutely possesses the ability to frustrate the easily frustrated, but the expert degree to which it combines classic action and an entirely original brand of intellectual adventure puts it in a class all its own. If four to six hours of that kind of bliss are worth 15 of your dollars, questions of “Braid’s” value aren’t necessary after all.

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Downloadable game of the week

Bionic Commando Rearmed
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network, Xbox 360 Live Arcade, PC
From: GRIN/Capcom
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, language, violence)
Price: $10 on PS3/Xbox 360, $15 on PC

Don’t let those newfangled good looks fool you: Despite a major graphical overhaul that makes it one of the prettiest 2D games ever to pass eyes, “Bionic Commando Rearmed” is extremely and sometimes maddeningly faithful to the 1988 NES game upon which it’s based. Little beneath the exterior has changed: It’s still a sidescrolling action/shooting game, and you still employ a grappling arm instead of a jump button to get around. The levels return mostly unchanged, and the awful storyline is now an amusing point of pride rather than the product of a bad Japanese-to-English translation. Most notably, and despite numerous advances in the realm of controller engineering, “Rearmed” brings back the once-necessary, now-archaic control scheme that made “Commando” unique in the first place. That’ll be music to purists’ ears, but those unfamiliar with the original game’s eccentricities will find “Rearmed’s” stiff and sometimes cheap design choices to be an acquired taste they may not wish to acquire. (A demo is available for both consoles if you’re unsure.) For those on board, “Rearmed’s” price of entry is a steal: On top of remaking the original game, GRIN throws in local four-multiplayer and, for the truly devoted, a horde of brutal challenge rooms that will test the very best (and, through leaderboard support, let the world know just who those people are).