Games 4/6/10: Red Steel 2, Rooms: The Main Building, Save the Turtles

Red Steel 2
For: Wii
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, mild language, mild suggestive themes, violence)

Remember how awesome “Red Steel” was going to be, and how the amazingly immersive mix of first-person shooting and motion-controlled swordplay promised to take action games to an entirely new plane? And remember how none of that happened at all? Oh, you do? Well “Red Steel 2” would rather you didn’t, because three years later, all those empty promises finally have a game on which to hang their hats.

Fundamentally, what “RS2” does is similar enough to its predecessor to bear the franchise name. It’s still a first-person shooter and motion-controlled swordfighting game cobbled together as one.

But everything about “RS2’s” methods stands in stark, and entirely welcome, contrast to its predecessor.

For starters, and maybe finishers, it’s just plain fun. Unlike the first game, “RS2” allows players to switch between gunplay and swordplay whenever they want instead of when the game dictates, and Ubisoft puts all the pieces together to make what should be a complete controller nightmare into a slightly unwieldy but astonishingly pleasant ride. The cursor-based shooting feels considerably more intuitive this time around, and switching from gun to sword and back, while inevitably a bit disorienting given the disparity in control styles, works plenty well enough to avoid becoming the source of frustration it so easily could have been.

Though some inevitably won’t like it, Ubisoft’s decision to not just support but flat-out require Nintendo’s MotionPlus controller attachment pays off enourmously on the swordplay side. The game guides players’ movements to a small degree, but overwhelmingly, striking, thrusting and parrying are mapped precisely to how players hold the Wii remote.

The extra precision allows “RS2” to introduce a surprisingly large arsenal of swordfighting moves as the story advances, and the combat is very gratifyingly active — arguably to a fault if active gaming isn’t your thing. Lazy flicks of the wrist won’t suffice the way they did in the first game, and if you can’t get into the idea of swinging the remote with the full might you would a sword, you should just find a game that isn’t as committed to the Wii’s original vision as this one so satisfyingly is.

Superficially, the story isn’t much different. The bland, overly serious storyline from the first game is scrapped in favor of an exuberant mix of Asian cinema, post-apocalyptic dark comedy and spaghetti western, and “RS2’s” narrative structure now breaks down, “Borderlands”-style, into bite-sized missions that players eventually can accept by the handful.

The “Borderlands” approach extends to “RS2’s” visual presentation, which combines realistic and cel-shaded graphic design to create a game that would look good on any system and stands head and shoulders above most of its Wii counterparts. That the art style also suits the storyline and action so perfectly — everything about “RS2’s” approach in all three departments seems developed with a brazenly fun-first spirit in mind — certainly doesn’t hurt matters.


Rooms: The Main Building
Reviewed for: Wii
Also available for: Nintendo DS
From: Hudson
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild violence)

Considering the main objective of “Rooms: The Main Building” is to rearrange the game world in order to help the onscreen character escape the room, is it fitting or ironic that the game’s biggest problem might be its inability to get out of its own way?

Conceptually, “Rooms” is sound, if something of an odd fit for a big-screen console game. The overriding objective is to move pieces of a room around, sliding puzzle style, in such a way that allows the onscreen character to reach the exit and head to the next room. The number of pieces increases as the story progresses, and the game occasionally introduces new items and situations to mix things up a bit, but the general gist doesn’t change. “Rooms” gives players point-and-click control over the onscreen character’s movements, but the tile sliding is where the game’s real action lies.

The idea of “Rooms” being little more than a string of ornate sliding puzzles — precisely the kind of toy people invented video games to get away from — would make it a pretty hard sell in its $30 Nintendo DS form, to say nothing of its $30 Wii form.

But whether “Rooms” helps or hurts itself with the extra frills it piles on is legitimately arguable. Some will adore, possibly for all the wrong reasons, the story and overall design, which incorporate full-motion video animation and the kind of sound effects that would make 1993 proud. But anyone who wasn’t around during the CD-ROM game heyday (or was, but wishes they weren’t) likely won’t see the story as anything but intrusive and confusingly designed for no real benefit.

Those who do, meanwhile, will find it hard to endure the 100 levels it takes to see “Rooms” to its conclusion. The high level count obviously is a must for Hudson to justify the high price, but all the items and special level circumstances can do only so much to spice up what essentially is the same trick repeated ad nauseam.

“Rooms'” multiplayer suite engenders a similar lack of fulfillment. The battle mode, which pits two players in a race to complete the same puzzle at the same time, is fun for a while, but only so long as the basic gameplay holds interest in the first place.

The existence of a level design tool, meanwhile, is thoroughly puzzling. It’s sufficiently robust and probably the most polished facet of the entire game, but it includes no way to share the level with other players unless they play it on your console. Having the ability to trade more sliding puzzles online with others probably wouldn’t do much to help a game whose concept runs out of steam long before the single-player supply is tapped out, but if you’re going to these lengths to give players a means to create, why neuter the process by quashing the ability to share?


Save the Turtles
For: Nintendo DSi via DSiWare shop
From: Sabarasa
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $5

Devising clever scenarios for match-three puzzle games is about as easy these days as inventing new uses for a glass of orange juice, so Sabarasa gets credit out of the gate for doing exactly that. The goal in “Save the Turtles” is indeed to match three of a kind. But instead of sliding gems or shapes, players have to guide cartoon turtles into matching rows in order for the ocean to send a wave to pick them up. The act of guiding living objects is novel on its own, and “Turtles” builds on that novelty by populating the beach with crabs, debris and other obstacles the turtles must avoid. The sun, and its ability to give the turtles sunburn, poses an additional threat to players who don’t make matches quickly and consistently. “Turtles'” stylus controls occasionally hiccup when creating a path for a turtle to follow, but for the most part, the controls and interface function exactly as they should. Players who get used to the mechanics might be surprised how intricate the seemingly basic gameplay eventually becomes, and “Turtles” rewards those who do so with enough content — a 32-level story mode, an endless survival mode, a quick-play mode that changes certain story mode rules, unlockable achievement-like trophies — to easily justify the $5 asking price.

Games 3/30/10: WarioWare D.I.Y., Just Cause 2, Game Room

WarioWare D.I.Y.
For: Nintendo DS
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief, mild cartoon violence)

An important warning for those who like “WarioWare” games but despise the idea of creating their own fun: This one may not be for you — at least, not yet.

Also, a word of warning for anyone who enjoys a creative challenge or has aspirations to enter the world of animation, character and/or game design: If you don’t at least check this out, you’re doing yourself a disservice.

Like every “WarioWare” game before it, “WarioWare D.I.Y.” sports a collection of microgames, which are like minigames but generally toss out one vaguely-worded objective, allow five seconds or fewer for players to figure out and complete the challenge, and then whisk away before another microgame pops up and repeats the cycle until players simply cannot keep up.

But the “D.I.Y.” in the title isn’t kidding. Where previous games came bundled with more than 200 microgames each, “D.I.Y.” has a few north of 90, and not all of them are even new. If you want more than that, guess what? Make them yourself.

Fortunately, that’s not a concession of laziness on Nintendo’s behalf, but instead the real reason “D.I.Y.” even exists at all. And in spite of the obvious limitations on hand with regard to the hardware and the microgame format, Nintendo has put together a game design tool that’s shockingly robust.

The full might of the tool isn’t apparent at first glance, when “D.I.Y.” asks players simply to draw a character that the game inserts into a pre-scripted microgame. Initially, this appears to be all “D.I.Y.” is — players performing fill-in duty while the game does all the creative, complicated stuff.

But a trip through the 65-page manual and absolutely staggering collection of thoroughly thorough in-game tutorials changes the picture completely. “D.I.Y.” obviously doesn’t allow for the creation of the next “Legend of Zelda” game, and the limitations of the microgame format are in place, but the tools do not skimp on control. Players can create objects separately using a pretty capable paint editor and, in similar fashion to basic Adobe Flash design, can script those objects to move and react according to input triggers and other conditions. Ambitious creators can stack win conditions for extra challenge, and there’s even a little music composition tool for soundtrack creation purposes.

Nintendo goes a little crazy with the tutorials — Photoshop pros who don’t need basic paint program instruction will be dismayed to discover they can’t just skip ahead — but the lessons are brisk, effective and, with Wario’s help, pretty funny. The tools’ respective interfaces benefit from similar attention to detail, and “D.I.Y.” toes the line between whimsy and efficiency to resonate equally with designers-to-be and Nintendo fans.

Happily, all your hard work need not be for your eyes only. “D.I.Y.’s” content sharing suite allows players to share microgames with friends (locally or online), including anyone who downloads the $8 microgame player for the Wii. But the centerpiece of the suite is the Design Challenge, which offers up themed contests for anyone to enter and will feature the winners in the in-game Nintendo channel, which also will house a stream of new downloadable games from Nintendo and other well-known game designers.


Just Cause 2
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Avalanche Studios/Eidos/Square Enix
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, drug reference, language, sexual themes, violence)

The original “Just Cause” was sensationally fun despite having more issues than a panophobia convention, so how much better is “Just Cause 2” by touching the same fun-at-all-costs nerve and doing it without all those aforementioned issues?

No one really knows, because “JC2” brings back several of those issues en route to a sloppy opening hour that, thankfully, isn’t a complete indication of things to come.

Most glaringly, “JC2” shoots like a third-person shooter from 2003. Auto-aim runs rampant, manual targeting is unwieldy, and players looking for a way to seek cover will be dismayed to discover even the basic crouch mechanic is completely useless.

The old shooting controls work in tandem with a scripted opening suite of missions that mostly penalizes players for using the barrelful of cool action-movie stunts — jumping between vehicle rooftops, shooting while hanging from a bumper, zip-lining between any two objects bolted to the ground — it taught them only moments earlier. “JC2” embraces playground physics and open-world cause-and-effect like no game before it, but that embrace backfires until players are past the toe-dipping stage and left to their own devices.

The good news is that once that happens, “JC2” does things its predecessor couldn’t even fathom doing four years ago.

Rico’s semi-magical grappling hook returns, but as alluded to earlier, it’s significantly more versatile this time, and that alone is a game-changer. Anything bolted down and within range can be zipped to instantly, and anything (or anyone) not bolted down can be launched into the air, fished out of the air or tethered to anything else using the absurd but wonderful dual-hook capability. The exaggerated physics that initially betray players become their best friend when it becomes clear how much havoc one can cause using just the hook.

There’s no shortage of mischief-making opportunities, either. “JC2’s” controls may be from another era, but the game’s scope is from another galaxy: The fictional Panau Island encompasses some 400 sq. miles, and it’s wide open for perusal once those opening missions conclude. Rico can scale enormous mountains using the hook, and per genre custom, all vehicles are operable.

But “JC2” truly amazes when viewed from an airplane or helicopter. Panau’s scope is as vertical as it is horizontal, and watching the island’s scale change while ascending and descending is a magnificent sight. That it happens almost completely free of load times is a feat of programming.

“JC2’s” story isn’t quite as ambitious, though the voice cast’s use of deliriously bad accents at least makes it fun to experience.

Regardless, it provides occasion for Rico to unleash untold dollars’ worth of damage over anywhere from 20 to 80 hours’ worth of mainline and optional missions. Some missions are more fun than others, some have the capability to aggravate the same way those early missions do, and it’s a bummer there’s no way to share the fun via co-op play. But when it becomes clear just how big “JC2” is and how well it understands the value of creative, explosive, dumb fun, those dud missions and other deficiencies become surprisingly easy to accept.


Game Room
For: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade and Windows PC via Games for Windows Live
From: Microsoft/various publishers
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild violence)
Price: Free for client, $3 per game (360 or PC only), $5 per game (both platforms)

Superficially, “Game Room” is enticing. Eventually, it could be pretty special. Out of the gate, though, Microsoft’s new retro games client, —which refashions a menu of downloadable arcade classics as a virtual arcade for players’ Xbox and/or Windows Live avatars — is too compromised to be either. For starters, the virtual arcade is little more than an additional menu laye
r: Players can decorate their arcades and customize the arrangement of purchased virtual cabinets, but because there’s no way to roam the arcade in avatar form and interact with friends controlling their avatars, the interface is little more than busywork with limited novelty. More problematic is the excessive pricing for a selection of games that, so far, aren’t very good. “Room’s” initial library of 30 games hails from the Intellivison and early Atari era, and while the addition of client-wide achievements and online leaderboards is excellent, the $3-$5 price to own each game (and 50 cents to demo a game beyond the single free demo play) is too high when newer, better games are available everywhere for similar prices. Should “Room’s” selection exponentially improve, and should Microsoft introduce a sensible subscription pricing model that affords players access to the whole library, “Room” could be pretty awesome. Right now, though, it’s just a prettied-up menu of downloadable games that aren’t nearly worth what they cost.

Games 3/16/10: God of War III, Pokémon: HeartGold/SoulSilver Versions, Tiki Totems

God of War III
For: Playstation 3
From: Sony Computer Entertainment Santa Monica Studio
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, nudity, strong language, strong sexual content)

An uncommonly high number of games that owe an uncommon amount of debt to “God of War” rolled out quickly and furiously in the early going of 2010, and upon completion of “God of War III,” it’s pretty clear why they did.

They wanted to get out of this thing’s way, and with good reason.

To keep the conversation grounded: No, “GOW3” doesn’t shake up the formula — brutal third-person melee combat combined with ambitious environmental puzzle-solving — that made its predecessors among the best games in the Playstation 2’s and Playstation Portable’s libraries. Not accounting for the obvious advances in visual fidelity, ardent fans could still point to “God of War II” as the best in the mainline trilogy in terms of storytelling and level composition.

But that fight is too close to call with any authority, and for that same reason, “GOW3” plays on a plane that all those imitators, good though most of them really were, simply cannot match.

A good portion of that comes in the construction of the game’s contemptible anti-hero. Kratos might be the scariest controllable protagonist in all of video gamedom, and Santa Monica Studio complements that persona with a vicious arsenal of weapons and attack patterns to match.

“GOW3’s” imitators typically understand the importance placed on a fluid control scheme and the ability to chain attacks without interruption and change tactics on a dime. But “GOW3” compounds that attention to detail with a level of two-way savagery that simultaneously makes the player feel like an unstoppable monster and turns ordinary fights against nobody enemies into trap battles that can turn fatal quickly. Kratos’ tribulations have never been one for squeamish eyes and nervous hands, and some of the imagery “GOW3” doles out is harsh enough to make anyone wince.

The unchained appetite for murderous grandeur spreads to the scope of the overall game, which occasionally zooms out to reveal environments, puzzles and even traversable enemy titans who reduce Kratos to the size of a nickel on the screen. Santa Monica has a knack and a half for presenting its idea of scope in a way that’s intimidating without being disorienting, and the way “GOW3” shifts between such ridiculously divergent scales and perspectives is simply awesome. The series may best be recognized for its outlandishly epic boss fights, pitting Kratos against mythical gods and beasts many times his size, and that doesn’t change here.

With the core ingredients down to an art form, the game’s nitpicks are debatable and likely come down to individual perception. Certain puzzles might take too long for some players’ liking, and the bloodthirsty among us won’t love it when the game occasionally strings together two consecutive puzzles with maybe a short bout in between. The penultimate portion of the game drags a bit due to enemy repetition, and there’s one challenge in particular that briefly abandons all that’s good about the combat.

Fortunately, the payoff after this lull is enormous. “GOW3” presents itself as the culmination of Kratos’ journey, and if that’s really the case, then the dazzling batch of sequences that comprise the game’s ending could scarcely be a better sendoff.


Pokémon: HeartGold Version
Pokémon: SoulSilver Version
For: Nintendo DS
From: Game Freak/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (Mild Cartoon Violence)

The first 10 weeks of 2010 have been more generous to gamers than the first half of most years typically are, and the release calendar is so full that a remake of a game that already feels like it’s been remade ad infinitum shouldn’t be worthy of a mention, much less 500 words’ worth of ink.

That is, of course, unless it does something as bizarrely revolutionary — and potentially beneficial beyond the realm of entertainment — as this twosome does.

Skeletally speaking, “Pokémon: HeartGold Version” and “Pokémon: SoulSilver Version” are, respectively, remakes of “Pokémon: Gold” and “Pokémon: Silver,” which released simultaneously on the Game Boy Color in 2000. Per “Pokémon” custom, those games were mostly identical outside of a few special Pokémon exclusive to each, and the same holds true of the remake.

In fact, a lot of what holds true in the remake has held true throughout the series’ lifetime — so much so that casual onlookers likely couldn’t tell the difference between a remake of a 2000 game and a brand-new chapter in the series. That’s something of a testament to the system in place, which combines classic role-playing gameplay with classic obsessive-compulsive completionism to create gameplay that’s addictive, accessible and rewarding over the long haul. But for players who hit their limit at some point in the last decade and are waiting for Game Freak to rock its own formulaic boat, watching the series reach into the past isn’t exactly encouraging.

With all that said, though, “SoulSilver” and “HeartGold” at least feel like more than simple retreads. Players with fond “Gold” and “Silver” memories can enjoy them anew with all the perks — sharper graphics and interface, stylus-friendly controls and the same wireless/online battling and trading modes that debuted in “Pokémon: Diamond” and “Pokémon: Pearl” — that have been added since the series migrated to the Nintendo DS.

But it’s the accessory bundled in the box — a fully functional, Pokéball-shaped pedometer that players can drop in their pockets and use to level up their Pokémon simply by getting out and walking around — that transforms the news of “HeartGold’s” and “SoulSilver’s” arrivals from pleasantly pedestrian to pretty exciting.

Nintendo previously produced a pedometer accessory for its “Personal Trainer: Walking” self-improvement game, and the pedometer here functions similarly. It counts steps and converts them into in-game experience independently of the game or DS, and transferring the data happens via a wireless infrared signal swap that requires no accessory hookup. Press a button, transmit data, reap some in-game rewards, and go rack up a few thousand or so more steps while developing your Pokémon in the healthiest manner possible.

The idea is pretty seriously out of left field, but it’s an ingenious way to add real-life value to a role-playing game’s most monotonous moments, and “HeartGold” and “SoulSilver” prove it also works. Here’s hoping, for the sake of those of us who have tired of “Pokémon” but not necessarily its principles, that other developers take the idea and do something similar.


Tiki Totems
For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: spokko
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price at time of review (subject to change): Free for basic version, $1 for premium version

Great fun though physics-based puzzle games usually are, they’re also kind of high-maintenance on the iPhone. Games that require precise degrees of tilting and touching also demand that players sit upright and use both hands, which isn’t ideal for a lazy pre-bedtime game session. So “Tiki Totems” gets points for adopting a “less is more” approach. The object of each level is to remove bricks and planks in order to safely drop a Tiki statue from the top of a structure to safe ground below, and removing certain pieces of the structure can ignite a chain reaction that’s enti
rely physics-powered. But the game’s low-maintenance control scheme — tap pieces of the structure to remove them, with no tilting or other precise motions running interference — makes it easy to pick up and play without sacrificing all that’s good about a physics-driven puzzle game in the first place. Now also is a good time to pick “Totems” up: The basic version, which comes bundled with 80 levels and the option to purchase 64 more, is currently free, while the premium version, which includes all 144 currently available levels and a promise to include all future level packs for free, only costs a buck. The games’ iTunes descriptions indicate these are temporary prices, so don’t waste time if you’re feeling thrifty.

Games 2/16/10: Bioshock 2, Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth, iBomber

Bioshock 2
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Windows PC
From: 2K Marin/Digital Extremes/2K Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language)

The game-playing public spent roughly two years wringing its collective hands over why anyone would dare make a sequel to a game so perfectly complete as “Bioshock.”

2K Marin, which assumed primary development duties this time around, needs roughly five minutes to render that worry mostly worthless.

This isn’t to say the worries lacked any merit. “Bioshock 2’s” storyline picks up 10 years later, but a decade isn’t nearly enough time to dramatically change the landscape in Rapture, the brilliantly-realized underwater not-quite-utopia that supplied the stage for “Bioshock’s” arguably groundbreaking storytelling. The sequel takes players into new areas of Rapture, but the overall visual presentation, combined with a reliance on the same mechanics that made “Bioshock” its own creation, can’t help but leave “Bioshock 2” feeling superficially like an imitation product barreling down pre-blazed trails.

But while recreating the wow factor behind “Bioshock’s” architecture and lynchpin twists is pretty much impossible, 2K Marin nonetheless runs with the opportunity to extend the storyline past the first game’s fallout. “Bioshock 2’s” story is a bit more traditional in structure, but it very satisfactorily answers some lingering questions. The first game’s narrative hallmarks — namely, first-rate voice acting and an enviable attention to character development and design — are on full display once again, and the player’s role in shaping that story’s outcome has increased.

Where the sequel fully bests the original is in the actual gameplay, which fundamentally feels identical but benefits from some corrective and clever tweaks. The first game’s inexplicable inability to wield weapons with one hand and plasmids (biological modifications that allow for such tricks as telekinesis, hypnosis and fireball tossing) with the other has been corrected here. The simultaneous wielding helps offset a more frantic pace of action: Rapture’s enemies are faster, meaner and more diverse, and activities from the first game — including hacking machinery (now via a fun timing-based challenge) and researching enemies with a camera that now shoots video — now take place in real time.

Surprisingly, the placement of the player in the boots of a Big Daddy — one of Rapture’s neutral (but, if provoked, extremely dangerous) guardians — affects the story more than the gameplay. With that said, the drill might be the most fun melee weapon to appear in a first-person shooter in years. (Thankfully, as the story explains, players aren’t forced to lumber around as slowly as most Big Daddies do.)

While a great many people couldn’t care less that “Bioshock 2” includes a multiplayer mode (10 players, online only), the pretense under which it appears — the Rapture civil war that preceded the events of the first game — is pretty ingenious.

The seven available modes aren’t terribly unique to veterans of multiplayer shooters, but the way they incorporate Rapture’s mythology and tell a personalized story in the process most definitely is. A “Modern Warfare”-style upgrading system allows players to level up over time and acquire new plasmids and weapons, and six of the seven modes allow one player at a time to assume control of a Big Daddy and wreak all kinds of truly fantastic havoc.


Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth
For: Nintendo DS
From: Capcom
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, mild language, mild suggestive themes, mild violence)

Capcom developed a nice stable of truly bizarre characters in its first four “Ace Attorney” games, but through three games starring defense attorney Phoenix Wright and a fourth game centered on Wright despite carrying another lawyer’s name in the title, it’s been reluctant to embrace that in any remotely risky way.

Though “Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth” doesn’t deviate wildly from its predecessors in terms of how it fundamentally looks and plays, it does finally take the series to some new frontiers — in large part by framing the story around Wright’s prosecutor nemesis and leaving Wright himself mostly out of the game, but arguably more so by taking the gameplay almost entirely out of the courtroom.

Instead, “Edgeworth” takes place at the crime scene, and a new third-person perspective and control scheme allows players to directly control Edgeworth and navigate the scene in a way that somewhat recalls traditional point-and-click adventures. The change makes sense given the increased emphasis on looking for finer details amid a fine mess, but it also just feels more freeing than what Wright was afforded during his investigations.

With that said, though, the changes don’t really rock the boat. Scanning the scene for inconsistencies and sifting through their connections in the new Logic screen isn’t entirely unlike what players had to do when presenting a case as Wright, and confronting suspects and witnesses — and pointing out inconsistencies in their statements — isn’t terribly different from catching them in a lie on the witness stand. Most of these portions take place in screens that are functionally similar to their corresponding screens in previous “Attorney” games.

The ensuing compromise ends up working rather well. Capcom has the science of making this stuff fun down pretty cold after four games, and even though some familiar aggravations pop up — including the occasional penalization of should-be solutions that aren’t solutions because the game simply isn’t flexible enough to recognize certain creative conclusions — no game really does this stuff better than these do.

Attempting to make sense of the “Attorney” canon is not for the weak, and “Edgeworth” — which takes place over a few harried days in the middle of the “Wright” timeline but flashes back to five self-contained cases spanning some seven years — doesn’t make things much easier.

But for those who are invested, “Edgeworth” offers a ton of welcome insight into the titular character’s past and methods. And while Wright himself isn’t a major player this time around, a number of memorable characters from previous “Attorney” games do show up in some fashion or another. (No spoilers.) The tenor of the game changes slightly due to the change in venue and perspective, but the overall tone — from bizarre character designs to hilariously weird dialogue to Miles screaming catchphrases in a manner befitting of a game show constestant — remains wonderfully intact.


For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: Cobra Mobile
iTunes Store Rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence)
Price: $3

The name may inspire visions of really bad Apple peripheral ideas, but everything else about the very pretty “iBomber” is an ode to World War II-era flying aces. “iBomber’s” 14 missions vary in terms of objectives, but they all typically revolve around dropping bombs from above on enemy submarines, anti-aircraft weapons and other points of strategic importance. The action presents itself from a first-person cockpit view, and the controls are explicitly iPhone-friendly: Tilting the device handles all flying maneuvers, while a bright red “Bombs Away” button does just what it says. “iBomber’s” tilt controls command a wider range of motion than most tilt-based iPhone games — you’ll probably have to play this one sitting up rather than lounging to succeed — but the upside is an optimum level of control over the aircraft. A striking audiovisual presentation makes nailing targets a surprisingly satisfying endeavor, and a smattering of power-ups enhances that satisfaction without breaking the presentation. Cobra has released a two-mission premium content pack for $1 and promises more where that came from, but a great scoring system and wealth of optional medals to earn in the base missions should give thrifty perfectionists plenty of gameplay for their initial $3 investment.

Games 1/26/10: Mass Effect 2, Tatsunoko vs. Capcom: Ultimate All-Stars, Dark Void Zero

Mass Effect 2
For: Xbox 360 and Windows PC
From: Bioware/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, drug reference, sexual content, strong language, violence)

“Mass Effect” marked a bold venture for Bioware, which took the underpinnings of its superlatively deep role-playing games and crammed them into a tactical third-person shooter with combat as real-time as in any other sci-fi action game. Surprisingly, it worked: The combat was highly imperfect but easily sufficient, and the branching storylines, deep character progression and ridiculous interplanetary scope made for one of 2007’s best games.

How impressive, then, that “Mass Effect 2” comes along and makes its predecessor look like a rough draft by comparison.

Principally, “ME2” doesn’t mess excessively with what worked previously. In particular, the storytelling — and the absolutely amazing branching conversation trees that allow the player to mold the personality of chief protagonist Commander Shepard and, by proxy, the story and galaxies around him — retains its considerable polish. “ME2” is as saturated with planets, alien races and mythology as “ME1,” but it also benefits from not having to introduce it all to the degree its predecessor did. The story takes a sharp turn straight away — a dramatic change of fortune and a pretty serious turning of some tables dictate the game’s first sequence — and while “ME2” has hours’ worth of optional side missions in tow, pretty much everything operates in the name of barreling the story forward.

(Side note for those who missed “ME1:” While “ME2” offers additional benefits to players who are already familiar with the characters and alliances, Bioware offers enough guidance to bring new players up to speed without boring those who need no introduction.)

Though “ME2” is large enough to span two discs on the Xbox 360, Bioware has done a commendable job of cutting fat where it needed cutting. A slick mining mechanic allows players to explore barren planets from the ship instead of via a pointless ride in the Mako buggy, which has been excised completely. The side missions, by extension, have more consequence in the overall ecology, and a cleaner set of menu interfaces makes it easier to (among other things) jump from one mission to another with little downtime in between.

Speaking of saving time, the famously long load times from “ME1” are considerably more tolerable (and more elegantly presented) this time around. Even more importantly, the wretched save system — which almost everyone learned, the hard way, didn’t autosave like it appeared to — has received a very user-friendly overhaul. (It works, in other words.)

But what truly is remarkable about “ME2” is how profoundly Bioware transforms the weakest ingredient of “ME1” into this game’s most jaw-dropping asset. The combat in “ME2” is more than just sufficient: It’s completely indistinguishable — in terms of speed, control fluidity, explosiveness, and enemy/squad A.I. — from the best cover-based third-person shooters available today. A stunning visual presentation, led by perhaps the best camerawork the genre has yet seen, arguably puts it at the top of the heap.

Best of all, Bioware sacrificed exactly none of the role-playing underpinnings that carried the combat in “ME1.” Those systems worked together well enough back then, but they sing in perfect harmony this time around, putting “ME2” in a class all its own when it comes to blending two traditionally disparate genres into one.


Tatsunoko vs. Capcom: Ultimate All-Stars
For: Wii
From: Capcom
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild language, mild suggestive themes, violence)

Fans of Capcom’s lighthearted “Vs.” fighting games have felt understandable pangs of jealousy since the distinctively beautiful, meticulously polished but decidedly more serious “Street Fighter IV” raised the bar for fighting games nearly a full year ago.

Fortunately, “Tatsunoko vs. Capcom: Ultimate All-Stars” doesn’t simply end the near-decade-long “Vs.” game drought; it also closes the gap almost completely between Capcom’s 2D fighting past and the arguably perfect mix of two and three dimensions that made “SFIV” such a staggering treat for the eyes and thumbs.

This being a Wii game, “TvC” understandably cannot match the level of visual detail “SFIV” pulled off on more powerful hardware. But in borrowing that game’s approach — characters animating in full, fluid 3D but fighting on a 2D plane — it reaps the same benefits: The fighters pull off spectacular moves with abandon, but the removal of unnecessary 3D space whittles the fight down to the same psychological science that made “Street Fighter” so special in the first place. (“TvC,” to its credit, closes the graphical gap by opting for a cel-shaded visual style that really makes its infectiously outlandish style pop.)

Though the fighting shines under the guidance of the new engine, “TvC” is unmistakably a “Vs.” game at heart. The two-on-two matches represent a paring back from “Marvel Vs. Capcom’s” three-on-three insanity, but the speed and accessibility of the fighting remain several notches beyond “SFIV’s” more methodical leanings. Per brand tradition, “TvC” provides a generous arsenal for button-mashers while reserving the really good stuff for players who hunker down and learn each fighter’s respective intricacies.

Whether the roster is a boon or burden will come down to individual tastes. The Tatsunoko half of “TvC” consists of anime characters who are big in Japan but significantly lesser known here, but while the relative obscurity robs “TvC” of the dream fights “Marvel” had, it’s an arguable benefit to players intrigued by the multitude of surprises 13 brand-new (and often wildly designed) characters will afford them. Capcom’s 13 offerings should prove a bit more familiar, but the wide diversity of the cast — Ryu and Chun-Li are here, but so is Mega Man, “Dead Rising’s” Frank West and characters from “Lost Planet,” “Viewtiful Joe” and “Rival Schools” — means a bounty of quirks and highly divergent (but reasonably well-balanced) styles awaits discovery on both sides.

“TvC” complements its polished gameplay by offering enough control styles (remote/nunchuck, Classic controller, Gamecube controller) to suit everyone, and it provides plenty of longevity with a 26-ending single-player component and online multiplayer (two players) that worked without incident in pre-release testing. (Whether that holds up under the stress of thousands of players remains to be seen, but so far, so good.)

Just for fun, Capcom tosses in a “Tatsunoko vs. Capcom: Ultimate All-Shooters” mode, which is a bizarre but surprisingly filling top-down shooter that features the game’s cast and supports up to four players. The mode has absolutely nothing to do with anything else in terms of gameplay. But neither the freebie “Geometry Wars” mode that snuck its way onto “Project Gotham Racing 2,” and look how that one turned out.


Dark Void Zero
For: Nintendo DSi via the Nintendo DSi Shop
From: Other Ocean Interactive/Capcom
ESRB Rating: Everyone (fantasy violence)
Price: $5

Capcom’s infatuation with making mock Nintendo Entertainment System games in the 21st century isn’t new (see “Mega Man 9” and the upcoming “Mega Man 10”), but “Dark Void Zero” takes the trick to a new level of imagination. Like the new Xbox 360/PS3 game “Dark Void,” “Zero” is a standard shooter that sets itself apart by strapping a jet pack to the player’s back. In the case of “Zero,” though, that translates into a sidescrolling action game that looks, sounds and acts like a game from 1988. In a vacuum, “Zero” is perfect for the price: The controls are polished and responsive in spite of the retro presentation, and with three difficulty settings and a tough-but-fair continue system, it’s challenging without resorting to “MM9’s” level of punishment. But “Zero” is especially cool when viewed in context. The nostalgically sparse story sets “Void’s” table surprisingly well, and it successfully manages to imbue a sense of history into a franchise that doesn’t actually have any. The developers really run with the joke, too: “Zero’s” digital manual includes a mock story detailing why it didn’t come out in 1987 as originally intended, and the composer responsible for “Void’s” score also orchestrated an 8-bit facsimile for “Zero.” Other clever and funny touches await — including one right when the game boots — but they’re best left unspoiled.

Games 12/15/09: The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks, James Cameron's Avatar: The Game, Crazy Snowboard

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks
For: Nintendo DS
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild fantasy violence)

Twenty years on, “Zelda” games are creatures of habit to their own detriment. Link never speaks, Zelda’s always in trouble, and the road to fixing that trouble typically runs through approximately eight dungeons, which each contain a special item that numerous times thereafter will come serendipitously in handy.

Superficially, it all holds true yet again in “The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks,” which brings back the cartoony art style and stylus-based control scheme that worked pretty well two years ago in “The Phantom Hourglass.” “Tracks” even recycles a few ideas “Hourglass” introduced — most prominently, setting half of its dungeon-related content inside a single building Link will have to revisit multiple times before the credits roll.

But “Tracks” also gets right what “Hourglass” got wrong. Players don’t, for instance, have to start the dungeon from scratch each time they reenter: This time, whenever the story dictates a return to the tower, a new door takes Link straight to the next portion. More importantly, there’s no time limit hanging over Link’s head, which means the challenges are free to be a little more intellectually interesting than they were in “Hourglass.”

These portions also benefit from Zelda joining Link in (literal) spirit as a playable character. Players can chart a path for Zelda to take, and she can distract and even possess enemies while Link works elsewhere. Stealth levels are nothing new to “Zelda” games, and “Tracks” doesn’t go overboard with them, but the dual character control makes them one of “Tracks'” better assets.

The smarter central dungeon design trickles down to the rest of “Tracks'” labyrinths, which appear to have benefitted greatly from Nintendo’s further refinement of the control techniques it introduced in “Hourglass.” The brainteasers in “Tracks” are among the most satisfyingly intricate to appear in a “Zelda” game this decade, and the dual-screen boss fights, while easy, are nonetheless clever.

As always, a new “Zelda” game introduces some new items to complement the usual bombs, sword and boomerang. Revealing them here would spoil the surprise of finding them, and opinions will diverge on how ingenious or annoying Nintendo’s application of the DS’ special abilities are with regard to using them. If you plan to play “Tracks” in a public space, just know a few items — including the musical instrument that once again provides mock spell-casting capabilities — require you to blow into the DS’ microphone and potentially look a little strange doing so.

No mention of “Tracks” would be complete without discussing the train. The wildly convoluted (but, to Nintendo’s credit, satisfactorily explained) storyline explains the train’s importance, but its utility — like the horse and boat before it — is to get Link and Zelda around the world map.

This, likely, will amount to most players’ least favorite portion of “Tracks.” Controlling the train’s path, though a mix of route planning and speed/track switch toggles, is actually pretty fun, and the experience improves once you outfit it with some necessary weaponry. But after a few instances of backtracking across the map to a village before trucking back to the next dungeon, the experience loses its luster.


James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii, PSP, Windows PC and Nintendo DS
From: Lightstorm Entertainment/Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, mild language, mild suggestive themes, violence)

If “Avatar” movie experience is as extraordinary as early critical returns seem to imply it is, then, “James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game” doesn’t do it a great deal of justice. Rather, it’s one of those highly imperfect games that, if engaged with dampened expectations and viewed presentationally as nothing beyond a respectable companion to the film, still can amount to a good time.

Problems and deficiencies are never game-breaking, but they are numerous and creep into most facets of the experience on some level — and regardless of whether, as an early storyline twist explains, you play primarily as the invading human military or the indigenous Na’vi tribe.

Most visibly flawed is the combat, which feels dated and awkward by the standards of modern third-person games. There’s no cover mechanic when shooting, nor is there a way, with most weapons, to stare down the sights for a more precise shot — a surprising omission given the slight behind-the-shoulder perspective the game adopts. Some weapons have a semi-automatic aim, but the vast majority feel unwieldy and underpowered.

Melee combat, which plays a major role on the Na’vi side of things, feels similarly unchained thanks to some loose character movement that also makes traversing narrow, elevated terrain dicier than it should be.

And so on. The game’s A.I. occasionally loses its mind on both sides of the battle. The mission structure is primarily some variation of kill x enemies or fetch x items, and the occasional offshoot mission feels predictably half-baked for one reason or another. All of it ties together around a storyline that takes place two years before the events of the film but struggles mightily to wrap an engrossing scenario around several hours’ time.

But with all that air cleared — and if you can believe it or not — “Avatar” still emerges as a pretty fun (and pretty lengthy, especially if you replay it from the other side) single-player game. The action mechanics are dated, but the game sends lots of targets at you and moves at a high enough speed to engender some old-fashioned, arcade-style fun. For good measure, there’s a nice upgrading mechanic that affords you unique weaponry and some very handy special abilities unique to both sides.

Lastly, while the game’s storytelling is spotty, it nonetheless adequately educates players about the world in which “Avatar” exists. Between story content and an encyclopedia of people, places and things, the game hands off a ton of mythology that can only help players’ appreciation for the more narratively capable film.

For good measure, if not much else, “Avatar” includes a multiplayer component and fills it out with the usual batch of modes found in a game of this ilk. It’s hard to argue with more content for the buck, but given the rash of amazing multiplayer games that have released in the past couple of months, it likely will be equally difficult to see a lively community develop around this portion of the game.


Crazy Snowboard
For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: Ezone
iTunes Store Rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence, infrequent/mild horror/fear themes)
Price: $3 (free demo available)

With all due respect to Ezone’s naming conventions, “Crazy Snowboarding” isn’t terribly crazy at all. To the contrary, it rather conventionally acts just as one might hope a pick-up-and play iPhone snowboarding game would. Tilting the device controls the onscreen snowboarder’s steering, and a tap or hold on the screen preloads a jump when a rail, ramp or mound of snow is near. Once in the air, touching each of the four corners of the screen activates whatever trick players have assigned to that corner. The dead simple control scheme makes “Snowboard”  a no-brainer to play, but achieving gold medal scores requires some skillful trick stringing and sharp risk/reward management while in the air. “Snowboard” currently offers 30 missions, and the Halloween- and holiday-themed levels suggest Ezone will occasionally add more as more special occasions pass by. A modest rewards system allows players to use their points scored as currency toward unlocking new boards, outfits and tricks. And while the current online leaderboard system is pretty bare-bones, Ezone says the next update will incorporate support for the Plus+ social network.

Games 11/24/09: Assassin's Creed II, New Super Mario Bros. Wii, WireWay

Assassin’s Creed II
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, intense violence, sexual content, strong language)

Most games, broken down, are simply collections of similar actions and commands repeated over and over. But most hide it better than 2007’s “Assassin’s Creed,” which combined majestic core gameplay with an oppressively patterned quest structure that neutered its inventive storyline and instilled some serious déjà vu in many players.

Almost from the start, though, “Assassin’s Creed II” demonstrates that it has learned its lesson. The storyline, now set in 15th century Italy as well as present day, receives the narrative justice it deserves: The present-day cast accrues some essential dimension, the characters in Italy are exponentially more likable than the first game’s humorless cast, and the game lets the story breathe by staying in place over multiple missions instead of continually jumping back and forth in time.

“Creed’s” timeline liberally and cleverly mixes factual and fictional history to reconstruct the legend of its characters’ lineage, and witnessing this reconstruction is miles more rewarding this time around. An optional collection of puzzle-oriented missions unlocks even more doors, connecting everything from Adam and Eve to John F. Kennedy to engineer some wild possibilities for future series installments.

The anatomic improvements extend to “AC2’s” gameplay, which reaps the reward of a quest structure that no longer requires players to complete X number of side missions before assassinating subject Y, jumping through time and repeating. The side missions return, but they’re significantly more diverse and more savvily ingrained into whatever else is happening in the landscape, which feels more alive thanks to some sharper A.I., the introduction of an economy and some great (albeit gamey, so relax your sense of disbelief) new mechanics for managing notoriety and seeking cover from guards while in a crowd.

The main storyline missions integrate themselves better as well: “AC2” makes it easy to start a new storyline mission almost the instant the previous one concludes, and the game tells much of its story while the player directs the action. Players who skip all that markedly improved optional content to beeline through the main story will do themselves a disservice, but “AC2” at least leaves that decision up to you. However you approach it, there’s always something to do, and there exists no lingering sense of familiarity haunting the game despite the 15 to 30 hours of gameplay it has in store.

Elsewhere, “AC2” doesn’t mess with what made its predecessor so great in spite of its unmistakable shortcomings.

The simple act of getting around Italy as Ezio is as fun as it was traversing the Holy Land as Altaïr: The cities are meticulously designed, and Ezio’s freerunning capabilities — combined with a control scheme that’s fantastically intuitive in spite of the demands it puts on a gamepad’s button real estate — make it tremendously fun to scale buildings, leap rooftops and position yourself for the perfect takedown.

“AC2,” for its part, offers a larger repertoire of weapons and techniques to wield, and thanks to the presence of Ezio’s good buddy Leonardo Da Vinci, the inventions — including a flying machine that practically doubles the fun all by itself — pour in throughout the entirety of the adventure.


New Super Mario Bros. Wii
For: Wii
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)

The worst thing about “New Super Mario Bros. Wii,” besides its abysmally uninspired title, is the way Nintendo itself has misrepresented it as a shell of Super Mario games past that requires four players in order for fun to be had.

Fun indeed is had by turning what traditionally has been a solo endeavor into a two-, three- or four-player free-for-all, with all active players running through the game simultaneously as Mario, Luigi and two Toads. (The princess, per usual, has been kidnapped.) Nintendo doesn’t change one iota of the levels regardless of whether one or four players are running through them, and the results are predictably and often hilariously chaotic.

Players can cooperate and spring off one another to perform amazing stunts and reach impossible heights. But they also can antagonize one another, going so far as to pick other players up and toss them to their demise. It’s a riotously fun time, but those who want to ace the game — finish every level, find all three special coins in each level, discover every hidden pathway and, of course, rescue the princess — will be impossibly hard-pressed to do it with the “help” of friends.

Fortunately, wonderfully and despite implications to the contrary, “NSMBW” is an equally amazing game as a solo experience, meeting and arguably exceeding the bar set by “Super Mario Bros. 3” and “Super Mario World” some 20 years ago. Ideas introduced in those games return fearlessly reinvented here, and “NSMBW” continually surprises with new platforming contraptions, level designs and power-ups. The new penguin suit is possibly the most versatile Mario upgrade ever, while the propeller suit ranks with the best of the best on the fun scale.

Classic characters and level archetypes also return, but 20 years of technological and graphical advancements allow them to do things that simply weren’t possible before. Happily, beyond the new suits, the same doesn’t apply to Mario and friends: Nintendo keeps the control scheme classically simple, and instances of motion control in “NSMBW” are infrequent enough to be novel and surprisingly fun in how they function in conjunction with the levels in which they appear.

Totaled up, “NSMBW” is, to perhaps an unprecedented degree, that rare game that is as magnificently enjoyable for long-suffering 2D Mario fans as it is for those who have never played one and had no idea a 19-year drought even existed. It’s an enormous value simply by being a full-featured game that offers two diametrically different experiences that can be cherished on wholly separate levels.

The only bug in the pancake batter is the lack of an online co-op option. Four-player “NSMBW” is a farcical mess in person, and Nintendo is dead right in assessing that the mood wouldn’t translate nearly as well online. But for those who lack the means to set up a local game, having an online consolation prize still trumps not having it.


For: Nintendo DS
From: Konami
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)

Given the myriad of fun possibilities, it’s somewhat amazing only one game — “Bust-a-Move DS” — has prominently leaned on a control mechanic built around using the Nintendo DS’ touch screen as a virtual slingshot.

That changes rather dramatically — albeit imperfectly — with “WireWay,” which builds an entire adventure game around the idea.

“WireWay” stars you as a strange little alien named Wiley, and the completely weird storyline — which deliberately is silly to the point of genuine amusement — has Wiley on a quest to gather valuable stars that are useless to Earthlings but extremely valuable to Wiley and his strange kind.

But the game isn’t about controlling Wiley so much as the areas through which he must navigate. Each level starts with Wiley grabbing onto the lowest-hanging wire, and you propel him forward by pulling back on the wire, picking your angle and launching him at stars, special items, enemies and other wires. “WireWay” introduces new contraptions as the game soldiers ahead, but the primary mode of transport involves firing Wiley around the level like a rock in a slingshot.

It isn’t a perfect science. The action takes place on both screens, and the space between screens translates into a blind spot that can complicate your shot selection. A nice touch allows you to shift the camera using the D-pad, but doing so also limits how far back you can pull the wire in certain directions. Practice makes near-perfect and it’s never a game-breaking problem, but it would’ve been preferable if “WireWay” let you zoom in and out rather than simply shift the viewpoint.

Other than that, though, the mechanic makes for a fun trick around which to build a game, and “WireWay” helps itself by regularly introducing variety to the levels and making them challenging to complete. For those who enjoy perfecting games, a grading mechanic that scores your ability to grab all the stars, find the special items and get to the ship as quickly as possible should induce a nice amount of replayabilty. Acing the game is no easy feat.

“WireWay” complements its goofy storyline with a two great challenge modes. Flick Trials limits how many moves you can make to send Wiley to the ship, while Strategery — the jewel of the game both in name and concept — forces you to pause the action and draw in the wires and contraptions yourself. Both modes use the same scoring system as the story levels, so they offer the same level of replayabilty for perfectionists.

All those calls for perfection make “WireWay’s” multiplayer mode, which turns the action into an anything-goes race to the ship, a pleasantly mindless change of pace. Four players can compete locally using one copy of the game, but only two courses are available unless everyone has their own copy. Online play isn’t available, but it’s hard to imagine a niche game arriving smack in the middle of the holiday blockbuster season accruing a major online following anyway.

Games 10/20/09: Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story, Saw, Deca Sports 2

Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story
For: Nintendo DS
From: AlphaDream/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief, mild cartoon violence)

“Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story” is, in a few words, a whole lot more of the same stuff that comprised the first two “Mario & Luigi” games.

And that, frankly, is perfectly fine. AlphaDream’s “Mario & Luigi” games are practically a genre unto themselves with the way they infuse traditional role-playing game conventions with an extensively satisfying element of action, and it’s hard to object to another chapter of what has emerged as the funniest and smartest piece of storytelling ever to emerge from Nintendo’s extensive library.

The basic crux of “Story” should ring familiar to “Mario & Luigi” vets. You control Mario and Luigi at the same time, and most of the action outside of battle consists of helping the brothers get from story point to story point through a mix of puzzle solving and traditional “Super Mario”-style platforming.

The game’s battle system obeys the same rules as a traditional turn-based role-playing game, but most of the attacks, dodges and counterattacks play out in real time like a traditional action game. Every enemy has a tell, and every attack — be it the classic jump attack or a tag-team maneuver involving both brothers — has an extra measure of effectiveness if you time its execution perfectly. Figuring the ins and outs of all this stuff is, once again, a ton of fun.

“Story,” for its part, raises the series bar in both the gameplay and storytelling departments by giving the brothers’ arch nemesis a share of the starring role. Bowser exists in two forms — as a third playable character and, as the title implies and the blissfully absurd story explains, a living dungeon — and both roles inject the game with far more freshness than appearances would otherwise suggest.

For starters, Bowser has his own bull-in-china-shop style of getting around, which lends new dimensions to the action that plays out between battles. His brutish fighting style naturally gives way to a wholly unique set of combat tactics, including some brilliant touch screen tricks in which he can mobilize Goombas and other minions to do his bidding. The trajectory of the storyline has the brothers working in tandem with Bowser, and the game comes up with some pretty clever ways (no spoilers) to have them work together despite being at odds and in wholly different places and predicaments.

But Bowser’s most memorable contribution to “Story” may be to its story, which ranks among the sharpest and most infectiously funny sagas to grace a game all year. “Mario & Luigi” games have never been hurting for great characters and fantastic dialogue, but Bowser’s crabby, perennially confused but deliriously proud turn here is pure gold from start to finish. “Story” occasionally gets a little too wordy for its own good — especially when it comes to detailing the game’s basics to players who already know what to do — but when there’s so much good stuff to experience, a few dry bits are more than acceptable.


For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Zombie Studios/Konami
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, drug reference, intense violence, strong language)

Say this for “Saw’s” video game debut: Be it on purpose or by accident, it pretty bluntly captures (as best a video game can, anyway) what it must feel like to find yourself trapped inside one of the Jigsaw Killer’s traps.

Mostly, that’s to the game’s credit. From the very first moment “Saw” cedes control to the player, you’re trapped inside a puzzle, and the only assistance the game provides is a simple overview of the basic controls. The puzzle isn’t exactly a mindbender, but it is smarter than your typical “hit switch to open door,” and it’s awfully nice to see the game respect its audience’s intelligence and expect players to figure their way out without help.

That’s a trend that continues throughout the entirety of the game, culminating in some tough end-mission brainteasers that have you racing the clock while a person you need to save screams in your ear to hurry up. Those with fragile nerves will find them frayed not only by these moments, but also by a series of other timed challenges in which you need to escape a room before a trap goes off and kills you. In later levels, “Saw” has no issue stringing several of these challenges in exhaustive succession.

But that’s not all — and not necessarily because Zombie Studios intended to compound your character’s misery. As the storyline explains, there are a number of people who need you dead so they may live, and “Saw’s” awkward movement controls and downright clumsy combat controls most certainly give those poor souls a fighting chance.

“Saw” partially circumvents this issue by giving you some nice abilities with regard to barricading enemies off and even luring them, “Bioshock”-style, into some traps of your own. But those same traps — which kill instantly — also work on you, and some of them are easy to spot only if you tiptoe the whole way through. “Saw” occasionally has the gumption to place one of these pitfalls right near the next checkpoint. Passing through a meaty stretch of the game only to miss a single tripwire, die instantly and start over is about as cheaply unsatisfying as it sounds, and if you’re the impatient sort, it’ll drive you crazy the more it happens.

When all these aspects — time limits, easy-to-miss traps, voices in your ear, your two left feet — work in tandem, “Saw” feels like an exercise in sanity awareness more than a video game.

But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Playing “Saw” isn’t intended as a form of feel-good escapism: It’s supposed to frighten you, stress you out and propel you into a continuous state of unease. Be it though great ideas or occasionally though incompetent design, that’s a task at which this game absolutely succeeds.


Deca Sports 2
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Hudson
ESRB Rating: Everyone

Last year’s “Deca Sports” was one of the more fortuitous benefactors of the Great Wii Mini-game Compilation Gold Rush, so don’t look so surprised to see a sequel turned around so quickly and in time for the similarly fortuitous holiday gold rush.

“Deca Sports 2,” like its predecessor, tries to ape and outdo the “Wii Sports” model by cramming 10 different sports onto the same disc. Though some selections bear a close resemblance to the first game’s sports, the 10 picks — ice hockey, tennis, kendo, petanque, mogul skiing, speed skating, motorcycle racing, darts, synchronized swimming and dodgeball — are, at least technically speaking, all new.

Some of the game’s problems, however, are not. Like the first game, “DS2” doesn’t let you play as your Mii character. A simple team/character-editing function lets you design a facsimile, but part of what makes the “Wii Sports” games so personable is the chance that one of your friends’ or family’s Mii characters might make a surprise appearance on the opposing team.

More problematic is game’s inability to capitalize on the new Wii MotionPlus peripheral, which gave the sports in “Wii Sports Resort” a level of control precision the original “Wii Sports” couldn’t even imagine. Some of the sports in “DS2” — particularly petanque, which you might better recognize as bocce — demand a soft touch that just isn’t possible here. It’s still playable — unlike darts, which just feels broken — but it could have been “DS2’s” sleeper surprise if it afforded players the kind of control the MotionPlus makes possible.

Most of “DS2’s” other selections don’t suffer as much, but that’s primarily due to the fact that they don’t really benefit from motion controls in the first place. Ice hockey and dodgeball are fun (if sometimes factually suspect) interpretations of their respective sports, but there’s no reason the actions caused by generic flicks of the Wii remote wouldn’t have worked just fine (and perhaps better) as button presses.

That goes as well for some of “DS2’s” more oddball picks — synchronized swimming, speed skating, mogul skiing — which use rhythm game conventions to interesting effect but demand more speed and responsiveness than the Wii remote can realistically provide.

Only kendo and motorcycle racing — which has players hold the remote sideways and steer with it — seem to employ motion controls with tangible benefits. Tennis has obvious benefits too, but “DS2’s” take on the sport can’t even match what Nintendo did three years ago, to say nothing of what EA pulled off in “Grand Slam Tennis.”

In the end, “DS2” feels a whole lot like its predecessor — about $10 too expensive even at its budget $30 price, and detrimentally concerned with providing quantity over quality. As always, there’s fun to be had when others are part of the equation, and “DS2” does provide some kind of local multiplayer component for each sport. (Ice hockey, tennis and dodgeball also work online, but only time will tell if a community develops around the game’s serviceable online multiplayer component.)

Games 9/1/09: Spectrobes Origins, Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box, Shadow Complex

Spectrobes Origins
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Genki/Disney Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence)

The debut of “Spectrobes” on the Nintendo DS was an auspicious anomaly — a game intricate enough to merit its 80-page manual, yet one so recognizant of those intricacies that the whole experience was startlingly accessible. Its mix of depth and user-friendliness was so pleasantly enjoyable, in fact, that it was able to draw inspiration from Nintendo’s “Pokémon” games while simultaneously engaging players who typically would want nothing to do with them.

“Spectrobes Origins,” by contrast, ships with a nine-page manual, but that merely is a testament to its ability to adapt itself to the platform rather than any sign that it’s dumbed itself down. “Origins” thoughtfully transfers the DS game’s chief ingredients to the Wii, employing smart but modest motion controls and using the increased screen real estate to integrate the instruction manual into the game’s opening hours.

It can be overwhelming at first, because even without taking the storyline and “Spectrobes” lore into consideration, “Origins” has much ground to cover. The game will fill in the narrative blanks, but the objective is (as with “Pokémon”) to discover, raise and eventually employ Spectrobe creatures in battles against an invading army of enemy Krawl creatures.

The chief difference is that in “Origins,” those battles take place in real time instead of through turn-based play. The Wii remote’s buttons handle your human character’s combat, while a series of adequate motion controls allow you to order your Spectrobe to fight, retreat and target one particular enemy while you work on another. Party management comes down to little more than switching out Spectrobes and keeping yourself healthy, but the no-frills approach nicely complements the battles’ fast speed and brief nature.

Especially fun is “Origins'” capacity for drop-in/drop-out local co-op, which allows a second player to control the Spectrobe directly. The game’s camera occasionally struggles to frame both players when the fight spreads out, but the small quirk does little to diminish the fun of taking the game on with another person in tow.

Where “Origins” gets a little bolder — and where it nails the motion controls — is in its intricate system for intervening at every stage of a Spectrobe’s evolution, from fossil excavation to incubation to training to using them in battle (or, the case of child Spectrobes, search expeditions.)

For the most part, “Origins” handles these tasks through interfaces similar to what we’ve all seen in some form before.

But the game’s fossil excavation mode, in which you use tools to break apart a fossil that’s encasing a living Spectrobe organism, is, as it was on the DS, more fun than it has any right to be. The Wii remote perfectly mimics the tools at your disposal (a hammer, a drill and a laser, to name a few) and the liberating nature of the task — excavate the organism quickly and safely, but do it however you please — does wonders not only for immersion, but for instantly creating a meaningful relationship between players and the creatures they rescue.


Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box
For: Nintendo DS
From: Level-5/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (alcohol reference, mild violence)

The most surprising thing about “Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box” might be the fact that it’s here and ready for public consumption. Nintendo of America has been uncommonly quiet about the game, stealthily unveiling its existence a few months ago and keeping similarly quiet in the run-up to its arrival on shelves.

The hushed tones somewhat make sense, because really, what is there to say? For those who played “Professor Layton and the Curious Village” last year, “Box” is explicitly more of the same — a new storyline, three digits’ worth of new brainteasers to solve, but otherwise a nearly-identical game in terms of graphics, music, presentation, interface and philosophy.

For those less familiar, “Box” is, in a nutshell, a collection of genuinely smart riddles — the stuff of which brainteaser books and bar tricks are made — packaged inside a charming story that benefits from a level of care (hand-drawn animated cut-scenes, terrific voice acting, a compelling storyline) typically reserved for action and role-playing games. “Box” presents itself somewhat as a point-and-click adventure game, only with self-contained brainteasers as the barriers one must overcome to complete the story.

As with “Village,” the riddles in “Box” are startlingly diverse both in the way you maneuver through them and in how they tax your brain. The game’s optional hint system, along with its allowance for players to pick different paths through the game, permit the riddles to approach a satisfying, rewarding level of challenge without creating a situation where a single, overwhelmingly difficult puzzle could completely impede one’s progress. The complete absence of time limits also removes any need to resort to guesswork, which in turn lets players approach the game’s puzzles as methodically as they would if those puzzles were in a rainy day book instead of a video game.

Totaled up, “Box’s” mix of challenge and concession is an extremely impressive demonstration of how to make a game that not only perfectly understands its intended audience, but remains completely accessible to all without intellectually neutering the riddles that make it so unique in the first place.

“Village” understood this philosophy so distinctively well the first time around that it’d almost be a shame if “Box” tried to be anything more than a retread with new content. A new story, and the 150 or so new puzzles it brings with it, are more than enough to command the $30 asking price even (perhaps especially) for those who wrung the first game completely dry. (As it did the first time around, Nintendo and Level-5 will sweeten the deal by regularly releasing additional puzzles for free download over Nintendo’s Wi-Fi Connection.)


Shadow Complex
For: Xbox 360 Live Arcade
From: Chair Entertainment/Epic
ESRB Rating: Teen (violence, mild language)
Price: $15

Someone, eventually, was bound to create a two-dimensional “Super Metroid” facsimile using modern technology, but that someone was supposed to be Nintendo. Instead, Chair Entertainment takes the initiative, crafting a tactical espionage game that stars you as an everyman, mostly uses plausible real-world guns and environments but still, for all intents and purposes, plays like a classic “Metroid” game. It works, and rather beautifully, because Chair — which openly and refreshingly copped to “Metroid’s” influence — did its homework. “Shadow Complex,” like “Metroid,” consists of a single open-world environment, and accessing certain areas requires you to first find powerups and weapons that pave the way. (Surprise!) The concept isn’t fresh, nor is the storyline. But “Complex’s” level design is no slouch by “Metroid’s” lofty standards, and those modern amenities — essentially high-definition 3D graphics and animated presented from a 2D perspective — make it the most polished of its kind as well. Best of all, Chair has designed “Complex” in such a way that — again, like “Metroid” — there are tangible incentives for playing through it multiple times. If the asking price seemed high at the outset, it feels like a bargain after your third or fourth trip through.

Games 8/11/09: Space Bust-a-Move, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Fallout 3: Mothership Zeta

Space Bust-a-Move
For: Nintendo DS
From: Taito/Square-Enix
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)

A dramatic overhaul would not appear to be in the cards for “Bust-a-Move,” which has stuck to the same script — shoot bubbles toward a cluster of bubbles at the top of the screen and match sets of three or more same-colored bubbles to clear them — for ages now. That’s doubly true for “Space Bust-a-Move,” which isn’t even the first “Bust-a-Move” game to appear on the DS.

But within the confines of that formula, “Space” turns out to be a surprising departure from 2006’s plain-named “Bust-a-Move DS” — and not just because, for whatever reason, it takes place in space.

The starkest change comes in the control scheme. The first DS game used a fun touch screen mechanic that allowed you to shoot bubbles with a virtual slingshot, but “Space” opts for more traditional, button-friendly controls (D-pad to aim the bubble shooter, shoulder buttons to fire). You can use the touch screen to emulate the button controls, but it’s disadvantageously slow.

But the loss of slingshot controls, which took up the entire touch screen in “BAM DS,” isn’t in vain. “Space” shifts the action down so that the shooter and the bubble cluster share the same screen, which also alleviates the previous game’s biggest problem: that annoying gap between the two screens and the havoc it could wreak on a perfectly-angled shot. The top screen generally serves a presentational purpose, which means different things in different modes.

The big exception to that rule takes place during “Space’s” entirely nonsensical but entirely wonderful story mode, which finally gives Bub and Bob some narrative motivation for clearing all those bubbles. It also blesses “Space” with some impressive two-screen boss fights, and guess what? “Bust-a-Move’s” gameplay lends itself startlingly well to boss fights.

The story mode headlines a slew of new feature tweaks “Space” tosses at the wall to belie its $20 asking price. Single-card local multiplayer (four players, down from five) returns, and the debut of online multiplayer (four players) goes off without a hitch despite some occasional and very temporary lag issues.

For dedicated solo players, a game-wide rewards system awards currency good toward unlocking a handful of alternative modes that tack on different rules to the standard “Bust-a-Move” gameplay. “Space” even tosses in a “Brain Age”-style challenge system, which tracks daily progress through a pair of time trial challenges. The customary, no-frills endless mode is, of course, in there as well.

Under the “useless but cool” umbrella, “Space” also lets you use the rewards currency to change the bubble and shooter designs, which only enhances what already amounts to a hilariously whimsical explosion of audiovisual cute. Charming though “BAM DS” was, “Space” ups the ante in every respect, and the goofy storyline knocks it out of the park.


G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
Also available for: Nintendo Wii, Playstation 2, PSP and Nintendo DS
From: Double Helix/EA

Double Helix wants to take you down memory lane with “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra,” but it probably isn’t the destination anyone had in mind.

Rather, instead of capitalizing on the nostalgia of the cartoon and toys that inspired the movie of the same name, “Cobra” evokes memories of the original Playstation era, when third-person shooters first ventured into three dimensions but lacked the sophistication or capability to do the things we now take for granted.

Instead of over the shoulder or even behind the back, “Cobra’s” action takes place from a partial bird’s-eye view. The right analog stick controls neither the camera, which sits at a fixed perspective, nor your weapons’ aiming reticule, which doesn’t even come into play. Holding a trigger activates the game’s auto-aim capability, and all the right stick does is swap between enemy targets. In terms of shooting sophistication, “Cobra” doesn’t even approach “Robotron,” much less “Gears of War.”

“Cobra” attempts to compensate for the mindless demands by laying down a pretty thick gauntlet of enemies. The game tips its cap to present day by including a cover mechanic, but the action tends to get so manic that you’re almost better off continually running and dive-rolling under hails of gunfire whenever your Joe’s health needs replenishment.

Sometimes, you don’t have a choice. “Cobra’s” fixed camera usually does what it should, but there are recurrent instances in which you’ll be firing blind because the enemies have spawned from behind or have populated an area before the camera swings around to show them. “Cobra” flirts with complete disaster during fights against ultra-powerful mechs that are only vulnerable from behind: Not only does the camera lag miserably while you try to get in position for a sneak attack, but occasionally it hides the enemy altogether, which for obvious reasons is a potentially fatal problem.

Dying is no small matter in “Cobra,” either. Each mission features two faux-checkpoints, but failing a mission sends you back to the start no matter where that failure happens. You can sidestep this problem by playing “Cobra” on its easiest difficulty, which revives your Joe ad nauseam until you beat the mission, but there’s no real gratification in playing a game you essentially cannot lose.

The strange nods to outdated conventions, along with “Cobra’s” bland presentation — a byproduct of staying faithful to an equally drab film — add up to a game that cannot possibly be universally praised nor recommended as a $50 purchase in 2009.

But “Cobra’s” unwavering adherence to its bizarre design sensibilities also makes it more unique than the bevy of third-person shooters that aim higher. When the game isn’t getting in its own way — and, particularly, when you have a friend (offline only) instead of the computer playing alongside you as the second Joe — “Cobra” makes for a stupidly fun good time for an audience that can appreciate the old-time mentality. For that small sliver of the gaming public, this has “guilty pleasure” stamped all over it.


Fallout 3: Mothership Zeta
For: Xbox 360 and PC
Requires: Fallout 3
From: Bethesda Softworks
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language, use of drugs)
Price: $10

It’s been an exemplary ride for “Fallout 3,” which followed a fantastic core game with four pieces of downloadable content that each improved on what came before it. So it’s quite a shame to see “Mothership Zeta” not only end the game’s run on a down note, but lay bare “Fallout 3’s” most glaring weaknesses in doing so. The premise, which finds you the object of a 1950s-style alien abduction, is no slouch, and it certainly marks a departure from everything that preceded it. But it also means you’re conducting business almost entirely in the tight confinements of a spaceship, traversing one generic corridor after another while doing little more than hitting a few switches and blasting the same aliens and drones ad nauseam. “Fallout 3’s” shooting mechanics have always fared competently in the wide-open wasteland against a wandering enemy or two, but they’re a nightmare in a claustrophobic hallway against a half-dozen ruthless aliens. Some audio logs and a few cool (but only incrementally more powerful) weapons aside, “Zeta” also leaves nothing to discovery, which arguably is the bread and butter of the “Fallout 3” experience. The listless story isn’t nearly compelling enough to counter all that’s wrong here, and it’s probably best to save those $10 for 2010’s “Fallout: New Vegas” instead of spending it here.