Friday, December 25, 2009

25 Days of Christmas - #1: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

Although every single one of the games on this list is great in its own right, there is one that stands above the rest as my favorite video game of all time. It was released in 1998, a year that revolutionized the gaming industry. 3D graphics were still fresh and developers were experimenting with all sorts of new mechanics and modes of play. Amidst some of the best titles of the day, including Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil, Banjo-Kazooie, and StarCraft, there was a sequel released by Nintendo that redefined the series, as well as adventure gaming, forever. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was a far cry from previous entries in the acclaimed series, but ended up selling over 800,000 copies in its first year.

I have been an avid fan of the Zelda series for years (it is the only series to have three entries that made this top 25 list), but Ocarina of Time is easily the best. The story is superb and takes a much darker look into the traditional Zelda story. Players are once again pitted against Ganon in his attempt to conquer Hyrule, but this time around he is disguised as a young Gerudo warrior named Ganondorf. He manages to convince the King of Hyrule into trusting him, a move which proves fatal for the entire country.

Link is initially introduced to players as a young Kokiri who is sent by the Deku Tree to meet with Princess Zelda in order to try and foil Ganondorf’s evil intent. Zelda sends Link out on a quest to retrieve the three spiritual stones, which will in turn unlock the door of time. Link, already granted one of the spiritual stones by the Deku Tree, heads of to seek the aid of the Goron and Zora people in collecting the remaining two. While the dungeons are the main focus of this entire section of the game, the characters Link encounters and the events he takes part in become crucial to the plot later on.

Upon returning to Hyrule with the spiritual stones, Link finds that Ganondorf has run Princess Zelda and her aide Impa out of Castle Town. Link then completes Zelda’s wish in opening the door of time to attempt to undo Ganondorf’s evil, but things go awry as Ganondorf uses the door of time to create his own monster-ridden version of Hyrule. Link awakens seven years later and is approached by the sages of Hyrule who present Link with a way to stop Ganondorf once and for all.

During Link’s time as a child, players will travel to three major dungeons: the Deku Tree interior, Dodongo’s Cavern, and Jabu-Jabu’s belly. These serve as a lengthy introduction to the game mechanics and story, but present a good level of challenge in their own right. Jabu-Jabu’s belly is primarily centered around solving puzzles, but the enemies Link encounters therein are incredibly unforgiving and do an excellent job of bridging the gap to the adult dungeons, preparing players for what lies ahead.

The major temples during the adult storyline are associated with a different element and tribe of people in Hyrule. Each of the sages Link encounters are characters from his past, and will reward him with a medallion of each element upon defeat of each temple boss. The Forest Temple is a bit of a mind trip upon first entry, and will force players to look at puzzles in a few different lights. The Fire Temple is heavily focused on fine-tuning Link’s combat skills and is one of the larger temples in the game. The Water Temple and Shadow Temple make excellent use of Link’s secondary weapons, while the Spirit Temple forces players to navigate its massive interior twice over – once as a child, and again as an adult.

Aside from the main dungeons, there are sub-missions critical to the story that Link must complete in order to progress the story further. Players can also collect more items, ammo, and weapons by competing in minigames like Bombchu bowling, and completing sidequests for characters such as the Happy Mask salesman and Malon of Lon Lon Ranch. Players can rescue the wild horse Epona from greedy Ingo. While riding horseback from place to place is not a core part of the gameplay, it does flow smoothly and saves players a lot of travel time.

Each secondary weapon is brilliantly designed, and despite the fact that there are so many, each is unique and has its own purpose. As a child, Link will rely heavily on his slingshot for distanced attacks, Deku Nuts for stunning nearby enemies, and the boomerang for both stunning faraway enemies and retrieving items from a distance. Adult Link, on the other hand, is much more equipped for combat with the Megaton Hammer and bow, but can also access different areas and solve puzzles with bombs and the Hookshot. His tunic can be changed to accommodate for extremely hot temperatures and breathing underwater. Likewise, Link has hover boots which allow him to temporarily hover over gaps and iron boots which weigh him down in order to scour lakebeds and portions of the Water Temple.

But the most significant tool used in the game is, of course, the Ocarina of Time itself. As Link progresses through the game, he learns various new songs that can grant him access to select areas, alter time from night to day and vice-versa, cause rain to fall, and allow him to warp to different temple entrances. To play these songs, players must hit different combinations of the C-buttons and A-button.

The boss fights in Ocarina of Time are nothing shy of epic. Morpha will lash out with tentacle-like appendages and trash Link about the room before flinging him into a wall and draining nearly half his health. Ghoma will crawl about the walls and pillars deep within the dark interior of the Deku Tree, and players must use the slingshot in order to bring the spider-like beast down to the ground level to deal any damage to the monster. The battle against Twinrova will force players to constantly watch their backs, as Kotake and Koume circle Link, throwing blasts of Fire and Ice at him. The final battle against Ganondorf/Ganon will take the most challenging elements of all these previous battles and pool them together, creating a truly fantastic finale.

The soundtrack, while comprised of MIDI files, is memorable and fits the game like a glove. From the Song of Storms to the theme of the Lost Woods, the soundtrack completes the experience, immersing players in the world of Hyrule. The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time has been heralded by many gamers as not only the best Nintendo title released, but the greatest video game of all time. And while I do believe that every game on this list is brilliant in more than one way, Ocarina of Time reigns as my single favorite video game of all time.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

25 Days of Christmas - #2: Shadow of the Colossus

Ico was released in 2001 for the Playstation 2, and was a cult classic of sorts. The game focused heavily on scaling buildings and solving puzzles as the horned boy Ico attempted to rescue the mysterious Yorda from an evil queen and her shadow creatures. The game, though not very widespread, was received with much praise from those who did play it, and many hailed it as the Playstation 2’s equivalent of The Legend of Zelda.

In 2005, Sony released the prequel titled Shadow of the Colossus. Early footage showed the game to be focused around teamwork with other horned people as they attempted to climb aboard and slay a large moving creature. This beast appeared to be made of some sort of stone-like material, with long fur covering the majority of its body. The final product, though similar in design, put players in control of a lone character known as the Wanderer.

Shadow of the Colossus has an absolutely breathtaking opening sequence as the Wanderer’s journey to the forbidden land is chronicled. The sequence is completely devoid of dialogue, but is layered over by a beautiful and dark tune orchestrated by Koh Otani. As the Wanderer approaches the temple, players are given their first glimpse of the massive and open world that is the forbidden land. What they are unaware of, however, is just how empty the land truly is.

The story sets up rather simple. The Wanderer was in love with a girl who met an early death. He comes to the temple in the forbidden land in hopes of bringing her back to life by appealing to the deity of the forbidden land Dormin. Dormin agrees to help the Wanderer if he is able to slay the sixteen colossi that exist within the confines of the forbidden land. Not asking for any further instructions or elaboration, the Wanderer mounts his steed Aggro and rides off to slay his first foe.

As large as the first colossi is, he is in fact one of the smaller Colossi in the game. His build is humanoid and players will be required to perform the relatively easy task of climbing up his back in order to locate his glowing weak spot, which upon injury will profusely bleed a black liquid substance. The Wanderer, having slain the giant, is rewarded by the bizarre effect of having the black material from inside the colossus turn into rope-like appendages, and then throw themselves into his gut. If this seems incredibly odd or somewhat disturbing to anyone, I can’t help but agree. The game’s mysterious aspects are what make the overall story so impactful, as much of said story is reserved almost exclusively for the latter half of the game.

The colossi are incredibly varied in design, and although players will be using the same basic controls to defeat the behemoths, each battle requires a distinctly different strategy. The fifth colossus, Avion, is a huge bird that flies around a partially submerged set of buildings. Players must attract the colossi’s attention via arrows and leap onto the front of its wing as Avion attempts to swoop down and knock the Wanderer into the water. From there, Avion will do rolls in the air, attempting to fling the Wanderer off his wings. In contrast, reptilian colossi Kuromori is trapped within a colosseum-like structure, and scampers around the walls as he fires energy beams at the Wanderer. In order to take this colossus down, the Wanderer must shoot arrows into its feet, then jump onto its belly after it has rolled over to find the glowing weak spot. The colossi come in many different shapes and sizes, and each has its own attack to use against the Wanderer.

The control scheme is fairly simple. Players will use the square button to swing their sword and stab the colossi, while using the triangle button to jump. The R1 button is used to grab hold of the colossi’s fur or outcroppings on a building. Cycling between weapons is left up to the left and right D-pad buttons, the X button lets the Wanderer call to his horse Aggro, and the Circle button reflects light off the Wanderer’s sword to point him in the direction of the next colossi. The six main controls for the game make things fluid and intuitive, as players can memorize these rather quickly.

Some gamers may be turned off by the fact that there are only sixteen enemies in the entire game. I admit that I was somewhat skeptical at first, figuring the game would be easy to complete. Not so, as many of the colossi, regardless of what difficulty setting you are playing on – really pack a wallop. But instead of getting frustrated each time I died, I actually found it helpful, as it teaches you which approach works and which do not. As challenging as the game may be, it is also incredibly fair, dealing out fights that are intense but not impossible.

When not fighting the colossi, the Wanderer will spend a large amount of time travelling to reach them. Along the way, players can save the game at any one of the small prayer buildings. Also, players can sort of ‘level-up’ the Wanderer by collecting rare glowing lizard tails and grabbing fruit off trees. These will then improve the Wanderer’s maximum grip ability and health bar respectively.

In regards to the landscape, there is such variety in this huge land, it’s almost surprising that Sony managed to pack it all onto one disc. The massive ruins at the edge of the desert make an epic setting for the battle against the fifteenth colossi Argus. The graveyard-esque environment in which player fight the fourth colossi Phaedra, is almost completely devoid of architecture, and shows off the beauty of the natural environment. Players will travel to all sorts of areas, and from the empty city nestled deep within the jungle, to the geyser field where players must coax out ninth colossi Basaran, no two environments will ever look the same.

While the main game is a decent length, it still leaves something to be desired. Thus, Sony added a second playthrough in conjunction with a time trial mode. In this second time through the game, players can unlock new weapons and armor as they complete each time trial challenge. These can prove invaluable against the colossi, and loosen up the player’s dependency on fruit and lizard tails.

The art style of the game is some of the most hauntingly beautiful I’ve ever seen in a video game. Everything feels believable, yet still has an aura of fantasy about it. The lighting effects are quite possibly the best in any game from this past generation. While much of the game is constrained to a dark setting, it lets the mood of the game express itself freely to the player. Koh Otani has outdone himself again with a superb soundtracks. While the story does not pick up pace until the second half, it is masterfully written and tosses an amazing plot twist at players. Simply put, Shadow of the Colossus is Sony at their best, offering some of the most challenging and creative adventure gaming in years.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

25 Days of Christmas - #3: Metroid Prime

Reinventing a game is never an easy task to accomplish. This can be especially difficult if a game series hasn’t had a release in nearly ten years. Despite the huge challenge that lay before them, Nintendo and Retro Studios took up the task to revive the Metroid series in 3D. The road was paved with many bumps, but ultimately led to the one of the greatest adventure games on the Gamecube, and for that matter, one of the greatest games of the last generation of consoles.

As vast as the ocean was in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and as creative and diverse as all of the levels in Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles proved to be, neither of them quite measured up to the experience that Metroid Prime delivered. Samus Aran is back in action, dealing a whole lot of pain to the space pirates while exploring more of the history behind her adoptive mentors, the Chozo. The game is set between the original Metroid and Metroid II: Return of Samus. The space pirates have divided their forces since their defeat at Samus’ hands, sending three major forces out across the galaxy. One such group is performing experiments on the wildlife of Tallon IV, attempting to mutate them with a substance known as Phazon. Samus infiltrates their frigate, but shortly after all hell breaks loose as the subjects of experiment begin wreaking havoc on the frigate. As Samus fights her way back to her gunship, she runs across Ridley, whom she presumed dead on Zebes. As the frigate falls out of orbit and begins a collision course with Tallon IV, Samus follows in her gunship, determined to figure out what exactly is going on.

The first area on the surface of Tallon IV that players will find themselves in is the Tallon overworld. It is a lush jungle setting, with green plants growing out of the rock walls and a constant rainfall that will stream droplets down Samus’ visor. This first step onto the planet’s surface is so surreal and captivating, and gives players a taste of what is to come from later areas. The different areas of Metroid Prime are beautifully detailed and throw various environmental challenges at players, as well as unique wildlife. The narrow lava-filled Magmoor Caverns will be incredibly unforgiving to players who fall off the rocky platforms, and is infested with Triclops beetles and Magmoor Dragons. As serene as the snow-laden temples might be, Phendrana Drifts pits Samus up against packs of hungry baby Sheegoth, and is host to one of the games most challenging boss fights. The Phazon Mines, which are accessible much later in the game, delve deeper into the history of the space pirates and their exploitation of the planet.

The scan visor serves two purposes to the player. The first is to learn more about the different creatures in order to understand how to counterattack and defend oneself. The secondary focus is to unlock bonus material in the art gallery upon completion of the game. The more scans a player makes, the more bonus material is unlocked for them. Later visors include the thermal visor and x-ray visor, practical for detecting enemies in dark areas and locating cloaked platforms respectively.

As with any Metroid title, the weapon variety is impressive. The four major beam types – Energy, Wave, Ice, and Plasma - make good use of their individual uses for both combat and puzzle solving. These can be used in conjunction with missiles, though players will be required to seek out these upgrades of their own accord, as only one is central to the gameplay. The morph ball has small bombs that can be used to break through barriers, larger bombs to take down thicker material and debris, a boost ability for launching Samus up half-pipes to greater heights, and a spider-ball ability that magnetizes the morph ball to tracks in order to traverse difficult terrain.

The game is deep and fairly long, but players will be required to perform a significant amount of backtracking during the second half. This is nowhere near as tedious and annoying as in Metroid Prime 2: Echoes as most of the time spent revisiting areas in Metroid Prime opens new rooms and grants players weapon and suit upgrades. Such is the case with the Gravity suit, which once acquired allows Samus to move freely through the water without any constraints due to the weight of her suit.

While the space pirates are Samus’s main foes in the game, they do improve their skills as the game improves. While the beginning of the game has Samus up against mostly grunt soldiers with little armor or weapons, she will encounter airborne Jet troopers who send a barrage of missiles at her, as well as underwater forces that launch torpedoes and evade Samus’ beams. Much later in the game, Samus will encounter pirates who have reversed the Chozo technology and created energy-specific armors, as well as massive space pirates who were victims of Phazon experimentation.

The bosses in Metroid Prime never dish out the same fight. Battling Flagraah requires players to be swift as they attempt to cut off the plant’s energy source with the use of both Samus’ beam weaponry and morph ball attacks. Thardus’ battle forces players to constantly refer to their various visors, but never feels like it is moving along at a sluggish rate. Fighting Meta-Ridley challenges players to dodge his bombardment of the Chozo temple while firing everything they’ve got at the space pirate leader.

While Retro Studios and Nintendo didn't have to add any more to the game, they went ahead and did it anyways. Included on the disc is the complete game of the original Metroid, exactly as it was in its 1987 release, Justin Bailey codes and all. Players can also connect to Metroid Fusion via the GBA-Gamecube cable to unlock the Metroid Fusion suit for play in Metroid Prime.

The game has beautiful graphics that really push the limits of the Gamecube. Even when compared with many of the system’s later releases, Metroid Prime looks as great as ever. There are no load-ins for areas or textures. Everything flows seamlessly from one area to the next. However, as great as the art style and graphics are, the aspect of the game’s design that I found to be the most captivating was the soundtrack. The sounds of the original three Metroid titles are present, but improved on tenfold. From the drum-heavy sounds of Magmoor Caverns to the calming piano that plays over Samus’ exploration of Phendrana Drifts, the music conveys the mood of the game perfectly. Though many thought the series impossible to revive, Retro Studios executed Samus' return perfectly. The story is deep and sets up wonderfully for the other Prime titles. Metroid Prime is easily the best game available on the Gamecube, and one of Nintendo’s most impressive releases ever.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

25 Days of Christmas - #4: Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater

Metal Gear Solid has always been the pinnacle of great storytelling. The first two titles in the series, as well as the original Metal Gear games, had focused around a near-future setting where control of Metal Gear mechs meant strategic dominance. It seemed rather odd when Kojima showed the first footage of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, as Snake was completely removed from the dystopian world realized in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. Instead, Snake was running around the jungles of Russia. But this was in fact not the same Snake, nor was the game occurring in the same era. This Metal Gear Solid title actually took place in 1964, long before the events of the original Metal Gear.

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater put players in control of Naked Snake, a veteran soldier on a mission to retrieve scientist Sokolov from the Soviets. Sokolov has been used to help the Russians build the Shagohod, a tank capable of traversing any terrain. Equipped with rocket engines on either side of the vehicle, the Shagohod can propel itself fast enough to launch a missile off its catapult and into the U.S. But as Snake quickly finds out, the forces he’s up against are much tougher than anticipated. The rescue mission is botched as Snake discovers that his former mentor – The Boss – has defected to the Russians. It is also revealed that the Russian forces are divided between Nikita Khrushchev’s current regime and Colonel Volgin’s intent to overthrow him.

After witnessing Volgin nuke his own countrymen, Snake is retrieved and sent to a U.S. hospital to recover from his wounds at the hands of The Boss. Major Zero then instructs Snake that – in order for both of them to correct their mistake – Snake must be deployed on a second mission in Russia to stop the completion of the Shagohod, placing Sokolov’s rescue as secondary importance. Thus begins Naked Snake’s grueling journey that is Operation: Snake Eater.

The rescue mission at the start of the game serves mainly as an introduction to the controls and story. Players are given a refresher course on the same basic control system from Sons of Liberty, as well as given a glimpse at their later foes. But this portion of the game also gives players hands-on training with the camouflage and medical menus. The different camo combinations hide players from enemy soldiers more or less depending on their surroundings, and include Snake’s uniform and face paint. As the Metal Gear Solid titles tend to encourage players to choose stealth over direct combat, the camo system becomes an invaluable asset over the course of the game. The medical menu allows players to heal Snake as he is injured throughout the game. But just as in real life, a few bandages simply won’t do the trick. Players will have to apply ointment to cuts before bandaging them up, use Snake’s cigar to burn leeches off his skin, and remove bullets from his body. Healing his wounds will cause Snake to heal faster, as well as calm his hunger.

The characters in the game are so deep and believable, from Snake’s sultry sidekick EVA, to sadistic military leader Volgin, to young and reckless Ocelot. While the relationship between Snake and The Boss breaks Metal Gear Solid tradition a bit, there is much more thought put into Snake’s actions as he constantly dwells on the fact that he will inevitably have to fight his former mentor. Before doing so, however, Snake must engage in battle with each member of The Boss’ Cobra Unit. The Pain will send hordes of bees at Snake, both to distract and attack him. The Fear will use poison dart arrows and the height of the trees to his advantage. The End will spend time moving around one of the largest boss battle maps ever seen in a video game, sniping Snake as he goes. The Fury uses his skills as a former cosmonaut to fly around and attack Snake with his flamethrower. Though not a member of the Cobra Unit, Volgin will battle Snake twice, once man-to-man, and a second time inside the Shagohod. Every one of these battles plays out differently, and tosses an interesting and well thought-out challenge at the player. It all leads up to the most challenging boss battle in the game, as Snake must fight The Boss to the death.

In the same style as Sons of Liberty, Snake Eater was later released with an expanded version known as Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence. This included a Snake vs. Monkey minigame, which brought back Solid Snake as he tracks down monkeys from Ape Escape with direction from Colonel Campbell. A comedy theater was added to the original cutscene theater, showing blooper scenes, and two parody films where Raiden and Sigint both attempt to steal the spotlight from Snake. Players can also access new camouflage, including a tuxedo and Santa suit, as well as face paint of the flags of various countries.

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater captures the essence of the time period brilliantly. The architecture looks exactly as it should for Soviet-era Russia. The political tension can be felt throughout the game, looming ominously over the story. Each time Snake saves the game, Para-Medic will talk about movies or events from the period, making the experience all that much more involved. The story is brilliantly executed, and despite the fact that many of the cutscenes clock in around a half hour, the game flows in a perfectly fluid motion. The pacing is fantastic, slowing down and speeding up where appropriate. Kojima is a genius storyteller, and some of his best material shines through in Snake Eater. You actually care a great deal for Snake and EVA, and the dark ending that Snake has to face put me at the verge of tears. This game conveys emotion on a level that most other developers could never dream to achieve. The game sets up perfectly for the transition to the other games in the series, and players can finally see for themselves the man that would eventually become Big Boss.

Monday, December 21, 2009

25 Days of Christmas - #5: The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages

When Nintendo takes to creating a sequel in one of their flagship franchises, they – as well as Microsoft and Sony - generally concern themselves first and foremost with the platform systems over the handheld systems. After the release of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask on the N64, there was a rather lengthy hiatus until The Wind Waker came out for the Gamecube. To help bridge this three-year gap, as well as try and keep fans who were turned-off by Majora’s Mask interested, Nintendo partnered with Capcom to create three intertwining games for the Gameboy Color. When three games working in conjunction with one another proved to be too great a challenge, the companies decided to scale down the ambitious project to two titles. Their stories still interwoven, The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons were both released on May 14, 2001.

As far as I’m concerned, the two titles are two chapters to one gigantic story. However, they were released as separate games, and as such only one of the two titles will be making my top 25 list. While Oracle of Seasons arguably had more variation in the overworld design and was more visually captivating with its lush colors, I personally found Oracle of Ages to be more enjoyable overall.

The story begins with Link travelling to Labrynna to meet with the Oracle of Ages, Nayru. He encounters Impa, Zelda’s aide along the way. As soon as the two meet Nayru, things go awry as it is revealed that Impa’s body was host to the evil sorceress Veran. Veran then uses Nayru’s body as a medium to travel through time and create her own twisted version of Labrynna.

Link is forced to travel to the past in order to track down the now-possessed Nayru. After meeting with Queen Ambi in the past, Link learns that she has been fooled into Veran’s plot to build a massive tower reaching to the heavens, which she will use to complete her transformation of the world. Link, devoid of much assistance from anyone but Impa and Nayru’s friend Ralph, begins his trek through each dungeon to retrieve items necessary to enter the Black Tower.

Oracle of Ages requires players to use the Harp of Ages to travel back and forth between the present and the past in order to access dungeons, complete quests, and travel around the world of Labrynna. The world is fairly sizeable, though players will only be able to access certain areas early on, with more of the world to be explored as they progress through the game. There is a great deal of variety in the environment types (though this doesn’t particularly affect gameplay), from the underwater kingdom of the Zoras, to the high cliffs where the Gorons live, to the volcanic area upon which Symmetry Village is founded.

Each weapons/tool in the game has multiple uses. Roc’s Feather can be used to avoid projectiles as well as traverse gaps. The Switch-hook allows players to bypass enemies or travel across large gaps within a dungeon. The Seed Shooter is applicable as both a ranged weapon as well as a solution to some switch-based puzzles. In contrast to some titles in the Zelda series, no single weapon in Oracle of Ages is outdated or rendered useless after its initial use. The Many weapons/tools, including the Harp of Ages, can be upgraded as the game progresses. Those weapons that are not upgraded will have consistent practical throughout the game.

As an added inclusion, players can collect rings and have them appraised by Vasu. Some rings affect the player’s offensive and defensive capabilities. Others make Link immune to certain attacks. There are also incredibly rare rings in the game that allow Link to transform in Like-Likes, Moblins, and other creatures.

The side quests in the Oracle titles are unusual when compared to other titles in the Zelda series. There are some side quests that take place only within the confines of the separate games. These are generally meant to reward the player with rings, Gashu seeds, potions, or any other nonessential items applicable for later use. The most important side quests, however, stem from the games’ interconnectivity. When interacting with characters in one game, you will occasionally receive a code from them or instructions to meet someone accessible only in the other game. Players must then complete that side quest as they journey through the second game. Both games are filled with these lengthy side quests, and the titles can be played in either order to acquire the items and upgrades from them.

Most Zelda titles have their small snags that they hit here and there; little issues that could have been avoided in an otherwise fantastic game. But with the Oracle titles, I am unable to find any flaws. The story is by far the most creative of any Zelda title. The soundtrack – though comprised entirely of MIDI files – is classic Zelda with a slightly new spin. The graphics are 2-D, but the colors of each area are bright and lively. The enemy AI is fantastic, with grunt soldiers putting up a decent challenge and bosses dealing out some major pain. The final battle against Veran is much more difficult than the battle against General Onox in Oracle of Seasons, and twice as long. The story is very involved and is fairly moody for a Zelda title (though nowhere near as dark as Majora’s Mask). It’s rare that a handheld game would surpass many of its console counterparts, but The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages goes the extra mile and is one of Nintendo’s best handheld titles ever released.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

25 Days of Christmas - #6: Rome: Total War

Few strategy games can hold a candle to the Total War franchise. Shogun: Total War started the acclaimed series, bringing plenty of new ideas to the table. Medieval: Total War solidified the game mechanics and expanded the world and units available to the player. And while both of these games are great in their own right, Rome: Total War towers over the other two as the greatest game in the series.

Rome: Total War puts players in control of various nations during the height of the Roman empire. Initially, players will be constrained to the three Roman houses of Brutii, Julii, and Scipii. There are two campaign modes available, each with different objectives. The shorter campaign is a good way to unlock more nations quickly, but puts a greater constraint on resources for the entire campaign. The longer campaign requires players to take hold of fifty provinces and capture the city of Rome. While these objectives are far more challenging, the time allowed and long-term resources available help ease stress on players.

Each city requires its own specific attention, and players will be required to attend to these in order to prevent revolts from occurring. In conjunction with this, players must also balance their troops in the field with those left behind to defend cities. Building types range from religious temples to gathering halls to military barracks and stables. Early on, cities will require the most basic construction, laying out roads and setting up defensive walls. Thankfully, all of the construction management requires the player to merely select what they want to be completed and the buildings will be erected over a predetermined number of turns.

Military units vary from one nation to the next. The houses of Rome, for instance, use the Vilites as their range spearmen, the Equites as cavalry, and the Principes as their elite swordsmen. The Egyptians on the other hand, rely on axmen as their grunt footsoldiers and horse-drawn chariots as their cavalry. Some nations, such as Carthage, will have exclusive units such as the war elephant. Apart from the traditionally trained units, mercenaries can be hired while travelling in territories outside of the player’s home nation. These units are expensive, but do not require time to be trained. Recruiting mercenaries improves a general’s reputation as a commanding officer.

Other specialist units can be trained, including diplomats, spies, and assassins. Diplomats can bribe the troops of other factions to disband or sometimes convince military leaders to defect to your army. Diplomats can also develop friendly relations with other nations, setting up trade routes and alliances. Spies are useful for scoping out the number of troops in a unit or confirming the defenses of an enemy city. Spies will level up with each successful infiltration. Assassins are the most limited unit reserved mainly for an easy kill on an enemy general or royal family member.

The overworld map of Rome: Total War is set up as turned-based strategy. Each group of soldiers is limited more or less in their range of motion depending on whether their army is comprised primarily of footsoldiers, cavalry, or a combination of the two. The combat system switches to real-time, and players can pause the game at any point during the battle to issue new orders to their units without being distracted by the chaos of the ensuing battle.

Outside of the main campaign, players can set up their own custom battles in a large number of battlefields. They can include up to four nations on two sides of the conflict, and can alter the rank of each individual unit. Even tiny details, such as the weather and time of day can be tinkered with, and have a major impact on the outcome of the battle. Players can also engage in historical battles, which are some of the most challenging in the game. An online mode of play is also available, further expanding the extra material available outside of the main game.

Rome: Total War is a unique PC gaming experience that few other strategy games can even come close to rivaling. The controls are fluid and the menus are easy to navigate. While the main mechanics remain consistent through the entire game, each nation has its own strengths and weaknesses, as well as unique units. Rome: Total War forces players to think twice before making diplomatic decisions, as declaring either war or an alliance has its consequences.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

25 Days of Christmas - #7: Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles

One of the most popular RPG series over the years has been Final Fantasy. From its humble beginnings as a last-ditch effort to revive a dying company, to its upcoming highly-anticipated and visually stunning thirteenth main game, the series has proved itself a force to be reckoned with. To accommodate to the changing times, the series had to go through many changes, and the more recent titles have shifted from turn-based to real-time battle. Final Fantasy has spawned numerous sub-series as well, including Final Fantasy: Tactics and Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles.

Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles takes place in a world rebuilt after the fall of the Lilty empire. Due to the miasma that has engulfed the land, each city must send out a caravan on an annual basis to retrieve myrrh from trees in order to maintain the power of the city’s crystal. The four tribes, though they work together to fight off the imposing monster threat, have a very uneasy relationship and none of them get along well with one another. This makes an interesting dynamic as players interact with the characters in-game, hearing different stories of days long gone by. Much later in the game, the focus shifts to solving the mystery of everyone’s dwindling memories, turning the game towards a much more melancholy mood.

The world of Crystal Chronicles is vast and colorful. Each level breathes a different life into the gameplay, throwing its own respective horde of enemies at the player(s). Grunt soldiers will prove to be easy to defeat, but larger enemies will force players to be more conservative in their tactics. Players will also find themselves cycling back and forth through magic and weapon attacks when faced with a group of enemies. The art style remains consistent, but throws a different flair with each level. The towering fortress of Rebena te Ra is imposing and haunting with its signs of former glory. Mt. Kilanda and Lynari Desert throw some of the harshest environmental factors at players, and are both physically and mechanically removed from the levels of the mainland. River Belle Path and Veo lu Sluice exemplify the visual beauty of the world, while offering more puzzle-based gameplay. Tida offers a look into the darker and more depressing parts of the world, giving a glimpse of what could potentially occur if the caravan fails to return myrrh to their home village. Even the cities to which players travel to fill up on supplies are diverse and carry their own code of honor.

In regards to the magic available to players, there are more generic attacks such as fire, blizzard, and thunder. Cure and clear with aid party members during their trek through each level, and ease up on their dependency on food items. Combining different magic will create stronger spells that can include blunt attacks from fira and blizzara, and more specifically concentrated magic such as gravity.

Each tribe has different strengths and weaknesses. The Clavats are the most well-rounded and are best suited for newcomers to the series. Lilties are focused around physical defense and blacksmithing, constantly upgrading weapons and armor. Selkies are fast and agile, their physical attacks their strongest attribute. Yukes are probably the most challenging to master, as their strength lies almost solely in their abilities in casting magic.

Players are able to play through the game solo or as a party of up to four via the GBA-Gamecube link cable. Treading the levels solo will take players much longer, but will be accompanied by a moogle who carries the crystal chalice. In multiplayer, the party is no longer accompanied by a moogle. Each player’s menu shifts to the GBA screen, keeping the television screen free of clutter. Because of the lack of a moogle, however, multiplayer is best suited for a party of three or four, as two players becomes a bit of a hassle.

The control scheme is incredibly simplistic, but works wonders for the title. Everything is fluid, from combat to the menu system, to the upgrades following the completion of each level. The originality of every single level is exemplified through the beautiful art style, as well as what I consider to be the greatest video game soundtrack of all time. Though it may be quite far drawn from the traditional RPG style of other Final Fantasy titles, Crystal Chronicles sets itself aside as a genius game in the RPG genre.

Friday, December 18, 2009

25 Days of Christmas - #8: Half-Life 2

In 1998, Valve released their landmark game Half-Life, which took the FPS genre in a whole new direction. This was a game that focused less on the run-and-gun gameplay of popular titles like Doom, but rather chose to present players with obstacles and allow them to figure out how to get around them. Some of these obstacles were enemies, who needed to be killed in order for hero Gordon Freeman to continue his journey. Other obstacles were barricades that could be torn apart with the crowbar. Some obstacles required Freeman to carry out a side mission in the style of Metroid and do some brief backtracking in order to restore power to a generator or find the correct switch that would open a door. Half-Life was an incredibly linear game, but offered some very creative environments and forced players to watch their moves carefully.

After much toil at Black Mesa, Freeman is finally able to close the portal between Earth and Xen, cutting off the alien forces. However, Dr. Freeman doesn’t receive a traditional heroic ending, and is instead put to work for the mysterious G-Man. His life spared, Freeman enters a stasis sleep for almost two decades. When he awakens again, Freeman finds that Earth has been conquered by another alien race known as the Combine. The human race has been spared, but people are forced into following strict living conditions and constantly live in fear of the Combine.

This dystopian world is the setting for Half-Life 2. As Gordon Freeman fights the Combine forces alongside his new partner Alyx Vance, he encounters many former colleagues from Black Mesa. Barney Calhoun, a former security guard, aids Gordon by opening passageways for him and rallying people to fight against the Combine. Scientist Issac Kleiner gives Gordon directions and later uses hijacked television channels and radio stations to inform the citizens of City 17 of what they should do after the human revolt has started. Eli Vance, Alyx’s father, was wounded sometime after the events at Black Mesa, but is constantly watching out for the safety of Alyx and Gordon, as well as offering moral support to the duo.

However, another former Black Mesa employee shows up in City 17 as the primary antagonist. Dr. Wallace Breen carries out the role of being the human representative to the Combine, as well as a Combine propaganda tool. His broadcasts can be heard all throughout City 17. Later in the game, once the human revolt is well under way, Breen will focus his broadcasts directly at Freeman, fruitlessly attempting to stop him from dismantling the Combine rule.

The world is visually stunning in Half-Life 2. Scattered around the drab streets of City 17 are various propaganda posters of Dr. Breen. Most of the buildings are old and the doors and signs bear writings in a dialect of Russian. Outside of the city walls, the sands of the shoreline are bright and largely untouched. In contrast, the oldest part of City 17, Ravenholm, is dark and almost completely devoid of life, save for the headcrab and zombie infestation, as well as the lone surviving human Father Grigori. These distinctly different environments work events to their advantage brilliantly. The narrow streets and building interiors focus heavily on combat with zombies and Combine forces, while open areas give players more freedom to explore in the vehicles.

While physics played an important role in the original Half-Life, they become the center of the sequel’s gamplay. Initially, Freeman is limited to his crowbar in order to break boxes and solve puzzles. Not too long into the game, however, he acquires the gravity gun, which plays a dual role as both a weapon and a tool. Players will find the gravity gun useful for stacking boxes in order to reach a certain height, or hurling heavy objects at Combine troops during combat. There is a well-balanced variety of weapons in the game, from the classic pistol, to the melee crowbar, to the one-hit-kill crossbow. But racking up kills with any of these weapons doesn’t quite give you the same satisfaction as disposing of an enemy by hurling a toilet or oil drum at their face.

The AI in Half-Life 2 in fantastic, and only hits one or two snags throughout the entire game. The friendly forces think before charging into an area heavy with gunfire. Likewise, Combine forces will always try to take on Dr. Freeman in numbers, and will stay a safe distance from him if fighting solo.

Half-Life 2 takes everything from the first game and turns it up more than just a few notches. The gameplay is fluid and never stops for cutscenes. Every event is scripted into the gameplay, making players feel immersed in the world. The game will last players a decent time length – not too long, but not too short either. Half-Life 2 is easily one of the most creative FPS titles ever released, topping even its prequel.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

25 Days of Christmas - #9: Banjo-Kazooie

During the heyday of the N64, there were two companies constantly releasing games that revolutionized the industry and put other developers to shame. The first, understandably, was parent company Nintendo. The second, however, was Rare, developer of titles such as Diddy Kong Racing, Perfect Dark, and - one of the more controversial games of the time – Conker’s Bad Fur Day. Rare is a company that has managed to release a successful game in almost every genre. Perhaps their most critically acclaimed title, however, was adventure/platformer Banjo-Kazooie.

Banjo-Kazooie put players in control of two unlikely heroes who must stop the evil witch Gruntilda, who has kidnapped Banjo’s sister Tooty. The story sets up to be rather basic, but the characters take this in a comedic light and poke fun at the game and themselves constantly. Nearly every remark Kazooie makes is sarcastic, and she is constantly countered by her more serious partner Banjo. The personalities of these two characters play off each other brilliantly. Gruntilda constantly speaks in rhyme, each statement more cheesy than the next. But the best aspect of the game is that the story is satirical, and the characters aren’t meant to be taken completely serious.

The gameplay is fluid and rather creative. Moving around the world as the pair is as simple as pushing the control stick in any direction. The camera angle changes appropriately for specific situations, but is never an annoyance. Each level has multiple tasks to complete, including collecting music notes, jiggy pieces, and boss fights.

Occasionally Banjo and Kazooie will find themselves at an impasse due to terrain or enemies and require assistance from the shaman Mumbo Jumbo. He will ask the two to complete a task for him within the confines of that particular level. Upon completion of said task, Mumbo will use his magic to aid Banjo and Kazooie in their quest, often temporarily transforming them into another animal such as a termite or a walrus.

In a similar role as Mumbo is Bottles the mole. Bottles is encountered several times during the game and will teach Banjo and Kazooie a new move each time. Despite the help from Bottles, Kazooie seems only interested in making fun of him, calling him names like “goggle boy”, “squinty”, and “root muncher”.

The game is a decent length for the time of its release. There are a few areas that can be frustrating and seem more complex than necessary, but these are few and far between. Each level is designed differently and things don’t feel repetitive. Each level also increases in difficulty at a fairly consistent rate, so players can get their feet wet before plunging into the really challenging parts. The art style is cartoony, but fits the game’s mood perfectly. The game flows incredibly smoothly and load times are nonexistent. Although sequel Banjo-Tooie was more commercially successful than the first game, Banjo-Kazooie is the foundation upon which many platform games from various developers would build in later years. Banjo-Kazooie is easily my favorite game from Rare, as well as one of my favorite N64 titles.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

25 Days of Christmas - #10: The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

Let me begin by stating that I initially thought this title would be the worst Zelda game of all time. The cel-shaded style and younger looking Link looked silly, and the footage revealed early on seemed simplistic and uninspired. Shortly after The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker was released, I kept hearing about how awesome of a game it was. Reluctantly, I rented the game to give it a try. I was engrossed in the world almost instantly and never looked back.

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is the odd duck of one of Nintendo’s most renowned series. It broke away from Majora’s Mask and Ocarina of Time – both of which tried to be more dark and violent titles in the Zelda series. A Link to the Past, though it is a great game in its own right, was more about pushing the graphical capabilities than revamping the control scheme. The Wind Waker, however, doesn’t ever feel like it’s trying to sell itself. In this regard, I feel like The Wind Waker soars above its predecessors. The story is wonderfully written and focuses heavily on the theme of growing up.

There is some truth to the skeptics’ claims of The Wind Waker being a kid’s game – it really is aimed at the kid-at-heart. Though there is plenty of swordplay to be had and gargantuan bosses to fight, the game’s strongest point comes from the sense of adventure you feel every time Link jumps into his boat. The ocean is absolutely massive, and many islands only become fully accessible upon acquiring specific items or weapons. Every single character in this game is unique and memorable in their own right, from Tetra and her band of pirates to Link’s talking ship the King of Red Lions. Even the minor characters have such unique personality traits that they will stick with you, such as apathetic Salvatore who runs a Battleship-style minigame, the quarrelling elderly brothers Orca and Sturgeon, and the class-cutting band of kids known as the Killer Bees.

The dungeons are huge in The Wind Waker, easily double the size of most dungeons in Ocarina of Time. The puzzles are incredibly clever, and players will receive aid from Medli and Makar later on in the earth and wind temples. There are plenty of familiar weapons and tools that return from previous installments, including the boomerang, bow, and golden gauntlets. But new inclusions, such as the Deku leaf and cannon still flow just as smoothly with the gameplay.

There are a ridiculous number of sidequests that players can complete at their own leisure. Mini-dungeons can be found underneath the island resort and across various islands as players try to solve the mystery of the fabled ghost ship. Minigames include (but are not limited to) boat racing, distance flight with the Deku leaf, Salvatore’s aforementioned battleship game, and mail sorting for the Rito post office. The inclusion of the picto-box allows players to save three images at a time. These can then be taken to the Forest Haven and sculpted into over 130 different clay figurines. Any time a pool of light is seen on the surface of the ocean, players can use their grappling hook to search for treasure.

The wind waker itself is never used for any combat purposes. Instead it is used to change the direction of the wind, allowing players to reach new islands. Later in the game, this process is made easier with the ability to warp to specific islands via cyclones. The wind waker will be used to activate key points in the story, as well as unlock a few dungeons. In three of the temples, Link must use the wind waker to solve some rather complex puzzles. In these situations, the player shifts control to a different character temporarily.

Nintendo made good use of the GBA-Gamecube connectivity with the ability for a second player to give Link aerial support as Tingle. Tingle can scour for treasure and drop bombs on unsuspecting enemies. Upon completing the game, a second playthrough is unlocked which starts Link off with a deluxe picto-box. Link now sports his blue and white lobster shirt for the entire second playthrough, and the sequences previously in Hylian are now deciphered. These inclusions don’t exactly merit a second round, but the gameplay and story certainly do.

There are a few select points in the game where things slow down for too long that it become annoying. The most notable time is when Link is sent on a quest to find the triforce shards. Each shard is spaced a large distance away from the next, and travelling to reach these will take some time. But the game requires you to first track down the triforce chart that will reveal the location of said shard. To retrieve these, Link has to make his way through one mini-dungeon per chart (with a few exceptions). Upon finding said charts, you find that each is written in ancient Hylian and must therefore be deciphered by Tingle, who charges Link 398 rupees per chart. Between these three components, players will spend at least a couple of hours to complete the triforce of courage – that is assuming that they have saved up all their funds to pay for Tingle’s ridiculous asking prices.

The few shortcomings aside, The Wind Waker is one of the best Zelda games and Gamecube titles available. The sheer amount of things to do in the game is incredible and players will find themselves busy with this title for quite some time. Ganondorf is just as cunning and devious as ever, but has matured as a villain. I honestly prefer the final boss fight in Wind Waker to that of Ocarina of Time of Time, as Ganondorf is much more challenging with his dual swords and acrobatics. There are a number of ingenious plot twists in the story and it all leads up to a climactic ending that both closes the story of The Wind Waker and sets up nicely for Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

25 Days of Christmas - #11: Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty is quite possibly the most controversial title in the series. After the massive success of Metal Gear Solid, Hideo Kojima decided to tease fans with the prospect of playing as Solid Snake in a dystopian future where Metal Gears are being developed in secret. However, players are only granted control of Snake for the first relatively short chapter of the game, and once the tanker incident is complete they assume control of newcomer Raiden. Raiden was (and still is) one of the most disliked characters in the Metal Gear Solid series (though Guns of the Patriots certainly helped redeem his image). I personally thought he was a total imbecile when I first played the game. But this change of characters makes perfect sense in regards to the story.

In Sons of Liberty, Raiden is sent in to rescue hostages being held aboard Big Shell, a facility constructed off the shore of Manhattan to clean up the pollution caused by the tanker incident in the introductory chapter. Solid Snake has been blamed for the crime and marked as an international terrorist, along with his colleague Otacon. Thus, Raiden is responsible for taking down the terrorist organization known as Dead Cell, supposedly led by the now rogue Solid Snake. Throughout the game, Raiden will have multiple encounters with Snake, Otacon, Mr. X (a throwback to Gray Fox), Revolver Ocelot, and main antagonist Solidus Snake. Due to all the different people involved in the Big Shell hostage situation, it’s understandable how Raiden could become so utterly confused as to who to trust.

As the story progresses, Raiden receives intel from Colonel Campbell and his girlfriend Rosemary. Both sources prove to have holes in their information. Despite this, Campbell reassures Raiden that he is doing a good job while Rosemary constantly talks about herself and how much more attention Raiden (also known as Jack) should give her. While Rosemary saves the game each time you ask, she never shuts up and interrupts you at the most random times. Everything she says is dumber than the next and by the end of the game I found myself having a strong urge to throw objects at the television screen each time Rosemary started yapping away. Rosemary aside, every single character in this game is multi-layered and distinct, from sado-masochistic Vamp to techie-gone-rebel Otacon to political extremist Solidus Snake. Speaking of Solidus, he is easily the most important character in the game, as he is linked to every single character in some way or another. His role as former President allowed him to scour computer databases in search of information on the organization known as the Patriots, who are revealed to be the driving force behind the world of Sons of Liberty and Guns of the Patriots. Though Liquid and Solid Snake are the more important sons of Big Boss, Solidus is easily my favorite of the three, as well as one of my favorite villains in any video game. His objective is essentially the same as that of Snake and Raiden, but the way he intends to go about it is far more brutal and relentless. Solidus may be hot-tempered, but he bears the mind of a genius.

The control scheme is very similar to the first Metal Gear Solid and works just as well. Guns are cycled trough at the player’s leisure, though espionage is still preferred. There are a few items, such as the bomb coolant, that will only be used once or twice and seem like extra baggage later on. Despite this, the sub-missions are a welcome break from constantly sneaking around patrols.

Graphically, the game has its flaws. It was one of the earlier titles released for the Playstation 2, so the shortcomings are understandable. That said, for an early release, Sons of Liberty has better lighting and textures than almost any early PS2 release. But the graphical upgrades are significant and noticable in even the smallest of things in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater.

Sons of Liberty, like any of the Metal Gear Solid titles, is first and foremost about the story mode. Sons of Liberty plays out like one big mystery, as each layer is exposed only to pose more questions. At first glance, the game is about Raiden stopping Dead Cell. Then the focus shifts to clearing Solid Snake's name. Finally, the spotlight returns to Raiden as his relationship with Solidus is explained and the climactic finale tilts the world off balance. The game includes a nice variety of bonus features with its expanded material of Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance. A virtual mission mode allows players to shoot a set number of targets, or reach a checkpoint while avoiding and/or eliminating guard patrols. Each mode of play will grade the player in points and upon completing each separate mission it will subsequently unlock another. The virtual mission are the biggest bonus feature included, spanning over 500 individual missions. Also included was a casting theatre that allowed players to recast characters from the first two games into major cutscenes from Sons of Liberty.

Whether playing Sons of Liberty or the expanded version known as Substance, Metal Gear Solid 2 is an incredibly thought-provoking and engaging game. The story is definitely not for the casual gamer, and can be incredibly confusing at times. That said, Kojima really upped the ante with this sequel and set up brilliantly for the third and fourth titles in the series. It’s surprising when a game takes the premise of sneaking and makes it the core mechanic of the gameplay. It’s even more surprising when such a game is good – really good. By the end of his battles with Dead Cell, the Metal Gear RAYS, and Solidus Snake, Raiden has actually become stomachable and (dare I say) even cool. Metal Gear Solid 2 is one of those rare instances where the sequel is actually better than the original – a truly impressive feat, as the original Metal Gear Solid was so revolutionary.

Monday, December 14, 2009

25 Days of Christmas - #12: Star Wars: Rogue Squadron

Over the years, there have been countless Star Wars games. They span across virtually every system, and most of these titles are centered around allowing the player to wield lightsabers and use the force. And while the jedi way is certainly a core aspect of Star Wars, there are many other stories that make up the universe that George Lucas created. One of the most famous groups in the Galactic Civil War is the Rebel Alliance’s ace pilots that make up Rogue Squadron.

Star Wars: Rogue Squadron was released in 1998 for the PC and N64. The N64 game is the version I own, and I must say it is one of the most fluid and intuitive flight games ever released on any system. While Star Wars: X-Wing and Tie Fighter paved the way for space-bound dogfights, Rogue Squadron perfected them. Using different trigger combinations to pull off barrel rolls and arcs made maneuverability easy. Players were given a great deal of freedom in how they wished to deal with enemy fighters and turrets, but were also required to be wary of their secondary ammo supply.

The story follows Luke Skywalker and Wedge Antilles, the two most prominent members of the squadron, as they carry out various mission set in-between the films of Episodes IV, V, and VI. Other members of the squadron make appearances as well, including Wes Janson, Hobbie Klivian, and Zev Senesca. General Reikan provides briefings of each mission, and will reprimand players if things start to go sour. Each of the respective voice actors did a brilliant job in making these characters come to life. No single character in the game feels bland or one-dimensional.

Early missions have Luke and Wedge doing routine flight patrols and then encountering and subsequently destroying Imperial forces. These early missions are set up as tutorials, and aren’t meant to be anything special. But once Moff Seerdon (the main antagonist of the game) comes into the picture, the story really picks up in pace. Each mission is set on a different planet (with the only exception being two missions taking place on Kessel), and each is unique in design and mission objectives. On Gerard V, players must defend a city as the most skilled TIE Interceptor squadron - led by Kasan Moor - takes on the Rebels. On Chorax, players must navigate foggy canyons in search of the Nonah, a ship that crashed on the planet. On Fest, the Rebels must take down a shield and destroy AT-AT walkers as they attempt to free prisoners.

The soundtrack is classic Star Wars, strongly influenced by the original trilogy. Still, it adds a little flair of its own and sets itself aside as a separate soundtrack. The graphical capabilities of the N64 really shine in this game. The lighting effects are top-notch, and players will notice how the shadows move seamlessly as their X-Wing tilts towards or away from light. Engine exhaust flares up as the boost is activated, and blaster fire spreads outwards slightly as it makes contact with a target.

The variety of ships available to pilot is impressive, and includes not only classics like the X-Wing, Y-Wing, and A-Wing, but includes the V-Wing, a ship that is used more heavily in the post-Imperial years. The Millennium Falcon and a TIE Interceptor are unlockable as players meet certain achievements in missions. The inclusion of a cheat code system allows players to unlock the N-1 Naboo Starfighter, a 1969 Buick Electra, and even a minigame that puts players in control of an AT-ST “chicken” walker. Extra missions could also be unlocked, including the classic battles of Hoth and the Death Star trench run. Other extras include a theater mode in which players can view the various cutscenes in the game, and a music hall wherein players can listen to any given song from the soundtrack.

Star Wars: Rogue Squadron allowed players to step into the cockpit of an X-Wing and take on Imperial forces in an engaging and challenging way. The game covers some key moments for the Rebel Alliance not covered in the films, including the retrieval of Crix Madine on Corellia and the defection of ace pilot Kasan Moor. The game encompasses a large timespan, but still leaves enough material to be covered in two sequel games. Rogue Squadron pushed the capabilities of the N64 to the limit and was a fantastic achievement for parent company Factor 5.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

25 Days of Christmas - #13: Tetris

Honestly, Tetris doesn’t need an introduction. It’s a gaming legend. This is the game that shaped the puzzle genre of today. No matter how you look at it, any puzzle game involving multi-colored shapes that are lined up in some sort of sequence, can be traced back to Tetris.

Tetris used the incredibly simple mechanic of rotating pieces with a single button, and controlling where they fall with the D-pad. This control scheme was fluid and intuitive. Tetris was not, however, an easy game by any means. As players were required to reach a set number of combos before reaching the next round, they had to keep a close eye on how their current pieces were aligned and the blocks that were queued to drop next. This combined with the fact that the gameplay sped up with each new round challenged players to try and stay two steps ahead of the game.

With every new gaming system released, a new variant of Tetris is born. Tetris Worlds saw release on both the Gamecube and GBA, and included a variety of modes including Sticky Tetris, Cascade Tetris, and Hot-Line Tetris. Tetris DS payed homage to the old NES games of Zelda, Metroid, and Mario, and included online multiplayer modes. There has even been a Tetris variant released for the Apple iPod.

From Russia with love, Tetris saw a jump in popularity that was unheard of during the years of its heyday. Which is not to say that it is at all unpopular today, as each new game in the series performs admirably in both sales and critical reception. But the original Gameboy cartridge is the most successful game for the handheld system to date. Hexic, Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine, Dr. Mario – all of these have Tetris to thank for their design and success.
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