Sunday, February 26, 2012

Pokémon Black and White sequels announced

It's official - Pokémon Black and White versions will have not one, but two follow up games. Instead of the traditional single sequel that combines the Pokémon and locations available in Black and White versions (which many fans dubbed 'Grey version'), the DS will see two direct sequels in the form of Pokémon Black version 2 and White version 2. It seems the mascots for the games will be the two powered-up forms of Kyurem, with Zekrom-derivative Lightning abilities and Reshiram-derivative Fire abilities respectively. Not much else is known at this point, but I would personally like to see some new locations in Unova, whether they choose to expand the existing world or set the game in an entire area of Unova previously unexplored. I will be very interested to see if the game will allow players to carry over Pokémon from Black and White versions from the outset, or if (as with most merged sequels) the game will ask you to choose a new starter.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Top 5 Gundam Intro Themes

When I was planning my various top five lists for this year, most of them leaned toward the video game side of my blog. While I still plan on posting at least one top five list per month, some months (like this month) will see two lists. For February's anime-related top five, I decided to revisit one of my all-time favorite franchises, the king of mecha, Mobile Suit Gundam. I have not viewed every single series in the franchise in their entirety, but I have seen all of the opening and endings at least once. I've decided that I will only allow one intro per series, so the likes of SEED Destiny would be a bit more constrained than, say, Zeta Gundam. These top five are my favorites not just because of how catchy the themes might be, but also because of how well I feel they reflect the mood of each respective series.

#5) Victory Gundam - "Stand Up to the Victory"

Victory Gundam is sort of an odd duck, as it presents the harsh realities of war through the eyes of innocent Uso Evin. The intro theme harkens back to the original Mobile Suit Gundam with its chant-style lyrics. It's certainly an exciting intro theme, though the 'dirty' guitar riffs sort of tie it back to the more adult theme of the series.

#4) Gundam SEED - "INVOKE"

The first Gundam series to be digitally rendered, Gundam SEED is a lot about flash and flair. While the story gets stuck in some cheesy pitfalls during its second half, it's still a series that is a lot of fun to watch. This theme echoes many of the intro themes that preceded it, but takes on an identity all its own.

#3) Zeta Gundam - "Mizu no Hoshi e Ai wo Komete"

A bit more mellow of a tune than the other entries on this list, I feel this song embodies the tragic tale that Zeta Gundam turns out to be. Though I love Kamille Bidan, Lt. Quattro, and practically every other character in Zeta Gundam, not all of their hopes and dreams become realized before their time has come.

#2) Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory - "The Winner"

This is the essence of classic nineties rock. It has a goofy electronic undertone, a singer with soul, and a bit of a repetitive drum part. But I love every minute of this tune. It's a great parallel to Kou Uraki's hopes to become a strong enough pilot to take on Anavel Gato.

#1) After War Gundam X - "Dreams"

The only tune more rockin' than Stardust Memory's "The Winner" belongs to one of the most overlooked, most underrated Gundam series. I think this song suits both the sort of post-fallout world where the story unfolds, as well as Garrod Ran's antics and aims as one of the most entertaining lead characters in any of the Gundam series to date.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Anime review: Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam

As the "Empire Strikes Back" to the original Mobile Suit Gundam, Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam takes place seven years after the end of the One Year War. In the wake of their victory over Zeon, the Earth Federation has reorganized into a much stricter infrastructure. Elite pilots join the Titans force in order to keep the colonies in order by use of excessive force and fear tactics. However, the Anti-Earth Union Group (commonly referred to as the AEUG) is mounting an opposition to the Titans. While the first few episodes detail teen Kamille Bidan's own personal views toward the Titans-AEUG conflict, his theft of the Gundam Mk. II draws him into the battle alongside Lt. Quattro Bajeena and Captain Bright Noa.

The setup is a very interesting contrast to the original Mobile Suit Gundam, as the story is told largely through Kamille and Lt. Quattro. Kamille is aware of the Titans' violent nature and is even more opposed to due them to his father's allegiance to the Titans. Kamille does not take to combat as naively as other lead protagonists in the Gundam metaseries, due to his familiarity with them. However, Kamille does tend to try and reason with pilots, most notably the Cyber-Newtypes Four Murasame and Rosamia. His attempts to reach a common understanding with the enemy often result in tragedy. However, Kamille recognizes certain characters as distinctly villainous, and does not hesitate to attack them, understanding it as necessary for the greater good.

Lt. Quattro is a veteran pilot aboard the flagship Argama, and frequently offers Kamille advice early on. Quattro recognizes Kamille's potential as a Newtype, but doesn't want to rush him into any difficult scenarios before he's prepared to face them. Despite his protective nature, Quattro does not come across as any sort of sage old man brimming with wisdom; rather, he is something of an older brother/father figure to Kamille. His advice stems from his own experiences with Newtypes during the One Year War. Though no one aboard the Argama wants to go out of their way to question Quattro, considering his unwavering loyalty to their cause, his own personal aims and history do not take center stage until after Kamille's role has been properly addressed.

There are a number of familiar faces that show up over the course of the series. Pilot of the original Gundam, Amuro Ray has a story arc that deals with his Newtype abilities post-One Year War, and the fact that he is constantly under surveillance by the Titans. Katz, now old enough to choose his path in the war, aids Amuro in escaping Titan observation and ultimately becomes a pilot among the Argama's crew. Hayato Kobayashi and Bright Noa both play significant roles as commanding figures on the Earth side and space side of the conflict respectively. Even Kai Shiden makes a few brief appearances, offering the AEUG with crucial intel.

In roles that are generally more prominent are the series' newcomers. Fa Yuiry is Kamille's childhood friend and is dragged into the conflict due to his actions. Eventually she joins the fight while having the dual responsibility of looking after orphans Shinta and Qum. Lt. Emma Sheen defected from the Titans, and is among the most serious characters, as well as the most skilled pilots the AEUG has to offer.

On the Titans' roster, Jerid Messa acts as a sort of rival to Kamille early on, but his repeated failures turn him into something of a goofball past the halfway point of the series. Paptimus Scirocco is the series' main villain, and it is clear from his earliest appearances that he is not content with his current role. However, he is shown to be equally patient and calculating. Though Scirocco does not come into the spotlight until the second half of Zeta Gundam, it presents a significant shift in the series' focus, and adds another engaging layer to the storytelling. Similarly, Haman Karn, leader of the Axis forces, does not strike up a prominent role until after the halfway point, but her story follows something of a similar pattern. While Scirocco is interested in his own personal gains, Haman Karn hopes to align as many sympathizers to her cause as possible, using the last heir to the Zabi family, Princess Mineva, as a sort of puppet. Haman Karn displays particular interest in Lt. Quattro, one small part of the larger story that unfolds in a most intriguing way.

Two characters that hit home more closely with Kamille are the Cyber-Newtypes Four Murasame and Rosamia. Four is the pilot of the gigantic Psycho Gundam, and acts as Kamille's main love interest, despite being on the opposite side of the conflict. As part of her transformation into a Cyber-Newtype, the Titans tampered with her memories, leading her to have terrible fits of outrage. The same goes for Rosamia, except her memories seem to have been altered. She believes Kamille is her brother, and ends up doing as much damage to herself as she does to her enemies.

Though there are many characters that are explored over the course of the series, each feels quite rounded out thanks to the fifty episodes allotted. There are a few major characters, most notably Ensign Reccoa Londe, Jerid Messa, and Rosamia who come across as rather flat in comparison to the rest. There are even entire episodes that see their inclusion for seemingly no discernable reason. Meanwhile, the likes of Amuro and Hayato only show up when necessary to the plot and their inclusions, however infrequent they may be, are far more welcome.

The pacing for the series as a whole is quite strong, and the direction the main narrative takes is well planned and quite entertaining. Every story arc sees fitting conclusion, though some take longer to finish than others. Certain events occur regularly, like Katz's childish defiance of orders and Shinta and Qum getting themselves into trouble, to the point where they become easily predictable. Though the final episode sort of just wraps up and ends, the four or so episodes that precede it do well to indicate that the series is nearing its conclusion.

This is an nineteen-eighties series, and as such it does fall victim to clichés of the era. The melodrama frequented in older anime series prevails in a number of episodes, such as when Katz fall for Titans pilot Sarah Zabiarov and Reccoa Londe's feelings toward Quattro. Still, it isn't as obnoxious as with many other anime. There are goofy instances that really don't make a whole lot of sense. For example, the fact that Katz repeatedly defies orders and takes off into battle without permission, but is never once reprimanded for his actions. Or the fact that Jerid's missions constantly end with him getting his butt handed to him by Kamille and the Zeta Gundam, yet somehow every superior officer in the Titans force thinks so highly of him as a pilot. It's little things like this that stack on top of one another enough to stick out like a sore thumb.

Zeta Gundam is pretty action-packed, as is only befitting any mecha anime. From transforming mobile suits, to the gargantuan Psycho Gundam, to the psychic-driven battles that come into play late in the series, there's plenty of variation to keep things interesting. Aside from the traditional mobile suit combat, there are a few treacherous tricks the Titans try and pull, prompting the AEUG to respond in hopes of saving innocent civilians. A few battles even feature shootouts in zero gravity, testing characters beyond their piloting skills.

The soundtrack is not particularly outstanding, as it plays host to a number of tunes that fit the typical eighties sci-fi fanfare. That said, there's enough variety presented to keep if from getting too repetitive. The action-oriented tunes are among the best of the bunch, as they do well to convey the tense, uncertain atmosphere of battle. The animation, on the other hand, is pretty outstanding for its time. It's all hand-drawn and there are a very few weird animation slip-ups. But for the duration of the series, characters display dynamic and highly animated forms while environments are as highly detailed as they are varied and colorful. The animation quality only increases as the series progresses, with the final few episodes containing segments that could pass as having been drawn for stand-alone films. Some of the mobile suit designs look a tad more ridiculous than others, but by and large they prove fitting successors to those most prominent in the original Mobile Suit Gundam, as Hi-Zacks replace the Zeon grunt Zakus while the Gundam Mk II and Zeta Gundam both branch off from the RX-78-2 Gundam.

Zeta Gundam is the second oldest series in Sunrise and Bandai's long-running franchise, and a viewing of just a few episodes signifies just how far Gundam has come since. Zeta Gundam falls victim to a number of clichés and logical gaps that simply aren't always as common in its contemporaries. But it is also a series from the eighties and with that in mind, these sorts of instances are common to shows from that era. Taking all of that into account, Zeta Gundam certainly isn't the worst offender out there, and really is plenty enjoyable to watch. The dynamic that Kamille Bidan and Lt. Quattro Bajeena present is certainly unique in the metaseries, and the two are among the most likeable and entertaining leads in any Gundam series to date. To put it bluntly, Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam is an oldie-but-a-goodie.

My rating: 8.75 (out of 10)

Friday, February 17, 2012

Transformers: Fall of Cybertron to feature Metroplex

The most recent episode of GT.TV over at Gametrailers.com features an interview with Matt Tieger of High Moon Studios. Tieger details some of the changes from War for Cybertron to Fall of Cybertron, explaining that the campaign will not be split between Decepticons and Autobots like it was last time. Instead, there will be one single campaign, with each mission focusing on a different Transformer. The gameplay highlighted seemed to confirm a sort of squad-based design for when controlling Bruticus, in that players can control Bruticus himself or take control of one of the smaller bots that make up his body as they separate to take on enemies up close. Perhaps the most intereting bit of information that Tieger reveals is that Metroplex, the city-sized Autobot, will be present in the game, and that Optimus will have the ability to control this giant Transformer. No footage of this in action is shown, but I am curious to see how that will play out once the game finally hits store shelves this Fall.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Anime review: The Animatrix

The Animatrix is a series of short animated stories from the Matrix storyline. They are supplemental tales introduced around the same time as The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions to accommodate for the expansions to the franchise. In keeping with my review of Halo Legends, I will be providing each individual anime entry with its own rating (out of a possible five ranking), and then providing an overall rating for The Animatrix as a whole (which will be out of the standard ten-point ranking system I use). Please note that the overall rating is not an average, rather a rating based on how well the sum of the Animatrix's parts work together in delivering stories and expanding the universe of The Matrix.

Final Flight of the Osiris kicks things off with a visually pleasing 3D render of the Matrix world. There is great attention to detail throughout as the crew travels to the surface, a hauntingly beautiful place, and discovers the machines are planning to drill their way down to Zion. As soon as the Osiris is spotted, a swarm of Sentinels give chase, while one crew member plugs herself into the Matrix to warn the people of Zion of the machine's plans. It is an interesting point to explore, as it ties quite closely with the films. However, much of what is covered therein is familiar territory. Despite the fact that the introductory sequence is over-sexualized to a ridiculous degree, the animation is a saving grace as it is of a decent quality by today's standards. 3 out of 5

The Second Renaissance explains everything that led to the war with the machines and the subsequent fall of man. It draws some rather direct parallels to historical events, such as the slave labor used in constructing the Pyramids of Giza. The style in which the machines are presented makes a gradual but stark change from the friendly humanoid butler persona to the black and red tentacled bots of the films, a visualization of their change in ideals and political stance with the humans. This story of man sowing the seeds of his own destruction boasts some impressive animation for an early 2000s release. It fluctuates between the 3D and 2D combinations seen in Blue Submarine No. 6 and the borderline-obscenely stylized characters of Tekkon Kinkreet. 4 out of 5

Kid's Story revisits the first awakening from the Matrix, albeit in a much different manner than what Neo experienced in the original film. Kid is struggling in school and has dreams that are so vivid, he thinks they might be more real than his own day-to-day routine. When he seeks answers through his compute, he gets more than he bargained for, as Agents converge on his location, intent on stopping his search for the truth. This story is delivered through an animation that is heavy on sketches and watercolors, falling into an almost-impressionist category. Its surreal nature coupled with the adrenaline-rush of skateboarding action scenes and universally relatable idea will no doubt draw viewers in for the relatively short duration Kid's Story lasts. 3 out of 5

Program revisits the Training Programs briefly explored in both The Matrix Reloaded and the Enter the Matrix video game. Its animation style follows in the vein of Ghost in the Shell, and uses a rather direct and over-the-top feudal Japanese duel to train users. There is more talk than actual substance to any of the words dealt back and forth between the characters, which is rather annoying, and because of that this entry into The Animatrix feels unnecessarily long. To put it bluntly, Program is little more than a compounding of anime stereotypes, with one or two loose ties to the grander Matrix storyline. 2 out of 5

World Record explores what happens when someone tries to break free from the Matrix and fails. A track runner is trying to break his record and in the process, inadvertently sees the programming that makes up everything around him, which is a stark contradiction to all of the specific memories he recalls in the midst of his running euphoria. This entry is one of the most stylized of all the chapters of The Animatrix, fixating on the film series' cyberpunk style through color palettes that define a significant contrast between lights and darks. The character models - the Agents in particular - are very creative and captivating for the moment the bulk of World Record is encapsulated in. 5 out of 5

Beyond follows a young woman whose cat has run away from home. After asking some kids if they've seen the cat, she is led to a house the children say is haunted. As it turns out, the house is not only where the cat has run off to, but is also host to a number of strange anomalies, including irregular gravity, reconstruction of broken objects, and a door that leads to a dark, seemingly bottomless pit. The lighting and shadow effects are truly impressive for the time of The Animatrix's release. The character designs as well as the direction this vision of the Matrix took immediately evoked memories of Satoshi Kon's works - more specifically, Paranoia Agent and Paprika. The occasional shaky camera style and cel-shaded 3D animated objects truly set this entry above and beyond what most of the others in the collection manage to accomplish. 5 out of 5

A Detective Story, as its name implies, follows a detective who is hired to track down the mysterious hacker known as Trinity. The detective knows he is not the first to have been contracted to investigate her, and he is also aware of the fact that those before him ended up either dead or insane. Still, he can't argue with an $800,000 pay, even if the customer is incredibly shady. The story is delivered in a noir style that echoes the 1940s and 50s, a golden era for detective tales. The majority of the episode is animated in black, white, and shades of grey, with many backgrounds looking like they were ripped straight out of a newspaper. 4 out of 5

Matriculated is delivered through a notably American-influenced animation style. Backgrounds are comprised largely of still images that are heavy on detail, while the machines are all rendered in 3D models. The story opens with a female on the surface, decked out in some overtly cyberpunk gear, as she lures two machines into a building. Once there, she and her colleagues spring a trap to shut the machine down with the intent of repurposing it. The humans have found a method of interfacing with captured machines through a dream-like program that allows them to dupe the mechanized enemies into believing they have human qualities about themselves. The conclusion brings into question how the friendly machines might react when presented with negative emotions, and to what extent can they actually relate to being human. Interestingly, this machine is the only character who is explored to any significant degree. 3 out of 5

For the most part, The Animatrix does a wonderful job of expanding the borders of the Matrix universe. It offers many a fresh take because it is not afraid to revisit the familiar in bold new ways, ala A Detective Story, World Record, and so on. In breaking away from the Neo-centric formula of the films, the storytelling becomes much more adventurous and, in most cases, quite a bit stronger. And it certainly doesn't hurt that the animation for each is ahead of its time.The weakest moments show through when stories revisit the all-too-familiar, which are thankfully few and far between.

My rating: 8.25 (out of 10)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Xbox 360/PS3 review: Final Fantasy XIII-2

Final Fantasy XIII-2 is not as original as the first entry in the Fabula Nova Crystallis series, but still seeks to explore possibilities by integrating JRPG elements both new and old. The game opens with Lightning trapped in a realm known as Valhalla, a place where time does not flow naturally. Her attempts to hold powerful rival Caius at bay prove challenging, though she seems to be holding her ground well enough. From an opening in the sky falls Noel Kreiss, a human from the end of days. His wishes for a miracle brought him to Valhalla, and, knowing the threat Caius poses to the goddess Etro, Lightning sends Noel through time to find her sister Serah. After a brief exchange, Serah explains to Noel that she seems to be the only one who remembers that Lightning survived the fall of Cocoon at the end of Final Fantasy XIII, and Noel confirms her memories, informing her of Lightning's whereabouts. The two then set out to correct a myriad of paradoxes in hopes of restoring the 'true timeline'.

The gameplay is largely retained from FFXIII, with the battle system controlling in an almost identical manner. There are, however, a few small changes that go a long way. Serah and Noel are the only two human party members players will have control of throughout the entirety of the game. While both are granted three roles to begin with, leveling these up with crystogen points with present the opportunity to unlock all six roles, as well as bonus boosts and increases to both the ATB gauge and the equipment they are able to carry. Monsters can now be tamed and leveled up via special materials that can either be earned after battles or purchased with Gil. Each monster is allotted a single role (a Zwerg Scandroid is a Ravager, a Cait Sith is a Medic, etc.), but players can have three on call at any given time to work into their Paradigms.

XIII-2 jumps into the action pretty quickly, giving quick refreshers for veterans/tutorials for newcomers. For the most part, XIII-2 feels like a title made for those who played XIII, but it is not so quick to entirely alienate anyone who missed out on the adventures of Lightning, Snow and company the first time around. The crystarium has been streamlined, as each new improvement means a level increase for the respective character/monster. The improvements now also list the number of crystogen points required to level up.

The fact that only the Commando, Ravager, and Sentinel roles are available early on can prove a tad frustrating, especially when coupled with the fact that certain monsters are area-specific. But a few hours in, that aspect smoothes out. Some battles are followed up with a Cinematic Action, wherein players will interact with certain command prompts. These behave similarly to the interactive cutscenes in the more recent Resident Evil games, though they do not have significant negative repercussions should players miss the prompts.

The game is still one of the prettiest releases on current-gen consoles, which is no surprise, considering it is a Square Enix property. The environments designs see as much variety in aesthetics as they do in different layouts. From the overgrown forest of the Sunleth Waterscape, to the wide open fields of the Archylte Steppe, to the futuristic technological cityscape of Academia, every level presents players with new visual treats. The soundtrack is the most varied and experimental of any Final Fantasy to date, presenting traditional orchestrated tracks alongside techno tunes and borderline-death metal. Despite this great break away from the familiar, it all fits pretty well, save for a few tracks whose vocals throw off the vibe of their respective levels.

The minigames, a longtime staple of the more traditional Final Fantasy games, have returned following their absence from FFXIII. The quiz game is entertaining enough, and will test players knowledge of both XIII and XIII-2. But the bulk of the minigames are found in Serendipity, a casino-themed level entirely devoted to distractions and earning coins to spend on prizes. The lack of engaging minigames among the very few that are presented will easily turn players away from its colorful setting. The sidequests riddled throughout the multitude of levels, however, prove much more varied and enjoyable. The fragment rewards and crystogen point bonuses also act as sufficient incentive for players to seek out one after another.

A few puzzle elements have been worked in, though nothing quite so cleverly devised as anything a Legend of Zelda title or even the Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles spinoffs could muter up. Instead, FFXIII-2 offers three styles of puzzles, dubbed 'temporal rifts'. The easiest require players to connect matching jewels in a constellation shape before the clock runs out. The second challenge players to determine the correct path to take while collecting crystals, but at the same time do not allow them to retrace their steps. The trial-and-error aspect of these make their design seem rather trivial, but at the same time helps the RPG from derailing from its core gameplay.

The third type of temporal rift comes in the form of a clock. These require players to figure out the number of spaces the hands must rotate in order to clear all of the numbers. If the hands of the clock land on an empty space, the puzzle resets. It sounds a lot more simplistic than it really is, especially when you take into account the increase in numbers as each stage of the puzzle progresses. These are all randomly generated, and players may find themselves turned off by their inclusion - not just because they require careful plotting, but because of how lethargic they feel in comparison to the rest of the game.

Prior to Final Fantasy XIII-2's release, Square Enix touted that main villain Caius Ballad would be among the most challenging bosses in the series history. While this is true, his fight can prove rather easy if players grind for experience points. Compared to many previous Final Fantasy titles, grinding in XIII-2 is incredibly easy - in fact, most players will likely find themselves at higher levels than necessary without really trying to seek out extra battles. Taking a few wrong turns in Academia 400AF or encountering wild creatures in the Archylte Steppe can easily merit significant boosts to their crystogen count.

The game's ending is in keeping with the much darker tone the sequel carries over FFXIII. It's also an insulting conclusion to the solid storytelling that builds up the entire experience. This, combined with the DLC that is already being released, leads to some heavy implication that they basically released an incomplete game. So many of the game's weak points are exposed late, which may leave a distinctly sour taste with players who otherwise enjoyed this sequel.

When all is said and done, many players may find Noel Kreiss among their favorite Final Fantasy characters. His story in genuinely compelling as part adventure through time, part tragedy in being one of the last humans left at the end of time. Serah is not nearly as memorable, though her inclusion is certainly a step up from her role as a convenient plot device in FFXIII. Mog serves as a cute, often goofy sidekick, while Lightning takes a backseat for nearly the entire game. There are many familiar faces, and their stories all play out in a fitting, if not somewhat predictable way. Hope is easily the most interesting of the NPCs, though resident villain Caius and seeress Yeul present compelling enough expansions to the Fabula Nova Crystallis realm.

My rating: 8.25 (out of 10)

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Top 5 Racing Games

#5 - Mario Kart DS: Let's face it, it's kind of hard to make a list like this without bringing up at least one of the Mario Kart games. However, I am only including one of the games from this series on this list due to how critical I tend to be in my approach to each entry in the series. Mario Kart games are great fun all around, but there are some that I don't care for as much as others. I got my start on Mario Kart 64 which, great game as it is, hasn't aged quite as well as some of the more recent releases. Mario Kart Double Dash should be recognized for exploring interesting new territory but, as a whole, I felt the Gamecube one was the weakest of the bunch.

The reason that Mario Kart DS ranks as my favorite in the series is because of the tracks available. Since none of the Mario Kart games have any real story to speak of, the tracks often serve as a make-or-break deal for me. There are some really creative aesthetics coupled with nice variation in the layout of the tracks, with Luigi's Mansion, Delfino Square, Waluigi Pinball, and Tick-Tock Clock being among the most noteworthy mentions. The retro tracks are a solid bunch too, with the likes of Frappe Snowland, Banshee Boardwalk, and Yoshi Circuit rounding out the package. Not to mention that the controls are very smooth - props to Nintendo for sticking to what we already know works and not messing up the controls by trying to implement much from the touch screen.

#4 - F-Zero X: Back in the day, I used to rent as many N64 games as I could from Blockbuster, and F-Zero X was among those. I didn't rent this one as frequently as Pokémon Snap, Ocarina of Time, or even Snowboard Kids, but it stood out to me, even at a young age, for a few key reasons. First off was the over-the-top futuristic racing scenario. As a kid, I simply thought it was a cool concept. Today, I realize how much of a different racing experience it provides, with the potential for sliding around turns, knocking other racers out of your path, or even the unfortunate plummet off the track into the abyss below. Second were the track designs and racer stats. Anyone's who's played this game knows how you have to be ready for whatever the next course is about to throw at you, and this can lead to a lot of trial-and-error approaches early on. The racers proved a solid progression system. You won't have access to anything spectacular to start with, but the default racers are well-balanced and give you a chance to get a good feel for the game before you take that next step up in difficulty.

F-Zero X is a very nontraditional Nintendo game in a lot of respects. It's not gushing with mature content, by any means, but the heavy metal and techno tunes coupled with the ripped t-shirt-clad menu girls implies this is a racing game for the teens on up (both were kind of edgy back in the day). It's a challenging game - there are times when the slightest of screw-ups can send you hurtling to your death, forcing you to restart the race (as I experienced more than a few times on the pipes of Big Blue) - but that's just the way I like it.

#3 - Diddy Kong Racing: This was an easy pick for me, and not just because it was the first video game I ever owned. Diddy Kong Racing is a kart racer, and a darn good one at that. It's not the same as Mario Kart, despite the fact that both games are host to a cast of characters from across various games. Diddy Kong Racing has something of a story to it. It's by no means the greatest storytelling you can find in a video game, but the way Wizpig and adventure mode acted as the core of the experience gave me a reason to want to complete the main game.

The major worlds are host to four tracks and one mini-game each. Each world has a different theme, and the tracks explore different styles in which said themes could be approached. For example, the Renaissance-themed Dragon Forest dishes out a haunted forest, plains riddled with windmills, a castle, and a medieval village. Some tracks proved vehicle-specific, or at least more friendly toward one vehicle over another. They are not frequent, but courses that force players to use the hovercraft or the jet end up as some of the best-designed of the bunch, and can certainly help in learning to master these alternative vehicles.

The items are another highlight. As opposed to Mario Kart's greater variety, Diddy Kong racing takes to a stacking method. By collecting a single red balloon, players can fire a missile. Or, they can choose to wait and grab another red balloon to upgrade to a homing missile. It presents an element of careful strategy not always explored in kart racers. And man, do those items come in mighty handy when you're taking on any of the game's five bosses (because they're all pretty challenging).

#2 - Midnight Club II: This is a game that breathes atmosphere through every nook and cranny of its three overworld cities. From Los Angeles to Paris to Tokyo, the game presents you with a superb variety of race variants. There's the tried-and-true races against multiple AI opponents, there's the series of scattered checkpoints, and there are instances where you have to outrun the police (you are street racing illegally, after all). There's even one mission where you are the unwitting accomplice in a plot to spread bombs through the Parisian catacombs.

What makes this game so memorable is not its selection of excellently rendered automobiles, which range from the classy and sporty to the suped-up and decked out. It's not the controls which are so fluid and perfect for the PS2. All of these certainly help the overall package to reach greater heights, but the soundtrack is the definitive reason to play this game. Whether you are punching the turbo to beat your opponent to the finish line at the last minute or simply free-roaming in cruise mode, the experimental techno and hip-hop tracks from Thomas Bangalter, Felix Da Housecat, patientzero, 8-Off Agallah (to name just a few) act as the soul of the experience.

#1 - Hydro Thunder: "Three!...Two!...One! GO, GO, GO!" If F-Zero was the hyper-futuristic equvialent to a car racing game, then Hydro Thunder is essentially the same to boat racing. I can't say that I've played many boat racing games - I don't think that there are that many around, and I don't imagine there are many noteworthy mentions among the bunch. But Hydro Thunder stands out to me for a lot of reasons. On the more simplistic side of things, the game is gorgeous to look at, regardless of whether you are playing it on the N64, Dreamcast, or Arcade. It's not that the graphics look incredible by today's standards - far from it. But the whole aesthetic appeal of surreal environments of each track combined with space-age boats immediately immerses you in the experience.

Breaking down the particulars, though, Hydro Thunder requires time and patience to master. While each course has its boost locations, figuring out the best time to use them can draw a fine line between first and last place. There's also the matter of shortcuts and jumps to improve your ranking. Despite its age, the game's controls are still surprisingly fluid, and offer an experience that does well to balance the realistic elements of boat racing with the ridiculous angle of strapping rockets to the back of your machine. The different layouts of each track keep you on your toes at all times while also providing enough space for you to maneuver in the water. All in all, the game has a very arcade-style feel about it, whether you're actually playing the arcade version or one of the console releases.
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