Kea Johnston

This is you driving on drugs


Endless Ocean: Dive, Discover, Dream

(Nintendo Wii)

GAMER I thought I was looking for some new, nonmayhem-oriented games, and someone recommended Endless Ocean. I read the box and said, "Hmmm. A game where you swim around and look at pretty fish. Yeah. I could do that."

Endless Ocean is a game about scuba diving: you play a young marine biologist tasked with helping to catalog the inhabitants of an imaginary coral reef. Your job is to explore the underwater landscape, to collect artifacts, and to observe as many new and different types of fish as you can, all while listening to a calming synthpop soundtrack. In other words, Endless Ocean is Valium on a disc — which has both good and bad implications.

First off, I’d really like to commend Arika for developing a game that obviously wasn’t destined to sell a gazillion copies. Although it involves the latest in a trilogy, it really brings something unique to the console game repertoire: the ability to delve into environments for their own sake, at your own pace. I stared captivated at the screen, late into the night, using my Wiimote to swim under coral and to follow fish, trying to get as close to the fish as I could in order to see the details of their bodies. Endless Ocean has one of the most user-friendly swimming controls of any game I’ve played. Usually swimming in a console game is an unholy pain. It’s still a bit awkward with Endless Ocean, but oddly enough, it lends realism to the game: steering yourself in an environment that is denser than normal with a giant tank on your back is awkward.

Endless Ocean‘s greatest failure is that it’s not realistic enough. I wished many times while playing the game that my Wii was a PS3 with a Wiimote so I could swim easily and have the detailed fish. I wanted to see their fins and scales. But the Wii just doesn’t support the high-resolution graphics that would allow this. They do a lot with what they have, but it isn’t enough.

Part of the game mechanic is that you gather information about the fish by "befriending them." In the language of videogames and toddlers, this means "poking them." The fish just keep swimming their scripted loops: they don’t care and they’re not real fish. I even used my underwater pen to tag the reef near one with an anarchy sign. Not even a dirty look.

Fish are not the astrophysicists of the animal kingdom. It can’t be hard to write fish artificial intelligence. They should at least swim off when you try to poke them. I feel that with an actionless game like this, the enjoyment needs to come either from being able to admire the environment like artwork or from being able to interact with it. The aim to create realism with all the detail that this implies is just unrealistic on the Wii, and the world’s responses to your overtures are dull rather than compelling.

Does it suck?


Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles

(Konami; Sony PSP)

GAMER I have a friend who only likes really, really hard games — the kind in which fast-moving, shooting things spawn more fast-moving, shooting things at an exponential rate. When he said Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles is hard, I didn’t laugh and call him a sissy.

Dracula X is actually a remake of a game for PC that came out in Japan in 1993, where it was concisely titled Demon Castle Dracula X: Rondo of Blood. It hailed from the end of the era when the purpose of a game was to devour as many quarters as possible. In both games you play Richter, a vampire killer. Dracula has kidnapped some hot, nubile females, and your job is to whip and beat your way through armies of his demonic minions in order to rescue them from secret rooms in his 2-D, side-scrolling castle.

You can only get hit a few times before you die, and almost everything deals damage. If you die three times, you have to start the level again, which is hair-pullingly frustrating if the thing killing you is at the end. You can unlock the ability to play one of the women, the spirited Maria, who has more powerful attacks than Richter but less life and takes more damage.

Your character gets one main weapon and one subweapon. The number of the subweapon’s uses depends on how many hearts you have collected by beating up the scenery. One of Maria’s subweapons is a cat. That’s right — you can hurl cats at your enemies! "Look! It’s a giant floating skull! Kitty bonzai!"

The graphics are pretty highly improved over the original: the game has been redone with excellent 3-D cut scenes and 3-D-rendered sprites. It looks better than most of the other things I’ve seen on the PSP. Most of the music consists of disco remixes of songs from various games in the Castlevania series. It took me a while to get used to it, and it kind of hampers one’s immersion in the game. The reason that I decided to check out Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles is that it comes with both the original Rondo of Blood — in English — and the well-loved Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, which came out in 1997 for the PlayStation and the Sega Saturn.

Konami has made no changes to Symphony of the Night, which is good for fans of the original, and the quirks that were there in 1997 are still present. The new version handles the difference in shape between a TV screen and a PSP screen with vertical letterboxing, which struck me as both a bit cheap and a lot annoying. But the player adapts to it fairly easily. One suspects that Konami included the old games as a gimmick to sell copies of the Rondo remake, but having spent a good 20 hours replaying Symphony of the Night, I’m not going to complain too much.

In short, Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles is a pretty decent remake of Rondo of Blood. Its downfall is that it’s frustratingly hard compared to other platformers today. But the inclusion of Symphony of the Night makes the game well worth the money — if you have the cockroachlike persistence to battle through Rondo of Blood to the point where you unlock it!

Rip, role-play, and burn


Jeanne D’Arc

(Sony, PSP)

GAMER I had the fortune of winning a PSP in a contest a few weeks ago, and in my hunt for an inaugural game for the system, I spotted Jeanne D’Arc on a shelf in a local toy store. Because the cover sports an awesome girl with a sword and because no one does medieval European history like the Japanese, I picked it up.

Jeanne D’Arc is historical fantasy with a plot that seems a little too familiar. The Level-5-developed title has a lot of the elements of your average Japanese role-playing game: a heroine whose home is put to the torch by agents of a diabolical figure (in this case Henry VI of England) under the influence of a demon summoned by the real villain, who is a sorcerer. Jeanne and her childhood friends set off to fight back, spurred by Jeanne’s discovery of a magical, demon-vanquishing armlet. They are accompanied by a cute animal companion, required in all Japanese RPGs: a giant purple toad. The rough placement of the story within the framework of a well-known legend is what rescues the plot from being completely pedestrian.

The game, a tactical strategy RPG in the style of Final Fantasy Tactics with few deviations from the formula, has a map of locations through which the player travels. Most of them have battles, though some also have shops and plot-revealing cut scenes. On entering a battle, the player chooses various characters with different abilities and arranges them on a large grid. The player and the computer take turns moving all of their characters and making them attack or use an item in their inventory. Think of a chess game in which all of the pieces have big swords and bigger hair. Jeanne D’Arc adds a few little power-ups — such as squares where your attacks have a greater impact — but these don’t affect game play much.

One thing I really liked about the game is that each character has a backstory. You aren’t controlling a bunch of nameless soldiers. Your characters are also fairly customizable. Usually each character in an RPG is locked into a career path for the benefit of the story, and usually the healer is a demure woman. This irks me. Jeanne D’Arc let me create a butch male healer who swoops to the rescue whenever one of my little chess pieces is hurting.

Jeanne D’Arc is nothing new, but it’s fun, and the development of the minor characters involves the player in a way that’s refreshing for a tactical RPG. The quality of the graphics and sound are exceptional for a handheld game; I found myself humming the fight tune in the shower, so I guess the music’s more memorable than most. That said, if the narrative keeps following history, it’s going to be a bummer to see a character I’ve developed for 40 hours get burned at the stake at the end. Oh well.

Say Halo to my little friend


Halo 3

(Microsoft; Xbox 360)

GAMER I have a confession to make: I don’t like first-person shooters. Most of the ones I’ve played share the following objective: "Shoot the marines-aliens-terrorists-mutants and escape from the bunker–prison–top-secret facility–warehouse full of crates." I find this a bit boring. I therefore believe myself uniquely suited to hack my way through the dense jungle of Microsoft-sponsored hype with a flaming machete. Lest you discount the following as being biased, I’ve gotten my FPS-playing friend Glenn Song to cover me and augment my experience with his.

In the Bungie-developed Halo 3 you play a futuristic marine named Master Chief whose mission is to destroy worlds reminiscent of Larry Niven’s Ringworld. Why? These worlds are the key to setting a killer parasite loose on the universe. I’m down with anything that showcases killer parasites. Humanity is working against an alliance of religious-zealot aliens called the Covenant. Halo 3 avoids reducing the story to cliché by maintaining a linear plot but keeping narrative revelations relevant so that they don’t interrupt game play, and by allowing free play over small areas.

The graphics are stunningly good. Even the crates are well textured. The environments are amazingly lush and realistic. The soundtrack is very well done as well, although I think it sometimes borders on melodramatic.

Both Song and I had big problems with the user interface of the game. It took me several minutes just to figure out which buttons to click to start a single-player game, and it took even longer to figure out how to play a level cooperatively with another player. The menus are all nondescript and not really labeled intuitively.

Several times while playing, I felt like throwing the controller in disgust and making this review. Really. Short. That’s because I couldn’t target any of the small, fast-moving enemies. Almost all console shooters are like this, but most console games also have a feature that allows you to lock onto your target. Halo 3 does not. The levels sometimes seem rather lazily designed. The mission on the second level involves going from point A to point B and then back to point A again. It’s monotonous on one level, but subsequent levels also seem to have a lot of backtracking.

Multiplayer is where Halo 3 really shines. There are a variety of minigames along with the traditional body-count competitions, and the games are populated with 11-year-olds up way past their bedtimes. The variety of exotic weapons and complicated terrains makes for pure, exciting mayhem.

As soon as I signed into a game, some kid asked, "Hey, are you really a girl?" I would like to say I beat the snot out of the little whippersnapper, but the reality is that I got killed in the first 30 seconds. Then I got respawned and chased a guy named Tastyporkchop around with a gun that shoots needles.

When cute animals attack


(Nintendo; Nintendo DS)

GAMER Continuing my current tendency to gravitate toward games involving cute animals, I recently became addicted to the latest Pokémon installment, Pokémon Diamond. Pokémon Pearl is the same game with some different Pokémon.

My first Pokémon experience came during a long road trip in 2000, when I got hooked on Pokémon Gold. I made myself popular with every grade school kid on the block because I was an adult who knew that Pikachu evolves into Raichu.

In the Pokémon games, you grind to level-up your small army of cute creatures in turn-based battles against random Pokémon who hang out in grassy areas. You also capture new Pokémon. Pokémon are stored in small spheres and are released to fight, after which they get sucked back into their Pokéballs. And you thought non-free-range chickens have it bad.

There’s a plot, something about stopping a team of gangsters called Team Galactic from using the powers of Pokémon for evil, and you shame them into submission by using your small, cute animals to rough up their small, cute animals. You use the same technique to earn badges at the gyms scattered throughout the game’s world.

These titles are all about the exploring and the collection. You collect Pokémon, Pokémon battle techniques, and gym badges. So if you like to play collection games, Pokémon will take over your life.

What’s different between these installments and the one I played when I first got hooked on Pokémon in 2000? About 100 colors. I’m just eyeballing it. Also, a new online mode allows you to trade Pokémon with other users. To be honest, I haven’t gotten the chance to use this, but I’ve heard from one of my coworkers that it is "full of dumb kids who want to trade their level 100 Geodudes for my ultrarare Mewtwo!"

These two are the first non-spin-off Pokémon games on the Nintendo DS, and the series is well served by the platform. Being able to choose moves for my Pokémon by touching the screen is natural. That said, the game could have done a lot more with the hardware. I would like to see the Pokémon world or the battles in 3-D, like in Animal Crossing: Wild World, as opposed to the top-down view. The battles have surprisingly minimal effects and animation. This was OK on the Game Boy Color but seems a bit cheap on the DS. The series hasn’t changed much at all, and that’s good, because the game play is as fun and addicting as ever. But it’s bad in the sense that the latest installments in the series have almost nothing new to offer.

Mi viva loca


Viva Pinata

(Microsoft; Xbox 360)

GAMER When I grabbed Viva Piñata at the store, I hoped the game would inspire my Xbox 360 to a greatness beyond its current status as a sleek, expensive bookend that plays DVDs. Viva Pinata’s premise might be described as Pokemon: Capitalist Edition — you are a pinata farmer in charge of creating a garden that will attract a multitude of brightly colored pinatas, which you will have to tend and breed in a totally G-rated way. You make money from selling the rarer, more valuable piñatas.

I’ll be honest: my interest in this game was piqued when someone told me you could whack the Whirm pinatas with a shovel and feed their candy viscera to the Sparrowmint pinatas. We need more of that sort of content in children’s games.

The game play is most reminiscent of SimCity: you must satisfy the requirements of your potential citizens to entice them to move in and stay. Once your population gets large, chaos ensues. You plow your garden, and once you have nice soil, a Whirm pinata moves in. These are soon followed by Sparrowmints. But why doesn’t my bird pinata eat my worm pinata? After about five tries, my Sparrowmint flew off toward my worm and ate it. This lack of responsiveness sadly plagues Viva Pinata. Actions fail and give you no indication why. At other times the game generates an ominous err-err noise and doesn’t indicate why it made the sound or refocus on the problem piñata. You have to search over your large garden of piñatas to find the one that was poisoned or got in a fight.

When your pinatas inevitably start fighting, you’ll find there’s no way to break them up except to whack or spray them. Your pinatas sicken if they lose a fight, get wet, or are smacked. If you don’t build fences, you’ll spend most of your time calling the doctor, yet building fences is nearly impossible. The analog control is terrible — it will fail to fence areas such as untilled land but won’t tell you why. Getting your pinatas behind the fence is another trial — there aren’t any gates, and the game doesn’t pause while you’re fencing. You have to herd them into the area you want to fence, and half the time they wander off while you’re building.

After about two days of playing this game, I got frustrated and sold it. The controls were awkward and unintuitive — reprehensible in an adult game but inexcusable in a kids’ one. The game play felt buggy and broken. Since this is the only real children’s title for Xbox 360, I can’t completely dis it. But your kids, being smarter and more patient than both you and me, will probably enjoy it a lot more than you will. (Kea Johnston)

Princess party


The Legend of Zelda: The Twilight Princess

(Nintendo; GameCube, Wii)

GAMER Every Christmas as a child, I’d dream not about sugarplums but about Nintendo. I mentioned it to Santa at the mall, but alas, there was never one under the tree. So I made friends and used them for their consoles. Sadly, none of them were into The Legend of Zelda, so I did not grow up following the series like many of my generation. Twilight Princess is the first game I’ve played in the series — and for us Zelda initiates, it’s not a bad place to start.

You begin as an elf named Link who lives in a tree house in a quiet village in the land of Hyrule. The peace is destroyed when the children are kidnapped first by monkeys and then by something far more sinister.

Twilight Princess manages to engage the player pretty quickly. Link himself has the personality of a houseplant. But once you are drawn into the twilight world, which happens quickly, you meet your comrade: Midna, a creepily cute snaggletoothed imp. In the twilight world you become a wolf, and like an unruly child, Midna wants to ride on your back. Thankfully, he pulls his own weight with special attacks. The plot progression is well-timed so players feel like they are controlling the story without losing track of the final goal, to liberate Hyrule.

Hyrule is a fairly open world. You can roam much of a large map that opens up further over time. You can fish and hunt bugs, though there are really only two types of rewards for exploring and collecting: money and heart containers. The predictability and general meagerness of the rewards take the fun out of collecting and exploring, and interactions with the world itself are pretty much limited to throwing things. That’s not to say this isn’t rewarding in itself: once the tutorial was over, I started hurling pumpkins at nearby children. Oh yes, I was supposed to be helping the shopkeeper find her cat so she’d sell me a slingshot, which brings me to the thing that distinguishes this — and, I’ve heard, the Zelda series — from other role-playing games: the puzzles.

Most involve figuring out how to reach a goal by combining your limited tools with surrounding objects. Many battles require more thought than reflex: one sequence requires you to kill three demons — the caveat being that if one is left standing, it will resurrect its companions. Neither the puzzles nor battles are terribly difficult, but they are integrated perfectly.

Twilight Princess’s game play is well paced and very fun, and next to that, sound and graphics are pretty much just icing on the cake. I played the Wii version, and it’s no secret that its graphics aren’t as sharp or detailed as those on the PS3 or Xbox 360. However, stylistically the game is beautiful. The soundtrack is unobtrusive.

In short, Twilight Princess is the most fun I’ve had on the Wii so far. There has been a severe lack of fun puzzles in gaming since the adventure game genre died out about a decade ago. Zelda fills this void with brainteasers that are challenging but not hard. (Kea Johnston)