The “Halo 4″ Effect: Video Game Franchises that Need New Developers

While we’ll have to wait for the initial sales figures, considering how much of a critical hit it has been already, “Halo 4” is looking to become another runaway successes for the famous franchise. Having now played it, I’m thrilled at how the game truly does invoke that feeling of the original titles while not coming across as the cash-in of a well established formula that it so easily could have been. While it’s not quite so simple, we can thank this in large part to the efforts of the series new developer, 343 Industries, who have admirably taken over from the great Bungie.

When I first heard that there was to be a “Halo” game not made by Bungie, I got worried. Now that I step away from it though, I see that it really was the only way that “Halo” was ever really going to flourish again. In fact, the more I think about it, if we’re being honest, there are a lot of classic franchises that have gone stagnant and could use a fresh start courtesy of a new developer. Here’s five of the biggest examples.

Castlevania

The “Castlevania” series was forever altered with the release of “Castlevania: Symphony of the Night”. Gone were the days of the incredibly challenging and linear, classic 2D side scroller, and in came a new “Castlevania” game that emphasized exploration and advancement, similar to the “Metroid” series (coining the term “Metroidvania”). It was such a success in nearly every respect that it changed the outlook and direction of the series for years to come.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the problem is that was way back in 1997, and the series entries ever since have mostly fallen into the realm of knock offs of “Symphony of the Night” or misguided 3D action romps that are at best average, and at worst “Castlevania 64”. As all time great a developer as Konami is, they don’t seem able or willing to make a truly noteworthy entrant to the franchise anymore. It’s just impossible to believe that with the series rich timeline and incredible gothic atmosphere there isn’t a significant amount of fuel left in the tank. Whether it be a glorious and long overdue return to the series roots, or something else entirely, it’s time that one of the greatest series of all time reminded everyone why it is just that.

Who should develop: From Software, the makers of “Demon’s Souls” and “Dark Souls”. I salivate at the thought honestly, as both “Demon’s Souls” and “Dark Souls” feel like the direction the “Castlevania” series should have gone in long ago. They feature larger than life bosses, a variety of spooky enemies, and a “make you regret that you can’t stop coming back” level of difficulty. The series would fit the developer like a glove.

James Bond

The James Bond franchise has seen more developers than the role itself has actors, which may help to explain why we still haven’t gotten a significant game from 007 and crew since the legendary “Goldeneye”.

That’s not to say that every entry has been as bad as the recent “007 Legends”, some like “Blood Stone” and “Everything or Nothing” are actually decent, but rather that the it is in dire need of a rejuvenation that no developer has been able to conjure since Rare. Even when they are not great, when we are treated to a Bond movie every 4 years or so, it always feels like an event, and consistently entertains in one way or another. Considering the wealth of material that the James Bond franchise has, and how much of that can easily translate to games, there is no reason that a competent developer shouldn’t be able to produce that same effect for Bond video games.

Who should develop: There’s a ton of candidates I would love to see take a stab at this, but the one that keeps coming to mind is Remedy (“Max Payne”, “Alan Wake”). They’re a developer that exceeds at creating atmosphere in their games, and when making a good Bond game, your first job is to perfectly capture that iconic James Bond atmosphere, without messing up the gameplay too bad. They’re not a huge developer, exactly, but the impossible level of polish and charm they put in their titles would be very welcome for a Bond game.

Star Fox

At times the “Star Fox” series feels like the Buffalo Bills of the early 90’s. Always so close, and never quite there. The original “Star Fox” was revolutionary for its graphical style, while 1997’s “Star Fox 64” had everyone believe that Nintendo had the next great franchise on their hands. From there, though, 2002’s head scratching “Star Fox Adventures” threatened to take the series into an ill-advised and unwanted new action-adventure direction, while every other release has been either a rehash or re-make of the originals, which in all fairness have been good enough to remind us of the series potential, but not great enough to put it over the top.

It’s time then for some new blood that can realize that the lack of games in the rail shooter genre, and the name power “Starfox” still has, and make it all come together for a glorious return to form. The last couple of “Star Fox” installments have produced quality with little to no effort, so it would be interesting to see what the result of an honest new full effort push would be.

Who should develop: This one is tough, but I’ll go with Ubisoft Montpellier. The development team behind the brilliant “Rayman Origins” can pull off that difficult mix of cartoon looks and intense gameplay that “Starfox” needs to succeed.

Silent Hill

Recently I called “Silent Hill” 2 the greatest horror game of all time. However, when I speak of “Silent Hill” in revered tones, I’m only talking about games 1-4 where Konami was handling development duties.

Ever since then, a few different developers have attempted to re-imagine the franchise and, with only a few very specific successes as exceptions, have all failed in providing any of the quality of the originals. “Silent Hill” was originally defined by its dread filled atmosphere and psychologically challenging scares. In shying away from an action first mentality, it provided a gaming experience that you almost regretted playing, but couldn’t help but be captivated by. The mystique and intrigue the series maintains is as thick as the fog that made the town itself famous, and there is still a lot it has to contribute in the right hands.

Who should develop: There were talks recently of Hideo Kojima taking over the series (which might actually happen), and while that would be fun, while I’m dreaming I’ve got to go with Frictional Games, the developers of “Amnesia: The Dark Descent” and the “Penumbra” series. They’ve been quietly making revolutionary and truly terrifying titles for years now, and a shot at more mainstream, big time success with the next “Silent Hill” game would be incredible.

The WWE Series

Along with titles like “Goldeneye” and “Mario Kart 64”, wrestling titles such as “WWF No Mercy” helped to make the N64 the system for multiplayer gaming. Of course that was in the heyday of wrestling, and of developer AKI who had a great feel for how to make a wrestling title sing with its gameplay. Since then the series has been passed off to Yuke’s, and while 2003’s “Smackdown: Here Comes the Pain” is one of the best wrestling titles ever, even the most hardcore of wrestling fans have been left feeling cheated by their most recent offerings.

Much like the “Madden” series the complacency of recent WWE titles has removed a real sense of urgency from the games that have taken the competitive spirit a title like that needs to thrive. Respectable attempts to keep the series fresh have been made, but attempt doesn’t mean success, and Yuke’s is sadly failing, even if their intentions are for the best. This game needs a new story mode, a new engine, and a fresh perspective. In short, a complete overhaul.

Who should develop: It’d be fun to see AKI, now Syn Sophia, do it, we don’t know how much of their team from the original is still in tact, plus this is about fresh starts. Instead, why not Team Ninja? The “Dead or Alive” fighting series has always been over the top and incredibly fluid with a variety of unique personalities, which are a few of the most important elements you need for a good wrestling game. Not to mention a Team Ninja developed WWE game would be original to say the least.

The 31 Horror Games of October: Part 1

Horror may be gaming’s most effective genre.

While you can put a book down, or tell yourself its just a movie, there is an element of participation involved in games that makes the scary ones that much worse. Even if it is in the virtual sense, you are the one in the game, and the horrors are happening to you.It may have taken a while for developers to truly catch on to the potential of the genre, but ever since there has been a tidal wave of terror that has left many a gamer fumbling their controllers in a cold sweat.

As October rolls around then, and Halloween dawns on us, it is time to celebrate the greatest horror games of all time. I’ve got a list of 31 total, starting here, one for each day of the month. They are loosely ranked, with the main factor being the overall experience.

Although, being absolutely terrifying also doesn’t hurt its standings.

31. Deadly Premonition – Awful graphics, controls, gameplay ideas, acting, and just about every other technical malady you can think of plague this game. But, just like horror movies, not everything has to be perfect for a title to be memorable. There is just something so compelling in the way that “Deadly Premonition” handles itself, as it clumsily (but oddly beautifully) blends horror and black comedy in an open world environment. The game’s story is completely out there, and sucks you in just to see what’s next. It’s almost like the developers intended to make a bad game, but accidentally ended up with something greater than the sum of its parts (much like many a great B-Movie). You’ll either love this game or despise it, but it is impossible to forget, and makes for something every gamer must try even if you hate yourself for doing so.

30. Nocturne – In what will be something of a reoccurring theme on this list, “Nocturne” is brimming with flaws. Sporting one of the worst  cameras ever in a video game, and some equally bad controls to match, “Nocturne” is slightly unplayable these days. But if you gut your way through it you will find some of the best horror environments of all time. Carried by the games great story, “Nocturne” comes off like a mix of the “X-Files” and the old Hammer horror films of the 50s. A technical disaster that did so much else right, this is one game that is begging to be revisited.

29. Dino Crisis 2 – The first “Dino Crisis” looked and felt a lot like “Resident Evil” with dinosaurs. It was fun, and had moments of genuine creativity, but the series peaked with “Dino Crisis 2.” The survival concept of the first game went almost completely out of the window, and in its place came pure action bliss, as “Dino Crisis 2″ became one of the few, and greatest, arcade style horror games of all time. The variety of weapons, enemies, and levels turns the game into one new fist pumping moment after another throughout the, all too brief, runtime. It may not be scary enough to go higher on my list, but it’s fun enough to still warrant playing through to this day, which is not something you can say for a lot of similar games from that era

28. Siren- The Japanese have a good mind for horror, and “Siren” is definitely a pure Japanese horror game. While the game more than liberally borrows from “Silent Hill” in many aspects (especially the story) the look and feel of the game carry an appropriate level of dread. Bonus points are applied for the great “Sightjack” feature that allows you to take over the view of an enemy in order to best avoid them, which is necessary as they can’t be killed in the strict sense. At the end of the day, “Siren” is undeniably a clone of many superior works, but the things it copies are so rarely copied in video games that it still feels fresh.

27. Alone in the Dark – In general, video games do not share the same luxury of fine wines, and tend to age horribly. Long cited as the first survival horror game in the pure sense, “Alone in the Dark” isn’t necessarily unplayable, but its dated gameplay and graphics take much of the original impact away. More than just a textbook video game entry however, there is still a lot of great design decisions to be found in “Alone in the Dark’s” carefully constructed house of scares. Much like an old black and white horror flick, what this game has lost in fright, it makes up for with an odd charm and timeless sense of style. It’s impossible to call yourself a horror fan and not give the original “Alone in the Dark” a go.

26.  Rule of Rose – If famed horror director Dario Argento made a horror game, it may look like ‘Rule of Rose.” One of gaming’s few entrants in the psychological horror genre, “Rule of Rose” is a disturbing romp through an abandoned orphanage that features an almost incomprehensible plot that actually makes the entire experience better for the dreamy effect it creates. I’ve rarely played a game that felt so unnerving, and makes you feel as unwelcome. Unfortunately this is another case of bad design ruining the overall game, as “Rule of Rose” puts its full effort into story and style and leaves players to suffer through a general gameplay hell that will make all but the most patient give up in disgust. It still remains too unique to be anything less than noteworthy, though.

25. Slender: The Eight Pages – I almost feel bad putting such a new and simple title above something like “Alone  in the Dark.” However, “Slender” truly is horror design at its most pure. Featuring one enemy, and no combat system, the only thing you can really do in “Slender” is walk and collect the eight pages that are scattered about. But every turn could make you face to face with the Slender Man himself, which could spell your doom, and ensures you will be jumping constantly while playing. Uncompromisingly terrifying, this is minimalist game design at its very best, and with any luck will start a new trend of horror games not trying to rely entirely on action gameplay as a backbone.

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Xbox LIVE Summer of Arcade Review: Castlevania: Harmony of Despair

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With the “Castlevania” franchise at a crossroads of sorts, it might have seemed like a good idea to create a game that helped remind fans why they fell in love with the series in the first place, but “Harmony of Despair” doesn’t even do that right. Recycling old characters, enemies and bosses from past installments, it’s like a Greatest Hits collection without any hits. There are only six levels to play through, and no story bridging them together. Instead, you just select one of five playable vampire slayers (Soma Cruz, Alucard, Jonathan Morris, Shanoa and Charlotte Aulin) – each with their own unique weapons and abilities – and trudge through each level hacking away at baddies until you arrive at the final boss. This is easier said than done, however, as you’ll often spend 20 minutes travelling through the labyrinthine mansions, only to be killed cheaply in the boss fight and have to start from the very beginning all over again.

Additionally, the mansions have plenty of hidden areas and treasures to discover, but since each level is timed, there’s little room for exploration. (Though this wouldn’t be such a problem if your character didn’t move like he was walking through quicksand.) You’ll also have trouble navigating through the sprawling 2D maps using the 3x zoom feature, as you can only make out what you’re character is doing in one of them. Thank goodness for multiplayer, then, as it’s the only good original idea in the game. Though completing levels with a six-player party can be a little too easy at times, it still makes for a much more enjoyable experience. Fallen teammates can be revived using Water of Life items found in treasure chests, and while you wait to be brought back from the dead, you get to play as a skeleton. But good luck finding a party that actually stays together for more than one round, let alone long enough to make it past the lobby. Fans deserved a lot better than this, because the only Harmony of Despair you’re going to find here is the thousands of gamers uniting to complain about how bad this game is.

Want more Summer of Arcade? Be sure to come back every Wednesday through August 18th for a first-hand look at Microsoft’s newest XBLA exclusives. Next week: get ready for the most lethal sport of the future as a player on “Monday Night Combat.”

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