Why Are You Here, When You Could be Playing “Guacamelee!” ?

In a perfect world, there would be no need to tout the virtues of a game like “Guacamelee!” because you would already be hopelessly obsessed with it, and relaying your experience to others with conversations no more elaborate than “Dude!” and “I know.”

Instead there’s probably a pretty good chance you haven’t heard of “Guacamelee!,” and don’t know that you should be playing it, and not reading this, right now. Since you’re already here though (thanks by the way), let me skip the traditional review and just give you five quick reasons to experience the brilliance of a game where you play a dead peasant turned Mexican professional wrestler super hero, on a quest for revenge and love (actually…make that six reasons).

Style…Now In Color!

It takes all of a glance at “Guacamelee!” to notice that this game is a looker. Its Mexican culture and folklore motif is rarely used in major games (the great “Grim Fandango” is the only other that jumps to mind), and here is gloriously captured in every single aspect of the title, right down to the font. It makes every frame instantly recognizable, and turns the game into something truly great. If you cut “Gucamelee!,” it would bleed style and charm.

More importantly it would bleed it in vibrant colors. We’re still in the black, brown, and gray age of video game color palates, so when a title like “Guacamelee!” comes along and presents an already creative style in full Technicolor, it’s worth considering a purchase just to experience the brilliance that transpires when 16 bit art philosophy meets the hardware power of the modern age.

It’s Actually Really, Really Funny

It’s not all classic day of the dead style though, as the world of “Guacamelee!” also sports nods to cartoons like “Samurai Jack,” video games like “Mega Man,” internet programs like “Homestar Runner” and much, much, more. Nearly all of these references are well hidden in the game’s art style, and recognizing them is sure to lead to uncontrollable grins for anyone in the know.

Yet the game’s best jokes come from its own devices. Whether it’s your ability to morph into a chicken to get into small spaces, or the lamentations of a gun toting villain who realizes he’s wasted all of his bullets shooting the floor for emphasis, at its best, “Guacamelee!” feels like a lost golden age Disney movie when it comes to accessible, yet genuinely funny, humor.

Challenging, Yet Rewarding

As much as I love a game like “Dark Souls,” it’s hard to ignore that at a certain point the risk/reward factor becomes painfully uneven. However, even though “Guacamelee!” pays tribute to many classically challenging games like “Dark Souls” does, you never feel like you are being cruelly punished.

Even though it’s not exactly the most difficult game ever created, “Guacamelee!” does sport sections that require above average skill and patience. However, as long as you are willing to develop your skills and creatively explore the extent of those abilities, you won’t get hung up on too many sections due to unfair play. Even if you do though, the payoff always equals the effort. It’s difficult to find a game that can hit the mark when it comes to a balanced, yet progressive challenge, but that’s exactly what “Guacamelee!” offers.

 

Fresh Combat, Classic Adventure

“Guacamelee!’s” biggest gameplay feature would have to be its Metroidvania 2D adventure style, where a large map becomes more and more open to you as new abilities are earned. Yet that classic 2D trope isn’t the only familiar concept, as the better part of the gameplay is largely just a creative tribute to a video game age gone by.

The one aspect that feels like much more than an homage though is the combat. It’s a combination of Mexican lucha-libre and old fashioned brawling, all based around a fighting game combo system, and at its best produces moments previously unseen. Most enemies require you to use a variety of maneuvers to best them, and exploring the destructive potential the system is capable of is just as fun as exploring the levels themselves.

It’s Basically this Year’s “Journey”

Alright, so it probably won’t be nominated for a Grammy, and it’s potential to make grow men weep at its beauty is slightly less than “Journey,” but when playing “Guacamelee!” you get the same distinct impression that you’re playing something that exists well outside of the norm, and is artistically significant for the medium.

Though to be honest, “Guacamelee!” also resembles “Journey” in that it is very short. It’s not quite as short as last year’s indie sensation, but even if you are going for 100%, you’ll maybe get 10 hours out of it. While that is a little heartbreaking, considering the game’s bargain $14.99 price, it shouldn’t prevent you from playing “Guacamelee!”, and this year be the one who recommends that great indie game to everybody, and not the one who hears about it from everybody else.

What does “Earthbound”, the Vice President of the World, and a Homeless Guy Have in Common? That Would be New RPG “Citizens of Earth”

It’s not uncommon for good ideas to not translate into good video games. However, even in instances where creative games bomb spectacularly, they can still lead to very memorable experiences.

Even though we don’t have much to go off of regarding it at this time, it still seems like recently revealed indie RPG project “Citizens of Earth” is guaranteed to at least be a memorable experience as it has not one, but several very interesting ideas forming its basic blueprint.

It comes to us from developer Eden Industries who crafted one of those aforementioned brilliant, but flawed, games with their first title, “Waveform”, and has players taking the role of the Vice President of the World in his quest to rid his small home town of various weirdos and presumed evil doers. Now being a politician, and not wishing to get his hands dirty, the VP takes on a “team leader” approach and recruits denizens of the town to fight his battles for him. The character types range from body builders, to baristas, to homeless guys, and each not only brings unique attributes to combat, but when left out of your party, can provide certain abilities based on their character type with services like discounted items in their shops, town expansions, and exploration rewards.

Few specifics are known about the game, but it is confirmed that it will be much in the style of a classic JRPG, only with no random encounters (enemies will be viewable on the game world) and a combat system that will allow for battle restarts for party member swaps. Other than that, the games creator’s are sooner to talk about the broadstrokes and style of “Citizens of Earth”, and it’s easy to see why, as the game uses concepts from some of the greatest games of all time. It’s party leader influencing combat mechanic is straight from “Pokemon”, the expanded party, and their unique abilities, are reminiscent of the “Suikoden” series, it’s got a hyper Americana sense of character and environment design that reminds me of the artwork from “Fallout”, and best of all the entire game, from the humor, to the enemies, to the  basic design, borrows heavily from my favorite game of all time, “Earthbound”.

No a great idea doesn’t always mean a great game, but when you are taking your cues from games that are both some of the greatest of all time, and in some cases the most criminally underappreciated, and using them to enhance what is already a unique story concept, you come away with something that stands on its own, and looks to be an always welcome breath of fresh air for the medium. In any case fans of classic RPGs, and bold games in general, should set aside time to keep an eye on “Citizens of Earth” as it progresses, and aims to start a Kickstarter campaign later this year.

As Details Emerge About the Next Playstation, I say Goodbye to the DualShock Controller

There has been a recent flood of information leaking the technical aspects of the new Playstation (and Xbox), that suddenly has everyone realizing that the official unveiling of Sony’s new system is indeed imminent. While we’ve learned a lot more about that new Playstation in the last week thanks to those leaks, there is still a great deal of the unknown as gamers eagerly await to see what Sony’s next gen system will bring them.

One thing that is becoming clear though is that the classic DualShock controller will not be part of that unveiling, as several sites, citing internal sources, are now reporting that Sony will be ditching their tried and true DualShock controller design and coming up with a fresh model. While it is unknown if the new Playstation controller will maintain basic elements of that old controller, already there are rumors of new features like a built-in touch LCD screen, and biometric sensors in the controller that would allow for readings of player’s certain physical properties such as sweat and nerves that could affect things like the character’s aim.

Obviously with Nintendo going bonkers with the Wii U remote (and redefining what a controller meant to a system with the Wii) every other company was going to have to step up their designs, and so this announcement is a bittersweet one, due in large part to the DualShock controller being the greatest video game controller of all time.

Even if you ignore the most basic features of the controller like it’s smart layout and curvy features that just naturally felt right in your hands, it’s the dual analog sticks and vibration ability that secures that lofty title for the DualShock. It’s easy to forget that the re-design from the original Playststion was a response to the analog stick on the N64, as it became quickly evident that the traditional four direction D Pad was not going to be enough to properly handle a new generation of 3D gaming. Humorously though, with the original dual analog controller re-design (minus the rumble feature) Sony still included a little button that would turn the analog feature on and off so gamers wouldn’t feel overwhelmed or burdened by the new technology. They in fact wouldn’t make a game that fully required its use until the brilliant “Ape Escape” which made considerable beneficiary use of the new design.

Slowly though, the gainful advantages of the dual stick design became immediately evident as it allowed for an unimpeded 360 degree movement system that was still as precise as any single direction direct input. Just imagine trying to play a modern FPS on a console without the dual stick layout, or a third person action or platform game without the freedom of movement and camera control at the same time. As for the built in rumble feature, you just need to recall “Metal Gear Solid“, and that moment where “Psycho Mantis” moves your controller by activating the rumble at a high capacity. It was an all time classic moment in video games that wouldn’t have been possible without the feature, and is just an example of the new level of interaction that the device was capable of providing.

It all came together to form the perfect gaming controller. When you look back at certain controllers, they’re often too simple, too cluttered, or too specifically remembered for their value in certain titles (the N64 and “Goldeneye” or the original Xbox controller and “Halo” for instance). Games always found a way to smartly use just about every button on the DualShock, and it worked for every style of game, not making itself noteworthy for one title above any other. It’s why Sony felt there was no need to change the design for the Playstation 2 or Playstation 3 (slight modifications and wireless functionality aside), and truthfully if they wanted to, it could still hold up for the next generation some 15 + years after the original design’s retail release.

It’s hard to fault Sony for reconsidering the controller for their next system, but even if they don’t maintain the design of the DualShock, we can only hope they remember the spirit of it, and engineer a controller that doesn’t strive to change gaming, but instead accounts for the natural evolution of the medium and inadvertently does so in the process.

Great Games! (That Didn’t Get Good Until Halfway Through)

When I think back to some of gaming’s greatest beginnings, I think of “Uncharted 2“, “Batman: Arkham City“, and “Bioshock“. They’re great games that let you know from the very start that you are in for an experience like no other.

But not all games have that luxury. In fact, the only way to appreciate games with truly great beginnings, is to play games that struggled to get started. If you’re looking for some suggestions, here are some of the greatest games of all time, that took a while to really get good.

Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast

One of the top 5 Star Wars games, and one of the most underrated games period, “Jedi Outcast” was an absolutely brilliant tale that saw retired Jedi Kyle Katarn (who went through some absolute hell in the earlier game to want to give up being a friggin Jedi), wrapped up in the newest plot to take over the galaxy, and forced to go back into the Jedi life to solve it, while taking a little vengeance along the way. Sound pretty bad ass? Oh yeah, it is.

However, before you even get to use the force young padawan, you must slog through the game’s first few missions using nothing but guns, as the early moments are nothing but a first person shooter set in the Star Wars universe. This is actually a trademark of the series, since the second game, but you see the thing is that at its design worst, “Jedi Outcast” features horrible flip switching puzzles, bad jumping sections, and aimless wandering. The first half of the game exemplifies all of these flaws, and doesn’t even give you a lightsaber or force powers to help ease the pain. It’s not like it’s the worst first person shooter ever, but it’s fairly far from the best and takes some time, and patience, to get through.

But here’s the thing. Without the dullness of that first half, that moment you meet Luke Skywalker, grab your lightsaber, use the force, and hear that beautiful “Star Wars” music swell wouldn’t be near as sweet. Earning the right to that moment is what makes it, and the game in general, so incredible. Even on subsequent playthroughs though, when you know the reward, it is still difficult to force yourself through that first half.

Deus Ex

I hate to admit this, but embarrassingly I never found the words to adequately describe “Deus Ex.” Instead, I’d refer you to the mounds of accolades and awards it accumulated, and confirm with you that it was indeed a revolutionary breath of fresh air that’s influences wouldn’t be properly noticed for years to come, as even leading developers seemingly couldn’t appreciate exactly what it was.

The average gamer may have never gotten the chance to experience that though. “Deus Ex” was a first person game, but it wasn’t really a first person shooter, and trying to play the game like that, as many at the time surely did, only led to a swift demise. That’s because while you can play the game guns blazing, in that first mission you’re forced to take a more stealthy, very careful approach as you worked though what was essentially a tutorial of the game. What hurt is that it lacked many of the character enhancement options and various tactics that made “Deus Ex” so much of what it would be. Your methodical approach towards liberating the terrorist controlled statue of liberty is the game’s lowpoint, and doesn’t lend much encouragement to seeing the rest of the game through.

Even after that lengthy intro, it takes a mission or two for the game, and plot, to find its groove and for the series RPG and strategy elements to kick in properly. Once it all comes together though (which occurs around the time of a major plot twist), its inescapable brilliance is a constant onslaught to your senses. You can retrospectively laugh at gamers that didn’t stick through the beginning of “Deus Ex”, but really the game did itself no favors in immediately making itself welcome.
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2012 Year End Game Review: Matt Byrd

2012 in gaming isn’t a year that is easy to sum up with hyperbole, or one sweeping statement.

It was far from the greatest year in gaming (very, very far), but even still, when I was compiling this list, I had to make some heartbreaking cuts, and felt I was disrespecting some very good games. For every cheap money snatching blockbuster we got this year, we were also gifted with some genuine surprises and accomplished franchise extensions (many of which make up this list). The end result of one step forward and one step back for an entire 12-month period may not have moved gaming ahead, but the constant motion made choosing the best of the year a dizzying experience.

Somehow, though, I was finally able to narrow it down to 10 games that I feel comfortable saying are the best of 2012.

10. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

On the surface, it looks like all there is to “Kingdoms of Amalur” is a standard RPG coat of paint and a souvenir of the high profile closure of “38 Studios.” It’s not the type of game that makes its first impression with its looks, but rather its personality. The game’s speedy free flowing combat system never ceases to be entertaining throughout the very long adventure “Amalur” provides.

An all-star team of developers and outside talent (fantasy great RA Salvatore penned the story) may have been behind “Amalur,” but nothing feels old hat about the game, and it instead comes across as something closer to a fresh faced group of young talent, with heads full of new ideas creating something against the grain. It’s one of the more surprising, and certainly among the most pure fun, releases this year.

9. Xenoblade: Chronicles

If “Amalur” looks standard and done before on the surface, then “Xenoblade” is practically a fossil upon first viewing. It’s a member of the dying JRPG genre, and was featured on the outdated Nintendo Wii, which would normally spell either doom or obscurity at best. Yet after a wave of hype from the Japanese market, and several thousand petition signatures later, audiences everywhere were greeted by something that felt like meeting an old friend, and finding out that you have just as much fun with each other as you used to.

“Xenoblade” pays tribute to all of the great JRPG conventions that shaped it, but it just as carefully takes note of all the things that made those game’s grow stale as well, and manages to mold new forms for them so you are left with a game that somehow makes you nostalgic for things you never knew before. Your party becomes your family thanks to a great relationship system, and the character building and combat mechanics keep things fresh as you explore one of the more unique worlds available for the genre all in pursuit of finishing an equally gripping story. The era of JRPGs may be over, but “Xenoblade” reminds us why it had a dynasty in the first place.

8. Sound Shapes

I love new, bold ideas in gaming, and “Sound Shapes” may have been among the newest and boldest this year. It has nothing to do with its basic gameplay either, as “Shapes” traditional 2D side scrolling system is fairly ho-hum. Much like a new “Mario” release though, the real draw doesn’t lie in the mechanics, but rather the design. “Sound Shapes” employs a minimalist graphic style that is charming, but only serves to give substance to the soundtrack that defines the experience. Several different musical artists contributed to the music (and the design) of the levels, and as a result we are provided one of the first games since the brilliant “Rez” that feels like an organic and physical product of the soundtrack. It’s more of an interactive soundtrack than a fully loaded video game, but it’s artistic value is unquestionable, and I wouldn’t want to know the person who couldn’t have fun with it.

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