DS Round-Up 2

Diner Dash

I reviewed the WiiWare version of Diner Dash last year and was quite disappointed with the crappy X-Box-style joypad interface used as well as the lame polygon graphics, both of which were a major step down from the mouse and cartoony 2D graphics of the PC/Mac original. This DS cart version thankfully sticks with the original controls and style of this modern classic and the pen-driven interface improves upon the mouse controls as you’d expect.

If you’ve never played Diner Dash it’s a kind of puzzle game built around waiting tables which is a lot more fun than it sounds. Players take on the role of an overworked businesswoman who leaves corporate life to run her own cafe. You need to seat patrons, take their orders, get their food, collect the money and clean the tables for the next bunch. As the game progresses you’ll have the addition of larger tables, the ability to serve drinks and appetisers to build a bigger tip and improve the facilities to bring in more clientele with the money you earn.

There’s three save slots, which is nice for a multi-player household and two player competition using a single cart and local wireless – always welcome.

I think it’s the best version of the game going, so if you’re a fan or looking for something new to play on your DS, definitely give it a look.

Metroid Prime Pinball

It’s no secret I’m a big fan of pinball, whether the real metal-and-glass deal, virtual facsimiles of same or original video pins that wouldn’t exist in real life due to their sub-tables and action sequences. Metroid Prime Pinball is an excellent example of the latter, based upon the popular series of first-person action games from the Gamecube; later reborn on the Wii. Whilst I wasn’t the biggest fan of the Metroid Prime games (yeah, I know, put the torches away) this is an outstanding collection of video pins.

If you have any familiarity with the Prime games you’ll see familiar locales and enemies and vicariously re-live the game by bouncing Samus Aran all over the place in her “ball” mode. It’s a clever idea made even better through the use of quality graphics and excellent ball physics.

There’s plenty of extra goodies which puts this game head-and-shoulders above classics like the “Crush” games from the old TG-16: artifacts to collect, bonus walljump rounds and, better still, more tables to unlock. You start out with a couple of tables, but put in some quality time and you’ll find more planets to explore and boss fights to boot. I’ve put in a few hours and now have four tables to play and it feels like there could be more lurking in there. It definitely provides further incentive to play and shows the level of care the team put into delivering the best possible experience for the dedicated pinball fan.

If you like pinball at all, definitely track this down. I think it’s the best original video pin going on any platform.

Monster Rancher DS

Monster Rancher is unfairly viewed as a Pokemon rip-off. Whilst it’s true that both franchises revolve around training cute monsters and pitting them in combat against each other, I think the stand-out features are the distinct and interesting monster line-up and a novel monster creation and breeding system.

In the original CD-based game, you put music CDs into your Playstation and the data on the number and length of music tracks was used to create a new monster. In the DS version you have three “magical” methods of creating new monsters from thin air: draw a picture using the stylus, speak into the microphone or write letters into boxes to spell out a word. Popping in different CDs was fun in the original game, but the variety here gives more voice to player creativity and fully exploits the DS interfaces.

If you’ve played the games on the Playstation and liked them as much as I did, then you’ll enjoy this as well because it has similar content with a more accessible pen-based interface. As in other Monster Rancher games, players take their newly-created monster back to their ranch, train it to raise its stats and send it to fight in tournaments to earn money. The money is used to improve the ranch, buy special items and pay for special training missions in town.

Your goal is to advance your monster through the ranks and win the highest-ranked tournament. This isn’t an easy task and you’ll likely go through many monsters trying to find the right combination of stats and skills. You can freeze monsters near the end of their career and then combine them with others to make new ones. Exploring different monster types is key to success and it’s possible to have several on the go, though you can only have one defrosted at a time.

In addition to the single-player game, which will occupy many hours of the dedicated fan’s time there’s a couple multiplayer options as well. You can play against friends or random strangers in head-to-head matches via local wireless play (two carts are required) or over Wi-Fi. I haven’t tried either option, but the match types available do count against your monster’s record, which is pretty cool.

As with the original the amount of control you have over your monster is limited to moving it closer or further away from its opponent and choosing the attack type to launch based upon distance. You can create two “decks” with up to three abilities each consisting of short-range, medium and long-range attacks and switch between them during a match; choosing which attack to execute and when. You can also let your monster fight on its own, though inexperienced or flighty monsters will sometimes not make the best choices.

There are loads of statistics recorded and many many monsters to discover so there’s a lot of replay value to be found. This game was only released in North America (this is actually a localised version of Monster Rancher 2 for DS from Japan) so you’ll probably need to go to Ebay to get your copy as Koei-Tecmo seems to have abandoned plans to release it in Europe. The DS is the ideal platform for this game and all fans of the original should check it out.

DS Round-Up 1

Atari Greatest Hits Volume 1 & 2

I’ve long complained about companies not doing enough to leverage their old IP and after the unmitigated disaster that was Retro Atari Classics, I had pretty much given up on Atari ever making good. I was very pleased to be proven wrong by the release of these two gems at the end of 2010 and beginning of 2011 (the latter has yet to have a European release as of this writing).

Included are an almost complete catalogue of early Atari arcade games (those that precede the split of Atari by parent Warner Bros. into separate arcade and home games divisions – the latter being what the current incarnation of Atari owns the rights to) and the non-licensed Atari 2600 catalogue. As a consequence you’ll find some redundancies with both arcade and home versions of many games included for the sake of completeness. Ignoring those (which many arcade purists will), you still have an impressive collection of 8-bit arcade and console classics including a homebrew sequel to Haunted House, all the “Quest” titles, Yars Revenge, Adventure, Dodge ‘Em, Circus Atari, Star Raiders and many others.

For any fan of retro games the question of the quality of emulation is foremost and that can safely be put to rest. Unlike the sometimes dodgy rendering of Retro Atari Classics, these are spot-on and look fantastic on the larger screens of my Japanese DSi LL. Code Mystics should be applauded for their work here. For vertical games like Centipede you have an option to play with the DS rotated or in modified wide formats either in one screen or both. 4:3 games can be displayed in either top or bottom screen; often depending on the control scheme. Analogue controls are well-rendered using the touchscreen, but the digital controls are also well-tuned – I certainly have no complaints about using the d-pad for Tempest.

Changing game settings is easily done via the touch screen and you’ll be happy to know all your arcade scores are saved for future bragging rights. For those who want to play against a friend you have a single-cart local wireless multiplayer option – again a massive improvement over the dual-cart MP of the previous compilation.

If the presentation of the games themselves wasn’t impressive enough you have a wonderful collection of extras as well. The included manuals for the 2600 games are legible scans of the actual manuals including the cover art. Arcade games have their own galleries including images of the cabinet artwork, control panels, retail flyers and bonus items like merit badges for Asteroids. In addition each volume has specific extras: a trivia game and the Bradley Fighting Vehicle version of Battlezone can be found on Volume 1, whilst Volume 2 has a functioning Atari 400 basic program and a series of video interviews – wow!

Taken together these collections really do justice to the Atari 8-bit legacy and are a must for the DS-owning retro enthusiast. Simply outstanding.

Intellivision Lives!

Intellivision Lives! is a real labour of love. I really have to hand it to these ex-Mattel Electronics employees for taking ownership of the old IP and keeping it alive via these releases. I never owned an Intellivision myself, but I had a chance to play a friend’s when I was a kid and I remember the control pad being awful, but the games being pretty impressive – especially the speech-enabled ones like B-17 Bomber. This is essentially the same as the Intellivision Lives! compilation for the PS2 and Gamecube (the latter only being released in North America), though it sadly lacks the Imagic games from Intellivision Rocks! on the PC. There are a few extras in the form of the D&D games (retitled to avoid copyright infringement) and a couple of unreleased titles that are seen here for the first time.

The touchscreen controls work very well for these games, nicely replacing the numeric keypad of the original controllers; even if some control nuance is lost by moving from a 16-direction control disc to an 8-way d-pad. It’s definitely better than trying to remember gamepad button press/stick combinations for the console versions! Scores are saved where appropriate and there are manuals available so you’re covered in terms of the general presentation and ability to play the games on the go.

What lets the side down in comparison to the aforementioned Atari collections is the quality of the presentation and the general documentation. It’s just not as polished as the Atari Greatest Hits compilations, which is immediately apparent by the sparse appearance and lack of a menu jingle (I know, I’m petty). There aren’t any extras, beyond the unreleased games, and the box art is shown only in reduced form in the top screen in the game selection menu. There were some nice extras in the Gamecube release that should have made it here like the history of Intellivision and the Blue Sky Rangers.

Like the console version the games are arranged in seemingly arbitrary genres (Space, Arcade, Multiplayer?) and there’s an excessive amount of sub-screens and menus which you need to puzzle through on your own. You’d think that even a manual of only a few pages would document something as simple as how to quit a game, but that’s not the case and it has to be one of the more obtuse methods I’ve seen. Press Start to pause, then repeatedly tap the displayed Intellivision control disc to toggle through options including high scores and instructions; then tap the top of the lower screen to engage. If you do quit a game you’re back in your chosen genre; exiting back to the genre selection menu requires a press of “B.” I really don’t understand the failure to properly utilise the touchscreen for navigation or make navigation of menus more obvious.

Faults aside this is the best way to play these games short of owning an actual Intellivision; with the added advantage of not having to track down the carts. I would love to see a second collection with the Activision/Imagic games on it, but I’m still quite happy to have this core Intellivision library on my DS.

Konami Arcade Classics

Konami has done an arcade classics compilation every generation since the first Playstation and this is the best one yet – even if there are a couple of curious omissions from previous releases.

This is essentially Konami’s version of Namco’s excellent Museum series on Playstation (sadly not repeated on the DS). Konami, out-museum’s the Museum here: you get flyers, artwork and full game soundtracks – all much better quality than the Namco Museum series managed. It truly is a labour of love and exceeds expectations.

This compilation is a pretty good overview of Konami games from the early-mid 1980s covering many of their classics like Contra, Scramble, Time Pilot, Gradius and Green Beret. With 15 games in total this is possibly their most extensive collection yet and marks the first time some of these games have ever seen an official release on a home console. Absent are two titles from the collection released on the GBA: Frogger and Gyruss. I cannot understand why these were left off and I was especially disappointed not to have Frogger included, though it’s apparently an unlockable in Frogger Helmet Chaos.

Owners of import DS units should be aware that the North American version of this game will automatically detect if you’re playing it on a Japanese DS/DSi and change all the menus and in-game text to Japanese. Since there is only one language choice in the Japanese DS, you’d better brush up on your Japanese reading skills or have a good memory for menu options!

Personal disappointment due to missing favourites aside this quality arcade compilation features stellar emulation and single-cart local wireless multiplayer. Definitely not one to be missed by retro arcade fans!

Wii Review Round-Up 57

Lilt Line (WiiWare)

This iPhone-to-WiiWare port marks Gaijin Games’ first foray into the world of publishing and it’s a pretty good fit for the makers of the Bit.Trip series of old-school rhythm action games.

After playing both the iPhone and WiiWare versions I find the WiiWare version to be the superior experience, though the controls are the same: tilt your phone/remote to move a line up and down through a narrow corridor, taking care to avoid walls and tap the screen/button to the beat. Having the screen stay static in front of you makes this a lot easier, as does using the remote tilt Bit.Trip BEAT style as opposed to the iPhone version’s left-right tilt. There’s fourteen levels in all, each one accompanied by a track of dub-trance techno (dubstep) which makes for some good background music. The opening levels aren’t too bad, but halfway through the difficulty takes a rather sharp turn upward.

Rather than scoring points for good performance you start out with a set number of points that gets reduced a little when your line hits a wall and a lot if you fail to press a button when passing one of the marked beats in time. Run out of points and it’s game over; otherwise whatever is left when the song/level ends is recorded as your score.

It’s a budget release for 500 points and worth checking out for fans of the Bit.Trip series. Of course if you have an iPhone and want to save a couple of quid you can buy it in the App store, or do what I did and buy both so you can play it at home or on the go!

Conduit 2

I was one of the few who liked The Conduit: its old-school corridor battles were made fun by some decent voice acting, good controls and a passable storyline. For many veteran FPS players, however, it fell short of what was in place on rival consoles and failed to meet their standards. This was especially true of the online mode, where a lack of patching infrastructure allowed a plague of hackers and highly-publicized glitches to cement this negative impression. Thankfully High Voltage has delivered a sequel that corrects many shortcomings of the first game, but it may be a case of too little, too late given the recent publication of similar titles that have gotten a good reception.

The solid controls are still there, with the addition of Motion Plus support and a dual analogue option to appeal to those who started playing first-person action games using gamepads. For myself the Wii Remote and Nunchuk is the reference way to play this kind of game: after playing The Conduit, Red Steel 2, Goldeneye and Call of Duty: Black Ops I find keyboard and mouse a bit cumbersome as an interface. The real-time control adjustment is gone, but there’s still the usual tweaks to perform so nothing critical is lost. The game itself is quite different from the first one however, not only in level design and enemy AI, but tone.

Levels are less the corridor parade of the first game and more like warrens filled with plenty of things to go hunting for: currency to buy weapons and upgrades (for use in single-player and online), conspiracy objects (real-world items with lore and enemy communiques that add to the story), extra levels and the graffiti you’ll remember from the first game. Although the puzzles leading to weapons caches from the first game are gone you’ll find yourself using the ASE a lot more as there’s no longer an annoying “ping” to tell you something of interest is near and there’s so much more to find. You’ll need to bring the device out regularly if you want to get all the secret items, putting up a filter which highlights objects of interest, Metroid Prime-style.

The enemy AI is a lot more clever (most of the time) and will not simply take cover and pop out to get picked off by a well-timed head shot. Instead enemies will move from cover-to-cover and close to your position and dive away from thrown grenades. Some tank-like enemies will just barrel straight at you and there’s crawling ones that jump quite a distance. If you thought the mites in the first game were annoying, in Conduit 2 they’re positively lethal!

I found the default Guarded difficulty presented quite a challenge in several spots. New to this game are boss battles which mark the end of various story sections and echo those found in Metroid. In fact this aspect threw me a bit. I was expecting a more traditional FPS “shoot over and over again” fight, but in fact you can only harm the bosses by shooting certain parts of them or shooting them at certain times, which is rather more in keeping with a traditional 2D style of action game than the big aliens I was used to from The Conduit.

For veterans of the first game the most jarring change is the voice acting and the tone. Not only have all the voice actors been replaced, but the serious tone of the first game is gone. Mr. Ford is now a wisecracker who charges in guns blazing rather than a put-upon hero trying to overcome the odds against a vast conspiracy. It takes a little getting used to, but if you can let go of the first game it’s fairly amusing – even including a poke at the repeating corridor level layout of parts of The Conduit.

Multiplayer options include a new splitscreen mode – which I haven’t tried – and online with up to a dozen players as in the first game. Chat is exclusively via the new Headbanger headset, but you’ll find that’s only used by a minority of players (blame Nintendo’s failure to define a communication standard at launch for that). As with The Conduit, you can only chat to your friends (including ones registered in the lobby on the fly), so the unsolicited chatter experienced on other consoles (and Black Ops on the Wii) is non-existant. If one of your new friends proves annoying they can be muted of course.

There’s a new achievement system, avatar customisation (something else to spend those credits on) and patch support (yay). Favourite multi-player modes from The Conduit, like Bounty Hunter and ASE Ball, return along with new modes. If you have enough friends you can choose a game mode and create a private match; otherwise you get to vote on one of two random ones between rounds. I suppose some might chafe at the lack of choice beyond FreeForAll, Team Play or “Hardcore” versions of both, but I like the pot-luck aspect: it makes me more likely to try out a new game mode than if there was a dedicated lobby. Although the level environments are smaller and less-detailed than Black Ops, they have a feeling of spaciousness and look good. Veterans of the first game’s multiplayer mode will be happy to note that enhanced versions of the street and courtyard levels are included alongside the colourful and exotic settings of Conduit 2.

Despite all the improvements I think the market has gotten a bit crowded on the Wii for this kind of game. Even with the delays Conduit 2 might have done better if released more towards the fall as most online Wii gamers still seem to be playing Black Ops and Goldeneye. I can get a game going no problem, but I have yet to play in a full match and I’ve had more than a few games with only one or two other players. On the plus side I have yet to see evidence of hacking and, unlike Black Ops, I’ve yet to experience game-breaking lag. I have played a couple of matches that were terminated because of some kind of server error or loss of connection to the host, but neither of these has been a frequent occurrence and again, unlike Black Ops, I’ve never had to quit out of online mode or reset my Wii as a result.

If the Grinder does end up coming out on the Wii later this year then the novelty of a squad-based FPS with a horror theme on the Wii might prove a big hit. At the moment it seems the available audience of FPS fans on Wii just isn’t big enough to support the online environments of three first-person action titles at once.

Conduit 2 is a pretty decent example of the genre. Think of it as the Wii’s Duke Nukem – if a bit less OTT – with a solid (if underpopulated) online community. From a single-player perspective it blows Call of Duty: Black Ops out of the water and though the numbers might not be as great online it has the advantage of not burning out your DVD-ROM drive and being dominated by servers based across the Atlantic. If you’re lukewarm on the genre there’s probably nothing that will change your mind in my review, but Wii-owning FPS fans should be able to get their money’s worth out of it.

Wii Review Round-Up 56

Just Dance 2

For some reason a lot of people (“real gamers”) get bent out shape regarding this series. Probably because it’s not really a game, but mostly because it’s also a massive hit. If you can manage to put preconceptions aside, however, there’s a lot to like here.

Although I’m an “only gamer” nearly one-hundred percent of the time, I figured this might make for a decent workout program and the licensed music would provide a draw that ordinary workout software wouldn’t. Fortunately the creators of Just Dance 2 agreed and you’ll find that in addition to the standard game modes (Multiplayer for 1-4 or Team Play) there is “Just Sweat” which allows for choosing a weekly target of “sweat points” to earn by dancing through a number of tracks per day, whilst still tracking your high score.

The game aspect is admittedly weak, but I find this a lot more fun than dancing games like Dance Dance Revolution because the looseness of the controls means you can focus more on getting into the groove. It’s more like providing a structure for dancing than being a proper game, though I’ll warrant getting a high score can still provide a thrill, despite the rather uneven motion detection.

I prefer the track listing of this sequel to the original and another big bonus is the availability of additional tracks for download. These run 300 Nintendo Points each and are between 100 and 200 blocks. You can save and load direct from SD card or internal memory and given a 2GB card has a 10000+ block capacity it’s not likely you’ll run out of space any time soon even if you go the budget route. The initial download should take less than 30 seconds and the automatic integration of the downloads into the regular game menu is even quicker.

There’s already more than a dozen tracks available for download across a number of genres – including gospel – so it’s definitely worth popping into the shop from time to time. There’s an official Facebook page which helpfully lists the new releases, including links to YouTube video samples. Not having the full catalogue from the first game available seems like a bit of a missed opportunity; I doubt many people will pick up both given the choice, so hopefully some songs from the previous release will make an appearance.

Aside from licensed music the other big draw is how attractive the presentation is. The use of colourful silhouettes for the on-screen dancers makes for a great look, with the remote hand being highlighted to help you with the moves. Just Dance isn’t going to teach you the dances – which I have to say disappointed me a bit, but if you replay your favourite songs enough you can get it down pat (though even then 5-star ratings aren’t guaranteed due to the aforementioned wonky motion detection).

Haunted House

This was a download for other platforms but apparently too large to meet the stringent limitations of Nintendo’s WiiWare shop so we’ve been given a budget-priced disc release instead. Although better than simply deciding to skip the Wii entirely as others have done, it’s pretty clear this was a download release; lacking performance optimisations you might think a disc release would have.

It’s pretty faithful to the classic gameplay of the 2600 release: wandering through a haunted house looking for pieces of a magic urn, but it’s quite a bit longer than the original game and has more story behind it. Rather than blindly looking for doorways and stairs with the odd help of a match, there’s a plethora of light sources to help you out, many of which will damage the spooky creatures that stand in the way of finishing the adventure.

The action gets a bit repetitive with most of the activity consisting of banishing evil critters and searching every last cupboard and sofa for keys to unlock the exit to every stage of the four game levels and there’s not much enemy variety. There are also treasures and journal entries to find, the former being amusing references to Hollywood movies and the latter revealing the story, but they aren’t very hard to find and don’t provide much incentive to replay.

It’s not that Haunted House is a bad game (though repeated sound samples do get annoying), but the original concept didn’t really merit fleshing out to begin with. The original game could be played in quick bursts and was quite a bit of fun, but I wouldn’t play it for hours in one go. Younger gamers will likely get more out of it and there’s a 2-player co-op mode which should entertain the kids between bouts of Madworld or whatever else they play these days.

If you’re a nostalgia junkie or just looking for something to fill time before the next big Wii release Haunted House is a nice bit of fun, but I don’t think it will find a permanent home in the collection of most gamers.

Wii Review Round-Up 55

Surinuke Anatōsu (WiiWare)

Now available outside of Japan as ThruSpace;I covered this game pretty well in my First Impressions article over at Nintendo Life; making a full review unnecessary. Suffice it to say that after a bit more time with it I still regard it as a good game, but it’s lacking something that would make it a more compelling release.

There’s certainly enough modes to keep you busy for awhile and the core mechanics are sound, but it just doesn’t have that “one more go” quality for me. I think that comes down to two factors: lack of customisable controls and lack of a progressive mode.

Like the arcade classic Block Out you’re controlling a geometric object in 3D space. In Surinuke Anatōsu you’re trying to flip and rotate it so that it can slot through various openings: picking up gems and overlaying larger gaps with your shape’s shadow for bonus points; all the while trying to beat the level clock by speeding along down a series of tunnels. In order to do this successfully you really need a good feel for your controls. Even in the slower-paced Block Out this could get confusing since you had four buttons to press: one for rotating on each axis and a drop button. In this game you’d naturally expect a similar scheme using all the face buttons on the supported Classic Controller, but instead you have seven different buttons: two for each axis (to rotate in either direction) and a “speed-up” button (to help beat the clock).

It’s just too much and to make matters worse these are mapped to allow for easy mistakes with x,a and y,b controlling the same axis, R/Zr doing another and speed being L/Zl. Nunchuck and remote isn’t much easier, mapping controls to the d-pad and A/B with my additional issue of the less-precise nature of moving the shape with the analogue stick. Using the d-pad on the remote and A/B buttons at the same time also isn’t that comfortable when it’s held vertically.

Despite the complexity and inflexibility, the controls aren’t a game-breaker and really just made for more errors when the action got quicker. What has really kept this game off my play rotation (ha, ha!) is the lack of compulsion I feel to play it. Speeding through the tunnels and building combos is nice, but each level has a set number of walls to pass through and that’s it: game finished. You can play the endless modes, but you pick one shape at the start and the only progression is a gradual build-up of speed or complexity of hole shapes to pass through. What I’d really have liked is a combination of the two: cycling through the shapes, speed and complexity of the wall openings the longer you’re able to play.

As it stands this is a fun game and if you’re a big fan of puzzlers like me you might not regret it, but I really think a few more tweaks would have made this a much better game. Until Block Out comes to WiiWare this will have to do.

Taiko no Tatsujin Wii

The first in a series (as of this writing the 3rd was just released) of Japanese music-rhythm games on the Wii played with a virtual Taiko drum. Well, it’s only “virtual” if you play with the remote on its own. What you should really do if you want to play this game is fork out the extra dosh for the version that includes the Tatacon: a miniature taiko drum controller that plugs into your Wii remote.

Of course calling the Tatacon “miniature” is relative to the real thing: outside of the Balance Board this is the largest Wii peripheral I own! Looking at pictures of the box online you’d think it was pretty modest in size, but when it comes to your house you’ll be facing a package as big as a boxed Wii! The Tatacon has a clear left-right division indicated on it and is played much like a real taiko drum, with hits detected in the centre and the edge of the rubberised surface using the included sturdy plastic drum sticks.

The game itself is pretty basic: choose a song from a choice of genres and hit your drum in time to the dots travelling across the screen. Although the drum will detect left or right hits, there is no distinction in the game itself (it just allows you to navigate menus using the Tatacon alone). Instead you’re merely expected to deliver regular or strong blows (indicated by dot size) to the surface or rim of the drum (indicated by dot colour). The strength of your blow only need be enough to register; a strong hit is achieved by hitting both sides at once.

In case it wasn’t obvious this isn’t a game to play late at night when the kids are asleep or if you have thin walls between your dwelling and a neighbour’s. In order to get hits to register you have to hit the drum like, well, a real drum! I definitely wouldn’t have minded some kind of sensitivity calibration along the lines of Let’s Tap to adjust the amount of force required, but sadly that’s not available. Of course for quieter play sessions you can play using the Wii remote – which will also save you a big chunk of change on a second Tatacon if you only occasionally foray into two-player games.

There’s a fair number of tracks to play through separated into genres like J-pop, classical, children’s, anime soundtrack and game soundtrack, with the latter two being the main draw for me. Each time you play you’ll get a performance rating in stars which gradually accumulates, unlocking more songs to play along with. I’m pretty sure I’ve not unlocked them all yet, but there’s a pretty impressive number of songs included from what I can see so far.

If you just want to have a bash at drumming without the game structure there’s a free-form drumming mode that lays down a simple background beat upon which you can overlay your own rhythms; also serving as the end to the opening control tutorial. This lasts around five minutes or so gradually building up to an explosive rainbow climax and is fun to play through now and then to exercise (exorcise?) your inner taiko drummer.

As a bonus, occasional animations that play as interstitials can be reviewed later, but I didn’t find them terribly interesting. More compelling is the increasing complexity of the backgrounds if you continue to hit the marks in a song, with various animated characters dancing and parading about in a kaleidoscope of colour and movement.

It’s not something I play a lot of (primarily due to being self-conscious about what the neighbours might think), but it’s certainly fun for a bash now and then. It’s also the kind of game that will only be experienced by importing it, so if you can afford it (after tacking on P+P and the unavoidable customs duty you’re looking at £80-100 for the Tatacon bundle), give it a go!

Oh and if you want a really good walkthrough of the game do check out Josh’s excellent video tour over at The Bit Block – just search for “Taiko Drum Master” in the archives.

Wii Review Round-Up 54

Cave Story (WiiWare)

It’s safe to say that since I originally previewed it long, long ago, I’ve been keen to be able to play this game properly on the Wii. After much delay and gnashing of teeth we finally got our mitts on it in Europe late last year and it’s definitely been worth the wait.

I’m not a big fan of platforming games unless they have an action-arcade feel, so Cave Story’s jump-and-shoot core gameplay satisfies. Even so, I probably wouldn’t be too impressed but for the quality of the storytelling and the care given to character and level designs. It has an interesting flavour of the adventure game around it, whilst the action is all about jumping and shooting.

My one complaint is that after playing through on easy difficulty none of the extras were unlocked, but that’s pretty minor considering the quality of the classic gaming experience on offer. It will take well under 10 hours to play (depending on how challenging you find the boss fights), but it feels epic in scope and keeps you engaged by revealing bits about the strange world your character inhabits as you go. Thumbs up!

Call of Duty: Black Ops

I’m a big fan of the original Call of Duty, which I recently re-played on my Mac. The combination of squad-based gameplay and a compelling narrative based upon actual military battles provides for an immersive experience that explains the lasting appeal of this franchise. Given my preference for Wii controls over keyboard and mouse for playing first-person action games I naturally picked up the Wii version of Black Ops and it’s been a mixed experience due to a combination of weak single-player campaign and strong online multi-player action.

Black Ops departs from the core formula in a couple of ways which I think hurts the single-player appeal. There’s very little squad-based action – at least not what you’d expect if you’re a veteran of Call of Duty 1&2. Stated objectives only exist in a handful of missions; most of them are simply “follow that guy in front of you” which takes away from the feeling of being on an assignment with designated tasks for your player and makes many missions more like fairground shooting gallery affairs.

The story itself isn’t too bad, but the decision to have one narrative built around a single character with only a couple of diversions played from the POV of secondary characters has limited the scope quite a bit. There are very few missions that actually feel like “black ops” as I would regard them: most of the time you seem to be trying to escape from various situations. This is especially true in the Vietnam section which sees you fighting in trench warfare during the Tet Offensive and then trying to escape from the collapse of South Vietnam in the face of the victorious NVA, with an interlude shamelessly lifted from “The Deer Hunter” that felt completely out of place.

I would have preferred the setting to jump around a bit more and deal with actual historic operations. We could have had British and American secret ops from WWII, American action in Laos and Cambodia during the Vietnam War, US and Israeli operations in Central America and Lebanon in the 1980s, etc. This would have been more interesting and made more sense than some of the situations in Black Ops, like your character continuing to take orders from his old SOG commander in Vietnam after he’s been seconded to the CIA and supposedly carrying out an unrelated mission.

Whilst I did get sucked into the single player campaign after a while I definitely don’t feel like replaying it – especially after playing through the James Bond-style endgame complete with soldiers hanging around a sinking naval vessel apparently more interested in popping out to shoot people than save their own lives.

If single-player was all I was interested in, this would already have been traded in, but the main reason I bought it was for the online multi-player – something I NEVER use as a deciding factor when buying a game.

Being invited to join a clan of “older gamers” was the push I needed and I’m glad I did as it’s been the best online gaming experience I’ve had with the Wii since The Conduit. Although we in the UK have to wait until the end of January before we can get our hands on the offically supported Headbanger headset, use of Teamspeak has compensated for inter-team communication (it helps to have a computer in the same room, mind).

The online experience does have the odd glitch (just getting the first patch downloaded can take several attempts), but adding friends is a breeze, allowing you to send invites to players you’ve played with previously as well as manually entering codes. The wealth of perks, weapons, items, achievements and play modes means you can enjoy it for quite some time – and that’s not counting the separate Zombie mode! The Conduit has stronger control calibration routines thanks to the real-time feedback aspect, but Black Ops offers a comparable level of control tweaks and button mapping options – even if there’s more trial-and-error involved.

Let me finish by saying that it’s one of the stronger first-person action games on the Wii and well worth checking out for fans of the genre. See you in the trenches!

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Black Dragon (Virtual Console Arcade)

Though Capcom has become best known for the seemingly endless Street Fighter series of games, they did a lot of action and shooting games as well in the 80s. Black Dragon (or Black Tiger, outside of Japan) is certainly one of their very best. It’s an action-platforming title in which players control a burly Conan-style warrior battling various baddies through a series of massive dungeons and caverns, each ending in a boss fight.

Your goal seems to be to rid the world of dragons which you don’t start encountering as bosses until the third level. Your enemies get steadily tougher as you progress, but by saving the Zenny coins they drop (and finding hidden treasures in the walls) you can buy weapons and armour from traders you encounter in your travels.

It’s an extremely rich game with a simple joystick + two button control scheme. The weapon upgrades aren’t linear (though you’ll want to get the first one early on if you’re to survive for long) and more armour is purchased as you lose it in battle. In addition to being able to purchase armour you’ll earn more life bars as you progress and earn extra lives. Though this might make things seem easy, there’s lots of baddies to face and one-hit kills from falling rocks or deadly pits that will keep you feeling challenged, but without being cheap. It’s one of my favourite arcade games of all time; if you like action games, don’t pass it up!

1942 (Virtual Console Arcade)

Capcom games have always been more about action platforming and fighting than shooting, but if you were in arcades in the mid-1980s I have no doubt you’d have laid eyes on this gem. Capcom made several sequels to this game, but they never felt right to me, replacing multiple ships with life bars and adding far too many special effects as they did. No, the original is definitely the best in this case. 1942 puts your aerobatic wonder plane against what appears to be the entire Japanese navy and air force (odd coming from a Japanese game developer) in a classic hunt for the high score of the day.

Playing a vertically scrolling shooter fighting waves of enemy fighters certainly feels very old school, but the fluid animation marks it as a newer generation of game than something like Space Invaders or Scramble. There’s a fair amount of challenge here with only one power-up level to enhance your guns and a few loop-de-loops to evade enemies. Enemy fighters come in a few flavours which change periodically to keep things fresh and another nice touch is getting a break down of your hit-to-miss ratio between levels. Definitely one of the better shooters of its era and a must for fans of the genre.

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Dive: The Medes Island Secret (WiiWare)

I first previewed this game wayyyy back in May and I’ve owned it for many months since its July release, but didn’t want to do even a mini-review until I’d put in some quality time with it. As of this writing I have only the titular “Medes Island Secret” itself to locate, but I’m saving that for when I’m in the right mood rather than rushing it as this is a game to savour.

Dive feels very much like a souped-up version of the old Atari 2600 game, Aquaventure, in which players control a diver who spears fish to score points whilst avoiding sharks. Of course there’s much more to Dive than this as you’re actually hunting for sunken treasures off the coast of several islands in the Mediterranean and Caribbean seas.

Each of the maps is pretty large and there are some rather twisty and circuitous routes to take to find the main treasure; the location of which is always indicated in your radar. On the way you can find other treasures as well as air and spear pickups to replenish supplies.

There’s hazards aplenty in the form of the usual sharks, but also stinging jellies, giant anemones and aggressive poisonous fish. The visuals are definitely something to sing about. The 2D presentation has a good retro feel, but there’s been no skimping in the art department with loads of variety in the type and size of both hazardous and background fish. The environments are highly detailed and though you might have trouble telling foreground from background at times, it’s never a show-stopper. Animals and your diver have lifelike animation which, combined with some nice sound effects, wonderfully adds to the fun of simulated underwater exploration.

This would be nice enough, but the outstanding soundtrack is what really completes the package. Light and airy guitar notes deliver a mellow way to relieve some daily stress in the sunny seas, whilst more sinister organ sounds build tension in the dark depths where you have only an electric torch to light your way.

All the treasures are used to raise funds to upgrade your equipment, allowing you to reach greater depths on return visits to the earlier islands to do further exploring on the way to solving the central mystery. There’s achievements to be earned and you can read about the islands and treasures in data logs accessed via the pause menu. If there’s anything negative to say about Dive, it’s that there are some bonus treasures which are impossible to reach – apparently because someone forgot to program a path to them!

If you’re compelled to get every last item in a game before you can go on with your life, you’re doomed to disappointment. Nevertheless I certainly hope that won’t keep you from enjoying one of the best WiiWare games available.

Commando (Virtual Console Arcade)

Nostalgia can sometimes cloud a person’s objective view of old video games and this is rarely truer than of a game like this. Commando is sort of the successor to Taito’s Front Line: a vertically scrolling shooter in which you control a soldier fighting on what looks like a WWII battlefield. You shoot everyone in sight, try to rescue friendlies being escorted away as POWs and avoid enemy bullets and grenades whilst letting loose your own.

Not bad in description, but it’s an incredibly challenging game even on the default difficulty. Capcom have provided a variety of ways to make it easier such as boosting the starting number of lives and lowering the threshold for extras, as well as adjusting the game difficulty level, but my inner masochist just sucks it up and takes the default every time.

If you like your old-school arcade games on the challenging side give this a go – just be sure to turn off that Continue setting, okay?

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After selling Wii Motion Plus bundled with a few games, trying to sell the inevitable Wii Remote with the Motion Plus functionality built-in was a foregone conclusion. Even so Nintendo clearly felt a bit shy about selling a Motion Plus-only title without the requisite pack-in: hence Flingsmash being available exclusively bundled with the new Remote Plus.

I’ll dispense with the story except to say it’s your disposable “control the hero and save the day!” garden-variety pablum. Flingsmash at its heart is an arcade-style score attack game that sees you whacking a cute, yellow ball character through a series of horizontally-scrolling levels (with the odd vertical moments for variety) smashing bricks, collecting pick-ups and bashing baddies.

There are alternate paths within the constantly scrolling levels encouraging replays to bump up your high score and the odd changes in level conditions to add some challenge. You’ll also unlock mini-games by earning “A” rankings in all three stages which comprise each of the eight levels for added play value (though the tennis games against the computer are rubbish).

The main problem I had was the actual play mechanic itself. Despite conceptually whacking the ball/character, the absence of any on-screen paddle creates a disconnect between the player and the action. Although there’s a graphical representation of the remote that tracks the angle in real-time, it can get pretty frustrating trying to get that last coin you need to clear the stage. Repeatedly swinging at the wrong angle and getting a pop-up message that you’re swinging too hard can take its toll, so when you get a message every few stages suggesting you take a break, it might be a good idea!

The few moments of frustration are balanced out by good motion tracking elsewhere; playing with a friend would likely also make for a more fun experience. Given the price is only 10 quid over the Remote Plus on its own, it’s not a bad deal. As long as you don’t go in expecting brilliance you can have a good time.

Tron Evolution: Battle Grids

Let me get my biases out in the open by stating that I’m a big fan of the movie, loved the arcade game and am looking forward to the new feature film, so I had no problem making a blind purchase here.

For fans of the arcade game who might have been hoping for emulated arcade classics, they’re not here so go back to that copy of Tron 2.0 on your GBA or good old MAME. Even purists can’t be too disappointed though, because what we have here is a re-imagining of the arcade classics and I have to say they’re more fun than the originals.

The setting of this game is a sort of golden age following the events of the first film where programs are competing in their version of the Olympics. A now-retired Tron (voiced by Bruce Boxleitner – woo!) is looking for a successor to inspire the new breed of userless programs known as ISOs who have joined the grid population.

I was pretty surprised at the extent of the story mode which features different areas to explore and characters to talk to. It’s not an RPG by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s pretty cool that you get to name and create a custom avatar (mine is S€@n – cute, eh?) to control in-game; and there’s loads of extra customisations to purchase later.

Playing through story mode unlocks other characters to play with, though I prefer to play with my own avatar. I haven’t tried multi-player yet, but other than the disc and tank games they’re the usual split-screen affair. If single-player is anything to go by then it’s sure to be a lot of fun.

The vehicle-based games are definitely the best. You have a choice of using the Remote on its side Excite Truck-style – with Motion/Remote Plus support for added accuracy – or plugging in the Nunchuk if you want to use a stick instead. Given the Wii Remote is thus far the perfect driving controller for home consoles I cannot see the point of the latter. The lightcycles are so much fun to race in both arena battle and racing modes, that you could have sold me the game with them alone, but there’s also tank battles, four-wheelers called “Runners” that race laps or battle in arenas, Hyperball (the first game we saw Flynn playing in the original Tron with the big scoops) and disc battles.

Considering this is a budget game and a film tie-in, it’s impressive how much effort has been put into the presentation and extent of the play offering. There’s extra vehicles to unlock by earning “bits,” high scores to compete for and an overall ranking to improve. You can replay parts of the story mode to find extra pick-ups and unlock extra game modes, play individual games on their own or create your own little tournament with NPCs to take the empty slots (or omit the competition in races if you want to do a time-trial). When you play the games on their own or in tournaments you’ll find you can adjust just about every meaningful parameter in the game to provide the right level of challenge.

The development team could have gotten away with cutting a lot of corners, but they didn’t to their credit. If you’re a fan of the film or even the original arcade game, it’s a safe bet you’re going to enjoy this; with four player support, so will your friends. Kudos to Disney Interactive for bucking the trend in poor licensed tie-ins. This one is definitely a keeper!

Standalone WiiWare Review: Chick Chick Boom

It’s a shame that the term “flash game” has become something of an insult because Flash can be useful for trying out game concepts that turn out to be pretty good, with Chick Chick Boom as a case in point. This game started out as a little promo title on the Nintendo website a few years ago and has recently become a fully-fledged (ha ha) WiiWare title featuring a fun core play mechanic and challenging AI for CPU-controlled opponents.

Like most downloadable games your goal is pretty simple: beat your opponent’s team in a set number of rounds by inflicting more damage upon them than they do to you. Rather than your squad of bouncing, rotund chicks duking it out directly with their opposites they use a few different weapon types which are deployed using the rather novel mechanism of completing a little dot-to-dot drawing of them as quickly as possible via movements of your Remote pointer. The more quickly you complete the drawing the more powerful the attack you can execute by clicking a special icon that “orbits” an image of the chosen weapon. “Shoot” the dot, click the button to launch and watch the fun as either a large weighted object, a bomb or a carnivorous plant is inflicted upon your hated foes.

Of course not all your attacks will hit their mark because both sides have defencive actions that can be taken by “drawing” on the playfield via the A button to negate the hazards sent over. A line above your chicks’ heads can stop that falling sofa, a barrier can be made around the bomb before it explodes and a climbing pole will cause the vine-like plant to grow above the heads of chicks so that it starves.

It makes for an interesting dynamic as you take turns sending attacks and then defending against them. Spicing things up a bit are special attacks like lighting storms or level-specific ones like giant sea monsters or UFOs which will pop-up randomly and can only be executed by the player who draws the matching pattern first. Extra activities take the form of shooting kernels off of “Corncobman” as he walks by in the background to get some extra health, or trying to get the pinata in your side of the playfield to get a defencive bonus.

Though the drawing aspects might sound a bit gimmicky the gameplay is actually quite engrossing due to the challenging AI of the computer-controlled opposition. This is definitely a game where you’ll want to play the tutorial and start out against the easiest level of AI difficulty until you get the hang of things as the next two difficulty levels aren’t playing around. Eliminating all five enemy chicks to win a round early isn’t an easy task and you may find yourself opting for simply having the most health when the round ends the majority of the time.

The default game mode sees you playing towards a winning number of rounds as opposed to the typical “best of X” match. The goal can be as simple as winning one round or an epic contest to see who can get six victories under their belt first. The other two games see players trying to get the most wins in a set time limit of varying length or playing with a fixed amount of health against as many opposing teams as you can face down in a sort of “iron man” endurance contest.

If this sounds like a game best played with friends, you’re probably right, though the single player game is pretty fun too. Records are kept of matches with one or two players against a CPU-controlled opponent, though there’s no way of identifying players outside of which of the three unnamed save slots you choose when the game first starts up. You have added play incentive in the form of an additional chick teams to unlock beyond the initial five available, with achievement-style objectives bringing them into play. The teams are really little more than skins, but thanks to some cute character design it’s still fun to try out different ones and unlock the rest.

With two players you can either play on the same team against the CPU or have a one-on-one match with the CPU offering some limited defencive drawing assistance as in the single-player games. Otherwise you’ll be playing against other humans in the normal two-on-two match. Two players on one team means that one player focuses on offence whilst the other does defence – definitely handy when the action gets more frantic.

I would have liked the option to switch teams without backing out through so many menus, but outside of that there’s nothing that sticks out as problematic. Chick Chick Boom is highly polished and offers up the kind of novel control interface I’d expect from a Wii game with the accessibility and “have-a-go” flavour you get with a download title. If you’re looking for something challenging and fun to spend those Wii Shop points on, this is definitely worth your consideration.