Wii Review Round-Up 63

Metal Slug X (Virtual Console Neo-Geo)

This is something of a strange game in the Metal Slug series: it’s more-or-less a re-skin of Metal Slug 2, but it has game sections and mechanics that are more fully-developed in Metal Slug 3. Consequently I feel it’s worth having in your Metal Slug collection.

Metal Slug 3 (Virtual Console Neo-Geo)

The third and arguably best of the Metal Slug franchise (the zombie sequence is a personal favourite). I’m frankly surprised this could be offered in the Wii Shop, because it’s pretty lengthy for an arcade game, but clearly some impressive work was done to compress the game’s soundtrack in order to make it possible.

As with other games in the series this is a fairly simple run-and-gun side-scrolling action game like Contra or a ton of other games from the 1980s-1990s. What has always set the Metal Slug series apart is outstanding animations, outrageous bosses and a healthy dose of humour. This third instalment takes elements of the previous games and turns it all the way up to eleven with an epic ending that has proved impossible to follow-up successfully.

Pretty much the definition of “quarter-sucker” – in the American parlance – the difficulty is such that it’s not really a question of whether you’ll need to continue, but how many continues you can complete the game in. A must-have for fans of classic arcade games.

Retro City Rampage (WiiWare)

To say this game is a labour of love would be an understatement. Largely the vision of a single individual’s desire to create what on the surface is an 8-bit version of the original Grand Theft Auto and years in the making, Retro City Rampage is a love letter to classic videogames. It’s small in size due to the pixellated retro graphics (surprisingly less than 60 blocks), but massive in scope with more jokes referencing game history and 80s movies than you can shake a stick at.

Any description I give wouldn’t do it justice, but let me just say that the GTA-meets-“Back to the Future” storyline provides a set-up for a raft of classic gaming nods that will provide you with hours of entertainment. If you’ve been playing games for more than 20 years this is an automatic purchase; if you’re a younger gamer this might well make you curious about gaming history. Either way it’s a lot of fun and well worth dusting off a Wii points card for.

Wii Review Round-Up 62

Beat the Beat: Rhythm Paradise

I don’t know why Europe needed a more bombastic title for this game, but arguably we lucked out in getting both the North American and European soundtracks so who’s complaining?

The Japanese made music-rhythm games what they are today and this is a pretty challenging one. At first glance it looks like it would be quite easy: press one (sometimes two) buttons in time to some on-screen action complete with a corresponding animation to indicate two grades of success or one of failure. Rhythm is the key however and though the visuals are lovely, they can throw you off as success means being in time with the audio; not the video.

A training mode will help test your sense of rhythm and bears going through the first time you play as it gives you a good idea of what to expect. There’s a raft of mini-games on offer with some pretty catchy tunes and cute animations. Completing each series of four followed by a mash-up of all of them will unlock the next grouping and they get even harder from there. If you’re feeling a bit defeated you can take a break with a virtual barista in a virtual cafe which also allows you to check out some “audio toys” and other unlockable treats before jumping back into the fray.

The presentation is high quality, as we’ve come to expect from Nintendo, and I recommend it for fans of the genre without reservation. I wouldn’t suggest it for young kids as it’s pretty unforgiving and is likely to just leave them frustrated, but my daughter enjoyed watching me struggle with it all the same!

Horizon Riders (WiiWare)

Sabarasa are no strangers to the Nintendo download scene, having cut their teeth on the DSi with cute puzzler “Save the Turtles.” This time they’re taking us to the arcade, circa 1988, with a polygonal rails shooter on the Wii.

The story sees some funky-looking space mercenaries getting a job to trash an alien AI defence system gone amuck, but this game isn’t story-driven so let’s move on. You choose your merc and then jump straight into the action on your hover-board, space sled – whatever, shooting everything in sight and racking up points through a series of stages punctuated by the occasional boss fight.

At first it just seems like a lacklustre Space Harrier wannabe, with slower pacing and less challenge, but after the first boss fight things definitely improve and pretty soon you’re struggling to keep up with the baddies. What Sabarasa have done within the limited memory footprint on WiiWare is pretty impressive and fans of games like Space Harrier won’t be disappointed.

It wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, but I appreciated the challenge and I definitely rate it over Space Harrier: the proper 3D polygonal presentation is less confusing and the control is a lot tighter. I didn’t try out the optional Balance Board controls, but I expect they put you into the game a bit more since your avatar is riding a similar contraption. I’d like to have seen more variety in the visuals and enemy design, but I expect that’s more down to the limitation of what’s possible with WiiWare.

Ultimately I think this is a game which would have benefited from retuning as a Wii U eShop title (using the Gamepad to snipe at enemies to the sides and rear would be a nice touch), but for a WiiWare title it’s not bad.

Wii Review Round-Up 61

Pandora’s Tower

This is the third in a trilogy of Japanese RPGs which Nintendo of Europe decided to localise (probably as a bit of market research to see how many so-called “core gamers” were still out there playing Wii).

To be honest I was only moderately curious about this game. The story sounded weird and it seemed like it could be fun or possibly too limited in scope to be of much interest. Both of these things are true, but I bought it mainly to show my support for Nintendo’s efforts in the hopes we might see other games that haven’t been localised like Earth Seeker, Captain Rainbow or even Excite Bots (I can dream, can’t I?).

Well, as I said the premise is pretty weird: you control a dashing young man with cute hair who rescues a princess (some kind of lass of importance) who changes into a monster one day when heading a festival. You flee to a foreboding (forbidden?) part of the world where a bunch of towers on a floating island are apparently holding the crust of the earth together via giant chains. Gameplay consists of daily excursions to nearby ruins to fight monsters and try to find a cure for the princess.

There’s a funky dating-sim element that breaks up the monster-thumping action which comprises the bulk of the game. Your character needs to kill monsters in the towers on the floating island and bring their pulsing flesh back to the maiden for her to eat, lest she turn into a monster forever. The weird crone who has helped you by cluing you into this cure for the maiden’s curse helps you further with upgrades to your weapons (for a price naturally) and recipes for the ingredients you take off your defeated enemies to create other useful items.

The story is intriguing in the way the origin of the curse is revealed, but the gameplay is the big weak point. This is very much an action game: the interludes where you chat with the maiden are the only thing that’s really RPG-like beside stat-levelling. That’s fine because I like 3rd-person action games, but unfortunately the environments aren’t terribly varied and neither is the action. You go through each tower trying to locate and unlock a door to the tower’s “master,” fighting loads of lesser beasts on the way with a meter in the corner counting down the minutes until your fair one turns into a monster herself. The clock runs down sufficiently fast and exploring each tower takes enough time that you’ll need to head back to your base near the towers at least once to give the maiden some ordinary monster flesh to hold off the progression of her curse. Once she’s asleep and her “curse meter” is temporarily reset you return to defeat the boss and then come back for some more chat and gift-giving before moving on to the next tower.

After doing a few of these, I felt I had pretty much seen everything Pandora’s Tower had to offer. The idea of going through a dozen of these towers in two or more trips each fighting the same minor monsters over and over again just didn’t grab me, interesting story or no. I don’t regret the purchase because I do want more Japanese games localised (and I’m getting a groovy complementary coin set for my Nintendo club rewards), but there are better action games with RPG components to be had on the Wii than this.

Pac-Man Party

I’ve been playing Wii more with my daughter so I felt this party game would be a good choice and besides I’d finally get the classic Pac-Man arcade game for my Wii, which is strangely absent from the Virtual Console Arcade. A lot of critics picked on the fact that the mini-games included really don’t have a lot to do with Pac-Man and that’s fair enough, but it’s actually a pretty decent game in the “video board game” mould, so it shouldn’t be completely dismissed.

The object is to travel around the board trying to collect a set number of dots (referred to as “cookies” in-game), building castles as you go (think Monopoly house-building and upgrading). Mini-games are used to work out control over castles when multiple players are on the same “square” or if a player lands on someone else’s castle. There’s co-operative boss fights in each of the “board” variants included to break up the mini-game battles and a couple of special spaces which result in awards or penalties that can turn the tide of the game. There’s a decent amount of movement possible in the scores, so it’s quite possible for a player to start a turn in the lead and reach the end of the board last depending on their fortunes in the mini-game battles.

The biggest attraction for old-school gamers like me is the “arcade” bonus area which contains a choice of three games: Pac-Man, Dig Dug and Galaga. The emulation is generally decent (though shockingly this version of Pac-Man lacks the intermissions), but considering Pac-Man Party was released for the 30th anniversary of the original arcade game I really expected something more – like every Pac-Man sequel and variant released in the arcades, maybe? It’s an extra so it’s not worth crying about, but considering Pac-Man is Namco’s corporate mascot, you’d think they’d have made more of an effort.

Pac-Man Party isn’t the most creative use of a license I’ve seen, but it’s pretty fun and a decent representative of the party game genre. As long as you aren’t looking for a classic arcade fix you’ll be fine.

Prince of Persia (Virtual Console SNES)

A classic 8-bit computer game given the Super Nintendo treatment. You’re put in the role of a young prince who must rescue a princess from an evil vizir or king or whatever and must traverse deadly pits and time-based challenges in order to get a sword and defeat the baddie before time runs out and she’s executed or whatever. Ground-breaking in its use of life-like character animation, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who was playing games in the 80s who didn’t at least hear about this game.

The SNES version is true to the computer-based original with a bit more graphical detail and larger colour palette, but it’s just as unforgiving. Players get sent back to the start if they die (if there are checkpoints, they’re pretty widely spread apart) and there’s a fixed time limit. There are unlimited lives, but each attempt will use more of the sand in your hourglass. There is a code system you can use if you need to stop partway through (though with the Virtual Console pause feature you won’t need this), but this is a game that pretty well demands you finish it in one 30min. sitting.

It’s hard to imagine people paying full-retail for this when it first released given the punishing difficulty, but for the low price of 800 Nintendo Points it’s a nice bit of history for old-school platforming fans.

Wii Review Round-Up 60

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

Twilight Princess was my first exposure to the Legend of Zelda franchise. Whilst I enjoyed it, it wasn’t a game I actually wanted to own for it’s own sake; rather because I wanted to use it to hack my Wii. I enjoyed it well enough to make sure that the next instalment would be a pre-order, though to be honest I didn’t expect it to improve upon its predecessor and figured it would end up the same way: trade-in fodder for something else.

That didn’t happen and it’s not because the controls are any better; in fact I’d say the use of Motion Plus and the focus on using directional sword swings rather than learning new combat techniques is a big minus for this game (and my sword arm). No, it’s because Nintendo did what they seem to do best: create a world that’s enjoyable to play in filled with likeable characters and a story that you want to see through to the finish.

Some folk might not be as happy with the more cartoony look of Link and the other inhabitants of Skyloft, but I found the designs quite appealing. The animation of the characters is even more impressive than the previous Zelda game with great subtlety of emotion and quality motion-capture bringing these voiceless characters to life. As with Twilight Princess, empathy with our mute hero was a big part of my enjoyment of Skyward Sword and I was happy to have my expectations exceeded in the story and acting departments over the previous instalment.

There are certain aspects of every Zelda game that make it a Zelda game, but the creative teams do enough with the story and setting that it doesn’t simply feel like a dressed-up retread of the last Zelda game you played. As with other Zelda games there are a few element-themed areas to explore and revisit further as the story advances, but it doesn’t feel like a chore thanks to the ability to fly between shortcuts. Motion controls are put to good use in flying between ground areas and Link’s home in the floating islands of Skyloft, providing peaceful interludes between monster battles on the ground below the cloud cover.

You’ll find the trademark Zelda puzzles when trying to navigate level sections (the rather clever use of “timeshift stones” in the desert area being a particular highlight), but none of them are so tricky as to require going to cheat sites. If you do get stuck there are stones about which will give you hints if you talk to them, but I used these sparingly.

After a successful finish you’re given the option to replay with a harder difficulty. I’m not hanging on to Skyward Sword so much for the extra challenge of that harder mode, but more because I think my daughter would enjoy playing it someday and it’s nice to have a game like that in my collection.

The Last Story

My last round-up covered the excellent Japanese RPG Xenoblade Chronicles and as much as I’d like to say that the second in a series of three Japanese RPGs to get European localisation is another quality title, I’m afraid I cannot.

I put over 140 hours into Xenoblade Chronicles, but less than 20 hours into The Last Story I threw in the towel. It wasn’t because of the voice acting, which was excellent (the audio being limited to English dub will disappoint purists) and it wasn’t because of the novel realtime combat system. I couldn’t complain about the visuals or the soundtrack either. The Last Story is an extremely slick-looking Wii title, with flashy menus and visual effects. The soundtrack is cinematic and also of high quality. In fact everything about this game makes it seem like it could be on-par with or even exceed Xenoblade Chronicles, but for one key factor: it’s a story game without an interesting story.

Unlike Xenoblade’s high-concept setting on the body of a dead god and surprisingly deep metaphysics, The Last Story is a more conventional sword and sorcery tale. As with Xenoblade Chronicles it features the totally overdone “chosen one” for a main character, but there’s just not as much to do and the story doesn’t really seem to go anywhere. The villains are obvious and the conflict just isn’t compelling. The first time I hit a tough boss battle, it was only a few attempts at beating it before I realised I just wasn’t interested in seeing what happened next.

Aside from the limited settings to explore (I’ll warrant the city you can run about in is large), it’s the linearity that gets me. I accept that the story overall is going to go a certain way, but honestly why give me two dialogue options at key points in the game only to have a response to one of them end up effectively being “actually you want to pick the other one.” Seriously what’s the point of that, other than to present the false illusion of choice and waste my time? Added to a rather small collection of side quests, I often felt that the story was only plodding along to give me the feeling I was getting my money’s worth. As I’ve said about the Resident Evil games: if you have a short story to tell, tell it well and make it worth repeating; don’t pad it out and make it feel like the reader (or player) is investing a lot of time for minimal payoff.

If you’re such a massive fan of the genre you feel that you must play them all or if you want to support localisation efforts by buying every niche Japanese title Nintendo publishes, go ahead, but I’d rather replay Xenoblade Chronicles or Skyward Sword instead.

Williams Pinball Classics

It’s probably safe to say that when it comes to retro-gaming nothing hooks me more than a quality video pinball game. Farsight Studios are the “Kings of Pin” for doing re-creations of actual pinball machines from yesteryear – their ongoing mission being to keep these artistic marvels alive into the 21st century.

System 3 took their sweet time bringing this to British shores; I think by the time it popped through the mail slot in August 2011 I had waited a total of 3-1/2 years since the original American release! Needless to say the wait was well worth it. Not only are Williams the creators of the best pinball tables of the 80s-90s (in my not-so-humble opinion), but this collection manages to address a lot of issues from the Gottlieb collection which preceded it as a system launch title.

You’ll still find those brilliant narrated table tours which tell you how to play the machines and a choice of camera angles and unlockable ball effects, but the motion-controlled “nudge” feels a lot more natural and, more importantly, the ability to unlock tables for free play is a lot easier. Rather than having one extremely difficult table goal, each table has five standard and five “wizard” goals to complete. Each of these on their own is a lot easier to accomplish than the goals from the Gottlieb tables, so a decent amount of play on each machine will see you getting those tables unlocked in no time. Of course you can also unlock free play on a machine by purchasing it with 100 credits and these are also far easier to come by than in the Gottlieb collection, where it seemed you’d have to play for months to accumulate enough for even one unlock code.

The flip side is that there are no cheats for unlocking anything, so if you want to play the bonus table, Jive Time, you really do need to complete the Williams Challenge by beating the target score on all the other tables in the collection in one sitting. Thankfully this is a brilliant collection of tables with not a dud amongst them (Jive Time itself is debatable), so you should enjoy that particular “chore.”

The regular table list reads like a who’s-who of some of the greatest pinball machines ever made:

Black Knight
Space Shuttle

so if you’re only going to have one pinball game for the Wii, this is definitely the one to get.

Fans of Farsight Studios’ efforts at preserving these old machines by creating video reproductions of them will no doubt be interested to know that Pinball Arcade is where they’re putting their future efforts with tables from this and the Gottlieb collection as well as tables from Bally and Stern getting the treatment. You can find the Pinball Arcade in the iOS and Mac App stores as well as Xbox Live and the Playstation online shop. Hopefully we’ll see it on the Wii-U as well because nothing can beat that motion-controlled nudge on the Wii!

Wii Review Round-Up 59

Xenoblade Chronicles

Historically I’m not a big fan of RPGs because of their time-consuming, life sucking aspect, but given the unusual circumstance of having the European translation of a major Japanese title before even an announcement of a release date for North America I felt duty-bound to pre-order this game and give it a shot. Besides, how could I pass up a game with a fantastic setting like the body of a long-dead god?

Xenoblade Chronicles stands-out generally because of the focus on story: not only the setting, but the progression of the tale from one of revenge to a deeper philosophical discussion. I was quite impressed with the maturity of not only the themes, but the characters themselves: their development and inner struggles ably conveyed by the excellent voice talent employed in the British localisation (Japanese audio with English subtitles is also available).

Of course games are more than stories and here Xenoblade Chronicles also impresses, using a hybrid combat system that mixes realtime and turned-based aspects implemented with a simple control scheme. Controls are limited to buttons and analogue stick, with neither motion or pointer put to use. The Classic Controller is supported, but I preferred the more flexible posture afforded via the traditional Remote + Nunchuk scheme.

The unconventional combat is a bit jarring at first, but you’ll quickly get into the swing of things: realtime character movement is used to change which part of a monster you face for the use of different attack types, but has little meaning in terms of defence. Standard attacks happen automatically and build up a store of points which are expended to carry out special attacks that are divided into categories that have further effects on enemies when used in a certain sequence. These attack sequences are primarily put to use during “Chain Attacks” which allow for the selection of special attacks used by the otherwise AI-controlled members of your party.

In addition to statistics which are enhanced via levelling-up characters (experience is earned through combat, exploration and quest completion), there’s a large number of skills and skill trees which affect gameplay. Your active party is limited to three out of a selection of up to a half-dozen or so characters, so developing these is dependent upon which characters you choose to play with over any length of time.

Skill development, quests and the different combat strengths and weaknesses of your party mean that you’ll be changing your roster regularly in the course of play. It’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with the the way various characters control in combat because it’s fairly different from the main character Shulk. Shulk has an additional range of powers courtesy of the Monado sword he wields which is central to the plot of the game and though you’ll be tempted to use him exclusively there are moments where you cannot and the transition will be quite jarring if you haven’t tried using any of the other characters as your primary one previously.

The game world is vast and enhances the story’s epic feel, supported by a terrific cinematic score. Each section of the game world is cleverly designed to largely eliminate the need to pause for loading or limit viewing distance. The trade off is that monsters will pop-into view long after you’d have been able to see them in “real life,” but given the breathtaking vistas stretched out before you, it’s well worth it. There’s so much to explore and so many characters to talk to that I couldn’t adequately cover it all even in a dedicated review.

If I have anything negative to say it’s that the game world is so vast that sometimes finding locations you’re directed to in various quests can be really challenging. You’re often tasked with collecting items that are freely available (marked by glowing blue dots visible from quite a distance) and also items dropped by certain monsters. I would strongly recommend not throwing away or selling anything you pick up casually as I learned the hard way that some of these items are extremely rare. You can trade with NPCs for some of them, but you won’t know that until you’ve chatted with all named NPCs and carried out most of the quests for that part of the world to increase your “affinity” with them. Needless to say I consulted FAQs A LOT towards the end, but if you’re a bit more patient than me and enjoy exploring every little corner of virtual game worlds, you’ll get on fine.

Suffice it to say it’s probably the deepest game I’ve played in terms of character customisation and exploration. The side quests are numerous and interesting and there’s additional character moments to unlock in various parts of the game world. It’s a welcome change from the normal level-grinding that typically marks the path to progression for this style of game. Even after clocking 140hrs. of play before the end credits rolled I feel like I’ve only experienced 2/3rds of what was on offer and I’m already looking forward to replaying it someday. If the only reason you haven’t purchased this game is because your Wii needs a service to read dual-layer discs, shame on you – get your machine fixed and buy it!

escapeVektor Chapter I (WiiWare)

It’s no secret I enjoy a good old-fashioned arcade-style game; the crustier the better. Nnooo appear to have the same not-so-secret love that I do because they’ve delivered a WiiWare game in the same class as the Bit.Trip and Art Style series in what is billed as the first in a trilogy of games that combines the simplicity of the early arcade with modern special effects and a terrific soundtrack into a lovely package.

The bright pastels and simple geometric shapes (you control a white arrow on a series of grids) remind me a lot of ancient games most people won’t have heard of like Targ and sequel Spectar, and the gameplay strongly echoes Konami’s classic Amidar. The over-arching story has you taking on the role of a person trapped in an old video game, a la Tron, working your way through various levels to piece together your memory of how you got there.

The gameplay is basic, but the developers have added enough clever twists to keep the formula fresh. Players are tasked with guiding their white arrow through a series of white grids, changing the paths to a pastel green in the process. Once the grid is completely repainted the level is cleared and you move on to the next.

Roaming about the grids in pre-set patterns are enemies to avoid that will speed-up once they catch sight of you, so you really can’t just go blundering along – although early on you’ll gain the ability to put on some extra speed for a limited time to escape the baddies. Later levels feature towers which send killer pulses down nearby lanes at set intervals and lethal electrified barriers which get enabled or disabled as you cross circuit paths. There are also free-roaming enemies that spawn from gates when you trip pathways that require a bit more strategy and skill to avoid.

Without some kind of offensive weapon the later levels would prove nigh impossible (though presence of a reward for clearing a level without using weapons, suggests that it can be done), so thoughtfully you can earn charges that will destroy all enemies in the vicinity. Despite your extra abilities escapeVektor is still quite challenging and unforgiving. The difficulty ramps-up such that by the second “world” the gloves are definitely off. Arcade veterans will find this is a game every bit as tough as those classics of yesteryear.

The core game mechanics are sound and entertaining; I wouldn’t bat an eye at seeing this in an arcade upright even today. The visuals are simple, but there’s some interesting background effects happening that make your grid appear to be a 2D structure floating in 3D space. It looks really slick without being overly flashy or distracting. Calling the playfield a “grid” doesn’t really do it justice, as this isn’t a simple sheet of graph paper. Rather there’s a symmetrical pattern of connected squares and rectangles which changes from level-to-level. During play the camera is kept zoomed-in on the currently occupied section of the playfield with your arrow in the centre. Given the repeating patterns which compose the levels it’s easy to get lost sometimes – not to mention making it hard to avoid hazards, so the ability to temporarily zoom-out for a full view of the playfield to reorient oneself is welcome.

The combination of visuals and gameplay make this a solid addition to the WiiWare line-up, but what puts it amongst the elite is the brilliant ambient techno soundtrack. There’s a nice variety of tracks which brilliantly complement play and I was really happy to see it available for download on iTunes.

If you’re a fan of early arcade classics or know and love the Bit.Trip series then you really owe it to yourself to check this out. I sincerely hope we’ll see future series chapters from Nnooo; hopefully they’ll live up to this brilliant debut.

Wii Review Round-Up 58

Wii Play Motion

Wii Play Motion builds upon the runaway success of Wii Play by including a remote which is not only a special colour (red), but integrates the increased accuracy of spatial positioning offered by the Wii Motion Plus add-on and is consequently referred to as a Wii Remote Plus.

To be honest as a solo gamer I don’t find the line-up as compelling as that of Wii Play. Where this collection really shines is in multi-player; especially with kids. Outside of the red Remote my primary motivation was to get a game that I could play with my daughter and in that respect it’s well worth it.

The stone skipping game takes a real knack that I frankly don’t have and it’s the only game my daughter can beat me at without my intentionally tipping the balance. Another big hit is the ghost-hunting game which cleverly uses motion plus and the remote speaker to turn the Wii Remote into a ghost detector you point around your room to find scary ghosts. Once captured in your Ghostbusters-style particle stream, you need to slowly point your remote back at your screen and guide the ghost into a trap. Really big ghosts (featuring outlandish decorations) require the cooperation of both players to capture. Another two-player game involves the joining of both player’s Miis at the feet. They constantly bounce about like tumblers and each player gets to control the orientation of the pair when their character is upright in a cooperative game based around bouncing up the screen into a goal.

There’s a fair number of games to explore and although they play differently solo versus multi-player, they really don’t grab me enough to recommend this to anyone who only plays alone (unless you really want that red Wii Remote). If you have a household of Wii gamers though, you’ll find some good fun here so you should definitely pick it up – just be sure you get another Wii Remote Plus or Motion Plus add-on as the regular Wii Remote on its own isn’t supported.

Hello Kitty Seasons

My daughter, like many little girls, is a big fan of Hello Kitty. She started out playing games on my DSi LL and has a couple of DS Hello Kitty games (they’ll be given the mini-review treatment in the future), so it was no surprise she would want this. I did resist however, because I hadn’t read anything terribly brilliant about it and it transpires that instinct was correct.

In theory Hello Kitty Seasons sounds pretty cool: you travel around Sanrio Town and meet and help your favourite characters and build up the town Sims-style. The “seasons” gimmick involves the game changing seasons to match the local weather by keying off the Wii’s date/time settings. Who wouldn’t want to play an Animal Crossing game with Sanrio characters in a world that changes to match the real world?

There are several disappointments here for the die-hard Kitty fanatic: firstly you don’t actually control Hello Kitty or any of the Sanrio characters. Instead you create a human child avatar which has unlockable customisations like clothing and hairstyles. Secondly you don’t actually build up the town: you perform various fetch quests for different characters and once you’ve collected enough of certain items you merely upgrade existing structures. Lastly the mini-games played to earn items for town improvements are rubbish. I don’t mean the games themselves – this is an all-ages title so they’re necessarily simple, but they often use motion controls and the motion controls suck.

A good example of the poor control on display is a gem-sorting game featuring Dear Daniel, Hello Kitty’s paramour. Red and green gems come down a conveyor belt and you need to motion up or down to put the gems in the matching colour basket and then motion sideways to crush rocks which match neither. The motion detection is awful and it’s pretty much impossible to perform any of these actions with any accuracy. For young or beginning gamers it’s needlessly frustrating and could have benefited from more fine-tuning or a different control interface altogether. None of the mini-games really stand out unless it’s due to problems like this, which only adds to the likelihood of this title collecting dust on the shelf.

If you have very young children, say under five, then this might be okay, but honestly I don’t see why your five year-old would be playing video games in the first place. For older children the frustrating controls and lack of real interaction with the game world will likely mean a loss of interest after a few plays. In my household we didn’t get to see one change of season – not that this would have mattered. Of course being able to control one of the Sanrio characters might well have made the difference, but I’m not sorry to have seen it traded in.

Harry Potter Lego: Year 1-4

My daughter is midway through the Harry Potter series of books so it’s no surprise she was keen to play a game based upon it. I’ve played Lego Star Wars on the Wii and the Mac so I figured this was a safer bet than the typical movie-license tie-in. Although it’s proven a big hit with her there are a couple of issues that are worth highlighting for parents who may also be harangued into purchasing it.

If you’ve ever played a Lego game on any platform then you know what to expect: control one of two characters (like other entries in the series a second player can jump in or leave play at any time) with the Nunchuk and the Remote and navigate through various platforms to an exit which must be unlocked by destroying and building things made out of virtual Lego bricks in order to proceed to the next level.

The starting point is a pub called the Leaky Cauldron. From here you’ll start the various years or play through individual missions in Free Play mode once completed. Once you start a year you’ll often find yourself at Hogwarts Academy and here you’ll need to roam around the school grounds following a ghost who leads you to various lessons to learn more spells used to complete missions and unlock more areas of the school where you can earn special items and unlock additional characters. The school and its grounds are so expansive that players can spend a lot of time simply exploring and messing about for ages without undertaking a single mission.

Fans will love the funny cut scenes and numerous references to events in the books. According to my daughter (who in fairness has seen only clips of the films) the game appears to be a combination of movie and book, with the look of the characters more closely following the books than the films – well, as much as Lego characters can.

Although it is a game featuring Harry Potter and Lego, it’s definitely not for beginning gamers as a fair amount of coordination is required to move the on-screen character with the control stick whilst casting spells; many of which involve tapping and then holding down buttons and pointing at the screen with the Remote. My daughter has really improved her hand-eye coordination playing this, but it’s still challenging in places.

Most notable of the new platforming challenges are staircases built by grabbing and placing Lego bricks using the Remote pointer in order to access elevated areas. For younger players this will be the greatest source of frustration; especially when there are background and foreground areas on either side of the staircase, requiring players to line their character up properly and make precise jumps to ascend. There is often a picture in the background which shows you how to stack the different-coloured bricks, but it’s easy to get it wrong and sometimes targeting specific bricks with your levitation spell can be difficult. Consequently Mum and Dad will likely be summoned for these bits.

Of course if you play for any length of time with another player you’re going to encounter another new aspect of this Lego game in comparison to others: the dynamic split-screen. Game levels aren’t really any larger than in Lego Star Wars, but the camera tends to be closer to the characters, making them larger on-screen. It’s also more dynamic in its movements (more on this in a bit) and when characters move away from each other the screen will suddenly split diagonally so that players can freely move wherever they like.

Although the split-screen can bit a bit disorienting the worst is when one player’s character is in the background and the other in the near foreground. This causes the camera to move in response to the foreground character alone. For the player whose character is in the background this can be rather nauseating because the camera moves won’t match their character’s movements. I’ve been playing games for over 30 years – a lot of them with a first-person perspective – and I’ve never had a game make me feel physically ill until this one. It’s actually bad enough that I cannot play it with another player for more than 20 minutes at a stretch unless it’s during a boss battle where the camera is fixed.

It’s also worth noting that in the hub areas either player can begin the transition from one room to another just by walking through a door, which can be frustrating if the other player was in the middle of doing something else.

For a Lego game it’s very deep: there’s loads of characters and virtual Lego kits to unlock, numerous bonus levels, great multi-player (provided nobody suffers from motion sickness) and vast environments to explore. Without a doubt fans of Lego and Harry Potter will enjoy it, just be prepared to lend a hand to your wizards in training.

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!