Neutopia

Even if it isn’t revolutionary, Neutopia is a solid title that does improve on the gameplay of The Legend of Zelda. Though the cost may be prohibitive if you’re considering it for the TurboGrafx 16, it’s only $6 (600 Wii points) on the Virtual Console, making it a solid buy and a great way to spend a lazy Sunday.

I suppose in a review of Neutopia, it is almost obligatory to reference The Legend of Zelda. Yes, Neutopia is greatly influenced by The Legend of Zelda, from its overhead perspective to its dungeons to its items. I believe it is safe to say that, had The Legend of Zelda never been created, there would be no Neutopia. Some are quick to dismiss Neutopia because of this, which baffles me. The video game industry is full of games that borrow from a successful formula (would we have the prevalence of fighting games if there were no Street Fighter II or first-person shooters if there were no Wolfenstein 3-D or Doom?). It may be that Neutopia is criticized because people believe that it really didn’t enhance what The Legend of Zelda presented, but I refute that idea. Not only do I think that Neutopia improved upon Zelda’s gameplay, but I believe that it is overall a more enjoyable experience.

Though some of you Zelda fans may be crying, “Blasphemy!” at this point, let me make my case.

First off, the graphics in Neutopia are an improvement over the Zelda graphics. This is no surprise, as Neutopia was originally released on the more powerful TurboGrafx 16/PC Engine. The character sprite for the lead character, Jazetta, is larger than Link, as are most of the monsters. The characters and game world are rendered in vivid colors, thanks to the greater color palette of the TG-16. Though the graphics are not jaw-droppingly amazing, the overall visual experience is pleasing.

In terms of gameplay, I found Jazetta easier to control than Link. Both are confined to moving in only four directions, but Jazetta seemed a little more responsive. I will admit that there is a possibility that this was due to the controller, though, as I only played The Legend of Zelda on the Gamecube using a Gamecube controller and may have had a different experience with the original Nintendo controller.

One thing that I definitely preferred in Neutopia is that there are usually clues as to where you may find secret areas. Like in Zelda, secret areas can be found by burning trees or by bombing walls. Maybe I’m less patient than I once was, but finding the secret areas in Zelda is just a chore, especially when I only had the blue candle, which can only be used once on a screen, forcing me to enter the screen, try burning a bush, leave the screen, return, and try another bush. This becomes very tedious very quickly. In Neutopia, there are no candles, but you do get a wand (like you get later in Zelda) that emits flames, and it can be used repeatedly (in fact, you’ll find yourself using it frequently as a ranged weapon, since you sword is only a close-range weapon).

The one aspect of Neutopia that I find inferior to Zelda is its challenge. Neither the normal monsters nor the dungeons nor the bosses are very difficult (though the last two bosses seem to ramp up the difficulty quite a bit). In terms of play time, it took me an entire Sunday to play through Neutopia, which has no second quest like Zelda.

Even if it isn’t revolutionary, Neutopia is a solid title that does improve on the gameplay of The Legend of Zelda. Though the cost may be prohibitive if you’re considering it for the TurboGrafx 16, it’s only $6 (600 Wii points) on the Virtual Console, making it a solid buy and a great way to spend a lazy Sunday.

Recommended

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Brütal Legend

If you are a fan of heavy metal music, Jack Black, or Tim Schafer, then Brütal Legend may be a good choice for you. If you consider yourself none of the above, then this probably isn’t the game for you, as it is the charm of the people behind the game that make this one worth playing.

From the mind of Tim Schafer (the man responsible for the oft-overlooked but highly regarded Psychonauts) and featuring the talents of such celebrities as Jack Black, Ozzy Osbourne, Lita Ford, Lemmy Kilmister, and Rob Halford, Brütal Legend presents the player a GTA-like gaming experience in a heavy-metal-themed world.

I only played Psychonauts briefly when I had my GameTap membership, so I cannot make many comparisons between the two games. What I remember of Psychnauts are its highly stylized visuals and character design. This carries over to Brütal Legend, but in a more subtle manner. Instead of going for a realistic look, everyone in the game is a characature, sporting exaggerated features. This fits the game well, as a lot of the humor would be lost without the stylized look.

The cast chosen for this game really enhances it . . . as long as you are familiar with music icons like Ozzy and Lemmy. Jack Black does a good job voicing the protagonist, and he even stars in a video clip in the beginning in which he leads the player into a record shop to show him (or her) the Brütal Legend album (available for a low $6.66). Many of the musicians who appear in the game play characters modeled after themselves, at least visually. You’ll recognize Ozzy as the Guardian of Metal before he ever utters a word and Lemmy as the Kill Master. If you’re not a fan of the musicians, then this probably won’t be a draw, but for those of us who grew up with some of this music, it adds to the overall experience.

The gameplay in Brütal Legend is similar to other sandbox games. You are free to roam the world, either on foot or in your hot rod (the Deuce), and you are free to start side missions or story missions whenever you choose. There are also many hidden items to find, so if you are the type of person who likes scouring a world for these (turns out that I am not), you will have plenty to keep you occupied. Side missions involve racing a demon, hunting animals, helping a bombadier, and ambushing enemies. The side missions are a way to earn money (called fire tributes) that you can spend at Motor Forges for enhanced weapons, attacks, and Deuce upgrades. You can also earn fire tributes from main missions, special jumps in your car, and helping wandering allies defeat their enemies. While the missions are fun, for the most part, controlling troops during large-scale battles seemed awkward a lot of the time. Also, it felt at times as if the designers had too much to include and tried to cram it all in. For example, I believe one of my most powerful allies, the Rock Crusher was only available during the last battle or two, which really didn’t give me much of an opportunity to play with it and strategize on how to best deploy it in battle.

In addition to the sometimes disappointing battles, I felt that the story in the game started to falter as it progressed. At first, the game seems light-hearted and fun, but it seems to take itself too seriously later on and becomes concerned with themes of betrayal, etc. Also, it explains how Eddie was transported to the game world and how his history is entwined in the struggle between the humans and the demons. Frankly, I didn’t care how Eddie was transported to the game world. This is a game that is about humor and absurdity, and attempting to explain everything and tie it together seemed to slow the game down for me. It’s like telling me that there are microorganisms that give some people power over the Force. It kills the magic a bit.

My criticisms aside, I did enjoy Brütal Legend, and definitely got my money’s worth from it (I picked it up used from GameFly for $9.99). If you are a fan of heavy metal music, Jack Black, or Tim Schafer, then Brütal Legend may be a good choice for you. If you consider yourself none of the above, then this probably isn’t the game for you, as it is the charm of the people behind the game that make this one worth playing.

Recommended

Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories

It may not quite live up to the standards set by GTA III, Vice City, and San Andreas, but Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories is still an enjoyable game worth at least a playthrough for those enjoying the GTA games or sandbox games in general.

When it comes to gaming, I tend to be a late-comer, only discovering games long after their release. Part of this is due to the fact that I already have so many games sitting on my shelves waiting to be played that I have difficulty justifying paying $60 for a new release, especially when I consider how many old games that money will buy. Part of the reason is also that I prefer to wait and see if a game lives up to its hype, which tends not to die down for a while, as those eagerly awaiting a game tend to speak highly of it following its release, even if it doesn’t quite meet expectations (I’ve been guilty of this myself, as I subconsciously forgave a game of flaws because it was so highly anticipated). So, when I first heard about Grand Theft Auto III way back in 2001 (strangely enough, from a girl I was seeing at the time), I noted it, but I didn’t immediately check it out.

When Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was released, and I kept reading how highly regarded that game was, I finally gave in and made it my first Grand Theft Auto experience. I found that the hype was warranted, and I had a blast playing the game, listening to the ’80s tunes and noting all the references to my youth. After beating Vice City, I soon picked up Grand Theft Auto III, and though it did not reach the level of its sequel, I still had a lot of fun with it and was officially one of the many Grand Theft Auto fans. You can imagine my disappointment when I heard of a brand new Grand Theft Auto game that was being released only on the PSP, a system I had no intention of buying.

Fortunately, a little more than a year-and-a-half after the PSP release, Rockstar released Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories for the Playstation 2. No longer did I have to debate whether or not a PSP was worth purchasing, as I could play the game on my beloved PS2. Though I did not immediately buy it, I eventually added it to my collection among GTA III, Vice City, and San Andreas.

And finally, I played the game.

I am not sure what I had been expecting. I knew that this game had been initially made for the PSP, a system that couldn’t really match the type of graphics, etc., of the PS2, but my inital reaction to the game was more or less, “meh.” It played like the other GTA games, but the textures seemed so plain compared to the others. Also, the game just seemed more limited after playing the games made for the PS2. And then there was the writing and voice acting, which was certainly not on par with the PS2 releases. After playing through several missions, I set the game aside and moved on to other titles.

Recently, I decided to revisit GTA: LCS, and I’m glad that I did. I found my earlier criticisms were still valid, but that didn’t mean that the game couldn’t be fun. The more I got into the game, the more I enjoyed it. I ignored the fact that the graphics weren’t as detailed. I accepted that I wouldn’t be flying around in planes or helicopters. I tolerated the bad voice acting and writing (which actually seemed to get better later in the game). Without constantly comparing this game to its PS2 predecessors, I found it to be another fun title in the series, and I was disappointed once I realized I had played through the final story mission, since the game had grown on me.

It may not quite live up to the standards set by GTA III, Vice City, and San Andreas, but Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories is still an enjoyable game worth at least a playthrough for those enjoying the GTA games or sandbox games in general. It would have been nice had a little more polish been added when the port was made from the PSP, but the overall experience is still fun and worthwhile.

Recommended

Super Mario Bros.

Though it may be eclipsed by its sequels (especially Super Mario Bros. 3), this game is not only an important piece of gaming history, but a great way to spend a few hours, especially as a means of introducing someone new to the gaming world.

After such a long absence from reviewing, you might question why I would start again with Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Why would I spend time reviewing such a mainstream game that most gamers have likely played at least once in their lifetimes? Shouldn’t I be taking on one of the other 700+ games in my library that are more obscure? Do I think I can state anything about this game that someone else has not previously said?

Those are all legitimate questions. Though Super Mario Bros. gave rise to the platformer and boosted the popularity of the NES, its formula was refined by later titles in the series. The games got larger. The graphics became more detailed. The power-ups changed to include frog suits, flight feathers, and more. There seems little reason to go back to the original, no matter how revered it may be for its place in gaming history.

However, thanks to a self-imposed responsibility to teach a friend about video games, I recently rediscovered Super Mario Bros. and how fun this game actually is. It’s something that I had forgotten over the years, considering the game too simple to be worth replaying.

Because the game is so well known, I won’t go into a lot of specifics, as these can easily be found with a quick Internet search. What I will do is urge all of you to give Super Mario Bros. another try. Though it may be eclipsed by its sequels (especially Super Mario Bros. 3), this game is not only an important piece of gaming history, but a great way to spend a few hours, especially as a means of introducing someone new to the gaming world.

Highly recommended

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fall of the Foot Clan

You certainly won’t find the kind of beat-em-up action here that you would in the original coin-op or Turtles in Time, but Fall of the Foot Clan still provides a lot of fun and should satisfy Turtle fans.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were huge. They had starred in a blockbuster movie and cartoon series, had been translated into a popular line of action figures, and had been featured in a four-player coin-op that was the highlight of many arcades. Eager young gamers waited for the TMNT gaming experience at home, first receiving an NES game unrelated to the arcade cabinet before being blessed with a port of the coin-op. In between the release of these NES games, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fall of the Foot Clan—the first Turtles game for the Game Boy—was released. Though it did not match the complexity of the arcade or NES games, gamers finally could Turtle Power with them on the road.

I remember reading about this cart in GamePro and being impressed by the graphics. The game features large, detailed sprites that are perfect representations of the Turtle characters. Playing through the game, you’ll run across Bebop, Rocksteady, Baxter Stockman, Shredder, Krang, along with many recognizable lesser foes like Mousers and Foot Soldiers. The animation is very limited, but even twenty years later, I am impressed by the Game Boy graphics. Many of the cut scenes look like they could have been lifted right from the cartoon series . . . had the cartoons been in black and white (or is that green and paler green?).

The game plays very simply. You choose which turtle you want to use at the beginning of each stage or after one of your turtles falls in combat, but the differences in each turtle are only represented by the weapon each carries. You would expect that Leonardo’s and Donatello’s weapons would extend further than Raphael’s and Michelangelo’s, but that is not the case. Though it did seem to me that Michelangelo’s nunchucks were faster, I think this was more wishful thinking on my part than reality. In addition to each turtle’s primary weapon, shurikens can be thrown while crouching, and each turtle can jump kick as well. You have an unlimited number of shurikens, but it is often much easier to just walk up to an enemy and attack than to fight him from afar. There is some platforming involved in the game, but for the most part, you will be walking left to right attempting to hit your enemies before they hit you. Enemies are generally easy to kill or avoid, and the most problematic foes you’re likely to come across are the Foot Soldiers who jump onscreen and attempt to land on you. The bosses are surprisingly easy as well, and I made my battles with them more difficult by trying to find their patterns of attack. For example, I almost died fighting Shredder, thinking I had to avoid his attack and jump behind him to retaliate, until I realized I could walk up to him, strike, and then walk away.

The sound in this game is standard fare for the Game Boy, though it does have a good rendition of the Turtles theme song . . . which you will hear repeatedly throughout the game. Unless my count is off, the game alternates between two songs during the level, switching to a different tune for each boss battle. This didn’t detract from the game for me at all, and I found myself singing along to the Turtles theme in my head as I played.

Fall of the Foot Clan is a short game and can be beaten in under thirty minutes, which in my opinion makes it a perfect game for a portable. The game is very easy, and you may find yourself blowing through it on your first playthrough without losing a single turtle. You certainly won’t find the kind of beat-em-up action here that you would in the original coin-op or Turtles in Time, but Fall of the Foot Clan still provides a lot of fun and should satisfy Turtle fans.

Highly recommended

The House of the Dead Overkill

If you’re searching for epic quests and complicated storylines, you should look elsewhere, but fans of old light gun games or any gamers wanting some quick, mindless fun won’t go wrong with The House of the Dead Overkill.

What is it with women and zombie blasting? Sure, that may sound like a strange question, but inexplicably, women seem to love unloading a clip into a zombie’s head. Don’t believe me? Let me share some anecdotal evidence to make my point.

The year is 2001, and I am living in North Carolina. A girl I was kind of seeing at the time meets up with me at a mall. We end up at the arcade (yeah, they weren’t as scare in 2001 as they are now). Why did we go to the arcade? There was a game there she wanted to play with me: The House of the Dead 2. Yes, instead of dragging me along while she shopped or watching a movie together or any of the other activities in which we could have engaged at the mall, this girl wanted to put holes in zombies.

Jump ahead to 2009. A friend of mine (this time someone I am not kind of seeing) visits me at my house. If you’ve looked through my video game collection, you will see that I have a lot of games and many games that seem to span the gender gap. However, once this friend learns that I bought The House of the Dead Overkill, she excitedly says, “Let’s shoot zombies.” And the next time she visits? “I want to shoot zombies.”

It seems there is something about blowing away swarm after swarm of the walking dead that appeals to both men and women. Perhaps it is an inherent fear of the dead shared by both. Perhaps it is catharsis without the intrusion of conscience (they were already dead, anyway). Perhaps we were all so freaked out by Night of the Living Dead that we need to shoot zombies for our mental wellness. I’m sure there is a psychological study in there, but I guess that’s not what we’re here for. We’re here to discuss whether or not this game is worth buying and/or playing.

The answer to both is yes.

The House of the Dead Overkill is just plain fun. It’s great that the introduction of the Wii has revived the light gun genre (though we’re not really talking about light guns anymore). These games were almost always fun and accessible to a wide audience. Instead of memorizing what a bunch of different buttons do, all you have to remember is to pull the trigger when that zombie is in your crosshairs and occasionally shake your gun to reload (as opposed to shooting offscreen, which tended to be the way to reload with light guns). You don’t even need to worry about controlling where you move, since the game does that for you. It’s a matter of shooting and surviving, outlasting the horde of creatures wanting to rend your flesh.

Before I give this game too glowing of a review, there are some weak spots I need to point out. The graphics in the cut scenes are not great. I know that the Wii is incapable of producing the graphics of the Xbox 360 or the PS3, but the cut scene graphics here are exceptionally poor. The graphics while playing seem better, though I cannot say whether they actually are or if it is just a matter of being too focused on the action to notice them. Also, the storyline can be hit or miss, depending on your tastes. I appreciated that they presented the whole game like a low-budget seventies horror flick, but my friend was very annoyed by the cut scenes and just wanted to get to the action. Part of that may have been that the storyline is more catered to a male audience (for example, the intro to the game includes a live action exotic dancer, presented in grainy footage appropriate for the era this game is trying to capture). Also, the profanity in this game is excessive, and while I don’t believe that really bothered my friend, those of you who find this distasteful might want to avoid this game.

Those issues aside, there isn’t a whole lot to dislike here. This is pure fun and the reason we went to arcades back in the day. What’s even better is that this title can now be found for cheap (I saw it for as little as $13 around Christmas). If you’re searching for epic quests and complicated storylines, you should look elsewhere, but fans of old light gun games or any gamers wanting some quick, mindless fun won’t go wrong with The House of the Dead Overkill.

Highly recommended

Conan

It may not be as technically refined as God of War, but Conan for the Xbox 360 is a faithful and fun translation of character from page to game. You can now find this game for $10 or under (mine was slightly under $10 from GoGamer, including shipping), which makes this a definite buy for hack-and-slash fans or fans of the Conan books, movies, or comics.

Conan really wants to be God of War. I’m not referring to the character, of course. Our favorite Cimmerian is quite happy being the barbarian and thief that he is, and he has no desire to switch roles with Kratos. Conan for the Xbox 360 is reminiscent of the God of War games on the PS2, though, from its emphasis on stringing together multiple-hit combos against numerous enemies to its control scheme, including its “Battle Actions” (sequences of onscreen button presses). Considering that Conan and Kratos share many of the same qualities (they are both strong, independent, ruthless, and womanizing warriors), it is understandable why the developers would choose to copy the gameplay of God of War, but how well did they replicate this highly regarded game?

Well, They replicated it well. However, there are enough flaws to prevent this game from reaching the level of God of War.

The most apparent weakness in this game is its graphics. The God of War games showed us what the PS2 was capable of doing graphically, but Conan seems to tap very little of the Xbox 360’s potential. This game would have been more acceptable as an early Xbox 360 title, but it was released in 2007 after games like Gears of War, which treated us with some amazing visuals. Frankly, if you compare the graphics in Conan to those in even the first God of War game, God of War comes out on top. This is most noticeable in the cut scenes, which look like they came straight out of a last-generation game. In fact, the weakness of the cut scene graphics almost prevented me from picking up this game, as I thought it would be representative of the game’s polish as a whole. However, the in-game graphics are much better and or only noticeably subpar when viewed closely (for example, when zooming in on the many topless women Conan rescues throughout the game).

The controls in Conan are good, for the most part. New combos and special attacks are unlocked by spending red runes you collect during the game, and these are generally easy to pull off. Each time you use a combo or special attack, you work toward mastering it. Mastering all the attacks for a weapon type (single weapon, two weapon, and two-handed weapon) opens up achievements. The manual states that two-weapon attacks are weaker and are more useful for normal enemies, but I ended up using two-weapon attacks for the majority of the game. First, it’s just fun to see Conan slice and dice his enemies, a sword in one hand and an axe in the other. Second, I found the two-handed weapon attacks too slow, leaving me open for attack. In fact, there are some enemies I just could not hit with a two-handed weapon. Overall, the fighting in this game is very satisfactory; however, the platforming is a different matter. Conan’s jump is not as responsive as it could be, and a lot of times, you will miss a jump or not grab onto a ledge even though it appears onscreen that you should have. It seems appropriate that my last review was for Astyanax for the NES, since it was another hack-and-slash game brought down by cheap pit deaths. Seems like some pesky traits of the genre persist, even after fifteen years.

Though I haven’t read any Conan for a while, from what I remember, this game has done well in capturing the theme of Robert E. Howard’s books. Conan’s attitude seem like it may be toned down a little, but the way in which he dismembers his enemies, sending them to the ground with streams of blood, is appropriate for his character. Add to this the aforementioned topless maidens in distress, and we have a very barbaric, very male-centric atmosphere that we would expect from a Conan game.

It may not be as technically refined as God of War, but Conan for the Xbox 360 is a faithful and fun translation of character from page to game. You can now find this game for $10 or under (mine was slightly under $10 from GoGamer, including shipping), which makes this a definite buy for hack-and-slash fans or fans of the Conan books, movies, or comics.

Recommended (highly recommended for Conan and hack-and-slash fans)