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Press Start: January 2007 Game Reviews

For the first installment of AWN's new gaming review series, "Press Start," Peter "The Rizk" Rizkalla takes a look at Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin, Mortal Kombat: Armageddon, Mario Hoops 3-on-3, Red Steel and Disney's American Dragon: Jake Long -- Rise of the Huntsclan.

I always say when someone shows hard work and passion for their craft, that very same hard work and passion deserves to be noticed. In this month's column of Press Start I will be going over a few games that I feel deserve some serious acclamation for just the raw passion that the developers have placed in these games.

Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin for Nintendo DS. Publisher and developer: Konami; Release Date: Dec. 5, 2006; ESRB Rating: T for teen; Genre: Action, Adventure; Players: 1-2; Support: N/A; Online: online co-op multiplayer

Vampires... I Hate These Guys

Anyone in the game industry or anyone who has even played videogames in the past 20 years knows exactly what to expect when they hear the word Castlevania. Some of us still remember the level-by-level gameplay and pixelated graphics of the first ever Castlevania on the NES but most of us relate the Castlevania franchise to its current flow of games that consist of a variety of weapons, "oodles" of magic and nonlinear gameplay. That's exactly what Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin for the Nintendo DS offers and more!

As with the other Castlevania titles, Portrait of Ruin offers some beautiful 2D graphics and animation. All Castlvania: Portrait of Ruin images © Konami Digital Ent. GmbH.

The basic premise is this; whenever the world is on the brink of falling into absolute darkness, Dracula's castle appears out of thin air to put the final nail in the world's coffin. It's 1944, right at the most critical moment of World War II and, sure enough, there's Dracula's castle. The only problem is that someone already killed Dracula years ago so you think, "What the hell's going on?" Well folks, the castle is under new management by a vampire named Brauner. Apparently Brauner and his two vampire daughters, Stella and Loretta, are trying to resurrect Dracula in hopes of wreaking just a little bit more havoc on the world.

Now on to the good guys. First is Jonathan Morris, a hunter wielding the legendary "Vampire Killer" whip (the very same whip that first destroyed Dracula) and then Charlotte Aulin (a student of magic). They intend to stop whatever evil is in that castle before it gets out.

Whip It

Portrait of Ruin has some beautiful 2D graphics and animation. That of course is commonplace in almost any Castlevania title. If you have played the previous Castlevania title on the Nintendo DS (Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow) you will recognize the similar anime-esque opening movie, which, by the way, is just an outstanding sight to see on the DS. Throughout the game you will come across other characters in the story, the game will show a still image of the character that is talking accompanied by a textbox displaying what the character is saying. The still images also retain that anime style.

Two things differentiate Portrait of Ruin from other Castlevania titles: players can switch between characters any time and there is the ability to play online.

As you explore through the castle, your map will expand and record each area you have visited. When you play through this game you will notice that the castle is enormous, but the game's size does not just end in the castle. Players will find the source of the castle's power emanates from a collection of magic portraits that hang throughout its many rooms. When you find these portraits, they open up a whole new level within the painting itself, containing a whole new set of monsters and environments based on the outside appearance of the portrait. At the end of each portrait level is a boss who you must destroy in order to drain the magic from the portrait.

Fighting off bad guys is really fun and it seems as though the developers have chosen to use the same game engine used in previous Castlevania titles, such as Circle of the Moon and Aria of Sorrow. The main form of offense is your primary weapon. New and more powerful weapons can be either found or bought through the game. There is also a secondary weapon that is often times more powerful then the primary weapon, but depletes magic power when used.

There are two things about Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin that make it different from any other Castlevania. The first is that the player has the option to switch between Jonathan and Charlotte at any time during the game. The developers pulled this off very nicely. Switching between the characters is not only easy, but intuitive. Both characters can be onscreen at once and it's not confusing at all. In an added extra both characters can perform a team up super move that not only devastates any and all characters on the screen, they look amazing as well.

The second unique aspect of Portrait of Ruin is the ability to play online for the first time ever in any Castlevania game. Players can connect with other players online to play cooperatively through a "rush" mode that pits you up against various bosses.

The levels are beautifully designed in Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin with amazing background and foreground elements. Additionally, the music is excellent and worth listening to by itself.

The levels are beautifully designed with some amazing looking background and foreground elements. You'll come across some clever looking levels, such as deserts, a collapsed tower and a plain looking city street with some not so plain enemies. Castlevania has always had some amazing looking enemies; in Portrait of Ruin you'll fight through an army of bad guys (some really interesting ones at that). It must take hours upon hours of time to design, animate and program as many enemies as you will find in this game.

If you catch yourself humming or whistling a tune from a videogame you have just recently played, then either the music is really annoying or really good. In this case the music is excellent, so excellent that Konami presented a special offer to those who reserved a copy of Portrait of Ruin with a cash deposit. Gamers who paid for the reserve were rewarded with a gift box containing various goodies including a music soundtrack CD containing music from every Castlevania title ever made. (I got mine, that's for sure!)

Things that Go Bump on Your Face

All around, Portrait of Ruin is an exciting title. I love the introduction of using two characters simultaneously. You just never get tired of double-teaming an enemy until they are completely obliterated. Going online is actually very exciting. First of all, it's Castlevania. Second of all, it's cooperative. I mean it's only a boss rush mode and it's not that long, but it's still fun. Same old Castlevania adventure with tons of action and a good amount of brain twisting puzzles. The only thing I don't like (and I didn't like this in Dawn of Sorrow) is that the cinematics and still images are drawn in an anime style while the in-game sprites are drawn in a different, more dramatic style. Now I don't have anything against the game being either style, but it just seems like the game is sometimes not on model. Aside from that, we have ourselves a Castlevania game that, due to its current franchise popularity, didn't need to surprise us, but did anyways. I like that.

Mortal Kombat: Armageddon crams more entertainment features into one package than beers in a cooler on Super Bowl Sunday. All Mortal Kombat images © 2006 Midway Home Ent. Inc. All rights reserved.

Mortal Kombat: Armageddon for Sony PlayStation 2; Publisher and developer: Midway; Release Date: Oct. 9, 2006; ESRB Rating: M for mature; Genre: fighting; Players: 1-2; Support: N/A; Online: 1 on 1 matches; Motor Kombat races.

Mortal Kombaaaaaaaaaaaaat!!!!!!

Our favorite heart snatching, head crushing, bone breaking, blood gushing franchise is back for one more run! Mortal Kombat: Armageddon crams more entertainment features into one package than beers in a cooler on Super Bowl Sunday. What's going on in the story is this... the world of Mortal Kombat has grown too chaotic. The armies of good and evil have grown so numerous that an unearthly war has finally come to fruition. Midway has brought back every single MK character from all of the previous MK titles into one enormous fighting game, boasting a selectable roster of 62 different characters.

Aside from the main fighter mode, Armageddon also contains bonus features, such as a racing game called Motor Kombat, an action/adventure mode called Konquest where you take control of a new MK character and venture through temples and mountains fighting off bad guys, a create-a-character mode that allows you to create a custom made MK fighter of your own design and much more.

Test Your Might

Armageddon uses the same 3D graphics and fighting engine like the two previous Mortal Kombat titles, Deadly Alliance and Deception. The characters and environments are beautifully rendered, smoke and fire effects are very well done and the animations are fast and smooth without chopping the frame-rate. Midway has really put some talent into the offensive and defensive fighting system in this MK title. Like before, players can string together punches and kicks to create combos that deal out tremendous damage. Only this time players can execute "air combos" where the player launches an opponent into the air and follows them up there to continue stringing together punches and kicks.

Each character in the MK lineup has two fighting styles that the player can switch between in the middle of combat -- a barehanded fighting style and a weapons fighting style. Of course, the weapons style deals more damage, but it also means the player can receive greater damage when wielding his or her weapons. Also, like in Deadly Alliance and Deception, a player can link the punches and kicks from one fighting style with slashes and stabs of the other fighting style to create a seriously dangerous combination attack.

Defensively a player could always sidestep an attack and, since Deception, a player could break his opponents before it deals too much damage. Like in Deception, combos can only be broken three times per match. A very clever new feature in Armageddon is the ability to parry. When an opponent is on the attack the player has the ability to perform a parry a split second before the punch or kick connects. This will swat away the attack, leaving your opponent stunned and completely vulnerable to any attack. Players really need to be careful with this one though, because an unsuccessful parry will leave the player open to an attack as well.

Midway has really put some talent into the offensive and defensive fighting system in this MK title. All 62 characters have two fighting styles that the player can switch between during combat.

You need to be concerned with environment as well in Armageddon. Players are able to knock their opponents into pits of lava or giant rock crushers that instantly win the round for the player who did the killing. What's hilarious is that in the next round, the player that just suffered a horrible death from an environment in the previous round is alive and ready to continue the match!

In the Motor Kombat mode players can select from 10 different goony-looking versions of Mortal Kombat characters riding even goonier-looking cars. The tracks that you can select are as creative and dangerous as the arenas in the fighting mode. There are power-ups all along the tracks for racers to collect, each with certain abilities like boost or weapons.

The fighting and racing modes can both be played online against other opponents. There is some stiff, stiff competition for the fighting and racing modes online, so the replay value of this game is just immeasurable.

The Konquest mode in Armageddon really surprises me. In MK: Deadly Alliance the Konquest mode was just match after match of fights. In Deception, Konquest mode was a little more fleshed out with a main character and a full on full-roaming world. Now Midway has taken it one step further by creating a fast-paced fighting system within Konquest mode that makes this mode so polished and given more substance that it could very well be released as a stand-alone game.

Because of the huge amount of characters in MK:A, cool-looking endings are no longer there. Instead characters perform an animated Kata while a narrator explains what happens in the storyline.

Using the create-a-fighter option is deep and complex without being intimidating and hard to use. Compared to other create-a-character options in other games, such as No Mercy for the N64 and Soul Calibur III for the PS2, Armageddon does an amazing job of allowing the player to be very creative. Players can create either a male or female character and can edit everything from skin, height, size, facial features and accessories, right down to the color of the characters' socks. Seriously, I have seen guys create Ninja Turtles in this game!

As you play through the fighting mode, racing mode and Konquest mode, you will receive coins that you will be able to redeem in The Krypt. The Krypt is a part of the game where players can buy all the little treasures that the developers decided to place in the game, such as music, concept art, videos, photos of the developers, fan art and even alternate costumes that players can have characters wear during matches.

Choose Your Destiny

I have to hand it to Midway; the company has some very talented people. Just going through The Krypt and seeing all the little ideas that "could have been but never were" shows that these people have an immense capacity of vision. The fighting system has never been better and the character lineup is unbelievable. Motor Kombat is actually a surprising racer when compared to other cart racing games out there and you'll find it very hard to stop playing Konquest mode. I feel that Armageddon has a better create-a-character option than any other game out there rivaling the create-a-character option in Soul Calibur III (which by the way is an outstanding example).

Having 62 characters in a game is fantastic but it also comes with a price. Because of the large amount of characters each character now only has two fighting styles rather than the three styles we saw in Deadly Alliance and Deception (one weapon style and two bare-handed styles). That is actually a good and bad thing. Good, because before it could get confusing during the heat of battle to know which style you were in, now it's just one or the other thing. You either have weapons in your hand or you don't -- bad, because now you cannot perform huge combos that link from one style to the next, to the next.

Also, because of the huge amount of characters, cool-looking endings with either awesome cinematics or gorgeous still images are no longer there. Instead, you see the character you just beat the game with performing an animated Kata while a narrator explains what happens to your character in the storyline.

Either way, Mortal Kombat: Armageddon is a valiant and successful effort. Midway recently announced it had shipped more than one million copies of Armageddon. I would highly suggest getting the Premium Edition to get all the little goodies that come with it.

Mario Hoops 3-on-3 eschews the conventional point scoring system and instead players must play strategically and collect as many coins as possible before going for a shot. All Mario Hoops 3-on-3 images © Nintendo.

Mario Hoops 3-on-3 for Nintendo DS; Publisher: Nintendo; Developer: Square Enix; Release Date: Sept. 11, 2006; ESRB Rating: E for everyone; Genre: sports; Players: 1-4; Support: Wireless Multi-card; Multiplayer; Online: N/A.

Who's Got Next?

I absolutely love a good sports game with a zany twist and, sure enough, there have been many that have followed that same vein as time has gone by. Outrageously unrealistic sports games have always been around but never really picked up steam until the birth of the arcade phenom NBA Jam, in 1993, where players could take control of basketball stars and perform wild dunks with flaming basketballs from across the entire court completely destroying the backboard. Other games soon followed: NBA Street, NFL Street, Mario Strikers and now Mario Hoops 3-on-3, a very creative basketball game for the Nintendo DS.

Not in My House!

What is really very creative about Mario Hoops is that the game does not use a conventional point system like any other basketball game (where every shot is two points and three points if outside the three point line). Instead, the player must strategically dribble, pass, block, "fast break" and steal in an attempt to collect as many coins as possible before going for a shot.

Coins can be collected many different ways, such as from question blocks randomly found on the court, knocking the ball out of an opponent's hands or performing a gravity defying hovering slam dunk. Depending on how many coins a player has collected, a successful basket can range from 20 points to 140 points, allowing a game to end with impossibly high scores.

Adding to the fun are some ridiculous and often really fun to watch "special shots" (or "special slam dunks"). The player can tap the touch screen in a certain succession (depending on the character he/she is controlling) and pull off some incredibly dominant and often hilarious basket attempts that are almost completely indomitable.

The multiplayer feature in Mario Hoops is fun and very competitive but multiplayer does not support DS download play, which means that both players each need a copy of the game to play together.

Multiplayer is fun and can become very competitive, but multiplayer does not support DS download play, which means that both players each need a copy of the game to play together. The levels are very creative with some interesting circumstances, such as a giant Piranha plant as a basketball hoop that will knock you out of the sky if you try a slamdunk or a basketball court in Bowser's castle that spews lava from random parts of the floor.

There are a handful of gameplay modes to choose from including tournament mode, exhibition and a mini-game mode that challenges the player to dribble through an obstacle course while collecting as many coins as possible in a short amount of time. A training mode is included to let the player freely practice the various moves in Mario Hoops.

Take It to the Hole!

Mario Hoops is a successful attempt for Nintendo at creating a new kind of basketball game. What bugs me is that although this game is greatly entertaining, there is no option to go online and play with other great Mario Hoops players. The wide selection of characters will keep the player coming back to the game to try and pull off every character's "special shots."

The use of the stylus instead of the face buttons for all actions such as shooting, passing, steeling, etc., is comfortable, responsive and intuitive, but there really should be the option to use the face buttons if the player chooses.

All in all, Mario Hoops is fun to play and even more fun to play with a friend. Enjoyable and challenging gameplay, smooth animations and great looking 3D graphics make Mario Hoops a welcome addition to the Nintendo DS library.

Red Steel is the first ever first-person shooter game for the Wii and the developers took advantage of the motion sensitive Wii-mote controller right off the bat. All Red Steel images © Ubisoft.

Red Steel for Nintendo Wii; Publisher: Ubisoft; Developer: Ubisoft Paris; Release Date: Nov. 19, 2006; ESRB Rating: T for teen; Genre: action / first person shooter; Players: 1-2; Support: Wii-mote + Nunchuck; Online: N/A.

Prepare Yourself Gaijin

The videogame world has been suffering a lack of originality; that is until the debut of the Nintendo Wii. Many gamers were asking the same question, "How are first person shooters gonna play on it?" Out comes Red Steel equipped with the same technology that makes Unreal Tournament a great FPS to try to answer those questions. Red Steel is the first ever first person shooter for the Wii and it will definitely not be the last.

Do You Know My Style?

As you start playing Red Steel you will notice that the developers took advantage of the motion sensitive Wii-mote controller right off the bat. You have to grab icons and drag them to a panel in order to start a new game, load an existing game or go to the options menu.

The game will calibrate your Wii-mote for you by asking you to look at certain fish in a fish tank as soon as you start a game. Soon your character is hurled into a world of murderous Japanese gangs and your only incentive to fight through them is to save your girl (you were expecting something else?) Shooting and aiming are actually very responsive using the motion sensitive controller and walking is as easy as using the analog stick on the nunchuck attachment.

The lock feature helps when you are trying to get a bead on your enemies. Moving the Wii-mote forward while locking allows you to zoom in on your enemies to get a better shot. Like in any FPS, you can duck and jump to help you get through the game. If you are near a table your character can knock the table over to take cover from enemy fire.

Swordplay is also a matter of swinging the controllers, but is not as responsive as the shooting aspect of the game. You might often find yourself performing the same movement that the tutorial instructs you to perform without the character actually reacting. With swordplay comes a lot of parrying, slashing and, if you're good, some slashing combinations.

Red Steel delivers on a lot of different aspects but the game is buggy. During gameplay the onscreen cursor will just start to bug out and aim in random areas. Hopefully a Red Steel 2 will be bug-free.

As for the graphics, the 3D gameplay graphics look beautiful even for a launch title. The cinematics that are shown in between levels to explain the story are actually 2D still images accompanied by voice acting. When you bring out a sword one of the first things you'll probably say is, "ooooo, shiny!"

The environments are also beautiful with some really interactive elements, such as propane tanks that explode and glass windows that shatter when shot. The particle effects in the game are very well done and it's just all around fun shooting things that explode (especially when there is an enemy near the explosion!)

Hara-Kiri

Red Steel delivers on a lot of different aspects, but the fact that the game is buggy cannot be ignored. During gameplay it might come as a surprise that while trying to take aim or face a certain direction the onscreen cursor will just start to bug out and aim in random areas.

Don't get me wrong, the game looks great and is a lot of fun when it works. It's just frustrating to have the motion sensitivity bounce around when you are trying to blast an enemy that is shooting at you. Understandably, this is a launch title for the Wii and launch titles normally lack some polish due, since they are rushed out to stores in time for the system launch. I would love to see a Red Steel 2 with all the bugs worked out and where the developers really have some time to show off what they can do in a first person shooter.

Disney's American Dragon: Jake Long -- Rise of the Huntsclan for Gameboy Advance; Publisher: Buena Vista Games; Developer: Wayforward Technologies; Release Date: Oct. 12, 2006; ESRB Rating: E (everyone); Cartoon Violence; Genre: Action, Adventure; Players: 1; Support: N/A; Online: N/A.

Dragon Up!!!

You would think that a game based on a Saturday-morning cartoon that is specifically designed for young kids would feel rushed and unpolished. You would think that a game studio would concentrate their efforts on a project that would produce a much greater return. But the guys at Wayforward surprise me yet again. Disney's American Dragon: Jake Long -- Rise of the Huntsclan for the Gameboy Advance (aside from having a very long-winded title) feels more like the final result of a project that involved plenty of time, effort and talent (not to mention money).

Based on the animated TV show, Disney's American Dragon: Jake Long -- Rise of the Huntsclan offers solid gameplay, attractive animation and progressive difficulty.

Rise of the Huntsclan is (in a nutshell) a 2D single player platforming beat-'em-up. The premise is that you are Jake Long, a young boy who skateboards and kung fu fights his way through ninjas, trolls and other weird things that are all out to kick your butt. The really cool thing about Jake Long is that he is able to transform into a big red dragon and give the bad guys an even more ridiculous beating.

The story goes that the Huntsclan Ninjas are up to something. They have been making random appearances all over the place and it looks like they are collecting certain ingredients for a magic spell; what kind of spell it is and for what purpose is exactly what Jake Long intends to find out. Of course, no true hero is a hero alone; so with the help of his friends Trixie and Spud, his Grandpa and his dog named "Fu Dog," Jake is off to kick some Huntsclan butt.

It's Raining Cheeseburgers!

The first thing you will notice about this game is that it introduces each level with still frame images of the characters and enemies talking about what's going on via a textbox on the bottom of the screen; which, by the way, is reminiscent of almost every old school videogame. The controls are very simple. There is only one attack button but the player can attack with different maneuvers depending on if the character is standing, crouching, on a skateboard or in dragon form. As you progress through the levels there will be many different items that the player can collect, such as cheeseburgers for health and little shiny blue stars which are known as Focus Points. Collect enough of these to be able to transform into the big red dragon. There are also little icons that allow you to call on Jake's friends and family for help.

The small 2D graphics are very impressive. Both the characters and the enemies show a lot of different emotions throughout the game. Using Jake feels very solid as the player can kick, punch, jump and sweep while Jake is on foot. When Jake pulls out the skateboard he can dish out some serious hurt; attacking while on the skateboard while in the air will cause Jake to spin his skateboard like a propeller and strike his foes multiple times. The use of follow-through, anticipation and secondary action is definitely not absent. Whenever the player lands a combo on a troll or ninja, he will send the enemy hurling off the side of the screen, spinning wildly, knocking out any other enemies in their path and leaving a trail of fiery sparks as they fly through the air.

The animation is equally as attractive while Jake is in dragon form. In dragon form Jake is always in flight while clawing, tail whipping and, of course, breathing fire. It's kind of a one-sided battle while Jake is in dragon form as the enemies cannot cause you any damage and every strike you land on an enemy knocks them helplessly around the screen. However, Jake can only remain in dragon form for a short amount of time.

Once in a while the player will collect a Jump In icon. On the icon is a picture of the character you can call on to help you out. Calling out Fu Dog (I just can't get over that... Fu Dog) will make him drop Focus Points all over the screen, ensuring a full dragon meter for Jake. Calling out Grandpa is a treat, because Grandpa can also transform into a dragon; using his icon will make him turn into a big blue dragon and create fireballs that rain down from the sky causing damage to all enemies on the screen. But my absolute favorite is when you call on the help of Trixie and Spud; using their icon has them jump out on screen and throw a plethora of cheeseburgers into the air, causing cheeseburgers to rain down on Jake refilling his health bar.

At the end of each level a "level up" screen will appear, allowing the player to enhance one of his attributes, such as attack power, defensive strength, walking speed, length of time in dragon form, etc. Believe me, you're gonna need all that extra "level up" strength, because this game gets very difficult as the game progresses.

I'm Gonna Name My Dog "Fu-Dog"

Now I've played through a few games that felt like they were just slapped together in a rush and sped off to store shelves. American Dragon does differentiate itself from those other games with solid gameplay, attractive animation and progressive difficulty, not to mention boss battles that range from giant spiders to giant Cyclops to giant medusas to... giant whatever.

It would have been nice to see a multiplayer function where players could battle each other using different characters from the game. Also, I think a big let-me-down is the fact that you cannot fight the final boss unless all of your "level up" stats are maxed out, which means that the player has to play through the game multiple times in order to face the final boss. A better approach to this would have been to create mini-games that reward the player with "level up" points. I personally don't enjoy turning on a movie, watching it until almost the ending, stopping the movie and then watching it from the beginning again before actually seeing the ending. Aside from those flaws, American Dragon for the GBA turns out to be one of the better cartoon franchise videogames out there.

Peter Rizkalla is a lifelong fan of videogames and the videogame industry. He has worked in videogame companies, such as THQ and Namco and has won several awards for his animated short films, such as his videogame themed Flash film, Toadstool Funk.

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