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Press Start: July 2007 -- Games from the Underground

For July's "Press Start," Peter "The Rizk" Rizkalla checks out Shadowrun, Crush, Odin Sphere, Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm and Diner Dash: Sizzle and Serve.

"Hey."

"Hi, did you find everything ok?"

"Yeah, I'd like to buy this game."

"Sure, I can ring you up right here"

"Thanks."

"Oh... wow..."

"What? Is something wrong?

"No it's just I can't believe someone is actually buying this game."

"Why do you say that?"

"Well, the game sucks. I mean just look at how cheap the cover art looks. Also it released at such a low price so you know it's going to suck."

"Have you played it?"

"No, I never play bargain bin games."

"Well then how do you know it sucks if you never played it?"

This is an actual conversation that I had with a local videogame store clerk. I thought to myself, "You got to be kidding me. Why do guys act like they know how good a game is when they've never played it? Seriously... why?" I'm thinking it could be a bunch of different things. Maybe it makes people feel secure to show off that they're knowledgeable about stuff even though they're not. But hey, I'm no philosopher.

Actuality I think it's this -- gamers like to stick to games that they know. I mean hey, you can pretty much bank on truckloads of gamers picking up Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Resident Evil 5 the day they are released right? Why is that? Because all the other Smash Bros. titles and Resident Evil titles in the past were great games so it only makes sense that the new titles would be great games also and most of the time that's very true.

But what about the kind of games with names that you've never heard of? What about underground titles like Urban Reign and Metal Arms: Glitch in the System? These were good games that didn't sell as well as they should have, and why not? Because no one has ever heard of these titles before so there really is no guarantee that the game will be good.

Luckily for the brave at heart gamer who dares to test the waters of underground games, a plethora (that's right, I said plethora) of underground titles have been recently released, and we're going to take a good look at a few of them in this month's Press Start.

Shadowrun may sound familiar because it originally started as a Dungeons & Dragons style board game until it was made into a pretty fun role-playing game on the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis.

Shadowrun for the Xbox 360; Publisher: Microsoft Games; Developer: FASA Studio; Release Date: May 29, 2007; ESRB Rating: M for Mature; Genre: first person shooter; Players: 2-16 (system link); Support: cross platform multiplayer between Xbox 360 and Windows Vista; Online: 2-16 player matches

This Name Sounds Kinda Familiar

If the name Shadowrun sounds at all familiar, but you can't quite put your finger on it, let me give you a short history lesson. Shadowrun originally started as a Dungeons & Dragons style board game until it was made into a pretty fun role-playing game on the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis. Now, more than a decade later, we finally get a continuation of this almost forgotten game franchise.

Shadowrun for the Xbox 360 is not an RPG like its SNES and Genesis predecessor. It's actually a revolutionary first person shooter. What makes this game so revolutionary is the fact that it is the first ever game in videogame history that let players play against each other across different platforms. Gamers who own the Xbox 360 version could play with and against players who own the Windows Vista PC version.

Simplicity and Complexity

Shadowrun is a lot like Counter-Strike for the PC. Shadowrun allows gamers to go online and have either deathmatch or capture-the-flag matches. At the beginning of each match players are required to buy their weapons with in-game money from a weapons menu. Killing as many opponents as possible and helping your team in any other way earns you more money, which allows you to buy bigger guns! Pretty basic.

What makes Shadowrun not so basic is that first, players must choose which side to fight for. The military corporation RNA or the strong willed renegades the Lineage. Then players must choose a race. Shadowrun allows players to choose between four different races all with different abilities and characteristics. You got the all around versatile humans, the fast and agile elves, the magically adept dwarves and (my favorite) the big honkin' tough guys the trolls.

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Shadowrun players have the ability to buy magic powers like teleport and resurrection and to purchase tech enhancements, such as Smartlink and Enhances Reflexes. © Microsoft Game Studios and FASA Studio.

Here's where it gets really fun. Players also have the ability to buy magic powers like teleport and resurrection. This allows players to teleport right through a wall to escape enemy fire or to resurrect a fallen ally. Shadowrun also allows players to purchase tech enhancements, such as Smartlink, which improves your character's aim and Enhances Reflexes, which allows your character to run faster, jump higher and reload their gun faster. (Sounds like Lee Majors doesn't it?)

In addition to buying guns players also have the ability to buy a katana sword. When players equip the katana sword the whole view of the game changes from first person to third person, this gives the sword wielder a much better view of their surroundings. Now you're probably thinking "What moron brings a sword to a gun fight?" Well when players equip the katana while using Enhanced Reflexes they can actually swat away oncoming bullets.

Winning matches requires players to either eliminate the entire opposing team or score by taking an artifact from its origin to a waypoint. The team that wins six rounds wins the match.

Not the Only Game That's Been Under-Rated

The only problems with Shadowrun are that there is a limited amount of content. The gameplay is great with a wide variety of weapons, magic powers and tech abilities but there is no single-player player campaign other than the ability to play in matches against computer controlled bots. Also the game isn't too big on story. But wait, Counter-Strike has those same characteristics (excluding the magic and tech abilities) and is the most widely played first person shooter in the country! This is why I feel that this game gets a bad rap. I really would have liked to see some more weapons other than just a katana sword. How about a club or a spear or something?

Sometimes Microsoft has a way of shooting itself in the foot. When Microsoft released Crackdown it was overshadowed by the invitation to play a demo of the upcoming Halo 3 first person shooter. Shadowrun, which is another Microsoft title, was released right when the Halo 3 invitation went live and media outlets everywhere sang the glories of the Halo 3 beta demo.

However, when I got the opportunity to speak with gamers online on what they think of Shadowrun compared to the Halo demo, I found out that most gamers were disappointed that Microsoft hadn't added anything new to Halo and were more pleased with Shadowrun! Of course, the Halo 3 demo was just that, only a demo so we'll have to see what happens when the full game is released. Let's just hope that Microsoft doesn't forget about our dear old Shadowrun and maybe... just maybe... consider releasing a Shadowrun 2?

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Maxwell's Aterier Iris 3 is a traditional RPG with turned based combat, item usage, constant level increases and lots of walking and talking. All AI3 © 2007 Gust Co. Ltd. & © 2007 NIS America, Inc. 

Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm for the PlayStation 2; Publisher: NIS; Developer: Gust; Release Date: May 29, 2007; ESRB Rating: T for Teen; Genre: role-playing; Players: 1; Support: N/A; Online: N/A

Swords and Magic and Cards... Oh My!

Ahh, role-playing games, It's the only kind of game where you can play it in the morning, leave it on without pausing the game, go to work, come back and you can pick up right where you left off. Atelier Iris 3 is a nice little RPG from a nice little game publisher named Nippon Ichi Software.

Players take control of two, young adventurers who join a guild of other adventurers called Raiders. The first Raider is Edge Vanhite, a sword wielding fire specialist. Along with Edge is Iris Fortner, the often forgetful sorceress. Another Raider named Nell Ellis joins the group later on in the game; this one is only in it for the money. They live in a world where their oldest legend is about to be rediscovered; a book that can grant any wish imaginable.

Barrel!

AI 3 is a traditional RPG with turned based combat, item usage, constant level increases and lots of walking and talking. AI 3 actually has its own unique intricacies that set it aside from most other RPGs. For instance, instead of just buying new weapons or finding them while traveling through the worlds, players can purchase instructions from shops on how to build their own custom weapon. The view is a three-quarter top down view, which is just like Diablo II or Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. The 2D characters and backgrounds have a very vibrant feel to them with rich colors throughout the game. There is a huge amount of text to read but in crucial moments of the game there is spoken dialog.

The gameplay in AI 3 is actually one of the least frustrating in an RPG. Players can see enemies on the screen and can choose to fight them or avoid them. The characters walk fast which is always a plus; and right from the beginning of the game little characters in the game called Fairies offer to taxi your character across large distances in their boats instead of walking the whole way. This is good considering in most RPGs you either have to walk or wait halfway through the game until you find something that can move you a lot faster.

In battle mode, the attacks are very good-looking and well animated, especially the magical skills. Also another impressive feature is the ability to see exactly whose turn it is to attack when in battle mode. There is a gauge during battle that shows whose turn it will be by representing your characters and the enemies in a deck of cards. Your characters gain experience by completing quests that you must accept and as a result your characters become stronger and learn new attacks. Also completing quests rewards you with items and money.

Boy I Could Really Go for a Belgrade Potato Right Now

The voice acting in Atelier Iris 3 is actually pretty decent especially considering that players can switch between English and Japanese at anytime. It's also refreshing to know that the characters walk really fast throughout the game. It's frustrating as hell when a character walks like he's got rocks in his boots.

What bugs me is that before battle every enemy is symbolized by what looks like a ghost made out of jelly. It's not until you run into or slash one of these jelly ghosts that you realize it's actually a group of enemies that all look different so you really don't know what you're going to fight until you run into one of these things. Heck, sometimes you'll run into a big red ghost and find out it's a big brown bear. It's weird. But hey, if you can get past that then have yourself an awesome time with Atelier Iris 3!

Crush is a much-needed original title for the PSP.

Crush for the Sony PSP; Publisher: SEGA; Developer: Zoe Mode; Release Date: May 29, 2007; ESRB Rating: E for Everyone; Genre: puzzle; Players: 1; Support: N/A; Online: N/A

Kinda Like the Orange Soda... Not Really

All the way from a little studio in the U.K. comes yet another much needed original title for the PSP. In this unique puzzler players take control of Danny and try to work their way through some very interesting puzzles.

Our main character, Danny, is living the sweet life as a chef in high society. The only problem is that he's also an insomniac. He can't figure out why he is unable to sleep so he seeks that aide of an unconventional psychologist named Dr. Reubens who, like any true Freudian psychologist, speaks with a heavy eastern European accent. Dr. Reubens straps Danny to his greatest invention, a mind-probing helmet that he has named C.R.U.S.H. This helmet allows Danny to travel through the recesses of his mind in the form of a digital environment in hopes of conquering Danny's sleep problem.

It's What You Do to Cockroaches

Crush contains a variety of puzzles in a variety of different environments. In each puzzle Danny has (at the risk of using a tired cliché) lost his marbles and he must collect them in order to reach the end of the level. Players navigate Danny through a 3D world and can "crush" the level at anytime turning into a 2D world. Sounds a lot like Super Paper Mario doesn't it?

Being able to crush levels in this game is actually quite ingenious. For example, if there is a platform that looks way too high to jump to players can turn the camera to view the level from above and then crush. This smooshes the world into a 2D world and now the platform is at a reachable distance.

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There are about 40 puzzles total in Crush and each puzzle has a 3D world and about five to eight 2D environments. Considering all the different views players can crush, that's around 300 2D environments. Courtesy of Sega America. 

In every level there are bonus items that players can go for which unlock extra modes and hidden art in the game. Speaking of the art, the game's design does have a unique style to it. After every few levels the game will cut to a short cinematic that shows Danny and Dr. Reubens as they analyze Danny's dilemma. The voice acting is pretty entertaining and can actually be real funny at times. It's refreshing to find a game that makes you genuinely laugh, especially at humor that western society can relate to. A lot of times, eastern humor in anime or videogames just feels out of place here.

We All Live in a Big Yellow Ball...

Think about this, there are about 40 puzzles total in Crush. Each puzzle has a 3D world and about five to eight 2D environments. Considering all the different views players can crush, that's around 300 2D environments that must be designed, programmed and made to match exactly to the 3D worlds. No matter how you slice it, that spells "money"! Don't forget to include all the beta testing that's involved; and in a game this complex, heavy bugs can occur.

Big respect should go to Zoe Mode for producing one of the most unique puzzle games ever made on any platform. Also, big respect should go to SEGA for taking a risk to invest in such a big project. If you have a PSP, you have got to experience Crush for yourself.

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Diner Dash is actually an underground PC game that is working its way up to mainstream status on portable platforms. All Dinner Dash images courtesy of Eidos Interactive. 

Diner Dash for the Nintendo DS; Publisher: Eidos; Developer: PlayFirst; Release Date: May 22, 2007; ESRB Rating: E for Everyone; Genre: strategy; Players: 1-2; Support: wireless multi-card play; Online: N/A

It's My Summer Job All Over Again

Diner Dash is actually an underground PC game that is working its way up to mainstream status on portable platforms. You control Flo, a young entrepreneur who has decided to open up her own restaurant and serve patrons with all different kinds of personalities.

Diner Dash for the DS actually has more content than any other Diner Dash before it, and with the addition of touch screen controls Diner Dash finds its true home on the Nintendo DS.

She Works Hard for the Money

Diner Dash is actually a really simple game and has an interesting feel to it. Players must seat guests when they arrive, take their orders, run the orders to the chef, deliver the food to the customer and then clean up after the customer and sometimes serve the customer dessert. The faster you go, the better tips you get from the customers. Keeping customers waiting is a no-no and results in a smaller tip. Also seating customers next to a family with a crying baby upsets them and also results in a smaller tip so you gotta use your head.

The good thing is that you can add power-ups to your game every once in a while like buying a faster cooking stove or buying Flo energy bars so that she moves faster. In every level Flo has a goal to reach with her tips; if you meet that goal then you can open up new restaurants like the Mexican restaurant or the seafood restaurant. Also, as you complete certain shifts the game will allow you to customize how your restaurant will look and give you the option to dress Flo in different uniforms.

Is Flo the Only Waitress in the Whole Restaurant?

The reason why I think that Diner Dash is such a perfect fit for the Nintendo DS is because in the PC versions of Diner Dash players had to use the mouse to point where they wanted Flo to go which is fine. In the Sony PSP version of Diner Dash you still have the mouse arrow but players are required to move the mouse with the D-pad, which actually feels like a step back. In the DS version there is no mouse arrow, players just use the stylus to touch the spot where they want Flo to go. This is the most intuitive and ideal way to control a game like this.

Multiplayer is a new thing to Diner Dash but the fact that each player has to own a copy of the game to play multiplayer matches is a real let down. The game is light enough to be transferred to other DS owner for single-cart play and that's exactly what multiplayer should have been. Either way, Diner Dash is fun to play and does a great job as one of those pick-up-and-go games.

Funny story, there was a show back in the 80s called Alice which featured a quick-witted waitress by the name of Flo who worked at a restaurant called Mel's Diner. Go fig!

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Odin Sphere is not a traditional RPG, but feels more like an action/adventure game. It's set in a 2D side-scrolling environment with some of the best in-game 2D art anyone has seen in a long time. All Odin Sphere images courtesy of Atlus Co. 

Odin Sphere for the PlayStation 2; Publisher: Atlus; Developer: Vanillaware; Release Date: May 22, 2007; ESRB Rating: T for teen; Genre: action/RPG; Players: 1; Support: N/A; Online: N/A

Bring the Big Book

Odin Sphere is a very surprising RPG for the PlayStation 2. The game is centered around warring nations, evil sorcerers and witches trying to get their hands on an ancient magical weapon called the "Cauldron." Players control a variety of different characters, such as aValkyrie princess and a mystical black knight.

Odin Sphere is not a traditional RPG. In fact Odin Sphere feels more like an action/adventure game than an RPG. It's set in a 2D side-scrolling environment with some of the best in-game 2D art anyone has seen in a long time.

For Valentine!

As you start a new game in Odin Sphere you control a small girl in a library. Players will notice a cat walking around, a book lying on the floor and a very comfy looking chair. Players must pick up the book and sit in the chair to start reading; that's when the adventure begins. As you progress through the game more books will appear so you can pick them up and continue the story.

The first character you control is Princess Gwendolyn, a Valkyrie warrior who is also the daughter of the King of Valentine. Gwendolyn wields a scepter like weapon with a large crystal, instead of a blade, which can absorb the spirits of fallen enemies. All the main characters that you will control in this game have these special kinds of weapons. Now, the reason I say that Odin Sphere is more like an action/adventure title is because of the combat system. The fighting is realtime not turn based. As you enter a battlefield and enemies start to pour in you will find that your character can perform some impressive and devastating looking combos in addition to a whole roster of other moves, such as gliding through the air and performing dive attacks.

Let's talk about the art for just a little bit. Although the game is entirely 2D, all of the backgrounds, characters and props are fully rendered with some gorgeous color and effects. Also, the animation is very smooth with no skimping on the frame-rate and as any animator will tell you, it is really hard to animate something with so many frames and then color it as meticulously as this. As you use the characters in combat they will begin to learn special attacks. These attacks deal heavy damage and have favorable effects like pushing the enemy further back.

Most environments including battlefields are circular, meaning if you constantly travel to the left or right you will find yourself going in circles. Circular environments have outlets at certain points that lead to other circular environments. A handy in-game map helps you find your way around. What's really nice is that you don't have to stop playing to see the map, players can open the map and see their location change as they move from place to place. You have to admit, it really wouldn't be an RPG without a helpful variety of items like food for energy and herbs and potions to attack and defend. You know what's really awesome? The graphics in Odin Sphere are so well done that edible items in the game actually look appetizing!

Peanut Butter and Mulberry

Atlus is known for releasing some hardcore RPGs and Odin Sphere fits the bill pretty freakn' good. The graphics are gorgeous and the sound effects are deep and believable. The dialog can be pretty cheesy sometimes and although the gameplay is entertaining, the control can feel somewhat delayed.

The anime art style will keep anime fans pretty happy what with all the super huge characters and overly busty females. For the true anime fan, there is the option to switch the dialog from English to Japanese. The satisfying gameplay and outstanding art is really something to be admired and is no surprise coming from an RPG factory like Atlus.

Peter Rizkalla is a life long fan of videogames and the videogame industry. He has worked in videogame companies, such as THQ and Namco. He also really likes using the word "plethora."

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