This is what it's like when the game industry is calm. When no one is rushing to get product into stores and no one is getting their head chopped off for not implementing the right marketing strategy. It's quiet out there, there are only a few blockbuster titles that a select few developers are still working on, but there really isn't any rush to get them out because the holidays have come and gone. It's tranquil. But just because the big dogs aren't barking right now doesn't mean that the small dogs are staying quiet.
While the big publishers are away, the indie developers will play. Independent, small-time guys are whipping out a few titles here and there and here is the funny thing: they are actually really good games. Don't count out the small guy because a lot of times they will surprise you (they sure as heck surprised me!) There aren't any games from Nintendo, Capcom or EA this month, but I wouldn't be surprised if they all tried to pick up a game or two from these indies in the near future. We got a whole lot of great games that were made with not a lot of cash in this month's edition of "Press Start."
Mushroom Men: The Spore Wars for the Nintendo Wii; Publisher: Gamecock Media Group; Developer: Red Fly Studio; Release Date: December 2, 2008; ESRB Rating: E for everyone; Genre: action/adventure; Players: 1; Support: N/A; Online: N/A
The Wii is a system in its own league, so it creates the opportunity for Nintendo and other developers to make outstanding exclusive games for it. Second, because the Wii is in its own league it also opens itself up to the possibility of really crappy, shovelware games. Sure enough, both circumstances have taken place and unfortunately the crappy games seem to be way ahead on the scoreboard. The Wii does have some outstanding games in its library but it's just that they are not coming out fast enough. Nintendo can't possibly take the burden of creating all of the great games on the Wii and nobody really wants Nintendo to do that either. Third-party developers will in fact make great games for the Wii but, apparently, you just have to give them some time. I guess enough time has finally passed and Mushroom Men: The Spore Wars now attempts to shoot itself right up there with other great third-party Wii games like Boom Blox and No More Heroes.
The idea that drives Mushroom Men is that a weird green meteorite has passed through Earth's atmosphere and has now made many plants and vegetables self aware as well as mutate other creatures like spiders and rabbits. You play as Pax, a small mushroom man who has wandered into a tribe of mushroom men that worships a piece of the meteorite. Pax accidentally absorbs the meteorite, which makes the tribe freak out. He then ventures off to find a replacement meteorite for the tribe but finds out that he will absorb any meteorite piece that he comes close to; incidentally, the meteorite pieces are actually making Pax stronger as well.
Mushroom Men is a 3D platformer created by Red Fly, the same guys who are working on the upcoming Ghostbusters game for the Wii and DS. Controlling Pax introduces some really interesting features for Wii owners. As you progress from level to level you collect meteorite pieces that make Pax stronger and unlock his spore powers. You also collect random pieces of junk throughout the level, which Pax then turns into makeshift weapons like flame throwers, swords, flails, axes and all kinds of other nifty little enemy squashers. Spore powers are a lot like Jedi powers; as Pax collects more and more meteorites he can then upgrade his health and use powers like telekinesis and killing enemies by making them spin really, really fast. Later on, you also acquire other implements like a grappling hook. Remember those stretchy, sticky hands we used to get as kids from the 25-cent machine in grocery stores? Well that is exactly what your grappling hook is in Mushroom Men and it acts very similar the Hookshot found in the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
Swinging the Wii Remote, a la Twilight Princess, makes Pax swing his weapon. In addition to a lot of head bashing, Pax also has a bunch of puzzles to solve in Mushroom Men, and some of them are pretty darn clever. Some puzzles also act as a quick and easy way to knock out bad guys that will otherwise be a headache to fight toe-to-toe. The gameplay is some of the most satisfying action that has been produced so far on the Wii and, with the constant creation of new weapons, it never gets old.
The most outstanding aspect of Mushroom Men has got to be the sound and visuals. Now, of course, great graphics has always been the Achilles' Heel of the Wii but the colorful and sophisticated environments as well as the gorgeous character designs make Mushroom Men look like something that should be on the Xbox 360. The visual style looks like something that would come out of one of Guillermo del Toro's sketchbooks (except much tamer). The music and sound effects were created by game sound studio GL33k and Les Claypool of Primus fame. All of the music and sound effects blend together to match each other perfectly throughout the game. For example, as you come across other mushroom men you will hear them humming along to the background music. Also, as you walk through pipes in certain levels you will hear echoed drops of water dripping to the sound of the music.
Mushroom Men: The Spore Wars is definitely a winner for Wii owners. The catchy beats and beautiful designs give it its own feel and the gameplay is fun and solid.
Ar tonelico II: Melody of Metafalica for the Sony PlayStation 2; Publisher: NIS America; Developer: Gust; Release Date: January 20, 2009; ESRB Rating: T for teen; Genre: RPG; Players: 1; Support: N/A; Online: N/A
Ok, what the heck is going on? Why is it that the PS3 has been out for more than two years now and the best PlayStation games are still only coming out for the PS2? Not only that, but most of them are RPGs. It's kind of like the lifespan of the original PlayStation; toward the end of the PS1's life it started releasing wave after wave of RPGs that were all really good. Now, you kind of have the same thing with the PS2. You might not remember who NIS is, but if you recall, they are the same guys that brought us Atelier Iris 3 for the PS2 a couple years back. Ar tonelico II: Melody of Metafalica is yet another RPG for the PS2. At first you think "Here we go with yet another 2D, anime-esque RPG." But, in actuality, this one is very well done; so well done in fact that Namco Bandai games has actually gotten themselves a piece of the pie with this one by helping to publish the game in Japan.
The story is set way, way in the future and involves a society of people who worship a giant satellite that they call the Goddess. Yeah, it's totally an anime! One day the people rise up, secede from the Goddess' control and declare war on it by taking their destiny into their own hands with the dream of obtaining paradise on their own. The hero is Croix Bartel, a knight of the Grand Bell. This is a party-style RPG where you control multiple characters, but Croix is the main character. In this world, every knight has a female partner in battle called a Reyvateil. Reyvateils are females with arcane powers that can be produced through their songs.
Most of the gameplay is traditional RPG: you talk to many, many NPCs, you collect gold, you buy weapons and you level up as you win battles. What makes AT2 different is that the battles are done in quasi realtime. You and the computer both take turns attacking, but you are given a time limit to attack. During your time, you perform attacks using everyone in your party at the same time by pressing certain face buttons with the directional button. Different directional buttons with perform different attacks. Reyvateils will only attack with song magic, which can either hurt the opponents or help their allies.
A much-needed feature in any RPG is this next feature that NIS has introduced to Ar tonelico II. When venturing through a dungeon, a gauge appears on-screen to let you know how close you are to encountering an enemy. The Encounter Gauge is such a godsend because in any other RPG, enemy encounters in a dungeon are completely random with no warning.
The art style in AT2 is a very good quality anime-style. The environments are rich with vibrant and fully-rendered 2D, layered art that almost looks hand painted. The characters are fairly simple and have the same style as the characters found in Final Fantasy: Tactics. One of the best things about AT2 is the soundtrack; all the music sounds excellent with some amazing and moving sound scores that range from beautifully orchestrated pieces to some really catchy techno beats.
Ar tonelico II is a very deep and very long RPG experience; venturing through the whole game, including side quests will probably take you about 90 hours to complete. AT2 is definitely made for the hardcore RPG enthusiast and requires a patient mindset to truly enjoy it. You have to really immerse yourself into AT2 but if you do, you will come out with the enjoyment of a very well-done RPG.
Moon for the Nintendo DS; Publisher: Mastiff; Developer: Renegade Kid; Release Date: January 13, 2009; ESRB Rating: T for teen; Genre: first-person shooter; Players: 1; Support: N/A; Online: N/A
Traditionally, the absolute best way to control a first-person shooter is with a mouse and keyboard. But if you're playing on a console and you're unable to use a mouse and keyboard, then the most widely accepted "next best thing" is a set of analog sticks. I beg to differ, although analog sticks are very useful among non-PC first-person shooters. For me, the next best thing to a mouse and keyboard is the DS touch screen and stylus. Not many shooters have been released on Nintendo's portable meal ticket, but the ones that have been released have turned out to be, as Frank West would say, "Fantastic!" Metroid Prime: Hunters is a perfect example of a good first-person shooter for the DS and let's not forget that Call of Duty 4, Call of Duty: World at War and Dementium: The Ward for the DS have all turned out to be really good titles. Now, from the same guys that created Dementium comes a new shooter for the DS called Moon.
It's the year 2058 and you play as Major Edward Kane. The U.S. has set up a research facility on the surface of the moon and during one of the excavation missions, they discovered a sealed hatch with unknown markings. After prying the hatch open, a bunch of cadets go missing and soon Major Kane plunges into the hatch to see what is going on. Aiming is done by sliding the stylus across the touch screen and moving is done with the cross-pad. As Kane ventures through the underground alien structure, he stumbles upon a strange glowing substance that absorbs into his body through his suit, which makes him feel stronger.
Aiming is quick and responsive with the stylus and touch screen and also requires some skill as some guns will recoil. The game starts off pretty slow at first; you're basically just shooting small droids with a pretty boring rifle. Soon after, you pick up a droid of your own that allows you to access areas you weren't able to before. This adds a little bit of a puzzle-solving element to the game. You then start finding additional weapons such as a pistol and a sniper rifle. Moon is actually not all shooting; later in the game you take control of a land vehicle with a mounted gun called the LOLA; the camera then backs out to a third-person view so you can better see what is going on when driving.
The music is creepy and fits pretty well in the game without being annoying. Graphically, the animation is smooth, which like I always say, is extremely essential to any first-person shooter. The visuals are good but could use a little variation due to almost every enemy being a robot of some sort. The difficulty of Moon is no joke; this one is tough and requires some serious FPS skill. As I said before, the first weapon you get is pretty weak, but the weapons you find later make it so much more fun to blow stuff up. The only gripe I have about Moon is the fact that there is no damage direction indicator; in a traditional FPS when you get hit, an arrow appears to tell you what side you got hit from. When you get hit in Moon, the whole frame of the screen just flashes red so you just have to figure it out for yourself. Also, there are no multiplayer options. Otherwise, Moon is a perfect example of just how awesome a first-person shooter can be on the DS.
Peter Rizkalla is a life long enthusiast of videogames and the videogame industry. He has been writing freelance for the game industry for over two years and has worked in various videogame companies such as THQ, Namco and 2K Games. Peter also avidly attends many game conferences and events and can be reached at PRizkalla@gmail.com.