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Review: Alan Wake

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aw_boxPlatform: Xbox 360, PC (Windows only)
Released: 2010 (360), 2012 (PC)
Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Publisher: Microsoft
Digital Release? Yes, this game is available on all released platforms digitally
Price: $8.55 (disc only), $10.00 (complete) per Price Charting

The wind howled violently outside, coupling with the darkness to generate an atmosphere of dread.  Had it been raining the scene would be complete.  On the other side of the window, a reviewer sat down and began to play a new video game in the dark.  While the gentle glow of the television provided just enough light to see around him, it was as if he were transferred to the fictional location of Bright Falls along with the game’s protagonist Alan Wake.  What unfolded over the next dozen or so hours was impressive.  This game was not unlike others he had experienced in terms of what to do or how it looked and felt, however thanks to thoughtful plot progression and deep character development the reviewer was able to let other faults go.  He was repeating the same steps over and over again, the algorithmic nature of the confrontations were drowned out by the need to proceed forward and see where the story went.  He wasn’t even sure what was going on anymore because, in truth, the plot was convoluted.  It didn’t matter, the experience was begging him to move forward.  He hoped it would not end.  This was Alan Wake.

aw_02If you have a flair for the over dramatic then you will feel right at home with Remedy’s action thriller that was recently featured in our vaporware podcast.  So little was known about what to expect from Alan Wake that when everyone finally got their hands on it there was this mixed sense of familiarity with the type of game it was, coupled with intrigue to the way it handled being a video game.  At its core Alan Wake is nothing more than a third person shooter with a so-so dodge mechanic where you use a combination of light and gunfire to absolve a haunted world of enemies.  If that were all the game had to offer, you wouldn’t be reading this review.  No, the soul of Alan Wake is the unique storytelling style that merges metaphysical realities with an unreliable protagonist and keeps you guessing over the course of the game.  While Deadly Premonition ticked all the boxes to look and act like Twin PeaksAlan Wake uses a more subtle approach to feel like Twin Peaks.  It’s much closer to being a Max Payne game than the studio would care to admit – I wouldn’t be surprised if it started life as that – but much like those original titles its barrage of enemy encounters are just varied enough that the gameplay never gets tiresome.  Barring that, there’s a larger layer of tone and aesthetic that work together to transform the world of Alan Wake from being more than just a simple video game, it’s an entertainment production.

aw_1Your first episode in the game is Alan and his wife arriving in Bright Falls, simple as that.  It’s daytime, everyone is nice, everything is peaceful, and with the bright lights and vivid scenery there’s little pause as to what danger may be lurking.  If you were fortunate enough to know nothing more about the plot, you might not even know this game is slated as a thriller or horror game above everything else, so when it takes a drastic turn you’re caught off guard.  I referred to the game as an “entertainment production”, which trust me is not an attempt to oversell it.  What I mean by that is this game is trying to blend media at an aggregate rate: the storytelling is that of a book, character development of the cast has an arc like a movie, the level progression is separated by “episodes” that even feature a “previously on” like television, each episode ends with credits and an official song that together make up a soundtrack well worth the extra money I paid for, and your traditional linear action gameplay well represents a video game.  If you’re keeping track that means Alan Wake has hints of a book, movie, television show, audio album, and video game; something I felt could only be described as an entertainment production.  It works, too, which is what I never expected.

aw_04Keep in mind this is still a video game through and through, so no matter how good the graphics are, how well the storytelling subtly foreshadows or develops, and how great the soundtrack is, you still spend a majority of your time playing a video game.  That video game, while doing nothing really new, had the right mix of level design and encounter variety to keep me wanting to come back.  If you look at a barebones list of what happens in the game or view a handful of random clips taken from it, I can see how you would deduce that everything is the same as everything else, which is probably true.  Even the collectible pages come together to give more depth to events happening, it’s all part of the plan; well, except for those Twin Peak-esque thermoses that have no value to the game whatsoever, those should go.  It’s perhaps that fact as to why the game delves so deeply into other media and styles for its soul that it took so long to come out and tweak just right.  Whatever the reason, it’s a solid mix that fascinated me back then and continues to amuse me now.  Without giving away any spoilers I can just say that Alan Wake is a full experience that will have you on edge from the creepy beginning to the frantic ending.

Extra Episodes

At the time of its release, Alan Wake didn’t quite feel finished once you beat the game.  Some of the game’s stronger plot points get reconciled, but there’s no question that the most key concept was missing in action.  This all eventually wrapped up in two supplemental episodes: The Signal and The Writer.  While these episodes take a lot of time to wrap up a relatively basic concept, the gameplay of each drastically switches up the nature of how you had played the rest of the game.  This is why I feel that the story was already complete in an earlier version of the game, but they had no good way to integrate DLC with more of a story unless they just stripped the end of the story out of the main game and used it for the plot points of the extra episodes.  I only say this because the gameplay either gets harder or has you using styles or concepts absent from the main game that while the plot feels like it was stripped from the core product, the gameplay feels anything but.  If you grab this game on PC, both extra episodes are integrated into the game and you enter into them after beating the main story, but if you grab this on Xbox 360 (disc or digital) you will want to plunk down the extra money for this DLC because the game and plot won’t feel complete without them.  Kind of a cheap tactic if you ask me, but it’s a worthwhile amount of content for the price that I’m willing to let it go.

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American Nightmare

This download-only title released in 2012 around the time of the PC port for both PC and Xbox 360 that serves as a spin-off tale of the original.  You can ditch everything you know about the plot, the characters, and to a certain extent even the gameplay rules of the original because despite being a shorter experience, American Nightmare is its own game.  Remedy replaces the isolated New England town of Bright Falls with the isolated and desolate environment of a roadside town in the Nevada desert.  If Alan Wake was Twin PeaksAmerican Nightmare is most definitely Stephen King.  All of the different things I loved about the experience of Alan Wake‘s multimedia experience make a return, but that’s about the only thing that carries over.  Whereas the original game was about a somewhat familiar setting that involved characters you didn’t know, American Nightmare takes a character and circumstance you are intimately familiar with and gives you a setting you don’t know.  This one isn’t just shadow people, it contains larger than life creatures, foreboding abandoned warehouses, and even monsters from other worlds.  They flip the unreliable protagonist nature of Alan Wake once again, but in a new way.  I also have to commend the use of the model for Alan Wake in now real full motion video for a lot of the cutscenes, which makes it all feel more “real” while the events continue to be more “surreal”.  It ends a bit too quickly, but I get the feeling Remedy was ready to put Alan Wake to rest for a while by the end.

aw_american_nightmare

If you decide to delve down the delightful rabbit hole that is Alan Wake, provided that you get intrigued by all of the unique things it does, you are in for a treat.  By the time I was half way through the first game I wanted (and purchased) the book, the soundtrack, and watched the Bright Falls mini-series that should still be available on the Zune Marketplace video store for free.  I wanted to become immersed in Alan Wake.  Returning to the game after a few years had passed and now for this third time I am pleased to say that it’s all familiar but still delightful.  It’s still a video game and you will find yourself having moments that come with any sort of challenge or annoyance that accompanies all video games, but it’s also unique enough that you will be glad you came.  Did I mention that the fantastic soundtrack that includes the likes of Poe and Roy Orbison blew my mind when I heard them return for this game?  When we look back at the wonderful games that defined the first HD generation of consoles, Alan Wake is going to be one of those fine examples that sadly seems to be locked in time and doomed to never return.

Final Score: 5 out of 5  (Review policy)

Written by Fred Rojas

November 20, 2014 at 1:18 pm

Posted in PC/Mac, Reviews, Xbox 360

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Podcast: Releasing Vaporware

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This week Fred and Jam chit chat about vaporware (ie: games stuck in development hell) that actually came out.  The most obvious example is Duke Nukem Forever, but as the guys prove there are no lack of “is it coming out?” games, some of which are still in the void today.


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Written by Fred Rojas

November 19, 2014 at 11:00 am

What’s Old Is New

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xbox_sd_scanlineI’m just a curious soul when it comes to software or electronics, and I’ve always been that way.  Now ask me to turn off the water in my house, change a window screen, or heaven forbid lay tile and I’m out.  For some reason those decisions and actions, while much more predictable than electronics and software, have permanent consequences and thus I leave them to professionals.  On the tech front it’s mostly just money, and I’ve wasted plenty of that to go into most projects all “gung-ho!”  On the flip side I try to capture my memories/nostalgia when it comes to gaming so I’ve done such insane things as bring a Pit Fighter cabinet into my house to play MAME (arcade) titles on, lugged a 300 lb 38″ RCA HD picture tube display for classic consoles and light gun games (a personal favorite), and I have a machine that literally boots into DOSbox and then Windows ’95 (it’s an old XP machine) just to enjoy a handful of games like Jurassic Park: Tresspasser and hopefully soon Ripper.  I think that’s why capturing gameplay and making more entertaining videos is so fascinating but also a challenge to me.  Last week I discussed how to upgrade your visuals for YouTube export but the clear omission was how to do it without losing that classic feel.  I don’t want to play my NES on my LED display, I want it on the old tube with composite video because it looks and acts like I remember, but I also don’t want it to look like the color bleeding blurry mess I see when I export it to YouTube either.  So now I’m trying to do the opposite of what I used to: get all of my consoles to export video – both for capture and gameplay – in the best resolution possible without buying the $500 framemeister (that was in last week’s post linked above).  This does mean that certain consoles, namely the PS2, Xbox, and Wii (yes, it was pretty much that same gen in terms of visual and output), are un-tethered from my big old tube TV and migrated into the main room for the LED television on account of their 480p/720p capabilities.  Along with that came the hunting of component cables, HD AV packs (shame on you Microsoft, the Xbox could output 720p and play DVDs natively but you chose to charge accessories piece meal…just like today), and even a HDMI conversion dongle for the Wii!  It wasn’t all that cheap, probably $60 in total for all the pieces, but the results are quite impressive.  I had no idea that X-Men Legends or Hulk: Ultimate Destruction could look so good in 720p on the Xbox or that Gradius V really does look much sharper in component even if it’s still a 480i signal on PS2, and I cannot get over how Super Mario Galaxy 2 dazzles on Wii via 720p HDMI upscaler dongle (despite me having still not played that game even though I’ve booted it up dozens of times for visual comparisons).  I’m also upgrading my SNES, N64, Saturn, and PS1 for S-Video output to get slightly better captures in 480p on my SD captures, which was like $20 on Amazon for random third-party cables (not as necessary to get high-end when not passing HD through an analog source like component cables on the PS3, for example).  This is probably nothing new to many of you out there, but HDTVs were not cheap and these consoles were just dipping their toes into the water when I was a new graduate and didn’t have time or money to figure out how to make an Xbox look fancy.  I always knew the option existed, but I was more interested in surround sound back in the early 2000s and never much into graphics.  Oh and before you mention it, I’ve had a VGA box for my Dreamcast almost a decade, but stupidly didn’t capture in anything but composite as of late so I’ve truly been cheating myself.

sf2compareWhy am I bringing all this up and trying to make old games look good now?  Well for starters because I intend to begin capturing the more recent stuff in quality you valuable readers/listeners/viewers deserve and to create parity between what I see on screen and what gets uploaded into YouTube (I understand that the compression will always be a bottleneck, but I can work hard and omit a large amount of those issues if I get videos into as YouTube friendly a format as I can).  I’ve grabbed some new software, Sony Movie Studio Platinum 12 (formerly Vegas), and already used to create a new old school intro logo for GH101 before each vid (you can see an example here, which needs better transitions but bear with me, it’ll look good I swear).  I also intend to have all videos in either 480p for old school, 720p for anything with a component/vga/higher output, and 1080p when the source allows (360, some PS3, PC, and all new gen) – sure, many of you will view on a phone or device that supports only 480p or lower for decent streaming, but hey, a higher quality source downscaled will still look better.  I also picked up a capture box, which I initially went with the Blurex Capture Device both for cheaper price and also because it seemed to nicely meet my needs.  All you need to do is plug it in with the included AC cord, attach a USB storage device to it (I recommend flash memory like the $4 Micro Center 16GB stick I used, normal USB hard drives have too many corruption issues), and then you can hook a HDMI source or a Component source via included short dongle-like cords.  It has a headphone jack if your audio out doesn’t come from the component/HDMI cord, it has a mic jack if you want to embed commentary into the video, and it does have a headphone out if you don’t want to export sound to your TV/sound setup.  All output is HDMI, but it’s seamless and lag free from what I can tell (had no problems competing in Mario Kart 8 with it or conquering the first half of Gradius V).  It even detects if the source is 480p, 720p, or 1080p and makes the video to those spec automatically, so basically for everything newer than a PS2 you’re set.  I had a few problems, namely that the device only captures in 15 minute bursts (1.95 GB exactly in 1080p/30 fps MP4) although you won’t know it because it just creates another video with no visible lag between them so if you play them side by side or combine them it’s one continuous video.  Well therein lies the problem as already a few times in my weekend trials I noticed issues and lost entire 15 minute chunks in-between gameplay where the video was either corrupt or didn’t work for, as Windows 7 put it, “unknown reasons”.  I also found that Sony Movie Studio didn’t like any of these videos and neither did my MP4 merging program (Yamb) or my MP4box tools.  Somehow the MP4 container or format that this box puts things into doesn’t like traditional editing files (or at least not on my machine and I tested over 15 captures) and the cheap editor that comes free with the box isn’t even up to par with the cheap video studio I got with that standard def dongle I’ve been using.  Without Vegas or other software solutions these videos are no good to me – I have no interest, and potentially neither do you, with dropping items into YouTube without intros, professional editing, or even commentary and in 15 minute multi-video bursts.  Not what I spent $80 on.  So I’m sending it back to Amazon today and I’m gonna go grab the always faithfully recommended Elgato Game Capture (doing the traditional HD 30 fps model and not the 60 fps model because I’m more YouTube than Twitch stream) and hope that works out, I’ll let you know soon.

elgato2

With any luck these items, and the recently purchased upscalers I bought, will work like my TV does and make everything look positively beautiful on both my LED and online for you all.  I understand about lag and whatnot with upscalers, but I have amplifiers that provide multiple outputs on everything from composite to HDMI, so I’ll be fine and no lag created by upscalers or capturing will affect what I see on my screen.  Aside from all the tech talk – which is seemingly my Monday blog these days – damn do some of these games look great.  Oh and all this “capturing” also means that I’ll hopefully be able to do video reviews to accompany the written ones.  Next step, getting Jam some sort of setup.  I’ll work on that.  Anyway keep watching and hopefully you’ll see some content upgrades on the GH101 video front soon.  Also feel free to join in the discussion in the comments if you have anything to add or alert me to as I continue this journey.

Cheers.

Written by Fred Rojas

November 17, 2014 at 11:28 am

Posted in Blog

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Retro Game Night: Night Slashers X

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This week, and for the first time ever, we are using emulation to capture a Beats of Rage engine remake, Night Slashers X. This was originally a 1994 Data East arcade beat-em-up that got ported over with extra violence on the open source brawler engine, Beats of Rage.  This also marks the first video in full 1080p HD!  Watch for more HD videos, most of which should be in 720p or 1080p in the future.

Written by Fred Rojas

November 16, 2014 at 10:15 am

Review: Bayonetta

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bayonetta_360_boxPlatform: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Wii U
Released: 2010 (360/PS3), 2014 (Wii U)
Developer: Plantinum Games (360), Nex Entertainment (PS3 port), Bee Tribe (Wii U port)
Publisher: Sega (360/PS3), Nintendo (Wii U)
Digital Release? Yes, this game is available on all released platforms digitally
Price: $7.59 (disc only), $11.24 (complete), $14.99 (sealed) per Price Charting

Bayonetta is an anomaly.  It succeeds where many before it have failed.  Merging a Japanese style video game in every sense of the word, whimsical plot, a female sexually independent dominatrix lead, and incredible gameplay that attracts both Eastern and Western fans alike.  It is a true testament to the fact that if you bring a bunch of ideas together, no matter how outlandish, and they all remain consistent with an overall theme then more can definitely be better.  The first major release from Platinum Games knocks it out of the park, provided you don’t play the PS3 version.

Bayonetta_1Bayonetta opens in the fictional town of Vigrid where an endless battle is being fought between light and dark wages on.  Representing the light are the Lumen Sages and representing the dark are the Umbra Witches, and right off the bat this game turns the tables on you by revealing that your lead character, Bayonetta, is an Umbra Witch.  Not that the light is portrayed in a particularly positive way – all of these “angelic” creatures don halos as well as aggressive weapons, massive sizes, horrific appearances, and an affinity for causing death.  As Bayonetta you will trek across areas that vary from natural modern cities to metaphysical interpretations of heaven, purgatory, and hell, all with help from the game’s handful of unique characters that add some spark to Bayonetta’s lone wolf demeanor.  That’s not to say you’ll be swapping who you play as or that there’s a multiplayer component – because you won’t and there isn’t – nope, all of these cast members merely break up the monotony of the typical “hero on a quest” formula.  It’s all a good fit for an entertaining story, but that’s only the half of it because from both a plot and gameplay perspective Bayonetta herself has plenty of depth.

 

Get Ready!

Get Ready!

Developed by former Clover studio members(they made Viewtiful Joe and Okami for Capcom, among others), Bayonetta is one hell of an action beat-em-up title that feels like an alternative reality sequel to the original Devil May Cry (which creative director Hideki Kamiya is also responsible for).  Bayonetta  is a tall, slender character that has plenty of finesse and flexibility, which will be flaunted both for the benefit of battle and to flirt with the player.  The push and pull of combat is juggled by Bayonetta’s combos and a dodge mechanic that, when timed correctly, can give you an opportunity to dole out some massive hits on groups frozen in time.  This game is not about memorizing combos, despite the presence of a countless number of them, but rather responding with twitch reflexes to the actions of your opponents.  By the time you reach some of the later battles you will be required to anticipate the counter to an enemy’s action, thus making the final stages feel more like a dance or game of chess than a beat-em-up.  This might have been a setback were it not for how elegantly Bayonetta blends it all together and slowly builds to the point of some of those late encounters.  It also doesn’t mind making the most of Sega’s library as it taunts and emulates some of my favorite classics from the late 80s arcade era, complete with a surprising level that kept a smile on my face the whole time.

bayonetta_2In lieu of all the craziness, complex battles, and seemingly noble battle between two forever warring sides, Bayonetta is hardly a game to be appreciated by all gamers for a number of reasons.  First and foremost the game is definitely not for kids with consistent swearing, graphic violence, and lets not forget a cascade of sexual innuendos, suggestive poses (complete with camera flash), and the fact that Bayonetta’s finishing move involves her getting completely naked.  Yup, you read that right, she gets completely naked.  Before you worry too much about what type of game this is, for the most part the animation of these finishers is kept somewhat classy by covering up the lead lady’s naughty bits and never really having any true nudity, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t spend a significant amount of time in the buff.  It’s explained dutifully by the fact that all Umbra Witches have long hair that houses their powers and thus everything attached to Bayonetta, including her unique wardrobe, is actually her hair wrapped firmly around her body; when this power must be unleashed, all of her hair exits and generates various intriguing avatars for which to dispel the largest of her enemies.  So basically in order to kill a big monster she’s gotta have hear hair leave and that renders her naked for the moment.  I could also see how the consistent spread legs, bent over, and licking lollipop shots could be construed as distracting when you consider most of these shots occur at the end of a battle, but frankly it feels more like just an extension of the character.  Bayonetta is in control and she doesn’t care if you know it or not so when she teases you.  She poses in such a way as to get your attention and remind you that if anyone is being exploited here, it’s you the player.  I thought it was a great play on roles and a surprising way to break the fourth wall, but historically Bayonetta is viewed more as an oversexed male perspective of a character rather than the strong female lead she represents.  Perhaps this will have no bearing on your interest in the title, but it is a consistent and necessary theme.

While it’s a blast from start to finish, I have to admit that Bayonetta is not without flaws, and that’s assuming you dismiss the fact that the necessary 60 frames per second (fps) of the 360 and Wii U versions are throttled by poor porting on the PS3 and can be responsible for a drop to the lower 40s on Sony’s console.  This is critical in that the entire game depends on the flow of combat and literally five frames of animation can mark the difference between a perfectly executed dodge and a clunky late jam on the button that leaves you open for large combo damage.  This game is also difficult to play in long strides due to the 12-15 hour campaign being chock full of high tension and twitch reflex gameplay that make it far from a “sit back and unwind game”.  Fortunately each new encounter feels more like a new puzzle rather than a batch of throw away enemies and once the gameplay gets its hooks into you Bayonetta is addicting.  I could see many starting the game but eventually coming to a point where it’s too exhausting to continue to the end, not to mention some of the less than ideal checkpoints during boss battles.  If you stick with it, the accolade of completion and seeing the conclusion to the story are a fitting reward for your efforts.

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Bayonetta is a game that skates the lines of many games I had enjoyed in the past but was one of the first to nail that overall hybrid.  With a playful Japanese style, larger than life opposition, and almost rhythmic combat style there’s a lot to love with this title.  It may have a few flaws and for those that never quite get down the timing, can seem like it starts to wear out its welcome, but I was always anticipating my next session from the first chapter to the large scale ending.  It takes a bit of time to sink in and you get bombarded by some jarring minutia at the onset, but in the end Bayonetta is a must play title for anyone who owns a 360 or Wii U.

Wii U Extras

bayonetta_wiiu_costumesIn truth the more recent port of this title that accompanies its sequel in the states is almost indistinguishable from the 360 version, especially when the 360 upscale to 1080p is up for comparison.  Nintendo’s true stamp on the original comes in the form of various costumes of popular Nintendo franchises that make guest appearances in the Wii U version.  From the beginning you have the Peach, Daisy, Link, and Samus costumes at your disposal, which not only change Bayonetta’s aesthetics but also provide her with appropriate special abilities.  At first I was eager to try on each of these costumes and enjoy the gameplay benefits they bring, but after a short time I regretted their presence.  That’s not to say I don’t think they should be included, more optional content is better than no content in every case, but rather that I just didn’t find any value in them.  I can’t get over how goofy Bayonetta looks in all of the costumes and the fact that the game doesn’t acknowledge them – which I knew it wasn’t going to do because those cutscenes were created long before Nintendo costumes were considered – but in a title that thrives on ridiculous over-the-top circumstance it felt just a bit too far even for Bayonetta.  I also thought that complicating the gameplay with these seemingly super moves actually hindered my ability to effectively chain combos and thus acted as more of a handicap rather than a special benefit.  In the end, it’s up to you, but I played the game as if the costumes didn’t exist.

Final Score: 5 out of 5  (Review Policy)

Written by Fred Rojas

November 13, 2014 at 3:33 pm

Posted in PS3, Reviews, Wii U, Xbox 360

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Podcast: Ah Ah Ahhhhh

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This week Fred and Jam are discussing the misadventures of Master Chief, at least in terms of the Bungie developed ones.  What started out as a Real Time Strategy (RTS) title for the Mac ended up ironically being the launch title for the Microsoft Xbox that has withstood the test of time and is to this day one of the strongest properties in gaming.


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Written by Fred Rojas

November 12, 2014 at 11:00 am

Neo Retro: Chief’s Big Day

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CAM00848This morning I got up and instead of immediately heading to work I dropped by the old big box retailer to pick up a title I had been highly anticipating: Halo: The Master Chief Collection.  Here on the left you can see a photo of me with the item, big dumb smile in tow.  It’s kinda surreal picking up a collection of games that you have already played.  None of that wonder of what the mechanics, game design, or story remain because you’ve experienced it all before, and yet I find myself just as excited as I was the day I first picked up a copy of Halo or the three sequels that share space on the disc.  If you’re not a Halo fan then you probably won’t pick this up, and I expect that there will be either a slew of negative talk or more likely no talk at all regarding this package, but mark my words this is going to be a popular release.  Whether you first started playing Halo at college LAN parties, shared one of the earliest experiences on Xbox Live, or just took Master Chief for a spin or two during the Halo 3 Beta zeitgeist that existed early in the 360′s life cycle (and you can hear about many more on tonight’s podcast), there’s no denying that those who have owned Microsoft consoles can’t help but notice Halo.  That’s when it got me thinking about the state of re-releases these days – especially on this generation of consoles – and how as hard as I try to avoid them, I just can’t help buying into them (literally).

The Master Chief Collection isn’t the only game to make an updated appearance this year.  Tomb Raider received its re-release early into the year, followed by Fable Anniversary giving that game an update no one asked for, Resident Evil 4 got a third revision on the PC bringing it to 1080p, Final Fantasy X/X-2 received face lifts, Metro 2033 and Last Light received semi-controversial reduxes, The Last of Us came to PS4 after only having been on retail for just over a year, Sleeping Dogs got the Square “definitive” treatment in October, and we can expect GTA V next week.  This doesn’t even touch the slew of portable and downloadable games that were “HD-ified” and who knows how many ports I’m not considering to be actual re-releases to the PC, Xbox One, and PS4.  Hell, I even dropped a dozen hours re-playing Bayonetta on Wii U (review Thursday) because the sequel came with it.  It’s kinda hard to argue that this whole retro thing may have been the correct route to go because it seems clear that whether audiences want it or not, what’s on store shelves is at least partially games you already know.  The big question is whether or not this is a good thing.

2033_reduxSome would argue that it depends on whether or not these games sell, but I assure you they do.  I’m guilty of picking up most of these re-releases; some of which I knew I wanted right out of the gate like Final Fantasy X-2Resident Evil 4, and Master Chief, but also others I swore never to get like Metro Redux and The Last of Us.  Granted, the latter of those releases I took advantage of only because having the old version netted me the new one at half price and my urge to grab the DLC evened out the numbers for me, but it’s still an old dog trying to show me new tricks.  In a perfect world there will be new and exciting IP coming out every day, but we all know that’s a subjective and fragile wager.  2014, for me, has been filled with games I highly anticipated that disappointed, games I planned to ignore that I adored, and a whole metric ton of games I simply haven’t had the time to touch.  Given those factors you can see why it may be more tempting for me to proudly grab 4 great games I loved over the last nearly 15 years all re-hashed with better graphics and the kind of online support I was hoping I would eventually get, rather than taking a chance at Assassin’s Creed Unity.  I’m also sure the developers like it because there’s a high probability that what they put in will also net them at least what they get out, so the gamble of this over these aforementioned sequels or new titles is probably lower.  When I think about how geared up I am about playing The Master Chief Collection, however, it reminds of what never came about that I feel would be far better for the industry than a super-hyped boxed product that is advertised during NFL games.

gunstarI remember back in 2006 when Nintendo was talking about the virtual console, Sony was discussing PS1 and potentially PS2 titles coming out on the PSN, and Microsoft was releasing $15 digital versions of original Xbox games on a regular basis.  While I was psyched about not having to hunt down working original versions of Psychonauts, Final Fantasy VII, and Mega Man II, those of us in online boards and on podcasts couldn’t help but dream about what these new digital landscapes could bring.  Believe it or not, when Halo: Combat Evolved hit Games On Demand in the holiday of 2007, we were back then hoping that this game would finally receive some basic net code and allow the entire Xbox Live community to play against each other online for the first time with gravity-defying warthogs and a pistol that acted like a sniper rifle.  It never happened.  That release was nothing more than an ISO dump directly onto the marketplace, complete with all compatibility errors you could expect from playing the tangible copy of the original.  Not only that but we were getting bombarded by Xbox Live Arcade games (ContraDouble DragonSmash TV) that proved it could be done, although I am quite aware that those games were much easier to integrate net code into versus the full Xbox games.  Later the release of Halo 2 on Xbox Originals had all the ghosting effects and broken visuals, not to mention the turned off online play, that I realized this was going to be a wasted opportunity.  The same was true over on Virtual Console, where you couldn’t even play Gunstar Heroes or River City Rampage with friends online, and again we saw nothing more than a ROM dump of the original carts.  Surely, I thought, with Sony giving both a push to be more of a comprehensive online experience over Xbox (which it still isn’t if you ask me) and far more ahead of the curve than Nintendo that we might get an opportunity to team up in Twisted Metal or Contra: Shattered Soldier, but alas that was not to be either.  I imagine a world where all mutliplayer games are enhanced with online functionality and I can promise you I would own Halo and Halo 2 on the 360, given Microsoft $15 apiece for those games, and the development budget would have been staggeringly less than Master Chief Collection.  I also would have spent infinitely more on Virtual Console than the hundreds I already pumped into it, all at nearly no cost to the publishers.  Don’t tell me it’s all that difficult or expensive because emulators have been able to do it peer-to-peer for over a decade and those guys program this stuff for free.

So as I pop my Halo collection into my Xbox One (and while that massive 20+ GB patch downloads) and begin to play gorgeous upgrades of the beloved originals (I’m kind of a fanboy), it’s good to reflect on what could have been.  Oh well, looks like I’ll have to “suffer” through this package instead.

Written by Fred Rojas

November 11, 2014 at 3:28 pm

Posted in Blog

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Figuring Out How Retro Game Videos Can Look So Good

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So recently I’ve been looking at the current YouTube videos we create for the site as well as some of the photos I capture from those videos.  You see due to authenticity of how it feels to play the game – not to mention my personal affinity towards doing too much within a computer for console gaming – it’s not very viable for me to emulate.  In truth there’s little concern for the legal aspect or even the technological aspect, it’s just that playing an emulated game on an HDTV comes with it compatibility issues, screen tearing, and lets not forget the overwhelming feeling that no matter what controller you use it doesn’t feel the same as plugging that actual controller into that actual console.  As a result, most of the gameplay videos I see out there focus on either how good it looks or how good it plays, but rarely does it look at both.  There’s quite a few reasons for that, I discovered, and for my weekend project I set out to figure out how one gets these razor sharp awesome videos when compared to my relatively blurry ones.

composite_cableThe reason for this is a few things, but they all have to deal with the fact that Standard Definition TVs (SDTV) are very different than High Definition TVs (HDTV) and none of that matters until you try to adapt retro consoles (SDTV) to YouTube (HDTV).  It may look fine on my screen but it looks like crap when you pull that video up on your TV.  How do you fix that?  Well it depends on the console and your ultimate goal.  Video game systems had an output in either 240p (320×240 progressive), 480i (640×480 interlaced), 480p (640×480 progressive), 720p (1320×1080 progressive), 1080i (1920×1080 interlaced), and 1080p (1920×1080 progressive).  For the most part, anything before the PS2/Xbox/Gamecube was in 240p/480i (more on that in a sec), PS2/Xbox/Gamecube was mostly 480p (with some potential 720p for the Xbox and lack of 480p for Gamecube), and then the Wii was 480p with the 360/PS3 being either 720p/1080i/1080p.  In terms of a YouTube video or contemporary HDTVs, you want to immediately omit the interlaced resolutions because those only illuminate half of the image at once and blink back and forth, so they create scanlines (which HDTV signals and Youtube do not like or display) and make a choppy effect when things move.  While that’s no problem for the modern consoles because you can just omit 1080i and only use 720p or 1080p, you may notice that’s a big problem for retro consoles.  240p is available, but often not right out of the gate (you ever see a 240p/RGB output on a retro console?) and most of us (in the US) hooked our old school consoles up to our televisions with the lovely composite cable (yellow/red/white).  This made a 480i image out of a 240p image, which means it not only made the image look poor and blurry because it increased the resolution without increasing the pixel count, but it also removed the progressive scan and thus made scanlines and choppiness.  This is the key problem to 99 percent of the game capturing I do.

So how do you fix that?  There are a few options.  The first is emulation, which is cheapest and best because by nature emulation is free and the upscale can be done in the software and generate ideal pixel re-creation, however for me it’s out because I don’t like how it plays or feels.  The second is to try to capture in S-video or component over composite, but it does not solve the obvious issue of the fact that everything is still relatively blurry because the source is not 240p but rather 480i.  If you ever watch my videos, this is what I usually do and my current setup.  I capture the video in 480i and use the capture software to de-interlace it (ie: make it into progressive scan) and render it in 480p for YouTube (which is 720×480 due to 16:9 widescreen versus the common 4:3 full screen of these old consoles).  This is why you get some blur, some chop, and the black bars – it’s simply the best we can do for the money.  Well it turns out that’s not completely the case, which I discovered after watching this helpful video.  It told me that there is a fabulous world of improvement that comes from upscaling the image, however this always comes at a price, whether that be money or problem solving.

As always any game system that outputs to 240p will either be able to give you composite/s-vide0/component to view your systems (oh yeah and Dreamcast does VGA, but that’s not relevant right now) in 480i (and occasionally p) and you can purchase a cheaper upscaler that will do an okay job.  While it may not be the greatest thing you’ve ever seen, your games will be greatly improved in visual quality – especially if you can extract s-video or component instead of composite.  There are setbacks, though, because these “other” scalers will always introduce lag and change the orientation or look of a game.  If you are like me and have a composite/s-vide0/component signal amplifier that can output one signal to two sources, this can be somewhat of a solution because the capture lag will be independent of the gameplay you are using for the source.  Basically it will only capture at a delay but since you’re not using that lagging delay it will look normal after your capture (just don’t use a mic on your capture solution because your comments will suffer being off sync due to the lag so you’ll want to record separate and sync in post-processing).  This is your under $100 solution for those that want better looking videos but aren’t going to make a business out of it (ie: me).

rgbFor the rest of you intense purists, budding venture capitalists, Patreon savvy marketers, and of course the tech junkies, the only game in town is the one and only XRGB Mini (aka Framemeister) by Micomsoft.  This is the topic of that aforementioned video I linked and just to open with the big financial investment, currently retails for about 39,000 yen or $500 for Americans, not to mention it’s completely in Japanese.  Once you obtain this bad boy, you can use composite/s-video/component to create widely improved lag-free versions of your favorite games, add scanlines back in, and impress your less wallet heavy friends.  That’s not all, though, because you can also extract true 240p via RGB!  See there are cheaper scalers that can do this feat, however because they introduce lag and I don’t know of an RGB amplifier (although it may very well exist and probably isn’t cheap if so), cheap solutions with lag are yet again a problem.  On the other hand, if you have a Framemeister you can have a lag-free way to play games via RGB!  This option, like the Framemeister, is not cheap.  Your initial consoles like the SNES, Genesis, and even Saturn can be purchased on eBay for a relatively low price with this user: retro_console_accessories.  The crazier ones, like NES/Famicom, N64, and even Jaguar or Turbografx-16 is going to require console mods and even more work.  I saw this as a $1000+ rabbit hole that required more technical knowledge than I cared to commit (I wanna game!) and not paying attention to those things could also damage a Framemeister (out $500!) so I decided that this little magical box that looks amazing just won’t be in my future.

As it stands I hope to improve my game capturing of newer consoles (my Twitch is only outputting to 480p for some reason from my PS4!) and even some of the older ones like Xbox and PS2 where the blur just doesn’t have to be that bad.  In addition I also hope to use one of these upscalers to improve the capture of my composite video stuff, but don’t expect something miraculous, just sharper and slightly improved.  I also upgraded to the full Sony Movie (formerly Vegas) 13 suite so I should have a lot more options for comparison videos, editing, and overall improvement of production values.  So while I won’t be able to create something as stellar as this, hopefully I will someday get up to this.  It’s a rabbit hole, but luckily I came out unscathed and with (most of) my money unspent.

Written by Fred Rojas

November 10, 2014 at 1:31 pm

Podcast: Ripto – Trilogy of the Dragon

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spyro_post

In a widely requested topic, this week Jam and Fred discuss the Spyro the Dragon trilogy on PS1.  After briefly telling the story of the origins of developer Insomniac, the guys delve deep into the young dragon that played one of the only open world 3D competitors to Nintendo’s Super Mario 64.


Download this episode (right click and save)

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Written by Fred Rojas

November 5, 2014 at 8:50 pm

Review: Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh

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phan2_boxAlso Known As: Phantasmagoria 2, Phantasmagoria II: Fatal Obsessions (European title)
Platform
: DOS/Windows PC
Released: 1996
Developer: Sierra
Publisher: Activision
Digital Release? Yes, on Good Old Games (gog.com) for $5.99 (compatible with Windows XP, Vista, 7, and 8 only)
Price: $4.44 (5 discs only), $32.99 (complete), $69.00 (sealed) per Price Charting

Phantasmagoria, besides being a franchise with one of the most awesome names ever, is a psychological horror full motion video (FMV) game – a genre that was a hugely common in the 90′s thanks to the use of CD-ROMs as media. A Puzzle of Flesh is the sequel to the controversial original. Why was it controversial? Well, the original featured a crazy amount of graphic content including horrific death scenes for characters and adult scenes which caused quite the stir back in the day when it was released. This included sexual content and a rape scene, which is possibly not as controversial as the media makes it out to be. The sequel follows this trend, but on its own controversial level entirely. Being released just a year after the first game it was surprising to see this game did not receive the same attention as the original.

phant2_2You play Curtis Craig, a man who loves his pet rat ‘blob,’ his girlfriend Jocilyn, and his taste in grey pocket t-shirts because he never seems to change his grey pocket T throughout the entire game.  He’s living the American dream. Curtis has also been out of a mental hospital for a year and creepy things start to go down at his home and work at the suspicious WynTech Industries Corporation. Curtis very quickly starts to question his sanity, so it’s up to him to find out what’s going on or face another trip to the loony bin. It’s certainly a story I’ve not seen in a game before and contains a surprising amount of twists that most won’t see coming.


A Puzzle of Flesh
features point-and-click gameplay and the entire game consists of watching scenes and solving fairly simple puzzles. There really isn’t many opportunities to fail the game until later on where a wrong decision could lead to you dying in usually a rather entertaining scene.  Death carries very little consequence as continuing from a Game Over places you right back at the scene before you failed to try again. Puzzles are rarely challenging, save for one puzzle right at the end becomes quite the head-scratcher.  A Puzzle of Flesh feels more of an experience as opposed to a game with any form of challenge; your drive to continue will depend on how much you get sucked into the story.  If you dig the B movie horror scene this may be for you.  Additionally the point-and-click gameplay is not the most solid.  Sometimes you will reach areas of a game where you know how to progress but due to the games bizarre handling of combining items and how to use the inventory system the way forward may not be easily reached. I had to actually pull out a guide to figure out how to get through the game even though I knew the solution, only to find out the game wanted you to do some weird item combination that is far from clear both from an inherent and instructional perspective.

phant2_1Graphics, well its FMV so it’s real actors doing some very bad acting which you will either adore because of its charm or just not feel very amused. Environments are fairly standard for a FMV game – some in an office, in a house, and later a secret lab and strange world. Unlike a lot of FMV games the scenes in this game were filmed on location which make the cost to create this game a lot more than its predecessor, which may also explain why a third game was never made. The game does handle the crazy very well specifically when Curtis trips out and goes all mental, locking in that B-movie feel.  The music is quite hilarious, very ninties especially when you enter a club later on in the game. During moments of fear and tension the sounds used are appropriate and add to the imerrsion. The voice acting feels over done by most of the cast, but it works. Many of the characters come out with the oddest one-liners that you won’t be forgetting in a hurry including the “My ass!!!” line from a police detective. Hardly an Oscar winning script but definitely a good laugh.

It won’t take you too long to get through the campaign – you’re probably looking at around the five hour mark for a first timer, but the master of FMV point-and-click games that time will be a lot less. There is little reason to revisit the game, however a small incentive is to go Easter egg hunting.  The game has various hidden scenes to find and if your hardcore enough to find all of them the game rewards you with a special congratulations.

phant2_3

Overall Phantasmagoria: a Puzzle of Flesh is a memorable experience even if you only play through it once. For fans of FMV games this is a must play, but anyone new to this type of game should be cautious.  This game has mature adult content as well as graphic gore scenes (not for the squeamish) and is really only for those looking for a basic gameplay experience. At times the point-and-click controls will become a pain and the way ahead won’t be clear due to how the game handles its inventory system, you may have to seek help with an online guide. As a horror fan I really enjoyed this game and the story is nothing like anything I have seen before in game or film. Its one mental trip I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.

Final Score: 3 out of 5  (Review Policy)

Written by jamalais

November 3, 2014 at 4:00 pm

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