Category: Mini reviews

February 11th, 2008
Blog Entry

My Strange Love (Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Sony)

Many years ago, when I was but a young naive boy in a world of moral black and white, I swore a lifelong allegiance to Sega. I would never touch a Nintendo controller or go within fifty yards of anyone who owned a Sony console. Here in the present day I own more Nintendo machines than Sega by four to six, and I’m fine with that, because I’m fending off the evil power of Sony with their lowbrow games and inept marketing (apart from the PS2 sat by my telly).

Well, until the other day.

My Weakness

Now, my willpower isn’t the best. Years ago I tried to quit games for Lent, and got caught playing Breakout at half-twelve on Ash Wednesday. With that in mind, I stood absolutely no chance when I saw the words “Phantasy Star Portable” in this month’s GamesTM.

I’ve wanted a new handheld Phantasy Star game ever since the Gamecube version let you link to a GameBoy Advance. “Aha,” I thought, “now I can train my FOmar on the go!” but sadly the best I could do was play a NiGHTS minigame and raise an army of Tails Chao. With no signs of Sega taking up my idea for Shining Soul III or PSO DS, there’s only one platform to buy to take Phantasy Star with me wherever I go.

And Sony Makes FourIMG_0919-small

For all its critics, the PSP is a very impressive machine. Yes it’s huge and slightly ergonomically flawed, but it’s extremely versatile as a media machine, although I suppose today most mobile phones offer similar options, though without the huge screen.

It doesn’t have a huge number of games I’d love to play, but I’ve already borrowed OutRun 2006: Coast to Coast, Street Fighter Alpha 3 Max, Tomb Raider Legend and Sonic Rivals 2. The first two have to go back as they don’t support my 4GB card (darn!) but Sonic Rivals 2 is absolutely awesome. Its main flaw is having way too many character stories, but the action is phenomenal, a fast and exhilarating mix of reactions and racing. The levels are huge and fluid, with almost no stopping from one end to the other, and very few of the big drops that plague the Sonic Rush games. The second Act of every level is even a side-on beat ’em up against your rival, and although it’s hardly Smash Bros. it’s still a refreshing change for a Sonic game and much better than Sonic Battle.

Taking up most of my time so far has been Monster Hunter Freedom, which like Shining Soul before it is an online RPG without the online bits. Yes you can meet up locally for quests, but I’m the only person I know who owns a PSP, despite the fact I work in a games shop. It’s a little like PSO in its combat, with combo attacks and some similar items, and exactly the same “wow!” reaction when you see the rare items in the intro. I hope it’ll tide me over until Phantasy Star Portable (can’t really shorten that to PSP!).

A Long Wait

Some people have pointed out it’s a slightly unusual move to buy a console in order to play one game that won’t be released until much later in the year, and they’re absolutely right. I don’t even know much about the game in question, other than it’s based on Phantasy Star Universe, which I played briefly and very much enjoyed. I don’t even know if it’s got online play, but if it does that’s one more reason to get back online properly (that and Smash Bros. Brawl). The simple, pure allure of being able to play Phantasy Star wherever I go is enough.

I don’t know if the PSP will become my number one portable console, although as I only play Animal Crossing on DS these days it stands a pretty good chance. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to collect seven Special Mushrooms and then finally beat Shadow. Games are great.

Oh yes, and I almost forgot. The wonderful Carnival of Video Game Bloggers is coming back home to the Collected Writings of James Newton on February the 19th, and I am currently welcoming all submissions concerned with games in all shapes and sizes! All you have to do is go to the submission page and leave your entry. I look forward to reading it!

December 19th, 2006
Blog Entry

Wii Play Impressions

Wii Play is the second-highest selling Wii game in Europe, and I think I’m right in saying it’s almost entirely due to the bundled Wii Remote. Why pay £32.99 for a controller from unscrupulous retailers when for £34.99 you get the remote and a game? Does that mean the game is only worth two quid, though? Let’s take a look.

Although my time with Wii Play has only been very brief so far, I’ve played each of the nine minigames enough to be able to tell which are decent and which aren’t. My favourite so far by a country mile is cow-racing game “Charge“.

Spinning the controller onto its side, you tilt it forward to accelerate, steer it left and right and lift it to jump. It’s an incredibly simple system that actually feels remarkably comfortable and satisfying, and although the main crux of this game simply involves bashing into scarecrows and avoiding hurdles, you can still see the huge potential for the control system. In fact, it’s so good that I’m now convinced Sonic and the Secret Rings, which uses a very similar if not identical control system, will be a very good game. I hope so, anyway.

Next up in my Wii Play top tips is Billiards. Although it lacks any form of tournament or ladder play options, the mechanics are pleasing enough to convince you to have another go. You use the Remote to point at the part of the ball you want to hit – top for top spin etc. – then hold B to cue, pull back the Remote, push forward and make contact with the ball to send it spinning away, hopefully knocking another ball into a pocket. It’s a simple but effective system that eschews the traditional console snooker setup of power bars and timing, instead going for actual physical movement, and although it’s not wholly authentic – you can’t screw off to one side during cueing, for example – it is enough to leave you inspired by how well a full recreation of snooker or pool would play.

Shooting Range is an homage to probably the most famous light gun game ever, Duck Hunt on the NES. Various kinds of targets appear – bullseyes, clay pigeons and even ducks – and you shoot as many as possible, or compete against another player to get them first. It gets pretty fast but, to be honest, there doesn’t seem much fun to be had here; although the obvious comparisons to Flash games have been made, you’re effectively just clicking on targets, so it feels a little less than engaging.

The next game – Tanks – is a great idea unfortunately wasted. Using the D-pad or nunchuk to drive a tank around a battlefield, you have to destroy the enemy’s tanks with mines or shells. It works fine, but the main problem is that, in two player mode, you have to co-operate – you’re not supposed to blow each other up. This sort of game is perfect for multiplayer competition, yet there’s no support for it at all. When Playing Tanks made me want to play the similar yet infinitely superior DeathTank on the Saturn, and if a game makes you want to play something similar that’s ten years old it’s not doing its job properly. With some proper multiplayer support, extra weapons and varied terrain, this would be an absolute cracker of a game. As it is, as with many of the Wii Sports and Wii Play games, it’s a missed opportunity.

Two of the games – Pose Mii and Find Mii – are so simple as to make them more or less pointless, to be honest. Pose Mii teaches you how to twist and tilt the Remote to rotate characters, but there are a hundred other ways players could have learnt that mechanic. Why not go for a “steady hands” type game? This mechanic has so many uses – imagine twisting the Remote to crack a safe, waiting for the click from the controller’s mini-speaker – that it’s a real shame they chose to place this game in.

Find Mii is practically “Where’s Wally?” (or “Where’s Waldo?”), with you trying to spot a particular character in a group of others. The levels vary from having to spot a character who’s fast asleep to matching twins or triplets, but there’s precious little fun here, sadly. In essence it’s similar to the Super Mario DS minigame “Wanted”, but for some reason it never feels as frantic a search, and so much of the enjoyment is drained from it.

Fishing is pretty good, and in two-player mode when one of you gets a bite the other player can steal it from you, if their reactions are quicker. I’m not sure how I feel about this part of the gameplay – on the one hand it keeps things fair by not favouring one player’s rod with all the fish, but on the other hand it seems wrong for reasons I can’t quite place.

The two remaining games – Laser Hockey and Table Tennis – are both largely based on Pong. Table Tennis just requires you to move the bat from side-to-side, but in Laser Hockey you can rotate the bat as well as move it around the table. It’s a limited idea that has instant playability, but you’ve seen it all before a thousand times.

You’ve probably got a complete picture of Wii Play by now. The games are instant but limited, and many of them lack a sense of fun or play, instead simply being uninspired ideas to teach you a controller movement. Only Charge feels like a completely thought-through game, and although you could ask for more courses and so on the game stands well on its own, which is more than can be said for most of the other games here.

Despite the overall negative tone of this review, it’s still worth buying Wii Play for the Remote, and Charge should give you at least a fiver’s worth of entertainment. Unfortunately the game on its own is largely worthless; everyone at Nintendo must be chortling on this fact as they see the game riding high in the sales charts.

I’m listening to Keep on Running, from Music of My Mind by Stevie Wonder

December 13th, 2006
Blog Entry

Red Steel Impressions

As long-time readers will be aware, I’m a fan of the hugely talented developers Ubisoft who, with great games like XIII and Beyond Good and Evil, were probably my favourite software house of the last generation, even above Sega and Nintendo. Now, with Wii all over us, how does their first major original IP since BG&E stack up?

Hold my hand(le)

Using your Wii Remote as both your gun and sword, the game takes you through all the controls in its first level. Far from being the safe start many would expect, it’s actually quite a dangerous level for the novice; I’ve seen many deaths due to the on-screen tips obscuring the level, and the pointer waving everywhere.

Having played my fair share of first-person shooters, I found the controls pretty intuitive to start with, and they definitely got me more excited in the game. Swinging your nunchuk to pump the shotgun or knock over a table for cover brings an extra element of involvement to the game, but the mixture of presentation styles did alienate me a little. Combining in-game animation and voice overs with some freeze-frame montage/collage shots is an odd choice, and doesn’t work anywhere near as well as in Ubisoft’s previous and similar FPS title, XIII, which was adapted from a comic in the first place. The art style in-game doesn’t transfer well to a comic style, and although the voiceover is consistent throughout – unlike BG&E – the whole visual presentation is a bit of a mish-mash. Whether this was a conscious decision designed to mimic the mixture of Eastern and Western styles – a consistent theme throughout the game – is open for debate, but personally it doesn’t work.

On that topic, actually, the menu screens are absolutely abominable. You use the cursor to drag icons over a display panel, which is hardly intuitive, especially when the icons are gaudy neon with Japanese subtitles. I can read them anyway, but it still seems counter-intuitive. Again, whether this is intentionally to draw the gamer into a bewildering culture is up for debate, but at this stage of the game, is it really a good idea anyway?

Take aim…

Once you get into the game, the controls are much more intuitive than the ones that got you there. Once locked onto any enemy with A, you push the remote forward to zoom in, which seems pretty gimmicky, even by current Wii standards. One worry I had about the Wii, and shooting games in particular, was that the sights and reticules would be very twitchy, fidgeting all over the screen, but in fact they’re very docile things, sticking in one place even if you’ve a shaky hand.

The sword fighting doesn’t offer quite the same level of precision, although I doubt I’d notice if it did. That’s not to say it’s boring – it’s very exciting, the music lifting up and drawing you to the edge of your seat to weave around your opponent and slash at their exposed areas. At the battle’s end you can show mercy or deliver a final blood-letting blow, and those who know me will be absolutely baffled, I’m sure, to know that I choose the merciful option every time. I can’t explain it.

Is it any good?

I’ll hold my hands up at this point and say that, yes, Red Steel has come in for quite a lot of criticism already. To be fair, with the exception of Nintendo’s Wii Sports and Wii Play it’s the only launch game created just for Wii, so of course there are going to be problems. The graphics aren’t stunning, the art direction is a bit of a mish-mash and there are some sizeable obstacles to be overcome early on for new players.

As an Ubisoft fan I recognise quite a few elements from their very impressive FPS XIII, such as the action icons and some level and weapon designs. I wouldn’t say it lived up to XIII or Beyond Good and Evil yet, but as the first third-party IP developed and released exclusively on Wii it’s an interesting start.

It’s not an absolute must-have, and the confirmed sequel will improve on its flaws I’m sure, but it happily sits alongside Zelda in my fledgling collection.

I’m listening to Let’s Get It On [*], from Let’s Get It On [Bonus Tracks] by Marvin Gaye

December 12th, 2006
Blog Entry

Wii Impressions

I should really have posted these on Friday or over the weekend, but I was working all the time, which sadly involved telling lots of people they wouldn’t be able to get a Wii for Christmas. Not everyone took it well – “merry f***ing Christmas!” still rings in my ears! – but I had a valid pre-order and I deserve a Wii as much as anyone else.

Obviously there’s a lot to get through, so today I’ll focus on what you get in the box: one Wii console and Wii Sports. For the rest of the week I’ll go into Wii Play, Red Steel, Wii titbits and Internet shenanigans and, of course, Zelda: Twilight Princess.

So, what do I think of it?

I’ll start with the machine itself. It’s beautiful, a gleaming white and blue design that’s extremely sleek and compact. The remote has a lovely weight to it, and even though some of the buttons are a little fiddly at first, I doubt you’ll need to bash them in many games, not at first anyway.

The presentation of all the software, channels and so forth is in keeping with the exterior design: very simple and refined. In terms of audio-visual styling it reminds me of the Dreamcast’s browser, which was similarly cut-back on buttons and the like. It looks very nice, and the channels system works well, even though there are only four channels at the moment. The others are:

  • Forecast Channel – check the weather anywhere in the world. Out December 20th.
  • Internet Channel – a free web-browser designed just for Wii. Coming December 23rd.
  • News Channel – spin the globe to read RSS news. Out on January 27th next year.

Leave a message

One thing that Nintendo are keen on is that the Wii should be the centrepiece of the family home, but rather than go for a media centre-type route as Microsoft and Sony have done, they’ve decided to add functionality designed to bring them together, rather than give them each something to enjoy individually. Key to this family hub system is the Wii Messageboard.

Essentially a virtual pinboard, this lets you leave messages for other Wii users in y our house, but as it’s integral to the system it’s possible for games to access them automatically. Wii Sports posts your top scores and fitness age (more on that later), and in future Animal Crossing will use it as a replacement for its in-game board.

There’s more, though. By registering a friend’s Wii number – a sixteen-digit code identifying their machine – you can send them messages, Mii characters and even digital photos from your SD cards. Similarly, add any regular email address and you and the owner can exchange emails, creating a family addressbook and message centre. The downside of course is that it’s one messageboard for everybody, but then in an age when we all have multiple email addresses anyway it’s not really such a problem!

I was initially confused about how to send SMS messages to a mobile phone, but it actually turns out that you send emails to phones, not texts. I was quite disappointed, I must say, but I can understand why Wiis sending free texts wouldn’t be the best business sense for Nintendo. The Wii site offers little explanation, sticking to the SMS story, but perhaps that’ll be available in a future update, as at the moment it just lets you register an email address.
Let the games begin!

Okay, let’s actually delve into one of the games. The obvious starting point is Wii Sports, since it comes with the Wii. Though little more than five tech demos, it’s still immensely playable and addictive.

All Sports

I should say at this point that the learning curve on the games is brilliant. The first time you play you get a few practice shots/punches as it takes you through the controls onscreen, then you’re matched against an opponent of a low skill level. As you progress through the game you gain skill points, so your opponents increase in skill. I hit Pro status in Baseball today, but I’m still struggling against splitters. Please post tips for dealing with splitters!

Instead of choosing an established sportsman or a cheap lookalike, you use the Mii characters you create in the Mii Channel as your character, and it logs your skill level. Playing Baseball with an all-star team of Miis from your friends is great – so far Ed has let me down with his fielding, but Sid is a great player. They also turn up in the background of your Bowling game, and I think along the sidelines in Tennis. It’s a simple thing, but it’s very cool to play alongside your mates. Anyway, into the games themselves!


My favourite! This is a doubles game where you control the racquet, not the player, who moves automatically. You simply swing the controller at the right time to return the ball; like Pong, but without the movement. Dead easy.

EXCEPT the real clever bit lies in the choice of shots. You can hit lob shots by twisting your wrist over, or slice beautifully satisfying backhand shots with a twisting/cutting action. Seeing them clip the top of the net and win the point is genuinely exciting.

So far the net game seems a little underdeveloped, as it seems to focus on baseline hitters, but I’ve found a tip that works is to hit the ball early and twist your racquet to “cut” the ball across court, rather than balloon it in the air. It takes practice, but when it works your opponent will find it very difficult to reply.

Another tip would be to be aware of low-hanging light fittings when serving…


My next favourite, although also the most responsible for tennis elbow – it’s hard not to pop your elbow out of its joint when going for the big home runs!

The actual game is very simple. Swing the bat at the right time to connect with the pitch and knock it as far as possible for a home run. The fielding is automatic, and they run, dive and jump about to try to nab you out. Essentially you have to hit it past the bases and onto the main field to get anywhere, as otherwise they’re far too quick.

Of course, everyone wants to hit a home run, and when you do it’s a great feeling – the rumble and “THWACK!” from the controller is fantastic, and you watch the ball sail into the stand and receive fireworks. One observant touch is that if the ball lands in the crowd it disappears, but if it hits the stairs it bounces off them and rolls down!

Pitching has more options, with curve, fast, screwballs and splitters all available, as well as different targets. How fast you swing your arm alters the pace of the ball – so far about 150kmh seems as fast as I can go without some form of mechanical assistance! Also, if anyone has any hints for dealing with splitters, I’d be most grateful!


I haven’t played much Golf yet, because although I can see it being quite an addictive little game it takes a little too long to get a round in. That said, the controls are great – simply get into stance, hold A and swing to adjust your power. Hit it too hard and it’ll screw off to one side, but just right and you should see it trickle into the cup!

It’s actually very similar to Golf on the NES, with its simple map, pared-down club selection and putting style. It would be nice to see a few simple tournaments or other options, but the same can be said of all these games; they’re not intended as time-stealers but fun introductions. I can’t help but wish for more though! I would put smart money on Wii Sports 2 being announced before too long though, especially as apparently they wanted to cram more sports into this one but didn’t have time. I’m not sure which universally-appealing sports would work well, though – basketball, fishing, ice hockey? Either way, an update – even a patch – with a few extra options would go down great!


There isn’t a great deal to say about Bowling, to be honest. You move left or right, alter the angle of throw, swing your arm and the ball goes sailing down the lane. It’s possible to add spin, but I haven’t really figured out how yet, although I have managed to chuck the ball into a neighbour’s lane! With a few friends it’s great fun as you’d expect, but not really recommended for solo fliers.


I’ve saved this for last as I’m not 100% sure about it, to tell the truth. On the one hand, dodging and punching is fantastic exercise and a lot of fun, but it lacks the feeling of control that makes the others so satisfying. Jabs work fine, but trying to pull off bodyshots or uppercuts is inaccurate, leaving you feeling that swinging your arms wildly is your best chance of success. When you do land a good punch the action slows down, and when you get rocked by one the screen wobbles and looks a bit weird, which is cool.

Train for Fitness!

Not only does Wii Sports contain these five versions of the real sports, it also offers fifteen minigames based on them to help you improve your game in all manner of ways. These are structured in such a way to start off with the basics and move onto accuracy and strategy, and they work great.

Tennis builds from simply returning the ball into the opponent’s court to hitting it through a moving orange bar, and the final challenge is to knock the ball against circular targets above the net. The learning curve on each is pitched just about right, and this is where the “I’ll do better next time addiction really kicks in. The satisfaction when I received my first gold medal was awesome!

Of the other dozen games, my favourites are:

  • Power Throws – a bowling game, where each set of pins gains a row at the back, until you have over 90 pins in a bunch! Getting a strike doubles the score for that lane, but knocking over that many pins is tough! Another very addictive minigame.
  • Hitting Home Runs – baseball of course, this challenges you to hit ten home runs, and then tots up the total distance you whacked. As your final score comes up, it’s honestly very hard not to click “try again”

The others are all mostly very good too, with the first two golf ones lacking a little in the way of fun. Dodging the balls in boxing is great fun!

Apart from using these games to train for the actual sports, the game pilfers from the success of Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training, using three of them to calculate Speed, Stamina and Balance, resulting in a “Fitness Age” between 20 and 80 or 90. One good thing about this is the way the game posts your results to the Wii Messageboard, resulting in “I see you shaved forty years off your age today!”-type conversations. It’s a good attempt at single-player lastability, but again is best as a shared experience.

Overall thoughts

Wii is clearly a machine that aspires to be great, but risks being dismissed as a novelty. Nobody I know who has played one has come away thinking ill of it; most of my friends here aren’t particularly into games, but seeing them get up and box or swing a racquet has brought so much enjoyment that I really think Nintendo has got it right with this one.

Wii Sports is a great introduction to the controller – much better than Wii Play, if truth be told – but with a little extra provision for long-term play it would be even better. Posting high scores and results to the Wii Messageboard is a great idea, but a proper in-game leaderboard, a few trophies and belts to be won and the like would just kick it up another notch. However, it’s impossible to aim too much criticism at such a charming, enjoyable and free collection of games.

I’ll be doing more big updates this week, focusing on Wii Play, Red Steel, Twilight Princess and more details on the console itself. Thanks for reading, and come back soon!

PS At 2,056 words, this is easily my longest entry ever!

September 17th, 2006
Blog Entry

Sonic Rush

The best 2D Sonic game since 24th February, 1994.

Sonic Team finally brought the winning Sonic formula back to life with Sonic Rush on Nintendo’s DS last year. Very fast, very bright and very cool, it perfectly reflects what Sonic games are all about. That’s not to say it’s a rehash, though.

Although the game doesn’t make best use of the DS’s features – the touch screen is only significantly used during yet another tube special stage – the dual-screen approach helps to give back that pinball feel of fast transport while still keeping Sonic in view at all times. Your eyes zip back and forth, but the mechanic works well, particularly when running up or down huge inclines or vertical walls, contributing to that precious Sonic feeling.

Click here to buy Sonic RushI don’t usually say things like this, but if you like Sonic games you’ll love this. Just as New Super Mario Bros. is a classic Mario game, Sonic Rush is a classic Sonic game.

Verdict: Mixes new technology with classic adrenaline gameplay. Exhilarating.

Click the box to buy the game cheaply at!

I’m listening to Anaesthetic, from Tunde [UK] by Tunde

September 6th, 2006
Blog Entry

Animal Crossing: Wild World

Live in a town filled with talking animals. Pick fruit and sell it to a raccoon. Fish, catch bugs, plant and water flowers. Buy furniture. Send letters. Visit other players’ towns. Watch fireworks. Go shopping. Design clothes. Listen to a guitar-playing dog. Watch colours change as the seasons go by.

Animal Crossing is a game that survives on length rather than depth. You play it over a period of time, rather like a game of skill, although there’s next-to no skill involved. You improve by mastering emotions – sadness! Surprise! – and paying off your mortgage. I think it’s fair to say Animal Crossing perhaps isn’t the most exciting game in the world.You'll find this exciting one day

Playing it with friends is even better, and what really lifts this above the Gamecube version. Although the trading sadly doesn’t extend to animals, you can swap patterns, villagers, phrases, constellations, furniture… quite a lot, really.

Animal Crossing is almost impossible to review because it either appeals to you or it doesn’t. I’ve tried at great length to talk two of my best friends into appreciating it, but it’s not a game that can be taught; only learnt.

In short: A parallel, beautiful world of wonder and charm.

September 1st, 2006
Blog Entry

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

Absolutely one of the best-written games EVER. It’s a cross between a courtroom drama and a police investigation game, with you piecing together evidence and then cross-examining witnesses until you find out what really happened. It starts out easy but gets hard very quickly, but the feeling of intelligence when you get something right is hard to beat.

Only the fifth and final chapter truly uses the DS’s capabilities, as the first four are actually from an existing GameBoy Advance game, but they’re all so intricate and involving it’s hard to care if you just use the stylus to tap on questions or evidence.

It’s such a hard game to sell because there’s not much else like it. Someone sold it to me as like being able to be a character in a really great book, which is a good way of looking at it because the characters and dialogue are amazing.

In short: Clever cases, funny dialogue, great experience.

Complete Archives