Skylanders SWAP Force Brings Back Memories of Golden Axe

Yesterday I picked up the Xbox 360 version Skylanders SWAP Force for my seven-year-old. He had the previous version of Skylanders for his 3DS, and the nice thing about the series is that you can take the firgures into the next game. So, while the new version only came with two “SWAP Force” figures, he had enough to provide a lot of variety right off the bat.

As the name implies, the “SWAP Force” figures can switch their tops and bottoms with other figures, which grants new abilities to the figures. The more figures you have, the more combinations you can unlock. You can see how Activision takes the collectability of the game to another level, which is quite clever (and devious) on their part.

At the end of the day though, I think Skylanders captures the feel of games like Golden Axe, the side-scrolling arcade beat-em-ups. The added element of the figures leveling up and gaining new abilities adds a great element as well, and the ability to switch figures on the fly keeps the game fresh even when the gameplay is repetitive.

If you’ve got a young gamer in the house, the Skylanders series can be a fun co-op experience.


SEGA’s ‘Let’s Go Island’ is a Fun Escape

One of the best parts about vacationing in Maine with my family each summer is the fact that there are two arcades within twenty minutes of where we stay. It’s become an annual tradition for me to take my kids to each of them at least one per trip, and this year was no different.

Since many of the arcade cabinets have been replaces by midway-style ticket-producing games, it’s rare to see either of the arcades bring in new video games anymore. So, I was pleasantly surprised to walk into the Boardwalk Arcade in Wells and see SEGA’s Let’s Go Island: Lost on the Island of Tropics.

While Let’s Go Island is a sit-down, turret-based game, anyone who’s played House of the Dead will feel right at home. The story follows Beth and Zach, two stereotypical goofy characters that are stranded together on an island that is crawling with mutated creatures. From leaping sharks to giant leeches to a mighty kraken, there are tons of colorful enemies that are constantly flying at you as you and your partner try to stave them off.

The gameplay is simple and fun, and there are a couple twists to the usual light gun shooter formula. After completing certain levels, you get to choose which area of the island to explore next. There are also quick time events sprinkled throughout the levels that require both players to complete actions at the same time. At the end of each level, you and your partner get a compatibility rating based on how well you worked together.

Interestingly, there seems to be three versions of Let’s Go Island out there. The original 2D version featured a movable boat-shaped seat that allowed players to lean back and forth during quicktime events. A second version of the cabinet was in 3D. The third version (the one that I played), is the lesser of the three, as it has a static seat and a 2D display.

Lesser version or not, this game is a blast to play, just like most of the other SEGA light gun games. The goofy nature of the game actually makes it much more of an all ages title, as there’s no blood and the story is very cartoonish. Both my wife an my son had a good time blasting away with me.

Sadly, this game, as well as it’s predecessor Let’s Go Jungle, were never ported to consoles. That’s too bad, because this would be a great family-friendly game for the WiiU, and I can’t imagine it would be that difficult to bring it over.

Anyway, if you get a chance, it’s definitely worth checking out!


The Year of B-Games–Binary Domain

I’m kicking off the Year of B-Games with a game that should not be on this list, because it’s too damn good–Binary Domain.

What is it?
Binary Domain is a third-person sci-fi shooter developed by the Yakuza team and published by SEGA. It debuted on the XBox 360 and PS3 in February of 2012, and made its way to PC in April of 2012. The game takes place in a future where robotics have advanced to the point of being able to pass for human beings. You play as part of a “Rust Crew,” a team that is sent into Japan to investigate a corporation thought to have breached international laws regarding the creation of human-like robots. Things go downhill from there.

Why Does It Make the B-Game List?
While it has a Metacritic score of 72 (considered “good” on most review scales), Binary Domain is primarily on this list because it sold very poorly when it came out. In the month it debuted in the US, Binary Domain sold a total of 20,000 copies on the XBox 360 and PS3 combined. This game was completely overshadowed by the juggernaut that was Mass Effect 3, and it didn’t help that SEGA did very little in the way of marketing for it. This game came and went very quickly.in the US, although it fared better in Japan. On a slightly positive note, it does look like lifetime sales of the game are around 360,000 (according to VGChartz), which doesn’t seen too bad, but what do I know?

Why It’s Worth Playing 
Let’s start with the story. Granted, I’m biased, as I know writer Antony Johnston, who worked on the story. But the story is a lot of fun, with nods to classics like Blade Runner as well as a few of John Carpenter’s movies (They Live, Big Trouble in Little China) along the way. The dialogue is well written and genuinely funny in a places. There’s an interesting love story woven into the game as well, and in general, all the characters are pretty well defined, if archetypal.

That leads me to the second reason this game is worth playing–the squad dynamic. On a basic level, you usually move through the game with a squad of three characters, which you can choose from a roster of several as the game goes on. In combat, you can either use voice or button commands to give order like “Charge,” “Fire,” “Retreat” and a bunch more. I found the voice controls to work surprisingly well, and because you can use them in dialogue as well, there are times where the interaction between you and the characters has a great flow to it.

You also get to manage your squad in terms of gear upgrades, improving both weapon performance as well s offensive and defensive capabilities. It’s not very deep, but it adds another layer to the squad management.

Finally, there’s a trust system with the other characters on your roster, and it’s based on how you respond to dialogue as well as your actions in combat. As you progress through the game, you can build trust with your teammates, which can alter how parts of the game play out, especially near the end.

Where does it stumble?
My only major knock against the game is that the squad AI is not great at times. Because the trust system is affected by how well you do in combat, when a squad member walks across your line of fire in the middle of a fight, they get upset at you and you actually lose trust. Granted, it’s not hard to get it back, but there were times that I had to work to get teammates back on my side because I accidentally shot them when they blindly ran in between me and an enemy. It happened enough times over the course of the game to be mildly annoying.

Other than that though, I really have no knocks against this game, It’s well put together all around.

Closing Thoughts
Just one: This game was criminally overlooked. It’s a blast from start to finish.

You can grab Binary Domain for $20 brand new on XBox 360 and PS3, and for $25 on Steam right now. It’s well worth your time and money.

NOTE: If you’re interested, check out this interview I did with Antony Johnston about the game when it launched last year.


Video Games New York–Love at First Sight

When I was in NY for New York Comic Con this past October, I visited an amazing game store that I’ve been meaning to post about for some time now. Video Games New York is a store in the East Village that is exactly the type of place that every gamer wishes they had in their own neighborhood.

From the Mario statue out front, to the shelves full of cartridges, to the console-filled display cabinets, Video Games New York feels like a shop and a museum at the same time. Not only do they have every console known to man, but they have tons of imports, rare collectibles, old store displays, standups and everything else you could imagine.

Check out the pics below, and if you’re ever in the East Village, you have to stop by Video Games New York.


Rise of Nightmares–Kinect’s Most Underrated Game

If you’re an XBox 360 owner, do you have a Kinect? Maybe you bought into the hype around the Kinect when it first came out, and thought there would be a ton of games for it, so you picked it up. Maybe you just got one for Christmas. Or maybe, like me, you’re a parent who traded in the Wii and got the Kinect figuring you could have your regular gaming experiences and have some fun with the family all with one console now. In any case, there certainly hasn’t been a ton of great Kinect games since the peripheral launched, and it’s now been re-branded as more of a navigation tool and an augmentation to other games, rather than a platform for games specifically designed for it.

There have been some pretty cool games to come along for Kinect though, and one in particular I was reminded of recently. If you didn’t read Kim Wong’s House of the Dead 2 post from a couple weeks ago, you really need to, as it’s a great game and he’s got a great story to go along with it.

Anyway, Kim’s post got me thinking about Rise of Nightmares, the Kinect game that SEGA released a little over a year ago. The game was pretty much dismissed by critics, and never really got a lot of coverage. That’s a shame, because it was a blast to play, and anyone who has a Kinect and liked the HotD series should absolutely check it out. Rather than reprint the whole review that I did over on Secret Identity last year, here’s a snippet:

“Combat is where Rise of Nightmares shines. Without a weapon, you can punch and kick zombies into submission, and the Kinect does a fine job of recognizing your panicked, flailing movements. Weapons are more fun however, and there’s a lot of them in Rise of Nightmares. Pipes, machetes, throwing knives and chainsaws are some of the instruments of destruction you get to wield. Most of the weapons feel pretty unique when you use them–the pipe feels like a bludgeoning weapon, while you “guide” the chainsaw through the decaying meat of the zombies’ bodies (that never gets old).”

You can read the full review over on Secret Identity, and you can check out a couple of great trailers for Rise of Nightmares below. You can grab the game for less than $20 now, and it’s absolutely worth your time.


Gaming Stories: Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (Game Gear)

I’ve mentioned that I was on Sega’s side during the great 16-bit console war. That’s not to say that my backpack was emblazoned with a patch declaring Genesis does what Nintendon’t or that I declared my schoolmates who had Game Boys to be heretics that needed to be smitten. However, I did own a Sega Game Gear, rather proudly at the time, and that’s probably a heavier burden than carrying a great crusade against Captain N and the N Team because the Game Gear was a bulky, battery-consuming handheld gaming device.

The size and weight of the Game Gear doesn’t strike you until you compare it against something more familiar. Maybe that’s why I was partial to the PlayStation Portable for so long; it reminded me of the Game Gear.

Of course, the Game Gear always felt like a paper tiger. For all its size and hunger for electricity, it always felt strangely fragile. The black plastic casing never felt like it could withstand a fall of more than a foot, and the screen didn’t seem that much bigger than a Game Boy’s screen, even if it could show color.

The Game Gear’s need for power meant that I rarely played it during long childhood car rides. I didn’t have a car adapter, so I couldn’t rely on the Game Gear lasting the duration of those car rides. And if the Game Gear died, my entertainment options were limited to staring at passing scenery and traffic. This meant that I usually played the Game Gear at home, where it could be comfortably hooked to a wall outlet via AC adapter, an ignoble fate for an intriguing device.

My enduring memory of the Game Gear is directly connected to one of the most infuriating gaming experiences from my childhood: Sonic the Hedgehog 2. I loved the cases for Game Gear cartridges, and the cartridges had a nice little grip for ease of entry and removal.

To this day, I have not finished Sonic the Hedgehog 2 for the Game Gear. I’ve watched Let’s Play walkthrough videos on YouTube, so I know what lay beyond stage 2, the Sky High Zone, but I can’t claim the satisfaction of beating the game. Sometimes, I would get stuck at the first boss. Sometimes I wouldn’t make it through that damned hang-gliding section in Sky High Zone’s second act, at which point I would have to stop myself from (spin)dashing the Game Gear upon the floor in anger. It was particularly galling to discover that stage 3 was called the Green Hill Zone. Why would they name the third stage of the game after the first stage of every other Sonic the Hedgehog game? Why couldn’t I handle the hang-glider well enough to make it through that section? The system for operating that hang-glider made no sense to me when I was a child, and the gusts of wind that would have carried me upward from the oblivion of the screen’s bottom never seemed to come in time to save me.

I’ve been tempted to hunt down a secondhand Game Gear and a copy of Sonic the Hedgehog 2. I’ve even been tempted to just download an emulator and the Sonic the Hedgehog 2 ROM. But what would I gain from beating it now? What would happen if my gaming skills have eroded to the point where I can’t beat it? The cost of the possibility of failure might outweigh the possible gain of shedding this anchor to childhood memories. For now, Sonic and Tails still stand unconquered, sometimes wagging his index finger at me, sometimes giving me a thumbs up sign.