My Sister Rules at Halo

“Girl gamers” have become a hot-button issue, in part for the very fact that girls playing games shouldn’t even be an issue. The talk goin’ ’round got me thinking of my own experiences, which I would like to share.

My half-sister Jenny came to live with me and my wife when she was 19. Shortly before that, she hadn’t even known I existed, but the wonder of social media fixed that – MySpace at the time, to give perspective. Jenny had gone through a lot in her short life, but remained sweet and smart and optimistic. Thankfully, her tough upbringing hadn’t made her fragile.

At that point, I’d been in the game industry for nine years. I have a pretty extensive game collection. Jenny immediately gravitated to Halo. Halo 3 (Xbox 360, buy here) had been out a year and a half, but its online community was still thriving. I had spent a few months in that community near the game’s launch, but I’ve never been good at online first-person-shooters. Jenny, on the other hand, kicked ass.

I would consider her an elite Halo player. Luckily, we were almost always assigned to the same team – thanks, split-screen and party system! – so I didn’t have to taste her fury firsthand. As I struggled to keep a kill-to-death ratio of 75%, Jenny had a way of finding her target with stunning accuracy while dodging bullets like mosquitoes.

I was the inferior player, and the stats often made that apparent. Still, Jenny always gave me encouraging words and tips, and was never the least bit frustrated at my shortcomings – even when my ineptitude caused our team to lose. Playing with her actually made me markedly better, to the point that I became a chip off the ol’ block.

Jenny did not receive the same encouragement from those we battled with or against, however. Her gamer tag was some riff on “Mad Skills” in all caps with lots of extra letters, and her emblem was always something feminine. Since she insisted on us wearing headsets (buy here) at all times, our fellow players got to witness her cute, girly voice. Basically, she made no effort to mask who she was.

As a big brother – especially one known to be a little intense – it was difficult for me to hear the venom being directed at my sister. Not everyone was detestable, and we did party up with some cool people. But with the rage of losing and the empowerment of anonymity, no word was too taboo to fling at this sweet little girl who had just headshotted them from across the map or meleed them from behind like a ninja.

It didn’t bother Jenny. In fact, at times I think she treated those words as trophies. She had been freaking homeless as a child; some bro’s butthurt insults didn’t rate.

Even still, as a gamer I’m embarrassed at the way we treat those who aren’t perceived as being a part of the majority. I rarely play multiplayer games myself, and when I do I tend to leave the headset in the bin. I don’t want to deal with either the taunts or the lamentations of my immature opponents – even though I’m an average American male. But petite, adorable Jenny doesn’t mind. She drinks their tears like nectar to a hummingbird then swoops back around for seconds.


Activision Buys Competition

This is not a story about games I’m playing or pining for new games I want to buy but won’t. This is the type of story you can’t tell if you’re beholden to game publishers for ad revenue for your site/magazine. However, as far as I know, everything I’m stating in this article is true. I’ll try to link to evidence where I can.

In my You Missed The Boat article from two weeks back, one of the games I brought up was Aggressive Inline. To me, it was the best extreme sports game that isn’t part of the first Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater trilogy.

Aggressive Inline was published by Acclaim and developed by Z-Axis. It came around the summer of 2002. The next game by that partnership was the controversial BMX XXX, which released during the holiday season 2002. While Aggressive Inline (PS2) received an 85 Metacritic score, BMX XXX only managed a 54 Metacritic score.


Reviewing it for Game Informer, I gave BMX XXX its highest score – 78 out of 100. Even still, I talked about its awful collision and the steps backward it took from Aggressive Inline.

So what happened? Well, on May 22, 2002, Activision announced it had acquired Z-Axis. This would have meant all the development work on Aggressive Inline was done, but the fine-tuning for BMX XXX would have occurred while the developer was in the process of being bought. And BMX XXX smacked of a game where the developers failed to give it the polish necessary to go from decent game to great game. That near-submission time is very important.

What did Activision do with the second-best extreme sports game developer? Not a hell of a lot. Z-Axis – which would later be renamed Underground Development – put out a handful of games before it was closed in 2008: X-Men: The Official Game, the PS3 version of Quake Wars, and Guitar Hero: Van Halen. Kind of a weird assortment of games for the studio to be handed, isn’t it? It would seem like Activision merely bought them to keep them from making competition for its own games, then let it wallow before pulling the plug, doesn’t it?

Maybe there are reasons. Maybe not all the Z-Axis talent came along when Activision bought them. Maybe, once acquired, Activision broke up the band. Maybe Z-Axis was only ever good at making extreme sports titles (they also developed Acclaim’s older games, Dave Mirra BMX and Dave Mirra 2 – both of which received low-80s on Metacritic). But it just seems fishy, doesn’t it? Well, let’s look at another example.

DJ Hero

Not many of you bought it, but I’m sure you’ve heard of the DJ Hero franchise. Instead of plastic guitars, DJ Hero and DJ Hero 2 had you manning plastic turntables, crossfading between two songs and adding effects. It’s honestly pretty fun, and you’re affecting the music more than in Rock Band. However, it maybe didn’t feel as cool or translate to the game-playing masses. The series sold poorly.

Around the time the first DJ Hero was in development, another company had a similar idea. Seven Studios was working on Scratch: The Ultimate DJ. They had even partnered with experienced DJ equipment manufacturer Numark to make their turntable controller. It looked more authentic than Activision’s counterpart, and featured tracks by Beastie Boys, Kanye, and Outkast.

Scratch: The Ultimate DJ

Strangely, Activision would buy Seven Studios in April 2009 – before either game released. Not surprisingly, Scratch’s publisher Genius Products and Numark felt threatened enough to file a lawsuit against Activision. After all, Seven was Scratch’s developer, and being owned by a company who’d announced a competing DJ game didn’t bode well for Scratch’s future.

The lawsuit begat countersuits, until it was pretty obvious Scratch would never see release. Meanwhile, Activision’s diversion play worked, and DJ Hero released without competition in October 2009. Around that time, they reduced the size of Seven’s staff by 50%.

So what did Seven Studios do while flying the Activision banner? While it’s rumored they pitched in on various franchises such as Guitar Hero and DJ Hero, the only game I could find they developed and Activision published before the studio was shut down in early 2011 was a piece of Wii shovelware entitled Space Camp.

So here are two fairly obvious instances of Activision buying studios working on competing games, and then doing next-to-nothing with them before unceremoniously shutting their doors. Yet EA is still considered the worst company in America? Even after the debacle with Infinity Ward? What’s a company gotta do to win an award around here?

The Worst Games I Own

I like to keep it positive, talking about games I fondly remember or ones I’m currently enjoying. However, ever game journalist knows there is a certain twisted joy that comes with writing about a game you dislike.
As playing games was my business for 8 years, the number of crappy games I’ve subjected myself to is not insubstantial. However, I usually avoided keeping those games in my vicinity for long if at all. Still, some slip through the cracks and end up in my physical collection for the long haul. Here are some of the worst games I currently own.

The Guy Game (2004, Xbox)
Metacritic Score: 47
We’ll start with the most infamous game on my list. Picture trying to turn Girls Gone Wild into an interactive trivia experience. There are many bells and whistles the game attempts to incorporate to turn this into something approaching fun. It never comes close. It’s barely hiding in the bushes at night with a pair of binoculars, peeking in fun’s window.
Of course, the main draw is The Guy Game’s inclusion of boobies. We all love boobies, but we don’t love paying $40 and then having to answer inane questions in order to get a glimpse of them.
Fun trivia for this trivia game: One of the female contestants shown ended up being underage. This got the game recalled. Don’t narc me out for having a copy, okay? I’ve already suffered enough having owned it for almost 10 years.

Power Factory featuring C+C Music Factory (1992, Sega CD)
I liked C+C Music Factory back in the day. I’ve even done “Things That Make You Go Hmmm” at karaoke. Hell, I even liked a lot of Sega CD games — Snatcher, Eternal Champions, Sonic CD. Speaking of things that make you go hmmm…
This “game” (and its siblings featuring Mark Wahlberg, INXS, and Kris Kross) entailed stitching footage of grainy music videos together to make a mildly customized finished product that is then somehow reviewed by your onscreen colleagues. There are 3 songs on this disc. There are 64 onscreen colors with which Sega CD could utilize to display video at 320×224 resolution. If you ask an artificial intelligence program what is the absolute worst part of Power Factory, it will dump water on itself in an attempt at AI suicide.
Fun trivia for this unfun game: I scored this a big fat zero when I reviewed it for Game Informer‘s Classic GI section. But only because I couldn’t give a negative number.

Simpsons Wrestling (2001, PSone)
Metacritic Score: 32
For about a decade, there were few things I loved more than The Simpsons, pro wrestling, and video games. Simpsons Wrestling blended all three, and yet was one of the crappiest titles in the PSone’s 2,418-game catalog. You may think, “That’s unpossible!” but it’s totally true.
At first, you’re fooled by the sort-of-okay looking graphics, authentic voiceovers and having a dozen playable characters. Things go south fast as you actually play the thing — which is an aspect of Simpsons Wrestling that I’m pretty sure the developers forgot to devote any time to. Everything gets mind-numbingly repetitive after about 6 minutes, and you will never want to play this again.
Obligatory trivia because I wrote trivia for the last 2 games: When I was a kid, I dreamt of owning every episode of the series on VHS. Of course, DVD came along. And of course, the show got awful to the point where I haven’t been a regular viewer since around the time this game came out.

Lowrider (2003, PS2)
Metacritic Score: 46
It’s 2003. I just left Game Informer after almost exactly 4 years. I’m looking to get into development or something. Meanwhile, I start doing freelance journalism full-time to pay the bills. I figure it’s easy: Play games at home, then write about them, then profit. Getting assigned Lowrider was the first red flag that things weren’t going to be as smooth as I’d planned.
This is a game about cars with no racing. It’s about a North American phenomenon yet is designed by a Japanese company that can’t spell “continue” correctly. It’s about street culture, yet using music more appropriate for a hospital waiting room. It asks you to pay money for it, yet they should pay you money to take it. So many contradictions. And while Lowrider is really the only game of its kind, I advise you to just play GTA and carjack a hooptie with switches.
Trivia: Around this same time, publisher Jaleco also put out Nightcaster 2, sequel to the Xbox launch title no one liked; Trailer Park Tycoon; and Karnaaj Rally, with one of the worst box arts of all time. Quite a departure from Bases Loaded and the NES version of Maniac Mansion.

Star Soldier: Vanishing Earth (1998, N64)
Gamerankings Score: 52.4%
The Japanese know their shoot-em-ups (aka shmups). Hudson Soft knows quality games like Bomberman, Bonk and Nectaris: Military Madness. So when I saw a Hudson shmup for N64 for cheap at a Japanese bookstore here in LA, I jumped. Maybe not literally, but I bought that sum’bitch with the quickness. Almost as fast as my smile disappeared once I got it home.
Maybe the game’s ambition was low, since there was virtually no competition in that genre at the time. And N64 wasn’t exactly overflowing shelves with new releases to spur competitive passion. But honestly, it seems more like a simulation of a shmup instead of being an honest-to-goodness full-fledged release. Like an alien culture was asked to make a shmup just based on YouTube clips. It simply lacks style and flavor, coming off uninspired.
Trivia: Until researching for this story, I literally had no idea this game ever got a U.S. release.
Bonus Trivia: The same time I bought this, I picked up the equally bad Air Boarder 64. I chose Star Soldier for this list, though, because it should have been good.

You Missed The Boat On These Games

You see an endless shelf of video games. What’s good? What’s not? There’s only so much time in the day to play them, which makes the crappy ones that much more of a waste. Even the gaming media has let gems pass by unrecognized for any number of reasons: iffy premise, poor timing, ugly screenshots.
Unlike movies that bomb at the box office, games don’t really get second chances through DVD sales, Netflix, or cable TV. While there are HD updates and digital rereleases, the more obscure titles are usually passed over yet again.
Right now, there are games that you would probably love, sitting in an Amazon warehouse corner like lonely puppies in a shelter. This article is all about games upon which everyone (marketing, media, and/or gaming community) missed the boat.

Everblue 2 (2003, Capcom for PS2)
The ocean is a mysterious place – far more interesting to me than outer space, since it resides on our planet. You’ll see things like mantis shrimps and the fathead. But underwater stages in video games are generally reviled, conjuring memories of attempting to diffuse bombs as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. So I can forgive people for missing the figurative and more literal boat with Everblue 2. It wasn’t like they had nothing else to play on their PS2.
But I loved this game. I gave it an 8.75 in my review in Game Informer. It brought beloved mechanics like collecting and photo-taking (Pokemon Snap!) into a cleverly designed, smooth first-person underwater adventure. Everblue 2 was lengthy and varied, as you did missions for landlocked folks and explored even deeper depths to find life and treasure.
Fortunately, developer found more success under the Nintendo publishing banner with Endless Ocean and Endless Ocean: Blue World, both for the Wii.

Retro Game Challenge(2009, XSeed for DS)
Nothing can duplicate the joy of being a kid in the 8-bit era – where games kicked your ass to give you your money’s worth, game magazines were our version of the internet, and easy to learn/hard to master was our mantra. While nothing can duplicate it, Retro Game Challenge came close. Based on the awesome Game Center CX series in Japan (available on DVD), you were tasked with completing meta missions in new games that pay homage to the golden age of gaming.
Top-down racers, space shmups and a Dragon Quest clone highlight a packed roster. Your challenges are difficult, but fake magazines and cheat codes will be your support system. I found myself playing long after I beat the requirements for each game; they’re that good.
It’s a crying shame this title never caught on in the US. If it had, we’d be playing the sequel now, which never got localized. If you were one of the many who missed Retro Game Challenge, it’s only about $20 new on Amazon. Just click the title above.

Aggressive Inline (2002, Acclaim for PS2/Xbox/GameCube)
The first 3 Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater titles were simply amazing. For the next iteration, our hopes remained high. But then something came out a few months prior to Tony 4’s release that knocked me on my ass. And unbelievably, it was wearing rollerblades.
Acclaim and Z-Axis were doing good things with the Dave Mirra BMX series, but bikes were a little different from boards. Aggressive Inline was a straight-up slap in Tony Hawk’s face, and I slapped a 9.25 out of 10 on my review of it. I still believe it’s a better game than Tony 4 or any Tony Hawk title since. The control was just as tight as Tony’s; the graphics were just as good; the soundtrack featured some heavy hitters like Eric B & Rakim, Sublime and Reel Big Fish.
Remember how these games used to confine you to a timed session? Aggressive Inline killed that. Remember the cool earthquake in the Los Angeles level of Tony 3? Aggressive Inline had something like that on every stage. It even trumped the not-yet-released Tony 4 by allowing you to take on multiple objectives simultaneously.
Whatever your thoughts on rollerblades, this is one of the best extreme-sports video games ever made – especially considering it doesn’t have Tony Hawk on the cover.

Space Griffon VF-9 (1995, Atlus for PSone)
I honestly don’t remember how I came to have a copy of Space Griffon, the launch-window PSone game which featured first-person mech action with RPG elements and an anime storyline. But I do know it blew me away, and I still remember it fondly. That’s more than I can say for its peers Defcon 5, Krazy Ivan, and Space Hulk.
It’s almost as much a survival horror game as anything – more so than the present-day Resident Evil or Dead Space installments. You aren’t totally sure what you’re up against. Health and ammo are relatively scarce. While you and your squad of 3-stage mechs seem invincible early on, momentum shifts quickly. The story is wonderful for its era, and the full voiceover is a nice touch (I recognize the player-character’s voice from dubs of Iron Chef!).
At the time it came out, reviews ranged from 2 out of 10 to 9 out of 10. Today, the graphics that were once above-average are pretty sad, and the speed is painfully slow. However, I’m betting if I popped this game in and jumped into my VF today, I’d still be engrossed in this classic. In fact, I might just have to do that soon.

Ultimate M.U.S.C.L.E. (2003, Bandai for GameCube)
I am a bit of a pro-wrestling aficionado. Not only have I been a fan since I can remember, I was a pro-wrestler for 4 years and wrote/designed 3 WWE video games. For me (and most fans), AKI is the best wrestling game developer there is, was and ever will be. They made WWF No Mercy and its Japanese predecessor, Virtual Pro Wrestling 2. They also developed the Def Jam Vendetta series of hip-hop-inspired fighting games. And we can’t forget this other AKI-developed game.
M.U.S.C.L.E. guys were tiny, soft pink action figures in the 1980s. There were hundreds of them, and while they didn’t move, I had a great time playing with them as a child. The series achieved much greater and prolonged popularity in Japan, where it was known as Kinnikuman. Anime and full-sized action figures abound over there. But thankfully, a few of their games made it to the U.S. – most notably this title for the 3rd-party-exclusive-starved GameCube.
Despite goofy characters like Ramen Man and Dik-Dik Van-Dik, it was pure AKI wrestling satisfaction. The gameplay had the familiar tap or hold button configuration, and a plethora of moves. Two things stick out: Outrageous finishers including the Muscle Buster that was since made real by Impact Wrestling‘s Samoa Joe, and the ability to buy action figures from a vending machine (as fun as the similar feature in Super Smash Bros).
AKI disbanded soon after, leaving Yuke’s the only real wrestling-game maker in the world. A lot of us are hoping for an HD or digital rerelease of some of those classic AKI games, however. But with licensing likely a nightmare, we won’t hold our breath.

Mobile Gaming – The New Arcade?

Arcades are all but dead. Because home gaming is both satisfying and advanced – and usually quite a bit deeper – I don’t find myself lamenting its demise. Plus, you can always go to Japan, where arcades are still prevalent. Even still, after reading Ready Player One, I got a little nostalgic shiver when I saw the words “Aladdin’s Castle.” As a kid in the 80s and 90s, nothing beat going into an arcade with a pocketful of quarters. The universe was yours, if only for a few minutes at a time. And you were welcome to watch other people explore their worlds of choice from a slight angle.

But when you think about it, mobile games aren’t that different from arcades. There’s usually a small buy-in which will get you a bite-sized amount of entertainment. $0.99 is the new quarter. The experience is usually like cotton-candy, in that the sweetness dissolves away harmlessly. You have fun, but when it’s done you’re happy to move on to the next arcade cabinet or app.

My phone is a 16GB iPhone 5. I keep 50 games on it at a time, give or take. That is the arcade in my pocket. Of course, some app are upwards of 1.5GB in size; we can consider them the deluxe cabinets – your F355 Challenge or 6-player X-Men. It’s a different kind of economy, but in a way can still be tied to what I have in my pocket. But instead of needing to hit up the mall or the bowling alley to get my fix, I simply need a couple free minutes in which to immerse myself.

Since I already own the hardware and don’t need to rent out a strip-mall to house them, I get to “own” these games instead of “renting” them like arcade games. These differences open up possibilities that weren’t present 25 years ago. For example, when Capcom wanted to add more fighters to Street Fighter II, it made a new cabinet (Street Fighter II: Champion Edition). Of course, you had to plop more quarters into the newer version. Conversely, when Capcom added Heihachi and Rolento to Street Fighter x Tekken for iOS, it was done through a downloadable update. If you already bought the game, you got this for free! And if you didn’t own it, the buy-in hadn’t changed to get your chance to play.

The social aspects between cell phone and arcade have obviously been muted. While there are multiplayer aspects in a lot of mobile games, it’s not the same as elbowing the guy next to you for stealing the sewer pizza while you only have a sliver of health left. One vast improvement is the passive competition of the leaderboard. GameCenter makes it possible to compare your skills with everyone else who has ever played Robot Unicorn Attack – not just those who played it at your arcade.

Let’s look at a few of the most popular iOS games right now, and how they compare to arcade games.

Nimble Quest – NimbleBit LLC
This is my current favorite game. You start with one hero, and weave your way around an environment as you defeat enemies and find more allies. Smashing into a wall or an enemy is almost certain death. I enjoy starting with different characters and using in-game coins to level up the powerups like an enemy freeze or health potions.

To me, Nimble Quest’s arcade equivalent is Pac-Man. Take away the maze, and the movement is almost identical. Both titles also rely heavily on player skill; a game can last 10 seconds or 10 minutes, depending on how good you are. In one game, you’ll have moments of vulnerability and empowerment. A line of 7 allies tailing you, lobbing fireballs and arrows at anything in their path, is every bit as exhilarating as gulping down a power pellet and watching the ghosts scurry for their (un)lives.

Ridiculous Fishing – A Tale of Redemption – Vlambeer
This is the indie darling right now, created by an all-star team of app developers. It’s quirky and cool. You try to get your lure as deep as possible before snaring your first fish. As it comes back up, you attempt to capture all the fish you avoided on the way down. Once the lure is out of the water, you shoot all your catches with your firearm of choice. It’s as fun as it sounds.

If I was going to compare Ridiculous Fishing to an arcade game, it would be the claw machine. It’s an obvious comparison because, in both games, you’re trying to hook prizes on your line. But additionally, games take very little time from start to finish. You pay your money to the claw machine, set it to plunge, and when it comes up your game is done. The same applies for Ridiculous Fishing. While there are power-ups and new fish that definitely entice you to play over and over (and over) again, the experience isn’t inherently different from game to game.

Angry Birds Space – Rovio
Just about everyone who owns a cell phone has at least one copy of Angry Birds; it’s an institution. Peel away the commercialism and the seeming randomness of how to beat levels and you have a very satisfying game – especially Angry Birds Space, which added a cool gravity mechanic to the already unique physics.

That reliance on physics is why I would compare Angry Birds to pinball. You line up your ball/bird properly, and let it fly, and soak in the result. But try as you might, it’s almost impossible to duplicate a shot. There are just too many variables going on. Plus, with the introduction of Angry Birds Star Wars, we may see other licenses crop up with their own Angry Birds games, much like licensed pinball tables were huge in their heyday.

A very underappreciated aspect of both Angry Birds and pinball is the pause factor. There are ample opportunities in both to kind of ignore the game and focus on the real world – whether it’s before hurling your next bird or launching your next ball, or even putting up your flipper to trap the silver sphere indefinitely. These games are played on your time, which is one of the reasons they’re great.

Real Racing 3 – Electronic Arts
Real Racing 3 is quite polarizing. It took a well-respected, premium mobile racing franchise and turned it free-to-play. With that shift, some concessions have been made. You’ll encounter a lot of tollbooths during play, which require you to either wait or pay in order to continue your game. In this way Real Racing 3 is very much an arcade game, because it feels like you have to toss it a few quarters every couple of minutes to keep rolling on. Some may frown on that, but others find it a small price to pay for a beautiful racing experience on their phones.