I Overscored A Game I Didn’t Beat

ZOE_Game_of_the_month

Game Informer magazine issue #97 (May 2001) has easily one of the crappiest game to be featured on the cover of that or any other game magazine. The only competition I can think of is the latest Star Trek title or South Park Rally. See, the Xbox was nearing launch and Microsoft was dishing out exclusives to each outlet. GI was still pretty low on the totem, thus we got Azurik – one of the launch games everyone either forget or wish they had.

It also marked my second issue as associate editor. I had started in October 1999 as a web editor (leaving my awesome job as a slave of Gwar). Less than a year and a half later, the same parent company that demanded Game Informer hire a dedicated web staff to make a dedicated website said to shut down the site and lay off some people. I was very fortunate to be kept on and moved over to the print side.

I definitely made some mistakes as a rookie reviewer. My first high-profile review assignment was Zone of the Enders, a PS2 action game where you play a kid in a mech (giant robot) who has to save the world. It was from Hideo Kojima, the man behind the Metal Gear series (as well as another favorite, Snatcher).

After an hour or two, it was pretty obvious this was a quality title. Thank goodness, as there were few other standout games that issue. Baseball games and Super Bombad Racing were about all PS2 had going for it; Xbox and GameCube were months from launch; GBA wasn’t out yet either; and Dreamcast, N64 and PSone were limping along. Though I will say this issue also featured Mars Matrix (buy it), one of my favorite shmups of all time.

Anyway, a game this good meant a large-sized review and possibly Game of the Month. That entailed lots of screenshots – at least a few of them big ones. Back then, we took screens by splitting the video out to our Macs (G4s?). We’d hit space bar, and it would capture the image. PS2 brought about anti-aliasing, which created some ghosting in our images. We found a workaround, but it left the shots looking lower-resolution. Add to that the fact that I was apparently capturing at 320×240 instead of 640×480, and most of my shots were unusable. D’oh. I don’t remember if I had time to go back and recapture shots or not; even if I did, they wouldn’t have been as versatile and organic as the originals.

My second faux pas was more egregious, and I am putting myself out there in admitting it (though you know already, having read the title of this entry). The plot of Zone of the Enders has you piloting this mech that your young avatar Leo quite literally fell into. He wants to save his city while the mech’s AI needs to get its ass to Mars – where an even bigger battle is being waged. So about 5 hours in, maybe more if you count my time taking notes and snapping screens, I’m approaching when I’ll be taking off for Mars – which I assume is the second half or so, in part due to an overhead map in a cutscene.

By then, I’m feeling pretty good about calling it. The gameplay is satisfying and speedy; the graphics are excellent (remember PS2 tech was still considered next-gen); there’s even a little story, albeit with a whiny kid. This is our Game of the Month, I say confidently. I write my review, give it a 9.25, and the reviewer doing the second opinion goes a quarter-point higher with a 9.5. I even say “Unlike a few other PS2 efforts thus far, this is a pretty long game to boot.” You can check out a PDF of the entire review if you feel so inclined.

Fast-forward to this month, May of 2013. 12 years after that issue and that review came out. I’ve had a shrinkwrapped copy of Zone of the Enders ever since, having never played it post-review. I’ve had cravings to pop it in, but it’s just too damn valuable to break the seal. I own a used, mint copy of the sequel, too – Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner – but haven’t played that, either. And I hear ZOE 2 is better in every way.

Fortunately, Konami put out ZOE HD Collection (buy here) last October. Unfortunately, it was said to be rife with issues – especially reduced speed of combat. Fortunately, it was patched (though the Xbox 360 version is said to be superior). Unfortunately, it came out during my year-long game-buying ban. Fortunately, I found it on sale so cheap I couldn’t pass it up.

So I played it, a 12-year-old game with a glossy paint job. I see why I liked it so much. Combat is manic and often zero-gravity, but there’s a bit of strategy to it. It’s faithfully to what I remember. Not everything stood up so well, though. I can’t believe how much backtracking there is. It seems that, with every new area that opens up on the map, you have to revisit every previous one to find a specific item or weapon or unmanned enemy to take over. At least you can level-up along the way, and the sub-weapons you find are pretty cool.

The missions have some variety, but there are really only 2 normal enemy types, and one of them is a major pain in the ass. Boss battles, what few there are, are Kojima-worthy. You even get a cool continue screen if you die. Protagonist Leo can be grating, but he’s pretty human as far as game characters go. The way he and navigation AI Ada speak to one other kept me entertained.

But here’s the kicker: Back when I stopped playing Zone of the Enders to write my review, I was probably an hour away from completing the whole game. My total play time, which ended Tuesday night, was 5 hours, 51 minutes and 40 seconds. And I am not a rushed-style player. The game ends before you even get to Mars; I’m assuming Mars is where ZOE 2 takes place (which I heard isn’t much longer than 6 hours itself).

This was not a surprise, honestly. Even though we didn’t have social media back then, I’d quickly heard about the short length of the game. After that, I unofficially decided to put more time into games I was reviewing. I won’t say that I beat every one – there were times when I reviewed 20 games in one issue, or times I had less than a day to play/write/submit a review as a freelancer – but I did give each of them more of a chance.

I don’t know what I would have given Zone of the Enders had I known its actual length. Maybe it still would have been GI’s Game of the Month. After all, it had a lot going for it in its day. But it’s tough to say this many years later when much of what made it special has been usurped tenfold. I know I became a much better reviewer, in part because of that and other mistakes I made.

— Justin Leeper (@StillManFights)

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.


BMX XXX

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.

Genre Awards: Turn-Based Strategy

In my last post, I started my series of “Genre Awards,” where I herald the all-time best games in various genres. My first awards went to my picks for the best fighting games. I went back and played a couple hours of Street Fighter Alpha 3 after writing that, by the way.
That genre represented the brawn; this is the brains. I’ve been a fan of turn-based strategy games for a very long time. RTS can suck it as far as I’m concerned, but getting to plot out your moves in as much time as you want for maximum benefit really resonates with me. It’s an extension of chess and checkers. One of my favorite early gaming memories was playing Tunnels of Doom on the family Texas Instruments computer. On almost every console, there has been a tactical killer app: Military Madness on TurboGrafx, Shining Force on Genesis, Fire Emblem on GBA. Speaking of Fire Emblem, a new installment just released on 3DS, Fire Emblem: Awakening – which is testing my no-game-buying vow something fierce. Here are my personal overall picks for the 3 Best Turn-Based Strategy Games!


BRONZE: King’s Bounty: A Conqueror’s Quest (1991, EA, Genesis)
I was still a tactical n00b when I grabbed this game from the packed shelves at Sunset Video. I took it home, and was thrust into a world full of minions and monsters, large areas to explore, and the equivalent of digital dodgeball: my team of dudes on one side, the enemy’s squads on the other. I rented that game many more times, until I finally talked the proprietor into selling it to me. I still have it.
Usually, I don’t like when these kind of games give you disposable units that don’t level up (see Advance Wars). However, in King’s Bounty, you’re free to recruit as many Dragons, Druids, or Orcs as are available. Whether they listen to your commands is another matter. Have your Ghosts lay waste to a bunch of Peasants – their numbers go up one for each kill – and they may mutiny against you.
The overworld aspects were sweet, too. Every game has randomized treasure placement, and the overall quest has a different location every time you play. It’s those type of replay elements that made it so great for me. I know that it was on Apple and PC first, and few realize 3DO’s PS2 game, Heroes of Might & Magic: Quest for the Dragon Bone Staff was literally the same game as King’s Bounty, but given a fresh coat of paint. Additionally, King’s Bounty: The Legend is in my collection; I just haven’t bothered to install it on my PC. It’s going to be tough to topple the 16-bit classic.



SILVER: XCOM: Enemy Unknown (2012, 2K Games, Xbox 360)
If you’ve read this blog much, you aren’t surprised to see XCOM make the list – though you may be surprised to see it didn’t take the gold. After all, I declared it my Game of the Year for 2012.
Because I’ve extolled its virtues so much, I won’t repeat myself here. Suffice to say this is an amazing strategy game which gives you a lot of ways to play, an emotional connection to your soldiers, and a perfect balance of gameplay. Also, I recommend reading Polygon’s excellent story on one designer’s quest to revitalize this franchise. I really need to check out the early XCOM games – which, of course, I own thanks to a couldn’t-pass-up bundle for like $5.



GOLD: Disgaea: Hour of Darkness (2003, Atlus, PlayStation 2)
This game was placed upon my desk very near the end of my 4-year career at Game Informer magazine. It was easily one of the best games I ever got to review in that mag’s pages. I wanted to give it a 9 – it definitely deserved it – but my editor-in-chief told me a game with that poor of graphics could not score so high. I wonder if he ever played it.
Anyway, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness is hilarious. A child demon overlord wakes up and finds his father dead and his kingdom made up of slackers. He’s pissed! His one remaining vassal is only out for herself, a meek angel is out to kill him, and nobody takes him seriously. The writing and voice-acting is top-notch – a feather in the cap of niche-game importer extraordinaire, Atlus.
But this isn’t Best Story, is it? The gameplay here is so good, I struggle to accurately describe it. Everyone and everything has depth and can be upgraded. Heck, every item has a 100-floor dungeon inside of it, should you feel so inclined. You can throw minions for better positioning, gang-up attacks are awesome, and new elements are constantly rolled out.
I played over 100 hours of Disgaea. That’s more than I played every other NIS-developed strategy game combined – including Disgaea 2 and Disgaea 3. So yeah, I think it was worthy of a 9 out of 10.