Legos in Outer Space? Again?


As a nerdy college kid, I always enjoyed Crisis On Infinite Earths, the Marv Wolfman-penned comic book series that had DC superheroes team with Marvel superheroes. It was one of those rare crossovers that actually worked. What else other pop culture classics would would work? How about Lost meets The X Files or All In The Family meets Friends? Or how about Lego meets Star Wars? Think that wouldn’t work? Think again.

While the real buzz and hype of the Star Wars phenomenon has abated somewhat (there are no more movies, after all), there will always be Star Wars fans. To satiate those who will never get enough of Skywalker and Darth Vader, are you ready for . . . some Lego? You better be because the terribly cute, story-rich LEGO STAR WARS II: THE ORIGINAL TRILOGY hit stores earlier this week.

Hot on the heels of the mammoth success of Lego Star Wars which dealt with George Lucas’s prequel films, The Original Trilogy doesn’t stray from the formula which made the first offering so charming. That formula includes non-speaking, blocky characters which fight their way through the Star Wars universe like real warriors. Why does it work? You just don’t expect sweet, little Lego dolls to have the bravery, the courage, the unflinching focus that comes with having “The Force” within you.

Yet the characters put on faces of grim determination and fight for the frontiers of outer space in fine sci-fi style. And for little blocky figures, they sure do have a lot of moves, weapons and ways to fight. Here’s the deal. You’ve got three stories, one for each of the first three Star Wars movies. Each story has six stages which faithfully follow and sometimes enhance the films’ stories. Follow these stages through to conclusion once and you’ll unlock new characters which will allow you to replay the game in Free Mode (playing the stage with any character you choose). There are a wide variety of Star Wars ships to pilot, too, making you the captain of your space-filled domain. But there’s more, too. You can create your own Lego Star Wars character using, say, the head of Yoda and the body of Vader. The delight and humor you’ll find in simply trading body parts in and out is one of the prime reasons to play the game.

There are a few caveats, however. Going through the game the first time is pretty quick. Also, it’s fairly easy: your Lego never really dies. Also, if you’re thinking of buying the Xbox 360 version for an extra $10, think twice. While you’ll be able to get marginally better graphics and download some cool stuff via broadband, there is no online play.

However, the console games, including the 360 version, are all tons of fun. And the handheld games offer their own particular cachet as well. The PSP version lets you play the hardest levels from Lego Star Wars I and does sport the PSP’s wireless coop mode. Even the Gameboy Advance version lets you play as 36 different characters with graphics that are pretty darn excellent.

So what do the game developers do now that they’ve finished the Stars Wars stories? Reportedly, they’re going to do a Lego Batman video game. The story of Batman and Bruce Wayne is a dark and mysterious one, darker than Star Wars. So that’s a true challenge. But I can’t wait to see what they do with those crazy, seminal comic book villains, The Penguin and The Joker.

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Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment

Developer: Sony Computer Entertainment

Remember that over the top fat suit Gwyneth Paltrow wore in Shallow Hal? The excess of rubberized adipose made her appear onscreen as a mountain of a woman who, if she fell, looked like she could bounce high as a Superball. The thing about the suit was that, sure, it was gross, but it was also kind of adorable (there was heart and soul in them thar hills). The fat suit reminded me of these in-game globules that look like they’re wearing a fat suit after they gorge themselves.

Called LOCOROCO, the globule-filled game is a much-touted, highly anticipated offering. More often than not, a game doesn’t live up to the hype that precedes its release. Look at The Matrix (a real money pit) or even last year’s disappointing Madden 06. That’s not the case with a small game called LocoRoco for Sony’s PSP. The hype began with drooling bloggers almost a year ago. Phrases like “sleeper hit” were bandied about constantly. Early game art looked a little like the Nintendo DS’ Mario games in their simplicity. LocoRoco” graphics were intentionally childish, reminding me of one of the greatest games ever for the old PlayStation, the rhythm-based Parappa The Rapper with its first grader-like cutout 2D figures.

So what is LocoRoco? First off, it’s a simple cartoon-like game. You press the right and left buttons at the top of your PSP to play the game. With the occasional pressing of the ‘O’ button, that’s all you need to play LocoRoco. Believe me, kids won’t be able to get enough of it. Adults won’t be able to put it down, either.

I know that’s a grand statement, especially since I usually don’t rave about games, even the ones I really like. But the allure for LocoRoco is manifold. LocoRoco are cute, bulbous, smiley creatures that sing ultra-catchy pop songs. They shake when they move like the element mercury. They’re so adorable, you want to hug them—even if you’re not predisposed to such emotion. They’re also so cute you don’t want to see them die, which is why you keep playing: to get them safely to the end of each level without perishing.

None of this would be worth a plug nickel if the game play weren’t so intensely compelling and challenging. Immediately in the first level, you’re placed into a strange world full of twists and turns, mountains and hills and moons and suns. You’ve got to move your LocoRoco up and down these crazy paths. This becomes increasingly difficult because the LocoRoco needs to feed and gets fatter and fatter. To try to get your portly creature up a big hill, you’ll find yourself turning and twisting the PSP as if it had a gyroscope inside. But it has no such machine. You just have to be supremely accurate with your pressing of the buttons.

Hills aren’t the only danger in LocoRoco. If he runs into prickly plants or evil inkblot spiders called mojas, he’ll come apart like Humpty Dumpty into many tiny LocoRoco. That’s when you press the ‘O’ button, to put Humpty Dumpty, er, LocoRoco back together again. You quest is to find all the LocoRoco in each level, which isn’t easy because they’re hidden in caves, grottoes or even underneath the ground.

There’s also a beauty to the simple graphics. Often, you’ll be shot like a rocket through nooks and crevasses and up high into starry space. You’ll feed as you go on flowers and such. But you’ll also get fatter and fatter. Yet that’s the goal. This is an Adkins Diet Free Zone. So pig out.

Simple and challenging really is the grail in most video games. It’s rare that the two come together, so uncommon it’s like a sighting of the mola mola, a huge, strange ocean sun fish in the Atlantic’s coastal waters. Such a sighting is a feast for the eyes and a big deal for marine biologists. The release of LocoRoco is also a big deal. It’s not only a new debut for Sony (which is often too dependent on its franchises). “It’s one of the best games of the year.”

One of the things I hate about my occasional treks to midtown are these cult-like smikers who accost me and ask, “Do you like comedy?” in an effort to corral me into some sleaz-o club with $15 drinks. My friend suggested that I reply, “What’s it to you?” and walk the hell away. Which I will.

Having said that, I have to ask, Do you like casual games? If you do, you’re not alone. So do some of the world’s biggest companies. For them, there’s gold in them thar hills. The people who make money prognosticating such things believe the casual niche will become $1 billion a year business by the time 2008 rolls around, according to Jupiter Research. Right now, the people who make and promote these games are pulling in $350 million a year.

With such success come the dreaded marketing types, and with them come, gulp, ads. Sure, this column is about a couple of casual games that I’ve found on Web, one good, one bad. It’s also about the way ads are presented to gamers. Sometimes, it’s downright obnoxious.

First, take a look at Pogo, the casual game site created by the world’s largest video game maker, Electronic Arts. Here, you can play games for free. But you’ll also have to pay for them: with your time because there’s no way to opt out of looking at ads. One of the great free games on Pogo is “The Sims Pinball,” based on the best selling simulation franchise created by gamemaking genius Will Wright. Just as with any real life pinball game, you get three balls on a table that pops up after you register on the site (Don’t worry, they don’t ask too much info of you to become a member.)

If you know The Sims, you know the game’s often about getting experience for your character. In THE SIMS PINBALL, you have the choice of a few career paths, everything from doctor to slacker. Each character has six experience levels, and its doggone hard to complete your experience with three balls—even with the exciting additions of multiball mode and an extra ball or two.

But here’s the rub. This game is sponsored by Sharpie, the logo of which covers the middle of the playfield. If you rack up a certain amount of points, you’re entered into a Sharpie contest. Thing is, it’s natural for a human to want to score better and better—even if you don’t want a Sharpie t-shirt in the stupid contest. So you want to play again…and again. That’s where Electronic Arts gets you. Every three or four games, your game stops, and you have to watch a popup ad. Which stays up for 30 seconds. It’s kind of like watching a TV commercial, except these ads don’t have video. I take this time to check my email.

My guess is when you go to Pogo, you’ll find a game you like a lot. And because you like the free game, you won’t be bothered by the ads which appear in the game.

On the down side, take the case of Riddler, one of the original casual games sites. These pioneers have been around since 1996. With over a decade to get their act together, you’d think the site would be full of innovation, from games to presentation. If you thought that, however, you’d be dead wrong.

I went to Riddler to play a game called MARIO HALLOWEEN. I’m a big fan of Nintendo’s Mario, and of Halloween, which I consider to be the year’s most enjoyable holiday. So wanting to play was natural. I just had to do it. And yet, Riddler befuddled me before I got to play. In the process of registration, they tried to get me to fill out a lengthy survey. I even filled out a page of the survey before I realized it was an ad that had nothing to do with Riddler. Instead, it was from some sponsor. In fact, it looked like Riddler wouldn’t let me play a game unless I answered these lengthy and personal questions.

Thankfully, when I opted out of the survey, I found I could go back, log in and play the game. Already, my trust in Riddler had been dashed. They were trying to make a buck and they were doing it in an underhanded way. To top it off, the game wasn’t worth the bother. Mario Halloween was an overly simplified, side scrolling affair. It had scary background music, but Mario moved like he was in molasses, way too slow. The goal was to collect coins, but it the whole thing was presented badly. I didn’t want to continue, especially since there were no ghosts or humorously creepy things in the level that I played.

The salient thing about casual games and ads is this: because these online sites are still in their infancy, they probably will listen to you. If you don’t like the ads, gripe in an email. If you feel they’re being unscrupulous, as I did with the shady Riddler survey, shoot them a note. They probably won’t lose the ads. But they may get up off their rear ends to make them just a little more palatable. They definitely don’t want to lose one thing: you.

Madden 07
Publisher: EA
Devloper: EA

Marv Levy, the most thoughtful coach the NFL has even seen, said something stirring in his autobiography, Where Else Would You Rather Be? The erudite coach wrote, that on game day, “a wave of ethereal serenity will wash over you, or—at the other end of the spectrum—you will become the victim of a despair so gripping that you can feel it physically.”

This year, Madden 07 lets you feel what Marv Levy felt. That’s because the developers paid attention to the details that make football seem authentic. Its high definition visuals are full of cut scenes that make you feel part of a hyper-real football experience. The in-game scenes look like something out of Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday, except they’re better.

That’s right. Some of Madden is better than a highly stylized Hollywood sports film. You see the gritting of teeth as the line strains just before the ball is hiked. You see what goes on in the huddle. One camera angle even looks up at the huddling players from the ground, making them look like mythical gods planning a Grecian war.

On the Xbox 360 version, the audio makes you feel as close to being in the huddle and on the line as you’re ever going to get—unless you’re drafted by the NFL. The chatter, the crowd’s excitement, the trash talking of the opposition: I’ve just never heard in-game audio that is this thoughtfully executed. And there are audio options, too. Don’t like Madden‘s folksy charm? Use EA’s excitable radio announcer. Don’t like him? Try just the stadium announcer and the crowd with the players talking.

In fact, Madden is all about options. This year, you can control your lead blocker individually at the line. In fact, you can pretty much control any player you like. You can even see the game from their point of view.

What about Madden, the man? Madden himself makes more sense this year. When he helps you choose some play you’ve never encountered even if you played college ball, he’ll explain why it will work for you. For instance, defensive plays with the word “Spy” in them lets your players keep an eye on a quarterback who has running abilities. No matter what your level of football knowledge you have as a fan, Madden will give you more.

Want to take a break from the game? There’s a virtual Hall of Fame here. Not only do you get biographies of greats like YA Tittle. Many of these player sections have short movies rife with their finest plays. Again, you’ll play and have fun. But you’ll learn something, too, something you can talk about with your friends.

Yet Madden 07 is not without its glitches, especially when it comes to issues of what game makers call artificial intelligence. For instance, when I was on third down, had inches to go for a first down, and was 21 points ahead of the New York Giants, Madden suggested that I throw the ball. Now, Madden in real life is a fairly conservative guy. He’d surely suggest a running play in such a situation. Plus, your EA radio announcer makes mistakes, saying things like you had an interception in the last series of downs when you didn’t. These things are not game breakers. In fact, they don’t stop a great game from being great. But the mistakes are indeed disappointing, especially when you’re paying $60 for the Xbox 360 version.

Additionally, the game isn’t completely updated as far as players and coaches go. The injured Curtis Martin is still playing for the New York Jets and the Buffalo Bills have the wrong quarterback. So do the Jets. You can change the players easily with a few presses of your controller buttons. But you wish you didn’t have to, and that this function of player updates was available with a click of the button online.

If you want to take Madden 07 with you, try the PSP version, which is also compatible with your PlayStation 2. Even the Nintendo DS version makes better use of the touch screen than it did last year. Even if you hate Madden, EA may have a football game for you. This summer’s release of NFL HEAD COACH makes you the leader of the team. It’s not just about playing; it’s about simulating everything that happens around a team. Plus, you can even communicate to your players on the field via a headset.

If you haven’t bought Madden in a few years, this is the time to get it, especially the Xbox 360 version. Despite the apparent flaws, it makes you feel the tension, the passion, and the camaraderie that go into the best games of football. In other words, with “Madden 07,” each game of the season has the palpable excitement of a playoff game. Even Marv would love it.

Dead Rising
Publisher: Capcom
Devloper: Capcom

In Max Brooks’s The Zombie Survival Guide, the author asks, “What will you do—end your existence in passive acceptance, or stand up and shout, ‘I will not be their victim! I will survive!'” You’ll need that kind of tough-minded, Gloria Gaynor-endurance philosophy to deal with Dead Rising for the Xbox 360.

As you look at the box, even before you play this mother of all zombie games, you can almost imagine the excitement at the pitch meeting. ‘Hey, guys. What if we made zombies meets Grand Theft Auto? Not only that, what if we put hundreds of zombies on the screen at once?’

Capcom, the makers of the still amazing, zombie-ridden Resident Evil, didn’t settle for mere a hack and slash killing game for “Dead Rising” for the Xbox 360. They were thinking big, really big. There’s a wide-ranging story in which Frank West, a freelance photographer, gets a tip about zombie in a small town mall. The wise-cracking Frank, who’s shot some war pictures in his time, is a big character and fairly ego-ridden (certainly unlike the proud, but psychologically-changed war photographers I’ve met).

Frank has his hired a copter pilot to drop him on the rooftop of the Willamette Parkview Mall in a nowhere town of 53,000 people. Outside, slow moving zombies by the thousands want to get in. Why are they lured to the mall? You don’t know. Why are there zombies in this particular small town? You don’t know that, either. Inside, those trapped in the mall are freaking out. There’s a mystery to solve and you have three days in which to do it (there’s a timer in the game that keeps ticking down to add tension).

You won’t kill any zombie in the first twenty minutes. During that time, however, the drama builds as you make your way from the roof into the mall itself. When Frank does encounter the humans within, you’ll see amazing detail in their facial reactions as they speak. The game play graphics themselves are less thrilling, but pretty intense nonetheless.

In order to unravel the mystery, you must complete various missions which come at you fast and furious by cell phone. As you run through the outdoors, trying to keep zombies away with a sickle or devour them with a lawn mower to try in a quest to save one guy, your phone rings with more missions. It’s a little distracting, but it gets your adrenaline going nonetheless.

This is an action game, not a horror-based game. Even though there’s blood and guts when a zombie dies, there’s no real fear here. What you feel is a race against time and a need to solve the mystery to make a big name for yourself in the dog-eat-dog world of photojournalism. As you snap photos along the way and get points for doing so, you’ll search the inner workings of the mall. But the mall itself is a strange place for a zombie game. I understand the need to disrupt a placid suburban lifestyle with the undead and I understand the need to have a huge place in which to set the game. This one has five bookstores and over 20 clothing stores. It’s a lot to explore. But the mall is a little bland to me, as all malls are.

One problem encountered within the first hour dealt with saving the game. If you haven’t saved at various save points in the game, and you get bitten by a pack of zombies, you’ll die. And your progress within the game will die with it. That means you’ll have to start all over again. Capcom should have added an automatic saving feature to Dead Rising. Having the gamer save along the way temporarily impedes the flow of high adventure that the game is so full of.

In Dead Rising, you have a ton of weapons from which to choose, and even a bowling ball will knock down zombies like they were ten pins. When you eat food to increase your health, each food item helps you differently. Potato chips are a quick fix. OJ’s better. When you do encounter a massively powerful enemy, killing him or her will reveal an often-fascinating story. There are about 80 characters in the story with whom to interact, about as many as you’ll find in a good mystery novel like Devil In A Blue Dress.

I’m still trying to deal with the massive, open-ended, go-anywhere essence of “Dead Rising.” In scope, it’s like one of author Neal Stephenson’s books in his Baroque Cycle. It can take a while to get used to the nature of, well, everything. But once you get the gist of Dead Rising, you’ll be well rewarded with rich gameplay and, sometimes, a first-rate story, too.

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