Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Mario Kart DS - Japanese advert

OK, so I know it's been around for ages, but this Japanese advert for Mario Kart DS always makes me smile.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Taiko no Tatsujin (Taiko Drum Master) - DS

My love for rhythm action games runs deep: PaRappa the Rapper, Ouendan, Elite Beat Agents, Rhythm Tengoku, Gitaroo Man and Un Jammer Lammy are just some of my favourites. But there was one game that has, until now, passed me by - Taiko no Tatsujin (Taiko Drum Master).

I read about it years ago when it was out in Japan on the PS2, but never took the plunge. But after messing around again with Rhythm Tengoku and Ouendan recently, it crept back into my mind. So, without messing about, I ordered the first DS version from Japan and I've put a good few hours into it.

It comes packed with two drumsticks - one red, one blue. The aim of the game is very simple, but like the best rhythm action games, it takes a good deal of pratice and effort to master.

The DS's touch screen displays a large drum, while across the top screen, small red and blue circles move from right to left towards a vertical line. When a red circle reaches the line, you tap the centre of the drum, but when a blue circle hits the line, you have to tap anywhere outside the drum. You'll also see big versions of the coloured circles which require you to use both sticks rather than just the one.

Add to this drumming frenzy long drum rolls, double-sided hits and balloon notes, and you'll be kept on your toes for quite a while.

The game starts with three difficulty modes, Easy, Normal and Hard, but there is also an Insane difficulty that can be unlocked. I've tried a couple of songs on Hard, but for a novice like me, this brought me out in a cold sweat. I was left gawping at the screen as a constant line of circles whizzed by.

If you complete a song without missing a single beat, you are rewarded with a gold crown. Collecting crowns also unlocks new songs and small gifts for your pet Taiko.

Yes, you have a pet drum, who lives in his own little room. You can deck him out in all manner of funky outfits and you can change things such as his face and body colour. Right now, my Taiko is kitted out with a full tiger outfit and a Geisha-style hairpiece! Nice.

There are 30 songs available right from the start and they cover a wide range of musical styles: J-Pop, anime tunes,, classical scores and videogame music. It really doesn't matter if you have a deep hatred for J-Pop as you'll be so engrossed in keeping the beat, that you'll just have a huge grin on your face as you laugh at the absurdity of the whole thing.

There is a second Taiko DS game out in Japan, but I'll wait a while before getting my hands on a copy, as I'm only currently halfway through Medium level - I can't move on until I get gold on every song.

For those wishing to import, the language barrier doesn't cause much of a problem, as it's pretty obvious what's going on. It's a great rhythm action game and well worth checking out if you've completed Elite Beat Agents and are looking for a new challenge.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Pixeljunk Eden - PS3

The demo of the highly anticipated Pixeljunk Eden went live on the US PlayStation network last night, and I've been playing it for the past couple of hours.

Eden is nothing like the previous two Pixeljunk games - Racers and Monsters - and its abstract design has left many wondering what Eden is all about. Thankfully, it's very simple, but deviously addictive.

You control a Grimp, a small creature that can jump and grab on to plants and other surfaces. The object of the game is to explore the levels to find shining Spectra. However, the Spectra are hidden high within the levels, so in order to reach them, you have to collect pollen to grow flowers, which you can then climb.

Seeds fly gently through the air and to get the pollen inside, you have to break them open by colliding with them. To do this, you simply grab a flower stem and swing around in circles to try and crack open as many as possible and collect their contents. Collecting pollen fills pods, which then germinate and transform into flowers.

The crisp and colourful abstract design is stunning and the organic levels are a joy to explore: levels change colour as Spectra are collected, while plants sway in the breeze - it's a beautiful spectacle.

The game's soundtrack is equally as good, featuring the work of Japanese artist Baiyon - Tomohisa Kuramitsu - who creates an evocative electronic soundscape, which blends brilliantly with the game's abstract world.

The demo is surprisingly deep, with three full gardens to explore. The full version is due to hit the Japanese, US and UK PSN stores next Thursday and features PS3 trophy support, online leaderboards, co-op play for up to three players, video recording - which enables you to upload your favourites on to YouTube - and Remote Play.

It's a definite day one purchase for me and could well be one of this year's surprise hits.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Chibi-Robo - Gamecube

I first picked up the American import of Chibi-Robo back in May 2006. However, due to a faulty Gamecube and subsequently the Wii's region lockout, I only had the briefest of chances to play the game upon its release. But that changed last week when I bought a cheap second-hand Cube, allowing me to really get my teeth stuck into this cracking little game. I managed to complete it last night and I've been blown away by just how wonderful the experience was.

But let's take the clock back to when Chibi-Robo made his debut. Unfortunately for the little fella, the game was released just as shops in the UK were stopping their Gamecube support. As a result, Chibi-Robo never got the recognition it deserved and while it received favourable reviews upon release, people struggled to get their hands on a copy. In fact it's something of a miracle that Nintendo released it at all in the UK.

That's a real shame, as this Skip Ltd creation is definitely one of the Gamecube's finest pieces of software.

Chibi-Robo makes his entrance at the Sanderson family's house during their daughter, Jenny's, birthday party. Mr Sanderson has bought our mini robot chum as an expensive gift for his daughter, but it soon becomes apparent the family are struggling financially, which leads to friction between Mr and Mrs Sanderson.

As Chibi-Robo, it's your job to wander through the house, collecting and disposing of rubbish, cleaning floors and surfaces, generally helping out and spreading happiness as you go. Chibi starts with only a limited amount of battery power, which means he initially can't wander very far. However, as you gather happy points by doing good deeds, your battery life increases, meaning the whole house becomes accessible. If you find yourself running out of juice, simply find the nearest power socket and plug yourself in to replenish your energy.

It doesn't take long to find out just how serious the situation between Mr and Mrs Sanderson has become, as you discover that Mr Sanderson has been turfed out of the bedroom and is now sleeping on the sofa.

It turns out his latest expensive blunder is just one of many and comes at a time when his marriage is already under pressure due to his laziness and lack of job prospects - a theme which runs for the majority of the game. It's very unusual to see a game feature social problems such as family breakdowns and financial troubles, especially when it's the least thing you expect in a cutesy, Toy Story-like wrapping. It works incredibly well, though and leads to many touching scenes, and it's hard not to feel for poor Jenny as she is forced to look on as her parents constantly bicker.

The flip side to Chibi-Robo's darker themes is the game's brilliantly realised comedy characters. As night falls, toys across the house spring to life, and what a colourful cast they are: Sophie, a lovestruck toy caterpillar, Drake Redcrest, a cheesy Buzz Lightyear wannabe, the wonderful Captain Plankbeard, a wooden pirate who constantly swigs from his obligatory bottle of grog, Funky Phil, a musical flower who almost steals the show with his laugh out loud dance moves, Mort, the mournful monster who lives under Jenny's bed, Sunshine, Jenny's innocent looking teddy bear who is actually suffering from a nasty drug addiction, and an army of egg soldiers called the Free Rangers...I mean, what's not to like?

As Chibi progresses through the game's story, he receives new outfits to achieve different tasks. The achingly cute frog suit, for example, allows Chibi to communicate with animals, while the ghost outfit lets him scare other toys. He'll also utilise household objects to help with his cleaning duties: a toothbrush becomes a useful scrubbing brush, while a spoon is used for digging in flower beds. Chibi also gets access to a range of gadgets, such as the Chibi-Copter, which lets him float down gently from high places.

The Sanderson's house is a joy to explore thanks to well thought out level design and the game's bright, colourful look, and while some of the quests are nothing more than standard fetch quests, they never feel repetitive or boring as there are so many new places to be discovered and secrets to be found.

Special mention also goes to the game's soundtrack - it has a sort of Charlie Brown feel to it, with the cheery upbeat theme suiting the game perfectly. The game's use of sound is also something special - using a toothbrush to clean paw marks off the carpet is accompanied by gentle acoustic strings, while each step our chipper little robot takes is met with plinking musical notes which change depending on the surface he's traversing. And although there is no speech - think of Okami's or Animal Crossing's garbled take on the spoken word - it's hard not to smile when Sarge - an egg with a bad attitude - gives his troops an earful.

Chibi-Robo took me a little over 20 hours to complete and it brought me so much enjoyment that I didn't want it to end. If you have a Wii - or a Cube in the cupboard - and haven't experienced this gem of a game, get on eBay now and see if a copy is kicking about.

Go on, Spread The Happiness.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Soul Bubbles - DS

Without much in the way of publicity or any sort of marketing drive, Soul Bubbles arrived in the UK about a month ago, and if you have a DS, it's well worth checking out. Created by Eidos and Mekensleep, Soul Bubbles takes elements from Loco Roco, Lost Winds and Kuru Kuru Kururin and blends them together to create a beautiful and charming game.

The basic aim of the game is to herd spirits into bubbles and 'blow' them safely through dozens of labyrinth-like levels, which are full of traps, obstacles and enemies, to a collection point at the end.

As Soul Bubbles is on the DS, the stylus has been used to great effect - drawing a circle creates new bubbles to capture spirits and collectables, and it's also possible to split bubbles with a simple stroke. This enables you to access smaller gaps in the levels and get to previously unreachable locations. Bubbles can also be deflated and care must be taken as you blow your bubbles through the levels - with the stylus, not with the microphone, thankfully - as they can be easily popped.

The graphics have a wonderful hand-drawn look to them, and although they are simple, they are lovely and bright. The soundtrack is also something special. Wind chimes, pan pipes and string arrangements are mixed together with mournful bird song and tribal drums to create a spellbinding atmosphere. Played through headphones it's quite an experience. In fact, with its evocative sounds and chilled-out gameplay, it's the perfect late night game.

So if you're looking for something different to play on your DS, check out Soul Bubbles, it's a little slice of magic.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Shiki-tei - new content

Good news, virtual gardening nuts, the first downloadable content was released this morning for Shiki-tei on the Japanese PSN store. For 300 yen you can have new things for your garden, including a black cat, ducks who walk about your perfectly manicured lawn, new birds and, most importantly, a Toro the cat statue.

There's also a Shiki-tei PS3 theme going for free, so get downloading.
Here's Toro in my garden:

Flower - PS3

With the E3 conference almost over I thought it would be fitting to focus on a game from the show which didn't get as much attention as the big hitters from Microsoft and Sony.

Amidst the guns, destruction and brutality of Gears of War 2 and Resistance 2 was a delicate offering from thatgamecompany, the same team who developed the excellent flOw on PS3 ­- Flower.

Flower was first unveiled at the Tokyo Game Show last year, although I have to admit I didn't pay it much attention at the time. However, after watching videos from this year's E3, Flower has become one of my most anticipated titles.

Controlling the wind with the PS3's Sixaxis, you pick up a solitary flower petal on the breeze. You can then guide the petal across a gorgeous looking landscape and if it comes into contact with other flowers, their petals join yours and make their way across rolling fields.

Creator Jenova Chen has revealed that every level is actually a different flower's dream, with each flower/dream featuring new sights, sounds and colours. The fields are made up of 200,000 individual blades of grass, each one completely independent from the others.

Only two landscapes were shown at E3, a bright, lush looking field and a drab, grey field - although this soon became a sea of brilliant colour, as the petals spread their pollen as they danced across the grey grass, transforming it instantly. It brought to mind the effect in Okami, although this was much more detailed. When I first saw this, I nearly dropped the mug of tea I was holding and it took me a few minutes to get my jaw back up off the floor.

Although Jenova is keeping his cards close to his chest regarding the game, he did reveal that varying weather effects will play a part, as will music, with players able to blend their actions in time with the background sounds.

Flower will be a PlayStation 3 exclusive title and will be available via the PSN. No release date has been announced, but don't expect to be playing any time soon. It's still in pre-alpha stage, although you'd never guess as it looks absolutely stunning.

Take a look at these beautiful videos to get a feel for the Flower experience. Although they are in grainy web-o-vision, they give you a taste of what's to come. Just imagine it running in full high definition glory:

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Rhythm Tengoku - GBA

Made by the same team behind the weird and wonderful WarioWare games, Rhythm Tengoku was released on the GameBoy Advance in Japan in 2006 and remains one of the best games ever released on Nintendo's handheld. Unfortunately, the game never made it to these shores, which is a real shame as it was fun to play, easy to understand and highly addictive.

Rhythm Tengoku is crammed with a great selection of music-based mini games which require you to try and keep the beat, usually only using the 'A' button. Rather than WarioWare's five second mini-games, Rhythm Tengoku's can last up to a few minutes.

The game is split into levels, with each level containing five games. The first level, for example, includes hitting baseballs in time to the beat, pulling hairs out of an onion (!) marching on the spot, helping a martial arts expert punch flowerpots and clapping in sequence with two other clowns. Strange? Well I did say it was made by the same team behind WarioWare! What did you expect?

If you think that sounds a bit crazy, other activities include shooting ghosts with a bow an arrow, bouncing a rabbit across turtles and whales, and guiding three mice across a table to a block of cheese, while trying to avoid the attention of a hungry cat.

Your reward for completing these games is a remix mode, which takes all five mini-games from the level and blends them together in a new song. And talking of songs, the music in Rhythm Tengoku is fantastic and while I wouldn't have it anywhere near my iPod, the cheesy Japanese pop suits the mood of the game perfectly.

Also included on the cart are drum lessons, which utilise every button on the GameBoy Advance. Along with the lessons, there is also a freestyle mode so you can hit the skins any way you want. It's great fun and sounds fantastic through headphones - and great if you can't afford Rock Band - like me!

As it's a couple of years old, and the GameBoy Advance has now been replaced by the all-conquering DS, there is no way the game will ever receive a western release.

But there is still hope for Rhythm Tengoku nuts - the DS version titled Rhythm Tengoku Gold is set for release in Japan on July 31st.
I'm not too sure of the finer points of this version. All I know is that you hold the DS like a book (think Hotel Dusk). Hopefully Nintendo will release it over here sometime in the future, but until then, I have the game ordered from Japan, so I'll post my thoughts next month when it arrives.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Knytt Stories - PC

The very talented Nicklas Nygren (aka Nifflas) has created some truly memorable games in his time, but the pinnacle of his achievements (so far) is the wonderful - and completely free - Knytt Stories. Knytt Stories, like all of Nifflas' games, is spellbinding and it's obvious within minutes of playing that a lot of love has been poured into this beautiful title.

The game takes the form of a simple platformer, but calling it merely that would be doing the game a huge disservice. While it is true that your character performs standard platform moves and learns new abilities by collecting orbs scattered throughout the levels, the game is there to be savoured, not rushed through. You see, the real beauty of Knytt Stories is in the remarkable and beautiful atmosphere it evokes.

From soothing acoustic strings and the gentle sound of falling water to chilled-out electronic soundscapes, each new area drips with ethereal ambience, which fits in perfectly with the game's simple, but aesthetically pleasing, graphical style. It's an absolute joy to play through and hours will be spent exploring new areas.

With games such as Everyday Shooter garnering praise across the gaming community - and it is an excellent game - Knytt Stories seems to have been left behind for some inexplicable reason. The game is crying out for someone like Sony to pick it up and distribute it via thePlayStation store.

Come on Sony, make it happen!

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Shiki-tei - more pics

Thought I would post a few more of my favourite snaps from the PS3's Shiki-tei. I've become a bit obsessed with trying to capture the perfect shot, and while I have yet to achieve perfection, this little selection features my favourites. I hope you like them. (click them for a full size image)

If you'd like to take a look at more of my snaps from Shiki-tei and Project Gotham Racing 4, you can find them all on my Flikr site (link is on the right). They make great desktop wallpapers (if I do say so myself!)

Aquanaut's Holiday - PS1

No sooner had I blogged about the return of Aquanaut's Holiday on PS3, when, to my amazement, I discover the original PS1 game was released this morning via the Japanese PS3 store for 600 yen.

My original copy has been misplaced somewhere down the line, and it's a game I've been looking out for over the last few no avail. But tonight I downloaded it again and have put an hour or so into it.

OK, so it's nowhere near as polished as Endless Ocean on Wii, and the draw distance is pretty poor, but it's still got that old magic. Due to the game's minimalist sound effects and eerie music, Aquanaut's Holiday has a sombre atmosphere. But just travelling through the sizeable ocean, peering out into the gloom in search of some landmark or sign of life is as compelling as it was back in 1996.

Each of the pad's shoulder buttons emits a sound. The sealife you encounter all have their favourite sound and when played, they will dance. Squids rotate 360 degrees, while starfish twirl around on the sea bed. You can also set probes anywhere in the ocean which you can then hop between to cut down on journey times. This is especially useful for returning to a point of interest.

As for the points of interest, there are many - from huge stone faces on the sea bed, to mysterious footprints in the sand.

It's been a while, so I'll need to play around with it a bit more to jog my memory about creating a coral reef to attract different species, as right now, I'm puzzled. Still, the game is pretty self-explanatory and although the game is from the Japanese store, menus are in English, with only a smattering of Japanese throughout. Plus, there's the bonus of being able to play it on my PSP. Fantastic!

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Shiren The Wanderer - DS

This year has been great for games. Burnout Paradise, Grand Theft Auto IV, Patapon, Audiosurf, No More Heroes, Lost Winds and Odin Sphere have all provided me with countless hours of quality entertainment, but one title remains head and shoulders above all others - Shiren the Wanderer on the humble DS.

Yes, a game which is essentially a port of a 13 year old Super Nintendo game, has been glued in my DS for the last four months, providing soaring highs (but mostly crushing lows), as our brave samurai and his pet weasel Koppa, make their way to the mythical Lair of the Golden Condor.

Why is Shiren so special, well, let me begin with a little bit of background. Shiren is a Roguelike, a game with its roots deep in the early days of computer adventures. Rogue appeared back in the Eighties and has since spawned other classics such as Nethack and Angband.

These RPGs feature randomly generated dungeons and use letters, numbers and symbols to represent the on-screen action. They might look primitive by today's high standards, however, many enjoy this type of game and can look beyond their crude and basic presentation and enjoy the rich and rewarding gameplay.

Unlike today's RPGs, death in a Roguelike is permanent. There's no loading a previous save, there's no going back and when you die, you will lose all the items in your inventory. Harsh? Yes. Frustrating? Extremely. Entertaining? Most definitely.

The challenge comes from attempting to get as deep into the dungeon as you can before dying. It's not an impossible task, though. Many adventurers enter a Roguelike and succeed in their quest.

Enter Shiren. This hardy samurai has previously appeared on the Super Nintendo, Game Boy and N64, but none of the titles ever made it to the west...until now.

Shiren slipped into the UK with little fanfare back in March this year. It took me several fruitless journeys before I found the little fella, tucked away as he was, behind a copy of Bratz (Oh, the shame) on the store shelf. Still, he found a good home in the end.

Shiren follows a similar mechanic to the Roguelikes of old - when you die, you get sent back to the starting village, are forced to start again from level 1 and all items and equipment you were carrying are lost forever. It's an incredibly tough little game, and many gamers will be put off after the first hour, but perseverance does pay off.

There are a few inclusions which make your gruelling journey a little easier. The first are the invaluable warehouses, which are dotted throughout towns and villages. Any items stored in one of these handy places is saved for your next run through.

This is incredibly useful as a well-stocked warehouse enables you to travel a little further each time. The second, and perhaps most important feature, is that characters you meet along the way will remember you on your next play through. This leads to new quests and new party members to accompany you on your journey. Because of these inclusions, you feel you are making progress every time you play.

Every new area in Shiren should be approached with trepidation. One false move and it could be curtains. Some monsters you meet along the way simply require brute force to deal with, while others require a bit more cunning. As for those enemies - well, what a weird and wonderful bunch they are - from the Riceball Changer, who changes a random item in your inventory into a riceball (and it's usually something you need) to the pain and suffering of the creature-summoning Menbell, each foe has to be tackled in its own way.

What you must remember when playing Shiren is that the game takes great delight in punishing you in a multitude of different - and amusing - ways.

You'll be robbed, blinded, killed by a variety of deadly traps, stunned, turned into a riceball, you'll fall to your death from a bridge, be beaten up by your own brother, items will rust, food will rot, you'll starve to death, you'll fall into monster houses, be ganged up on, thrown about, blown up by bombs, attacked by artillery, items will be cursed and you'll be floored by magic. Sound like fun?

You will experience hate towards Shiren. You'll switch off your DS in disgust, swearing that you will never play it again, but something pulls you back in. Slowly but surely hate turns to love. The grimaces you experienced when being pecked to death by a Master Hen, turn to grins of joy as you realise the absurdity of your latest death. Never forget that dying in Shiren is all part of the fun.

Once you have completed your quest - and you will, trust me - a wealth of bonus dungeons becomes available, each offering its own unique challenge. There are puzzle quests to undertake, too, with each individual head-scratcher a joy to solve.

Distinctly SNES-like in their appearance, the graphics are clearly nothing special, but they do have a certain charm and those who delighted in the days of glorious looking sprites will be content. The music and sound effects are most enjoyable, though, from trickling streams and howling winds, through to the musical menace of the caves, each new area throws up something atmospheric and new.

My only gripe with Shiren is the state of the UK box art, which is truly awful and pales beside the glorious Japanese artwork.Still, forget about the artwork, and instead embrace the sheer joy of Shiren. You should be able to pick it up fairly cheap now, so go on, take the plunge. You'll be glad you did.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Afrika - PS3

As if the release of Aquanaut's Holiday on PS3 - see below - wasn't enough to get you excited, Sony's much talked about safari sim Afrika is also on its way, and is due to be released in Japan on August 28. Sony are on record stating they currently have no plans to release Afrika in the west, but hopefully something will be announced at the forthcoming E3.

Afrika was first shown at the E3 conference back in 2006, and details since then have been few and far between. What we do now know, however, is that you take on the roll of a wildlife photographer. You'll be given assignments to observe the animals in their natural habitat and record your findings on camera.

Looking like a grown-up version of Pokemon Snap, Afrika looks very interesting and it would be a real shame if Sony were to keep the game Japan only.

Here's a link to the official site: