Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Holiday buying guide: the Wii

This is the first of atypicalgamer’s weekly buying guides. Future posts will cover the PS3, Xbox 360, DS and PSP. Note that while I’ve tried to be objective, these posts ultimately represent my own personal opinions. Links take you to, although it’s worth pricing against other online retailers such as and

Holiday buying guide: the Wii

Designed with non-gamers in mind, the Wii is the easiest system for beginners to get the hang of. Available games include dozens of family-friendly titles as well as old Nintendo favourites, many using the motion-detecting remote in conjunction with your TV. The Wii was launched two years ago, in November 2006, round about the same time as the PlayStation 3, a console it deliberately set out not to compete with. It doesn’t look like a piece of high-tech audiovisual equipment and nor does it try and act like one, its non-confrontational design ethic making it accessible to anyone, right down to the Wii remote, which looks like a cross between a standard controller and a fat TV remote. No wonder teenage boys aren’t as impressed by it as their Mums are. Just as revolutionary at launch was the price, exactly half of the PS3. The problem was that they couldn’t manufacture it quickly enough to keep up with demand. Hopefully it won’t be a problem this Christmas, even if the price is now no longer the lowest of the bunch.

Should you buy it?

This console really does have something for everyone, its uncomplicated party-style games supplemented by the latest versions of Nintendo’s top properties such as Mario, plus there’s the Virtual Console. This online store accessed via the Wii offers dozens of 80s and 90s games originally designed for long-dead consoles at pretty reasonable prices, alongside a handful of original Wii Ware games not released on disc.

For serious gamers, it’s more likely to be a second console, especially if they are into online gaming, where it falls far short of its rivals. The Wii just doesn’t do multiplayer FPS games like Halo 3, although that’s not to say it doesn’t offer a few titles aimed at over-15s. The online service should please concerned parents, though, as gaming partners are restricted to those who’ve shared their Friends Codes.

Summary of pros and cons

+ Suitable for all ages of gamers

+ Suitable for inexperienced gamers, including older people

+ Simple to connect to your TV

+ Wireless Internet connection, which allows game downloads, web browsing, online gaming and the BBC’s on demand TV streaming in the UK

+ Store photos

+ Offers many of the same games as the other consoles but with unique ones too

+ Can play games designed for its predecessor, the GameCube console

- Games are not high definition, even if your TV is

- The Wii remote eats batteries

- You can’t use it to play DVDs or Blu-ray discs

- Not set up for serious online gaming

- Fewer games in the higher age-group categories

Ten games to buy

1. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

2. FIFA 09 All-Play

3. Wario Ware: Smooth Moves

4. Okami

5. Mario Kart

6. Super Mario Galaxy

7. Zack & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros' Treasure

8. Resident Evil 4

9. Animal Crossing: City Folk

10. Wii Fit

Other stuff to consider

At least one extra Wii remote, possibly an extra Nunchuk (the analog stick attachment that comes with the remote).

Rechargeable batteries for the remote.

A GameCube controller and memory card if you plan to play GC games.

A Component Video Cable
to connect to your TV for maximized graphics.

© Kate Berens, 2008

Saturday, October 25, 2008

From computer bleep to symphony orchestra: Video Games Live 08

Video Games Live has a two-fold mission. Firstly to increase awareness of videogames and their music as works of art, and secondly to introduce the gaming public to the orchestral concert experience. So what better venue for this year's London date than the Royal Festival Hall at the Southbank Centre, the capital's cultural hub? And what of the experience itself? Well, it's like going to a classical concert, but with all the buzz of a rock concert and the audience participation of a pantomime.

The majority of the evening's music was performed by the English Chamber Orchestra, with a passion and vitality inspired by conductor Jack Wall, who's also the project's co-creator and has composed music for games like Mass Effect and Jade Empire. Standing behind the orchestra on stage, the London Chorus performed vocal duties, their voices at their most haunting in the theme to Halo. This piece was enhanced by the guitar work of co-creator and concert MC Tommy Tallarico, himself responsible for innumerable award-winning videogame scores.

In its travels around the globe - stopping anywhere with a big enough concert hall, it seems - the organizers have had plenty of practice, but the show doesn't feel tired or clinical, with plenty of chat and audience interaction, for example in a human game of Space Invaders. Nothing was stranger, though, than seeing a gamer up on stage producing a top-scoring Aerosmith Guitar Hero solo alongside the real-life blistering guitar work of Tallarico. The other main soloist was YouTube pianist Martin Leung, who reproduced his finger-blurring blindolded Super Mario medley live, as well as a slightly less frantic collection of Nobuo Uematsu's Final Fantasy tunes.

Enjoyment isn't hampered by not knowing every piece of music, as a screen shows collated video sequences at the same time, beginning with an early medley of retro hits from Pong to Frogger, the bleeps originally created in lieu of instruments now cleverly reproduced by the instruments themselves. The audience's favourite pieces were no surprise - Final Fantasy VII (a stonking version of "One-Winged Angel"), Super Mario Bros, Legend of Zelda, Halo, WoW and Metroid - and many were introduced by their composers via video clips, adding to the cheers and whoops of a truly celebratory atmosphere. More than any film score, these pieces of music have been a soundtrack to long period's of people's lives, and it's a privilege to hear them performed live in a grand setting.

There are currently fifty or so pieces in Video Games Live's repertoire, but only around half can be performed at a single concert, so it's worth going again if you get the chance. The concerts sell out quickly, as you'd guess from the fact that the Video Games Live Vol. 1 CD debuted earlier this year at number ten in the Billboard charts. It’s just been released in the UK.

And while a CD can't replicate the live experience, it's another opportunity for Video Games Live to demonstrate the quality of musical talent at work in videogames and its cultural impact on a generation of gamers.

The week in games October 20–24, 2008

Or a selective summary of what happened in the world of videogames this week, for anyone who doesn't religiously follow the newsfeeds. I've picked out a handful of news stories, with links to either the original or the most interesting source for further reading.

Max Payne film slated

Surely not! It’s not especially newsworthy for a game-based movie to get poor reviews (see the Rough Guide to Videogames for a whole catalogue of disasters). The movie has performed pretty well at the US box office but is somewhat flawed if the views of 3D Realms, developer of the Max Payne games, are anything to go by. The tale of a rogue ex-cop set on revenge in a noirish world with a Norse edge, it may not be as good as the game, but is it all bad? Some of Game|Life’s readers kind of liked it. It’s not out here for another few weeks, but I think I’ll wait until it comes out on DVD. 

New Star Wars MMO game details unveiled

There's already a Star Wars MMO, but this one comes from BioWare, who created the hugely popular Xbox RPG Knights of the Old Republic and its sequel. So far a PC-only game, it's long been rumoured to be in production and was even quoted as the reason for EA buying BioWare last year. Less high fantasy and more space opera, it could offer a genuine reason to leave World of Warcraft, at least that’s what EA is counting on. Gamespot has the most detailed story.

Sony issues a profit warning …

Sony is feeling the effects of the global economic downturn, especially in its electronics and movie divisions. The strength of the yen is also a contributing factor since exports are so crucial to Sony’s business. It remains to be seen how games will fare.

… while Microsoft reported record profits

Specifically for its own gaming business, helped along by the recent price cuts.

London Games Festival 08 begins

In its third year, the LGF offers more events than ever, ranging from last night’s opening Video Games Live concert (more on that later) to a hands-on with Little Big Planet, a careers fair, an EA event in Trafalgar Square, a movie, anime, manga and games show at the MCM expo at ExCel, and an accompanying Fringe Festival. All the events are listed at the official site.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A Rough Guide to Computer (Western) Roleplaying Games

Note: this follows an earlier post on JRPGs.

Origins: 1980s and 90s
Videogames in the early 1980s meant arcades or personal computers for the most part: an Atari, Commodore or Apple II, perhaps an IBM machine running DOS. At the same time tabletop roleplaying was still in relative infancy, eagerly seized on by a generation of (mainly) boys who craved games that allowed them to exercise their imagination and play a hero (they'd long grown out of Action Man). The two went together like Whizzer and Chips: getting a computer to do the dice-rolling bit made sense and the first attempts at RPGs were created by students on university mainframes – needless to say, they wouldn't engender much excitement today.

Ushering in the 1980s, one of the earliest RPGs worthy of the name was Akalabeth: World of Doom, created by Richard Garriot (under the pseudonym "Lord British"), who went on to develop the Ultima series that would dominate early 1980s CRPGs. Ultima's main competition was the Wizardry series from Sir-Tech, beginning in 1981; and they were joined by the first of New World Computing's Might and Magic series in 1986. But in 1989 another player entered the ring, former strategy game publisher SSI, boasting an official Dungeons & Dragons license on the front of Pool of Radiance, first of the seminal "gold box" series. All these games can be seen as the foundations for the 3D Ultima Underworld (1991), and in 1994 the first of Bethesda's Elder Scrolls RPGs, which are still going strong today.

In the years since, CRPGs haven't ever fallen out of fashion, but they have absorbed influences from first-person shooters and third-person action games, while the ubiquity of 3D has put paid to the isometric viewpoint beloved of both RPG and strategy gamers. Of course the other revolution in gaming, and the roleplaying genre more than most, has been the Internet. Now online worlds inhabited by thousands if not millions of players have made it possible to have as social a gaming experience on the computer as around a tabletop.

How to define a CRPG?
You could say it's any RPG that's not from Japan; the computer criterion isn't so useful now that consoles have the necessary processing power for developers to successfully port games to the Xbox 360. Of course the distinction's not quite that easy, as every genre adopts elements from others, and the defining lines continue to blur. Ironically, the videogame RPG has even begun to influence tabletop roleplaying itself: the latest edition of the Dungeons and Dragons game has adopted elements from World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy, amongst others. The following, then, could be seen as definining features of roleplaying games generally.

Skills and levels Whatever the statistics or properties of the character you create or take on in an RPG, they won't be the same when the game ends. You become responsible for developing that character throughout the adventure, picking up new skills, growing better at existing old ones, gathering or buying equipment and becoming more competent overall. It's one of the most engrossing things about the genre, ensuring you always have a goal that's not necessarily related to the story, while rewarding the time and effort you put into the game, and has therefore been borrowed by numerous other types of game.

Atmosphere and environment While it started firmly in the Tolkienesque fantasy milieu and mostly sticks with variations on that, the CPRG has ventured into more original settings with games like Fallout and System Shock 2. Any environment has benefited from the evolutionary step of automapping, which shows you where to go next as well as reminding you where you've been. Back in the early 1990s, your best friends if you wanted to get out of a dungeon were a pencil and some graph paper.

Stories Sometimes these are central to the game, as they are in JRPGs, for example the Baldur's Gate games by BioWare. At other times it's a framework within which you can do whatever you please, taking the route of good or evil, a thief or a knight, say, the important thing being that your character is a creature of the game's particular world, and there's usually no shortage of books and documents to pick up for background reading on the world's history and culture. This can be more interesting than any voice acting, but however the story is told doesn't guarantee it'll be worthwhile in itself.

Why play a CRPG?
Bearing in mind that you don't necessarily need a high-spec PC or Mac (though some games aren't available for the latter anyway), with plenty of games including World of Warcraft sticking with specifications that will allow the greatest number of users, plus the fact you can play an ever growing number on consoles too, there's no reason not to. What you'll be signing up to is a longish game, but one with an engaging mix of strategy and all out hack and slash plus the satisfaction of building up a character to the heroic heights of childhood dreams.

For a really indepth read about computer RPGs, I recommend Dungeons and Desktops: The History of Computer Role-playing Games
by Matt Barton.

Coming soon: a list of the best RPGs in all genres.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The week in games October 13-17, 2008

Or a selective summary of what happened in the world of videogames this week, for anyone who doesn't religiously follow the newsfeeds. I've picked out one news story per (working) day, with links to either the original or the most interesting source for further reading.

Monday 13 October
Games to beat the economic downturn
That's according to Michael Pachter, the frequently quoted games business analyst from Wedbush Morgan. Later in the week it was announced that September's sales were down 7 percent from 2007, but Pachter believes this to be a blip caused by the release of Halo 3 last year. It's true that games provide good value entertainment on a per-hour basis, but their initial cost can still feel high. UK retail chain HMV obviously agrees, as it announced earlier this year that it would soon begin selling used games, as specialist games shops already do.

Tuesday 14 October
In-game advertising for Obama's campaign
Barack Obama may not have spoken out against games with the fervour of Hillary Clinton, but there's no denying it's an emotive political issue. All the more surprising then to see EA confirm the rumour that campaign ads for Obama and his site feature in Burnout Paradise for the Xbox 360. Later in the week, it was revealed that a further 17 games carry the Democratic message.

Wednesday 15 October
Saints Row 2 is apparently "a sin"
Saints Row 2 is shaping up to be a worthy competitor to Grand Theft Auto 4 on more than one front. Today it leaped onto the media controversy bandwagon, horrifying the NYPD, as reported in the city's Daily News under the headline "Letting game players kill cops and smoke drugs, 'Saints Row 2' is a sin". It does put the other side of the argument, if you read far enough, quoting THQ, "Saints Row 2 is not a gang simulation game… It's a tongue-in-cheek game."

Thursday 16 October
WoW vs WOAoR
Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning has been heralded as the first MMORPG to present a noticeable threat to Blizzard's World of Warcraft, although no one, least of all developer EA Mythic, expects it to reach WoW's heights of eleven million subscribers. However accomplished it is, abandoning a comfortable, familiar place where your friends also hang out is never easy: according to Blizzard over half those who left for Warhammer have already returned to the WoW fold. It's worth noting that for the Mac-using minority, WoW is still the only place you're welcome.

Friday 17 October
Global recall of system-selling game
One of the year's most anticipated games, British developer Media Molecule's Little Big Planet has been recalled globally by publisher Sony, due to the discovery of some text from the Qur'an being used in a background music track. The game, which Sony are expecting to be a system seller for the PS3 this holiday, was recalled so late that copies in the US have already been shipped in pre-orders.

Friday, October 17, 2008

atypicalgamer in November: holiday buying guides

Every week throughout November I'll be posting a buying guide to one of the main games consoles and handhelds: the Nintendo Wii, Nintendo DS, the PlayStation 3, PlayStation Portable and the Xbox 360. In good time for the holidays, each guide will cover the console's pros and cons, the best games to pick up, and any extras you need to make the most of it, along with enough background to help make sense of it all.

Whether you’re shopping for yourself or your family, you’ll find all the information you need right here at

PS Don’t forget to pick up the Rough Guide to Videogames, the perfect stocking stuffer in my (biased) opinion!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

There's still time to win a Wii from Rough Guides

The Rough Guides competition to win a Wii is still open, and all you have to do is click on the link and fill out your details (US residents only). Also included in the prize is one of my favourite games, Legend of Zelda: The Twilight Princess, plus of course a copy of the Rough Guide to Videogames. It's worth doing even if you've already got a Wii - give a gift like this and you'll be basking in gratitude all holiday.

On the right is the ad to look out for at Gamespot. I can't link to it directly, and in fact can't even get a look at it - I automatically get UK-based ads. But if you're too impatient, you can also click here to get right to the Rough Guides competition page.

Good luck!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

A Rough Guide to Japanese Roleplaying Games

Note: this post follows on from an earlier post about the DS and RPGs.


Dragon QuestMany of the geeks programming computer games in the early 1980s would have grown up playing paper-and-dice Dungeons & Dragons in the late 1970s, so it isn't entirely surprising that roleplaying games proved so influential in the early home computer era. There was no equivalent for console gamers, though, a group who didn't need to be as technically adept as computer gamers of the time.

Being a fan of those very computer RPGs, Yuji Horii, a designer at Japanese publisher Enix, decided to create a simplified roleplaying game for Nintendo’s Famicom (known as the NES in the West), one that was designed to appeal to the mainstream Japanese console audience and provide them with the kind of experience enjoyed by players of Ultima (1980) and its like. And so Dragon Quest, the first Japanese console RPG, was released in 1986 (in the US as Dragon Warrior in 1989) and marked the beginning of both a new genre and a schism in RPGs that continues today. Not long after, Hironobu Sakaguchi produced what he thought would be his last game before leaving Squaresoft, Final Fantasy (1987, in the US 1990), and together these two series have dominated console RPGs, long one of the pre-eminent genres in Japan. Since their merger in 2003, Square Enix is probably the largest publisher of JRPGs, although other companies, notably Atlus and Sony, have also bestowed localized versions of JRPGs on the US and occasionally the UK.

East or West?
No longer can you assume that a console RPG comes from Japan: computer RPGs have been encroaching on this territory, perhaps most significantly when Xbox gamers were given their own version of PC stalwart The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind in 2002. Other features may have begun in one genre before crossing to the other (in both directions), but still the role of the player, the characters in the game and its storyline remain distinct.

Character: One obvious difference is the JRPG's distinctive character design. Even when they’re reasonably life-like, rather than the deformed avatars of the past, they retain some level of anime/manga styling. In most Western RPGs character appearance is less idealized, but this attempt to emulate real life can sometimes make them rather repellent in a way that more stylized character forms avoid. (This is the Uncanny Valley in action – see the Rough Guide to Videogames for more.)

Final Fantasy XII characters

Story: More fundamental than looks, however, is the Japanese RPG’s core concern with story: the characters are ready-made for the story in which they star and there’s little room for player invention. But this is part of their appeal; since they don’t rely on the player for cues, JRPGs tend to feature more epic tales, with an emotional power that’s absent from many Western RPGs.

By the same token, there's not as much freedom to explore the game world: as the characters only exist through the storyline, there has to be a prescribed (if not strictly linear) route through the game – you can't ignore the plot, as you can in some Western offerings. That world is often the same traditional fantasy setting (essentially medieval Europe), although JRPGs frequently adopt alternative backdrops, such as modern-day Japan, a steampunk theme, or even post-apocalyptic space.

Rogue Galaxy

Role of the player: In a Western RPG you may well be able to determine your character's appearance and career - choosing to be a fighter, spellcaster or thief, say - and, just as importantly affect their relationship with NPCs (non-player characters) by choosing from limited choices of dialogue in a given situation. In JRPGs the demands of the story put this kind of freedom out of the question. While fighting battles is almost always down to the player, the story will be told either in cut scenes or as text bubbles, making the player very much a spectator. All of which means that any identification you feel comes not from a sense of ownership but has to be achieved by the story's emotional pull.

Final Fantasy IX

Why play a JRPG?
Their detractors bemoan the stereotypical angst-ridden heroes, the restrictive plot and the insane number of items and bizarre monsters, which in Japanese translation represent a whole new terminology to be learned. They also invariably take a long time to play, but that's true of all roleplaying games, whatever their origin. It can be hard to find enough time to devote to epic journeys in fantasy land and even harder to remember what happened last time you played. But something Japanese RPGs do offer is an involving storyline, clich├ęd though it may be, and one that's often remarkably well written and effectively translated (no wonder it takes so long). So you're able to develop a satisfying connection with the characters much as you would if reading a book or watching a movie; something that's not so easy in a game where your character doesn't come with a predetermined personality and role in the plot.

Coming soon: a bit more on Western RPGs, followed by a top ten favourite titles.

The week in games: October 6-10, 2008

A selective summary of what happened in the world of videogames this week, for anyone who doesn’t religiously follow the newsfeeds. I've picked out one news story per (working) day, with links to either the original or the most interesting source for further reading.

Monday 6 October
DSi will be region-locked
Unlike the current DS Lite, the original DS and the various Game Boys before it, it seems that Nintendo's new handheld won't play games bought outside its home region. Bad news for any Brit who travels to the US, where games are cheaper and more titles are released or indeed anyone who has the language skills to play original Japanese games. This won't apply to current DS games, only those made specifically for the DSi.

Tuesday 7 October
FIFA 09 tops the charts
It’s not out in the US for another week, but here on football's home turf, it's sold 37.5% more than last year, making it the fastest-selling version ever. And it's had some pretty decent reviews, too, despite the fact that games press (including the Rough Guide to Videogames) has long preferred Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer series.

Wednesday 8 October
Blu-ray player for Xbox 360?
Having opted to back the wrong horse with Toshiba's HD DVD format, Microsoft were widely reported to have sourced external Blu-ray drives for the Xbox 360, in an original tech story that covers some of the reasons for their original choice. The rumour was swiftly denied by Microsoft.

Thursday 9 October
New Halo game announced
Microsoft’s keynote speech at this year's Tokyo Games Show included the announcement of a new Halo game, the Bungie-made Halo 3 Recon, a self-contained expansion that precedes Halo 3, and one in which you play as a marine, not Master Chief. It's due out in the second half of 2009. Amongst other revelations was the fact that Xbox Live membership has topped 14 milllion. has an interview with Bungie about the game.

Friday 10 October
Videogame shop managers find a new hardware source
From the British weekly trade mag MCV comes the story that GAME store managers have been snapping up bargain Wiis and Xbox 360s in their local Sainsbury’s supermarkets, to resell in their own stores. This helps them to offer their customers "choice, good value and . . . the best possible availability going into the Christmas period".

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The week in games: September 29 to October 3, 2008

Or a highly selective summary of what happened in the world of videogames this past week, for anyone who doesn’t religiously follow the newsfeeds. I’ve picked out one news story per (working) day, with links to either the original or the most interesting source for further reading.

Monday 29 September
Kids want games for Christmas
According to a US game retailer, 9 out of 10 kids and teens polled in a sample of just under 1000 want a game for Christmas. No surprises there. Guitar Hero, Rock Band and Mario Kart were top of the wish list.

Tuesday 30 September
Xbox 360 charges ahead in the UK
The recent price drop for the Xbox 360 has seen its sales soar, doubling those of the PS3 in the subsequent fortnight, according to Microsoft. The prize for second place in the console wars may be won this Christmas, in the UK at least.

Wednesday 1 October
Horror game Silent Hill: Homecoming won’t publish in Australia
Australians gamers over the age of 15 are up in arms after being denied another game due to archaic censorship laws that mean the highest age rating is 15. I reached the original article by following this link.

Thursday 2 October
New all-singing, all-dancing DS announced
Nintendo unveils a new model of the DS in Japan, maintaining its strategy of upgrading hardware that’s still selling bucketloads. The new DSi will have a camera, the capacity to play music off SD memory cards and will be able to download software. It’s coming to Europe next year.

Friday 3 October (ongoing)
Game company executives seem to prefer the Democrats has a list of donors to political campaigns in the US, including that of former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, a proponent of the view that videogames are causing a decline in the moral health of the nation’s children.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Nintendo's DS: a new home for the old JRPG

The DS has famously attracted hordes of new gamers with easy to master titles like Brain Training, but with rather less fanfare it’s also been providing for older hands, not least in the genre of Japanese roleplaying games. This type of game found its first home on the NES in the late 1980s, but in recent years several titles have been revised to fit one or other of Nintendo’s handheld machines. When new titles can take years – and many millions of dollars – to produce, it’s hardly surprising that the industry has picked up on a rich resource of smaller, graphically less complex games that suit the DS perfectly.

There’s an interesting review of the latest rehabilitation, Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen, at’s Game|Life blog, in which Chris Kohler puts the game into its original historical perspective. Even on its release in Japan in 1990, Dragon Quest IV was challenging the accepted forms of the genre with its unusual characters, while its pace is noticeably faster than that of more recent games in the genre. It was a couple of years before an Anglicized version would reach North America (retitled Dragon Warrior), but it never made it to Europe, so for many this game, and others like it, will be a new experience.

To date I’ve played just one Dragon Quest title: despite it being by far the most popular series in Japan, the first game to be localized for Europe was 2006’s Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King for the PS2. On the other hand, I've long been a fan of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest’s main rival in Japan, whose flourishing in the UK must be partly down to a lack of heavyweight competition (the two companies responsible for the series merged in 2003). But even with Final Fantasy there are some unfamiliar games to get to grips with in diminutive form, as even that series didn’t get here until 1997.

So what is a JRPG you may be wondering? Roleplaying may itself be a familiar term, but these games are a breed apart from their Western, computer-based relatives (like Oblivion, Baldur’s Gate, or the massively multiplayer World of Warcraft). Although they began from the same tabletop roleplaying roots, JRPGs have pursued their own, distinctive path. And while the first JRPGs were intended to be a simplification of Western RPG rules, they have since evolved their own equally complex systems.

For more on the hows and whys of JRPGs, check out my next post.