Sunday, December 17, 2006

Looking for alternatives to Xbox, Wii or PS3?

Believe it or not, there are some console videogame alternatives to the big three consoles from Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo.

The new GameWave system is affordable at as little as $79 from some retailers and includes four remotes. Graphically it's more along the lines of the original PlayStation but offers a change of pace from traditional games.

The unit also plays DVDs.

The console, which includes a plastic case to hold the controllers, is easy to hook up and play. Each remote comes with batteries included. Games like 4 Degrees offer family fun via trivia questions where speed is just as important as accuracy. It's kind of Jeopardy-lite. A new version of 4 Degrees, Vol 2, offers a Pop Culture trivia game that will probably get your teenagers talking to you more.

REWIND 2005 looks back at the biggest news events of the past year and Zap 21 is a pretty-fun-to-play version of Blackjack that you can play without losing your shirt.

Nothing about this system screams hi-tech, but that is not the goal. It's simple family entertainment, where most games are like video multiple choice.

The DVD player works well, so if you're in the market for a basic DVD player, it might be worth it to give this system a try. Don't like it? You still can play DVDs on it.

With games at $24.99, this is a console that might be an alternative for a family looking for something other -- or something cheaper -- than PlayStation3, X-360 or Wii (Grade: B-minus).

Leapster TV: A step beyond the award-winning hand-held videogame, this console system brings the Leapstar to the big screen. Leapster is an excellent series of instructional games aimed at kids.

The purple game console will store six game cartridges and comes with a Dora The Explorer pinata party cartridge that helps teach phonics and letters. If my 2-year-old is any indication, this is memerizing for the little ones.

The joystick is appropriately large for small hands and has a joystick. A touch pad and stylus on the controller helps with writing skills during game play.

There are a variety of games to play with the system. We tried Leapster L-Max, which combines a race game and math skills plus use of time. Your kid is having fun racing and learning time at the same time. And it works.

The Backyardigans features characters from the popular kids show and helps with letters and phonics plus numbers and memorization. Another title, Animal Genius, was my little one's favorite, since he was learning about animals as he played (Combined Grade: A).

The Fly: This is another cool innovation from the people who brought you the Leapster. The Fly is a pen that is really a pretty powerful computer. It's got an optical scanner that "sees" everything you write on special "Fly paper." It's also got a voice.

The pen can help with math problems and help you remember to clean your room. It's a neat gift for anyone, say, 8 to 13. Games like Harry Potter, Interactive Marauder, will test skill by having you use your virtual pen to navigate maps and answer questions correctly.

Playing the popular Sudoku puzzle game with the Fly allows you to play faster (and repeat play really fast). There are more than 200 puzzles to solve, and even big kids -- like me -- will have fun with this one.

My favorite game, though, was Fly Through Algebra, that is basically an algebra tutor available whenever you need it. Designed for grades 6 through 9, the fly computer will actually help you figure out what X equals. Every time. It's a fun way to learn (Overall Grade: A-minus).

Friday, December 15, 2006

Top 10 Games For Christmas, plus Metal Gear Solid Still Going Strong

Here are the top 10 must-have videogames for the holidays.

1. Wii Sports: The game of the year comes free with the Nintendo Wii system and allows you to swing your controller like a baseball bat in baseball, swing your arm like you're bowling in bowling. Same with tennis and boxing. Just pure family fun. It's amazing nobody had thought of a controller like this -- and a game like this -- until now.

2. Call Of Duty 3: One of the most beautiful games I've ever seen (I prefer it on PS3). With the intense graphics and action, you'll feel like you're part of the combat during the Normady breakout, which helped liberate Paris during World War II.

3. Metal Gear Solid, Portable OPS: See PSP game's review below. Just wow.

4. Madden NFL 07: The PS3 and 360 versions look great, but its the Nintendo Wii version you've got to try. Using the wand controller, you'll be throwing and tackling in brand new ways.

5. Resistance Of Man: Sony's answer to Call of Duty is one of the best-looking PS3 games of the year. It takes you to an alternate universe for a 1950s battle against an army of really gross looking aliens who are bent on taking control of the earth.

6. Eragon: Based on the futuristic Hollywood movie of the same name, this game is deep and beautiful and made me look at my X-360 in a whole new way. And fighting dragons has never been this much fun or looked so good.

7. Excite Truck: Another Wii winner. You turn your "Wii-mote" sideways and watch the fun start as you twist and turn through a variety of realistic-looking tracks. Controlling the truck is hard enough and the sound is very realistic, too. You'll have hours of fun with this, especially in multi-player mode.

8. NBA 2K7: The best overall sports title for any next-gen console. Madden on Wii is more fun to play but on PS3 and X-360 (especially PS3), you might mistake playing this for watching a real game. Controls are excellent and post play is more realistic than ever. Warning: don't start an 82-game season. You'll find that you'll be dying to finish.

9. Mario Kart: No better DS game to be had. Just pure fun and easy to play. Hey, it's Mario!

10. Gears Of War: Beautiful action game that has sold more than two million copies on X-360. It's violent and rated Mature. You play as a wrongfully jailed hero who is busted out of prison in the future and fight an evil group of aliens called the Locust. Trust me. Get this.


One of my favorite videogames of all time is Metal Gear Solid, and I was very excited to try Metal Gear Solid: Portable OPS on PSP.

This picks up where Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (a game I've never played) ended. So I was a little lost starting out, but once you get going, you'll quickly fall into the James Bond-like storyline and several mini-games like Death Match and Capture Mission.

For me, though, the storyline is the thing. The lead character, Solid Snake, finds himself on a top-secret mission in South America in 1970. He's captured by a group of his former friends and rescued by a Green Beret, who tries to help Solid Snake stop a rogue Russian mission.

The game is beautifully drawn, perhaps the best drawn game ever on PSP and I loved the controls, like being able to flatten your back against a wall to peek around a corner. This is a must-have title for PSP this Christmas.

Superman Returns: Boy, it sure is cool to fly and this new game from Electronic Arts looks simply beautiful on Xbox 360. Superman has simple missions: save his city, save the world. He stops meteors and puts out fires and fights familiar enemies like Bizarro and Metallo using his heat vision, freeze breath and super speed and strength.

Controls for me were a bit difficult to learn. I'm not one for reading manuals, admittedly, but it took forever how to figure out which controller buttons to use to hover up and down, forward and back. Once you master it and the simple changes for super speed and Supe's different powers, playing this Teen-rated game is fun.

I didn't get through the whole thing, but I only saw Clark Kent and Lois Lane in cut scenes, which was strange and even though the 80-square mile Metropolis is about as huge a world as I've ever seen in a videogame, you cannot fly underwater or really interact with all objects. So instead of crushing through a building wall, you just bounce off of it.

The missions, however simple, inject a feeling of desparation. Meteors or bad guys are destroying the city. Since only bright green rocks can hurt you, this game mostly ends when the city takes on too much damage. Graphically, this title looked wonderful on the 32-inch LCD HDTV I tried it on and the soundtrack was movie quality. This one had me going for days. If I didn't have 2,007 more games to check out, I'd be playing this one for a long time (Grade: B-plus).

Brothers In Arms: D Day: Ubisoft delivers yet another war game for the PSP, placing games on the night before D Day when the 101st Airborne parachuted behind enemy lines in Normandy.

You play as Matt Baker and Joe Hartsock, trying to successfully lead the invasion. What makes this one somewhat unique is that you play or fight in actual battle zones. Via Wi-Fi, you can team up with other PSP users or face them. You've seen a lot of these battle games by now, and even though this one looks good and has a good storyline, there are several killer options in this genre that would make this a tough must-get. It is a nice change-of-pace for fans of this genre (Grade: B-minus).

Castlevania, Portrait of Ruin: Its been 20 years since this vampire-hunting game debuted. This Nintendo DS version is rated T for teen due to some serious blood and gore, suggestive themes and violence.

You can take control of two heroes, vampire killer Jonathan, or his girlfriend, Charlotte, who has a special magical ability (to reveal which might ruin the plot). The graphics are somewhat cartoonish but make no mistake this is a "serious" game with a dark plot line. You basically destroy all vampires in your path, or try to, as you try to keep the dark forces from re-emerging.

I enjoyed playing, and the two-player control adds a new dimension to an old favorite, but I wouldn't let my 7-year-old within 20 feet of this (Grade: B-minus).

Thursday, December 14, 2006

College Hoops 2K7 Feels Like Campus

It's college basketball season and the one college basketball game I've tried, thankfully, is excellent.

2K Sports' College Hoops 2K7 looks good on X-360 (though I'm curious to see how good the PS3 version will be) and plays better.

The game is totally college. You can create your own chants or just allow your favorite college fight songs to play. The crowds really come to life during gameplay and the gyms look just like the real thing, down to the fans crowding the court at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

A few coaches, like North Carolina's Roy Williams, are digitized into the game, otherwise, you'll get the same brown-haired guy who claps a lot and says the same things over and over in cut scenes of the pregame locker room.

Team unity is important and every player's performance can help your team play better.

I love a new mode in timeouts that quickly allows you to change defenses, double-team players or set priorities. In legacy mode, you can recruit new players, check out the postseason brackets and even see a new highlight show. And via Xbox live, gamers can mirror the real life tournament matchups and play for a chance to attend the 2007 Final Four. All in all, a very, very solid title. This feels like campus (Grade: B-plus).

SOCOM: US Navy Seals Combined Assault:
The game was built in association with the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Command Unit, so you know when you're asked to swim 500 yards, run 1.5 miles, do 42 push-ups, 50 sit-ups and six pull-ups in an hour, well, it's the real McCoy.

I was disappointed graphically in the PS2 and PSP versions, but that may be due to playing so many games in hi-def lately on PS3 and X-360. The storyline and gameplay, however, were fantastic. Your mission is to protect the country from enemy forces in rural and urban environments. You can play online with four players, which was kind of cool. I liked playing alone in my living room and turning the stereo way up. You'll see and feel war all around you.

Better still you can choose how you engage an enemy and enemies behave more like real people and not robodrones who do the same thing every time. Very impressive, and can't wait to see this on PS3 (Grade: B-plus).

SingStar Rocks: This is one of the best party games I've tried in awhile. On PS2, you get two high quality microphones to sing into and you can also use your EyeToy to put yourself onto the video screen.

The game includes song and videos from current artists and you sing along in solo, freestyle and even battle modes with friends. I wish there were more music to choose from, but you'll find more than a few songs to have fun with. The cool thing is to put yourself in the video where Janet or Britney or Mariah would be. Better yet, Gloria Gaynor's favorite "I Will Survive" is in the game. About the only thing missing is Simon Cowell to tell you how bad you sound. Pure fun (Grade: A-minus).

NBA 07: Simply beautiful on Sony's PS3 machine, this NBA sim allows players to download five game scenarios weekly involving real NBA teams from real NBA games and attempt to replay those moments. Think of it as an interactive SportsCenter.

All the NBA teams and players are here. This game isn't as good as 2K Sports' NBA offering, but it looks so good you can get caught up just watching. Control of players is good and the feature to download real-life situations is cool, plus you can play many from the 2005-06 NBA season. Ultimately, though, sports games come down to how well the action is. This one, however beautiful, has good control and TV-style presentation, but if you only have the cash for one hoop title, your money should go to 2K (Grade: B).

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 07: The PlayStation 3 version is slightly better looking than the X-360 version we tried earlier this fall. I miss the rumble control in the PS3 controller, something that helped make this game seem more real, having the controller vibrate during tough shots. Sony needs to bring that back.

What I do like about this game is the new training facility, which allows you to really hone your skills and since you start out as a guy who can't hit it far enough to really compete without a great short game, you'll need this area.

There are six new courses, including British Open stalwart St. Andrews, and 15 licensed golfers, including Annika Sorenstam and John Daly. Swinging with the familiar PS controller is easier than on X-360, though the control is sensitive. You'll hit a few in the weeds before you figure it out. Tapping the L1 button for more power while trying to keep the ball straight is difficult, which is a good thing. A golf sim, by nature, should not be easy.

You can choose one of several difficulty settings but a new feature, reactive difficulty, will toughen the conditions if you're regularly going too low. You can also look for some ESPN intergration into the game with tickers and news and radio updates.

All those features are nice, but the super-deep create-a-golfer is almost a game unto itself. You pick out how much overbite you want your guy to have, whether or not he has a scar. My only quibble? Black folks look awful shiny.

EA Sports hasn't left anything out of an excellent game. There are mini-games and the golf season now features the playoff, just like the real thing. It's addictive to try to get yourself onto the money list alongside familiar big names, and the major championship venues, like Pinehurst No. 2, are so accurate its scary.

This is a must-have on PS3, solid in every way (Grade: A).

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Is Nintendo's new controller a house hazard?

By now, you have probably read about reports of the Nintendo Wii controller doing damage to plasma screens worldwide.

Apparently, some avid gamers are swinging the "Wii-mote" so hard and so fast -- after finding out that hand speed is mirrored with on-screen results -- that the little white controller sometimes slips out of their hands and becomes an in-home scud missile that can leave your 52-inch LCD with a crack in it before you finish your 18 months of no-interest payments.

There's even a website devoted to damage caused by the Wii remote.

The image you see above was posted on that website, though, like the "Today" Show's Matt Lauer, I'm not so sure this is a real picture.

Nintendo President Satoru Iwata said damage done by flying controllers -- including damage to TV sets -- is likely be due to overuse of the straps.

"Some people are getting a lot more excited than we'd expected," Iwata said. "We need to better communicate to people how to deal with Wii as a new form of entertainment."

I did catch this YouTube video that shows what can happen when you get sweaty palms and make hard motions at the same time.

What I've noticed, watching people play Wii in stores and in homes is that few people actually use the strap attached to the remote, which is supposed to be wrapped around the wrist. And it is possible to swing the remote so hard that the strap snaps and the thing slips out of your hand.

Nintendo has a true revolution on its hands with this motion-controlled remote and needs to develop a tougher wrist strap as well as encourage players to not swing so hard. Perhaps a re-done Wii Sports would have different physics built in that don't respond quite so well to speed of movement.

Some stores are selling "Wii Gloves," colorful skins that fit over the remote and make it easier to grasp. My advice? Hold the remote tight and keep your hands dry -- and don't swing the darn thing so hard.


Mercury Meltdown: Ever wanted to guide a liquid mercury blob around obstacles and through traps? Of course you didn't, but in this new PlayStation2 title from Reverb Communications, you will find yourself enjoying it.

Or at least I did. Your blob can change forms and there are plenty of mini-games to unlock. And this a lot more fun than it sounds (Rating: B)

Super Monkey Ball Banana Blitz: This is just as much fun as Nintendo's Wii Sports game. There are 50 party games here and you use the Wii remote like a bat and a steering wheel to manuveur your way. Playable with up to four players, the thing here is the fun of playing.

Graphically, this game is superior to its predecessors on GameBoy. The controller allows better motion than the old analog sticks. You roll your glass-encased monkey around 3D worlds. The early worlds are easy to conquer, then things get progressively harder. But still fun. Instead of using a thumb to maintain your center, you now use your wrist with the motion-based controller. That takes some getting used to, but you'll gain overall more freedom of movement and the game just plays better (Grade: B).

Yoshi's Island: Baby Mario, Baby DK, Baby Wario and Baby Peach come to play in this game, and each one gives Yoshi access to unique powers. Baby Mario gives him speed and Peach lets him fly like Superboy.

You'll need all these abilities because evil Kamek has captured Baby Luigi and you must find him. It's classic Mario game play on the DS, which does a better-than-expected job with the graphics. Of course, there are all your favorite power-ups: flowers, stars and red onions. Of course, there is all the Mario fun you've come to expect. Some may be tired of Mario games, but I think I'll be a fan forever (Grade: B).

Friday, December 08, 2006

Nintendo's Brain Boost is just plain fun

Some quick reviews:

Brain Boost (Nintendo DS): Majesco’s new DS game can actually help you improve your memory, which your favorite 40-year-old game review definitely needs and also helps with concentration. Now who said videogames are just mind candy?

Brain Boost Beta Wave stimulates the right part of the brain (concentration, busy thinking). It has simple-to-play games like shape recognition, addition, moving dots and reminder sequences. It’s education but fun for young and old kids. Each game has four levels with 20 problems each. Once you master it, though, replay value won’t be high.

Brain Boost Gamma Wave deals more with perception and problem solving and includes games for remembering circumstances, faces and colors (Grade: C-plus for both titles, Nintendo DS).

Family Feud: One of my favorite game shows of all-time is fun on your PlayStation 2, but not quite as much on DS. You can play against opponents or the computer and create customizable characters that look sort of like your family members (and definitely have the right name). There are 1,000 questions and tons of fun, but it’s a lot more fun to play against friends on PS2 on your television set (Grade: B-plus).

That’s So Raven, Psychic On The Scene: Raven Simon, former Cosby kid, has one of the most popular kids shows on TV, so this Nintendo DS video game, aimed at young girls, should have a built-in audience. It’s pretty simple, following the Mario-theme: you try to stop a bad guy from shutting down Raven’s theatre by picking up clues and designing clothes. There’s more than 40 hairstyles, outfits and disguises to wear. It’s simple to play and kind of fun, too (Grade: B-minus).

Kim Possible, What’s The Switch: Based on the Disney Channel cartoon hit, the orange-haired crime fighter is now in her fifth videogame. In this one, Kim has to team up with her enemy (and black-haired lookalike), Shengo, after two popular characters have their minds switched. You really need to know the show to follow the storyline. I got a bit lost, but the 11 missions are playable as one of three characters and you can acquire some gadgets to help you along the way. If you know the show, you’ll like the game and with over one million games sold in the franchise, there’s an audience waiting (Grade: B-minus, for PS2).

Ridge Racer 7: It’s been awhile since I’ve played Ridge Racer, but on PlayStation 3, it seemed like an old friend, except with much better graphics. During one jump on my first run, it looked like I was going to spill into the ocean. The game won’t let you do that, but it looked so real, I lost my breath for a moment.

This is a pure race game with 40 cars on 22 tracks. There are hundreds of thousands, literally, of customizable options. Ultimately, though, it’s about how well you handle your car. This game is heavy on drifting and you pretty much will have to let your car spin and smash into walls to win. It’s best to drive into curves, let off the gas, lose control and then use your controller to regain it.

The online integration is good and I experienced no lag times on Sony’s online network. You can race with up to 14 players online. But I liked the new career mode, where you can kind of become the Jeff Gordon of your virtual world (Grade: B).

Gundam Crossfire: War games look so amazing on PS3 and sound so real that if you walk in the room and don’t realize someone’s playing, you will have a moment of pause. Seriously.

Gundam is another strong launch title for PS3 from Namco. The storyline takes you nine months past the time earth has been invaded by Zeon forces and now earth’s armies are trying a massive counterattack. But do you choose to join the earthlings or aliens?

What makes the game so good is how real the environments look. You can literally lose yourself in real-looking worlds and be awake – the battle circumstances and scenes change rapidly. You can have your MS squad attack, halt, dash and (the cool one) scatter.

You want realism? Each body part of a mobile suit has its unique durability, so if you destroy a hand it has different results for that character than a leg. Awesome (Grade: A-minus)