Age of New Super Mario Empires Master Chief

It is mid-August, which means one thing. I’m killing time waiting for the next Madden. I’ve been doing this with a mix of old and new and new-old games. Madden 2006

I still pick this up and play it once in a while, especially on the PSP. The game appeals to me because running is too easy and the human-controlled defense is too good. This means I spend most of my time winning. Last night, my simulated Patriots pummeled the Bills 42-0, capping off the fourth quarter with a play-action 65 yard bomb and a two-point conversion. Good times.

The tricky question this year is whether the 360 version of the game is worth considering. If the gameplay is as broken as last year, I’ll probably put up with the PS2 looks-like-ass filter for 12 more months.

Age of Empires: DS

This is a strategy game. It is well done. On the other hand, since it is not Advance Wars it is not as good as Advance Wars. Still, it’s a different setting and a nice change of pace. But it’s really not as good as AW.

New Super Mario Brothers

I picked this up for the annual summer trip to the parents. I never played any of the classic, or even modern, Mario platform games. I’ve only played Mario Golf and Mario Kart. I tried Mario Sunshine once, but it gave me a headache.

If anyone ever needed conclusive proof that 3-d really did nothing to improve the platformer, this game would be a good start. The gameplay is fast and light and fun and super-refined. I presume that anyone who played this game on the NES has a deep sense of constant deja-vu, but for me, this is a great collection of classic gameplay that is as good as anything that has come around since the late 80s. And as a bonus, no camera problems.

My only complaint is, not surprisingly, the retarded save system. I die a lot. This means I have to play the stages dozens of times to get through them. This gets old. Worse, you can only die a limited number of times before starting the whole world over again. This is hard evidence that the game designer hates me.

I don’t think it would be too much to ask to save my game after each level. But NSMB only has saves after every couple of levels. Yes, there are special save “huts”, but you only get to use them once and you have to pay “money” to do it. This must be the result of some brain-dead old skool game design where the designer is supposed to treat the player like manure and the player is supposed to thank the designer for his trouble.

Only two things mitigate my hatred for this system. First, since it is a Nintendo game, there tend to be resources and power-ups when you need them. Second, there are some mini-games that get you as many lives as you need. Still, these are half-measures. They wink and nod at modern game design but only meet me halfway. Unlimited lives and a save at the end of each stage would have been better proof that the developer does not hate me.

Halo

A couple of weeks ago, I listened to a GDC presentation about Halo on my iPod. The talk was fascinating, and covered a lot about what is good in the game, particularly the A.I. and the pre-recorded alien dialog (“Augh! He’s everywhere!“). As part of the presentation, they played an audio track from one of the early levels of the game, and I got curious about how it would be to replay the game from scratch.

I remember the orginal Halo as being slow, plodding and confusing, especially in the early stages. I had a lot of trouble staying oriented and finding my way through the areas. I also died a lot.

This time through, I find the pacing to be much faster. I originally wrote that the pacing in Halo 2 was tighter and faster than Halo, but now I think they are about the same.

The combat in the game also feels faster and more satisfying than I remember it. Maybe it’s just because I’m using the bitchslap a lot. This will sound like an obvious point, but shooting things is fun. This really isn’t the case in other shooters. In almost every other shooter I’ve played since Halo, combat ultimately ends up being a chore. It is boring and repetitive, there is no rythm and flow. In the end, you feel like you need to kill the enemies if for no other reason than to just make them shut the hell up and get their 5 lines of dialog out of your head.

Even in Half-life 2, the shooting took a back seat to physics puzzles, seeing the city, and following the narrative line that never did anything but tease you. Consider that the best level in the whole game didn’t have you using a “real” gun, with, you know, bullets.

In Halo, you shoot things, and the combat has been tuned and refined to such a degree that when you get into a pleasing rythm it’s almost like dancing with the game. Enemies appear at the perfect rate (and slightly differently every time) and you know just what to do to them to make them say something pithy (“Grenade! Oh No! Not again!”) and then fall over in a cloud of blue blood and burnt alien flesh.

The first time I played Halo, I really only felt in tune with the game after I got the shotgun. This time, the feeling started a lot earlier and lasted a lot longer. The game stands head and shoulders above most shooters primarily because so many small details were done right. I’m not sure exactly which of these details were the critical ones. I just know that I’ve played a lot of shooters since Halo and none of them are as fun. You can complain about the checkpoints, the backtracking, the repetitive alien floor plans and the vehicle control, but for me, the whole package comes together better than any game in this genre since the first Half-Life.

Halo 2 is pretty good too.