In Memoriam

Today is Memorial Day, one of the more somber holidays of the year. Coming from a family with a many ties to the military, I’ve heard firsthand many stories about pains of war and the great responsibility in general it takes to serve. A friend of mine just recently entered the Air Force, and I find myself praying for her and all of our service women and men every day.

Video games have seen several war heroes– Marcus Fenix, Master Chief, take your pick– but there are several real heroes who make the sacrifice every day to protect and serve this nation. I say a sincere thank you to all those who served and will serve, and say a prayer for all those lost. Until next time.

Peace & Pixels

The W!

Tonight the WNBA kicks off its 16th season with a contest between the visiting Los Angels Sparks and the host team Seattle Storm. After a rather intriguing off season that saw assistant coaches become head coaches, unexpected trades and Stanford’s Nneka Ogwumike drafted as the league’s top rookie, it’s finally good to see the regular season start.

My beloved yet beleaguered Chicago Sky was a very busy squad this off season, thanks to second year Coach and General Manager Pokey Chatman. The Sky added veterans Ticha Penicheiro, Swin Cash, Ruth Riley, and Le’coe Willingham to the young core of Sylvia Fowles, Epiphanny Prince, and Courtney Vandersloot. That veteran presence is critical; each of the four ladies brought in have won at least one championship. Since their inception in 2006, the Sky have never made it to the postseason, but the team’s current roster should end that drought this year. I’m believing!!But this is not a basketball blog nor was meant to be. We do games here. Today, we’ll focus on 2007’s NBA Street: Homecourt, so far the last release in Electronic Art’s (EA) excellent NBA Street franchise.

For those unfamiliar with the series, NBA Street takes real NBA players and places them in a street ball setting. Games were played on real life street courts, such as Rucker Park or Foster Beach, and players had the ability to perform trick moves (like spinning dribbles or bouncing balls off an opponent’s head) that were inspired by actual street ball techniques. All NBA Street games feature players from every NBA team, as well some fictional teams with players created specifically for the games. What made Homecourt’s team selection different from its predecessors was the inclusion of a WNBA squad.

A first for the series, Homecourt‘s WNBA team featured only six players: Sheryl Swoopes, Sue Bird, Lauren Jackson, Lisa Leslie, Diana Taurasi, and Tamika Catchings. The team was likely meant as a showcase of some the league’s elite and recognizable talent. In that aim, it didn’t fail. When I played the game, I used a trio of Taurasi, Bird, and Leslie. The gameplay was very good; the ladies played like their real life counterparts. Taurasi was a scoring menace, Bird was an excellent passer, and Leslie was great in the post. When playing against the guys, however, you couldn’t just overpower them but could still compete by being smart finessing around their defenses. Admittedly, Leslie versus Dwight Howard didn’t always favor Lisa, but the game was balanced enough to ensure she wasn’t helpless.

I would love to see more basketball games incorporate the WNBA in some way. Perhaps the next NBA Street or NBA Jam game will feature every team in the league, as opposed to just a small selection of individuals. Maybe a future NBA 2k game could have a WNBA league mode which would follow the same basic gameplay mechanics as the NBA games, just with WNBA players. Whether or not game developers would actually consider these ideas as something worthwhile (i.e. profitable) enough remains to be seen. Actually, I don’t know if any company would even think to include WNBA players now.  Perhaps if enough people inquire about more WNBA influence, developers might respond favorably, but we won’t know until we contact the developers, or WNBA rosters just happen to appear in new games. Considering there were no WNBA players in any of EA’s NBA Jam games, perhaps we won’t be seeing any WNBA rosters in EA’s basketball games for a while. Time will show us.

Before signing off, I wanted to address the passing of a beloved Sky fan. Plif05, a regular contributor on the Rebkell and Chicago Sky Talk forums, passed away last week after a bout with diabetes. Plif was one of the kindest people I never actually met; she was always good for a positive post and a laugh. She will certainly be missed, and my prayers go out to her friends and family. Until next time, folks.

Peace, Pixels & Go Sky!!

Tuesday Treasures: Max Payne

Max Payne 3, the latest installment in the redoubtable Max Payne series, will debut today on the home console market. To commemorate its release, I’ve decided to do a retrospective on the series from its beginning. So set your clocks to Bullet Time as we shootdodge through the franchise’s history!

BAD. ASS.

In 1996, Finnish developer Remedy Entertainment had just completed Death Rally, its first video game.  Inspired by the success of games like Tomb Raider and Loaded, Remedy decided its next project would be creating a third person shooter. Petri Järvilehto, one of Remedy’s founding members, brought in his friend Sam Järvi (aka Sam Lake) to help write a script for the new project. From inception, Lake wanted a story about a tough private eye in a game that would have a heavy psychological premise. Lake’s eventual tale would be about a cop avenging the murder of his family, surviving near impossible odds to meet that end. Originally, the game had  projected titles of Dark Justice and Max Heat before finally settling on Max Payne. A prototype of the project was sent to American developer 3D Realms, which signed the title for a development.

By 1997, Remedy began work on a new game engine, dubbed “Max-FX”, specifically for Max Payne. In this article from Gamespot’s Micheal Mullen, many of the engine’s details were outlined, such as plans for advanced lighting and particle effects. Initially, the game featured multiplayer support (a feature that was later dropped) and was to contain tools for level editing after its release, allowing for user-created content. The engine’s most famous feature would be “Bullet Time”, the ability for the player to slow down time in order to swiftly kill enemies. Bullet Time is not the actual slowing down of time (like a superpower) but rather a higher state of focus for Max, in which he was able to better use his superior reflexes to defeat his opponents. Bullet Time allowed for gunfights similar to those created by director John Woo, who frequently used slow motion in his action movies.

At the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in 1998, Remedy released a trailer for the game, showcasing the Max-FX engine’s ability to create chaotic action sequences with cutting edge lighting and particle effects. Remedy aimed for releasing MP in the summer of 1999, but delays eventually hampered its release for the next three years.

In 1999, six developers from Remedy’s Finland studio traveled to  New York City (their personal account of the trip is found here) to experience the city and take photographs. Accompanied by two ex-NYPD policemen, the developers went on a thorough tour of the town, absorbing both the magic and morbidity of the Big Apple. The photos proved important, not just for research but the game’s visuals. During the time of Max Payne’s development, the capability of video graphics cards was evolving, allowing for better lighting effects and more realistic textures. The developers’ photographs used the photographs from their NY trip in crafting MP’s environments, creating a photo-realistic ethos. The usage of photos of weren’t just limited to environments. A 2008 Edge article reported how Remedy used the pictures of friends and relatives of Lake as models for characters in the game. Lake himself served as the model for Payne. Additionally, these likenesses appeared in the game’s graphic novel-style cutscenes.

At E3 in 2000, Remedy released another trailer for MP, presenting a more refined look and enhanced gameplay footage. Although no official release date existed for the game, the trailer featured a message that claimed the game would be available “When it’s done.” A year later at E3, the final trailer for the title premiered, this time including the game’s now iconic theme music. Max Payne would at last be released for Microsoft Windows on July 23, 2001.

Reception for the game was incredibly positive; critic and consumer alike praised the game’s intense action and excellent story. Max Payne received numerous awards, including Game of the Year honors from several publications and a BAFTA for PC Game of the Year. Success would expand Max Payne’s legacy across gaming platforms, with releases on the Xbox, PlayStation 2, Mac OS, and the Game Boy Advance. An Xbox 360 release (as an “Xbox Original”) came in 2009, and this year MP saw release on iOS, Android, and the PlayStation Network.

Personally, just seeing the finalized version of Payne for the first time enchanted me. I was excited for the game since first discovering it in a 1998 issue PC Games magazine and continued to follow the game throughout its development. Although several years passed before I actually owned a copy of the game (mainly due to my lack of a computer that could play it), once I finally solved the hardware issues, I purchased MP and entered gaming Valhalla.

Max Payne was and still is a joy to play. Few games have delivered such exciting gunfights; many times have I flinched at the sound of incoming bullets or ducked with Max as he dodged a shotgun blast. The threat of death is omnipotent. Around every corner it feels like someone is waiting for you, itching to pull the trigger as soon as you step out. Players need every advantage available for survival, and there is no better edge than Bullet Time.

When needed, players can activate Bullet Time to slow down the game, allowing them to dispatch enemies faster than normal. A byproduct of Bullet Time is the “shootdoge”, an evasive technique that allowed players to shoot while diving away from enemy gunfire. The shootdodge revolutionized player character movement; previous third person shooters only allowed jumping, rolling and strafing to either side as means for evasion. Despite its strengths, Remedy exercised caution in making Bullet Time a viable tool instead of a trite tactic. Bullet Time instead gave gamers a better way of responding to the dangers they faced, while preventing the challenge from lessening.

Great as the game play is, Max Payne is a sonic masterpiece as well, sporting excellent sound effects, music and voice acting. When you fire a gun in the game, it  sounds like an actual weapon.  Shotguns roared, pistols howled, and bullets whistled convincingly past you. It was glorious. The sound made the gameplay so much more enjoyable because it helped create a believable atmosphere. The game’s music soundtrack, composed by Kärtsy Hatakka and Kimmo Kajasto was an impressive  mix of rock, techno and classical. The somber theme for the game series is as chilling as it as tragic; sometimes I didn’t know whether to a get a tissue or grab grenade. But if there was any one thing I believe truly gives the game character, it is James McCaffrey’s performance as Max Payne.

McCaffrey provides Payne with an appropriately gruff and bitter tone, a sound that suited for the archetypal tough cop and vengeful family man. From his morose howl while holding his slain wife to his steely determination at Aesir Plaza, it is through McCaffrey that Payne is given life and emotion. McCaffrey’s performance delivered emotions the game’s graphical engine couldn’t replicate because the engine could only provide characters with a handful of facial expressions. For much of the game, Payne himself is stuck with just a smirk, which lead some to think the beleaguered cop suffered from constipation.

Following the success of Max Payne, Remedy developed a sequel, Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne in 2003. The game represented a definite overhaul for the series, staring with the updated  Max-FX 2.0 engine.  Max Payne 2 features a revamped physics system, better graphics and an upgraded bullet time feature. Payne himself got a new look, as he was then modeled after actor Timothy Gibbs (but still voiced by James McCaffrey). Mona Sax, the femme fatale from the first game, returned as an occasional playable character.

MP2’s action proved more furious than the first, thanks to the usage of the Havok physics engine. Weapons behaved better in relation to their environment; bullets have better ballistic effects, and explosives were more potent. Bullet Time improved, allowing players prolonged usage by killing more enemies successively.

Despite very positive reviews, MP2 did not sell as well as its predecessor, and the series would remain without a new title for several years. However, the game was popular in the mod community, which created several mods such as Vampire Slayer, Absent Grave, and even a first person shooter.

Outside of gaming, other avenues opened up for the franchise and soon Mr. Payne went to Hollywood. In 2008, Max Payne, loosely based on the first game, hit theaters in October. Directed by John Moore, the movie featured Mark Wahlberg as Payne, and Mila Kunis as Mona Sax. The film had good intentions; it tried presenting itself as a serious detective story mixed with some psycho/spiritual elements. That would have been fine, had the film contained one critical element: good action scenes! Max Payne was oddly bereft of the great gun fights that made the games special. It was a case of straying too far from the source material’s strength, resulting in a slow-paced film that looked decent, but didn’t offer much excitement. Well, that’s not entirely true. Mark Wahlberg does yell angrily in the film, which is always welcome.

SAY HELLO TO YOUR MOTHER  FOR MEEEEE!!!!

Now, after nearly nine years off the beat, Max Payne is back for his third adventure. Set in Sao Paulo, Brazil, things have really worsened for the haunted hero.  When he’s not being an alcoholic, he works as a private security guard for the wealthy. Of course, things (as they often do) go horribly wrong. Recent reviews show the game is yet another critical success for the franchise. As before, the game features a story driven single player campaign with plenty of gunfights. Multiplayer, which was once a part of the first game, now makes its debut in Max Payne 3.

It’s been quite a bullet ridden journey for the Max Payne franchise, and with its latest release, the future looks fortuitous as well. For more info the Max Payne games  check out the Max Payne Wiki and for nostalgia,  here’s the original game’s official 3D Realms site. Until next time folks.

Peace & Pixels

Mother’s Day

Greetings, internet world! Today is Mother’s Day, one of the best days in the 365! Moms are a wonderful and selfless lot, with their sacrifices, patience, and demands of eating vegetables. I’m not the best son a mom can have, but I do have the best mothers. My mother and grandmother are the two kindest and most generous people I’ll ever meet in my lifetime. They worked together to raise a cowardly, big-headed boy in an environment where it wasn’t uncommon to hear gunfire at night and see blood stained sidewalks  the next morning.

Mom and Dah (my grandmother’s nickname) always supported my love of gaming, even when it wasn’t financially feasible. I remember when they got me my first system, the Nintendo Entertainment System Action Set (with the orange Zapper!) for Christmas in ’89. I saw it as soon I came in the living room of our apartment, nestled right under our humble, crooked little Christmas tree. They bought that system with money they really didn’t have. Words can’t adequately express what a sacrifice they made that day and everyday of my life that followed.

I can never repay the debt I owe them for their love and support, but I’m trying to anyway. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom and Dah. Thanks for always having my back. I love you both.

Peace & Pixels

 

Fallout Turns 15!

My, how the time melts away! Fallout, the first game in the venerable post-apocalyptic role playing series, turns 15 this year! Had it not been for Gamespot, I wouldn’t even have known the game was approaching that milestone, which is embarrassing considering how much I enjoyed playing it. Fallout was one of the few rpg’s that I played as a youth, and it stands as one of my favorite games of all time. I still get chills whenever I watch the game’s intro, shown below.

Released on September 30, 1997, Fallout was developed and self-published by Interplay. Fallout is seen as a successor of sorts to Wasteland, an rpg Interplay also developed a decade earlier. Set in a future decimated by nuclear war, Fallout’s story centers around the peril of Vault 13, one of several large underground residences that sheltered people during the Great War. Vault 13’s water chip malfunctions, and you, playing as an unnamed resident of the Vault, are tasked with finding a new chip to save its people. What follows is a delightfully visceral tale of pain, survival, and a little recipe called iguana on a stick. Ah, the memories!

I remember the first time I saw Fallout was in an issue of Gamepro back in the day. Being a fan of the Mad Max films, I was immediately drawn to the game’s desolate setting, even though I didn’t like rpg’s. Maybe a year later, I had the game in my hands, marveling at its now classic box art. Upon installing the game, I embarked on what has to be one of the best journeys digitally portrayed. The people, the places, the mutated vermin, all were part of an incredibly engrossing atmosphere punctuated by a 1950s style. Furthermore, the game had one of the best intros I’ve ever seen.

Regrettably, I haven’t played any of the other Fallout games outside of the first one. Perhaps in the future, I find some of the games and give them a try. If they are anything close the first the game, they warrant my attention. For more information on Fallout, check out the Fallout Wiki. Additionally, Gamespot recently did an excellent marathon showcasing the games of the series. Until next time, folks!

Peace & Pixels

Evil’s Back, Baby

At first, I thought I shouldn’t write this post because: a. I’m not qualified to talk about Diablo, having never played any of the games and b. This is marketing related to Diablo III, which is not (yet) a classic game. However, I found this animation too good to pass up. Besides, it is related to a classic video game series, and classic is (besides failing at proofreading) what I do!

I really enjoyed this. Peter Chung, perhaps best known for his work Aeon Flux, did an excellent job direction this, and I’m eagerly awaiting the next installment. As the credits rolled, I noticed a familiar name. Cree Summer, who I adored as Freddie on the television A Different World, provided the voice of the archangel Auriel. Honestly, I’m shocked by this, since I’ve never heard Cree sound so… valiant. Hopefully, her character will make more appearances in the future. Until next time.

Peace & Pixels

Tuesday Treasures: 25 Years of Double Dragon

It was a gut shot seen in arcades the world over.

Standing alone on a desolate street, a young woman in red is approached by a gang of pernicious thugs. One of the brutes walks up to the woman and viciously punches her in the stomach, causing her to writhe in pain as he scoops her up in his arms. Victim in tow, the attacker and his gang vanish into the digital night, leaving the scene of the crime like ghosts in the darkness. But someone was watching. In the background, a garage door opens. Out steps two men, martial arts experts and twin brothers Billy and Jimmy Lee. Together, the two comrades will fight to rescue the young dame, unleashing a fraternal fury of vengeance and flying kicks that would make the Shaw Brothers proud.

People, this is Double Dragon.

On “Disk”, not “Disc”

Welcome folks to a new segment  I call “Tuesday Treasures”, where every (or more accurately most) Tuesdays I will cover something special in video gaming, be it a game or perhaps a special edition system. Tonight, I’ll be celebrating the 25th anniversary of Double Dragon, the classic arcade brawler created by Technos Japan. One of video gaming’s most successful and influential franchises, Double Dragon gave rise to the genre known as the “beat ’em up”, which focused on side-scrolling fighting.  Hopefully, I’ll finish this article before midnight (otherwise it’ll be “Wednesday Treasures”, ugh) and the Bulls will stay alive in the playoffs. Let’s get fightin’!

Released in 1987, Double Dragon stars twin brothers and martial artists Billy and Jimmy Lee, as they fight to rescue their mutual love Marian from the predacious Black Warriors gang. The Lees would do battle in a four mission campaign, spanning a city slum, a factory, some woods, and the hideout of the gang’s boss. The game’s combat is brutal and variegated; in addition to the usual punches and kicks, players can also use elbow strikes and grabs, as well as a number of melee weapons ranging from bats and knives to dynamite sticks and oil drums. Perhaps the title’s most unique feature, however, is its infamous ending in two player cooperative mode. Once players beat the final boss, they would battle each other to see who would win Marian. It’s a brilliant twist, and still gets a chuckle out of me today.

The game was a success in both Japan and North America, soon finding its way on the home console market. In 1988, Technos released a version of the game for the Famicom System in Japan, while Tradewest released the game on the Nintendo Entertainment System in North America. The game found success in the home market as well. Toys R’ Us famously reported that after two weeks on the U.S. market, the game sold out.

With great success, came great opportunities. Double Dragon‘s legacy expanded within the home console market, appearing on all major home consoles of its time. The arcades would see two more sequels, 1988’s Double Dragon II: The Revenge, and 1990’s Double Dragon 3: The Rosetta Stone, both of which arrived on the home consoles. Super Double Dragon, a Super Nintendo/Super Famicom exclusive, was released in 1992 in Japan and the U.S., and 1993 in Europe. I’d be remiss if I didn’t include the classic Battletoads & Double Dragon, one of gaming’s most eclectic crossovers. Seriously, if you haven’t heard of this game, check out this footage. I really could do a post on that game alone.

For better or for worse, the series ventured into movies and television. In 1994, Double Dragon, a live action film adaption of the game was released. I won’t go much into this one, since I barely remember it. Here’s the trailer, knock yourselves out. However, the  cartoon Double Dragon, which ran from 1993-1995, was awesome and I loved it, cheesy music and an all.

For a while, the Double Dragon series remained dormant until 2003’s Double Dragon Advance, a remake of the original title,was released for the Gameboy Advance. In subsequent years, games from the series have appeared on next gen consoles via Xbox Live Arcade (Double Dragon I&II) and cell phones (Double Dragon). Later this summer, Double Dragon Neon, a remake of the first game, will be released on Xbox Live Arcade as well the Playstation Network.

I did it! It isn’t midnight and the Bulls won!! Cheers all around. Before I forget, check out the Double Dragon Dojo for more info on the series. Until next time, people.

Peace & Pixels

Edit: Had to make a few adjustments to the article, cleaning up the bad grammar and such. I added a link to DD Dojo’s site. Additionally, I forgot to cover two games: Double Dragon V: The Shadow Falls, (based on the cartoon) which was released on the Genesis and the Super Nintendo, and Double Dragon , (based on the live action film), which was released on the Neo Geo and Playstation. Both titles differed from the other games in the series because they were 1-on-1 fighting games (like Street Fighter), not beat ’em ups.