Portable gaming for too many of you out in video game land can be summed up like so: Have you held off on grocery shopping for too long, and only have that expired can of Spaghetti Rings left in the cupboard? (You couldn’t afford the name brand deliciousness of Spaghetti O’s). Bitch all you want about the lousiness of said meal, we both know you are going to eat it, man.
Gamers have a similar predicament when they are away from their home base: they have a gnawing hunger for escapist goodness without a good way of appeasing the hungry gaming monster in their bellies. Too many of you are resigning yourselves to badly-made clones of golden-era games on your tiny little cellphone screens. These games cost too much for what they are, and have thinly veiled titles such as “Bomb Man” to keep away the lawyers. Stop it. With perhaps the exception of Apple’s slutty phone line (it gets touched a LOT), these overpriced multi-taskers are a lousy outlet for gaming. There is no excuse to play java applets when there are such delicious full-course meals being doled out by Sony and Nintendo. Cellphones, call them smart phones if you want, aren’t really designed with a gaming-first mentality.
The current era of portable gaming systems, however, are releasing in-depth RPG’s with online capabilities, unique experiences with a touch screen, and great portable versions of modern console games. Smart phones, in general, have a terrible keypad layout for gaming, and sometimes only respond to one key press at a time. In short, buy a portable gaming system and stop looking like a jerk-ass on that Blackberry. Handheld systems are way cheaper than that overpriced smart phone, and now have huge catalogs of amazing stuff. E3 this year has brought the world a new PSP system to compete with Nintendo’s newly-released DSi. You know where to go if you want the specifics on each, I’m here to recommend a few must-buy games for both systems.
The DS, in my opinion, is the true spiritual successor to the SNES. Unlike the scarce third-party support that Nintendo suffered from since the Nintendo 64 days, this system is teeming with great third-party experiences one can’t possibly count on all digits. If you are considering buying Nintendo, expect the usual great first-party fare, too. This is the system to have if you consider yourself any sort of RPG fan. There are plenty of turn-based, action, and card-collecting adventures to be had. The are Pokemon to catch, Goombas to smah, magic jewels to recover and exploit, and even a wonderfully remade version of one of the best RPG’s of all time: Chrono Trigger. Square-Enix, Atlus, and Konami have embraced this system fully, and it’s good news for everyone who likes getting their gaming money’s worth.
Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Echoes of Time – Square Enix
This action RPG by Square Enix has brought a giant experience on a little portable system. Go into this game with the knowledge that it is meant to be experienced with other adventurers. It allows for local or wi-fi play, and you can even join up with a group of strangers over the internet. The multiplayer aspects here are amazing; if you are fan of dungeon crawling RPG’s, this one shouldn’t be missed.
The character creation system is a bit reminiscent of Diablo mixed with the Square Enix influence over the leveling up system. Magicians quickly get a good amount of magic points, and the warriors have huge hitpoints to expend. The fighting system is fun, although you’ve probably played it before. The melee system is a standard mix of sword strikes and such, while the magic system allows one to cast one of eight basic spells. As your character levels up, you and your quest-mates can overlap spells to cause endless combinations of damage. It feels a lot like Square Enix’s take on the Diablo-style dungeon crawler, and the end result is a game you have to play. In fact, the Wii version is said to be a port of THIS version.
The only complaint I have is the lack of voice communication through multiplayer. Sometimes coordinating with your teammates can get wonky. Nintendo built a microphone into the system. Developers: use it! It’s still an amazing game even with this flaw. Grab this one and get to slashing and spell casting.
Dokapon Journey – Atlus
Turn-based dice-rolling board game plus RPG equals awesome. I hear there have been previous versions of this game which have cult-like status in some gaming circles, but I have never played it until recently. It’s a good thing I caught the Penny Arcade comic about it or I might have missed out on this extremely original multiplayer adventure.
It can be described as Mario Party gone malicious; it feels like something is always out to kill you. With a focus on leveling up your character, you always feel the pressure to keep up your stats on par with other players on the board. There are no mini-games per se. Instead the game has many instances of character vs. character fighting. If you are simply a level two mage, get ready to hand over some items to your foes. The eventual goal is to have more money than your rival players. You have to, however, spend some of that money on better equipment and stat recovery. Unlike the fluffy-fun that Mario Party brings, the fights in this one can get downright nasty.
The battle system is interesting: you begin a fight randomly assigned an “offense” or “defense” card. If you choose defense, you are rewarded or punished for guessing the type of strike they are attempting to inflict on you. For offense, you have a choice between magic or melee. To say it’s a rock-paper-scissors system is to over-simplify it: there’s a lot of strategy in this. Many of the “spaces” on the virtual board are villages that need to be saved from various creepy-crawlies, some are equipment shops. Once you save these villages, you are showered with gold and gifts. As it is a dice-roll based game, waiting for the right roll to get to that equipment shop can get frustrating.
Some review sites have given this game lower reviews because of the “simplistic” art design. Who cares? I think it strikes a great balance between hand-drawn sprites and a fuzzy SNES-like feel of the menus. Most importantly, though, it’s a blast to play with friends. For pals that don’t own the game, there is a fun DS Download Play version you can send to them as well. Get this game.
Retro Game Challenge – Namco
This cartridge is a dream come true for twenty-something folks who would frame their NES on their wall if they weren’t still using it regularly. Retro Game Challenge is a collection of faux-NES titles that have all the great simple gameplay and quirks that we loved about the 8-bit years. So much more than the usual half-assed emulated oldies collection, this game sells nostalgia in the best way possible.
The main character is transported back to his younger days, and must complete various challenges posed on these golden-age recreations. In order to succeed, you must read Nintendo Power-esque magazines, and even find cheat codes to quickly leap through levels. The top screen is where all the gaming happens; the bottom screen is where your character and his friend sit and react to the action. I love the comments made by the friend character while you game; it really feels like you have a partner in your various tests.
There are all kinds of great game knock-offs here: from an R.C. Pro-Am style racer to a Dragon’s Quest-esque RPG. Strangely enough, the more I play this game, the more I forget some of these games weren’t actually made in the eighties. I start to get a strange nostalgia about a game that is not officially nostalgic. I’m guessing this is what those really pathetic people who play in cover bands must feel like (“Good evening South Philly, we’re Van Halo!”). Anyways, this game feels like it was made for me personally, and I bet many of you in my age group will feel the same way. Buy it and soak up the love.
Suikoden Tierkreis – Konami
Okay, so, maybe the game developer could have given the English release a title that made any sort of sense to us. My recommendations are: “Sweet RPG with Awesome Stuff”, or maybe “Pie is delicious, also RPG.” This is a sequel to one of the best RPGs on the original PSX, and still feels as big as that original world.
Tierkreis (don’t ask me what the hell that means) feels like a current-gen RPG in every way. The mix of the 2d and 3d graphics look amazing, and most of the cutscenes are voice-acted along with big symphonic music. If you’ve ever played Suikoden on PSX, you know what I mean when I talk about the trading system. It’s a strange and extremely addicting system of finding items on your way and selling them into areas that have a high demand for it. The battle system is fairly typical RPG fare, but the amazing amount of characters (I’ve read that there are over 100) makes up for it. There are team attacks that add a great amount of diversity in the battle sequences.
I’m personally an RPG fan who is annoyed by too many random battles out of nowhere…. and this game only comes up to the borderline of my patience. There’s a tad too many times when you get sucked into a battle, and all you want to do is further the story. But hey, it’s why most RPGs take a long time to finish. Still, if you are looking for an RPG that has a huge console-like experience, this is the game for you.
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars – Rockstar Games
In the past, I’ve felt like some of the Grand Theft Auto sequels were becoming formulaic. Beat up people… blah blah blah, prostitues… blah blah blah. I don’t really enjoy playing a game purely for shock value. Although it could be argued that the Grand Theft Auto series always held its own on gameplay to overcome all of the negative press, the newest GTA game wasn’t as groundbreaking to me as it could have been. I’d rather have a smaller world if it gave me a more unique gaming experience.
I enjoyed the PSP version of Grand Theft Auto released a few years ago. I was amazed at Rockstar’s effort to bring a Grand Theft Auto 3 to a portable system so completely. When Chinatown Wars was announced, I was a bit skeptical. The PSP is a more powerful system than the DS, so Rockstar would end up with an incomplete game, right? I’m glad I was wrong: Chinatown Wars is both technically sound and uniquely a DS game. The top screen is where all of the action goes on. The graphics are a cool updated version of the Grand Theft Auto top-down games and 3d graphics. The bottom screen acts as a GPS and an item box. You tap on the location of future-mayhem, and the GPS plots it for you oh-so-conveniently.
Most of the cut-scenes tell the story in comic book-like cells, and it seems to work well enough. I think my favorite change to this portable version are the police chases. Instead of hiding from the cops in a stealthy fashion, you are expected to wreck the hell out of them to lower that wanted rating. It adds more of an arcade feel to the game. I hope the future GTA games include this change, too. Stealing cars is also a uniquely DS experience. Some cars require you to un-alarm their security systems via the touch screen. These are quick little mini-games that add to the experience. If you fail, you are forced to drive a car with the alarm going off (watch out for the cops when this happens). This is one of the best DS games released thus far.
Next time: MDoggie discusses the best RPGs on the PSP.