.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}


November 29, 2005

MEGA-REVIEW: Rhythm Games

What a glorious day it was. The stuff of which misty, water-colored memories are made:

My buddy and I hopped on our ten-speeds (I had graduated from my banana seat bike a few months earlier) and rode a few miles over to All-Star Bowl, which today houses a smarmy European furniture store.

(Yes, I realize that the term smarmy can’t really be applied to furniture or the stores that sell it, but if it could, it would apply to this place. Black lacquer, gold, and leopard skin, as far as the eye can see. *shudder*)

But back to that day: we may or may not have bowled, and neither of us engaged in any Lebowski-esque shenanigans (you know what I’m talking about), but either way, that isn’t what resonated with me. What did leave an indelible impression was the time (and the many other times) we spent in the bowling alley’s large video arcade.

Of course, it wasn’t the square footage or even the number of hulking game cabinets housed within. It was the quality of the games they had. We spent quarter after quarter playing Tron, Tempest, Galaga, Zaxxon, Track & Field, and many more of my old-school faves.

After pedaling home and finishing my homework (sure I did), I headed down to the basement to practice on my 8th grade graduation present – a Ludwig black oyster pearl drumset (These days, I have a gorgeous Tama Starclassic birch kit with a violet finish. Yay me!).



My mastery of the drums was a slow process. But after a while, I was finally able to get the hang of "Workin’ for the Weekend" by Loverboy. Good times.

20+ years later, I can reminisce about the various bands I’ve played in, and I can look back fondly at the few great gigs that made the many bad ones worthwhile; Cubby Bear, Taste of Chicago, and my own personal “golden palace of the Himalayas” – The House of Blues.

After hurting my back a couple years ago, I had to stop playing (mostly – there were those few gigs I played on Vicodin after my back surgery), and though I am healthy today, even when I find me a new band to join, I’ll probably have to stick to singing, and leave the drumming to some young whippersnapper.

So what’s a hardcore gamer/gigless drummer to do, especially one who enjoys sharing his love of music and games with his kids?

Well, in the words of Coleman’s island squeeze (was she a golddigger? hooker? what?) in the final scene of Trading Places, when he asks whether they should have lobster or cracked crab for lunch, “Can’t we have both?”

In this case, as in the movie, the answer is yes. Or to be faithful to the scene, “extra primo good, Mr. Coleman, sir!”

Behold....the rhythm game, in all its glory!

Rhythm games have traditionally been more popular in Japan, but they’ve been gaining popularity in the US.

I’m going to focus on the games my kids and I have actually played together, though I would be remiss if I didn’t mention RedOctane’s (developed by Harmonix) recently-released Guitar Hero, which is being hailed as the new gold standard in the rhythm game genre.

EDIT: Considering that Harmonix just won several awards at the recent Game Developers Choice Awards, I really should have written "Harmonix's Guitar Hero, published by RedOctane." My bad. Of course, RedOctane is responsible for the awesome guitar controller.

At over $70, it’s too damn expensive, and I’m bitter because my kids and I are missing out on all the rockin’ (sorry, rawkin') out awesomeness. Guitar Hero’s controller is shaped like a guitar, and from what I’ve read (sigh), it has a gentle learning curve, even for kids. If it’s in your price range, it looks like a definite winner for the whole family, even though it’s rated T.

Now, on to the reviews...

Taiko Drum Master: PlayStation 2

A few months ago, as my kids were preparing for the first day of school, I was looking for something fun to get them to celebrate the start of a new school year.

To my surprise and delight, Best Buy had a sale on Taiko Drum Master for the PS2 ($20 for the whole kit & caboodle) at exactly the right time, and after picking the kids up from their respective schools, we took them to the store for their back-to-school surprise.

They absolutely love the game. It takes a lot of concentration and eye-hand coordination, but this is definitely a great game for kids, especially since you can customize the difficulty settings. The Taiko drum peripheral doubles as the controller, and the kids got the hang of it pretty quickly.

While the song list isn’t a mile long (you start with 20+ to choose from), it is wonderfully eclectic, containing a fun combo of pop/rock (ABC, Tubthumping, Walkin’ On Sunshine), classical (Beethoven’s 5th, William Tell Overture), TV show themes (Jimmy Neutron, DragonBall Z), and even the themes from classic Namco gaming hits like Soul Calibur, Ridge Racer, and Katamari Damacy. You can also unlock new songs as you achieve more milestones.

Obviously, since there is banging involved, the game is noisy, but it is also a terrific outlet for the prodigious energies of kids.

EDIT: Here's a more complete review of Taiko Drum Master.

Amplitude / Frequency: PlayStation 2

We’ve played the demo for 2001’s Frequency and the full version of its 2003 follow-up, Amplitude, and while both of Harmonix’s games are excellent, they are also very challenging, requiring the PS2 controller to become an extension of your hands. You need to be a Zen master to succeed at this game on the most difficult setting, and even on the easiest setting, it’s no walk in the park.

The real beauty of these games for kids is the mixer - they can create their own music by “recording” each track individually, then layering additional tracks over the top. Start with the drums (‘cuz it’s all about the drums, baby), then layer in bass, keyboards, guitars, percussion, vocals. Or start wherever you want, and create whatever makes you happy.

So if your kids would rather not “paint by numbers” by trying to keep up with a pre-selected groove, they’re free to express themselves creatively, by constructing a groove of their very own.

As for the song list, it’s more hard-edged and less kid-friendly than, say, the Taiko Drum Master list. Older kids should love it, though.

EDIT: I almost forgot. Live band karaoke is apparently for suckers, cuz Live Band Amplitude is where it's at, baby.

Gitaroo Man: PlayStation 2

Gitaroo Man resides in the pantheon of rare, classic PlayStation 2 games like Ico and Rez, so I was thrilled to see it available for rent on GameFly last week.

Boy, where to start? On the surface, Gitaroo Man is a typical quirky Japanese pop culture game with creative translations and horrible voice acting.

However, after playing a little, you’ll quickly realize that this is an excellent, challenging rhythm game. So challenging, in fact, that young kids will be relegated to spectator status.

I’ve played the game a few times so far, and while the kids were a little too intimidated to pick up the controller, they loved watching the nutty illustrations going on in the background while I played.

Our favorite character so far is Mojo King Bee, because his name is very similar to the name of the blues band I played in at Kellogg. I realize this doesn’t help you determine whether this would be a good game for your kids, but I just wanted to share.

Dance Dance Revolution Series: PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube

Dance Dance Revolution, the popular arcade/party/dancing franchise, is the complete package for kids. Music, dancing, coordination, exercise, friends; this game has it all.

One evening this past summer, I found my kids stomping around on their beds (don’t worry, we keep ‘em low to the ground) in a semi-methodical fashion. They were, of course, mimicking DDR’s gameplay. It was so gosh darn precious that I captured their frolicking for posterity on video.

My kids had recently returned from a trip to visit their cousins, who just happened to have DDR, along with some other games which they also loved.

They clearly love DDR, and I’m seriously considering making it a shared holiday gift this year. I just have to find a good solid mat that won’t slide around on the floor when they play.

The latest in the series, DDR Mario Mix, was released earlier this month, and while the reviews are just pretty good (as opposed to stellar), I don’t see how I can keep this away from my Mario-loving kids.

Stay tuned.

Karaoke Revolution series: PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube

The summer before my senior year of college, I had an internship at a big ad agency in downtown Chicago. Occasionally, we’d go out as a group to sing karaoke at the wonderfully cheesy Baja Beach Club in Chicago’s North Pier, and a good time was always had by all.

So at E3 back in May, I was excited to try out Karaoke Revolution Party, the newest installment in Harmonix’s Karaoke Revolution series.

Here’s what the game experience boils down to. If your singing style is to hit every note exactly as is, then you’ll do very well and enjoy the game.

But if you like to put a little flava into your singing, then you, good sir or madam, are S.O.L. I’m not talking about showing off by filling every possible open space with a cavalcade (or cacophony, as the case may be) of notes. But every once in a while, you need to add a little something extra.

For example, I’ve sung Mustang Sally on stage far too many times to count, so I can do it in my sleep, but because I didn’t keep my singing more robotically-inclined, I didn’t do too well.

To be fair, I’m probably not the target for the game, my prodigious singing talents being what they are...OW! Sorry, I just smacked my swelled head into the chandelier.

Either way, what I’m trying to say through that haze of self-aggrandizement is that the game isn’t supposed to be a rehearsal mechanism for seasoned vocalists. It‘s supposed to be, and is, a fun, social singing (and now also dancing) game for kids.

Parappa the Rapper 2: PlayStation 2

While 1997’s PaRappa the Rapper for the PlayStation is a landmark rhythm game in the US market, the second installment, 2002’s PaRappa the Rapper 2, doesn’t live up to its legacy.

We’ve only played the demo on one of my many PS2 Jampack discs, so I can’t talk about the game in its entirety, but the part we played was mildly enjoyable, for both my kids and me.

The better you play, the better the music sounds, and the worse you play, the more it sounds like a freaky clown circus.

So that’s that, then.


Of the games we haven’t yet played, Nintendo’s Donkey Konga and Donkey Kong Jungle Beat are at the very top of our wish list (along with the aforementioned DDR Mario Mix). Other games include Guitar Freaks, DDR knockoff In The Groove, and Pump It Up: Exceed.

The bottom line for all these games is that an inherent sense of rhythm is very helpful, especially for the more syncopation-heavy games. But even if you don’t “feel the beat down to your feet,” you and your kids will have a lot fun playing rhythm games.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to warm up my voice (*puts hand over one ear*)...

Bumble bee-hee...bumble bee-hee...bumble bee-hee... bumble bee-hee................

November 17, 2005

Yes Virginia, There Is A Sony Claus

"OK, sir, that's $200 + tax for your brand new PlayStation 2. Now would you like a 2-year extended warranty for an additional $15 (or thereabouts)?"

Ordinarily, despite pressure from Jerry Lundegaard-esque salesmen ("yeah, but that TrueCoat...") I consider myself allergic to extended warranties. But in this case, given the stories I'd read about disc read errors and other such issues, I zagged where I usually zigged, and sprang for the extra protection.

Fast forward 23 months later, on the eve of the warranty's expiration (not literally the evening before. about 3 weeks. fyi)...

After pulling yeoman duty for almost 2 years, my PS2 suddenly decided that it had had enough of all the fancy multiplayer action, as the 2nd controller port up 'n died on me.

The reason we knew right away was because were were playing Sly vs. Carmelita 2-player on the Sly 3 demo disc (gotta love playable E3 schwag) when it happened. Suddenly, Sly was kicking a defenseless Carmelita's ass ("Daddy, you said a bad word!") ...er, tushy all over Venice. My kids and I were none too pleased.

So I packed it up, brought it into Best Buy, waited in line a few minutes, and walked out the door with a brand new slimline PS2. And since the new PS2 was $50 cheaper than when I bought mine, I walked out with some walking-around-money as well.




November 14, 2005

REVIEW: Ratchet & Clank series

As a ‘grownup’ gamer, I could have written about Insomniac's Ratchet & Clank series in my sleep. Something about 2002’s Ratchet & Clank and 2003’s Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando being among the best games I’ve played in this generation of consoles.

In case you’re wondering why I left out 2004’s Up Your Arsenal the recently-released multiplayer-focused Ratchet: Deadlocked, the latter is next up on my GameFly wish list (I played the demo at E3), while the former is already wrapped up for the holiday season (it’s mine...all mine!).

Of course, I’m not writing about my own affinity for the loveable Lombax and his runty robot sidekick, but rather, about how much my kids like ‘em.

First things first; the ESRB. While overall, I believe that the ESRB does more good than harm, I’ve already documented some of their rating errors in the past (e.g. Dog’s Life). Ratchet & Clank is another case of a rating faux pas.

All four games in the Ratchet & Clank series are rated T for Teen, which I believe to be a mistake. There is no way that these games are inappropriate for every kid under the age of 13. E10+ sounds about right to me, after which, parents are free to decide whether to use the ESRB as a hard and fast rule, or merely a guide. In the case of Ratchet & Clank, despite my E10+ rating, I let my kids play them, and they’re younger than 10.

EDIT: Yes, I realize that R&C, Going Commando & Up Your Arsenal were released before there even was an E10+ rating, which the ESRB created earlier this year. Given the choice, though, I still believe that E is more appropriate than T.

I recommend that parents use ESRB as a jumping-off point to help them make up their own minds. I often agree with the ESRB ratings, but since errors can and do occur, if parents simply follow them blindly, they are equally likely to miss out on a good game their kids will love (hey, like these!), as buy them a game that may contain some things they don’t agree with.

I believe that the problem is that the people who rate the games spend too much time on the superficial and not enough time understanding a game at its essence. Granted that this would take more time and effort, but it is most definitely a worthwhile endeavor.

Now let’s get to the meat of what the ESRB (and some parents) probably found objectionable. There are weapons in the Ratchet & Clank games...lots and lots of weapons. Choosing the right weapon at the right time is the key to success in the Ratchet & Clank series.

So, armed (sorry, couldn’t resist) with this knowledge, why didn’t I automatically file these games safely away in the “grownup games” drawer?

Well, before I answer that, let’s take a closer look at two things; 1) what kinds of weapons we have at our disposal, and 2) just who is on the receiving end of all this firepower.

First, the weapons. Come with me now, as we zoom off to the land of make-believe. You’ve just landed on a strange new planet, and you soon find yourself surrounded by a swarm of weird little alien frogs, birds, or other pests of that ilk. So instead of letting them gang up and chomp away your health, you take aim, fire, and turn them all into......sheep...or chickens (depending on which game you’re playing). Ooh, scary.

Although the chicken-changing weapon is officially called the Morph-O-Ray, my kids immediately took to calling it...say it with me...the Chickenator (later to be upgraded to the “Big Chickenator” – you turn your little enemies into ...well, big chickens). Why? Because the sheep-changing weapon, which debuts in Going Commando, is called the Sheepinator!

While not every weapon is as whimsically innocent as the Chickenator or Sheepinator, that same sense of humor runs through the entire Ratchet & Clank series. And although they have a virtual armory bristling with weapons, the ones that resonate most with my kids are the ones that turn the bad guys into barnyard animals.

So now that we’ve talked about the cartoonish arsenal, the natural follow-up question is to ask just who is it that we’re shooting at?

The answer? Robots and funny little monsters - never people...or anything cute. And when you “get the bad guys,” there is nothing remotely graphic about it – just a shower of bolts (the game’s currency) to collect.

If you’re still unconvinced, then I recommend that you take a trip to your local library.

Killing Monsters, by Gerard Jones, is a book that should be read by all parents who have concerns about the games their kids play. Without turning this article into a book review, I will say that it does an excellent, well-researched job of explaining why make-believe, fantasy violence is not the evil it’s been portrayed to be.

One of Jones’ main points is that many of these video games are simply modern versions of “cops & robbers,” and that kids are better at distinguishing fantasy from reality than we give them credit for. And when we foist our concerns about real violence onto kids who are shooting with digital versions of their thumb and forefinger, it leads to confusion and self-doubt.

This doesn’t mean that parents shouldn’t teach their children the important life lesson about not using violence to solve their problems: of course not. But that lesson should be taught at any time, and not specifically when their kids have a controller in their hands.

It doesn’t mean that parents shouldn’t check in to make sure that their kids can in fact distinguish real from imaginary. Just don’t buy into the laughable assertion that kids who play with pixilated guns necessarily graduate to a life of violence and crime.

It also doesn’t mean that parents can just sit back and abdicate responsibility for what their children play: far from it. I’d no sooner allow my kids to play Grand Theft Auto or God of War than allow them to watch Silence of the Lambs or, say, run with scissors. But Killing Monsters does shed important new light on an emotionally-charged hot-button issue.

Title-wise, I can certainly understand how names like “Going Commando” or “Up Your Arsenal” can give parents pause. But these jokes for the adult gamers will be way over the heads of many child gamers.

In our case, my son calls Ratchet & Clank “the first new Ratchet & Clank game,” and Going Commando “the second new Ratchet & Clank game.” I should probably explain that the reason they are both “new” games is because we’d been playing several Ratchet & Clank demos (on PlayStation 2 “Jampack” discs) for over a year before we ever played a full game.

In addition to not causing harm, the Ratchet & Clank games can also be beneficial.

As with many good video games, there is a lot of problem-solving that needs to occur for the player to succeed in the various Ratchet & Clank games. For example...

After vanquishing a few faux foes, we come to a large moat that lies between us and the next platform we have to reach. Since it’s definitely too far away to jump, how can we make it across? What to do? What to do?

We were stymied for a while, but suddenly, my daughter remembered that a while back, we came into the possession of a gadget that can melt ice, and more importantly, freeze water. So we changed liquid to solid, skated across the previously impassable moat, and continued on our merry way.

EDIT: I'm borrowing the next 2 paragraphs from what I wrote in the comment section, 'cuz I thought it made sense to include it in the review itself....

"I've been a platformer fan since the days of Pitfall, Donkey Kong and Super Mario Brothers, and R&C (and a precious few others - e.g. Sly Cooper) does the genre proud by carrying the modern platformer torch."

"R&C absolutely shines in its gameplay and controls. It just "feels" great to play, and I can't say that about many games - not even Miyamoto-san's most recent Mario platformer - Super Mario Sunshine."

For mom and dad, the Ratchet & Clank series consists of several funny, satisfying, intelligently-written, expertly-crafted video games. For the kids, they are fun games that shouldn’t cause you too much worry. Now go turn some robots into chickens...or sheep.

November 10, 2005

Mommy, My Neck Hurts!

Imagine you're a kid. You want to try out this kewl new Xbox 360 that everyone's talking about.

Your mom has to stop at Wal-Mart to buy some Tide... and some pants (let's say), and as luck would have it, she said that after the cart is full, you can stop in the video game section to check out the first of the next generation consoles.

Fast forward 20 minutes...

As the EMT's fit you for a Brady Bunch-style neck brace (y'know, the one where Mike threw his briefcase on the floor of the courtroom, which made the plaintiff turn his head suddenly, which showed that he was faking his whiplash - scumbag) you sit dazed in the ambulance, wondering where it all went so wrong.

You are overheard muttering, "If only Best Buy sold Tide......and pants."

Wal-Mart is not only the 800 lb. gorilla that crushes industry creativity by encouraging licensed games and sequels in the name of reducing risk, in order to maximize the profit for every square inch of their gaming department (whew!)...

They also don't want to take up their precious real estate with something as frivolous as...say, the official Xbox 360 kiosk that I found at Best Buy 5 minutes after I left Wal-Mart.

Xbox 360 kiosk at Best Buy

No, in making their customers crane their necks at such an extreme angle, Wal-Mart just hurts the ones they love (monetarily speaking, that is).

Xbox 360 "kiosk" at Wal-Mart

This kid is much older/taller than my kids. Does he look ergonomically comfy to you?

FYI, Wal-Mart is an equal opportunity offender. Sony's PlayStation 2 and Nintendo's GameCube were equally difficult to play.

EDIT: In case it seems like I'm saying that Best Buy is everything is not (e.g. champion of innovation and creativity in video games), allow me to clarify. Basically, where Wal-Mart is the 800 lb. gorilla, Best Buy is the 600 lb. orangutan. There. That should clear things up nicely for you.


The only playable demo in the kiosk was Call of Duty 2, which, as a grownup gamer, I thoroughly enjoyed (I also played the free PC demo over a month ago). Clearly, this is not a game for kids. Why?

  • It's a war game.
  • It's rated T for Teen (the ESRB ratings were posted just under the monitor)
  • You can see soldiers (and yourself) getting shot, blood included.
  • IT'S!...A!...WAR!...GAME! You know...war? Like with the killing?
And yet, a mother was letting her 3 or 4-year-old son play the game. He's walking around, watching the carnage, getting shot, and she's looking on as if all is well. Maybe next on her agenda is a trip to Blockbuster to rent Pulp Fiction for their family movie night, which might sound something...like...this:

"Zed's dead, little Timmy. Zed's dead. Mr. Wallace got medieval on his ass. Now after Vincent accidentally shoots Marvin in the face, and they go to Jimmy's house to get their gore-covered ride off the streets, you'll try to go on the potty, okay?"


There are plenty of other games to see, but all you can do is see them. Instead of playable demos like Call of Duty 2, they have trailers to watch.

For kids, there are some sports games from 2K Sports (NBA 2K6, NHL 2K6, TopSpin, Amped 3 (best...trailer...ever!), and some racing games with varying degrees of mayhem and/or violence, the least of which is probably Project Gotham Racing 3.


A couple weeks ago, I mentioned that the current Xbox controllers are unfit for young hands. Well, Microsoft seems to have gotten the message (not from me, of course...oops! I've said too much), and made an excellent controller for the Xbox 360. Similar to the Sony's DualShock 2 controller, it's small enough for little hands, but substantial enough for adult hands.

The current generation Xbox Controller S fits almost perfectly in my hands, but there's no wiggle room. So when my hands make their natural movements during gameplay, I am constantly gripping the controller tightly, which causes me palm fatigue (...that doesn't sound quite right).

In any case, Microsoft has solved their ergonomics problem. Well done.

November 03, 2005


A few months back, I warned parents about Alien Hominid, a violent, non-kid-friendly, 2D side-scrolling shooter.

I'm happy to report that I found another side scrolling shooter that is just as visually delicious in its own way, but is a kinder, gentler game, appropriate for juvenile consumption.

We stumbled across the demo for Platypus a few months ago on RealArcade, and my son and I have had a lot of fun playing it.

As you can see from the screenshots below, Platypus has a very cool claymation-based visual style. You can tell the game is fun just by looking at it.

Technically, Platypus employs parallax scrolling, and as you zoom ahead in the foreground, the lovely scenery (mountains, castles, clouds, etc.) floats lazily by in the background.

Gameplay-wise, you shoot at a lot of small ships, and some big "boss" ships as well. Every ship you nail results in a satisfying clay explosion, and when you get the big guys, the larger explosion results in a cascade of fruit for you to catch. My son is a big fan of the fruit shower.

You can also upgrade your ammo. After shooting special enemy formations, a rotating, flipping, multicolored star appears, and based on the star's color when you catch it, you can choose to simply increase the rate of fire, or you can change your projectiles altogether (missles, shock waves, etc.).

One of the advantages of casual games like Platypus is that they are all about fun. Many of today's video game makers get so caught up in making the game as long and challenging as possible, that they forget to put fun before frustration. And I write this with the realization that when employed skillfully and judiciously, a certain level of difficulty prevents the game from being too easy and therefore boring.

Platypus isn't the easiest game in the world for young kids to finish, but they'll have a lot of fun just playing the game, because "finishing" Platypus isn't as important as simply enjoying the experience of playing.

This game doesn't claim to be an epic battle of good vs evil (though there is a backstory), but it delivers what it promises - a fun time for as many or as few minutes as you have to play on your computer.

Now go blow up some clay with your kids.