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July 27, 2006

PREVIEW: LEGO Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy

In writing this preview of LEGO Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy, I must have experimented with a dozen different opening paragraphs, to set the scene just so.

But why should I beat around the bush with cleverer - than - thou writing, when I can bottom-line it for you much more plainly and succinctly? So if you're pressed for time, feel free to stop reading after the following sentence:

LEGO Star Wars II , which will be released on September 12 (Xbox 360, Xbox, PS2, GameCube, PC, DS, PSP, GameBoy Advance), is chock full of delightful, kid-friendly awesomeness.

Actually, keep reading for a just a smidge more, as I take it one step further with this declaration:

LEGO Star Wars was great.
LEGO Star Wars II will be better.

Why do I say this?

Well, first, LucasArts is taking back the reins on this one (the first LEGO Star Wars was published by Eidos), which, given their stellar reputation for outstanding achievement in the field of excellence, can only be a good thing.

But let's get right to the actual in-game goodies, shall we?

  • LEGO Star Wars II features 50+ characters from the original Star Wars trilogy. This is great news for parents like me, for whom the first 3 Star Wars movies (officially episodes 4-6) occupy a warm, squishy, Pop-Rocks-eating, banana-seat-bike-riding place in our hearts. What made the first game great was not the story (Jar-Jar Binks, anyone?), but rather, the whimsical, immersive gameplay. So if you add the powerful draw of the original Star Wars trilogy into an already potent mix, you can't help but be excited. And for those of us who saw episodes 4-6 (many times), but skipped the more recent episodes 1-3, you'll actually be able to explain to your kids just what the hell is going on.
  • You can import save games & characters from the first LEGO Star Wars into this game. How cool is that? My kids have spent hours of independent, cooperative play with the first game, and the fact that they don't have to start from square one is terrific.
  • Franken-Star Wars! You can mix and match body sections to create your own custom Star Wars characters. Come on, people! Give it up! Storm Solo? Darth Lea? R2 Bacca? That's gold, Jerry. GOLD! It fits right in with the wonderful sense of humor that runs throughout the LEGO Star Wars series. I awarded LucasArts the Best Schwag Award in my E3 2006 Fammy Awards because of their terrific interchangeable LEGO Star Wars II parts. But what makes it more than mere cool schwag is that it is also smart marketing. Sure, LucasArts could have given out whole mini LEGO Star Wars characters, like the ones my wife and I bought for our son at the LEGO store in a local mall. But this wasn't schwag for schwag's sake, like a pen, keychain, or some of the other craptacular freebies I brought back with me from E3. In having interchangeable LEGO Star Wars II parts, they wisely melted down one of the main points-of-difference in the game into schwag form. Well played.

  • Instead of merely watching the cool vehicles drive/fly/hover by, you can build AND RIDE your own. Do I have to explain why that's great for kids? Didn't think so.

  • This game is more freeform than the first. Much of the first game was played on-rails, which was one of the few issues I had with it. LEGO Star Wars II will be more open-ended, which is something I always look for in a good kids' game.

There's a lot more cool stuff I could have included in this preview, but do I really need it? Have I not convinced you that this is going to be a terrific game for kids? Hell, I thought I did that after the first couple of paragraphs. All of the details are just gravy. So I guess my work is done here.............................. OK, fine. Here are a couple of fun little nuggets for you:

  • Chewbacca tends to rip the arms off his enemies. Of course, now that I read that, it may strike some as less than kid-friendly, but given that it takes place in the safe LEGO universe, it ends up being funny and cute, as opposed to scary or violent.
  • The Dewbacks poop LEGO bricks. Given how funny my kids thought the pooping was in Dog's Life, they'll be all over this one. When I told my kids about the pooping Dewbacks when I returned from E3, they were on the floor. Just wait 'til it happens when they're playing the game.

Anyhoo, come September 12, go buy it, steal it, rent it, whatever. But however you obtain a copy, just make sure you find a way for your kids to play it. Of course, since this game is fun for parents as well, they may have to wrestle the controller away from Mom and Dad. Or even better, since LEGO Star Wars II retains the low-maintenance, drop-in, drop-out cooperative gameplay of the first game, you can play together.

Oh, wait, I almost forgot the obligatory sentence written in Yoda-speak, so here goes:

This awesome game, you should buy.

July 24, 2006

Of Niche-Filling & Market-Targeting

My esteemed colleagues at GameDAILY have been all over the videogame journalism beat these days, witness Chris Buffa's recent 2-part series; 1) Why Videogame Journalism Sucks, and 2) How to Fix Videogame Journalism.

But this post is about the recent "What Game Developers Hate About Videogame Reviewers" from the mysterious Mr. Media Coverage at GameDAILY Biz.

The reason I mention all of this is because of the following excerpt from "What Game Developers Hate About Videogame Reviewers". Specifically, this is one of the main reasons I started GameFam:

Developers hate game reviewers because they don't understand games that are targeted for a specific audience

"Game reviewers want every game to be Zelda."

That's what one developer told me. He said that the reality of game development is that most developers make games for a very specific target audience and the developers do their best to find and meet the needs of those specific gamers.

It's a frustration then, when game reviewers complain that the game is too "kiddie" or too "redneck" or too targeted to one group. That, after all, was the entire purpose of the game.

Developers of kid-friendly games pull out their hair over these kinds of reviews. Making games that are easy enough for kids to play without frustration is incredibly difficult. When a 30-year-old reviewer, honed with one-quarter Contra-level skills, calls the game too-easy and too-short, game developers go crazy.

In defense of the game reviewers, developers must understand that reviewers are writing for a target audience as well. They have to target their content accordingly and that occasionally means making fun of kids' games. Their core readers don't care anyway.

Still, good reviewers will always keep a game's target audience in mind when writing the review. This target audience will be one ultimately playing the game, and if a review shortchanges its interests unfairly, this audience will lose a degree respect for that publication.

That there, ladies and gents, is the industry crying out for the creation of a niche, and along with the gamermoms and gamerdads of the world, a few of us are trying our darndest to fill it.

July 20, 2006


Platforms: PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube, PC, Game Boy Advance


So many games we've played together.
So much fun we've had.

From SpongeBob to Sly Cooper.
From Zoo Tycoon to Roller Coaster Tycoon.
From Dog's Life to Disney's Extreme Skate Adventure.
From Princess Peach to the Prince of all Cosmos.
From Ratchet to... er... Clank.
And the list goes on.

My kids and I (along with my wife, of course) love to do many different activities together. Board games, playing with bubbles, creating things with their big bucket of LEGO pieces (note the deft foreshadowing), fun family trips around the Chicago area, family movie nights, and of course, playing "Jump on Daddy," though I think they like that last one a little better than I do.

But because of the important role that video games have played in my relationship with my kids, it will always be a special thing that we share. And it is the nature of that sharing (and sharing in general) that is the crux of this review.

For the past couple of years now, our joint gaming adventures have taken on a familiar pattern.

  1. I reveal the new game.
  2. There is much rejoicing.
  3. We............... waaaaaaaaaaaait............... for............... the............... gaaaaaaaaaaaaame............... to............... looooooooooooooooad (especially for PS2 games).
  4. And I start playing, while the kids watch our new interactive adventure unfold before them.

But just how interactive is their adventure if I'm the one with the controller in my hand? Oh sure, I often pause and ask the kids what they might do to pass an obstacle, and I wait until they come up with the solution. And they've gotten pretty good at it, actually. But that's really no substitute for controlling the action yourself.

After I'd played through a level or sometimes the entire game, my kids would sometimes ask for the controller and give it a go on their own, safe in the knowledge that I was always there to help if they needed it.

But they never wanted to take the reins from the very beginning. And although I was lending a helping hand, my motives were not purely altruistic, as I enjoy many of these games as much as they do.

So although I would always ask if they wanted to try out a new game before I did, the answer would invariably be no, and for a while, it was our own little win-win status quo.

That is, it was the status quo, up until we played LEGO Star Wars a few months ago.

We went through steps 1-3 (above) as per usual, but when it came time for Step 4 (I start playing), something strange happened; my kids started to play instead of me, and even better, they played together.

Just like that, my children staged a bloodless controller coup. And although part of me will miss the way things used to be, I couldn't be prouder, because they've come off the relative safety of the sidelines, to craft their own journey.

There are still games that are too tough for them to start playing from the beginning, so they don't necessarily start playing every game. But there has definitely been a shift, in that they no longer assume that Daddy plays the early levels of every game while they watch. The default is now that they play from the beginning, and if it's too difficult or intimidating, then it's Daddy's turn. Yes, I realize that video games aren't a microcosm of life in general, but it's always gratifying to see your kids be more intrepid and self-assured when trying something new.

So what makes LEGO Star Wars so special?

First things first. At least as far as my kids are concerned, Star Wars wasn't the draw here. Neither one has seen any of the Star Wars movies (Patience, kids. Soon, the movies you will see.), and before playing this game, they probably would have thought that Mace Windu was just another one of the funny names Daddy likes to make up when he's being silly. Now, of course, he's the purple lightsaber guy.

And while my kids are both big LEGO fans, they played other LEGO games on GameTap that didn't resonate as much as this game has.

Don't get me wrong. The lightsabers are awesome, and the LEGO-ization of the Star Wars environment is truly, truly delightful - a crucial part of what makes the game so kid-friendly. But in the end, when it comes to the games that my kids love best, it ain't the license. It's the gameplay, stupid.

Gameplay-wise, LEGO Star Wars is the best of both worlds. It not only offers an open-ended Free Play mode that kids love so well, but in addition, the story mode hits the sweet spot of being challenging without being too difficult. In addition, "dying" isn't very traumatic, in that you turn into a pile of LEGO pieces, and respawn in a couple of seconds. No harm, no foul, and more importantly, no nightmares.

Combined with their newfound sense of gaming independence that this game gives them, it's also a terrific catalyst for siblingular (Me fail English? That's unpossible!) teamwork. Sure, each one of my kids enjoys playing the game alone, but it isn't until they play together that the gameplay potential of LEGO Star Wars is fully realized.

The drop-in anytime co-op mode makes it very easy for my kids to play for as long or as short as they want, without affecting each other's gameplay (and when one of 'em is finished, I remind them that I'd be more than happy to step in and help........ assuming they want my company, of course. *sulk*). They run around together, pretending to be the characters they're controlling. They encourage each other and help each other to advance and overcome obstacles. And although the worlds they explore together aren't "real", there's nothing fake about the parental joy it gives us to see them playing together so generously and enthusiastically.

LEGO Star Wars also has tremendous replay value. Once you've completed a level, you have the option of going back and playing in the Free Play mode, which allows you to roam freely and switch characters on the fly.

Speaking of switching characters, each character has a unique skill-set that is needed at particular points in the game. Only Jedis can use the force to move, destroy or repair objects. Only droids can open certain doors. Only Jar-Jar Binks *shudder* can jump high enough to reach certain platforms. Only those with guns can shoot targets. Only those small enough can travel through the ductwork, etc.

There many other terrific things about LEGO Star Wars, not the least of which is that most parents will love it as well. As with many of the games I play with my kids, just because a game is kid-friendly, it doesn't necessarily make it a "kiddie" game.

This game is also a feast for the senses. It looks gorgeous, and the sounds are true to the Star Wars universe, which only adds to the immersiveness. And that's saying something, considering that we played the game on the PS2, the weakest of the current-gen (in the process of becoming past-gen) consoles.

Finally, if there is one thing that makes me even prouder than I am of their newfound gaming independence; prouder than I am of their growing teamwork skills, it is this. Without having seen any of the movies or reading a single review, they knew instinctively that a character as annoying and pointless as Jar-Jar Binks would be the ideal practice dummy upon whom to hone their lightsaber skills.

*sigh* They grow up so fast.


If any of you vaguely recalls that I wrote something about LEGO Star Wars in the past, you're right. It was included in my 2005 Holiday Gift Guide.

"Hey! You just scratched my lightsaber with your LEGOs!"
"Hey! You just vaporized my LEGOs with your lightsaber!"

Like chocolate & peanut butter, this combination may sound strange to some, but for some reason, it just works...really, really well. This is a terrific game for kids, and is one of the few kid-friendly games for the Xbox. EDIT: To clarify that last sentence, there are plenty of kid-friendly games for the Xbox that also appear on the PS2 and GameCube, but the exclusives are few & far between.

July 18, 2006

Happy 18th of July!!!

Yeah, it sure isn't July 4th anymore, but here are some mementos of our fun day 2 weeks ago.

Because of the crappy weather at last year's Eyes to the Skies Balloon Festival, we were completely shut out of the balloons, which led us to dub it the Balloon-less festival, but this year, due to gorgeous weather, it was delightfuly balloon-full.

With this Flickr photostream (and especially this photo) as our inspiration, we had some fun with sparklers.

And of course, the obligatory oooh! and ahhh!-inducing fireworks.

July 13, 2006

PREVIEW: Viva Piñata (a.k.a. "Good Fuzzy")

About a week after I launched GameFam last year, I warned parents about a game created by renowned developer Rare. That game, Conker: Live & Reloaded, starred a fuzzy little critter who was just as cute as the dickens. As it turned out, he was also quite the violent, profane, disgusting little bastard.

That would be a prime example of the phenomenon known as "Bad Fuzzy".

Later this year (Holiday, '06), Rare and Microsoft will be releasing Viva Piñata for the Xbox 360, and based on my up-close-and-personal look-see at E3, it looks to be a prime example of "Good Fuzzy".

As I wrote in awarding Viva Piñata the coveted Best New IP Award in my E3 2006 Fammy Awards:

Viva Piñata is not only bright, colorful and whimsical, but it also allows for a great deal of choices for customization and control, which lets kids find their own comfort level. If we had a 360, Viva Piñata would be at the top of my wish list (along with Fight Night Round 3 for after the kids go to bed).

A Plethora of Piñatas

So, how 'bout them piñatas?
You know 'em. You love 'em. They're fun at parties.

Actually, while those last two statements are certainly true, how well do you really know your friendly neighborhood piñata? Rare's take on the matter is that just as we didn't really know the secret lives of toys before Toy Story, we've been similarly clueless about what goes on when the piñatas are not busy spewing forth their birthday party bounty.

Well, starting in a few months, we'll be able to see how piñatas act in their downtime. In Viva Piñata, there are more than 60 piñatas to play with, and each has its own personality. Your job is to develop each one from its initial state into the kind of piñata that would make a papa piñata proud.

Along the way, you meet many other piñatas. Most are friendly, but there are a few that aren't so pleasant. Sure, you could bust one open and eat the candy. But candy from a "sour" piñata will make your piñatas ill, and nobody likes a sick piñata (quick side note: when you break open a piñata, it doesn't die. It gets banished outside the garden, and has to start over from square one).

So instead of getting any ideas about having your own little Whacking Day celebration, you're encouraged to rehabilitate the bad egg, by figuring out just what it needs to become tame.

In addition to the piñatas, you can also create, customize and develop every item in the garden. Some kids will absolutely love that part of the game, but the kids that prefer a lower-maintenance experience can craft just that for themselves. There are also "helper" characters who can guide them along the way.

As far as my kids are concerned, my daughter is going to love all the customization, while my son will definitely lean toward the lazily aimless free exploration that is at the heart of open-ended sandbox games.

There's also co-op play, and since the game is on the Xbox 360, Xbox Live will obviously be at the heart of the multiplayer experience. You'll be able to team up with other payers and explore other custom-made environments.

"Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you."

If I can take Henry Kissinger's famous line and shamelessly bastardize it for my own purposes, I'd say the following:

Just because Viva Piñata is part of a calculated, engineered-to-be-kid-friendly multimedia (there's also going to be a Viva Piñata TV show, launching in the Fall) strategy that is a central part of Microsoft's goal to make the Xbox 360 more kid-friendly than the Xbox is, doesn't mean it's not a good game for kids (whew!).

I approached cautiously, and came away genuinely impressed. So before you start muttering "that's how they getcha" about big bad Microsoft, give Viva Piñata a chance to win you and your kids over.

Once Microsoft finally drops the price of the Xbox 360 (soon may it be. amen.), Viva Piñata will definitely be the first game we buy.

If you already have an Xbox 360, and you want your kids to get in on the gaming joy (or even if you don't want to share, but your significant other said you need to find kids' games to justify the expense), I highly recommend that you get in on the good fuzziness of Viva Piñata.

And just because my kids love SpongeBob...

July 12, 2006

Break's Over

Is it just me, or did it seem to anyone else like there were about a dozen "West Wing" episodes (including the series premiere) where President Bartlet told his staff that they had been taking it easy for a while, and it was time to get back to work?

For various reasons, none of them vacation-in-Fiji related, I've haven't posted for the last couple weeks. Sorry 'bout that. But starting with a preview tomorrow, I'm back in the saddle again.