Consoul's Blog Consoul Games: December 2004

Thursday, December 30, 2004

NYE with PSP

Just in the nick of time - my 2004 ends on a high note.

I have just taken delivery of a beautiful PSP value pack + Ridge Racers. The PSP is truly a sight to behold. It's gobsmacking. From the moment I unpacked it, I felt like I was holding a piece of the future. The overall look of the unit and the unbelievably sharp and vivid images on the screen are jaw-dropping. The pictures you've seen online do not do the PSP justice. You need to see one for yourself.

Fingerprints are very noticable on the glossy casing, but that's the price you pay for such a slick design. Not a dead pixel in sight on my PSP's screen I'm relieved to say. I didn't get one of the limited UMD demo discs, but hey, you can't have everything. At least I got one of the first batch - likely to be the only batch made in Japan with the gorgeous Sharp screens. The rest will be made in China with Samsung screens. Now I just need to get a big Memory Stick Duo for MP3's and movies.

I've got to say I'm really very impressed with both Nintendo and Sony's handhelds - Nintendo have delivered on their promise of providing the opportunity for truly original gaming experiences, and Sony have done the unthinkable and delivered a handheld with capabilities to rival current generation home consoles.

Anyway, I'll be off now and I might return in a few days when my thumbs have been reduced to bloody stumps. Happy new year all!

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

DS: Dropped & Scrambled

I awoke on Monday morning to a loud crashing noise. Something nasty had just occurred in my kitchen. Rather than assuming that a burglar had just fallen through my skylight, I figured my cats had just knocked something over. Again.

Indeed they had. Their latest bout of cat-wrestling on the kitchen table had ended with my Nintendo DS being KO'ed out of the ring and down onto the hardwood floorboards below. For good measure, they had also sent my chunky set of housekeys and a dozen eggs down with it. You heard me. A dozen raw eggs.

The egg carton did a pretty respectable job, having kept nine of the eggs intact. The other three eggs had formed a sizable raw omelette on the floor with a DS in the middle. Not my ideal breakfast. Exihibiting an uncharacteristic level of intelligence, my cats had fled the scene, narrowly escaping certain death. I pulled the DS out of the eggy mucus and set about carefully wiping it clean. Luckily, only the bottom of it had egg on it and it cleaned up pretty easily. Close inspection showed two very small chips out of the silver part of the bottom left corner of the casing, indicating it had landed on it's corner. That didn't fill me with confidence. I opened it up, found it mercifully egg-free inside, and momentarily stopped breathing as I pressed the power button. The familiar DS welcome screens and echoing piano note were followed by a sigh of relief. The DS was fine and had passed this unscheduled stress test with barely a scratch.

It's good to know that the DS can take a fall without needing to be sent to the repair shop. It's inevitable that portable consoles are going to take a beating sooner or later. In this regard, the DS almost certainly has an advantage over the PSP. The DS has absolutely no moving parts, which stands it in good stead in the durability stakes. The PSP on the other hand, has many moving parts and is so densely packed that I can't imagine it taking a similar spill without ending up with a misaligned laser or worse. I'll just need to be very careful when I get my PSP. Leaving it on a kitchen table overnight could be cat-astrophic.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Jammin on the DS

It would have been too predictable of me to follow my last post with a glowing report on Super Mario64 DS. The web is full of favourable reviews for it, so I'll just agree with them and leave it at that. Instead, I'll tell you about a far more obscure DS title that I've been playing:

Dai Gassou! Band Brothers.
(likely to be known as Jam With The Band when it gets an English language release)

It's a bemani game with a very steep difficulty curve and a surprising amount of depth. For the uninitiated, "bemani" refers to the musical game genre made popular by Konami's Beatmania series, where you have to push buttons to play the correct notes in time with the beat of the music.

Band Bros starts off easy with just two buttons being used and quickly develops to the point where all ten buttons (A, B, X, Y, L, R and the four d-pad directions) are being used in increasingly complex patterns. You'll sometimes need to touch the screen during songs too. Just when you start getting your head (and hands) around that, button combinations are introduced. Hardcore. There are loads of songs to play from many different genres (J-pop, TV themes, game music, rock, classical, etc.) and you can choose to play whichever instrument you like in each song.

Get up to seven mates with a DS each (Ha! that's gonna happen anytime soon) and you can download any song to them and you can all play different instruments together. Only one player needs the original game cartridge. You can also create your own songs by choosing an instrument, humming notes into the mike, or writing them in standard musical notation, and then start layering tracks.

The game has a cool visual style based on old rock posters which adds to the grungy studio feel of the game. While many of the music tracks are licenced from J-pop artists (you can expect that to change for the Western release), they're all synthesized in midi-style. All things considered, the songs don't sound too bad. There are no vocals in the songs, despite there being some speech in the intro. The game is best played with headphones, which is hinted at by the fact that the game came with a free pair of them.

Unlike so many other bemani games, simply practicing and memorizing songs won't get you through this game. Each time you enter the studio for a recording session (which are the real 'levels' of the game) you'll be handed a random set of songs to play, and the instrument you'll be playing is also chosen randomly. You'll need considerable skill and dexterity to unlock everything, not just a good memory. As such, clearing the increasingly difficult patterns is all the more compelling and satisfying. Dai Gassou! Band Brothers is easily the best handheld bemani game, and holds its own against its housebound counterparts.

Friday, December 17, 2004


After a solid hour of gentle but persistent haggling with my import dealer yesterday, I managed to buy myself a Nintendo DS at a good price. I also picked up the japanese Super Mario 64DS and Sawaru Wario cartridges.

Sawaru Made in Wario (or "Touch! Warioware" as it will likely be named here) is tops. It retains the same feel as the original GBA Warioware, featuring around 200 mini-games thrown at the player in quick succession. Each game lasts around 5 seconds or less. It's almost entirely 2D and bright and cartoonish in its presentation. Don't expect this game to show off the graphical power of the DS. It doesn't, though for what it is, it looks brilliant on the screens. Instead it really explores the potential of the touchscreen for different methods of play. I certainly haven't seen all of the games on offer, but I have unlocked all the characters and tasted a sample of each of their gamesets. All the characters from the first Warioware return and I'm guessing that all the characters from the japanese GBA sequel Mawaru (Twisted) are in as well. There are probably a few new characters too - there's at least one new guy who I'll mention later.

The two screens are often used together as one large screen during cutscenes and many of the games. A few times I found myself instinctively (ie. stupidly) trying to use the stylus on the top screen when faced with a new game and mere seconds to work it out. Most of the games can be instantly worked out without the help of the one-word prompt (given that its in japanese!), though a few left me scratching both my head and the touchscreen. Slicing, tapping, rubbing, winding, drawing, dragging: if you can do it with a stylus, there are games where you'll have to. Each characters' set of games has a distinct feel, which is fine as the variety is kept up, except in the case of Crygor's games which all rely on winding or other circular motions. His set felt all a bit samey. Crygor's new buddy Mike the robot also has a set of games that are quite the same, but radically different from all the others. As his name suggests, Mike's games are played using only the built-in mike. These all involve blowing to create wind or inflating something. It works very well, but while I usually don't give a shit about what people think of me while I play games on public transport, I have to say that I draw the line at blowing a console in public.

Any complaints about the sameyness of those two characters' games cease to be relevent once you've cleared them and moved on to the final hectic sets of games in the elevators where everyone's games are thrown into the mix. These increasingly frenetic and unpredictable stages are the highlight of the game. There are lots of bonus mini-games and extras to unlock ranging from cool to utterly wierd. On the main 'lobby' screen where all the characters mill about, you can (and should) whack Orbulon's UFO as often as possible to have strange little extras pop out. Two player table tennis where each player gets a screen and a shoulder button is pretty cool, but some of the other extras are just wierd, like an old granny drinking a cup of tea. If I blow on her tea, she'll drink some and say something to me in japanese. Some of the bonuses are excellent mini-games, others are just plain odd.

Overall, it's great fun and that's what counts. Mario 64DS may look better, but its touch control system feels tacked on. Touch Wario is the launch title that really shows off the unique possibilities of the DS.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Touch and go

I finally got some hands-on time with a Nintendo DS a couple of hours ago. It feels well built and the screens look very bright and sharp. I tried a Gameboy Advance cartridge on it and it looked great; much better than on a GBA. The screens look fantastic front-on, but the images tend to disappear when viewed from either side. That's no surprise really- the viewing angle is no worse then you'd expect from these kinds of screens. The touch screen is nice and solid. It looks no different from the non-touch screen and has no perceptible give to it. Overall, the DS feels slightly bigger than you'd expect. The top half is very slim, but the bottom half is quite bulky. The silver and black design disguises the size of the bottom half quite well, but its still considerably bigger than a mobile phone when closed. The stylus is tiny, but functional.

On first booting up Mario64DS, I spent a moment stupidly pressing all the buttons before I realised I had to touch the star on the screen. It's going to take some getting used to having controls beyond the buttons. Having instructions in English might help too. The 3D fly-around intro sequence to Mario64DS was beautiful. Very smooth - it looks nowhere near as pixelly as the screenshots seen around the web. The DS certainly has potential, but it isn't being met yet. The Japanese launch titles aside from Mario64DS don't excite me much.

Now more than ever, Sony's PSP really looks like a very serious threat to the DS. Having also seen a production model PSP running in English, there's no doubt in my mind about which is the more impressive device. The PSP eats the DS for breakfast. I originally thought the PSP would be significantly larger than the DS. It isn't. It's only marginally wider and is noticably thinner, though it's screen is huge in comparison. As a games machine, it's nowhere near as innovative as the DS, but I can't see that doing it any harm in terms of sales. It's a multimedia device, built for handling music, movies, photographs and games. The sheer graphical power they've crammed into the PSP blows every other handheld device off the map (including PocketPCs). While I don't believe that many people will start buying movies on Sony's UMD disc format, they won't have to - you can simply stick a Memory Stick Duo into the PSP with your own music, movies and photos on it. From its physical design to its user interface, the PSP looks smoother than a gravy sandwich.

As much as I like Nintendo, and applaud their attempts to move gaming forward with new ideas, there's no denying that from a purely visual standpoint the PSP leaves the DS looking like a tricked-out Gameboy64. It's encouraging to see that the DS is selling faster than Nintendo can produce them right now, but the tide will likely turn when the PSP is released. If the PSP can overcome it's only obvious flaw (its cripplingly short battery life) then Sony's dominance of the handheld market is assured.

The DS, PSP and GBA SP (bottom)

Still playing MGS3: Snake Eater. And it's still brilliant. Nevertheless, nothing tops Katamari Damacy as my vote for best game of 2004.