Get Peggle Nights for free!

March 4, 2010

For what I can only assume is a limited time, PopCap is giving away Peggle Nights (normally $20) for free!

Peggle Nights

You simply need to sign up for PopCap Passport, the company’s free e-newsletter. Once you do, you will receive the ability to send a free download of Peggle Nights to a friend via e-mail. Now, if that “friend” happens to be an alternate e-mail address of your own…free Peggle Nights!

Wired Magazine listed Peggle Nights as one of the Top 5 Games of 2008, so you know this is a good one. What are you waiting or? Go get it before this deal is gone!

Start by signing up for PopCap Passport here.


My Weekend NES Flea Market Haul

February 16, 2010

Probably due to some poorly repressed childhood trauma surrounding the inexplicable loss of several of my most prized NES cartridges (where the hell is my copy of Battletoads & Double Dragon: The Ultimate Team?!), one of my favorite adult hobbies is collecting NES games. But what began as a simple interest in reclaiming my former treasures has evolved into a quixotic quest to acquire a complete NES library.

I blame the internet. Once I discovered vintage game collecting communities like Digital Press, I quickly became infected by the contagious enthusiasm of the world’s most obsessed game collectors. This is the same enthusiasm that presumably inspired someone to pay over $13,000 for a Nintendo system and 5 games last week on eBay. So you can understand why my hobby is viewed with suspicion by my normally supportive wife.

Nevertheless, I cannot undo the bite of the collecting bug, which is why I continue to make periodic trips around my home city of Richmond, VA, in search of pawn shops, flea markets, and thrift stores that may be harboring vintage video games. For a couple of years, I have been seeking certain lost relics of my youth, but I am also always on the lookout for interesting games, especially those that remain with their original boxes and/or manuals.

Of particular interest are games that can be classified as Complete in Box (CIB), meaning they retain every item that originally shipped inside their boxes. A CIB game always includes its original instruction manual, black cartridge sleeve, and styrofoam insert. If the game originally shipped with a fold-out poster or additional player guide, then these must be included to qualify as CIB as well. Collecting vintage games is a research-heavy hobby, to say the least. While I may have been (rightfully) accused of being one of the least organized people on earth, even I have been driven to maintaining an Excel file documenting the status of my game collection.

Valentine’s Day weekend was largely (and appropriately) consumed by woo-the-wife activities this year, but I did find time to make a few flea market trips. While eBay will net you anything you want (as long as you can pay) I find it so much more satisfying to browse the flea markets and pawn shops. Not only are the prices lower (and open to negotiation) but shopping online can’t compare to the feeling of walking into a flea market stall, spotting a stack of those familiar gray cartridges, and thumbing through them to discover that elusive copy of Mega Man 6 you have been hunting for months.

On Saturday, I visited one flea market to find three booths selling NES games. The first was dismissed immediately upon my discovery that they were attempting to charge $18.00 for a boxed copy of Donkey Kong Classics. Was it even CIB? Beats me, because it’s so overpriced either way that I didn’t care to investigate further.

The second booth had a small selection, but nothing interesting, and I thought the trip was going to be a bust until I stumbled upon a third booth on my way out the door. The little guy running this place had a surprising selection, at the expected rate of $5/ loose cart. I offered 3 for $10, and came away with…

NES A Boy And His Blob, Rescue Rangers, Magic of Scheherezade

Saturday's NES finds

  • A Boy And His Blob – I have the Wii update, but never played the original.
  • Chip N Dale’s Rescue Rangers – I was most excited about this one, because I loved it as a kid but somehow lost my copy over the years. Score!
  • The Magic of Scheherezade – I have no idea what this game is about, but I vaguely remember seeing it in Nintendo Power in the late 80’s.

So maybe nothing to write home about, but I was pleased for my $10. I asked the guy where he gets his games and he said he buys them wholesale from a magazine. Ever the opportunist, I have been Googling to discover what magazine he is talking about, but to no avail so far. (Can anybody help me out with this one?)

The next day, I hit two more flea markets. At the first, an outdoor flea market, I found a woman sitting in the cold, selling a number of loose and boxed carts. On the downside, she knew her CIB copies had some sort of inherent value. On the upside, she was pretty willing to bargain from the start. For $20 I came away with…

  • Kickle Cubicle (CIB) – The best of the lot. My friend had this game when I was a kid and I loved playing it at his house. I’ve had a hard time finding it, and seeing it CIB was too much to pass up.
  • Firehawk (CIB) – One of those sketchily published Camerica games; the kind that lacks the Nintendo Seal of Approval. I don’t tend to see those with their boxes, let alone CIB, so I had to grab it in spite of its box being pretty sunbleached.
  • F-15 City Wars (cart) – Never heard of this one…it’s from “American Video Entertainment” (whatever that is/was) and also lacks the Seal of Approval.
  • Road Runner (cart) – A Tengen release, making this the third cart of questionable legality!
  • King’s Knight (cart) – I had never heard of this one either, but added it to the pile purely on the basis of its Square Soft logo. C’mon, you know you would have done the same.

I think the woman and I both walked away from this deal feeling like winners. I was originally planning to head home after this, but since I was in a shady part of town, I figured I’d find more flea markets if I kept driving. Five minutes down the road, my theory was validated.

There was a real shortage of video game paraphernalia in this third flea market, but I finally found a guy selling stereo equipment that had a stick on NES carts on the side. He proposed $4/cart, but we agreed on 2 for $6. This proved to be quite the bargain when I found…

  • Mega Man 6 (loose) – Major find! I already have Mega Man 2,3,4, and 5, so adding this one puts me one shy of a complete NES Mega Man collection.
  • Tiny Toon Adventures (loose) – Another one that I loved as a kid, but somehow lost. Just like Rescue Rangers, I was really excited to grab this one.
Kickle Cubicle, Firehawk, F-15 City Wars, Road Runner, Mega Man 6, Tiny Toon Adventures

Sunday's NES purchases - Blackberry camera quality

Which put the weekend tally at 10 games (2 CIB, 8 loose) for $36. More than I was expecting to spend this weekend on the collection, but several of the games were just way too exciting for me to leave sitting in the flea markets, unappreciated by all but me.

I’ll have to give these particular locations a rest now to let them (hopefully) replenish their stocks, and in the meantime, continue the hunt!

Top 5 reasons why Hard Rain is the best Left 4 Dead 2 campaign

February 10, 2010

Swamp Fever is great. Dead Center is mediocre. Dark Carnival grows on you. The Parish is boring (except for the bridge escape). But Hard Rain is the best campaign in Left 4 Dead 2. Why?

Left 4 Dead 2 Hard Rain poster

1. Retracing Your Steps

Hard Rain is the only L4D2 campaign that sees the survivors journeying from Point A to Point B, and then back to Point A again. When I first heard that I would be playing the level as a loop, I thought, “Groannn…this is going to be boring as hell. Why can’t every level be like Swamp Fever which is AWESOME?!?”

I stand corrected. Seeing the level from the reverse perspective is like being in a state fair fun house, except zombies replace carnies and you’re not worried that the roof might collapse on your head seeing as it was hastily constructed over the weekend BY CARNIES.

Knowing that you will have to retrace your steps also causes you to play the first half of the level differently. Rather than using every health kit in sight in order to frustrate the guy who keeps his voice chat button held down the entire game, you have a good incentive to leave some behind for the return trip. You may be leaving this safe house with only 50 health right now, but you’ll be relieved you did when you stumble back in with 5 health later. Unless that voice chat guy gets it first…damn.

2. The Rain Effects

Hard Rain isn’t truly Hard Rain until the second half of the campaign. Once the survivors find the gas cans they need…cue the chaos.

This ain’t your little sister’s spring shower…it’s HARD RAIN. The torrential downpour not only obscures your vision, it gets so loud it can drown out the voices of your teammates. Hunter got you pinned in the cornfield? Scream all you want into that Logitech headset…no one can hear you cry through all that HARD RAIN.

Left 4 Dead 2 Hard Rain

Where's Ellis? I can't see him through this HARD RAIN!

Unless, of course, your computer can’t handle the shader settings required to see the HARD RAIN. If that’s the case, you’ll probably hear Nick scream, “Here comes the rain!” and wonder what the hell he’s talking about because all you see is a muddy gray filter applied to the sky that looks suspiciously like ass. Probably time to upgrade the rig, champ.

3. The Sugar Cane Field

Some people gripe that Hard Rain’s elevator wait is the campaign’s only crescendo event. Maybe so, but trying to navigate your way through the rain-drenched sugar cane field is like the most intense crescendo event had a baby with the bridge run finale in The Parish. A CRACK BABY.*

Getting through the cane field would be hard enough without any rain. The plants are taller than eye level and they perfectly mask any oncoming zombies until they’re already clawing at your face. Not to mention any Special Infected who are guaranteed to show up and make your life miserable. I’m looking at you, Boomer.

Anywhere else, you can count on me picking off your roly-poly ass from a mile away. But in the cane field? I spin around and there you are, puking green goo all over my screen. Of course, half the time I shoot you before I even realize what you are, and have to suffer through the mocking “Shove boomers before shooting” message on top of the fact that I am currently lying on my back, drowning in a mob of every zombie that spawned since the safe house, and my stupid pistol only shoots 15 FREAKING BULLETS before I have to reload?! FML.

Add in the aforementioned HARD RAIN that conceals every hint of witches until that sinking moment when you realize you just knocked one in the face with your flashlight, and you get the picture.

4. The Wandering Witches

Everyone remembers the first time they played Hard Rain. It looks like this:

Wow, I’ve never seen a witch this early in a level before. Maybe the Director really hates us. Hey…why is she walking around? That’s weird. Just try to run around her anyway. WHOA, back up, she’s coming this way! OK, OK, I think we’re good, just keep running along this fence…wait! How’d she get over here?! Is she teleporting or something?? Watch out! OK, stick together around this corner…GOOD GOD WHY ARE THERE 50 OF THEM AGGGHHHH [death].

Wandering witches are good for 2 reasons:

  1. They keep you on your toes.
  2. They give you an excuse to run ahead of your group like an adrenalin-fueled, shotgun-toting Bruce Campbell. Not only are you a one-man death squad, but you won’t hear a single teammate complain about your hero tactics or your distance from the group, as long as you keep showing witches the best end of your boomstick.
Left 4 Dead 2 Witch Shotgun

You see this? my boomstick!

5. The Finale

Hopefully you kept the whole “retracing your steps” thing in mind, because Hard Rain’s finale finds you right back where you started: in the Burger Tank restaurant by the river. So unless you threw every pipe bomb, molotov cocktail, and bile jar in the building right before healing yourself four times in a row on your first time through (remember: this IS acceptable behavior if it annoys the voice chat guy), you should have some things to work with here.

You’re going to need them too, because this finale ensures a frantic pace by squeezing you into the tight confines of the Burger Tank. If you have any sense, you’ll get on the roof, where you’ll hopefully find a few extra goodies and stand some chance of spotting Special Infected before they can force you into a horde. A winner’s strategy revolves around watching for Smokers that sneak up from behind, hauling ass back up the ladder after dropping through the hole in the roof to reload, and using whatever you can find to set Tanks on fire as soon as possible.

And, of course, that bastion of self-preservation, adrenalin. Don’t let anything stand in your way of acquiring an adrenalin shot before the whole shakedown starts. Because just like in any finale, no matter how much your teammates may curse, it’s all about getting YOU onto Virgil’s boat.

I don’t care if it’s your mother that’s tied up by a Smoker and you could free her with a single machete swipe; the second you hear that music change, you jam that needle into your leg and book it to the boat. She’ll get a nice “in memory of” message during the credits, and you can tell her I said to stop swearing.

P.S. Bonus Reason #6: The campaign shares a name with this blight on modern cinema. Christian Slater FTL.

*Crack is not a joke.

Are Mass Effect 2 Ads Suffocating Commander Shepard?

February 4, 2010

Yesterday I opened the latest issue of my beloved-and-exceedingly-expensive-to-import video game periodical, Edge Magazine. Inside I was given pause by this ad for Mass Effect 2:

The advertisement in question

My question is this: Who is that guy in the center?

I understand that it is supposed to be Commander Shepard…but let me tell you: I played Mass Effect, and that guy ain’t Commander Shepard.

Commander Shepard is a bald, black male with a scar running diagonally across his face. And he doesn’t scowl like that; he has a happy face (despite having been dealt a scar-crossed hand by fate). This is, of course, because I created him to look exactly that way. And then I proceeded to spend a brilliant 20+ hours with him exploring and saving the universe. The result is that I am now connected to Commander Shepard as I know him; not to the scowling generic space marine staring at me from my magazine.

Now, I’m not dense. I can put myself in the shoes of BioWare’s advertising team. Knowing full well that every Mass Effect veteran has his or her own personal version of Commander Shepard tucked away on their hard drive, the ad folks were in a pickle. Faced with the question of how to represent a character with a million unique faces, they clearly opted to create a “standard” version of Commander Shepard for use in promotional images, box art, etc. A difficult decision to come to, I’m sure. But was it the right one?

In creating a standardized version of Commander Shepard, BioWare inescapably sends a message to players that this is the “correct” version of the hero. Sure, I have the freedom to create my own Shepard and import him into Mass Effect 2…but he will never be worthy of appearing in magazine ads. In other words, he is not the “real” Commander Shepard.

And if that’s the case, then why should I bother creating my own Shepard at all? In establishing a standard Shepard, Bioware points out that my Commander Shepard is nothing more than a graphic skin, confined to a file that lives in the recesses of my hard drive. My illusion of Commander Shepard’s reality thus shattered, I can find little motivation to spend time on the character creation screen, breathing life into his appearance. Easier to simply accept the default character model, since it’s going to be thrust upon me in the end anyway.

In the end, advertisements depicting a standardized Commander Shepard model suffocate the character by stripping the player of his or her sense of ownership and attachment. Does the ad-depicted Shepard have a standardized morality as well? BioWare might as well tell me what it is up front, so I can avoid the hassle of making my own choices in Mass Effect 2.

What then, would be a better solution? After I explained the situation to my non-gaming wife, she needed about three seconds to generate one: Have the advertisements take place from the perspective of Commander Shepard.

A-ha! Rather than accept the problem of how to represent a character with a million unique faces, challenge the problem itself. Don’t represent him, and let the player fill in the blanks. Not only would my illusions of Shepard’s reality remain intact, but when I viewed the world of Mass Effect 2 through the eyes of the hero, I might even be reminded how much fun I had the first go ’round, and feel doubly compelled to purchase my copy of the sequel today.

Of course, Mass Effect is played from an over-the-shoulder view rather than a first-person perspective, but even this would present a superior alternative to my magazine advertisement’s approach. Show Shepard from behind, just like when playing the game. He could even wear his helmet to cover up any hint of an illusion-shattering face. Personally, I prefer the idea of a first-person perspective advertisement, but either idea would be better than what we’re currently facing.

Mass Effect 2 screenshot

Would an ad from this perspective be so wrong?

An advertising campaign from either perspective could remain full of character appeal by focusing on Shepard’s new entourage. They are the ones I will be spending time with in Mass Effect 2 anyway – so why not use the advertisements as an opportunity to introduce me to my companions? Doing so would make me feel more like I’m in Shepard’s shoes more than ever.

When I look at the current advertisement, what does BioWare want me to see? The hero of the brilliant first entry in the series? Because right now, all I see is a stranger.

Blockbuster is charging HOW MUCH for a video game rental?!

May 24, 2009

I swung by Blockbuster on my way home tonight, thinking I would rent Punch-Out!! for my Wii this Memorial Day weekend. The game is brand new, so I was a little surprised to find it still available for rent. I plucked it from the shelf and brought it up front, but stopped in my tracks right before I made it to the register. That’s when I caught sight of the prices posted on the wall.

NINE DOLLARS for a 5-day video game rental! It’s fair to say that I haven’t tried to rent a video game in years, but has it really come to this? When I was growing up, renting a video game from the local Movie Time was significantly cheaper than renting a movie, not TWICE THE PRICE. They want me to pay 20% of the retail price just to borrow the game for five lousy days?

I made some loud comments to that effect and marched the game right back to the shelf, against the protests of my fiancee. It was my birthday and she wanted me to not worry about the price and just get the game I wanted. But if I paid that ransom, I knew that visions of Blockbuster executives laughing, smoking cigars, and counting my money would have filled my head for the rest of the weekend, preventing the kind of concentration necessary to ever learn King Hippo’s new moveset. I didn’t even rent the game, and I’m still mad enough to post this rant on my blog!

How much longer til Blockbuster is out of business?

Blizzard + PopCap = World Domination?

May 13, 2009


Blizzard announced yesterday that it has hired VP Greg Canessa away from PopCap Games. That’s right: the father of hardcore gaming bastions like World of Warcraft, Starcraft, and Diablo has decided it could learn a thing or two from the company that brought Bejeweled to stay-at-home mothers everywhere. Is this the Twilight Zone?

There seems to be an article written about the rise in casual gaming every other day, but until recently, casual gaming has existed in its own quirky bubble, totally separate from any conversations involving the so-called “hardcore gamer.” Even as the casual gaming world scored hits like Diner Dash and Puzzle Pirates, the gaming industry (and media) continued to treat its growing casual audience as something entirely different than its traditionally-held image of a “gamer.” After all, what could Red Bull swilling, twenty-something, male PS3 owners have in common with your Mahjong-loving mom?

Maybe more than we think. Casual game developer PopCap Games has roared into the spotlight recently, riding on the back of hits like Peggle and the recently released Plants vs. Zombies. What separates these games from the throng of competition is a beautifully executed mission statement: to weave hardcore gaming concepts into universally accessible formats. The result? Crossover appeal that has broken entirely new ground.

When it first became clear that Peggle had somehow struck a chord with both casual AND hardcore gamers, Clive Thompson proposed that where casual fans saw a light-hearted game of chance, hardcore gamers recognized a devious challenge of skill. Which audience is right? The answer, which also explains the game’s massive success across platforms, is that both groups are right. On the surface, Peggle appears to be a game of luck (it does look just like Plinko on The Price is Right, after all), and it can be played successfully as such. Once you bounce a ball off your first target, who knows where it will bounce next? And for the casual audience, that mystery just might hold the fun of it all.

But take a deeper look, as hardcore gamers are wont to do, and you begin to realize that the game engine’s physics allow you to predict where the ball will land several bounces down the line. Which is a big implication, because it means that Peggle can also be played as a game of skill. Doing so takes an almost obsessive level of patience, but couldn’t the same be said for reaching level 70 in WoW? PopCap struck audience crossover gold by weaving traditionally hardcore gaming tenets into a casual, non-intimidating format. In other words: simple to learn, difficult to master.

plants-vs-zombiesIt should come as no surprise then, that PopCap built its latest hit, Plants vs. Zombies, on the same adage. They have upped the ante this time by constructing a casual game with building blocks lifted from one of the most hardcore genres in existence: Real Time Strategy. Plants vs. Zombies is built to pull in your mother with its humor, cartoon graphics, and forgiving learning curve. But before she knows it, she will be harvesting resources, upgrading her weapons, and allocating strategic defensive structures. It’s Command & Conquer in a colorful candy coating.

PopCap isn’t out to reinvent the wheel: Plants vs. Zombies is basically a tower defense game, and these have been done almost to death. What separates this studio from the crowd is its ability to perfectly balance the casual and hardcore aspects of its games. The resulting crossover appeal allows PopCap to do one other thing differently than almost every other casual developer: make lots and lots of money.

Which explains why PopCap’s senior executives are hot commodities. Make no mistake, WoW prints money with its monthly subscription fees, but Blizzard is well aware that its audience is strictly hardcore. After all, how is one supposed to make a level-grinding, fantasy role-playing game about orcs and elves appeal to the Bejeweled crowd? Blizzard doesn’t know the answer either, but it’s betting that if anyone does, it’s the PopCap braintrust. If their bet pans out, then the gaming industry is about to be in for a paradigm shift. You’ll recognize world domination by its first sign: the day your mom calls to see if you’re free for a raid.

Things I Learned from Fallout 3

May 4, 2009

The Post-Apocalyptia Survival Guide

Just in time for the looming nuclear apocalypse, Bethesda Studios has delivered a survival training course for our inevitable future, in the guise of Fallout 3. To maximize your chances of survival in the horrific future that is almost upon you, I urge you to play this game immediately. But for those of you who cannot, please take the time to review the following vital lessons you WOULD have learned if you had valued your own life enough to play Fallout 3. Don’t say I never tried to save your life…

1. Might Makes Right
The local ruffians you will encounter outside of tomorrow’s towns may act tough, but you can show ‘em who’s boss by one-upping them at their own game. When the goons whip out their rusty brass knuckles and splintered police batons, simply counter with your sawed off shotgun, .44 magnum, 10mm submachine gun, alien plasma rifle, flamethrower, and cluster-firing nuclear missile launcher. Any weapon known to the townsfolk as a “Man Opener” will also suffice, in a pinch.

Gatling gun > soiled trousers

Gatling gun > soiled trousers

2. Remember that Abraham Lincoln was a Badass
Honest Abe will probably not be reanimated during the nuclear holocaust, but this doesn’t mean that his bloodthirsty spirit can’t live on through you. If you manage to locate any museums dedicated to Abe during your wasteland travels, be sure to search the displays inside for some of his old weapons. His repeating rifle was the scourge of Stephen Douglas, who once wrote that “the dread firearm wouldst surely explodeth the head of any Super Mutant in one volley.”

Honest Abe Packed Heat

Honest Abe Packed Heat

3. Don’t Drink From the Toilet
Of course the urinal water in the subway bathrooms will LOOK delicious, but don’t be fooled: it is almost certain to be critically contaminated with harmful radiation. This same rule of thumb holds true for any mouth-watering urinal cakes that may have survived the apocalypse as well. If you are simply unable to resist the temptation to partake, be sure to check the floor in the toilet stalls for any partially vaporized junkie skeletons that may still be clutching useful anti-radiation pills. Remember: one pill cancels out one tantalizingly irradiated urinal cake!

4. Save those Bottlecaps!
In the event of nuclear holocaust, society will revert to an economy built entirely around the intrinsic and timeless value of shiny objects. Bottlecaps are sure to be the currency of choice, but you would be wise to diversify your portfolio by hoarding any beads, shells, and bits of quartz you may find. Precious metals will have no value, unless you have the engineering credentials to construct some sort of deadly shoulder-mounted debris launcher. In this event, the metals could serve as makeshift ammunition, and therefore be upgraded to the value of a teddy bear, or even a severed limb.

5. Learn a Valuable Skill
You COULD spend your free time learning how to be extra sneaky or a savvy barterer, but before you do, consider the limited value that these skills will return in a post-Armageddon wasteland. Anything you desire can be better gained through more marketable talents, such as lockpicking or computer hacking. Would you rather be the chatterbox trying desperately to negotiate a slight discount with the town merchant, or the guy who’s already behind the counter, opening the safe? Bonus: if the safe contains a gun, you can use it to shoot the other customers who are wasting their time negotiating, then loot their corpses and sell what you find to the shopkeeper yourself! Who’s the savvy one now?

There you have it. Simply remember these five survival tips, and you will drastically increase your odds of survival in post-apocalyptia. Oh, and one last thing: if you’re not a fan of the vocal group The Ink Spots, you may want to bring ear plugs.