406. TMTF Reviews No More

I won’t be reviewing stuff anymore on this blog.

(That’s the short version of this post, so you may stop reading here if you like.)

Since the dawn of time—well, since late 2011—I have reviewed media for this blog. Yes, I know I have a problem. I have the spiritual gift of nitpicking. I can’t help it. Since I already reviewed things in the privacy of my muddled mind, it seemed logical to write expanded versions of those reviews for TMTF.

I wound up tearing through books (and later video games) faster than I could review them, so I eventually decided to review things in groups instead of individually. A single Review Roundup could replace five or six individual blog posts. Perfect!

A problem arose, however: Reviews become really tedious to write. In a small way, they also made reading books, playing video games, and watching movies kind of a chore. I found myself frequently making mental notes: I have to remember to mention this in the review. I can’t forget to talk about that. Oh, I’ve got to bring up this point. With so many notes and observations rattling about in my head, I found it harder to enjoy whatever I was doing.

In other words, reviews took the fun out of fun.

I’m always reluctant to remove features from this blog. I like consistency, and I don’t like giving up on things. All the same, like other abandoned features before it, Review Roundups shall cease. TMTF shall blunder on without them, with heavy heart and lighter step.

I don’t regret reviewing stuff. Reviews were good mental exercises. Besides, I’ll continue making mental reviews; I just won’t write ’em down anymore. Ending this blog’s formal reviews leaves more room for… um… whatever it is we do around here. Heck if I know.

There is at least one good thing we’re doing around here—we’re raising money to provide clean water to impoverished people for Christmas! Please take a moment to check out Operation Yuletide. There are even rewards and stuff! Check it out here!

357. The Reviews They Are a-Changin’

For years, I have reviewed books and video games for this blog. What can I say? I have a talent for being snobbish and judgmental. Finding fault with things comes naturally to me. It’s a gift. For that reason, TMTF Reviews have long been a feature on this blog.

This is about to change. I’ve decided to replace TMTF Reviews with a new feature: Review Roundups.

TMTF Review Roundup title cardTMTF Reviews are in-depth critiques of individual books or video games. By contrast, Review Roundups will assess several books, games, or films at a time. Roundups will be less formal than the old Reviews, offering brief impressions instead of long, detailed analyses.

Why are TMTF’s reviews a-changin’? The short answer is that comprehensive reviews are not much fun to write, and probably not much fun to read. As satisfying as it is to critique a book or video game at length, it’s also a bit tedious. Review Roundups will give me the opportunity to review more media without going into exhaustive (and exhausting) detail.

Review Roundups won’t be terribly frequent: maybe once a month or so. They certainly won’t take over this blog or steal the spotlight from… whatever it is we do around here. I don’t know.

Why do I review things at all? I suppose it’s for the same reason I write this blog—it’s fun! That said, I’m excited to continue nitpicking reviewing media for this blog.

334. TMTF Reviews: Shovel Knight

Shovels and video games are not a promising combination. In fact, one of the worst catastrophes in the history of electronic games was the Atari game burial, when thousands of unsold games were buried in a landfill. This set a precedent for the term shovelware, which TMTF once defined as “Badly-designed games fit only for taking up space in landfills.” No, shovels and video games don’t mix well.

Thanks to one brave little knight, however, that may be changing. Shovel Knight is a game I really wanted to play. Last month, I finally picked it up and played it.

Did I unearth a treasure in Shovel Knight, or should I have left it buried?

Shovel Knight

Shovel Knight (PC, Nintendo 3DS/Wii U eShop; 2014)

Shovel Knight is a near-perfect blend of responsive controls, challenging level design, retro-styled visuals, and whimsical humor—to wit, I really dig this game.

TMTF Reviews - Shovel Knight

Of Shovels and Chivalry

Once upon a time, Shovel Knight and Shield Knight roamed the world in search of treasure and adventure. Tragedy struck, however, when a cursed amulet stole Shield Knight, driving Shovel Knight to a life of grief and solitude. Time has passed. An evil Enchantress has arisen. Her ruthless Order of No Quarter, a band of eight wicked knights, terrorize the land. In his quest to find Shield Knight and rescue the realm, Shovel Knight must take up his tool and fight.

Shovel Knight, like the Shantae games, is heavily inspired by the games of yore. (Shovel Knight and Shantae have much in common; the same composer and some of the same developers worked on both.) Shovel Knight borrows its level designs and basic gameplay from the Mega Man games, its map from Super Mario Bros. 3, its towns from Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and one of its moves from that improbably awesome DuckTales game.

(Fun fact: The original DuckTales has a remake scored by the same composer as both Shovel Knight and Shantae—the guy really gets around!)

My point is that Shovel Knight is built on the solid foundation of older games, and that’s a good thing. In fact, it makes me rethink my criticism of Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse for being “awfully familiar.” It’s important to innovate in game development, as in any other creative medium, but there’s also something to be said for perfecting what has been done before. Shovel Knight is built of old parts, but they come together to make something really special. What it lacks in innovation, it makes up in technical excellence.

Shovel Knight screenshot 2

The controls in Shovel Knight are tight and responsive, allowing the eponymous hero to slash, hack, jump, thrust, and bounce with perfect precision. That’s fortunate, for the levels are extremely challenging. The platforming can be tricky; traps, enemies, and obstacles only make things more difficult. I was relieved, however, by how fair the game is. It doesn’t sabotage the player with poor controls, obtuse level design, or deliberate tricks. Shovel Knight can be a hard game, and most players will die a lot, but they’ll have no one but themselves to blame for it.

The levels are terrific. They scroll horizontally and vertically, and not a screen is wasted: every room and area has some new challenge, and there are plenty of secrets to find. Visually, the game boasts pixelated, old-timey visuals on the same color palette as the old Nintendo Entertainment System. Shovel Knight looks (and plays) like a long-lost NES game, plus a few modern tweaks and minus the bad writing ubiquitous in the old days.

Shovel Knight screenshot

Besides his namesake weapon, Shovel Knight wields relics, a wide assortment of weapons and equipment bought from Chester, a wandering merchant who hangs out inside treasure chests (get it?) hidden in most levels. Money can also be used to buy shovel upgrades, new suits of armor, health boosts, and other bonuses.

Among other collectibles, Shovel Knight allows players to gather sheets of music that can be exchanged for songs and in-game cash. Speaking of music, the game’s soundtrack is phenomenal in a shrill, electronic sort of way. Seriously, listen to its main theme.

If that doesn’t give you feels, you may have no soul.

Adventure in Spades?

This is normally the part where I criticize a game for its flaws. With Shovel Knight, I have to look really hard. Prepare yourself, dear reader, for Adam at his most hypercritical.


There’s not much story in Shovel Knight. It doesn’t need a complex story—the game is tons of fun to play—but more plot and characterization would have been nice. It’s sort of a Super Mario Bros. story: girl is taken, hero must rescue her, etc. There are one or two twists, and the Order of No Quarter are likable enough as characters, but the simplistic story feels like a missed opportunity.

Shovel Knight is a pretty short game. I actually appreciated that—I don’t have as much time for video games as I wish I had—but players expecting a long quest may be disappointed by its brevity.

Besides its difficulty, which is matter of preference, that’s pretty much everything I can find to criticize in Shovel Knight.

…And They Lived Happily Ever After, You Dig?

Shovel Knight is a game as pleasant and stalwart as its horned hero. It’s old-fashioned, challenging, and not for everyone; I know a couple of people who don’t much care for it. All the same, I love it, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

The game is a well-written, beautifully-designed, gorgeously-scored love letter to the video games of the eighties. Like those games, Shovel Knight proves you don’t need fancy graphics, elaborate storytelling, or extravagant pageantry to make a game.

No, all you need is a shovel and a little courage.

326. TMTF Reviews: Socrates Jones – Pro Philosopher

Philosophy is a daunting subject.

Believe me, I know. One of my uncles is a philosophy professor. He has a tremendous beard, an office full of books, and a tendency to use words like epistemology in everyday conversation. I also have a bunch of cousins who studied philosophy. When my relatives on that side of the family gather for a meal or holiday, their conversations can get really academic.

(These relatives also talk a lot about football—I refer to soccer, by the way, not that violent American sport. Their discussions of sports are even harder for me to understand than their talks about philosophy.)

I’ve studied some philosophy, but I’m no expert. Thus I was intrigued when a reader of this blog graciously recommended a video game titled Socrates Jones: Pro Philosopher. As the name suggests, it’s an homage to Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. I love the Ace Attorney games, which bring together clever mysteries and bombastic melodrama, and the idea of a game in the same style about philosophy interested me very much.

That said, I must echo Hamlet and ask a big philosophical question: To play or not to play?

Socrates Jones title

Socrates Jones: Pro Philosopher (Available online, 2013)

Bringing out both the best and worst of Ace Attorney games, Socrates Jones: Pro Philosopher is a cursory yet clever and entertaining exploration of moral philosophy.

TMTF Reviews - Socrates Jones

Give Me Philosophy or Give Me Death!

Socrates Jones, a simple accountant with an ordinary life, can’t understand his family’s obsession with philosophy. He prefers crunching numbers to arguing about abstract ideas. However, when a car crash lands him and his daughter Ariadne in an afterlife reserved for philosophers, Socrates gets one chance to reclaim their lives. He must debate a series of famous philosophers and resolve one of the Big Questions: What is morality and where does it come from?

I’ll be honest: Socrates Jones is basically a short Ace Attorney game that replaces attorneys with philosophers. Do you know what? That’s a really good thing.

For those unfamiliar with Ace Attorney, I should mention that each game has two main components: crime investigations and legal trials. Socrates Jones borrows the mechanics of the trials and makes a few key changes. Philosophers take the place of attorneys; philosophical theories are submitted instead of witness testimonies; ideas, not physical evidence, are presented as rebuttals. The courtroom structure of Ace Attorney works astonishingly well for philosophy.

Socrates Jones imitates not just the mechanics of Ace Attorney, but also its exaggerated style and sense of humor. Socrates and his opponents are funny, memorable, and well-written. I love how Ace Attorney‘s iconic cries of “OBJECTION!” are replaced in Socrates Jones by indignant exclamations of “NONSENSE!”

Socrates Jones screenshot

The philosophers themselves are a quirky bunch. When Socrates meets Thomas Hobbes, that famous thinker says gruffly, “You should know, Mr. Jones, that my mother gave birth to twins. Myself, and FEAR. By the end of the day, you will be thoroughly acquainted with both of us.” Immanuel Kant introduces himself in a similarly grandiose manner, only to add that he felt boasting was necessary “to fulfill the prerequisite grandstanding.”

For a game developed by philosophy students and Ace Attorney fans, Socrates Jones is remarkably well-crafted. The game even innovates upon its source material by adding a more robust system for questioning statements. In Ace Attorney, the player can question each statement in a testimony. Socrates Jones takes the system several steps farther by allowing players to ask three questions: Would you clarify your statement? Can you back up this statement? How is this statement related to your argument? By asking the right questions, Socrates trims away the flaws and irrelevancies of his opponents’ arguments.

This game is more than just a game—it’s the Sophie’s World of video games, a set of philosophy lessons wrapped in the appealing package of a good story. Socrates Jones does a pretty good job of setting up the arguments of historical philosophers, and then poking holes in them.

Speaking of poking holes in things….

The Value of the Imperfect

Toward the end of the game, Socrates makes a point that even flawed things can be good. “Things do not have to be ‘perfect’ to add value to the world,” he insists, and he’s absolutely right—fortunately for him. Socrates Jones: Pro Philosopher has two kind of problems. It’s imperfect as a game, and it’s also incomplete as a philosophy lesson.

The game’s faults aren’t severe—in fact, they’re the exact faults of the Ace Attorney series. Deconstructing a statement can be a matter of trial and error; the “right” questions and “correct” rebuttals, as decided by the game’s developers, may be counterintuitive to the player’s way of thinking.

Socrates Jones is a philosophy lesson, not just a game. The game’s arguments aren’t bad, but they have one unavoidable problem: they are scripted. The player is on rails, able to ask only preselected questions and reach predestined conclusions. Socrates Jones excels as brief exploration of moral philosophy, but it’s no substitute for a real discussion.

Short, Sweet, Funny Philosophy

Socrates Jones: Pro Philosopher is a short, fun foray into moral philosophy. It isn’t perfect as either a game or a philosophy lesson, yet succeeds in being both entertaining and educational.

Anyone interested in philosophy, the Ace Attorney series, or an enjoyable exercise in critical thinking should take two or three hours to play through the game. After all, Socrates Jones and his daughter are philosophizing for their lives, and they could use a little help!

Thanks for reading! If you have a moment, please check out TMTF’s charity fundraisers this month and make this Christmas awesome for a person in need!

318: TMTF Reviews: Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse

Do you know what more video games need? That’s exactly right: friendly zombies. (How did you know?) Video games need more friendly zombies, disillusioned squid monsters, and other such zany nonsense. At a time when games are full of guns and gritty violence, the video game industry sure could use more silliness.

I may have found just the thing.

Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse is the latest chapter in the tale of Shantae, a chipper young genie—well, half-genie—sworn to protect the fishing village of Scuttle Town. The previous two Shantae games offered Metroidvania-style adventure and tons of charm, but both suffered from significant flaws.

Has Shantae finally hit her stride? Does this game’s quality match its endearing goofiness?

Shantae and the Pirate's Curse

Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse (Nintendo 3DS eShop, 2014)

Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse may not be a big game, but like its pint-sized heroine it never lacks for humor, charm, and fun.

TMTF Reviews - Shantae and the Pirate's Curse

A Pirate’s Life for She

Shantae may have lost her genie magic in a previous chapter, but she’s no less determined to protect her village. She’s astonished when her nemesis, the dread pirate Roberts Risky Boots, sneaks into Scuttle Town and suggests a temporary truce. Shantae and Risky must work together to prevent the return of the Pirate Master, Risky’s old mentor, saving the land and perhaps even recovering Shantae’s scattered genie magic.

Shantae becomes probably the most friendly and kindhearted pirate ever to set sail. She travels from island to island, gathering Risky’s old pirate weapons, meeting bizarre people, and being totally freaking adorable.

Mechanically, Pirate’s Curse is a fine video game; more on that in a bit. Its true value, however, is in its outlandish humor and vibrant charm. The never takes itself seriously for a second, yet manages to deliver quite a touching conclusion. Getting there takes the player through all kinds of ridiculous (read: hilarious) situations.

At one point, Shantae searches for an ancient spell. She begins by sealing the smell of roasted ham in a magical lamp and releasing it near a dragon. The monster salivates hungrily and creates a pool of drool. When a pair of oblivious tourists stumble upon this convenient “swimming hole,” they strip to their swimsuits. The sunlight reflecting off their pallid skin illuminates hidden runes on a nearby wall, revealing the spell Shantae needs.

Pirate’s Curse is full of such outrageous scenes as these, and some of its humor is delightfully self-aware. One character, the monstrous Squid Baron, is a boss (extra-tough enemy) from a previous Shantae game. He spends much of Pirate’s Curse wrestling with the disillusionment and existential angst of being a low-level video-game bad guy. Shantae doesn’t seem to understand his problem, but is just as quick to comfort him as she is to fight him.

On the whole, Pirate’s Curse is as goofy and good-natured a game as any I’ve played.

Boldly Going Where Many, Many Games Have Gone Before

Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse may stand out for its style and humor, but its design and mechanics are awfully familiar.

The game’s blend of exploration, platforming, combat, and puzzle-solving is nothing new. I recognized literally every mechanic in Pirate’s Curse from some other game; even Shantae’s iconic ability from previous games to transform into different animals is replaced with a more traditional setup of gathering items and equipment to reach new areas. The puzzle-packed dungeons felt like The Legend of Zelda; the sidescrolling overworld felt like Metroid; the tricky final challenges felt like Mega Man.

Yes, here there be dragons.

Although it hardly innovates, Pirate’s Curse never feels stale. It may do nothing wildly original, but what it does it does well.

I was pleased to note Pirate’s Curse corrects the flaws of its predecessors. The first Shantae game had a sprawling overworld that was frustrating to navigate; Pirate’s Curse divides the overworld into six islands, making it much easier to get around. The second Shantae game was tragically short; Pirate’s Curse, though neither so deep as a well nor so wide as a church-door, is a big enough game to satisfy.

I wish Pirate’s Curse contained more sidequests and optional challenges. I often revisited an island equipped with an ability for reaching new areas, eager to explore and find treasure, only to realize the unexplored areas I discovered were a necessary part of the game. On the other hand, I applaud the way the game keeps track of how many collectible bonuses are on each island. This keeps frustration to a minimum by showing players where to search, preventing them from looking for treasures that aren’t there.

The music in Pirate’s Curse is catchy; the graphics are crisp and colorful; the character designs are cute. I was, however, surprised at the… um… shapeliness of the female cast. Shantae games have always been a bit flirty. Pirate’s Curse is downright saucy. The cartoony designs are never inappropriate, but the game could definitely have shown a little less skin.

(I absolutely refuse to make a pun about pirates and booty. There are depths to which even I will not sink!)

A Pirate’s Curse Is a Player’s Blessing

It has minor flaws, and it never sails past familiar territory into uncharted waters, but Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse is fun, hilarious, and absolutely a blast to play. If you’re wishing for an upbeat adventure, something sillier than the gloomy games filling store shelves, your wish is one this particular genie—well, half-genie—may be able to grant.

309. TMTF Reviews: Mario & Luigi – Dream Team

Since deciding to review video games on this blog, I’ve covered a lot of violent ones. I’ve played titles in the Metal Gear Solid and Resident Evil series: games featuring guns, explosions, zombies, guns, death, nuclear weapons, and guns. Heck, I’ve played more violent video games in the past year alone than in all the years that came before.

It’s high time for something quirky and colorful. After so many gritty games, it’s time for a title that’s a little more… dreamy.

Mario & Luigi: Dream Team for the Nintendo 3DS the latest in a series of offbeat RPGs (role-playing games) starring a pair of portly plumbers. Mario’s RPGs are generally something special, and I hoped Dream Team would be no exception.

Does it play like a dream? Is is a nightmarish mess?

Mario & Luigi - Dream Team

Mario & Luigi: Dream Team (Nintendo 3DS, 2013)

Mario & Luigi: Dream Team may not be the greatest Mario RPG ever made, but it’s superb… and strange. It’s very, very strange.

TMTF Reviews - Dream Team

Fever Dreams

When Mario and Luigi fly to Pi’illo Island for a restful visit, their vacation is disturbed by Antasma, a creature who haunts the world of dreams. Led by the prince of the ancient Pi’illo people, the Mario bros must rescue Pi’illo Island. They have one advantage: Luigi’s ability to nap anywhere allows him to open portals to the dream world, where things get weird.

Mario games are always a bit strange, but Dream Team is absolutely ridiculous. This is a game in which pillows talk, bizarre monsters roam freely, and Russian-accented bodybuilders obsess over beef—and all this in the “real” world. When the Mario bros dive into the dream world, it gets positively trippy. It’s a place in which timeless spirits talk on cell phones and geek out over superheroes.

The Mario RPGs have an unfair share of charm, and Dream Team is absolutely no exception. The setting is colorful, the characters are whimsical, and the dialogue is endearingly goofy. Dream Team is bright, absurd, and occasionally heartwarming.

Sadly, for all its strengths, the game doesn’t have much of a story. RPGs are often defined by strong narratives, and Dream Team doesn’t really have one. It’s a game whose story consists mostly of a series of objectives to be completed. I also lamented the lack of Fawful from previous Mario & Luigi games. His overenthusiastic villainy and mangled English were delightful, and his absence makes Dream Team a tiny bit less special.

Two’s a Crowd

Like the games before it, Dream Team gives the player separate, simultaneous control of both Mario bros. It takes a little practice, but controlling two characters allows for some engaging puzzles and battles.

The battle system is probably the game’s greatest strength. RPGs are built around strategy-based fights. Dream Team continues the Mario tradition of adding rhythm and timing to strategy. Instead of merely punching in commands and watching the battle unfold, the player must use timely button presses to attack and dodge. Battles, which so often become a chore in RPGs, are consistently fun.

I say consistently, not constantly, fun; a few of the tougher fights are frustrating. Casual players may appreciate the option for an “Easy” mode for boss battles. Without it, a couple of fights (especially the very last one) are unfairly tough.

Dream Team also features “giant battles” in which Luigi grows to colossal size in his dreams to take on huge foes. These battles look cool and use the Nintendo 3DS in innovative ways… but also take way too long, demand perfect timing, and allow practically no margin for error. It was hard to appreciate the giant battles when they made me want to smash my younger brother’s Nintendo 3DS against the wall.

The “real” world in Dream Team is built as an isometrically-viewed RPG. The dream world, however, is viewed horizontally like a traditional Mario side scroller. Switching perspectives is refreshing. Even battles function differently in the dream world. As Mario dives into Luigi’s dreams, the slumbering Luigi is replaced by dream versions of himself. “Dreamy Luigi” can multiply himself to do all sorts of trippy things, from stacking up to rolling around in a ball. It’s surreal, and kinda awesome.


That’s just how Luigi rolls.


Although it can be frustrating at times, Mario & Luigi: Dream Team is upbeat, engaging, and fun—and bizarre in the most wonderful ways.

After so many grim games with guns, it was nice to enjoy something lighter, brighter, and altogether more cheerful. I expected charm and whimsy. I wasn’t disappointed. What I didn’t expect was talking pillows and beef-obsessed bodybuilders, but that’s just icing on a very sweet cake.

297. TMTF Reviews: Resident Evil 5

There was once a survival horror game called Resident Evil 4, and lo, it was greatly praised. It played like a dream, thrilled like a nightmare, and was tons of fun. Critics adored it. Gamers enjoyed it. Even those of us who don’t like violent or scary games gave it a try and thought it was pretty fantastic.

Then its sequel, Resident Evil 5, was released. It met with disappointment and even outrage. It was accused of being uninspired, unoriginal, and—of all things—racist.

What can we say? Is RE5 an unappreciated classic, or is it bland, repetitive, and even offensive?

CAP-056 RE5 Gold Ed PS3_FOB_m03

Resident Evil 5 is campy, frustrating, insensitive, and… surprisingly excellent.

RE5 is the bloodstained, action-packed tale of Chris Redfield, an agent working for an organization devoted to stopping bio-terrorism. He is dispatched to an African country to investigate rumors of BOWs—Bio-Organic Weapons, monsters created through genetic tampering. Together with his ambiguously African partner, Sheva Alomar, Chris punches, shoots, and slices his way toward saving the world from megalomaniacal bio-terrorists.

There are a lot of good things to be said about this game. It’s violent—obviously—but also a lot of fun to play. The environments are brilliantly designed, aesthetically and mechanically: they look great, and they’re easy to navigate. Gameplay hasn’t changed much from RE4, which is a really good thing. The third-person, over-the-shoulder view makes exploring and shooting a breeze.

One of the things I liked best about the game was, oddly enough, reading about it. The game’s options include files containing background on the plot, characters, and enemies. These optional files delivered a lot of interesting information without burdening the game proper with long-winded exposition. Players wanting to immerse themselves in the story of RE5 can read these files; players wanting simply to shoot monsters in the face can play the game without tedious interruptions.

RE5 is fun to play, but not without its faults—many more, I’m sorry to say, than its remarkable predecessor. As long as we’re discussing a game set in Africa, we had better start with the elephant in the room.

Is RE5 racist?

During his mission in Africa, Chris, a white person, ends up shooting a bunch of black people. Granted, these Africans are BOWs infected with mind-controlling parasites, but it still seems awfully racist on the surface. It wouldn’t be so bad if Chris’s partner, Sheva, were unambiguously African. However, she’s light-skinned, speaks unaccented English, and seems more European.

Worst of all, at a few points in the game, the African BOWs dress in a primitive, tribal fashion. This is explained by a footnote—the parasites controlling these Africans cause them to revert to the customs of their distant ancestors—but this depiction of stereotypically savage African natives is the nastiest I’ve seen since Heart of Darkness.

Not Culturally Sensitive

This is not culturally sensitive.

In the end, I think RE5 is not racist. Its enemies happen to be indigenous Africans in the same way the enemies in RE4 happen to be Spanish peasants. There’s no intentional prejudice. There is, however, staggering insensitivity. I’m astonished that apparently nobody on the development team of RE5 realized a game in which a white guy slaughters African natives might be controversial.

Besides concerns of racism, the story of RE5 is a bit campy and the dialogue is horrendous. This wouldn’t be so bad if the game didn’t take itself so seriously. RE4 was just as silly, but it had a sense of humor. Like Doctor Who or Metal Gear Solid, it was extremely kitschy, but also very self-aware. It had one or two absurd villains, some outrageous set pieces, and the ubiquitous merchant.

RE5 lacks those gleams of humor. Where RE4 allows itself to be funny and succeeds, RE5 tries to be grim and fails.

Mechanically, RE5 is not without faults. Chris’s computer-controlled partner, Sheva, can be useful or frustrating depending on the situation. As neat as it was to have a partner, I missed going it alone. Nearly every boss battle revolves around some gameplay gimmick, some unique trick to damage the boss, which is irritating. As much as I appreciate creative gimmicks, I would have liked a few bosses of the traditional, “shoot-them-till-they’re-dead” variety.

There are also so many quick time events. Oh… dear reader… there are so many. In moderation, quick time events can add tension to a game. In RE5, they are a frequent and unpardonable nuisance.

Last of all… Resident Evil 5 isn’t scary.

It’s a fine action game, but it ain’t survival horror. As a third-person shooter, it’s fun. As an entry in Capcom’s respected horror series, it completely misses its mark. The quick time events were pretty much the only things I feared or dreaded in RE5.

Should you play Resident Evil 5? My answer would be: play Resident Evil 4. If you like RE4, and can tolerate quick time events and cultural insensitivity, you’ll probably enjoy RE5. Otherwise, you may want to keep your distance.

278. TMTF Reviews: Beyond Good & Evil

I have played many video games in my twenty-something years of life, but this is the first to be titled after a philosophical work by Friedrich Nietzsche.

When I was a child in Ecuador, my life was brightened by a magazine known as Nintendo Power. (May this noble publication rest in peace!) A friend lent me new issues, which gave me glimpses into the mysterious worlds of modern video games. (This was, incidentally, the very same friend who recommended the last game I reviewed on this blog.) Years before I blundered onto the Internet, Nintendo Power gave me the latest and greatest video game news.

There are a number of games Nintendo Power recommended very highly. Video games are scarce and expensive in Ecuador, so I was never able to buy them. Now, a decade later, I’m making a point of tracking down and playing some of the classics I missed as a child.

Of all the games Nintendo Power praised, few made a stronger impression than an odd game called Beyond Good & Evil. It stars not a tough-as-nails soldier or noble knight, but a photojournalist. An ordinary photojournalist! Madness! Next they’ll be making games starring boring professionals like surgeons, lawyers or customs officials. Ha! What an idea!

Jade, the photojournalist star of BG&E, isn’t exactly a boring professional. Most photojournalists don’t carry weapons, work for resistance groups or live on alien planets populated by anthropomorphic animals. Jade does. Armed with bō staff and camera, this plucky photographer-turned-rebel is out to expose the treachery of her planet’s military and rally her people to fight for freedom.

Did I mention that her uncle is a pig? Yeah, her uncle is a pig.

Jade and Pey'j

Beyond Good & Evil is as quirky as they come, but is it worth playing? Never mind its questions of good and evil. The real question is this: Is this game is great or lousy?

Beyond Good & EvilBeyond Good & Evil is a fine game, but never goes beyond good. It is a good game, not a great one.

The best way I can describe this game is to suppose its developers sneaked into Nintendo’s kitchen late at night and tried making a game with all Nintendo’s ingredients. There are several cups of fighting and puzzle-solving from the Legend of Zelda games, and a few tablespoons of futuristic racing from F-Zero, and just a dash of space combat from Star Fox, and a spoonful of Metal Gear Solid-style stealth borrowed from Konami’s kitchen next door.

BG&E has a bit of everything, and it does everything adequately—but few things really well.

The world of BG&E is beautiful and feels vast… until the player realizes it’s not as big as it seems. The combat works… but it’s not very deep. The racing is fun… for about ten minutes. The space combat is exhilarating… the one time it happens. Nothing about the game is bad, but few aspects are engaging enough to hold the player’s interest for long.

This includes the story. Jade is recruited early on into a resistance group determined to expose the military’s corruption. This setup is fantastic, but a couple of lame twists make for an underwhelming experience. The moral ambiguity suggested by the title is nowhere to be seen. The good guys are good, and the bad guys are bad, and that’s all.

The setting and characters, however, are wonderful. The world of Hillys is lovely, with green mountains and tranquil oceans, and I had a blast exploring caves on foot and zipping across the seas in a hovercraft. I wish there had been more to see. The game’s one city is equal parts Star Wars and Arabian Nights, with futuristic technology and fanciful architecture.


Most of the game’s characters are unexceptional, but the three who matter most—Jade, her pig-uncle (puncle?) Pey’j and Jade’s fellow resistance member Double H—are brilliantly developed and eminently lovable. Double H, for example, constantly quotes from a military manual titled Carlson & Peeters, citing page numbers with enthusiasm. When he charges into a fight, “Carlson and Peeters!” is his war cry. It’s positively adorkable.

I especially appreciate Jade. Women aren’t often treated respectfully in video games, but Jade is. She’s no damsel in distress or impossibly curvy babe. Jade is a person. She wears sensible pants, rocks green lipstick, cares for kids and tears apart robots with her bō staff. There is no pointless romance. Jade is never just a foil to male characters. It was really refreshing to play as a heroine who is—I say this in absolutely the best possible way—ordinary.

Jade’s camera was one of the best things about BG&E. Besides snapping incriminating photos for her resistance group, she is tasked by a research institute with taking pictures of local animals. More fauna photos mean more money, giving the player plenty of incentive to search high and low for exotic creatures. It was almost magical to zoom in on a distant seagull or wait for a whale to leap out of the water… and a delightful shock to realize Pey’j and other characters qualified as “local animals” whose pictures are worth cash.

BG&E is a bit short, and I’ve already mentioned its lack of depth. Besides minor camera issues and some obtuse level design, I have only one other complaint. Its stealth sections suck.

Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the Metal Gear Solid games, which perfected the fine art of sneaking, but stealth sections in BG&E are just frustrating. Stealth in the MGS games works because of its flexibility: the player has endless choices in how to avoid or confront enemies. BG&E gives players one or two strict choices, and it’s a matter of infuriating trial and error to figure them out. Worst of all is how players are punished for failing some stealth sections by instant death lasers. Instadeaths (that is, one-hit kills) in video games are frustrating. In this game, with its awkward camera controls and badly-designed stealth sections, instadeaths are intolerable. If I gave numerical scores to games in my reviews, I’d take off a full point out of ten just for those freaking lasers.

Despite its flaws, Beyond Good & Evil is a fine game. I now understand why Nintendo Power sang its praises all those years ago. The game is a colorful, offbeat adventure with a bit of everything.

I just wish it did everything a bit better.

273. TMTF Reviews: Resident Evil 4

I don’t like zombies.

Zombies are hideous creatures. They smell terrible. Worst of all, they’ve become one of the most tired clichés in pop culture. Like vampires, zombies are freaking everywhere. In the past two years, we’ve had The Walking DeadWorld War ZWarm Bodies and an endless slew of novels and video games featuring these lifeless imbeciles.

To put it simply: Zombies have been done to death. (Pun intended. I’m so, so sorry.) I’m tired of zombies. Heck, I never liked them in the first place.

That said, why on earth did I play a Resident Evil game?

Fortunately, Resident Evil 4 doesn’t have zombies. Well, maybe fortunately isn’t the right word. RE4 replaces shambling zombies with murderous peasants, and they’re pretty scary.


Just your average Black Friday shoppers.

Nearly a decade ago, a friend in Ecuador recommended RE4. “It’s excellent!” he said, or words to that effect. When I told him I wasn’t a zombie enthusiast, he said something like, “The enemies aren’t actually zombies. And they shout at you in Spanish! How great is that?”

I’d heard of the Resident Evil games, which consist mostly of players shooting zombies with guns. Not only do I dislike zombies, but (contrary to the impression I’ve probably given in my past few reviews) I don’t care much for guns. Games with swords and magic, or no violence at all, are more my cup of tea.

For eight or nine years, however, praise for this game kept popping up. Nintendo Power (may it rest in peace!) named it one of the best games of all time. Everyone hailed RE4 as an enduring classic. It became a milestone in the game industry, influencing several major video game series being developed today.

At last, I submitted to the inevitable and got my hands on the game. It was time to see what the fuss was about, and also to be shouted at in Spanish.

Is this bloodstained game truly the masterpiece everyone claims it to be?

Resident Evil 4

It isn’t perfect, and it certainly ain’t pretty, but Resident Evil 4 is a remarkably good game.

RE4 begins with Leon S. Kennedy, a US secret service agent, dispatched to a remote village in rural Europe. The president’s daughter, Ashley Graham, has been kidnapped. Leon’s job is to get her back. Unfortunately for him, quite a lot stands between Leon and Ashley: crazed cultists, mutant abominations, scheming criminals and (of course) guys with masks and chainsaws.

The not-zombies of RE4 are called ganados. (That’s Spanish for livestock, by the way: a clever touch.) These peasants have gone murderously insane, and they’re actually pretty scary. I dislike zombies, but at least zombies move slowly. Ganados often run, brandishing axes and pitchforks, shouting threats in Spanish. (This may be scarier for those who don’t know Spanish; I found it funny when ganados sneaking up on me yelled things like, “Behind you, idiot!”) The madness of the ganados is eventually explained, but it remains unnerving to be constantly surrounded by crazed murderers. They look pretty normal, which makes their obsessive violence that much scarier.

The environments of RE4 are fantastically creepy: abandoned buildings, dying forests, unquiet crypts. The player is left with a frightening sense of isolation. There is no backup. There are only more ganados, with an occasional monster for variety.

This isn’t exactly a criticism, but I must point out the odd tonal shifts of the game’s environments. It starts in a dreary village surrounded by gray woods; the outdoorsy setting gave me Snake Eater flashbacks. Then the action shifted to a castle packed with puzzles, lava pits and suits of armor. It was like a level from a Legend of Zelda game. Then the game went all Metal Gear again with a high-tech military installation. These levels were creepy and well-designed, but they felt disconnected. I felt like a single character straying into two or three separate video games.

The core gameplay is superb. Shooting is simple with a useful (and apparently groundbreaking) over-the-shoulder perspective that allows for great precision. (I played the Wii version of the game, which allowed for convenient point-and-shoot motion controls.) Weapons can be upgraded, and items can be combined to increase their value or effectiveness. Treasures can be found and sold. Managing the inventory—usually a tedious chore—is a pleasant challenge, with players fitting items into a briefcase like blocks in a game of Tetris. Even a long-running escort quest, which I expected to be an excruciating nuisance, turned out to be kind of fun.

Best of all, Leon can suplex ganados. It isn’t as impressive as, say, suplexing a train, but it’s still pretty darn cool.

Then there’s the merchant. Oh, the merchant.

RE4 Merchant

“Whaddaya buyin’?”

This ubiquitous salesman shows up the most unlikely places, apparently unperturbed by the roaming hordes of homicidal ganados, and sells the player guns. I found his frequent appearances and exaggerated cockney accent hilarious. Every time I stumbled upon one of his strange little shops, I wanted to hug him.

In the end, I have only two major criticisms of the game.

First, there isn’t much story. What little plot makes it into the game is communicated by hammy action-movie dialogue and badly-written notes scattered for the player to find. The gameplay and setting are superb, but the story is utterly cheesy. It would have been nice to have some serious dialogue to complement the game’s grim environments and gallons of gore.

Second, the game consists almost entirely of fetch quests, and most of them make no sense. There are nearly a dozen doors that Leon must open by retrieving some meaningless relic: an insignia, a pair of goblets, fragments of art and other rubbish. Much of the game consists of finding stuff to open stuff in order to find more stuff to open more stuff. The brilliant gameplay, clever puzzles and superb level design keep the fetch quests from getting stale, but I still felt like an errand boy by the end of the game.

A final note: In case you hadn’t noticed, this is not a game for young players. There is some cursing (mostly in Spanish) and lots of blood. It’s worth playing—but I recommend it only for older, tougher gamers. This ain’t a game for the kiddies.

I’m glad to have played Resident Evil 4. Now, if you’ll pardon me, I’m going to find that merchant and give him a hug.

263. TMTF Reviews: Metal Gear Solid 3

The year is 1964. The Cold War, a state of political tension between the US and the Soviet Union, has pushed the world’s greatest military powers to the brink of nuclear warfare. All it will take to ignite a third World War is one wrong move.

When America’s most legendary soldier, The Boss, defects to the Soviet Union and hands over a nuclear weapon to a renegade Soviet colonel, things look pretty grim. The rogue colonel promptly nukes a Soviet installation, kidnaps a rocket scientist and develops an experimental tank known as the Shagohod. The USSR blames the US for these incidents, and World War III seems inevitable.

Then the Soviet Union gives America one chance to prove its innocence and avert nuclear war. A lone American operative must rescue the rocket scientist, destroy the Shagohod and kill The Boss. Only Naked Snake, The Boss’s tough-as-nails apprentice, can kill her and prevent nuclear catastrophe from consuming the world.

So, you know, no pressure.

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is a prequel to Metal Gear Solid and Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, games I reviewed for this blog. It’s been fun, and it seems appropriate to end this blog’s run of Metal Gear reviews with the story that starts it all. (There are more Metal Gear games, but I’ll spare my readers further reviews.)

How does MGS3 stack up to its predecessors? Is it the same delightful mix of sneaking, shooting and hiding in cardboard boxes? Does its director, Hideo Kojima, give us the same storytelling problems, gameplay frustrations and pointless sexual objectification?


It has its share of problems, yet Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is an exceptionally brilliant game.

Naked Snake, forebear to Solid Snake from previous games in the series, is probably the toughest son of a gun I’ve seen in any video game—and speaking of guns, the game has its share of them. The older Snake uses the same weapons, equipment and moves as his successor… including hiding in cardboard boxes, those bastions of battlefield invisibility.

In a neat twist, MGS3 strips away many of the high-tech “luxuries” of previous games. There is no radar, for example, and silencers on guns wear out quickly. Naked Snake has to sneak around the old-fashioned way. Fortunately, he has a new trick—or an old one, technically speaking—up his sleeve: camouflage. Uniforms and face paints can be used to blend into environments.

This brings me to the next point of interest: MGS3 takes place mostly outdoors. Previous games took place in military bases and industrial plants. I was delighted to trade dreary hallways for swamps, jungles and mountains. It’s no longer enough for players to sneak around—they must survive.

To this end, MGS3 introduces two neat gameplay mechanics to the familiar Metal Gear formula of sneaking and shooting.

The first is a Stamina Gauge, which depletes slowly over time. Low Stamina prevents Snake from aiming steadily or recovering from injuries. He must scour his environments for food, eating everything from mushrooms to serpents. (The game is called Snake Eater. What did you expect?) Before you ask: Yes, Snake can feed on a tree frog.

The second clever gameplay twist is a Cure System. Players can no longer simply restore health—they must treat Snake’s individual injuries. Bullet wound? Dig out the bullet with a survival knife, disinfect the wound, stop the bleeding and put on a bandage. Severe burn? Apply ointment. Broken bone? Use a splint.

I loved the Stamina Gauge. It encouraged me to pay attention to my surroundings, searching for potential sources of food. The Cure System was a mixed bag. As much as I appreciated the (relative) realism of treating injuries over simply restoring health with items, it was a pain—especially during boss battles—to open up the Cure System screen repeatedly.

As for those boss battles, MGS3 has by far the best yet. Every Metal Gear game has its own band of memorable, supervillain-esque baddies. This game has the Cobra Unit, whose members are equal parts terrifying, ridiculous and that word I can’t use.

Cobra UnitEach battle is wonderfully different and totally absurd. Whether a deranged beekeeper was spitting bees at me or a Soviet cosmonaut was trying to burn me to ashes, I had a blast fighting the Cobras.

The best (and worst) battle was against The End: the old man with the sniper rifle in the picture above. It was probably the most creative boss fight I’ve ever experienced.

Most boss encounters are quick, spectacular and confined to small arenas. By contrast, The End disappears into a huge forest and attacks from great distances. There is no music, no obvious target and no clear strategy for winning. It’s a long game of hide-and-seek in which the player has only faint hints of where The End may be hiding: fading footprints, faint breathing, the glint from a rifle scope. It was frustrating to fight The End, but also totally unlike anything I’d ever played in a video game.

Previous Metal Gear games felt like futuristic Tom Clancy thrillers, packed with nanomachines and political conspiracies. MGS3 feels more like a classic James Bond movie, with larger-than-life villains, femme fatales and an oddly nostalgic atmosphere. I found the Cold War setting and numerous historical allusions fascinating.

MGS1 had a plot packed with twists and turns. MGS2 boasted a narrative that spun off in daring, postmodern and—dare I say?—incomprehensible directions. MGS3 outdoes both its predecessors. Its story is straightforward and occasionally laughable—equal parts James Bond films, Marvel comics and eighties action movies—yet ends with surprising poignancy. As a prequel to the Metal Gear series, it’s a fine place for players to start.

MGS3 certainly has its flaws. Like every other game by Hideo Kojima, the story gets unnecessarily complicated. There are objectionable elements such as drunkenness, skimpy outfits and mild vulgarity. The learning curve is steep. Oh, and in case you hadn’t guessed it, the game is kind of violent.

All the same, I enjoyed Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater tremendously. It has enough history to be interesting, enough absurdity to be hilarious and enough good level design and brilliant gameplay to keep players engaged from beginning to end. MGS3 is a fine story and an even better game, so long as you have an appetite for snakes and tree frogs.