The Backlog: Call a Plumber, the Great Plains are Flooded edition

The new Mario game is out, though we're all still playing Red Dead Redemption. Alan Wake is also mentioned in this week's edition, and Nick even played a real board game. Like, one that has pieces and tiles and you have to have a large, flat surface to play it on.

What an interesting year for games, and what a fantastic year for consumers. We have new iterations of old franchises (Mario), revamped sequels (Red Dead) and fresh concepts from established developers (Alan Wake). The most amazing fact about that previous sentence is every one those games came out during the month of May, which further means we're only halfway through 2010.

Oh hell yes.

Nick:

I'd like to talk about the time I've been spending wrapping up Red Dead Redemption's middle act, and how compelling a character John Marston continues to be, but I'm much more excited to talk about the other games out there. I'll leave RDR to Aaron, who I imagine has a lot to say about it, considering that he basically owns the entire region of New Austin by now. (Editor's Note: Yes, and I can get you, today only, into a beautiful home on the prairie with an excellent mortgage rate)

Frankly, ever since Super Mario Galaxy 2 arrived, I've been hard-pressed to play anything else. When a game this polished, innovative and earnest comes along, it all but demands my undivided attention -- and rightfully so. I've played every Mario game countless times by now, but I'm tempted to say this is the absolute best 3D Mario adventure in the nearly 15 years since Super Mario 64. (Has it been THAT long? Man, do I feel old. I still remember waking up at 6:00 a.m. to rush out to Fred Meyer to pick up their last Nintendo 64 on launch day in September of 1996.)

Galaxy 2 takes the bold new ideas that made Galaxy such a blast and refines them to perfection. As a result, there are more worlds to explore and a minimum of repetition in objectives. After scouring the universe for 30 stars, I haven't yet encountered even one frustrating level or one concept that I felt overstayed its welcome. If nothing else, it proves just how lucky we are that Shigeru Miyamoto and the folks at Nintendo are still setting the standard for top-quality gaming. I'm tempted to call this the most fun game in years. If you have a Wii, you absolutely must play this game. And if you don't? Well, I'll let Aaron talk about that.

I spent the last few days away from my Wii, and that meant there was plenty of time for indulging in some Picross 3D. While it plays out in a significantly different fashion than Picross DS, it retains the same feeling of brain stimulation that gave Picross a near-permanent home in my DS for years. Fans of logic puzzles should give it a look. After all, there are much worse ways to spend $20.

And last but perhaps most significantly, I've been spending a fair bit of time playing a board game. I received a copy of Carcassonne for my birthday, and I've had the chance to play a few rounds with anywhere from two to four players. For someone like me who isn't familiar with the more intensive, strategic board games like Settlers of Catan, I welcome the simple learning curve of Carcassonne. What makes it brilliant, though, is how the game's hidden layers of strategy begin to emerge over the course of a game. It's deceptively deep, and it makes for a fun, relatively casual game that just about anyone can enjoy. If you're more inclined to play games online, there's a great port available on Xbox Live. But the real charm of board games is that they bring people together in the same location, and there's something valuable about that.

Aaron:

Nick's right, by the way: I do have a lot to say about Red Dead Redemption. However, I won't be spilling those proverbial word-beans right now. I'm going to save a significant portion of that monologue for my review, which I'm looking to post later this week. I will say that after reaching 100% completion in the game I still find it enticing. No matter how many bounties I catch and regardless of how often I win at blackjack (not that often, actually), I find myself loading the game up long after the near-perfect finale has ended to just ride around on my Hungarian half-breed horse, whose name is Sugar. It reminds me of my passion for Grand Theft Auto 3, when I would literally spend hours driving the streets of Liberty City with no goal in mind. Rockstar makes virtual worlds that I want to "complete" by exploring everything they have within them.

And yes: Nick, Doug and I will soon be terrorizing Xbox-ers across the world when we posse-up in RDR. The only problem is I already have a cowboy name -- Theodore "Doc Dynamite" Perkins -- and they don't. This needs to be rectified; we're open to suggestions.

I almost can't believe how amazing the last two weeks have been for videogames. I would've been fine if RDR was all I had until the rush of other games are released this fall. But no, I've greedily sunk my teeth into two other massive, May-released blockbusters: Super Mario Galaxy 2 and Alan Wake.

After close to two years without one, I bought a replacement Wii and not a PlayStation 3. Scoffers can scoff all they want, because my Wii purchase is justified for the reason Nick gave above: Galaxy 2 is the best 3D Mario title since Mario 64.

I, being insane, would even go as far as calling it the best core Mario title, period. Yeah, everyone loves Mario 3, but I'm a Super Mario World kind of guy anyway. Galaxy 2 plays better than both of them. Nostalgia and definitions of what constitutes a "classic" game can get in the way accepting the superiority of a newer title, but then again it doesn't matter which game is considered the best -- it's all opinion. So while I don't want anyone to be converted to my opinions, a part of me hopes that this latest Mario is enjoyed the way I have enjoyed it. It's gratifying, and it has Yoshi.

I didn't expect to like Alan Wake as much as I do. Remedy made Max Payne, but that series hasn't had a pulse for seven years now. I was thus a bit skeptical of their new intellectual property. Alan Wake was also delayed numerous times over five years, which made me believe it might be shelved indefinitely at some point. But it wasn't. The game is finally here, and Remedy has done an admirable job over the first few hours to keep me hooked and involved in the concept.

Though the game is categorized into the "Thriller" genre (thanks to Microsoft's cutesy marketing department, no doubt), a friend pointed out that this is pure Survival Horror. He's right, as Alan Wake recalls fond memories of the early Resident Evil titles with their overarching sense of dread, tension and mystery. That the narrative of Alan Wake is segmented into digestible TV "episodes" is a plus, and I feel a sense of closure at the end of each chapter. Honestly I'm surprised by that; I've been anxious about how a game pretending to be a primetime sci-fi drama would work. Alan Wake, if it were an actual television program, would be a joint CW and SyFy network production, with the requisite amount of cheesy dialog and acting those networks foster in their products. Supernatural is a great show, to be fair.

So while the character animation in cutscenes is laughable, the voice acting is a tad corny and the product placement is distracting, I'm unable to pull myself away from the game. It's like some of Stephen King's books: enthralling, but occasionally banal. (Man, that sounded snobbish. I do love his epic The Dark Tower series!)

Who didn't love Vanilla Ice's "Ninja Rap"?

Doug:

Well, I did it. After playing the opening hour or so with Nick, I've gone out and purchased Red Dead Redemption. I haven't had much time to go explore the wilderness in the West quite yet, but I look forward to forming a posse with Nick and Aaron sometime soon to go roam around and cause some havoc.

My iPhone gaming itinerary continues. I feel bad for my DS, because it's gathering dust and feeling rather unloved, but the iPhone just has better games for bite-sized gaming, at a better price point, and it's always in my pocket. That's a great combination. In any case, the games I've been playing have been some recent standbys — Words with Friends and Bejeweled — and a few of the best-selling games out there, too.

On recommendation from GamePro's John Davison on the Weekend Confirmed podcast a couple weeks ago, I downloaded two of the most popular iPhone games right now: Ninjatown: Trees of Doom and Angry Birds. Angry Birds is a cross between a puzzle game and the shooting mechanics of the old Worms games. Playing a level, you have to judge how to solve the puzzle — how to squish, smash, and take out the pigs on each map — and, importantly, how to do it with the birds you have available. You don't have unlimited shots at each puzzle, and after introducing a variety of birdshot (including ones that splinter apart, speed up, and also turn into bombs), you have to make shots with what you're given in a specific order. It's definitely an interesting challenge.

However, the Ninjatown game Trees of Doom is what I'm throwing my weight of suggestion behind. Not only is it a well-designed game, but it's a true indie product — it's based on the Shawnimals toy line and crafted by indie developers to boot. But that "support the little guy" sentiment only works so well; I wouldn't be suggesting it if it wasn't a good game. It's a vertical platformer kind of in the mold of Doodlejump, but with more ways to move up and without the persistent bouncing and movement. Jump from tree to tree and try to climb as high as possible. The art style is super-cute, and one of the power ups is literally a mustache ride. I think it's still $1 on the App Store; there's really no reason to not pick it up at that price.