Backlog: Apples to Apples Edition

The house that Jobs built is holding a press conference today to likely announce an iPhone 5 successor, and, if rumors are to be believed, a low-cost version in an effort to saturate a market dominated by Android devices.

My iPhone 4 has lasted me two-and-a-half years, which is a respectable reign in the ever-changing kingdom of smartphones. Now the lens is scratched, the 3G is painfully slow and often spotty and it has trouble running the latest apps speedily. I'm ready for a new phone. However, I'm not even excited about the 5s/5c announcement -- to me, the allure of a smartphone has waned as it's become more required for everyday life. It's a foregone conclusion I'll get a new iPhone because I've spent close to $200 in app purchases between it and my iPad. I'll buy it, and Apple knows it. Woo.

Switching platforms is a bad idea too, even if I desperately want an HTC One. Why re-buy content that's taken me years to cherry pick, let alone leaving behind any exclusive apps?

So while I'm reluctantly taking my credit card from my wallet during Apple's announcement this afternoon, please relax and enjoy three dudes talking about games. -- Aaron Thayer

Nick

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After PAX, I was ready for a lengthy and thorough gaming-free cleanse. Fortunately, my travels brought me to my hometown of Portland for the week, and I filled the empty void left by my gaming habit with Stumptown Coffee, Voodoo Doughnuts and old friends. But that’s not to say I said goodbye to games altogether.

I always travel with my 3DS XL and my PlayStation Vita, and thanks to the advent of reliable and extensive digital distribution of games on handheld platforms I’m never left wanting things to play. This week I found myself distributing my attention between two Vita games: Gravity Rush and Spelunky.

Gravity Rush launched just a few months after the Vita first debuted in the US, so it’s easy to have overlooked it if you’re just recently getting to know the handheld. But thanks to PlayStation Plus, I was able to snag a free copy to check out at my leisure — and I’m glad I did.

Gravity Rush is a game that casts you as a gravity-manipulating heroine in an unfamiliar land who’s able to float in midair, walk on ceilings and utilize her momentum to defeat enemies and explore a towering, floating city. It’s an unusual amalgam of combat, platforming and exploration in a beautiful and otherworldly setting. A comic-book veneer brings this world to life, and fluid play control (thanks to the gyroscopic motion sensor and finely tuned analog stick controls) makes the gravity-manipulating gameplay a joy to engage with.

Spelunky is nothing new to me. I’ve been a long-time fan of the game’s original GameMaker-powered release and its recent update on Xbox Live Arcade, and the version on Vita is almost identical to last year’s XBLA release. What sets this release apart for me, though, is that the game feels so perfectly suited to portable play. I sank a healthy number of hours into the console release, but given the brevity of your average lifespan in this ruthless game it feels great to be able to bring my Vita out of a sleeping state and give the game a few runthroughs before setting it aside. The pick-up-and-play nature of the game feels right at home on a portable, and the game’s rich, colorful artwork looks right at home on the Vita’s bright, high-contrast display. Now, if only I could find someone else with a Vita who’d be up for some co-op play.

Doug

Where were you in early September, 1999? Or even the fall of 2000? Doug was playing the Dreamcast.
Where were you in early September, 1999? Or even the fall of 2000? Doug was playing the Dreamcast.

While I've continued to play NCAA Football 14 and Animal Crossing: New Leaf the last few weeks, I want to take a moment and pour one out for a homie who's no longer with us.

You see, I'm writing on Monday, September 9, which is 14 years on from the launch of the Sega Dreamcast. For whatever reason, the Dreamcast's launch day is one of the better remembered dates in gaming history. Perhaps it's because of the system's short-lived life. Or maybe it's because the thing launched on 9/9/99, a date that works whether you're in the UK or America! Maybe it's just me. After all, the year leading up to the Dreamcast's launch was when I started to truly become a gamer -- notably by reading Electronic Gaming Monthly every month, but also talking with Tyler and other friends about games and following the nascent online games press. I'd always played games but now I was ready to don my armor and join the console wars, and for whatever reason, I gathered under the sigil of the orange swirl and blue hedgehog. My dad took me to pick up the system a day or two after the true launch, and I didn't have a real game to play until I got Sonic Adventure and a memory card for my birthday at the end of the month, but it was the future. 

In the past, I've memorialized the Dreamcast day by pulling the ol' girl out of the closet, firing her up, and cycling through a few of my favorite games from the period. Now, though, unless I go crazy and buy a Japanese system and some games, that's not an option. Instead, I've got a copy of Jet Set Radio on my PlayStation 3's hard drive to jump into and try to finish soon. Or I could also go real wild and get the HD remaster of Soul Calibur that came out a year or so ago (though to be honest I'm waiting for this fall's remaster of Soul Calibur II, which I find to be the best of the series by a hair, and no, not because of Link). Jet Set Radio is a game well ahead of its time thanks to the style and soundtrack -- both of which paper over the thin and repetitive gameplay. It's unfortunate that Sega hardly knew how to make a single-player game of any length, instead focusing on games with fun gameplay loops and using score trials as the way to drain replay value out of the game, because the style of Jet Set Radio begs for a better implementation. As much as I love its successor, Jet Set Radio Future, that game has its own problems.

I guess that encapsulates the Dreamcast perfectly well: Promise, untapped ability, ahead of its time, but not able to take advantage of strengths and avoid weaknesses. I'm glad the memories live on, and I'm happy to take a trip down memory lane, and it's clear that the current systems owe a debt to Sega's swan-song...but it's hard to live in the past when our systems now provide so much.

Aaron

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So Saints Row IV happened. I want to write about its superiority over the third installment, but that would be untrue. What once was a GTA-clone that took itself seriously has cock-punched through the genre's stereotypes. Now we're presented with alien invasions and superpowers ripped from The Matrix.

Saints Row 2 had the septic avenger feces-tossing minigame and Saints Row 3 had a high-speed race against the clock set to Bonnie Tyler's "Holding Out for a Hero" -- oh, and don't forget about the dildo bat. Volition must have had a great time pitching these games, and as a result never asked the player to take anything seriously. That's the problem.

While toilet humor is kind of my jam, a fourth trip to the well isn't favorable to the franchise. Saints Row IV is the series' weakest sequel. By committing to a path of neon-covered insanity and internal one-upsmanship the developers are diminishing players' overall experience.

Honestly? Saints Row IV isn't even that fun.

The callbacks to previous games are useless when the references never mattered in the first place, and characters who have only been as good as their last catchphrase or in-car karaoke performance are supposed to suddenly matter during flashbacks. Zinyak, the game's alien overlord who subjugates humanity to a totalitarian virtual reality, is a pastiche of all terribly cliched sci-fi villains but still isn't greater than the sum of his parts. Which is fine: if Zinyak's crusade isn't our motivation to keep playing then there had better be some memorable missions and ridiculous gameplay. I'm over 12 hours into the game and I'm still waiting for something that makes me laugh like Saints Row 3. The closest I've come is another singalong in the car with Pierce, because nothing makes me smile like Biz Markie's "Just a Friend" being sung by a tone-deaf thug and a cockney sociopath.

I'm disappointed by Saints Row IV. Volition was unable to vault the extremely high bar they set with number three. Although Grand Theft Auto's influence is all but gone from Saints Row, I want to point out that Rockstar's incessant focus on narrative, character and coherent gameplay trumps the alluring silliness of Saints Row.