Tag Archives: Imports

Ten Years of Shenmue

In amongst the endless [something] of the decade features doing the rounds at the moment, one snippet that almost slipped my mind is that just over ten years ago, on 29 December 1999, Shenmue was released in Japan. That means that somewhere around this time ten years ago I was in the Video Game Centre, failing to disguise my enthusiasm for the imminent arrival of my import copy.


It had already sent me on a wild adventure of learning HTML and using it to create the imaginatively named Shenmue Fan Site, and my first couple of trial-and-error playthroughs – I didn’t speak Japanese, and no one else had yet written a guide, which made simple tasks like ‘speak to Yamagishi-san’ very difficult – were followed by my first FAQ, which directly led to freelance work with the precursor to the company where I now work. I’ve wanted to write about games for a living for a long time, but no single game had as much direct influence on my future career path as Shenmue, and that’s a big part of why I still hold it in such high esteem.

To be honest, if I was trying to choose my game of the last ten years, this would probably be it. It was highly influential – not many games had real-time weather and day/night cycles in 1999, and it’s largely responsible, for better or worse, for the continuing popularity of the QTE – and far ahead of its time. Its cult following is formidable and still rapacious, devouring every snippet of ‘news’ that comes out of Sega regarding the future (or not) of the series. My bet is that the inclusion of Ryo will be directly responsible for at least half of the sales of Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing. Hell, that’s why I’m going to buy it.


Playing it now, parts of it are of its time, and it may have been pushing the Dreamcast hardware further than was wise, but it still has so much atmosphere, even when playing the impenetrable Japanese version, and that’s a big part of why I love it. Yokosuka feels real – I know it is real, but you know what I mean – and, way back when, I had a place where I’d like to live, a favourite Chinese restaurant, the works. How many games do that now? Bethesda’s stuff, maybe.

The lack of Shenmue III is an empty space in gaming to me and is, sadly, likely to remain so. But, until then, we’ll always have Sakuragaoka…

Patapon or: Me and My Tragic Lack of Rhythm


It’s been quite a while since my last PSP game, as is probably the case with most people, so it looks like the game to take the cherry of my recently purchased slim PSP will be Patapon. It’s been mooted as a successor to LocoRoco, sharing as it does a developer and a vaguely similar art style, and, as the Wikipedia entry puts it, combines gameplay elements from “music and rhythm games, real-time tactics and God games”. A clear example of a peanut butter and chocolate combination, if I ever saw one.

It also helps that it’s being released as a budget title, and you can get it from Video Games Plus for £12.49 plus postage (even cheaper if your importer of choice is in the US), which I think is an excellent way to sell a niche title that will undoubtedly get great reviews.

Anyway, I’ve been plugging away with the English-language demo of the game. There’s a nigh impenetrable version available through a PS3 on the Japanese PSN store, but for US preorderers and those with a more nebulous moral compass (and/or custom firmware on their PSP), there’s an English-language demo “out there”. Even if you’re buying the game, finishing the fairly lengthy demo is worth the effort as it unlocks an exclusive weapon in the full game. Have at it.

The Almighty Olly

So I was plugging away at it in the wee hours, mostly with a smile on my face because I enjoy being told what an excellent god I am (who wouldn’t?), when I found myself hitting the wall that has scuppered me in everything from Dance Dance Revolution to the later stages of Guitar Hero: I have no sense of rhythm whatsoever. I can just about keep my tribesmen – who, I’ve noticed, occasionally sound just like the Ro-Bear Berbils from ThunderCats – marching, bar the occasional scolding for doing it too fast or too slow, and can usually at least get them into a frenzy, but task me with changing to another beat without losing time and I’m like a deer in headlights.

Surely I can’t be the only one with this problem? It’s like I was born without a certain part of the brain, and the fact that I enjoy this kind of game – this one particularly so – just makes it all that much harder. I conquered games like Samba De Amigo and Guitar Hero II (on normal difficulty, at least) almost by force, just trying the same sequences again and again until muscle memory kicks in, while people that I know – damn you, Barney! – can seemingly just waltz in and do it.

It won’t stop me playing Patapon, since Ouendan showed how little my inability to play rhythm games can damage my ability to enjoy them, but surely if it’s a learned skill I would have picked it up at some point between PaRappa in 1997 and now?

DualShock 3 Impressions

In what I’m sure will be remembered as a breakthrough up there with the moon landing and the mapping of the human genome, Sony have done the impossible: they’ve got rumble and motion sensing into the same controller.

DualShock 3

With rumble back in there and the controller no longer feeling quite as waifish, that’s two problems down. We still have the somewhat floaty and uncomfortably-placed sticks and those inexplicable convex triggers (PSW has the right idea), but it’s a big improvement. Perhaps more importantly, however, I haven’t had those intermittent signal dropouts that plagued the Sixaxis and I’m yet to hear of any from other people. That’s worth the upgrade alone.

Like the Controller S for the Xbox, this is how it should have been done the first time. I’ve kind of given up on my other problems with the DualShock design being fixed or even acknowledged as problems, so at least the removal of several new issues is a step in the right direction. It seems like a subtle improvement in general, with the sticks having a slightly different feel to the Sixaxis – a friend described them as being more “PS2-like”, although I don’t know what exactly had changed – and the whole thing generally feeling more sturdy.

The DualShock 3 in my hands The DS3 smothering its deformed older sibling
(click images for larger versions)

Obviously it’s the rumble that provides the main attraction, and that seems well done. It’s clearly not the much-vaunted TouchSense, but at the same time it doesn’t feel like weights on motors. The games that I’ve tried which feature rumble – Uncharted, Resistance, the GT5 and Ratchet demos – may simply be using it in subtle ways (I’d bet that they were integrated in a hurry) but in all instances it felt more like a buzz than what I’d describe as a rumble. It remains to be seen how it will handle the sharp jolt of gunfire once developers have it properly integrated, though it was predictably well executed in the rumble strips and engine feedback of GT5. It also tested fine for rumble in PS1 and PS2 games.

In-game Sixaxis motion sequences are, predictably, still shit. Developers: please look at Warhawk’s optional implementation and let me use the sticks.

So from what I’ve played the DualShock 3 seems to be a worthy new iteration of the Sixaxis that PS3 owners will want to invest in. It seems odd that there is such a gulf between the Japanese and Western release dates given that there are no region locks for hardware, but – given that there are no region locks for hardware – it’s a simple import. Admittedly not quite so simple anymore for EU residents, so in that case I suggest looking for importers in your country or simply taking a punt on eBay.

For non-EU residents Play-Asia has both black and ceramic white variants available. Might I suggest the white because, like its console cousin, it won’t show up the dust quite as much and looks rather more spiffing.

Super Mario All-Star

At the risk of attack from the Nintendo fundamentalists, Mario Sunshine really wasn’t that great. It was good, but compared to the almost unimpeachable Super Mario 64 (as far as I’m concerned, the best game of the 32/64-bit generation), it felt soulless and disappointing.

Super Mario Galaxy

So we arguably haven’t had a truly great Mario in over a decade – come on, New Super Mario Bros was hardly Mario 64 – aaand…now that Super Mario Galaxy is here, we do. The hit ratio may have dropped since we had Super Mario Bros 1-3 plus World in five years, but now, even without Miyamoto at the helm, the standards for Mario have been put back as high as they should be.

While I think that those calling this the greatest Mario game ever are simply wrong, the comparisons that have been made between this and Super Mario Bros 3 are apt. Both games took the fairly conservative design of a previous game and just went a bit mental, but whereas the limits of SMB3’s madness were enemies with gigantism, flying raccoons, and a tanuki suit that inexplicably transformed Mario into a statue, Galaxy runs with it.

Such concepts as gravity – surely essential to a platform game – become meaningless. And while the race against the penguin in Mario 64 had some context, Galaxy’s equivalent is to have a community of penguins who surf on a smiling manta ray. It gives no explanation and clearly delights in the bemused expressions that such flights of fancy will induce. It’s a wonderful game that’s gloriously fun to just go with. And the space setting, unbounded by any real level structure (you can get completely different level designs within the same galaxy), has let them take a pile of concepts that couldn’t be expanded into a whole game and simply use them as single, throwaway levels. It seems almost profligate to use some great ideas in such a manner, but really it’s better that they go here than in a minigame compilation.

My one complaint would have to be that the mechanics sometimes can’t keep up with the design. Things haven’t really moved on since Mario 64’s benchmark for a 3D camera, and it sometimes doesn’t work with these far more complex level designs. The camera will more often than not be impossible to move manually – I don’t remember this ever being the case in Mario 64 – and just occasionally this will leave you looking at Mario’s shadow through a solid structure or with an awkward angle on a jump that could lead to oblivion if missed. It doesn’t happen all the time by any means, but it happens just enough to annoy.

Similarly, the human brain (or mine at least) can occasionally seem as incapable of keeping up as the camera. Mario can continually flip and take the controls with him, while I occasionally spent half a second flapping around in an effort to work out whether up was still up. Call it my failing rather than the game’s, if you like, but the fact is there is some inconsistency, such as when one double-sided surface in one galaxy will let you run seamlessly around the edge and onto the other side, whereas one in the next galaxy that is identical in all but theme will dump you off into a black hole if you try the same manoeuvre. As with the camera, it only happens enough to be an irritation.

It would be churlish of me to call this anything other than a great game because of a couple of qualms, though. This is still by far the best game on the Wii (no jokes, please) and, like its forebears, it will stick in the memory well beyond most of the big hits of this generation. This game reminds you what Nintendo can be when they stop thinking about minigames.

Jeanne d’Arc (PSP)

Jeanne d'Arc

Could this turn out to be Viva Piñata’s successor for the title of best game nobody played this year?

It’s not often that a game is a genuine surprise, least of all when it’s a strategy RPG – a subgenre which combines a genre that I dislike and one for which I’m largely ambivalent. Being that I’d read nothing about this game, I had visions of a grim, serious SRPG based on the real life heroine, probably drab and with lots of horses and archers, and maybe even some light immolation towards the end.

I’m only a few hours in and so can’t speak for the outcome (surely Joan of Arc without fiery death is like Titanic without an iceberg?), but nonetheless I implore you not to write this one off. It’s from Level-5 – those of Dragon Quest VIII and Rogue Galaxy – and while it still takes place against the backdrop of war between France and the invading English, Henry VI is now a possessed child in cahoots with the forces of darkness. While the full extent (and source) of Jeanne’s supernatural abilities are yet to be revealed at the point that I’ve reached, it’s safe to say that there’s more to it than voices in her head.

The presentation here is stunning. Many of the significant cut scenes are told through anime, fully voiced and with excellent production values, and the main game is no slouch either. It maintains the look of DQVIII, and while it gets the most out of the PSP by limiting the scope of each location (one of the necessities of the genre), the characters and environments stand up well to being zoomed it for story scenes. Even on the small screen the towns have personality, and the characters remain as charming as any of Level-5’s creations as they trade quips and words of encouragement during battle.

Coming at the same time as BioShock and certain other games due in the next month, even at its budget price ($30 in the US) I can’t see Jeanne d’Arc being a hit. It’s unfortunate when it’s been out in Japan since last year and we’ve just had our usual summer with nothing to play but alas, this is the industry that we rely on to give us what we need. Don’t miss out on Halo 3 to play this, but if you have a flight (see? Another boat plane they missed with a late release) or just want something portable it seems worth a go. If you like SRPGs you should have no hesitation.

Ouendan 2 Impressions

Ouendan 2

It’s finally here! The sequel to the best cult game ever has turned up, and I’ve been exercising my hot-blooded rhythm soul with it.

Think of it as Ouendan with the improvements made to Elite Beat Agents (3D map, skippable intros, better graphics, saved replay ghosts, four player support) and, most importantly, that quirky Japanese humour and music that made Ouendan so great. I always thought that EBA was very good but lacked that something.

The best that the original had to offer like Kokoro Odoru and Loop & Loop are a high benchmark, and it’s not just out of laziness (OK, it is) that the Ouendan soundtrack has been in my car’s CD player for the best part of two years. While I’m so far not sure that Ouendan 2 will be the one to displace it, it beats the pants off Madonna and Avril Lavigne. Alas, nothing as immediately memorable as I’d been hoping but far from a bad selection.

All the characters from the original turn up, either as background characters or because they’re in trouble again, and Ryuta’s cheer squad is joined by a competing team who they stare menacingly at between missions. It of course makes very little difference because much of the game is spent looking at concentric circles and trying to decipher some headscratching storylines (what’s happening isn’t always as obvious as last time), and I’m sure it wouldn’t make much sense even if I could understand it.

It wouldn’t surprise me if many of Ouendan’s fans have bought this already so I’m waiting for the new chart data to see whether all the importers will make this one register significantly – it’s a DS game so I assume it’ll be somewhere on the Japanese charts regardless – and if you liked the original, even if you weren’t as obsessive as I was back in the day, it’s worth buying. Just make sure that you have the original first. No excuses.