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Watching Paint Dry

posted by Mike on 8/18/03

Here I sit. And sit. And sit some more. Occasionally, some gimp will call in and ask me a question. I answer it. Every now and then, someone will actually want to purchase something. I try to get them to purchase the most expensive version of said product possible, then send them on their magical way, their heads full of pixie dust and dreams of the perfect vacation.

This has been my professional life for almost a year. I sit in my little cubicle, surrounded by murals of cartoon characters, resort hotels, and cheesy theme park rides, and wait for guests (our word for customers) to call in and give my life some pathetic semblance of meaning.

I know some of you are gawking at me complaining over such a relatively simple job. Those of you who actually work hard for a living... those of you who make your money off the sweat of your brow, such as it were. Well, yes. Compared to many, I do have it easy. I'm in a nice, air-conditioned building, doing a job that requires zero physical labor and only marginal thought.

But that's the problem... It's boring. Repetitively, mind-numbingly, wish-a-disgruntled-employee-would-rush-in-guns-blazing boring. Hour after hour, sitting on my ass waiting for the phone to ring, with nothing better to do than write articles, lurk around the forums, and kill a few dozen more Tusken Raiders.

I'm speaking, of course, of my Game Boy Advance. My mother, knowing that I was an avid gamer, bought me one of these little blessings for Christmas two years ago. Up until the last couple of months, it has sat untouched in my closet, along with books I never get to read, baby clothes that my son can no longer wear, and home videos of a life I can now scarcely recall.

Having torn through all four of the Harry Potter books that my wife bought me for Father's Day in one week, with the new book still several days off at that time, I plucked my BGA bag from the closet almost on impulse, thinking that perhaps it could afford a few moments of distraction whilst I sat at work and pretended to be busy.

Two months later, and I've hardly put the thing down, running through batteries like a hooker through dental dams. Essentially a handheld Super Nintendo with a few added extras, the GBA has become my new best friend. Every week since I've rushed on my off day to the local Wal-mart to see what's on clearance (the Rat's not known for their large salaries.)

Every so often, I've given into temptation and purchased a game at full price, knowing in the back of my mind that I'll only get a few hours worth of distraction from it before conquering it and feeling empty and unsatisfied. Till of course I can rush back to the Wal-mart or Target, wrap a rubber hose around my wallet, and shoot up with Mario. So for the most part, I've stuck with the El Cheapo bin. This has made my so far paltry library of seven Game Boy titles (eight if you count an old copy of Bionic Commando for Game Boy Color I found buried in my closet) a rather motley assortment of gaming bliss, and silicon feces.

So here's what I've picked up so far, with my thoughts on each, for no other reason than it will make my newest purchase last a couple more hours, thus saving me from new game withdrawl, if only for a brief time:

Is that a plumber in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?

1)Super Mario Advance

SMA was a launch title for the system back in 2001. For any of you who own a Super Nintendo and have the classic Super Mario All-Stars cart, this title will be a good bout of deja vu. Essentially, it's a 16 bit conversion of Super Mario Bros. 2 for the NES. The graphics and sound, while essentially the same, have been updated to the new chipset. The sprites are more colorful, and the music has more orchestration. But it doesn't excuse the fact that this was easily the worst of the NES Mario games, a game that was not even considered part of the series in Japan. There's no Bowser, no high speed reactionary game play... You have to sit and think some of your actions out, which any fan of Mario can tell you is eaxctly what you do NOT want to do when playing a Mario game.

I can recall playing this game on the old NES when I was 14. There are enough short cuts and tricks to it that you can beat the game in under an hour if you know them all. Wart, the final boss of this dinosaur, is not exactly Sephiroth when it comes to difficulty. I had this one demolished within two hours of getting it to work. I would've taken it back and gotten Super Mario Advance 2, which is a port of the infinitely superior Super Mario World, the launch title for the Super Nintendo back in 1991, but Wal-mart only allows exact exchanges for the same title once the plastic's been removed. This wouldn't have been a problem if I still owned my own shrink wrap machine, but alas that space taker went out to make room for my marriage license. So I'm stuck with it. But for 13.00 and tax, I could've fared worse. Two stars out of 5.

This will require the elusive "El-Ripoffo" spell...

2) Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets

Having already played through the PS2 version of this title, I was wary of playing it again on GBA, since previous reviews I'd read suggested the game was more or less the same, but with an overhead isometric view rather than full 3D. But when I went to Target that day, I saw that it was on sale for 12.95. I knew from price checking that it sold everywhere else for 30 bucks or more. So I thought it would be prudent to snatch it up before someone realized they'd priced it wrong. As it turned out, they had NOT priced it wrong at all. Apparently, Target had gotten in a full shipment of faulty carts. The game would lock up whenever you tried to save. I had to return it seven times before finally snagging one with a good battery. And it's a good thing too, as I wasn't able to put the game down till I'd finished it.

The story follows the book and film of the same name, which a few minor sidequests thrown in. Fans of the books will notice that, while many of the characters are molded after the actors from the film, moreso are drawn directly from the descriptions from the novels, giving it a nice mixture to its overall look. The only real complaint I have about the game is that Harry moves to frustratingly goddamned slow. There's no double-tap dash move. He walks everywhere. And in a game that requires you to repeatedly walk up and down stairs all over a castle roughly the size of Wyoming, this is not a good thing. I developed a blister on my thumb just from the ammount of time I spent holding the directional button down, moving the sloth that was Harry from one side of Hogwarts to the other, only to find out that I'd gone to the wrong spot and would have to turn around and go back to reread Hermoine's instructions.

Otherwise, it's a fun little game. Great graphics, above average music for a GBA title, and a good level of replayability, what with all the Wizard cards and other extras there are to search for and collect. Four stars out of five.

The game of choice for dominatrixes everywhere

3)Castlevania: Circle Of The Moon

There are now three Castlevania games out for the GBA, and this was the first, so that should tell you how far behind I am insofar as GBA gaming is concerned. I picked this one up used at Electronics Boutique for seven bucks, and it was the best seven bucks I've spent on a game in recent memory.

Whenever I talk with those in gaming circles and the subject of Castlevania comes up, I always get strange looks when I mention that my favorite Castlevania title on the NES was Simon's Quest. Whereas the original Castlevania was a pure side scrolling platformer split into levels of increasing difficulty (sound familiar?) Simon's Quest was more of an action RPG, almost similar to zelda 2: The Adventures Of Link. There were no levels. The game was comprised of one huge world, where exploration and item management replaced the relentless zombie whipping of the first title. Those were and still are the kind of game that appeals to me the most. One with a long quest and involved storyline that I won't run through in a matter of a couple hours. I want to make the most of the
cash I invest.

Castlevania: Circle Of The Moon falls into that category. In style, it's almost a carbon copy of the Playstation classic Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night. You tear through the castle, searching for items to gain access to the upper levels, leveling up your stats so you can take out the next boss standing in your way (for those of you who aren't avid gamers, "leveling up" refers to time spent killing enemies over and over again to gain experience and increase your level rating, which improves your life, magic power, strength, and so on. The best spot in this game to accomplish that is in the upper center of the map, a long corridor guarded by men on horseback. Each one is worth 2200 points. Enter the room, kill two, back out the door, repeat. You'll go up in level about once every ten minutes.)

A nice addition here was the use of DSS cards. These cards come in two categories, god cards, and creature cards. When you combine one of each, a new ability is found. Since only certain creatures drop specific cards, I spent several hours just roaming through the halls, killing every kind of creature I came across 15 times or more to see if one would drop a card, just to have the whole set.

Exploration is also rewarded in this title. There are certain spells that have power levels based on the percentage of the map you've explored. The more you've uncovered, the more powerful the spell. And of course, you also have the traditional extra weapons like the Holy Water and the Cross.

The music is some of the best I've heard on the system (which isn't saying much since I only own seven games.) The graphics could be a little better. Apparently, the designers didn't take into account that the original GBA did not have a backlit screen, so much of the game is done in dark colors. In other words,unless you're sitting in direct sunlight or under a very bright lamp, there are sections where you can barely see your character, much less all the dangers lurking around you.

The control is extremely responsive, but it does still suffer from the same problem that's plagued every Castlevania game, short of the 3D abortions that were released on the N64. Whenever you get hit by an enemy, it throws your character backwards halfway across the screen. In some instances, this can throw you back into the room you just came from, where another monster is waiting to hit you and send you right back, so you essentially act as the ball in a game of demonic ping pong until your life bar is drained. Other than that, the game is more or less flawless, and highly recommended. 4 stars out of 5.

What?!? A Fantasy action/rpg without Chocobos?! HERESY!!!

4) The Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past

I was 17 years old, working at the Phar-mor Video after school when I first played this title on the SNES. It was and still is a flawless game. If you've played the SNES original, then you know what to expect here, as it's a perfect translation (barring a slight cropping to fit the GBA screen.) In addition to a game that's perfect the way it is, the designers saw fit to add The Four Swords, the first Zelda multi-player experience. I'd like to be able to tell you how fun this add-on is, but I can't. After all, I'm a 28 year old man with a wife and 7 month old kid. I don't exactly get out much, and when I do, it's not to go over to my best friend's house to link up our GBA's and take on the evils of Hyrule.

I won't delve into the plot, as most of you probably have played it in one form or another. Suffice it to say, the graphics, sound, and gameplay border on art. It just doesn't get any better than this. Five stars out of five.

Ever wonder what happened to the other 625 experiments? Me neither!

5) Lilo And Stitch

I hate having to say this, since I really dug the film, but this game is a complete waste of silicon. There is no aspect of it that's even remotely worth the money Disney invested in its creation. My cousin Jeff still has one of those old Mattel Handheld Electronic Football games that came out in the early 80's. You know, the one with the red X's and O's moving around on a plain black screen that was impossible to control and had little more than a few beeps for sound fx. Well, it's infinitely more fun than this piece of shit. I only paid six bucks for it, but I still feel cheated.

You play Stitch, AKA Experiment 626. You live in exile on Earth with an annoyingly cute island girl named Lilo. Your fun-filled peaceful existance is jeopardized when your creator's previous 625 experiments break free and head to earth. So now it's up to you to stop them.

Unfortunately, these other 625 creatures are painfully more intelligent than you are, as all of them are smart enough to stand off screen and shoot at you before you can even see them. So this forces you to spend the entire game (which is, in design, a flawed rip-off of the MegaMan series) with the fire button held down, just in case something might be lurking just beyond your line of sight. Of course, if there IS, you'll never know it, as they'll be dead and gone before you get there, which also makes enemy location memorization an impossibility. So you're left with no other option than to just move left to right, hold down the fire button, and hope that you hit them before they hit you.

The graphics look 8 bit. It has a low, grainy color palette that does little to replicate the water color beauty of the film upon which it is based. The music sounds like some kid played it out on their Casio My First Keyboard. The only upside is that each level is preceeded by a cut scene from the actual film, but they're at such a low resolution rate that you can barely make out what's going on.

As for control, well, none's really needed, since the only way to win is to just keep the fire button held down and roll the dice. But whoever designed what little control the game has must've guessed that it would be frustrating many a gamer out there, so he designed the control scheme on an action/reaction delay basis. In other words, you have plenty of time to go have some tea, smoke a cigarette, take a piss break, and read War and Peace in the time that occurs between when you press a button, and Stitch actually does something. Deplorable. If not for the existance of a certain little 4th Party NES company called Color Dreams, this would be the worst game made in the last 18 years. Zero out of five stars.

I've killed hundreds of Orcs, and none of them said "Nanu Nanu"...

6) Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers

I've never been big on the whole PC gaming scene. Every so often, one will pop up that gleams a small tidbit of my already miniscule attention span (Roller Coaster Tycoon, Dungeon Keeper, Doom II, etc.) One of those games was Diablo. There was something addictive about searching through dungeons, building up your stats, looking for gold to buy better weapons, killing monsters by the hundreds. So much so that I rushed out and laid down by 39.95 when Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance came out for the PS2 and was more of a Diablo cloen than a legitimate conversion of the PC hit.

So when I read a review of LOTR: TTT for GBA, where it was described as a Diablo clone, I broke land speed records getting to Wal-mart. So set was I on having it that I actually paid full price for it (29.95.) Was it worth it? Yes and no.

This game is a mixed bag. It screams "SNES game that was never released and has been retooled to cash in on the LOTR craze." In almost every conceivable way, it is the GBA answer to Diablo. The endless enemies to slash. The items/equipment screens. The isometric viewpoint. But at the same time, it isn't Diablo, held back by a flawed control scheme that could learn a thing or two from the original Gauntlet. The graphics are topnotch, though some of the character movements seem more like marionettes, moving jerkily and at a nailbitingly slow pace. The game play is as follows: Enter an area. Kill everything that moves. Gain the experience. Pick up all the itmes you find that are all weaker than what you currently have. Sell them. Use money to buy decent equipment. Kill more bad guys. Level up a few dozen times. Fight boss. Repeat.

That's about it. The game follows the plot of the movies fairly well, along with full motion video cuts scenes that are at a surprisngly high quality considering they're being rendered on a 32-bit handheld that's mostly known for old ports of 16-bit games. And the music is very well done, using several themes straight from the film's soundtrack. Still, I was left wanting more. It would've been nice to have more exploration. It might've been cool to visit the bars in the various towns, just to have a break from the sword swinging. That might've gone a long way toward including more of the plot into the game. As it stands, it's a fairly fun, but sadly repetitive game that could've been great, but is only fair. Three out of five stars.

Playing this shit lowered my Mitichlorian count

7) Star Wars: The New Droid Army

There's no doubt. This game sucks shit so bad it should be in the closing credits of a German scat film. Of course, 90% of all games based on Star Wars suck, so at least it managed to keep up with the status quo.

The game takes place shortly after the events of Episode 2. Count Dooku (I still can't say that name with a straight face) is building a new army comprised of a particularly nasty new droid design. As Anakin Skywalker, it is your job to stop him.

Unfortunately, what this screamed in the heads of the game designers was "Move a black stick figure across a bland isometric background and swing a blue stick at anything you can't outrun just by walking away." That's more or less how to win this game. You walk towards your goal, clearly labeled on the map. If you encounter an enemy, just walk away from it. You don't have stats to build up, so it's entirely possible to walk all the way to a boss encounter without ever fighting a single foe. You only get one life, but that's okay. You have unlimited continues. And any time you nearly get killed by an enemy you can't run from (which is often since even a "womprat" can take more than half your life off if it looks at you wrong) all you have to do is stand still, and your life and Force bars refill themselves. This comes in very handy, since the bosses you fight are too dumb to chase you off screen, so all you have to do to win is run to a corner and recharge, hit 'em again, then repeat till dead.

The graphics are awful. Anakin looks as though the designers rendered his shadow, but not the actual character. He's all black and looks more like Jack Skelington than a Jedi Knight. The enemies often break apart into several horizontal lines, almost as though they're transmitted images with shitty reception. The music, while loosely based on the film's soundtrack, is comprised of a surprisingly small number of instruments, and sounds more 8 bit in quality than anything else. Thankfully, the lightsaber (your only weapon through the whole game) sounds just like a lightsaber should. Of course, should you be bored enough to trek through the 20+ seemingly endless levels, you'll begin to hate that noise, or play with the volume turned off.

This was a waste. I would've much preferred that JVC rereleased their SNES Super Star Wars series in a three-in-one pack than play this. You know you're doing something wrong as a designer when games that are over ten years old are superior to yours. Thankfully I only paid ten bucks for it. Coulda been worse. My other choice was Butt Ugly Martians.

If you were sitting beside me now, you'd hear a long-winded sigh. I pause to glance at the clock. Damn. 7:30 PM. Two more hours to go. I glance in my back pack. Tetris Worlds is still in its shrink wrap, waiting to be played. I look in my Game Boy bag. That copy of Metroid Fusion I borrowed from my co-worker Todd is calling to me, as is the copy of MegaMan Battle Network Three (Version Blue) that I paid Chip ten bucks for. I take a swig of Cherry Coke and glance up at the status bar mounted on the wall, and see that there's still no calls in que. I shrug and take the GBA out of the bag, and pop Metroid into the cart slot. It's gonna be one of those nights...


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