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The Last of Us Podcast February 28, 2014

Posted by Maniac in Podcasts, Site Videos.
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Inspired by the recent release of the single-player expansion Left Behind, Maniac devotes this site podcast to talking about Naughty Dog’s PS3 Game of the Year, The Last of Us.

Over the course of the podcast, Maniac talks about the history of this new franchise, does an in depth dissection of the game’s story and tries to predict what the future will hold.

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Video Games Live – LEVEL 3 Review February 27, 2014

Posted by Maniac in Reviews.
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What can I say about Video Games Live?  Created by Tommy Tallarico, it is a worldwide concert series which brings the greatest music ever composed for video games to the masses.  There are huge production values, through special video effects, smoke and lighting.  You actually feel like you’re in the game as you’re listening to this great music being performed by the professionals in your area.  As a gamer, gaming journalist, and music lover, I always hoped I would get the chance to check it out for myself.  Sadly, I was never fortunate enough to get to witness a Video Games Live concert firsthand.  It only came to my neck of the woods once and unfortunately it was a time that I could not check it out.  A few years ago, when the organization announced they were planning to release the next concert album (dubbed Level 2) in High-Definition on Blu-Ray Disc, I picked up a copy on day one.  After watching Level 2 with a 1080p HDTV and top of the line HD surround system, I thought it would be the only way I would get to hear this fantastic performance for myself and I was not disappointed, and I sure knew I wanted to hear more.

Now, thanks to Kickstarter, Video Games Live has just released their third album, LEVEL 3, exclusively as a digital download.  I have to say, it has been quite a treat.  Like with the Video Games Live concert series itself, the new album features an eclectic smattering of video game songs across many different game genres.  There are some old favorites that concert regulars may remember from earlier performances, like Chrono Cross, and The Legend of Zelda, but they are presented on this album in new arrangements.  As for new stuff, PC gamers will appreciate the inclusion of songs from Secret of Monkey Island and DOTA 2, and console gamers will appreciate new arrangements from Journey, Shadow of the ColossusBeyond Good and Evil, Final Fantasy VIII and Pokémon. The Level 3 album also features some surprises as well, including a new version of one of my favorite video game songs of all time, the “Theme of Laura” from Silent Hill 2, an orchestral performance of the theme to Street Fighter II, and to top it all off, a live performance of the ending theme to Portal, “Still Alive”.

The album opens with “Liberi Fatali” from Final Fantasy VIII. Let me tell you, the track sounded identically to how I remembered it from the game.  In fact, as I type this up, I’m going to look up the part in the game the song was used in just to see how close the Video Games Live version was to the original one.  It’s an energetic and powerful song that many gamers will fondly remember, and a great track to start the album with.

The next track is a slower ballad, “Scars of Time” from Chrono Cross, a beautiful musical piece I remember fondly from the Level 2 concert.  In fact, it is a game one of my site contributors believes has one of the greatest soundtracks from the PS1 era, and the track included in the Level 3 album was used in what is (in his opinion) one of the best opening cutscenes to any game, period.

Moving on, the album continues with the theme to The Secret of Monkey Island, an updated version of the original soundtrack designed to be played by early PC speakers.  Once again, the orchestra does a great job performing the song exactly as you would imagine that theme would be played.  Every bip and bloop from the original MIDI track is presented here by live real-world instruments, making me feel like I was listening to it for the first time all over again.  If I ever planned to take a vacation someplace tropical, I would probably have this song as my soundtrack.

As a recent Pokémon convert, I was pleased to see the Pokémon theme song was included in the album.  When I heard the Pokémon theme on the album for the first time I thought for sure that I was listening to the same orchestra performing it as I had heard perform it in the Pokémon TV show and feature films, only now they had the chance to truly let loose without being pressed to time constraints.  If you’re a fan of the Pokémon games, TV show, or movies, you’ll love hearing this track.

As I stated earlier, this album also offers some surprises.  One of the biggest surprises I found on this album was their version of the main theme to Silent Hill 2, the “Theme of Laura”.  Since I first heard this track several years ago, it has been one of my favorite video game compositions of all time.  Unlike some of the other songs on the album, the VGL version of this song was not a straight pitch for pitch port of the song, but a slightly adjusted version with a tad bit more improvisation in it. If you ever wondered what the “Theme of Laura” would sound like if it were performed by a band like the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, you should give this one a listen.  I loved it.

If you want to hear something more recent, look no further than the theme to the 2012 Game of the Year, Journey.  The music in that game was just beautiful, and a great choice for that album.  It was performed so perfectly, as I listened to that song I immediately felt myself flashing back to the first time I played that game’s final moments.  Maybe I saw you at the top of the same mountain.

One of the most enjoyable things I remembered from the Level 2 album was Tommy’s updated arrangements on classic tunes not originally performed with traditional instruments, like his rockin’ arrangements of the themes to Sonic the Hedgehog, Mega Man, and Castlevania. People looking for tracks like that on the Level 3 album need look no further than the second to last track on the album, the theme to Street Fighter II.  It’s a classic rockin’ tune that really picks up your heart rate.  And yes, it does go with everything.

The album’s final track is a live recording of “Still Alive” from Portal.  It sounded a bit like it was being captured by a tape recorder during a live performance, but I’m certain that’s what the creators were going for.  The performance itself was less about the performance by the orchestra, and more about the audience’s love for this great song.  Throughout the track, the audience is heard cheering, clapping and singing along.  Never having attended a performance of the show myself, listening to the live track made me feel like I was sitting in one of those seats just for a few moments.

The production values on this album couldn’t be higher. In fact, Video Games Live boasts that the Level 3 album features several well-known musicians, as well as several independent performers known for their love of the source material.  Regardless of what kind of gamer you are, you’ll find something in this album that you will enjoy.  Sadly, simply describing this music in words does no justice to how it actually sounds or how it made me feel.  The album is up for download today and if you are interested in picking it up you should be able to find it in the usual places, such as iTunes or Amazon.  Anyone who funded the album through Kickstarter will probably have alternate download arrangements.  Load the songs onto your Smartphone or MP3 player, stream them to your Stereo and enjoy.

I can’t think of anything better to listen to as I wait for Quinni-Con.

Quinni-Con 2014 This Weekend February 26, 2014

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This is just a reminder for anyone who may be in my neck of the woods, Quinn-Con 2014 will be taking place this weekend, and to celebrate the event, enjoy this promo by the Pokémon ‘Bridged team, who will be returning for their third year at the convention.

Quinni-Con is a free convention hosted by Quinnipiac University.  It focuses mostly on Japanese Culture, Anime, Cosplay and Video Games.

Preregistration is currently closed, but anyone interested in attending can register at the door, and it is completely free of charge.  You can read a full schedule of all the events here.  The event itself is open to all ages, but if you’re over 18, make sure to bring an ID with you when you register to guarantee access to all panels.

Quinni-Con 2014 is hosted at the Quinnipiac University York Hill Campus March 1st and 2nd, 2014.  Hope to see you there!

Who Will Define The Next Year of Nintendo? February 25, 2014

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On March 18th, 2014 the Year of Luigi will officially end. The Year of Luigi, originally announced a year ago, was one of the best promotional events in the history of Nintendo and brought a character typically seen in the background up front and center as he happened to star in several major games that got released over the course of that year, including Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon, Mario & Luigi: Dream Team, New Super Luigi U and Dr. Luigi.

With the year wrapping up soon, and with all the positive press from the promotion, I started to wonder if Nintendo might try the event again with a new character for 2014.  Luigi was chosen because he was a background character that hadn’t got as much appreciation as Nintendo’s biggest mascot, Mario. He was also chosen because Nintendo had planned an entire lineup of games which featured him to release within that year, including several games he would star in. So it would be logical to assume Nintendo may want to promote some other secondary character once the Year of Luigi concludes.

But which character?  With a bit of speculation, and a bit of conjecture lets take a look at some of the options.

Samus Aran – The third major Nintendo property has not seen much love from Nintendo in this current generation.  Since the release of Metroid: Other M, we haven’t heard a peep from the franchise’s hero Samus Aran, despite the demand for new Metroid Prime games.  Short of releases of the original Metroid games on the Wii U and 3DS platforms, and a fantastic bunch of minigames in the Wii U launch title Nintendo Land, there have not been any new Metroid games released on the current Nintendo platforms. I think the time is right for some new Metroid games, all it would take is a new game’s announcement.  In the meantime, Metroid Fusion has already been confirmed as an early title for the Wii U’s first GBA Virtual Console releases, and Samus was one of the first characters confirmed for the next Super Smash Bros game.

Donkey Kong – Could this year be on like Donkey Kong?  It’s already started up.  One of the original mascots of the Nintendo company, Donkey Kong would be a great contender to dedicate the next year.  With Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze releasing this month on the Wii U, the lineup is already in place.  He has also been confirmed as one of the first playable characters for the next Super Smash Bros game and Mario Kart 8.  However, even I have to admit the timing may be wrong for Donkey Kong this year.  With the new Donkey Kong Country game getting released while we are still officially in the Year of Luigi, it may have been too soon to dedicate the next year of releases to him.

Bowser – A role once played by Dennis Hopper, next to Mario or Luigi, Bowser is one of the most iconic characters from the Super Mario series, and if Nintendo wanted to devote another year to a lesser appreciated character from the Super Mario franchise, Bowser would probably be the most likely candidate. While typically the villain of nearly every Super Mario Bros game, Bowser has occasionally joined Mario with his battles, like in Super Mario RPG, or joined him with his recreational activities, like Golf or Go Karting.  Interesting to note that not only will he be returning as a playable character in Mario Kart 8, all the Koopalings will be coming with him.

Pikachu – The most iconic mascot for one of the most popular game franchises in history could find a year dedicated to him.  Yes I know that Nintendo already released the sixth generation Pokémon games in 2013, but Nintendo doesn’t need to launch a new Pokémon generational game, they could be in development of new spin-off titles like a new Pokémon Ranger game.  On top of that, there have been rumors for a few months now that an interactive game starring Pikachu is under development and will be the next game Nintendo releases in the Pokémon series.  Could this Pikachu game be the flagship title of a year of Pikachu like Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon was for The Year of Luigi?

The Year of Luigi ends March 18th, 2014.  I guess we’ll find out what will be coming in less than a month.  Until then, speculate away.  I’ll see you on Miiverse.

Why I Left the PC February 20, 2014

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I got my first PC in late 1996. It was a Pentium machine clocked at 133mHz with 16MB of RAM running Windows 95. The store my dad bought the computer from included a CD-ROM with the computer which had over one hundred different DOS shareware demos. Every game demo you could imagine as staples of the gaming industry was on that disc. Wolfenstein 3D, Commander Keen, and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis were just some of the games I could start playing, and my computer, while a dinosaur by today’s standards, could run all these demos without the slightest hitch. When I loaded up the first shareware demo, the computer’s speakers began to roar. The last time I had played a video game was on the original NES and as the flight simulator loaded up, it looked hundreds of times better than any game I had ever seen before. On that day, I became a PC Gamer. Ten years later, that ended.

Throughout the late 90s, the PC had so much more that it could offer gamers than the consoles of the day could. It had better graphics hardware, a wider variety of control options, and online capabilities. But to me, the single thing that made the PC the best gaming platform was its ability to improve itself through the form of patches and mods. PC game developers could release new features, fix bugs, and support user modifications with just a simple download.

The tide had begun turning against the PC starting around the launch of the original Playstation. While it was clear that the PC could deliver a better gaming experience than the consoles of the day could, it was clear that the consoles would compete by offering some amazing exclusive games that would never see a release on the PC. By the time the PS2, Xbox and GameCube launched, publishers turned nearly all their focus to developing games on those consoles. Even LucasArts, who had one of the biggest catalogs of PC games, was no longer porting games to the PC. PC games were still being developed, and any game’s PC version would clearly offer the superior gaming experience over the console version, fewer games were coming to the platform. Unless the game was pushing technology past something the consoles could do or was a best selling game, it wouldn’t come to the PC.

But a lack of key exclusive titles was not enough to turn me away from the PC, it was the decisions made by the game publishers. To them, the PC was a pit, at least, that’s how it seemed like they felt. Valve released Half-Life 2, one of the best games ever made, in 2004. In every copy of Half-Life 2 was a program called Steam, and it would run every time Half-Life 2 did. The Steam program required online access to function, but once you gave it the game’s CD-Key, it would keep Half-Life 2 up to date, keep an online friend’s list of all the Half-Life and Counter Strike players, making it easier for you to join friend’s games, and provided one of the PC’s first online digital marketplaces. Many PC players were against its existence, but it offered me a lot of really useful benefits, so I had no issue with it. Little did I know that other publishers would see the success of the Steam platform and its acceptance by players like myself, and, not knowing or caring about all the benefits that Steam offered players, actively engaged in anti-consumer practices to protect their own bottom lines.

In 2007, publishers started to ship PC games which, like other games that shipped with Steam, required online activation to play. However, unlike Steam, they offered absolutely no benefits whatsoever to customers who bought games that required online activation, not even automatic game patching. In fact some of the games it shipped with, like the original Bioshock, had no multiplayer component. So, why did it have to be included? The worst part of this development was that the publishers limited the amount of times you could perform an online activation! The internet went into an uproar by this point. PCs can break or get computer viruses very suddenly and unexpectedly, forcing players to perform system wipes, costing them an activation in the process. Meanwhile, while Steam wasn’t going anywhere, there was no way to tell how long the activation servers that verified these games would continue to run, or if they would go down due to heavy use. The concerns turned out to be fully justified. Even legitimate PC game reviewers encountered problems with these limited activations.

Forced online activations became the norm by 2008. Games including Mirror’s Edge, Red Alert 3 and Dead Space all required online activation. I was most sad to see Red Alert 3 would be DRM locked, I was actually planing to buy that game, but I knew all it would take would be three system wipes and I would have to rebuy it.

Meanwhile the newest consoles were looking more and more attractive by comparison. With the wide adoption of HDTVs, the game consoles could offer high definition gaming in surround sound, perfect for gamers interested in setting up a home theater system in their home. Also, with the wider adoption of high speed internet, console games could be patched, giving consoles one of the biggest advantages the PC held over it. Unified console marketplaces also made it possible to deliver downloadable content, digital games and even feature films!

The tide against the PC had turned and I knew that if I wanted to stay a gamer, I could no longer be loyal to just one platform. Some of the best games I’ve played in the past ten years were console exclusives. I never thought I would make that statement.

The PC still claims dominance in graphical fidelity but with its cost, complexity, and the restrictive self imposed procedures publishers are forcing on their customers, it is getting harder and harder to justify those slightly less jagged edges or extra frames per second during gameplay.

I will miss the PC. But I’m a gamer.

Subs vs. Dubs, For Gaming February 18, 2014

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For as long as media has been imported overseas there has been a never-ending discussion from fans of other country’s media how the imported content should be localized for the region it is being brought to should be presented.  One option, by far the most used by mainstream media distributors is referred to as “dubbing”.  This is done by doing a complete translation of a script to the language spoken by the region it is being brought to, hiring a new cast of native voice actors, and redub all of the content’s dialog.  The other option is referred to as “subbing”, which keeps the content’s dialog exactly as the original creators intended, with its original voice actors presented in its original language.  Only subtitles are provided to help non native speakers understand what is going on.  While this is a cheaper option for foreign distributors, this option is typically preferred by importers and many devoted consumers.  This debate, lovingly referred to by either side as, “Subs vs. Dubs”, has been happening for a long time.  Now, the conversation is happening all over again for video games and it looks to be completely changing the rules on how international video games are localized.

Let’s be honest here, regardless of how you feel about subs or dubs, there are valid arguments on both sides.  People arguing for subtitled content argue that a content should be presented in its original medium exactly the way that its creator, regardless of their country of origin, intended.  On top of that they cite that in a lot of cases foreign dubbing just isn’t very good and can wreck an otherwise fantastic work.  People in favor of dubbed content have their own points.  Subtitles can distract the viewer from what is happening on the screen, and if time and effort is taken by the right localization studio, a properly translated work performed by decent voice actors can be obtained in any country regardless of a language or cultural gap.

Up to this point, any localized content provided from overseas development studios have typically made the decision to fully translate and localize any of their game’s content to the region they release their game to.  It is a difficult process, as it means an entire reworking of a game’s menu systems, script, and can require an entirely separate team of voice actors and directors be hired and recorded.  It can be an expensive process, especially for dialog heavy games.  Because of that, some companies have sadly chosen not to even bother releasing many popular games overseas, like Mother 3, because they didn’t believe the development costs of localizing their content would pay off once the content was released to a new market, or because they wouldn’t be able to release a game into the market before a new platform would launch.

Consumers on the “sub” side of this argument have not been happy with this status quo.  In fact, I remember there was a huge desire for Catherine to be brought to the US in its original language.  The guy who did the voice of Vincent in the original Japanese version is apparently a very famous voice actor in Japan, with many fans here in the US.  Sadly, the version of Catherine that came to the US only included a localized English audio track, and even though I enjoyed it tremendously in my own native language, this upset many people who preferred to hear it spoken with the game’s original dialog by the original voice actors.

However, as of this past year I have personally had something of a resurgence in my interest in foreign content, and I have noticed that the trend of “dubbing” all localized content is beginning to change.  The Nintendo 3DS downloadable title Attack of the Friday Monsters (A Tokyo Tale) was entirely subbed.  This decision worked on many levels, especially since the game took place in Japan.  Even though it was just a cute little downloadable title that never got a retail release, for the first time I can think of, a video game studio chose to present localized content for a North American game release in the form of subtitles instead of redubbing the original voice over work.

I believe the best decision that could have been made to solve this debate is to give consumers a choice between the two and release games that offer players either option.  Back in the days of VHS, this wasn’t an option, but with the storage space offered by Blu-Ray Discs, and its ability to be used as either a game or a film storage medium, and with online streaming services and DLC, consumers can get both options without having to rebuy the same content multiple times.  Heck, you don’t always need a large enough disc to do it.  Bravely Default’s full version can be played in the original Japanese language (among several others including English and Italian), they just couldn’t fit all the different languages into the game’s demo version.  The North American retail version of Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII does not include the game’s original Japanese voice over on the game disc, but Square did release the game’s original Japanese audio track for free as DLC, and it can be downloaded right now by anyone with a copy of the full version of the game who wants to hear it.  Support for this decision this must have been very positive, as Square Enix plans to do it again with the next Drakengard game, and will give DLC codes for the game’s original Japanese voice over audio for free to anyone who preorders the game early enough.

With current technology making it possible for movies, television and video games to offer consumers either option for how they want to view their content, perhaps this debate may finally be coming to an end.

The Last of Us – Version 1.6 Patch Notes February 13, 2014

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In anticipation for the release of the game’s first single player expansion, Naughty Dog is releasing patch 1.6 for The Last of Us at 10 PM PST.  The patch adds required content for the Left Behind expansion including new Trophies as well as several single player and multiplayer bug fixes.  You can read all of the details about what the patch will change right here.

Patch 1.6 is required to play The Last of Us: Left Behind, when it releases tomorrow.

The Last of Us is out now exclusively for the Playstation 3.

Bayonetta 2 – Did You Miss Me? Trailer February 13, 2014

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Nintendo premiered the latest trailer for Bayonetta 2 during today’s Nintendo Direct.  The new trailer is fantastic, giving a hint as to the game’s story, a deeper look into Bayonetta’s universe, and all the incredible gameplay the series has made popular.

Bayonetta 2 is coming in 2014 exclusively to the Nintendo Wii U.

Wii U Game Boy Advance Virtual Console Titles Announced February 13, 2014

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Nintendo’s Virtual Console service is a major component of their newest consoles.  With one of the biggest back catalogs of any game developer, Nintendo has been able to capitalize on rereleasing some of their greatest titles in the past twenty years by offering them for sale through digital download.  I have to admit, the fact that the Nintendo Wii gave me the chance to finally replay games like Super Mario Bros or Starfox 64 was a huge selling point, and that tradition continues with the Wii U and 3DS platforms.

When the Wii U Virtual Console was first announced early last year, Nintendo stated that the Wii U would be able to offer games from the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) , Super Nintendo (SNES), and Game Boy Advance (GBA) libraries through the service.  However, up to this point, Nintendo has not offered any Game Boy Advance games through the Wii U’s Virtual Console, and instead have been focusing on rereleasing NES and SNES games.

Today, Nintendo officially announced that starting this April they will be offering GBA exclusive titles on the Wii U Virtual Console.  Two titles that were specifically mentioned were two major platform hits I’ve been wanting to play for quite a long time, Metroid Fusion and Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga.

Nintendo also mentioned that more titles were in development.  Nintendo has not yet announced a specific release date or price point for these games, but we can expect it at a later time.  Currently, Virtual Console titles range between five and ten US dollars.

This is fantastic news, Nintendo, now please begin porting Pokémon Emerald.

Mario Kart 8 Release Date February 13, 2014

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At today’s Nintendo Direct video, the latest trailer for the highly anticipated Mario Kart 8 was premiered and it looks like all of Bowser’s Koopalings from Super Mario Bros 3 will be playable racers in this new game.  Take a look.

Mario Kart 8 is coming May 30th, 2014 exclusively to the Nintendo Wii U.