Recently perusing the offerings from Xbox Game Pass and the added EA Play selection, I came across a game I had personally forgotten about: Black.
At a time when games like Rainbox Six or Soldier of Fortune were more of the Modern Warfare experience (as that series of Call of Duty games hadn’t dropped yet) Black represents a great first-person shooter experience within the black ops military operation genre.
It’s funny, because I can clearly recall owning this game on the original Microsoft Xbox. As mentioned, it was a bit of an under the radar title, especially with Halo dominating all of the headlines on the console (while the PS2 also received this game and had plenty of other competition on it’s box!)
I remember this being a whoa reaction first playing it, so I had to ask myself if Black still holds up. After downloading it free on my Xbox One, I was off to the land of 2006 to see how well this game stood the test of time.
Let me say, it’s still a blast to play. (I had to go back and find out why it never received a sequel, that’s how fun it is.)
Now, some of the more uppity gamers apparently complained about the length of the game or lack of multiplayer – those things have never been a major concern to me. I actually loathe online multiplayer (checkout my review of Halo 3 for more on that) and I don’t mind playing games in short bursts, because I’m a grown ass adult with other adulting to do.
However, Black is far from brief.
There aren’t many missions, but I found myself taking in upwards of an hour to defeat a single level on even the lowest difficulty setting. Oftentimes, even on easy, you will die and have to start over, which is about the only frustration I find with Black.
Cranking up the difficulty can make these stages go on longer, as harder settings increase the number of objectives necessary to complete each mission. Also, you can’t simply run and gun your way Doom-style through each board either, as some elements require stealth or cover as you take out enemies.
Now, the AI isn’t the brightest and can be predictable, but let’s not forget this game is older too! Where Black shines is the polish in the graphics, audio, controls, and most importantly, the experience.
The main gimmick of Black is explosions – and we’re talking Michael Bay blockbuster movie explosions, as your on-screen reticle changes to black (get it) when you can blow something up. (It turns red for enemies and green for friendly NPCs too, which is helpful.)
Your hands will actually feel the amount of controller vibration after each sitting of playing, as you cycle through a nice assortment of weapons, each bigger than the next, making you feel like Rambo taking out entire contingents of Eastern Bloc inspired bad guys. (“Grenada!” is something you’ll hear often while tossing grenades.)
As in some other shooters, you can only carry two weapons at a time. Even on easy, the game isn’t littered with health packs or ammo, making every move a calculated one. Reloading also blurs the screen and takes you out of the action momentarily, adding to the strategy of when to start going Leroy Jenkins on a level or remaining in the shadows.
Among the guns are pistols, semi or fully automatics, heavy machine guns, and even RPGs.
Play wise, because RPGs are often scarce and usually necessary to clear certain areas (such as long hallways with machine guns).
Overall, the satisfaction you get from cleverly designed missions that have you blowing up entire compounds is second-to-none. To this day, I feel the premise was ahead of its time, and so long as you’re not a snob turning your nose up at a shorter game play experience, or the 2006 era graphics (which still look fairly nice) you’ll definitely want to add this to your FPS bucket list of games to play.
Have you heard of Excite Truck? If not, you may not be the only one.
A title which flew under many radars on the underpowered Nintendo Wii, Excite Truck is a successor to Excitebike series on previous Nintendo consoles, except this time motorbikes have been swapped out for offroad inspired trucks.
That may sound like a mess, but in application, Excite Truck totally blew me away – and the game play is totally on par with the things that made the motocross series popular.
First, there’s plenty of jumps, plenty of speed, and plenty of crashes. If you can remember overheating your bike on the NES, or having missed the timing of a jump and needing to collect yourself from the ground, then you’d be on board with Excite Truck’s spin on all of the above.
Single player mode sees you race against computer opponents in timed tracks. The main goal, however, is to collect stars, which is done by performing many tricks to perfection.
Some of those tricks include getting air, perfect landings from jumps, or successfully navigating an area full of trees without crashing.
The tracks are based on real life locations, such as China, Scotland, Mexico, Fiji, Finland and Canada, with a fictional Nebula level tossed in. The locales are detailed and lush, with most of the terrain able to be navigated (for better or worse!)
The trucks are based on real-life variations too, with more vehicles and paint jobs unlocked as you progress through the game. That’s a neat feature which reminds me of Mario Kart. You begin by picking the truck that fits your style and then choosing the color of it. You may pick on with better acceleration, for example, over handling.
Once you choose your cup level and stage, the game kicks over to the Wii’s main gimmick: motion controls. There’s no thumbstick, nunchuk or classic controller options here, as Excite Truck forces you to steer by tilting a sideways Wiimote controller side-to-side like a real steering wheel.
When executing jumps, you can turn your car sideways, or tilt forward or backward to help execute a better landing. Gas and brakes are handled by buttons 1 and 2, and the only other button truly used is “down” on the D-pad to use the speed boost feature – but be careful, you don’t want to overheat the engine!
While most won’t like using the motion controls they’re actually great. The game couldn’t be any easier to play and who hasn’t jerked side-to-side or pulled back when playing the original NES game? Now those movements mean something!
However, I would’ve liked to have seen a few additional controller options, as we saw in Mario Kart Wii.
Overall, Excite Truck is a very pleasant surprise which I feel deserves a follow up too. The only true shame is that more people don’t know of this game and that the Wii didn’t have HD graphics, as tweaking an emulated copy shows how this game really shines even over 15 years later.
Gears of War
One of the driving reasons I started this website was to archive the games I played; in doing so, it keeps me driven toward playing titles which I sometimes missed (due to lack of time) or simply fell out of touch with.
None could be truer of the Gears of War series, which is a set of games I certainly purchased over the years but had been collecting dust in the drawer. I’m not sure why either, because this entry into the series freaking rocks!
You’ll likely notice that my screen captures are not from the Xbox 360 edition of Gears, but instead the Xbox One update Gears of War: Ultimate Edition. Part of my decision to include this as a “retro” game (despite being released in 2015) is the backwards compatibility – I was pretty much forced to play this one, but as with some games I missed out on, I don’t mind playing the “remastered” edition over the original, as is the case with Ultimate Edition.
What Ultimate Edition adds or changes isn’t too significant. Obviously, the visuals and audio were remastered to run faster and look better. Those are good things.
The biggest change? Adding in five chapters that were only available in the PC version of Gears 1, and were subsequently nixed from the 360 version. As such, those missing chapters from the first game on the 360 complete the title and were a necessary reason for playing the remaster. (Note: Since this game is based on the original release, I also made the executive decision to include facts for the original and not the remaster as part of this review.)
The final of those cut chapters is a heart pounding battle with the Brumak: If you’re a Gears fan and missed out on this, you must go back and play this chapter, because it’s one of the most satisfying levels I’ve ever played in a game.
The rest of the game plods along with the apocalyptic alien takeover plot you may already know. Some critics say this game hasn’t aged well, but it spawned many sequels and is definitely a classic. For someone who traditionally sucks at video games like myself, I took to the military brute force style just as well as the duck and cover strategy.
The game can be unforgiving in spots if you aren’t sure exactly what to do, but so long as you listen and pay attention, there are more than enough clues throughout so you’re not stuck.
The gruesome way enemies are blown to bits, chopped up with a chainsaw add-on to your souped-up machine gun, or how the characters vulgarly interact with one another, could’ve been cheesy.
However, in the Gears world it simply works, and adds an aesthetic that’s fun, but also shows that some games can be made for adults only.
In all, this game got me excited to go through and Hammer of Dawn my way through the sequels. It was a great visit down memory lane and a remastered title worth revisiting.
Super Princess Peach
Mario games have a tendency of creating spinoffs which send the series in a different direction. Several examples of those are Super Mario Kart, Super Mario World 2 (which spun-off into many Yoshi games with the same mechanics) and Luigi’s Mansion.
Even Toad received a game all his own with Captain Toad Treasure Tracker.
Those are some examples of the many Mario series sister titles out there, but none is more of a sister to the series than a game starring the usual damsel in distress: Super Princess Peach.
Despite being one of the best-selling Nintendo DS games of all-time, I often receive blank stares when mentioning this title. I have a feeling it’s because the game was a departure from the main Super Mario Bros. gameplay much more akin to the American version of Super Mario 2, rather than the aforementioned titles, as it is still a platformer at heart which features many changes from your standard Mario gameplay, but not enough to be entirely memorable or groundbreaking.
The game begins with Peach venturing to Vibe Island, in a reversal of roles, to rescue Mario and Luigi. The island consists of your usual worlds (eight of them) featuring six levels and a boss level. For completionists, each level also has three toads to find/rescue which also factors into unlocking further levels/items. Mario fans will recognize many of the games characters, and of course, the usual protagonists: Kamek and Bowser.
Much of the style is also ripped straight from Super Mario World (including the infamous Ghost Houses), giving this game a mixed vibe (pun intended) of a mash-up of Mario games. I feel as if the developers wanted to mix several of these games together to create a new genre, however, I feel as if they failed to do so in the end product.
The game is colorful and fairly faithful to Mario lore. The departure comes from Peach’s use of a parasol (umbrella in laymen’s terms) which harkens back to her ability to “float” in Mario 2. Rather than use super mushrooms or fire flowers, Peach has four “emotions” which are needed to clear certain objectives. Those emotions are joy, gloom, rage and calm, all with different abilities.
For example, rage sets her on fire and allows her to stomp through certain blocks. With gloom, Peach sheds tears that can put out fires.
Those abilities are activated using the bottom screen of the DS, and when used, drain a special meter that must be refilled in order to use the special abilities.
Otherwise, without the powerups found in traditional Mario games, Peach reverts to hearts, a throwback to how Mario 2 operated with life versus death.
But one thing is fairly straightforward: it’s impossible to get a game over in Super Princess Peach. There are no “lives” and you simply restart a level over if you fail. In this way, the game feels setup for younger players, but there’s enough of a challenge in just the quirks of how this platformer operates to give it some gusto for more experienced hands.
Another nod to other games in the series occurs when “Perry” (the parasol – get it?) turns into a sub, can hook on zipless, or is used as a raft: any Yoshi players will recognize these side features while the sub feels like something straight out of the Game Boy’s Super Mario Land.
Overall the game isn’t necessarily great, but it’s not terrible by any means either. I believe most players would approach this game expecting Peach to run and jump as she did in Mario 2: and those who do will be sadly disappointed.
For others, there’s a new adventure in rescuing the Mario Bros. to give this a shot. But fair warning: it’s a game that’s very easy to complete with very little replay value. After you muscle through some of the longer, more boring stages, you will likely see why this game never received a proper follow up.
New Super Mario Bros.
We didn’t start the fire… It was always burning… Since the world’s been turning…
That’s the way I feel about “New” Super Mario Bros. Such an emphasis had gone toward turning everything into three dimensions that the classic 2-D side-scrolling platformer appeared to be lost in the shuffle.
Then, in 2006, Nintendo unleashed this behemoth upon us which has, in itself, spawned numerous sequels and also pushed other franchises to return to their roots (such as Sonic the Hedgehog and Spyro).
The best-selling DS game of all-time, NSMB picks up where Super Mario World left off, giving us a side-scrolling Mario adventure spanning multiple levels through multiple worlds with a slew of new features or freshly recycled ideas borrowed from a number of Mario games.
You’re back to collecting coins, breaking bricks, and stomping Koopa shells to save Princess Peach. Yet, this game nor the Mario concept doesn’t feel the least bit tired. Triple jumps, ground pounds, wall jumps… all of the 3-D goodies are here and while sprites have been ditched for 3-D graphics, it’s all set in a “flat” environment that feels every bit as genuine as the original NES Mario games but with a fresh paint job.
Some of the newer power-ups introduced make Mario huge, or incredibly tiny: or he can wear a blue Koopa shell.
This makes for some strategy and hidden areas only accessible with certain power-ups. Add collecting three of the star coins per level and the game has some incredibly sick replay value, where the Mario purist can’t put the game down until it’s 100% complete.
Honestly, if you’ve never played this and you’re a Mario aficionado, you should probably leave my website right now and track this down, because it’s one of the best titles I’ve ever played. (It’s literally that good!)
Yoshi’s Island DS
The Yoshi’s Island series originally spun-off of the sequel to Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, with a mechanic where Yoshi eats enemies and then shoots eggs while protecting Baby Mario throughout six worlds filled with various traps.
That original game used a special graphics chip to pull off a unique artistic style which has carried over into the other Yoshi games, including this direct sequel to Super Mario World 2, entitled Yoshi’s Island DS.
As you may have guessed, the “DS” in the title means it was developed for the dual-screen Nintendo DS handheld console, which had many games which lacked a real need/use of the second screen, making the console, at times, feel gimmicky.
Having played the Yoshi titles out of order as well, I was fairly burned out on the series. The N64 Yoshi’s Story was barely a “game”. The newer 3DS iteration, Yoshi’s New Island, was practically a direct clone of SMW2 and hence, got repetitive quickly.
The same could be said for latter editions on the Wii U and the Nintendo Switch, which felt like new paint jobs of the same old Yoshi gameplay, often dumbed down for a younger audience.
Imagine my surprise picking up this title that I had missed in the middle of all of the plodding and boring gameplay of some of those titles. Yoshi’s Island DS isn’t a gimmick, using both screens in a top-down double screen layout of levels that feel massive in scope, breathing new life into boredom of the series. Though the ability to see more is seen as a gimmick in and of itself (and the bottom touchscreen goes unused) it feels like a true title made for the DS and adds to the fun.
Seeing as this was the sequel of the series, I can now understand why other sequels were made, but an actual “DS 2” version needs to be done as this may be the standout title of the series. Joining Baby Mario on this adventure are Baby Peach, Baby Donkey Kong, and Baby Wario, with the ability to also control Baby Bowser at one point as well.
All of the baby characters have their own special powers, and with the ability to change them at certain stations throughout the worlds/levels, really opens up the uniqueness of this game and replay value, as you may have to go back through with a character previously unavailable in your quest for 100% completion.
Everything else, however, remains largely the same as the other Yoshi games, with a decent but not insurmountable challenge to beat the game.
I highly recommend this title if you enjoyed any of the other Yoshi games and feel it’s a hidden gem on the DS console.