The Video Game Critic's

Halloween Review Special

Portable Edition

Updated 2017/10/21

Game Boy Color Games


The Simpsons: Night of the Living Treehouse of Horror (THQ 2001) D+
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I've always been a fan of The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror Halloween specials, making it a point to watch every October. I was excited to discover a Game Boy Color title based on these episodes! Stylistically it's right on point. The characters are rendered remarkably well and the colorful stages incorporate iconic references like the three-eyed fish. The Simpsons theme in minor key sounds remarkable but it's on a short loop and will get on your nerves after a while. There are no less than seven stages, each based on a different story. If you've ever wanted to explore the Simpson household the first stage lets you do that. Playing as Bart you're trying to locate four fuses to turn the lights back on. The controls could be better. Bart's slingshot only shoots rocks a short distance before they hit the ground. Worse yet, he must stand still to shoot, making him a sitting duck for rats, spiders, and flying books. Sometimes you'll exit a room only to find yourself right next to a haunted vacuum cleaner. That thing requires two shots to kill and there's only time to get off one. There's no shortage of cheap hits like dripping water and ghostly hands that reach out of the floor. In stage two you fly around the kitchen as a little Maggie transformed into a fly. The Joust-like controls are okay but constant up-and-down made me queasy. Level three takes to the streets as an overhead zombie shooter starring Marge, and it might have been fun if her firepower wasn't so weak. Level four is a Castlevania-style side-scroller starring Homer in an ornate castle that's a feast for the eyes. But like Bart's slingshot, Homer's crossbow fires directly into the ground. Stage five features a hilarious-looking robotic Homer and stage six puts a defenseless Lisa in a school-gone-mad. The game finishes on a high note with "King Homer" which is basically a take-off of Rampage (Sega Master System, 1986) with Homer as the ape. There's a nice password system so it's easy to sample all of these. I would have preferred one really good game over seven mediocre ones, but if you're looking for a Halloween treat, Night of the Living Treehouse of Horror may just do the trick.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (THQ 2000) D
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Despite a killer license, Buffy the Vampire Slayer doesn't have much to offer. Our blonde heroine simply kicks and punches her way through generic undead thugs in repetitive side-scrolling stages. The character sprites are flat but the animation is surprisingly fluid, calling to mind Flashback for the Genesis (1993). The fighting action is shallow, but hearing a ghoul shriek as you stake him through the heart is satisfying. Sometimes you're even treated to flying body parts! The graveyard, mansion, and zoo locations are remarkably dull, and the sewers stages are marred by awkward platform jumping. Buffy's visuals are so dark that it can be tough to make out your enemies at times. Speaking of which, it's easy to get the impression that you're fighting the same zombie over and over again, who keeps returning in a new outfit! The game isn't hard and there's no score, so where's the challenge? It feels like you're just going through the motions as you mindlessly forge ahead, scribbling down a new password after each stage. At least the jaunty soundtrack is relatively good, striking a nice balance between creepy and funky. The illustrated cut-scenes look rough, but the witty dialogue is consistent with the show, tossing out references to several episodes. Even so, Buffy fans will regard this as more of a collectible than a source of entertainment.


Game Boy Advance Games

Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas: The Pumpkin King (Buena Vista 2005) A-

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One thing that bothered me about the Nightmare Before Christmas movie was the awkward mixing of Christmas and Halloween themes. The two holidays couldn't be any more different! Fortunately this video game adaption sticks to the Halloween stuff, and does it right. This is one of the best pure Halloween titles I've played. The gothic scenery features gnarled trees, wrought iron gates, and gorgeous orange sunsets. Instead of a series of stages, you traverse a sprawling map of connected areas. There's a nice sense of progression as you unlock new areas, each with their own distinctive eye candy and vibrant color schemes. The soundtrack has an appropriately eerie quality too. In terms of gameplay Nightmare Before Christmas is a pretty basic platformer. That may not sound like a ringing endorsement, but you'd be surprised how often these kind of games get screwed up! This one sticks to the script and plays beautifully. Our lanky hero Jack doesn't stand out like most characters (he looks like a stick figure), but he's well animated with long arms that allow him to easily grab ledges and pull himself up. The villains tend to be of the insect variety, and they can be hard to make out on the small screen. Playing this on the GameCube (via the Game Boy player) allowed me to appreciate a lot more of the graphic detail. Jack can toggle between several effective weapons like a gas gun, a boomerang, and a pumpkin bomb. Defeated enemies drop fish bones that replenish Jack's health. Occasionally you'll find an electric chair that fully recharges his health, and there's usually a scarecrow save point next to it. You'll uncover mini-games, secret items, and unlockable bonus features. Minor faults include misleading arrow signs, respawning enemies, and too many electrical traps. Otherwise Nightmare Before Christmas is pretty much everything you could ask for in a Halloween game. As an added treat, the lenticular packaging makes for an amazing box cover.

Pinball of the Dead (Sega 2002) B+

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Believe it or not, this was the game that finally convinced me to purchase a Game Boy Advance - my first portable! Being a avid fan of the House of the Dead (HotD) light gun games, I didn't want to miss out on this odd but wonderfully conceived spin-off. Pinball of the Dead offers three separate vertically-scrolling tables rendered in the distinct House of the Dead style. For the uninitiated, that means plenty of shambling zombies, gallons of blood, and maniacal bosses. Each table features several sets of flippers and numerous bumpers and targets. The gameplay is fast, fun, and challenging as hell. Tiny zombies (which can be hard to make out) march around the table, and terrific scream effects are heard as they are splattered with the ball. It's hard to find this kind of instant gratification on the consoles anymore. Each ball begins with a brief first-person target-shooting sequence where you can win a bonus. Pinball's high-octane soundtrack is unmistakable, and there's even some of the trademark bad voice acting. The first table has a clock-tower theme, and its decrepit, weathered look makes it my favorite. The second has a sterile "scientific lab" look, and it doesn't offer as much to do. The third table is a real treat, constructed entirely of human flesh! Now there's something you don't see everyday! Sega didn't skimp on options either, allowing you to customize every aspect of the game from the number of balls to the color of the blood. Not only does the cart record high scores, but you can even save games in progress. If Pinball of the Dead has a weakness, it lies in the lame "tilt" control. Sure it jostles the table a bit, but never enough to affect the ball movement. Pinball of the Dead is a highly underrated game, and House of the Dead fans are sure to have a ball with it.

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow (Konami 2003) A

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Damn! I should have played this game a long time ago, because the other two Castlevania games for the Gameboy Advance suck by comparison. Do the words "Best Gameboy game ever" mean anything to you?? Aria of Sorrow achieves a perfect balance of challenge and playability, with phenomenal graphics and a top-notch symphonic musical score. Its gameplay is your standard Castlevania hack-n-slash platform jumping action, but this chapter is far more forgiving and has ample save points (dare I call it "easy"?) Indeed, this is the first Castlevania game I've played where I did not reach some hopeless point of frustration. The storyline involves a lunar eclipse in 2035 that causes two people to be transported to Dracula's castle, where a "new evil" has assumed the deceased vampire's powers. Here lies my main complaint: is the lead character ("Soma Cruz") a guy or girl? If there's one thing I hate, it's androgynous characters. Also, the corny dialogue is more akin to two chicks chatting at the mall as opposed to warriors on an epic quest. Aria's graphics are brighter and easier to discern than "dark" titles like Circle of the Moon. Besides the usual suspects, you encounter witches than transform into cats, killer dolls, and waltzing ghosts (a la Disney's Haunted Mansion). Bosses include the grotesque "Creaking skull" (a giant Skeleton torso) and the "Headhunter" who swaps heads to assume different identities. I like how when you attack a monster, the damage points are displayed right on the screen. Acquiring the abilities of defeated foes is a cool feature, and I even enjoyed perusing the "enemy database". Overall, Aria of Sorrow is the most polished, well-rounded Castlevania adventure to date - including Symphony of the Night (Playstation).

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon (Konami 2001) D+

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As the first Castlevania title available for the Gameboy Advance, Circle of the Moon is flawed and highly overrated. Yes, the visuals are quite nice with its gothic scenery and imaginative undead creatures, but the stage designs are a nightmare. Each has one or more huge open areas with diagonal "stairways" running up each wall. While these central corridors often branch out to other zones, they are awfully repetitious. After aimlessly hopping around several of these, you'll find yourself pining for the more linear gameplay of the NES Castlevanias. Another flaw is the poor control which makes it hard to jump and attack at the same time! The annoying first stage is crawling with poisonous "worms" that are all but impossible to avoid (hint: slide). Circle of the Moon's save points seem randomly placed. The first time I defeated the first boss (which was surprisingly hard), I frantically searched for a save point, but there were none in the vicinity, and I soon succumbed to a frustrating death. The gameplay mechanics are standard Castlevania, except now you can collect "cards" and combine them for various effects. In terms of presentation, Circle of Moon is high quality as you might expect. A gorgeous full moon shines through the windows of the castle and outstanding organ music plays a haunting refrain. Sometimes when you look out the windows you can get a glimpse of a boss you'll eventually encounter. Circle of the Moon should have been a slam-dunk, but it's unbalanced, lousy stage designs suck the enjoyment right out of it. Fortunately its shortcomings were addressed in the two subsequent Castlevania games for the Gameboy Advance.

Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance (Konami 2002) A-
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It took some time to win me over, but Harmony of Dissonance is one of the more enjoyable Castlevania games I've experienced. It's very similar to the highly-acclaimed Symphony of the Night (Playstation), and every bit as good. The graphics are gorgeous as you would expect, and the music is amazing (for a handheld system). You assume the role of a vampire hunter exploring a huge, mysterious castle - nothing new there. Armed with your trusty whip, you'll acquire all sorts of weapons, spellbooks, and artifacts as you progress. Typical of Castlevania, there are plenty of memorable animations, like lizard men lunging with their swords, barely missing you with the tips of their blades. Skeletons raise their dukes to taunt you. Subtle details like a floating eyeball lingering behind a curtain or a corpse hanging in the background are examples of the game's rich visuals. Each stage is a work of art, decorated with ornate architecture and huge sculptures. Initially I got lost in the endless corridors and stairways, but once I obtained the map, the gameplay improved dramatically. The more powers you amass, the more enjoyable Harmony of Dissonance becomes. This game is a winner, and it's one of three Castlevania games available for the Game Boy Advance.


Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Wrath of the Darkhul King (THQ 2003) B-

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Although cut from the same cloth as its predecessor (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Game Boy Color, 2000), Wrath of the Darkhul King offers a far more interesting brand of hack-n-slash action. The characters are rendered in a slick psuedo-3D style, and Buffy herself looks a lot like she did in the TV show! This girl has a slew of weapons at her disposal, including axes, crossbows, crosses, holy water, and of course, wooden stakes. Since each weapon is limited in supply, you're forced to experiment with whatever's available, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Just be sure not to accidentally hit that poorly-placed "quit to main menu" option when perusing the weapon selection screen! Oddly enough, the worst part of the game is its unforgiving training stage, which forces you to execute some unreasonably difficult jumps towards the end. The game gains traction after that, offering a nice balance of combat, puzzles, and secrets to discover. I really like how you have to stab a vampire directly in his heart to kill him - just like in real life! The cemetery, museum, and forest locations are mildly interesting, but the city areas tend to be repetitive and dull. Likewise, the underground crypts look like every platform game you've ever played, with their maze-like layouts and spiked pits. The production values are commendable, with a foreboding soundtrack and impressive cut-scenes. Not only do these scenes feature still photos of the show's actors, but there's a lot of funny text dialogue to go along with them. It's not for everyone, but fans of the television show may be pleasantly surprised.

Game Gear Games

Vampire: Master of Darkness (Sega 1993) A-
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I don't know what the story is behind Master of Darkness, but it looks and plays a heck of a lot like Castlevania, and that is a good thing. Vampire takes place in the late 1800's, and you control a well-dressed fellow with the odd name of Ferdinand Social. The turn-of-the-century London scenery is quite realistic and conveys a nice atmosphere. There's plenty of platform jumping, but nothing too frustrating, and there are plenty of weapons hidden behind white masks. Stages include the Thames river, a cemetery, a laboratory, and my personal favorite, the wax museum. This museum stage reminded me of an old horror flick I watched as a kid called "House of Wax" starring Vincent Price. That movie was creepy, and this stage recreates the spine-tingling chills of seeing wax figures come to life. Other monsters in the game, including zombies, skeletons, and wolves, are large and nicely animated. The control scheme is identical to Castlevania - one button jumps and the other attacks, and pushing up while firing engages your special weapon. With the exception of navigating the stairs, the control is right on the money. Even the music is sinister and well orchestrated. Vampire is really an amazing game, and probably one of the best titles for the Game Gear. I only wish a password feature was included so it wasn't always necessary to start from the beginning.


Tiger Game.com Games

Resident Evil 2 (Tiger 1998) B
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A 3D survival horror title is a tall order for the Game.com, but this turned out to be a pleasant surprise. I was expecting a simple side-scroller, but this is a full-blown 3D adventure. It turns out that Resident Evil's slow, deliberate pace is a perfect match for a system that tends to run games at a slow, deliberate pace. You begin on a city street with a few staggering zombies nearby. Unlike the console versions, the camera is fixed and usually provides a side angle. The characters scale nicely and the depth perception isn't bad. Walking around is slow going (especially when you're injured) but the locations are reasonably small. One thing I do hate is when you walk onto a new screen and discover you're standing right next to a zombie! You don't have time to react and usually take some mandatory damage. The status screen comes complete with inventory controls, a map, and a health meter. Switching weapons is confusing but I got the hang of it. The map is critical because the scenery tends to be very faint. This makes the characters stand out, but makes it hard to locate doors in the background. The monsters look sharp and digitized sound effects feature realistic groans and voice samples. And yes, the game includes a save function. I can't imagine sticking this one out to the bitter end, but it's interesting to see how Resident Evil 2 was effectively revamped to fit this system.



Nintendo DS Games

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Sacrifice (Europe) (505 Games 2009) C+

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As a longtime fan of the television series I feel it's my personal responsibility to review each and every Buffy game in existence - even if that means importing from England! Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Sacrifice is a fully-licensed product and it shows. You get superb character likenesses, excellent graphics, and a fantastic audio track. Much the original Resident Evil (PS1, 1996) the pre-rendered 3D scenery looks nearly photorealistic. The problem is, the camera angles are fixed and change abruptly as you move from place to place. Particularly when running it can be disconcerting as hell, especially if you get stuck between two areas. An green arrow helps keep you headed in the right direction and there's also a helpful map. Buffy can perform melee attacks, use weapons, cast spells, and even administer fatalities. Unfortunately the game relies heavily on touch screen controls. Worse yet, they require use of the stylus, so you have to take your fingers off the buttons! The opening stage takes places at Sunnydale High which is crawling with trenchcoat-wearing vampires. While enemies are in close proximity the game plays blood-curdling music overlaid with mysterious whispering. Very cool. Defeating enemies takes practice. Trading blows will get you nowhere so learn to use combos, spells, and weapons. In addition to exploration and combat, there are some surprisingly enjoyable mini-games that let you pick locks and solve circuits. The witty dialog is reminiscent of the show and the game incorporates memorable villains like Caleb and the skinless Warren Mears. Sacrifice is so ambitious it actually tries to incorporate first-person modes. This is where the game goes off the rails. You can't see where you're going in this mode and adjusting your view with the stylus is a nightmare. These controls tie your fingers in knots! Sacrifice is far more complicated than it needs to be, but the Buffy faithful will appreciate its fine production values and attention to detail.


Touch The Dead (Virgin Play 2007) F
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At first blush, Touch the Dead seems like a pleasant surprise. I like how it attempts to emulate the fast-paced light-gun action of House of the Dead, as you tap the screen with the stylus to blast "zombies gone wild" in a penitentiary. Incidentally, the game spells it "penitenciary" - and this typo is a telltale sign of a budget title! The game offers a first-person view as you automatically roam around prison cellblocks, offices, and underground sewers. Sometimes you can shoot an arrow sign to alter your direction. Touch the Dead's graphics are Playstation One quality, with angular zombies and pixelated surfaces. On the small screen however, this lack of detail isn't a big deal. The shooting controls are responsive and exact, although having to "drag" ammo across the screen to reload is annoying. For the first two stages I was thinking "wow - this game could get interesting if I ever get out of this boring prison". Unfortunately, that never happened, as I was doomed to eternally traverse its endless empty rooms and hallways. Is this the best they could come up with? It's not even scary! All you do is blast the same two zombies over and over again - a fat one and a skinny one. The one exception is the zombie that throws his head at you (please kids, don't try this at home). There are supposed to be a few alternate weapons besides the pistol, but I could never find any. Touch of the Dead had the potential to be fun, but it falters badly due to an astounding lack of creativity.




Resident Evil: Deadly Silence (Capcom 2006) C-
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I've always been a rabid fan of the Resident Evil series, and Deadly Silence is basically a portable version of the 1996 Playstation original. While it remains a terrific game after all of these years, there's really no justification for porting it to a portable system like the DS. Sure, the DS is capable of rendering graphics comparable to the PS1, but a lot of detail is lost on that small screen. The meticulously detailed rooms of the original seem watered down, and you'll be squinting to see small items. Let's face it, a survival horror classic like Resident Evil deserves to be played on a full-sized TV with the lights out. In addition to the original version, you can also try the new "rebirth mode", which incorporates some touch screen functionality in the form of first-person knife sequences. It's fun to poke and slash creeps with the stylus, and it made me wonder how a light gun game might work on the DS. Another nice feature is the ability to view the house map at all times on the upper screen. Like the original game, there are plenty of anxious moments that will make you jump, but the default green blood looks cheesy! Deadly Silence also includes multi-player cooperative and competitive modes, but I didn't test them out. I love Resident Evil, but it's hard to recommend this miniature version. At its core, this is a solid game, but not a good fit for the DS.




Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow (Konami 2005) A
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You really can't go wrong with a 2D Castlevania game, and Dawn of Sorrow is nicely suited to the DS. Instead of having to constantly switch to the map screen (as you do in every other Castlevania game), it's conveniently displayed on the upper screen at all times. Dawn of Sorrow even makes use of the touch tablet, letting you crack ice with the stylus, or draw patterns to open "magic seals". Yeah, it's a gimmick, but at least it's something. Other than that, the gameplay is pure Castlevania. Playing the role of a vampire hunter, you collect items, activate abilities, and upgrade attributes while plowing through legions of undead minions and gigantic bosses. The snowy village scenery looks absolutely stunning, although the modern cars seem a bit out of place. The graphics are slightly upgraded from the Gameboy Advance, but I had to hold them up next to each other to see a difference. There are a few eye-catching effects, including slashed zombies that cleanly split in half, and mirrors that reflect the walls you're looking through. Also included is a two-player mode that involves racing through custom-made castle rooms. Dawn of Sorrow is as enjoyable as any Castlevania game I've ever played, and it will probably clock more time on my DS than any other title.




Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia (Konami 2008) D+

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Although visually enticing, this is one of the more unsatisfying chapters in the endless Castlevania saga. This time around you get to play as a hot babe trying to track down some no-good bastard (I may be simplifying the plot a bit, but probably not). You'll explore picturesque locations including an ornate monastery and a quaint township with flowing fountains and beautiful architecture. When you enter one of the houses, the degree of detail is astounding. I don't know who took the time to incorporate so much exquisite detail in each room, but bravo for that guy! Less interesting locations include a prison, forest, and boatyard. The boat stage uses angular polygons to simulate waves, and that just looks awful! The prison is another low-light as you struggle to avoid pesky spotlights to prevent all hell from breaking loose. Ecclesia's gameplay failed to endear itself to me. Guess who your first enemy is? It's none other than that sorry-ass, bone-tossing skeleton who appears in pretty much every Castlevania game! Has Konami even changed that sprite since 1988? C'mon man! Other adversaries include pot-bellied zombies, screaming banshees, and giant floating heads. Some of the more annoying foes include flying horse heads that keep respawning, and floating tentacle monsters that lift you by the head. There are too many long hallways with the same creeps popping up over and over, giving you the worst case of deja-vu ever. Collecting glyphs imbues you with new powers, but the one that lets you slingshot yourself around is just plain dumb. Yeah - I'm talking to you Magnes glyph. You are really dumb - for real! Fans will enjoy Order of Ecclesia's rich artwork and sweeping musical score, but the gameplay feels stale. I think I'm finally starting to get tired of these cookie-cutter Castlevania adventures.


Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin (Konami 2006) C+

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I tend to enjoy these Castlevania games, but this one is overrated. At its core, Portrait of Ruin follows the standard Castlevania formula with expansive castles to explore, a wide range of demonic foes, and tons of special weapons and magic items. In an attempt to try something new, Portrait lets you control two characters at once using a "tag team" mechanic. You can switch between Jon and Charlotte at the touch of a button, or have them fight side by side. This opens up possibilities for more elaborate puzzles and team-based attacks. I've seen this gimmick employed many times before (Knuckles Chaotix on the Sega 32X comes to mind), and it's usually not very effective. In this case it adds a layer of complexity at the expense of the fun factor. Non-intuitive controls make solving even simple puzzles with your team inordinately complex (the mine cart switch comes to mind). Charlotte's primary weapon is a book - yes a book! Maybe in the next game she can attack monsters by hitting them with her purse! Otherwise, there's not much to fault with Portrait of Ruin. The graphics are rich and well defined, with a few unusual enemies like the guy who professes his love for Charlotte and explodes into roses upon his demise. Typical of the mammoth bosses, you'll face an enormous knight with a hideous disembodied blue head. It's fun to upgrade your characters with new items you find, and I like the way portraits are used as gateways to new "worlds". Portrait of Ruin is not my favorite Castlevania title, but fans looking for something new may enjoy its novel approach.


Sony PSP Games

Dead Head Fred (D3Publisher 2007) D
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This budget title is a pretty run-of-the-mill by PSP standards, following in the footsteps of morbid platformers like Death Jr. and Medievil. You control a reanimated corpse on a quest for revenge, with the main gimmick being your ability to swap heads on the fly. You have several to choose from at a given time, each with their own powers. One lets you jump high, another lets you suck in liquids, another makes you stronger, etc. We've all seen this type of thing before. The game gets off to a questionable start with a lengthy introduction that concludes with the lead character dropping the F-bomb. The animation is nice, but the scenery features a lot of non-descript hallways and plain-looking rooms. Dead Head Fred incorporates hand-to-hand combat, puzzle solving, and platform jumping. It isn't terribly original, but the pacing is good and the effective musical score often mixes a playful piano with more ominous tones. You can save your progress at any time. The game seems playable enough at first, but you end up struggling with an unruly camera and some terribly unforgiving platform jumping. In one stage you need to jump across a series of sinking lily pads, and the degree of frustration is almost enough to award the game an instant F. A minor title like this does not merit that degree of aggravation. Even at a budget price, I'd have a hard time recommending Dead Head Fred to anybody.



Death Jr. (Konami 2005) F
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Death Jr. offends my video game sensibilities in so many ways I don't even know where to start. It stars a diminutive skull-headed kid battling his way through a series of uninspired stages to save his friends. Death Jr. tries to convey an off-kilter sense of humor, but the dialogue comes off flat, and Jr's freaky "friends" are more disturbing than comical. The action consists of the mindless shooting and hacking of regenerating creeps while trekking through angular, banal locales including a museum and a school (snore). I still don't know what "Meat World" is supposed to be, but it sure is boring! Ghouls relentlessly pummel you with projectiles, and these monsters are so poorly rendered that you can't even tell what they're supposed to be! But the game's main offense is how poorly it plays. The targeting system wreaks havoc on the framerate, adjusting the camera is a constant struggle, and the clipping problems are unforgivable. I can't tell you the number of times I was able to see past (or move through) "broken" walls. The minor-key musical score isn't bad, and you can save anytime, but these bells and whistles can't make up for the atrocious gameplay. I would have given Death Jr. points for originality, but then I remembered there was a Medi-Evil game for the PSP, and that has to be better than this.



Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles (Konami 2007) A

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I had expected last year's Ultimate Ghouls and Ghosts to be the definitive PSP game, but that one let me down. Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles, however, is the real deal. This is easily the best reason yet to own a PSP. The original Dracula X was released in Japan for the PC Engine (Turbo Duo compatible) in 1993, and hardcore gamers have long regarded this Japanese import as the best Castlevania game ever made. With Chronicles, now everybody can see what all the fuss was about (well, PSP owners at least). Dracula X Chronicles is a remake of Dracula X, spicing up its classic 2D gameplay with stylish 3D (yet unobtrusive) visuals and enhanced cinematics. The controls are fairly simplistic (the lack of a dash move is glaring), but you can't question the addictive gameplay and superb stage designs. Unlike the endless labyrinths of the newer Castlevania titles, Dracula X is more linear but brimming with distinctive locations and memorable sequences. Enemies include floating eyeballs (with tails of course), miniature hunchbacks, medusa heads, and skeletal dragons. Bosses you'll encounter include a leaping werewolf, a massive minotaur, and a headless horseman. This updated Dracula X alone would be enough to justify a purchase, but wait - there's more. The original Dracula X is an unlockable, along with the critically acclaimed Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (Playstation, 1997)! Question: Why in the [expletive] are these awesome games locked? I mean, you paid for the [expletive] things, and they're featured on the [expletive] box, and now you need to unlock them? I'm sorry Konami, but that was a real bonehead move. Even so, I can't let an idiotic decision like that rain on the parade, because Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles may be the best hand-held game you'll ever play.


Darkstalkers Chronicle: The Chaos Tower (Capcom 2004) B-

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Considering Sony's historical resistance to 2D games, Darkstalkers Chronicle seems an odd choice for a PSP launch title. But even Sony would have to admit that this one-on-one, 2D fighter does a good job of showing off the sharp graphics and vibrant colors of the PSP display. A short video introduces all of the characters, and it's a lot of fun to watch! In addition to a vampire, werewolf, and Frankenstein monster, there are a number of unconventional characters including a girl dressed as a bee and a samurai with a face in his chest. The Darkstalkers brand of gameplay is a slugfest that borrows liberally from the Street Fighter 2 formula. The basic moves consist of three punches and three kicks, but there are plenty of special moves - mostly magical in nature. One of my longtime criticisms of the series is how certain characters (like the mummy) change their shape to inflict a lot of cheap hits. That's still the case, but you have to love the game's responsive controls, fast pacing, and ample eye candy. The backgrounds tend to be dark and imaginative, although subtle details tend to get lost on the small screen. When this title was first released for the PSP, critics complained about the controls, but I suspect that had more to do with the stiff thumbpad on the original PSP. Playing the game on the later models presents no problems at all. Another criticism I recall is the load times, but waiting 10 seconds between matches didn't seem so bad to me. Before you play however, you may want to consider bumping up the difficulty via the options screen. At the default level, I breezed through the entire arcade mode without losing one match!


Ultimate Ghosts 'N Goblins (Capcom 2006) C

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As a longtime fan of the Ghosts 'N Goblins (G&G) games, I've anxiously awaited this "Ultimate" edition for months on end. For the uninitiated, G&G is a classic side-scroller starring a knight forging his way through graveyards, burning villages, and caves while battling monsters and avoiding traps. This Ultimate version perfectly captures the visual and aural splendor of the series, with lush, gorgeous graphics and a first-rate orchestrated soundtrack. I'm grateful that Capcom retained the classic side-scrolling 2D style. For my money, this game looks better than just about any 3D game on the market. The action never lets up as you're constantly ambushed by monsters, including ephemeral ghosts, club-wielding trolls, giant spiders, and man-eating plants. Yet in the G&G tradition, nothing appears without some kind of warning. It sounds like a dream come true, but don't ditch your Sega Genesis Ghouls and Ghosts game just yet! The number of objects attacking at any given time can be pretty insane, and I would question the designer's "more is better" approach. Ultimate Ghosts 'N Goblins doesn't play nearly as well as it looks, mainly due to its abysmal controls. The old G&G games were always known for their extreme difficulty, but you could never blame the controls. In this edition, our hero takes long leaps instead of short hops, which is probably the worst idea since the New Coke. It's frustratingly hard to gauge your jumps, and you often leap right over the object you wish to land on - like the gravestone that's right in front of you! The situation is further exacerbated by the painfully stiff PSP controls. It's really heart-breaking when you consider how much this game had going for it. Not only is it substantially longer than its predecessors, but you can save your progress between stages and there are tons of weapons, items, and secrets to uncover. Ultimate Ghosts 'N Goblins is still playable and very easy on the eyes, but sadly, it's not nearly as fun as it should have been.


Nintendo 3DS Games

Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon (Nintendo 2013) B+

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Dark Moon is the long-awaited follow-up to the Luigi's Mansion (GameCube, 2001). As in the original game, Luigi creeps through haunted houses while stunning ghosts with his flashlight and vacuuming them up with his "Poltergust 5000". The scares are minimal, but the decrepit scenery and organ music really bring out the Halloween theme. The 3D graphics give the furniture a plush look and add depth to the transparent ghosts. The act of catching ghosts is a lot like fishing, and I love the new mechanism that lets you snap them up with a well-timed button press. Burning massive spider webs with fire is awesome, and the thought-provoking puzzles are satisfying. You can tell the designers were real pros, gradually introducing new concepts and building upon them. The small scale of the game is refreshing, since it's possible to explore every little nook and cranny of each cozy little room. Little details make all the difference. In the boss encounter with the giant spider, it's hilarious how the spider panics when he sees fire headed towards his web. Often you can peek through cracks and windows to spy on ghosts causing mischief in the next room over. Unfortunately the idea of moving around the system to adjust your viewing angle doesn't work well, as you tend to lose focus of the 3D effect. Another bone of contention is how the game only saves between missions. There were times when I would pick up this game at bedtime and end up having to play an hour just to reach the next save point! That said, Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon is probably the most addictive title I've played on the 3DS. Sleep can wait. After all, these ghosts aren't going to catch themselves.

Resident Evil: Revelations (Capcom 2012) B+

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I was less-than-enthused about Resident Evil: The Mercenaries (3DS, 2011), but Revelations feels more like a good old-fashioned Resident Evil romp. The action takes place on a plush ocean liner and the nautical theme is refreshing. It's not the first horror game to be set on a ship, as Carrier (Dreamcast, 2000) and Resident Evil Dead Aim (PS2, 2003) have also done it - but not as well. The icon used to start the game is a small cast iron box with a big eyeball looking through its round glass window - creepy! The star of the game is Jill Valentine, and her breasts look even better in 3D. I love the opening sequence in which Jill and her partner board a ship in the middle of a violent storm. The driving rain and sound of churning water really helps set the mood. The ship turns out to be an ideal setting for survival horror with its claustrophobic hallways, dark rooms, and creaky doors. The monsters are these generic white creatures that shamble around and try to give you the big French kiss. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer my monsters to be a little bit more disgusting. Revelations is nicely paced for a portable title, and having a recap between chapters is a nice touch. While the game has an old-school feel, you get all the modern conveniences like 180-degree turning, auto-mapping (on the lower screen), and an auto-save (which says "Saving", leaving no doubt). As good as the game is, there are a few issues. First, the idea of turning the screen red as you take damage is ill conceived. Your eyes need to work hard enough to play a 3D title, and having your vision obstructed is just painful. Another problem is the crappy map system, which makes it hard to reconcile the 3D map with the 2D ones. Sometimes there's one not-so-obvious item you need to make progress, and you'll waste a lot of time scouring the ship for it. Still, Revelations is compelling, and the water theme means this is a zombie game you can enjoy in the summer too.

Resident Evil: The Mercenaries (Capcom 2011) C

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It's a total rehash, but that doesn't mean I didn't have some fun playing this. Resident Evil Mercenaries recycles scenes and enemies from Resident Evil 5. That's the game where you shot black zombies in Africa ya racist bastard! Just kidding. I like the general format of Mercenaries. Its short, timed stages are well suited for portable gaming. I also like the idea of playing each stage for high score. The problem is, you may not have a burning desire to replay these stages. The graphics are sharp but the bland scenery doesn't lend itself well to 3D. I wish Capcom had based this off of a more traditional Resident Evil instead. As with many first-person shooters I tend to contort my body while playing, making it easy to lose the 3D effect. Frankly the 3D doesn't add anything to this game so you might as well shut it off. The aiming controls are pretty tight however and the red laser sight works great. I love how you can approach stunned enemies and bludgeon them at the press of a button. I find it amusing how zombies run toward you at full speed but then suddenly stop in front of you - pausing long enough for you to shoot them in the face. It's convenient! Bonus items are hard to spot in the scenery, and as soon as you're prompted to pick something up, you've already walked past it. One object you're not likely to miss are those pink snowmen that extend your time. What the heck is that all about? Mercenaries could have benefited from a little tuning. That bat/scorpion boss took me about 50 attempts to kill! When you shoot a boss in his "weak spot" at point blank range 20 times and he doesn't die, something is obviously wrong. One interesting bonus feature is the ability to play one stage from the upcoming Resident Evil: Revelations title. It takes place on a ship at sea on a stormy night - a concept that may seem familiar to those who remember Resident Evil Dead Aim (PS2, 2003) or Carrier (Dreamcast, 2000). The creaky hull and narrow corridors convey a creepy sense of isolation, not unlike the early Resident Evil titles. It has potential. Mercenaries however will only keep you busy until you've unlocked the stages. It's worth noting that Capcom took a lot of flack for not providing an option to reset the high scores for the cartridge. If you're buying this game used, you may want to be aware of that.

Sony Vita Games

Silent Hill: Book of Memories (Konami 2012) F

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Silent Hill games are known for their intense atmosphere, mind-bending environments, and psychological horror. Book of Memories feels like a shallow arcade game trying to capitalize on the Silent Hill name. Instead of a harrowing third-person adventure, you're trapped in a generic maze, viewing the action from high overhead. The pale zombies, winged demons, and hell hounds would probably look pretty creepy - if only you could see them. But the distant vantage point makes you feel detached from the action. That may be for the best, considering the cut-scenes reveal graphics that are barely Playstation 2 quality. The voice acting isn't convincing, and the entire premise is pretty silly. That said, I tried to enjoy this weird Silent Hill knock-off. As you move from room to room you find weapons like steel pipes and meat cleavers which you use to attack a few waves of monsters before earning an item, key, or puzzle piece. There's plenty of spraying blood, largely because these creeps can absorb about 20 hits each! I prefer a melee weapon like the meat cleaver over a gun, because you can usually lay into several enemies at a time. There's little tension but a heck of a lot of repetition. And is that me screaming like a girl when I take a hit? That's just embarrassing. The auto-map on the corner of the screen is an absolute necessity because all the rooms look exactly the same! As with all Vita games, there's no manual, because the controls (like hitting the tiny select button to turn on your flashlight) are common sense, right? There are no checkpoints, and you only have one life bar. I hate how you lose your weapons between levels, and your guy doesn't automatically reload his gun. In many cases you're prompted to select something on the screen (during the action) and that's frustrating because the circles are tiny and my fingers are too big! Book of Memories is an aggravating experience, but despite of my rage I am still just a rat in a cage.

See Also Video Game Critic's Halloween Special