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The Video Game Critic's
Fall Game Review Special

Updated 10/2/2009

For "seasonally conscious" gamers like myself, this is a great time to play games with Fall themes. Coming up with a set of Autumn-themed games wouldn't be so hard if it weren't for the fact that I already have a Halloween Game Review Special. That rules out a lot of titles people usually gravitate towards this time of the year! So what constitutes a Fall game? Well obviously there's the colorful foliage of the trees. The weather is typically overcast and chilly, with gusty winds that blow the leaves around. Other symbols synonymous with the season include pumpkins, cornfields, and scarecrows. I think the following set of games properly convey the spirit of the season, if only for a stage or two.

Spy Hunter (Midway 2001)
System: Playstation 2 (and others)
Grade: B+
screenshot You may remember the original Spy Hunter arcade game, which was popular in the early 80's. In that overhead racer, you controlled a car loaded with both offensive and defensive weapons, allowing you to shoot cars ahead while dropping smoke screens behind you. This updated Spy Hunter manages to preserve the fun of the original while adding gorgeous 3D graphics and deep, mission-based gameplay.

Each mission has a set of objectives, mostly involving blowing up specific targets. The game looks and plays much like an action movie. You'll find yourself careening over cliffs and plowing through outdoor cafes, with explosions detonating all around you. It can be very exhilarating at times. Each level offers a long, unique course that cuts through a variety of locations, complete with hidden shortcuts and other secrets. When your car jumps into water, it instantly morphs into a speedboat - pretty awesome!

The controls take a while to learn, but are responsive overall. Spy Hunters fine graphics and breakneck pace will keep your adrenaline flowing. My biggest complaint is that everything is locked initially, including the two player split-screen mode. Otherwise, Spy Hunter is a worthy successor to a classic arcade game.

Fall Angle: Spy Hunter's second stage features an utterly spectacular fall stage. As you wind through country roads and small towns, the spectacular foliage really steals the show. Whether there are other stages like this one, I do not recall.

Decap Attack (Sega 1991)
System: Genesis (and others)
Grade: B-
screenshot This offbeat platformer doesn't make much sense but it's a heck of a lot of fun. Decap Attack stars an eccentric mummy named "Chuck D. Head". Chuck can rapid-fire punch foes with a head that bursts from his chest. Yes, that is awesome. Occasionally he's equipped with a skull on his shoulders he can hurl, but it's really easy to lose. I love how the skull changes expressions when you leave it sitting on the ground.

The platform action is responsive as you hop between platforms, stomp cartoonish monsters into the dirt, and smash totems to collect potions. You can land on gray clouds and flutter in the air to slow your fall. The assortment of enemies include werewolves, cattle skulls, dudes with propeller hats, and black birds that look like Daffy Duck on crack. Your goal is to reach the exit of each stage, although it's not always clear where that lies.

Potions you collect become available for use on an item screen accessible by the A button. You can use this screen to read descriptions of each item, but the user interface is terrible! It would help if the scrolling text could display more than five words at a time! It's very easy to accidentally use an item you didn't intend to. These short-lived power-ups offer invincibility, extended punch range, and high jumping. Don't hesitate to use the potions, as most do not work on the bosses!

Decap Attack's stages depict barren landscapes with skulls hanging from trees. I think they are intentionally bleak to convey a Halloweenish spirit, and it works. I really like those translucent platforms. The weird, jaunty music is great, and I love that creepy organ music that kicks in when you die. The lack of a score and password is a bummer, but it's fun just to see how far you can get. Decap Attack may look like your garden variety platformer but proves to be anything but.

Fall Angle: This platformer was a bit too generic to make my Halloween special, but it definitely has a Fall flavor. The cloudy skies, twisted trees, and layers of barren brown scenery had Fall written all over them.

Sonic Adventure 2 (Sega 2001)
System: Dreamcast (and others)
Grade: B+
screenshot This high-quality sequel attempts to duplicate the magic of the first Sonic Adventure without bogging things down with tedious "adventure" segments. Sonic Adventure 2 offers two separate story modes that follow either Sonic or his nemesis look-alike, Shadow. The platform stages play out much like the first game, sending Sonic whizzing through corkscrews, bouncing off bumpers, and performing homing-attacks on enemies.

The opening stage has him skateboarding down the steep hills of San Francisco and fleeing from a rampaging 18-wheeler. It's non-stop action, and I really dig that "Escape From the City" song that plays throughout the stage. In Metal Harbor, Sonic leaps between industrial platforms and cranes over the water. Some of the more unusual stages include the claustrophobic "Prison Lane" and the Halloween-themed Pumpkin Hill. The semi-automated speed sequences are back, but they are somewhat overused, making stages like the lush jungle less satisfying than they should be.

Sonic Adventure 2 brings two optional gameplay elements from the first game to center stage - with mixed results. Tails stomps around in a mech walker in stages that focus on shooting. He has the ability to lock-on to several targets before unleashing missiles, and the carnage is terrific. On the flip side, Knuckles is relegated to tedious "find the gem" stages that are time-consuming and frustrating. His ability to glide and climb doesn't make these wild goose chases any more tolerable. The droning rap tunes (which sound like LL Cool J) don't help matters.

Throughout the game the camera tends to pull in extremely tight. While this makes you feel "closer to the action", your limited periphery is problematic when you're trying to locate gems or shoot off-screen robots. Last and certainly least, those worthless "Chao" virtual pets are back with some new VMU games. With the exception of the Knuckles stages, Sonic Adventure 2 is a fast-moving, enjoyable journey. Every stage offers something new, and there are plenty of surprises. It may not match the original game, but Sonic Adventure 2 is still quite the spectacle to behold.

Fall angle: This 3D adventure features a very memorable pumpkin patch stage with Knuckles trying to collect gems. It's not the best stage in the game, but that eye candy has to count for something.

Need For Speed: Most Wanted (Electronic Arts 2005)
System: Xbox 360 (and others)
Grade: B
screenshot This urban-themed racer allows you to wreck scenery and avoid police while participating in no-holds-barred street races. It's very satisfying to smash through fences, barriers, construction sites, and phone booths as you whiz past rival racers and avoid converging police cars. The oncoming traffic and amazing sense of speed gives the game a certain Burnout (GameCube, 2002) flavor.

The action takes place in the fictitious city of Rockport, with scenery emphasizing realism over flash, incorporating run-down industrial areas and rendering everything in dull brown hues. The trees look amazing, as do the changing weather conditions. During thunderstorms, rain glistens on the streets and beads on your windshield as thunder booms in the background. While Most Wanted doesn't deliver the polished visuals or instant gratification of Ridge Racer 6 or Project Gotham 3, it may have the edge in long-term play value.

The engaging career mode lets you to challenge 15 progressively difficult rivals, each requiring you to complete a number of preliminary races and challenges. You can cruise around town to locate the next event, or initiate each directly from your "safe house" menu. The races are exhilarating at times, although the field is mainly limited to four cars. When a cop first appears on the scene, the screen suddenly freezes and zooms to his position - a very effective cinematic technique.

The ensuing chases are fun, although they make you feel like one of those criminal lowlifes you see on reality television shows. I love how you hear the cops communicating back and forth about you on their radios. Escaping police is time consuming but not particularly difficult, and these encounters tend to wear thin after a while.

You begin with a modest vehicle, but can upgrade and trade up as the game progresses. Defeating rivals unlocks new cars and locations, as well as mystery bonus items including cash, "get out of jail" cards, and special upgrades. Need For Speed's controls have a loose feel, but that's consistent with the reckless style of the game. It can be hard to avoid oncoming traffic, but if you do wreck head-on, you only need to hit the handy "reset" button to be instantly put back on the road.

Most Wanted's soundtrack has an appropriate hip-hop vibe which I found to be better than average. Cut scenes feature actors with a processed "glow" that helps them better blend into the computer-generated background scenery. Naturally, a super-hot chick plays the lead role. One annoying aspect of the game is its email and voicemail functions. It's bad enough to deal with these in real life - I don't want them in my games. Fortunately, you can pretty much ignore the messages as they accumulate in your inbox.

A two-player split-screen mode is included, but sadly, you can't play the role of the police. Need For Speed: Most Wanted definitely hits the mark when it comes to streetwise, chaotic racing contests. It may lack the pristine visuals and crisp control of other 360 racers, but Most Wanted's wild brand of lawless action will keep you coming back for more.

Fall angle: Some games feature individual Fall levels, but in Need For Speed: Most Wanted, the entire game is an Autumn wonderland! Whether you're speeding through the park or along an expressway, bright leaves can be seen both on the trees and blowing around in the streets. Also, the game sports a somewhat dark, shadowy look that often characterize Fall days. These factors really give the game a distinct flavor.

Bully Scholarship Edition (Rockstar 2008)
System: Xbox 360 (and others)
Grade: B
screenshot The thought of returning to high school may not sound appealing to most, but Bully lets you do the kind of stuff you wanted to do in school, like pick fights, play pranks, kiss girls, pull fire alarms, break into lockers, and simply be a major disruption. While similar in structure to the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) games, Bully is actually better in many ways due to its smaller scale. It also happens to be less profane and not nearly as raunchy.

This game received stellar reviews on the PS2 a few years back, and it gets a new lease on life on the 360 with extra missions, improved graphics, and two-player mini-games. Playing the role of a 15-year-old juvenile delinquent named Jimmy Hopkins (who looks closer to 50), you roam freely around an expansive virtual campus while embarking on various missions. The campus is an interesting place, and I was especially pleased to see the leaves change color with the seasons and decorations going up for holidays.

Rule-enforcing prefects drag you to class when you're truant, but even the classes are fun! In English, you'll unscramble letters, and in chemistry you hit buttons as they scroll across the screen. Art is played like the old Qix arcade game, and biology walks you through a realistic frog dissection. As you might imagine, the dissection begs for motion controls. These mini-games are also available in the excellent two-player mode. Bully has its share of load screens, but they tend to be short and colorful.

The action moves at a steady pace, and the story is conveyed through brief, well-crafted cut-scenes. The stiff character faces reveal the game's PS2 origins, but the stately brick buildings and their lavish interiors still look terrific. The excellent soundtrack strikes an irreverent tone, and the professional voice acting is quite convincing.

My issues with Bully are similar to those I have with GTA games in general. The missions are fun at first but start to feel like errands after a while. Once the scope of the game extends to a nearby town, the fun factor takes a hit. The basic storyline is very linear, so until you complete a critical mission you're forced to keep replaying it. Bully never achieves true greatness, but with an original concept, clever design, and high production values, it comes admirably close.

Fall angle: The most memorable aspect of this game is the change of seasons. Since the game begins at the beginning of the school year, you'll almost immediately thrust into Fall, complete with turning leaves and decorations that go up for Halloween and Thanksgiving. It almost makes me wish I was in school again. I'm kidding, of course. School sucks!

Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy, The (Midway 2006)
System: GameCube (and others)
Grade: C+
screenshot This turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Instead the kiddy-themed platformer I was expecting, The Grim Adventures of Bill & Mandy is a wild 3D fighting game! Much like Power Stone 2 (Dreamcast, 2000), it's every cartoon character for himself in a series of creepy environments. While not quite up to Power Stone standards (that game is a classic), Grim Adventures does offer the same brand of chaos, with satisfying attacks, unique weapons, and projectiles flying all over the place.

The main characters are a pair of kids and a scythe-wielding grim reaper. Although targeted to the younger crowd, I found the game to be very funny and not the least bit irritating. In addition to going solo in the story mode, you can engage in four-player battles and even assemble teams.

Weapons include flame-throwers, vacuum cleaners, and a "brain-sucking" gun. You can sometimes mount larger weapons like giant crossbows and mech warriors. When it's time to finish off an opponent, you execute a G-rated Mortal Kombat-style "fatality" by pressing a button sequence displayed on the screen. On the downside, when things get hectic it can be hard to tell what's going on, and targeting a specific character is tricky.

What put this game over the top for me was the Halloween theme, with fun locations like pumpkins patches, graveyards, laboratories, and Egyptian tombs. As the battles progress, the environments constantly change, keeping things fresh. I really like the cell-shaded graphics because it really does feel like you're playing a cartoon. The soundtrack is whimsical and fun with a nice macabre undertone. It's not exactly original or polished enough to be an upper-tier title, but there aren't many games like Grim Adventures on the market.

Fall angle: This is another Halloween-ish game that captures many elements of the Fall. The stage set in a pumpkin patch is pretty amazing.

Mario Kart Wii (Nintendo 2008)
System: Wii (and others)
Grade: A-
screenshot If you enjoy breathing air, you'll probably enjoy Mario Kart Wii. I doubt there's ever been another racer as inviting or readily enjoyable. Unlike Mario Kart Double Dash (GameCube, 2003), there's only one character per car, but there's a much wider selection of vehicles to choose from. Besides the standard karts, you can drive off-road four-by-fours, dragsters, stock cars, and motorcycles. The motorcycles are unique because they take up less space on the road and have the ability to execute "wheelies" for mini speed bursts.

The game borrows some ideas from Mario Kart DS, like the view-obstructing squid ink attack and the inclusion of tracks from classic Mario Kart titles. If the old tracks give you a "been there, done that" feeling, rest assured the new tracks are amazing. I love the shopping mall's dual levels, escalators, and a bright, palm tree-lined parking lot. The mine-cart track is a virtual roller coaster, and the snow courses feature mammoth half-pipes. A relaxing autumn stage lets you plow through leaves, and the wet-and-wild island track feels like a virtual water slide!

The graphics are comparable to the GameCube, but close inspection reveals a lot of subtle details, like your character pumping his fist when one of his weapons hits. Playing solo is madly addictive and the raucous split-screen mode accommodates up to four players. I hear the on-line action is also superb. The motion-based controls are fantastic, providing the most precise steering ever. Although the included plastic steering wheel is not really necessary, it feels comfortable.

Mario Kart Wii would have been an A+ title if Nintendo had shown a little restraint with the power-ups, which are far too ubiquitous. Not only are there item boxes along every stretch of road, but you typically get three items at a time! The trailing karts get the best power-ups, and the leader routinely gets pelted with multiple shells - sometimes going from first to last in two seconds. I was never a fan of the unavoidable purple shell, and that new "POW" block is an unwelcome addition. You feel obligated to immediately unload whatever you pick up just so you'll be able to collect the next batch. The squid ink attack is a neat concept, but it occurs too often. Maybe Nintendo went overboard in an attempt to distance this game from Double Dash. It's not perfect, but Mario Kart Wii is undeniably fun and has universal appeal.

Fall angle: Just when you thought Nintendo ran out of ideas for Mario Kart tracks, they whip out an Autumn stage that's nothing short of sensational. The yellow, orange, and red colors are brilliant. There are piles of leaves everywhere, and one ramp actually sends you flying thru some dense Autumn foliage. Good times.

Sonic & Knuckles (Sega 1994)
System: Genesis (and others)
Grade: B+
cartridgeThe Sonic & Knuckles cartridge has an unusual shape due to its innovative "lock-on" technology. In addition to functioning as a stand-alone Sonic game with two playable characters, the cartridge lets you stack on Sonic the Hedgehog 2 or 3, giving you the ability to play as Knuckles in those games. Sonic and Knuckles represents the last of the great 2D Sonic games. You can expect vibrant stages, pin-point controls, toe-tapping music, and a ton of play value.

The opening Mushroom Hill stage offers inviting Autumn colors and the Lava Reef stages harkens back to the Marble zone of Sonic 1. Other stages like the Flying Battery are less memorable, and Sandopolis is downright aggravating with its repetitive paths, converging ghosts, and annoying timers. The addition of Knuckles the Echidna is the best aspect of the game. This red creature has the ability to glide, climb, and break through walls by touching them. In fact, the stages seem specifically designed with Knuckles in mind.

The frenetic gameplay will keep you on your toes, but the pacing is often disrupted by annoying hazards like vines that ensnare you and chickens that blow you into spikes. Eggman does not play a role in all boss encounters; you'll sometimes face a robot (like a giant hand) or magical creature (like a sand golem). The bonus stages are mostly rehashes, and the new "electric ball" stage is confusing. There are times when Sonic & Knuckles feels like leftover odds and ends from the original trilogy, but I still enjoyed it.

So what's it like to use Knuckles in Sonic 2 and 3? Pretty awesome actually! Knuckles actually takes over the title screen in Sonic 2, and his ability to climb tall walls lets you reach previous unexplored areas. In the more "open" stages like Emerald Island, Hilltop, and Oil Ocean, you can use him to climb to a high point and glide over much of the stage. I was able to get through the Casino Zone in record time.

The lock-on function works great, but it's no surprise the concept never really caught on. Not only does it require a lot of planning ahead, but you have to be pretty confident the franchise is going to be around long enough to support it! The technology may go down as a footnote in video game history, but I love how Sonic & Knuckles breathes new life into two old favorites.

Fall angle: Sonic & Knuckle's opening Mushroom zone is mostly green at first, with oversized mushrooms that splash the screen with vibrant orange and red colors. Gradually however the foliage turns orange, and eventually the stage transforms into a golden autumn paradise! This may not be the best Sonic game for the Genesis, but it's still very, very good.

Madden NFL 97 (Electronic Arts 1996)
System: Saturn (and others)
Grade: A-
screenshot Some may dismiss the 2D Madden games of old, but Madden 97 proves they can be every bit as fun - if not more so! I reviewed this with my friend Eric who owned this game "back in the day", and we were both shocked at how well it's held up. Madden 97 opens with a grainy but interesting CGI intro with several shots of New Orleans, and that classic NFL theme music really gets you pumped up.

Each game is introduced by James Brown at an anchor desk, who passes control to John Madden and Pat Summerall who provide additional commentary. That's right - Madden was actually involved in his games at one time! Why Madden and Pat are previewing the game in a silent, empty stadium I have no idea. On the field, the digitized sprites look great, despite the fact that every player is #88.

The animation is less than stellar, but the controls are crisp and the action moves along at a brisk pace. You can quickly call plays and players line up immediately, so there's never a lull. The six-button Saturn controller gives you a lot of receiver options, and runningbacks bounce off would-be tacklers with stiff-arms, speed bursts, and spin moves. It's hard to kick the ball for distance, but the kicking controls are the best ever devised.

The instant replay system is also very user friendly - when was the last time you could say that? Madden 97's one glaring weakness is its tackling. Often a bump is all that's needed to take down a runner. But it's the game's distinctive quirks that give it its charm. The sporadic audio commentary features Madden's disembodied voice punctuating big hits with phrases like "doink!", "where'd that truck come from?", and "that one knocked the snot right out of the locker!" (huh?) When a play is over, you can still dive at your opponent, and it's quite habit-forming!

Unlike modern games, the crowd is fairly quiet, at least until the "D-Fense" chant kicks in. Most stadiums look generic, but the bright orange trees outside of Memorial Stadium in Baltimore look gorgeous. Madden 97 was largely overlooked in its day because flashier 3D games were stealing the spotlight, but it's one of the best sprite-based football games. If you're weary of the modern, cookie-cutter Maddens, revisit this classic and have fun again.

Fall angle: Any Fall special worth its weight needs an obligatory football game, and this one really captures the feel of the season. When I play as the Ravens in the old Memorial stadium, there are trees bursting with Fall colors in the background. It really gets you psyched up for the season! It doesn't hurt that this game totally kicks ass.

Maximo: Ghosts to Glory (Capcom 2001)
System: Playstation 2 (and others)
Grade: C-
screenshot As rabid fans of Ghouls 'N Ghosts (Genesis, 1989), my friends and I were licking our chops in anticipation of this fully-realized 3D romp. At first Maximo: Ghosts to Glory seems to live up to the hype. Our whimsical knight finds himself in an ominous graveyard of twisted iron fences, weathered gravestones, and decrepit burial sites. The gothic atmosphere is amazing, especially with a lavishly-orchestrated Ghouls and Ghosts theme playing in the background.

The controls feel crisp as Maximo double-jumps between rising chunks of land and slices skeletons in half with his sword. He can even hurl his shield like a disc! It doesn't take long however for Maximo's luster to fade. There's way too much junk to collect: gold coins, diamonds, hearts, keys, potions, and various magical items littering the landscape. I don't even know what half of this [expletive] is!

Enemies quickly ramp up in difficulty, becoming impervious to normal attacks. When you find your sword clanking off of everything, you have a tendency to avoid encounters altogether. Scouring the graveyard requires trudging through a lot of swampy areas that not only slow you to a crawl but subject you to grabbing hands. Too many chests are of the "you can't open this yet" variety.

And don't even get me started on that [expletive] camera. Despite taking place almost entirely outdoors, this game feels downright claustrophobic! Your view is narrow and the controls only allow centering the camera behind you. It's difficult to gauge distance while jumping, especially since your shadow isn't well-defined. When you reach a glowing checkpoint you must perform a downward strike to activate it - a detail I found infuriating the first time I played.

Saving is also unnecessarily complicated, as you can only record your progress near boss towers. Despite its flaws Maximo's production values are impressive, at times conveying the sensation of being trapped in a haunted house. There's plenty to explore including a pirate ship and the obligatory ice world. Maximo should have been a slam-dunk winner but I'm afraid Capcom over-engineered the [expletive] out of this one.

Fall angle: Unlike its predecessor (Ghouls and Ghosts for the Genesis), Maximo didn't make my Halloween special, but its Autumn vibe is unmistakable. The trees have big red and brown leaves, and you can see clouds blowing across the ominous dark sky. The game just feels like October.

Jack Bros. (Japan) (Atlus 1995)
System: Virtual Boy (and others)
Grade: D
screenshot Besides the fact that it was one of few Virtual Boy games missing from my collection, I was really looking forward to playing Jack Bros. for its Halloween theme. This whimsical overhead platformer lets you assume the role of a ghost, pumpkin, or skeleton trying to reach a magic portal before midnight. The English version of Jack Bros. is rare and expensive, so I picked up the Japanese version instead (which wasn't all that cheap either).

At first I regretted this decision because the game has a fun intro and plenty of dialogue that I couldn't read. In terms of gameplay however, Jack Bros. is not innovative at all and makes minimal use of the system's 3D graphics. In fact, I'm not sure why this game is even on the Virtual Boy!

Each level offers a different set of stacked mazes sprinkled with wandering creeps, traps, and power-ups. There's some mild strategy here and there (like moving boulders to clear your path) but the action is basically limited to finding some keys and heading towards the exit.

The characters are composed of stacked 2D sprites, but the illusion of 3D is modest at best. The Halloween theme isn't readily apparent either, thanks to the run-of-the-mill music and generic creeps. A password is provided between levels, but no score. Ultimately I'm glad I settled for the Japanese version, because Jack Bros. is definitely not worth breaking your piggy bank for.

Fall angle: It's not a strong title, but Jack Bros. offers about as much Autumn as the Virtual Boy can muster. If you have to play it, you may as well do it in the Fall!