Archive for May, 2008


Naruto: RPG Style! Believe it!

I’m not one to beat around the bush. In fact, I’ll get straight to the point in 3…2..1..

I’m a Naruto fan.

Yeah, I said it. I’m 28 and I like me some good Naruto. It all started a little over a year ago when I was assigned the book for Naruto Ninja Council 3. Being a good lil’ author I decided that if I was going to do the book well and do right by the Naruto franchise, that I’d at least need to know what Naruto was all about. I went out and  bought the Naruto Uncut Season 1 dvd box set, a few ramen cups, and a headband (ok, I didn’t buy the headband.) and made a bee-line to my couch with a short stop by my microwave for 2-3 minutes. I was surprised at how much I actually liked the anime. I’d never been a big fan of anime, but somehow this one got through.

Promptly after watching all of Season 1, I was back at BestBuy purchasing Seasons 2 and 3. Needless to say, I was hooked. Now I’ve got seasons 1-7 with 8 pre-ordered AND I’ve got my grubby little hands on Naruto: Path of the Ninja 2 for the Nintendo DS.

So far, I’m thoroughly enamored with the game. It’s an old-school RPG (Think old-school SNES Final Fantasy games and you’re on the right track) and has all the charm a Naruto fan could want. My only gripe is that in order to record my footage I have to play it on a Nintendo DS debug unit that is the equivalent of a clipper ship’s anchor, so I can’t play it on my couch and am, quite literally, anchored to my office desk.

Every now and then, I have to stop and wonder. How exactly did I end up with Naruto manga on my bookshelf, Naruto dvds in my Xbox 360, a Naruto figure over each of my three monitors, and an addiction to Ramen???


Two of Five

2. Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar

I suppose it had to happen.

I’d played Star Wars Galaxies in order to write the guide for it, but didn’t stick with it after it launched. I avoided Dark Age of Camelot, Everquest, City of Heroes (surprisingly, given my eternal love of comic books that borders on obsession), and even stayed away from World of Warcraft despite it’s black-hole pull on most of my gaming friends. MMO’s were not on my radar. Mainly due to my exceedingly frugal nature.

I just couldn’t see any point to paying $15 a month ($180 a year!) to play a video game. Sure, I’d spent much more than that in one session of Smash TV, the weight of the quarters nearly taking my pants down to my knees, but I couldn’t justify the expense. Actually, truth be told, I was using the expense as a cover for my true fear. The worry that if I should ever dip into an MMO for pleasure I would be consumed. I would not surface for years.

Luckily, none of them actually grabbed my attention. Until, that is, I logged into the LotRO beta. The lush environments, the highly detailed clothing, the weaponry with scroll work etched into every surface. But most of all the familiar locations from the novels.

In the first week I met Aragorn and entered Tom Bombadiel’s house. I ran through the fields of the Shire, jumped fences in the Bree-fields, and met Butterbar, the proprietor of the Prancing Pony.

Even now, so many game-play hours later, I still marvel at the water effects and the trees. I can be engaged just watching a river or staring at grass…grass!

This is not obsession. I am still able to pay attention to my wife and friends. I can appreciate the play of real wind through the trees. But the sheer joy of being a Hunter, bow taut and arrows flying, in the lands of Middle-earth have made me realize…

I’m a damn geek.


loreology: orcs

If you’ve got a memory like an elephant, the old saying goes, then your noggin’s in good shape. Mine, when challenged under the gun, tends to shoot blanks. I’m a research kind of guy, not a living, breathing almanac…. Each week “Loreology” will unravel the mysteries behind something in gaming that I may have known once and completely forgot, or something that I should probably know and cram up into my nearly full brain cavity.

This Week: Tolkien’s Tough Guys

If you haven’t seen an orc in your fantasy travels you’ve been living in a well-protected fortress all your life or you started gaming back in 1912 before J.R.R. Tolkien ever put pen to paper. It was Tolkien who brought the word orc into the popular fantasy lingo. In Tolkien’s Middle-earth, orcs are the larger cousins to the goblins. Orcs thrive in places like the Mines of Moria, and are sure to play a prominent role in this fall’s upcoming Lord of the Rings Online expansion.

Tolkien derived his word orc from the Old English word for “demon.” It certainly made an impact because now “traditional” fantasy includes the orc as a common race. Some video games stick to the well-known Tolkien orcs–any Dungeons & Dragons game, like the Baldur’s Gate series comes to mind–while others take them to wild places. In Lineage II orcs are a race attuned to fire, Might and Magic gives us orange orcs and there are even online generators that morph headshots into what you would look like as an orc.

All this trivia probably won’t help me the next time I’m chugging through the Burning Steppes and a WoW orc wants to play the bongos on my brain. Then again, maybe it will if I can pull a Sauron and figure out how to get them to make gunpowder for me.


Destruction in Bad Company

In case you were wondering where the Tuesday blog has been, I apologize. I have been out on assignment in Eastern Europe working with B-Company (aka Bad Company) looking to find all of the gold bars. I am proud to report all have been found and you can get the full report complete with locations in the Battlefield: Bad Company strategy guide along with the locations of all collectible weapons. (Okay, I wasn’t really in Eastern Europe physically, but the game takes place there.)


For those who did not get in on the Bad Company beta, the demo will be out June 5th. If you pre-ordered through certain retailers, you can get a code to download the beta on May 29th. No matter when you can get your hands on the demo, give it a shot. One of the cool new features is the ability to destroy buildings and other forms of cover. This provides a whole new way of playing a first person shooter. If you have played the Rainbow Six Vegas games, you know how dangerous doorways can be. In Battlefield: Bad Company, just use a grenade or rocket launcher to blow a hole in a wall and bam, you have a new entrance. Someone hiding behind sandbags, blow them away and you will usually take out the person behind them as well.


The key to success is a destruction mindset. Even if you don’t have grenades or other explosives, the maps have lots of fuel drums or explosive crates that blow up real nice with a couple of shots from your weapon. Therefore, if you are having trouble taking out a machine gun position, aim for the red crate near the gun and shoot it to blow up the gunner and gun alike. The game also includes some very powerful gadgets which allow you to call in mortar strikes or even guide an airdropped bomb right onto the target of your choice. Forget about blowing a hole in a wall. How about taking out all the walls of a building as well as the roof!


Don’t forget to check out the demo and see just how destructive you can be!


Doom and Gloom

Before I went through my time playing Mario Kart Wii at Nintendo, I prattled on about taking risks as a video game developer; where the God of War team spent millions of Sony’s dollars, and still had doubts about the sheer awesomeness of Kratos’ bladed ballet of blood. But the “no risk, no reward” tactics are all part of the rich tapestry woven into the industry. Well, unless you’re making a sequel, or your company’s marketing department is making all of the gameplay decisions. And at a risk of over-utilizing this inapt medieval metaphor to a teeth-clenchingly trite conclusion, you need to thread your own needle if you’re hoping to join those working on, or parasitically feeding off (in the case of video game reviewers) the latest and greatest video games.


I tumbled into the video game industry just after finishing a University degree in History, in Sheffield; a town famous as the setting for the movie The Full Monty. As no-one was particularly eager to see my flabby torso or other flappy bits, I used my very first credit card, and imported one of the very first PlayStations available in Japan. It cost me $2,000. And that’s with the wrong video cables, no power adapter, and without Ridge Racer or Battle Arena Toshinden. I imported, and played Ridge Racer – unfortunately in black-and-white – until my hands cramped, my eyes turned a strange shade of pink, and my thesis was two months’ late. I then hooked up my PC to a serial cable, and played Deathmatch Doom with my housemate, who’s now the Editorial Director at GameSpy. At this point, I’d like to give thanks to Ken Kutaragi and John Carmack for planting the embryonic alien in my brain that hatched, and piloted me into my first video game job.



  • PlayStation + Ridge Racer + Battle Arena Toshinden in 1995:
  •          $2,200 in student loans.
  • PlayStation + Ridge Racer + Battle Arena Toshinden in 2008:
  •         $30 if you’re lucky.


After somehow managing to obtain a History degree, I realized that my aimless wandering towards a teaching job could be circumvented into writing about the second wave of video games on the PlayStation and Sega Saturn. I made a Doom map that was published in PC Zone, a feat far less impressive than it sounds as it was bundled with 299 other maps, and stuck to the front of the magazine to be peeled off and stolen from newsstands. Back in my parents’ house, I realized I needed to get my particular brand of waffling prose into the hands of a video game magazine editor. So I wrote a fanzine. On paper. With screenshots scanned from imported copies of GameFan magazine “A what?” you might be thinking. But this was back when the internet was wowing us with Ascii characters and the latest in MUD text adventures; there were no blogs. I created the fanzine entirely in Microsoft Word, called it “PlayStation Frenzy”, a name that still causes douche chills each time I think about it, and sent it to every publisher in the world.


Nowadays, a career in the video game industry is a lot more straightforward; you can send links to your hilarious and satirical video blog, and start making millions the Zero Punctuation way. Or you can go to college and (as I recommend in my Video Game Careers book, which I’m hawking incessantly over the forthcoming months) choose a pertinent degree, parlaying that into a career in video games. Me? I got rejected dozens of times, until one man; an Editor in Chief called Richard Leadbetter, summoned me to his London Doom Base one dark and overcast September day, and offered me a chance to work on my first magazine. My hapless exploits at this magazine, showcasing more difficulties of breaking into this industry, will be revealed next time.



Just finished: A couple of chapters on creating some of the most fearsome Spore creatures the galaxy has ever seen.

Currently: Leafing through my copy of the Mario Kart Wii Guide. On sale now!

About to: Check on all the various Phases of the Spore game, and model a critter on Great Cthulhu, if my tentacle allocation allows.



spring update blues

Late last week Xbox Live manager Marc Whitten announced there will be no Spring dashboard update this year. Instead, the team plans to focus their resources on boosting Live’s infrastructure, hopefully remedying some of the stability issues that have crept up in the last few months. Of course, most Xbox fanboys were severely disappointed by this news, especially given the enticing rumors of soon-to-be implemented features posted over a week ago. Sure, I’m a bit disappointed too, but it’s not exactly the end of the world. Why? Well, I guess I’m quite content with the dashboard’s current state. Let’s face it. It still blows away the competition. And the free Indiana Jones theme looks sweet!

Still, I wouldn’t mind seeing some greater functionality in the future. At the top of my list would be an option to install a game to the console’s hard disk drive; this was one of the rumored updates. The PS3 has offered this option on several titles (including GTA IV) allowing for quicker load times. This would be great in games like Dead Rising or Assassin’s Creed where the action frequently comes to an abrupt halt while new areas are loaded. I’d also like to see a more elaborate friend list system. Currently, I have lots of friends in my list, many of whom I haven’t played with in over a year. But I’m not quite ready to ditch them either. It would be cool if you could sort your friends into different groups. Some sort of clan tab would be useful too, so you can see when other members are online without adding dozens of people to your friend list.

I’d be shocked if the Xbox Live team hasn’t already taken these ideas into consideration. And maybe at some point we’ll see them implemented…maybe in the Fall? But for now we’ve got our good ol’ dashboard for the Summer. And that’ll be just fine for me.


Three of Five

3. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

Before we get into my love of carjacking and slaughtering my way up the criminal food-chain of a fictional Los Angeles/San Francisco/Las Vegas tri-city area, I feel that Civilization II is owed a mention. Sid Meier’s siren song was nearly too much for me, luring my younger self into late nights and “just one more turns” that lasted through entire weekends. I wouldn’t call it a love affair, though, so much as an addiction. I wasn’t drawn to it, seduced and enraptured, I was compelled to play it due to some chemical need that somehow leaked into my veins from the computer screen. And so it doesn’t quite belong on this list but does deserve a nod.

GTA: San Andreas, however, was love.

Guilty, guilty love at the start. I resisted for over a year after it was released before dropping the shiny disc into my PS2. Within two days I was feverishly driving, climbing, flying, and swimming through every nook and cranny of the superbly crafted world Rockstar games had created. I languidly made my way through the missions, savoring the plot lines and marveling at how well they flowed together. Considering the amount of freedom a player has in choosing the order in which they play the missions, GTA: SA (and it’s cousins and siblings) has a surprisingly cohesive narrative. A bit of chop here and there, but overall astoundingly well written.

Yeah, yeah, I know. The only words you really hear coming out of people’s mouths when a Grand Theft Auto game comes around are “violence,” “guns,” “sex,” “coffee,” and “won’t someone please think of the children!?” But hardly ever do we see reviews that comment on the sheer craftsmanship that goes into these games. From the scripts to the environments…

OK, I admit it, when you get to the gameplay controls and squirrely driving mechanics GTA doesn’t rank near the top of the list. But where else are you going to find an ersatz Las Vegas that feels so much like the real thing?

I grew up in L.A. and lived for years in S.F. When playing San Andreas I would be tooling around the video neighborhoods and I could tell what areas they were aping. Not just obvious landmarks like the Capitol Records Building, but the actual feel of the architecture and style of real city streets were imitated with uncanny accuracy.

I would have CJ buzzing around downtown San Andreas and be struck by a sense of familiarity so strong I would stop and look around to see if I could pick out the elements that trapped the flavor of the city. This alone kept my attention for months. I scoured the game world for every pick-up, collected every car, and made sure I finished each and every mission. All the while examining the street scenes to see if I could recognize the real-world counterpart. I found the GTA Noe Valley, Compton, West Hollywood, Castro, and dozens of other swaths of L.A. and S.F. that had been homaged in the game.

I’m playing GTA 4 now and it is very good. I like the characters better then those in SA and the writing is even more sophisticated. But I don’t think it’ll manage to grab me like that extended stay in Rockstar’s fake West Coast. I was consumed by and swaddled in its digital embrace, my thirst for narrative was rocked gently and my appreciation for design was kissed sweetly on the head.

And then I would antagonize a rival gang until they came after me with automatic weapons.

Love hurts.


loreology: pixies

If you’ve got a memory like an elephant, the old saying goes, then your noggin’s in good shape. Mine, when challenged under the gun, tends to shoot blanks. I’m a research kind of guy, not a living, breathing almanac…. Each week “Loreology” will unravel the mysteries behind something in gaming that I may have known once and completely forgot, or something that I should probably know and cram up into my nearly full brain cavity.

This Week: Take Your Pixie

Faeries? Sprites? Pixies? I never knew the differences between the little folk of legend. Were they ready to stitch up a torn pair of socks when we weren’t looking, sneak into a crib to trade places with a newborn, or happy to remain hidden in the deepest part of the woods? At that small size, it’s difficult to tell them apart, you know?

There are too many tales to definitively identify one myth from another. In general, faeries are the most common term for the little guys and gals with wings. They are linked to magic, nature (and the supernatural), and sometimes the dead. Some folklore has them see benevolent visions of the future, while others pit their malice against humanity, with only cold iron standing between us and their vicious schemes. They seem rather harmless, if a bit moronic, in The Fairly Oddparents, so I’m not worried I’m going to end up pantsless, upside down in a tree anytime soon.

Unlike faeries, sprites tend to lean toward the “spiritual” side. The word most likely descends from the Latin spiritus, and the elves and other creatures of the wood that got slapped with the label were generally described as having an ethereal quality, such as wisps or mystical sightings involved around terrible storms and lightning strikes.

Pixies, on the other hand, were most closely associated with humans. They tended to hang around certain rural homes, sometimes disguising themselves as a pile of rags, a goat or a poorly clothed short person to fool children into playing their games. Where faeries and sprites generally abhorred human contact, pixies relished in it, so long as you treated them with proper respect.

In the gaming world, faeries, sprites and pixies are all over. You can find their magic touch in anything from Zelda‘s life-giving bottled fairies to Tinkerbell tossing her pixie dust around in digital Disney fun. Do me a favor, though: Don’t even ask me where brownies fit in. As far as I’m concerned, they’re the best chocolate junk food you can savor at two in the morning.


Mario Kart Wii: Guide Creation Blog 3 of 3

As I was nearing the end of my stay at Nintendo, I made sure I mined Nintendo’s test department for all the information I needed to ensure a complete and accurate guide. Some of the most important tactical advice in the guide comes directly from the pro-gamers at Nintendo of America, Europe, and Japan! I was fortunate enough to witness amazing and often crazy Ghost Data battles between Nintendo’s continental companies, and use the insane Time Trial laps directly in the guide. For example, the very best racers posted their Ghost Times over the course of months, and I utilized these racing lines exclusively, so that you can try to meet or beat these amazing records! Not only that, but the recommended vehicle and rider is also shown, along with the time itself!


Have you found all the drivers and riders in this game? Check the guide out for all the info!



The information doesn’t just end there though; I made sure to explain just how to obtain every hidden character, vehicle, course, cup, and ending that the game has to offer. If you thought just racing through the Grand Prix mode eventually yields everything this game has hidden away, think again! Naturally, I also mention how every ground texture affects your speed, I give a complete list of every course enemy wandering around, from the waddling Goomba to the fearsome Chain Chomp. And let’s not forget the method of ensuring you get a Turbo Start each time, every time! As I unlocked all of the characters and vehicles, I made sure to give tactical advice for driving any combination of vehicle you could ever use.


But the fun doesn’t end with the racing portion of the game (and guide). The Battle Mode; pitting teams in arenas to pop opponents’ balloons or collect coins, is shown in detail, along with item locations and tactics for each map. Did you know you can actually steal balloons from your foes? You’ll know how if you pick up the guide! In the end, I came away from my stay at Nintendo dizzy, and not just because of the 12-hour playtesting I’d been doing for the previous two weeks; this is the most involved, most addictive, and craziest Mario Kart ever made. From the brand-new power-ups to all the modes both offline and on, I made sure to squeeze in every last tactic and place it into a guide that’s as beautiful as it is informative. 


Purchase the only Official Mario Kart Strategy Guide HERE!



pin-a-go-go 2008

When was the last time you played a pinball machine? It’s probably not an easy question to answer. There aren’t too many machines around anymore. Sure, you might spot a lonely cabinet at a bar or pizza parlor on a rare occasion. Your best bet would be an arcade…if you can find one of those. My local arcade (Supercade) closed its doors several years ago and since then it had been tough to get my pinball fix. At least until I discovered Pin-a-go-go, an annual pinball convention held in Dixon California. For a modest entrance fee (benefiting the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Sacramento) pinball enthusiasts can play all the pinball they want, with all 100+ machines set on free play. The convention also serves as a swap meet of sorts where owners can sell machines and trade parts. It really is an impressive gathering, pulling in fans and vendors from all over the bay area and northern California.

Pinball machines galore! What a way to spend a weekend!
Pinball machines galore! What a way to spend a weekend!

This was my third year at Pin-a-go-go and I wasted little time, arriving soon after it opened on Saturday morning. Even at that hour, there was already a pretty big crowd on hand. The first machine I played was Doctor Who, a Bally machine (created in the early 90s) and based on the original BBC series. My first few rounds weren’t very awe-inspiring. I soon moved on to The Addams Family, a Midway machine themed around the 1991 movie. I finally hit my stride with that machine, ultimately perfecting the skillshot, prompting the Thing to emerge out of its box and retrieve my ball from the playing field, saving it for a future multi-ball round. After several rounds played throughout the day, I eventually hit a personal-best of over 77,000,000 points. Not bad, but according to Twin Galaxies, I still have a ways to go; the world record is 332,020,990. But my ridiculously high score of the day was achieved on Twister, a Sega machine based on the 1996 Bill Paxton/Helen Hunt tornado flick. Whether you’re a pinball veteran or a complete newbie, this is the machine to play if you need an instant boost in confidence. It’s relatively easy and very forgiving, seemingly awarding multi-ball craziness every few seconds. At the end of one session that seemed to drag on for over 20 minutes, I walked away with a score of 1,467,390,060. This was a first so I had to take a picture. I don’t think I’ve scored over a billion points on anything. Still it wasn’t enough for a record since the machine’s top score was well over three billion.

Even Paxton seems perplexed by my high score.
Even Paxton seems perplexed by my high score.

My performance on other machines was novice-like at best. Missed Mr. Hankey’s toilet bowl multi-ball on South Park. Never made it past the rank of Lieutenant on Star Trek TNG. Failed to trigger the water skiing mini-game on Baywatch. Only fed the T-rex once on Jurassic Park. Nevertheless, I had a blast, even though my crazy flipper-fingers are a bit sore today. So if you’re a pinball fan and find yourself in northern California in mid-May, head on over to Dixon. Supporting a worthwhile charity has never been so much fun.

May 2008