Every Extend Extra Art

Q Entertainment's interpretation of the acclaimed freeware shooter Every Extend is not so much a Version 1.5 (as the title suggests), but rather a showy elaboration on the one-level original that brings it up to Version 1.0 standard for the PSP. It also turns Every Extend into a Tetsuya Mizuguchi game, and the Rez/Lumines maestro's fingerprints are evident within seconds.

But it's a testament to the source material that its hook is noticed first. A superb mechanic it is, too: You play as a bomb and must detonate yourself to catch enemies in the blast radius, who in turn explode and destroy other enemies caught in their blast radii. Setting off chains of explosions in this way racks up the points, which increases the player's reserve of bombs (‘lives') and allows him to die another day in the pursuit of high scores and more fireworks of destruction.

So as the old comedy saying goes, it's all about timing. Treating the ebb and flow of onscreen enemies like the stand-up treats his audience, it's as important to take chances when they're right where one wants them as it is not prudent to dissipate  reserves with cheap and easy shots. But, as every good comic knows, you've also got to learn to pick yourself back up after a mistake, and positioning the bomb correctly when being placed back onscreen after a ‘death' is often crucial.

Every Extend Extra Screenshot

Anyway, comedy analogy aside, Every Extend Extra remains first and foremost a shooter. Despite the ironic twist of being the bomb rather than the bomb-dispenser, that irony is suitably untwisted again once we realise how important traditional bullet-dodging techniques become. They too are all part of the timing, as players watch and avoid the floating enemies before winding in amongst them to set up a killer chain reaction.

Power-ups too play a major factor in this risk-reward equation: do I bolt for the time extending power-up to grab a few extra seconds, the ‘Quicken' orb to speed up the enemy onslaught (and high-score potential), or do I grab the score pellets to bolster my dwindling bomb supply? Respectful additions to the formula come in the shape of charge bomb and remote bomb abilities, which adventurous players can take advantage of once the basics of the original have become second nature.

It is certainly a more instinctive game than Mizuguchi's other PSP gem Lumines, with forward planning less crucial to success. But in its own way it is just as cerebral, as I scour the screen looking for the perfect nook or cranny to set off a domino-effect bomb against incoming enemy waves. There is certainly never a dull moment and the brain is always assessing pattern combinations and making split decisions, perhaps even more frenetically than in Lumines. If it feels too cheaply satisfying and disposable at times then it counters with its immediacy and fun factor, but it is true that without a penchant for high-score chasing there is little motivation to play once a decent selection of the levels (or "Drives") have been seen.

Every Extend Extra Screenshot

Not that the game isn't compellingly hypnotic from an aesthetic viewpoint alone. Again Mizuguchi's work has taken to the PSP with a precision and slickness few can match; the vivid colours and spectacular effects are revelling in that luxurious screen as if it were launch day. Although initially the audio interactivity feels straightforward and nothing beyond Rez or Lumines territory, the simple masterstroke of quickening the music tempo in line with accumulated ‘Quicken' power-ups (and therefore the game speed) adds a tense, breakneck sense of danger to high score runs.

Yet there's no getting away from the title's brevity and unfortunately it does not benefit from the value-adding bonus modes that made Lumines II such a satisfyingly complete package of a similarly simple game—although ironically a Lumines II demo is included as an extra. Away from consumer concerns, however, the game succeeds almost beyond reproach in bringing Every Extend to the PSP. From the original's innovative conceit to this tribute's stylish execution, Every Extend Extra weaves a shoot-‘em-up tapestry of unique merit. [Rating: 7.5 out of 10]

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During the PSP's unspectacular first year, Lumines was the first word that sprang to mind if ever a defence of the system was called for. Even now the launch game sits comfortably atop both Metacritic's and GameRankings's PSP leader boards, with no other original franchise game in either top ten (save for a Jak & Daxter spin-off). Little wonder, then, that Tetsuya Mizuguchi's puzzler is often mentioned in the same breadth as Pazhitnov's Tetris; comparable as much in sheer quality as in its evidently perfect fit on a young handheld.

Both games also cast the same disconcertingly bewitching spell: shape-based gameplay that seeps into the subconscious like a soothing anaesthetic to the brain. Lumines II adds nothing and takes nothing away from its forebear's winning recipe of block-falling gameplay and dazzling ‘skins' (the playing grid's shifting audio-visual theme). In view of the identical mechanics, the new skin selection (now more manageably spread across 3 different difficulties rather than one great marathon) and the musical styles they frame are paramount in determining this sequel's worth.

Those who thought the inclusion of chart-friendly rock and pop would wake them up from the trancy hallucination that the first game's Rez-flavoured electronica jacked them into are to some extent justified in their concerns. It is certainly noticeable when, say, Black Eyed Peas appear behind the falling blocks, or when Gwen Stefani crashes the puzzle party pretending to be a cheerleader in high school; MTV regulars feel a little too conventionally structured and vocally brash to blend in with the respectfully zoned-out mood. But then it is also nice that some familiarity is injected into the lengthy play sessions, and those looking forward to the hits will find them a suitably fun progress incentive.

Thankfully, Lumines II supplements its aesthetic remix with enough new content to deflect cash-in criticisms. A new Mission Mode joins an extended Puzzle Mode in offering dozens of timed, single-screen challenges, both consolidated through extensive unlock structures to become major features. Also included is an excellent, user-friendly music sequencer that is every bit as playfully hypnotic as the game itself. There's a return for the brutal, quick thinking intensity of Vs CPU Mode and its multiplayer equivalent (Duel Mode); a demo for Mizuguchi's PSP interpretation of innovative freeware shooter Every Extend; a Skin Edit mode where you can create custom playlists of your favourite unlocked skins; and to top it off the player's stats are all ruthlessly tracked and rated just to demonstrate how hard it's going to be to scratch that Lumines itch once and for all.

But even though Lumines II is clearly the ultimate in travel bag time machines, it rises above the numerous other handheld titles that could make a similar claim simply because the core experience is so powerful. Fans might reasonably argue that certain new skins move away from the purer and arguably better-integrated feedback loop of the first game (some of the square-moving sound effects here are just plain annoying) and that the inclusion of mainstream acts takes the edge off of the first game's euphoric rave buzz. Others may well find the tweaked aesthetics a refreshing and subtle way of channelling that same buzz along slightly different neuron paths.

Familiarity aside, however, Mizuguchi's latest experiment in merging simple mechanics with mesmerizing feedback remains an invigorating success, and probably more compulsive and complete than any other he's conducted, even if it's not necessarily the final word on the subject. [Rating: 8.0 out of 10]

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LocoRoco Screenshot 

Every time I hit the Power switch, I'm reminded of why it is that Sony's cult platformer has won so many hearts. Quite simply, no game is as unfailingly happy to see me as LocoRoco, and I really can't help but beam a smile straight back at it.

The first thing that hits me is the music, and it hits hard. The playground pop nonsense sung with impossibly cute and ineffably bouncy gusto by a small choir of LocoRoco (the loveable blob creatures of the title) is, ironically, the most overwhelming and forceful statement of aesthetic intent I'm likely to hear this year. And it's so catchy that it might just be the only game audio I'll remember hearing from this year too.

That said, I actually approached the game with some cynicism, having played the demo and off-handedly disregarding it as attractive but frustrating collect-'em-up folly for Ghibli-mad grown-up geeks who go weak at the knees and bleary in the eyes at such unabashedly cutesy sights and saccharine J-pop sounds. And in truth it is, but my disinterest and disregard was premature.

For starters, that soundtrack is far more diverse than its apparently super-otaku flavor might have you believe, with notably Gallic, Germanic, American, and Hispanic influences all making cameos as players progress through the varied levels and control the different colored LocoRoco as they sing along—each in its own native tongue and semi-recognisable dialect. The tunes and vocal melodies may be unapologetically repetitive and probably unbearable to anyone sitting nearby, but what better excuse for donning headphones to immerse myself in a soundtrack that's joyful, atmospheric, poignant and reproduced with such clarity that I notice the short intakes of breath before each crazy lyric is sung.

Complementing these special sounds are the impeccable, pin sharp visuals. One of the few PSP titles I've played not to suffer from excessive ghosting, LocoRoco's remarkable alien worlds are at once bold, gelatinous, slippery, sticky and bouncy, yet all totally coherent throughout play. Overall, the presentational vibrancy surpasses anything seen on a handheld system, with perfect sound effects palpably expanding the game's already joyful musicality, and the wonderful backdrops recalling Yoshi's Island in their ability to set the tone for each level whilst dreamily suggesting a beautiful world beyond the 2D plain.

LocoRoco Screenshot

Fittingly, the control system is simple enough for anyone to enjoy such a luscious game world: L to roll left (that is, tilt the level to the left), R to roll right, L+R to jump (and bump-attack enemies in doing so) and Circle to merge my accumulated LocoRoco into one big blob or to divide my big blob into many LocoRoco (for the game's basic puzzle elements). The shoulder button controls and emphasis on physics owe much to pinball (an influence the game explicitly references in certain flipper and bumper areas), which is to say the game is similarly limited and occasionally frustrating, but also exudes the same physicality and absorption—as becomes clear when I catch myself tilting my head in sync with the level, again. The game's Sonic-esque reliance on momentum will only frustrate slightly for the 2 minutes it takes to master and accept the concept, after which the game is all about enjoying the ride, accruing and managing my LocoRoco and finding the many secrets tucked away in the sumptuous lands I visit.

Certainly, the collect 'em up aspect looms very large in LocoRoco, providing the crux of its most satisfying gameplay through the discovery of burrows and inlets where pick-ups are hidden. Yet it also provides a foothold for frustration, chiefly that of being unexpectedly or unavoidably moved on from an area that I have yet to fully explore and will not be able to return to, which is not sufficiently safeguarded against in the level designs. Missing one-chance-only pickups and getting helplessly split up from your other LocoRoco (something I think would be addressed and perhaps even made into gameplay in a sequel) also make the grade as grating annoyances. And the loss of hard-won LocoRoco through hazards aggravates more than it should, since there is often not enough time to retrieve a wayward LocoRoco (or five) that has broken off before it vanishes; one of the game's few flagrant errors of judgement.

But if frustration arises occasionally, satisfaction is abundant in finding those hidden nooks and crannies, in stopping to watch my LocoRoco split up and awaken a sleeping creature with their singing and gambolling, or in simply exploring an area that I know other gamers will have flown right passed. And while they are a bugbear for completists, some of the game's most entertaining moments come from watching the hypnotic, Sonic-like rollercoasters that whisk your little army of blobs from one part of a level to another in ever more elaborate ways, and listening with glee as they break the level's song down into overlapping choral chants and melodies.

Mechanically, it's not quite as subversive or original as the presentation and some of its over zealous supporters might have you believe, but the chutzpah with which LocoRoco interprets the platform game's basic tenets is entirely its own and, again like the original Sonic The Hedgehog, it is a hugely invigorating and memorably stylish entry into a genre still awaiting fresh ideas. Bouncing around a giant blomange for several minutes trying to reach a pick up that I don't even really care about is not the most edifying game experience I'll have in 2006, but this trippy and surreal waterslide is pulled off with such self-assured finesse that, as those over zealous supporters know only too well, it really is hard not to love. [And I couldn't begrudge it a suitably buoyant 8.0 out of 10 rating.]

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The tournament begins as soon as you open the box. Out fall a 70-something page manual, three official game cards and a small poster brandishing registration details. It seems to me a pleasingly old-fashioned (that is to say offline) kind of community gaming, and certainly 7 Trials is a fantasy game that's in touch with its real world card game origins. It's all about buying enough card packs, then filtering through the crap and selecting your strongest 40 to represent you in duels. And since buying more and more packs will ultimately make you a better player, Yu-Gi-Oh! loses none of its consumerist backbone in the transition from trading card game to videogame.

So appropriately, there's no real strategy involved in the shopping element of the game. In the same way as players of the card game might like to think that by feeling the packs in the store they will attain some divine intervention telling them which to go for, my shopping strategy in the game extended to dumbly scrolling through the selection until the salesman uttered his completely random "I recommend this pack" line on one I liked the look of.

You would expect, therefore, that the strategy element was fully exploited in the battles themselves, but at the end of the day it is just a card game, and the luck of the draw is more important than many modern gamers will happily accept. Even this, however, is only as effective in deciding a victor as is the bewildering and essentially unexplained effects caused by the many spell cards, chain rules and dice throws.

True, there is a substantial consumer base—excuse the marketing executive lingo, but it just seems to fit with the game's aura of "committee" design—that will be only too familiar with the original card game rules, and therefore perhaps slightly nonplussed at my broad criticism of its rule set. As a gamer and games designer, however, it's virtually impossible for me to discern whether 7 Trials is well balanced or not, so seemingly arbitrary are the rules and wickedly varying card descriptions. I, for one, am not prepared to give Yu-Gi-Oh! , as a videogame, the benefit of the doubt. The mathematical finality of the duels can be satisfying—for those of us geekily susceptible to a bit of number play—but it's slight praise, and the randomness of the game all too often spoils it anyway. Witness, for instance, the joy of a "Dark Hole" card destroying every single monster card on the field, or the ineffable thrill of "Byser Shock" sending all your field cards back to your hand.

To some degree, it's heartening to know that "the kids" are willing to learn, obey and even enjoy the science of the strict, mathematical rules behind such a statistically complex yet visually stale piece of entertainment. Even if the rules are arbitrary, they are at least consistent and (if you know them well enough) understandable. But stable game design just isn't enough to justify an inherently unrewarding and aimless experience, being as much a description as it is an appraisal. The artistry on display here is merely one of commercial function rather than aesthetic form, akin to that of, say, a successful McDonalds advertising campaign. Sadly, just like the big M's marketing execs, it'll probably do exactly what it sets out to do: sustain the brand and make plenty of money in the process.

The result is an ostensibly static game to anyone without the required knowledge to make it work, or the enthusiasm to want it to in the first place. Like a deflated football, 7 Trials doesn't encourage you to play, nor does it promise exciting play, it just makes play possible. To call it a bad game seems somehow futile, but after many, many hours of vapid losing and almost equally vapid winning (a process that felt far too much like playtesting for my liking) I haven't been compelled to write anything wholly positive at all. Looking to reviews of its predecessor—Championship Tour 2004, no less—for inspiration, I saw one praise it as "a game that could theoretically last forever." Well, it's only fair to say that the same is also true of this edition; but if all the game consists of is an unending slog through identical, pointless card games and forever being asked if I want to "Activate a Spell/Trap card?" between button presses, then I would have to say that's one hell of a "theoretical" waste of forever. [Rating: 3.5 out of 10]

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