You know things are slow when the hottest new releases are all remasters of games from the late 90’s/early 2000’s. Sure, there’s a few new titles, but May (and honestly the first two quarters of 2020) continue to be a dry spot for new games. Keep plugging away at that backlog, folks. Don’t forget, new consoles are coming in just a few more months…
Halo 2: Anniversary (PC) – Releases May 12th
After announcing an ambitious release schedule in December of 2019, Microsoft continues to deliver remastered PC versions of every mainline Halo game at an impressive rate. With Reach and Combat Evolved already available in the Master Chief Collection, the team has seven months to get us three more games in the series. Will COVID-19 delay them, or will the team be so inspired by all the car commercials saying “we’re in this together” to get the job done? What would Master Chief do?
Star Wars Episode I: Racer (Switch) –
Releases May 12th (PS4 version May 26th) Delayed until…who knows…
Reposting my write-up of this game from last year’s Notable Games entry for 20 years ago: “It might be hard to imagine, but people used to be excited about Star Wars Episode I. I remember this being my very first midnight release movie, with a friend telling me he’d bought tickets and wanted to know if I’d go with him. I had no idea that you could even watch a movie at midnight, so I said “fuck it” and we were on our way to the UA 6 in Chula Vista (now a gym). As history will tell you, The Phantom Menace was kind of a let-down, but there’s one part that we all admit was cool, the pod racing scene. George Lucas’ love of hot rods was put on full display in this, slightly masturbatory, scene that was a cheerful romp in an otherwise dour and boring film. It’s no surprise then that the video game was just as fun to play as it was to watch, being perhaps the best thing to come out of that film. Not content to just let you play as Anakin, the game also featured all of the pilots from the movie, giving more background on such illuminating figures as Ratts Tyerell, Jinn Reeso, Ben Quadinaros, and Bowen Marsh (only one of those is a Game of Thrones character, you figure out which one). The game would eventually be ported to the Game Boy Color, Mac and Dreamcast, while an unrelated game would release to arcades in 2000, featuring one of the coolest arcade cabinets to hit the market”. Now we can add Nintendo Switch and PS4 to that list of consoles the game has been ported to, however you Sony fanboys will need to wait just a liiiiiitle biiiittt longer for your copy to arrive on May 26th.
Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee HD (Switch) – Releases May 14th
Originally released in 2001 as the launch title for the Xbox, developer Oddworld Inhabitants and publisher Microsoft, had high hopes that this sequel to the beloved PlayStation franchise would be their big seller, and that Abe, Munch, and all the Oddworld characters would kind of be their mascots, a la Mario and Sonc. Alas, this was not the case, and the flagship franchise for Microsoft became a little known first person shooter called Halo. In any case, Lorne Lanning and his team continued to make Oddworld games, despite no longer being the Microsoft golden boys. Stranger’s Wrath, now being published by EA, was released to great critical acclaim but poor sales, mostly attributed to EA’s refusal to promote the game since it was an Xbox exclusive (apparently if a SKU wasn’t on all platforms, the EA marketing team wouldn’t waste their time trying to drum up excitement). The failure of Stranger’s Wrath, as well as other problems with EA not paying proper royalties, left Lanning with a bad taste in his mouth about the games industry. He would shutter Oddworld Inhabitants gaming division and focus on trying to make films based on his creations. For several months the team would work on various film and television projects, but around 2007 Lanning was noticing that people were buying up copies of the ten year old Abe’s Oddysee on platforms like Steam and GOG, and realized that, while he initially thought games had a finite shelf life, that was not the case. With this new found digital distribution model, Lanning and his team went back into game production, churning out updated versions of the two PSX Abe games, with the idea that they’d do remasters for Stranger’s Wrath and Munch’s Oddyse and a remake of the two Abe games. Here we are now, folks. It’s been almost nineteen years since the launch of the Xbox, and a moment in time where Loren Lanning thought his company was poised to be one the next big media empires. While that didn’t quite come to fruition as he had planned, the fact that he is now able to control his own destiny and give players a great dose of nostalgia, while at the same time improve upon what they’ve done in the past, is a testament to not giving up when things look bleak.
Huntdown (PC – Epic Games Store/PS4/Switch) – Releases May 12th
Just in case you didn’t think there were enough retro-inspired Contra clones out there, here comes Huntdown. Featuring three playable characters, you must run and gun your way through several stages of arcade shoot ’em up action in a future that looks like the 1980’s.
Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA Mega Mix (Switch) – Releases May 15th
Rhythm game and virtual idol fans can now rejoice as the definitive version of the Hatsune Mike Project DIVA series is making its way to Switch. Featuring a whopping 101 songs (10 of which are brand new), the game is sure to be a hit at all of the upcoming anime conventions that will eventually happen when COVID-19 is no longer threatening our lives. For all you motion control game enthusiasts out there, the game will even feature a new mode in which you move your Joy-Con controllers around, flailing your arms uncontrollably wondering why the hell it isn’t working.
Ports and Re-releases:
Armed 7 DX/Satazius NEXT/Wolflame (Switch) – Releases May 14th
A trio of SHMUPS are making their way to the Nintendo Switch this week, all with one connecting thread; each are homebrew Dreamcast games released long after that consoles demise. While each of these games all appear to be readily available as physical discs you can purchase for your aging Dreamcast, you can forgo all those wires and converter boxes to just play them digitally on the world’s greatest handheld device.
Ion Fury (PS4/Switch/Xbox One) – Releases May 14th
Originally released in 2019 for PC, Ion Fury is now making its way to consoles. What makes this game so unique is that it is a modern game that runs on the Build Engine, best known for being used to make the seminal FPS game Duke Nukem 3D. While the engine has been modified to run on modern systems, as well as add new bells and whistles, the core of the engine remains, giving the game a throwback look that you don’t really see in FPS games nowadays. The game received mostly positive reviews when it was released, however one group was not happy with the game, metal band Iron Maiden, who objected to the game’s original title Ion Maiden. They filed a lawsuit against publisher 3D Realms claiming the game was too similar to already released Iron Maiden video game (which I say, huh?). The lawsuit was eventually dropped when the title was changed to Ion Fury. Oh, and in case you thought that was the end of the controversy, you’d be wrong, as several members of the development team at Voidpoint were caught using transphobic language on their Discord server. This prompted 3D Realms to send out an apology, remove a few lines of dialogue from the game, and donate $10,000 in sales of the game to the Trevor Project. All that aside, the game looks pretty fun!
The Eternal Castle [REMASTERED] (Switch) – Releases May 15th
This game is a port of an older PC game, but not in the way you might think. Originally billed by the developer as a re-release of a classic CGA era DOS game, The Eternal Castle [REMASTERED] is actually a brand new game built from the ground up to be an homage to the classic PC gaming days. Using similar animation techniques as Prince of Persia, Flashback, and Another World, The Eternal Castle is an action platformer that will make you yearn for those titles of yesteryear. Run, fight, and sneak your way through three unique locations, as you use 20+ weapons and items to solve puzzles and stay alive.
Thy Sword (PS4/Switch/Vita) – Releases May 15th
Normally I ignore these indie retro-style ports, but it’s not everyday that you get a brand new Vita game. Inspired by 1980’s arcade games, you must collect crystals in order to save the kingdom. Along the way you’ll encounter evil monsters, as well as unlock new heroes to play as.
Deep Rock Galactic (PS4/Xbox One) – Releases May 13th
Super Mega Baseball 3 (PC/PS4/Switch/Xbox One) – Releases May 13th
Signs of the Sojourner (PC) – Releases May 14th
Notable Releases from 10, 20 and 30 years ago:
This week’s trio of notable titles are perhaps one of the strongest lineup’s I’ve ever seen in this column. Each game is brilliant and unique in their own right, and would feel right at home on a list of not just the greatest games of their generations, but of all time.
Red Dead Redemption (PS3/Xbox 360) – Released May 18th, 2010: Wiki Link
In 2004, Rockstar Games salvaged a discarded Capcom game based on their Gun.Smoke franchise to release the decent, but mostly forgettable, Red Dead Revolver. It would take six years to release the follow-up, and create what is, arguably, one of the greatest video games of all time. Set in the year 1911 at the tail end of the wild west years, Red Dead Redemption is the story of John Marston, a former outlaw turned family man, rancher, and bounty hunter. Marston has resigned himself from gun slinging when the game opens, but when two government agents from the Bureau of Investigation show up in his life, John Marston finds himself an unwitting pawn in their plan to bring several of his former gang members to justice. With his family kidnapped by the agents, Marston sets out into the wilds of the United States frontier, determined to bring in his bounties, with areas that ranges from the swamps of Louisiana, the plains of Oklahoma, the deserts of the southwest, the Colorado Rocky Mountains, as well as northern Mexico. Primarily developed by the team at Rockstar San Diego, the game used an enhanced version of their Angel Game Engine, now renamed the Rockstar Advanced Game Engine (or RAGE, of course). Work began in 2005, but this was not the first game released using RAGE, as two other titles wold release first, the mostly tech demo Table Tennis, and a new entry in their flagship franchise, Grand Theft Auto IV. Both of these games would be major stepping stones on the path to RDR, with Rockstar taking note of the things that worked and didn’t work, to create their magnum opus. The open world created for RDR was an impressive technical achievement; vast and unforgiving, the land was teeming with wildlife, some of which wanted nothing more than to kill you (cougars and bears) and others that you could hunt for both pleasure and profit (deer, rabbits, coyotes).
After seeing several actors for the role of John Marston, a man named Rob Wiethoff got the role, one that would be hailed by critics as some of the finest voice acting every captured for a video game. His portrayal of John Marston, particularly in the final harrowing moments of the game, was seen as incredibly powerful. His voice and motion capture work would earn him nominations and wins for best performance at several awards shows, and the character of John Marston would be considered one of the best characters to ever appear in a video game. Not only was Wiethoff praised for his work, but the entire cast was given kudos for their work, with the game receiving nods and wins for voice acting. This commitment to great acting wasn’t the only strong point of the sound team, though, as Woody Jackson and Bill Elm’s soundtrack was highly regarded as well. With tracks that waver between awe-inspiring to haunting to powerfully intense, the music was always finding ways to evoke an emotion out of the player. It too was the recipient of several awards and accolades. Initially the game was set to release in April of 2010, but was delayed a month to give thee team a few extra weeks of polish (and crunch). When it arrived on May 18th, 2010 it was an instant hit with both critics and players. It would go on to be named Game of the Year by several gaming outlets, and win game of the year at the VGA’s (but lose GOTY at the DICE Awards to Mass Effect 2).
DLC for Red Dead Redemption would arrive in October of 2010, called Undead Nightmare. In this non-canonical entry, John Marston would have to contend with an onslaught of zombies terrorizing the frontier, as well as add several new missions, side quests, and story elements. In 2018, a follow-up game, Red Dead Redemption 2, would be released; it was a prequel centering on another character, Arthur Morgan, and would feature John Marston as a side character (and eventual player character). Red Dead Redemption is one of the pinnacles of gaming, and a triumph that Rockstar can’t seem to match (according to some players and critics). It will forever stand as a testament to the fact that video games can be art on the same level as books, film, and television.
Vagrant Story (PlayStation) – Released May 15th, 2000: Wiki Link
Although Sqaresoft’s Summer of Adventure didn’t officially start until the release of Legend of Mana in June of 2000, RPG fans got an early dose of excitement with the release of Vagrant Story. Developed by Yasumi Matsuno, the game was his attempt at creating a brand new IP, challenging himself to start from scratch instead relying too much on existing characters. Matsuno and his team were eager to not just create a new IP, but also create a quasi-new genre, or at least keep themselves from relying too heavily on one genre. The end result would be a game that was all at once familiar and unique, blending styles such as action, RPG, puzzle, and platforming. Set in the fictional city of Leá Monde, players take on the role of Ashley Riot, a member of the Valendia Knights of Peace. With a tip that a local aristocrat is working with a dark cult, Ashley and his colleague Callo go to Leá Monde to investigate, and in the process become embroiled in a twisted and sinister plan involving dark magic and undead creatures. Although the game initially wasn’t supposed to have ties to the Ivalice Empire series of games, which include Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy XII, Matsuno would eventually relent and say that Vagrant Story would take place in close proximity to the locations of those two titles, but like all Ivalice games, not have any connecting threads aside from the names of kingdoms/cities and similarly named items. Upon release, the game was almost universally praised. The earlier Japanese release would lead to one of the rare perfect scores from Famitsu (being the only PSX game to achieve this honor), and American gaming critics would heap similar praise upon the title, with several near perfect scores. Critics were overwhelmed by the engaging story, the well balanced combat system, and the (at the time) breathtakingly beautiful graphics & sound. Matsuno’s desire to create something unique paid off as well, with many of the critics calling the game a breath of fresh air in the somewhat stale place that most JRPGs had found themselves in recent years. The game would be nominated at the 2001 DICE Awards in the Console Action/Adventure category, but lost to Majora’s Mask (another unique take on the action-RPG genre). Despite the acclaim, sales weren’t exactly the greatest, and Vagrant Story only sold, from what I can tell, about 500,000 copies worldwide (although take that with a grain of salt, details are scarce and possibly hearsay), and we haven’t seen much of this series since it released. A port of the PSX game came to the PSP and PS3 in 2011, and Square Enix recently announced that they would be releasing figurines of main character Ashley and antagonist Sydney Losstarot through their Bring Arts line, so there’s still hope we may one day see a continuation of this franchise…maybe…
Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos (NES) – Released May 1990: Wiki Link
Tecmo continued the adventures of Ryu Hyabusa, relentless ninja master, as he get recruited by a U.S. special forces agent to take down a supernatural threat that is poised to take over the world. Set one year after the events of the first game, Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos continues the obscene difficulty of the first game, albeit with a few new power-ups to help Ryu along the way. As with Super C, Ninja Gaiden II is a marked improvement over its predecessor, but suffers from not being nearly as well known among more casual video game players. Aside from new power-ups, including a brilliant one that allowed Ryu to clone himself, the game had much more elaborate and detailed graphics, leading to more elaborate and grand cutscenes, as well as moving backgrounds and better sprites. As with our other two notable games this week, Ninja Gaiden II was hailed as one of the best games to be released in its year, being nominated in multiple categories for Nintendo Power’s 1991 awards issue, made the short list for Game Players NES Excellence Award, and was named “Game-of-the-Month” by EGM. There’s a certain rawness to the first Ninja Gaiden that makes it feel more hardcore, but the polish and care put into Ninja Gaiden II really pays off for those willing to embrace the brutal nature of its tough as nails gameplay (although this is alleviated by save states in the Wii U virtual console…or emulators).