What’s up everyone, battling a cold/flu as I write this (no, it isn’t COVID, but thank you for asking) so maybe keep your expectations low for a hilarious/informative column. I’m usually hilarious and informative, right? Don’t answer that.
Back 4 Blood (PC/PS4/PS5/Xbox One/Series X|S) – Releases Oct. 12th
From Turtle Rock Studios, the team behind both Left 4 Dead and Evolve comes their spiritual follow-up to Left 4 Dead, the very on the nose titled Back 4 Blood. Like L4D, B4B is a four player co-op game in which players must survive an onslaught of zombies and other ghoulish baddies as they try to create safe zones where people can live without worry. Will it be the next big thing like Left 4 Dead or will it fizzle out like Evolve? Well find out soon enough.
Aeon Must Die! (PC/PS4/Switch/Xbox One) – Releases Oct. 14th
Aeon Must Die! is a new brawler from an Estonian developer named Limestone and published by a company called Focus Home, but if you get this game then you’re a total piece of shit. Why? Well because Limestone apparently stole all of its assets and labor from the workers who made the game who claim they were overworked and unpaid. Focus Home pledged to investigate the allegations and the game’s trailer as quietly scrubbed from the internet, until a few weeks ago when it re-appeared out of nowhere with a release date; so go ahead, get this game. That is if you’re a fucking piece of shit, you dick.
Dungeon Encounters (PC/PS4/Switch) – Releases Oct. 14th
It’s usually nice to have a game appear out of nowhere (except you Aeon Must Die!, I hope you die, piece of shit) and Square Enix gave RPG fans a nice surprise with the announcement of the very unique Dungeon Encounters. With minimalist graphics that look to mimic a pen and paper tabletop game, players will explore 100 floors of a dangerous dungeon, drawing the map as they go and fighting a slew of monsters. The talent behind the game is exceptional, with FFXII’s designer Hiroaki Kato directing and it’s art designer Ryoma Ito handling character design, and the music is from the legendary composer Nobuo Uematsu. I’m going to peg this as a sleeper hit, possibly making Dungeon Encounters one of those games we talk about years down the line as a lost gem.
The Jackbox Party Pack 8 (Android/iOS/PC/PS4/Switch/Xbox One) – Releases Oct. 14th
It’s always cause for celebration when a new Jackbox Party Pack comes out, and I’ll probably buy it and never play it with anyone because I never get houseguests, but whatever, I’m not sad about that. What are the games this time around, well check it; Drawful Animate, bad drawings that can be turned into worse animations. Job Job, use other people’s words to make funny answers to job interview questions. The Poll Mine, split into two teams and try to figure out what the group consensus is on a variety of surveys. Weapons Drawn, solve a murder while also murdering people with weapons you draw. Finally, The Wheel of Enormous Proportions, a trivia game that features, you guessed it,
Frank Stallone a wheel of enormous proportions.
Demon Slayer: The Hinokami Chronicles (PC/PS4/PS5/Xbox One/Series X|S) – Releases Oct. 15th
2020 was a weird year for a lot of reasons, but it also gave us a few neat surprises, one of those being that the highest grossing film of the year was the anime Demon Slayer – The Movie: Mugen Train. With an impressive $503 million dollars, it destroyed the sparse slate of films that came out during the global pandemic, making it both the highest grossing anime of all time and Japan’s highest grossing film of all time. It should come as no surprise, then, that Demon Slayer would get its own video game. If Yu Yu Hakusho can get a game then surely Demon Slayer can.
The Good Life (PC/PS4/Switch/Xbox One) – Releases Oct. 15th
Auteur game developer Hidetaka Suehiro, AKA SWERY, has put out some pretty wild games in the past, from Deadly Premonition to D3. In his latest game, The Good Life, things are just as strange as ever, as players take on the role of a photo journalist named Naomi Hayward. Given an assignment to investigate the mysterious happenings in a small English town, Naomi finds things to be mundane and boring during the day, but as night falls something strange happens…everyone turns into cats & dogs. It doesn’t help things that a murder happens while she is there, either, making this one assignment she’ll never forget. Rated PG-13.
Ports and Re-releases:
Disco Elysium: The Final Cut (Switch) – Releases Oct. 12th
Maybe you don’t have a PC or you don’t have the time to play a long RPG on your television, well, now one of the best RPGs of the last few years, Disco Elysium, is now available on the Switch. Take this sucker anywhere you want; the bathroom, the subway, or a bathroom at Subway.
Crysis Remastered Trilogy (PC/PS4/Switch/Xbox One) – Releases Oct. 15th
Chin down, eyes up; and stop staring at his booty. Okay, you can stare a little bit more.
Gley Lancer (PS4/PS5/Switch/Xbox One/Series X|S) – Releases Oct. 15th
Originally released in 1992 on the Mega Drive in Japan, Gley Lancer is a horizontal shooter that is more notable for being a Japan exclusive than actually being any good. A subsequent Virtual Console release on the Wii in 2008 finally had the game come to the U.S. where it received middling reviews. Now we’re getting another re-release for modern consoles where you can probably be disappointed just like everyone else has over the last nineteen years.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate – Sora (Switch) – Releases Oct. 18th
When I asked my daughter who she thought the new character in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate was going to be, she shrugged her shoulders and said, “I don’t know, you?“. Sadly, it was not me, it was Kingdom Hearts protagonist Sora.
The rest of this week’s slate has hockey, a Pokémon rip-off, a Streets of Rage rip-off, and others. Aren’t we all so lucky?
- Monster Crown (PC/PS4/Switch/XBone) – Releases Oct. 12th
- Critadel (PC/Switch) – Releases Oct. 13th
- Starlight Alliance (PC/Switch) – Releases Oct. 13th
- The Riftbreaker (PC/PS5/Series X|S) – Releases Oct. 14th
- Mad Streets (PC) – Releases Oct. 15th
- NHL 22 (PS4/PS5/XBone/Series X|S) – Releases Oct. 15th
Notable Releases from 10, 20 and 30 (and sometimes 40) years ago:
Batman: Arkham City (PS3/Xbox 360) – Released Oct. 18th, 2011: Wiki Link
Notable Film Release: The Thing (2011) – Starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Joel Edgerton
Notable Album Release: M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
If you’ve played video games long enough then you can usually expect most titles based on a licensed property is going to be terrible. From early stinkers like E.T. and The Amazing Spider-Man on the Atari 2600, to NES duds like Wolverine, Fox’s Peter Pan & The Pirates, Ghostbusters (I could go on and on), all the way up to the 2011 atrocities in Thor: God of Thunder and Captain America: Super Soldier. When 2009’s Batman: Arkham Asylum came out it was a spectacular surprise to find an engrossing, well designed metroidvania that was loads of fun to play and contained a plethora of Batman lore. It should, then, come as no surprise that a sequel was quickly greenlit, in fact, the team at Rocksteady was so confident that they had a hit on their hands that they even put easter eggs in Arkham Asylum that alluded to the mass prison that makes up Arkham City, and started pre-production just a few months before Asylum wrapped. The idea was to take the insular world they built in the first game and expand it into a full blown city, with multiple buildings, streets, and locations. Rocksteady also wanted to make sure they didn’t just build a generic city for players to explore, no, they wanted to make sure that everything you encounter in the game has some kind of connection to an already established piece of Batman lore. It was an ambitious undertaking, but the team seemed up for the task (and I assume were forced into mandatory crunch, but I’m just speculating…).
Arkham City takes place 18 months after the events of Arkham Asylum, with the Supervillain prison’s director, Quincy Sharp, taking full credit for stopping the Joker during the events of the first game. He uses this as a way to sway public opinion in his favor, being voted in as Mayor of Gotham City, and then using his new power to purchase several blocks of slum neighborhoods, transforming it into a massive prison where Supervillains can roam free and do whatever they want, as long as they don’t try to escape. Batman, seeing this as a completely stupid idea, decides to keep an eye on the place, and wouldn’t you know it, the whole thing is actually a ploy by the villain Hugo Strange to rid Gotham of evil, by any means necessary. Of course The Joker is around too, and he’s dying from having injected too much Titan into his system in the first game, and I’ll let you guess if he’s the final boss too (spoiler: he is).
To promote the game, the marketing department at publisher Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment wanted to play on the impact that Batman has had on mainstream pop culture, hoping to reach the Call of Duty/Madden audience, rather than just the Superhero fan/comic book audience. Taking inspiration from classic black & white photographs of icons like Steve Jobs and James Dean, the marketing team decided to use a black & white aesthetic for Arkham City, using blood red as a contrast, and bringing in soft lighting to play up Batman’s humanity, rather than his Superhero status. The team was able to get Batman’s black & white image on the covers of 120 magazine, reaching an estimated 15 million consumers across the world. They even started a viral campaign in which costumed characters would show up at press events, bombarded social media with images of Batman, and put billboards across the country. In total, the marketing for the game was nearly $10 million; a staggering number.
In the end, it worked like gang busters. Arkham City is one of the fastest selling video games of all time, with over 2 million of the game’s initial 4.6 million first print selling in just two weeks. By comparison, Arkham Asylum moved 4.3 million units over its entire retail lifespan. By February of 2012, Arkham City had reportedly sold over 6 million copies, and after its first year, had gone on to sell 12.5 million copies, generating over $600 million in revenue. Critics were impressed with the game as well, with perfect scores from Game Informer, 1UP, EGM, GamePro, OXM, and X-Play. When awards season came around it was named Adventure Game of the Year by the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences, and it received multiple nominations and wins at the Spike VGA’s, including Character of the Year going to The Joker as portrayed by Mark Hamill. It is notable here as Hamill had stated that Arkham City would be the last time he’d voice the Joker character, however he’d take it back and reprised the role in the sequel Arkham Knight.
Of course a massive hit like this could only mean more, so of course there was DLC and the obligatory GOTY edition. However, rocksteady wasn’t ready to work on another full title so quickly, and the game was followed up with the less warmly received Arkham Origins, made by WB Games Montreal, and then the previously mentioned Arkham Knight, with Rocksteady returning. It got decent reviews, but was still not as well regarded as City. Currently Rocksteady is working on a spin-off title called Suicide Squad: Kill The Justice League, continuing the mythos and world from the Arkham, but without using the Batman character as a protagonist. Arkham City, like Asylum, is a triumph in gaming, and showed that not all licensed titles need to be terrible. While the Xbox 360 version is not backwards compatible with the Xbox One/Series X|S, there is a “next-gen” remaster that you can purchase and play on the Xbox One, Series X|S, PS4, PS5, and of course you can always play it on PC. A Wii U version came out, but the three people who still own one are probably too busy playing Virtual Console games on it to give it a look. If you haven’t played this in the last then years then I implore you to find a copy and give it a go, it’s fantastic.
Devil May Cry (PS2) – Released Oct. 16th, 2001: Wiki Link
Notable Film Release: Iron Monkey – Starring Donnie Yen
Notable Album Release: Le Tigre – Feminist Sweepstakes
Like Batman: Arkham City, Capcom’s Devil May Cry was a landmark achievement when it released in 2001, and it is regularly brought up when video game critics talk about the greatest games of all time. Originally intended to be Resident Evil 4, the game’s director, Hideki Kamiya, wanted to bring more action and “coolness” to the franchise, and set out to make a game that incorporated these themes. As development and pre-production continued, however, Kamiya noticed that his vision was starting to pull the game further and further from Resident Evil’s survival horror roots. Slowly he was able to convince the staff at Capcom that this game had to be its own separate thing, eventually gaining approval from everyone he needed to. Originally the game’s protagonist was going to have superhuman powers as the result of biogenetic experiments but, after setting the game in the world of Demons, it was decided that his powers would be inherited from demonic lineage. The title of the game was changed to Devil May Cry, with the setting and story very loosely based on the Italian poem Divine Comedy, and the protagonist was re-named Dante.
The gameplay in Devil May Cry was groundbreaking at the time for a 3D game, and it was all because of a game bug. A few months ago we discussed the release of Onimusha, another Capcom title for the PS2, and a bug in that game allowed for players to juggle enemies in the air by continually slashing them with your sword. Kamiya saw this bug and knew he wanted to base his game around this feature, so when Dante shoots or slashes an enemy, the player can keep them afloat if they continually attack them. To further differentiate itself from the Resident Evil franchise, Devil May Cry employs a mission structure, and while the crux of the game takes place in the same location, your time playing through it is broken up into sections, giving you the ability to purchase upgrades and trinkets to help you on your journey. Players were hooked on the game, with Devil May Cry selling 2.16 million copies over its lifespan, making it the 61st best selling PS2 game of all time. Critical reception to the game was high as well, with GamePro giving it a perfect score, and receiving nearly perfect scores from just about every major gaming outlet of the day.
Over the next few years, Devil May Cry was seen as the standard for 3D action games, with critics often comparing new games in the genre to it, and there were many titles that followed in its wake, including copy-cats like Chaos Legion and Blood Will Tell. Devil May Cry would be famously followed up with the universally panned Devil May Cry 2, but would bounce back with a third entry on the PS2, followed by a fourth entry on the 360/PS3, a reboot of the series also on the 360/PS3, and then a fifth mainline game on modern consoles. Sadly, I never played this game back in its heyday, stupidly ignoring it because it looked too “action-y”. I was a complete fool, because my recent playthrough with the Switch port has been nothing but pure joy. I should have given this more credit back in 2001 and if you, like me, have been ignoring it, stop whatever you are doing and pick up a copy of the game.
ToeJam & Earl (Genesis) – Released Oct. 15th, 1991: Wiki Link
Notable Film Release: Ernest Scared Stupid – Starring Jim Varney
Notable Album Release: Schooly D – How A Black Man Feels
1991’s ToeJam & Earl might be best known as a quirky Sega game, but the title is wholly the brainchild of its creator, a man named Greg Johnson. Born in 1960 in New Jersey to a Russian-American mother and an African-American father, Johnson would be moved out to Los Angeles at the age of three following his parents separation. From there, the multi-ethnic Johnson would befriend the melting pot of kids in his school and take in the multicultural world around him, using this as inspiration for his games. While attending UC San Diego in the early 1980’s, Johnson would happen upon PC dungeon crawler Rogue, completely changing his life’s trajectory and pushing him into the world of video game design. His first game, Starflight, was published by EA and released on PC in 1986 to massive critical and financial success, and followed it with the game Caveman Ughlympics, a quirky comedy that was a precursor to his work on TJ&E. During production of Starflight 2, John met a programmer named Mark Voorsanger and they quickly developed a friendship and solid work relationship. With Starflight 2 completed, the two men decided to venture out on their own and start their own video game company, calling it Johnson Voorsanger Productions, or JVP. For their first project, Johnson came up with the idea of two aliens crash landing on Earth and having to find their way back home.
Taking the science fiction elements of Starflight and mixing it with the quirky humor of Caveman Ughlympics and some of the lighter elements in Starflight 2, Johnson came up with dual protagonists, the three legged short guy ToeJam and his tall, big boned friend Earl. Taking a cue from his teenage days in Los Angeles, Johnson opted to give them a hip-hop/funk feel, and with a new interest by the public at large in rap music and “urban” culture, Johnson felt like the time was right to bring characters like these to the video game industry. In 1991, the vast majority of, if not all, black characters in video games were from sports titles, mostly as boxers and football players. If they weren’t one of those then it was likely they were ordinary thugs in beat ’em up games. Now, obviously, ToeJam & Earl aren’t black, they’re not even human, but in a 2021 article in NME, the writer, Matthew Neale describes the pair as “black-coded”, meaning that the characters take on the traits of a black person but are not actually shown to be a black human. Some examples of black-coded characters include Bugs and Lola Bunny, Jerry the mouse, Skeeter from Doug, and Goofy & Max. To Johnson, having representation in video games mattered to him, and as a bi-racial person myself, I was always searching for greater representation of who I was in video games in the early days of gaming; so was Johnson. Growing up as a POC and a nerd put him squarely in the realm of outsider, and it was this feeling of isolation, of not fitting in and feeling like a stranger among his peers that painted much of ToeJam & Earl’s plot.
While on a cruise through the galaxy, Earl takes the wheel of the space ship from ToeJam and subsequently crashes into a meteor. Their ship breaks apart into ten pieces and it is scattered across the Earth. The two outsiders must then search multiple randomly generated levels to find the missing pieces, while at the same time they must avoid a cavalcade of almost exclusively white antagonists that range from an angry mother pushing a shopping cart, a sadistic dentist, and a herd of nerds that flatten you on impact. Not every enemy is white, however, as the game also features little red demons, bee swarms, giant hamsters in their balls, and a mailbox that can come alive, just to name a few. Along the way you can be helped by certain humans, including an opera singer who can sing so loud that she kills all nearby enemies, and a man in a carrot suit that will identify presents you find along the way (of course you need to pay them…). These presents are scattered across every level and, at first, each of them is a mystery. However, once you open a present you’ll discover what is inside, meaning you’ll know what it is later if you find another with the same wrapping paper. Most of them are helpful, like shoes that make you run faster or jump over pits (stay out the pits), wings that let you fly, slingshots that shoot tomatoes at your enemies, and decoys that foes will harass, leaving you time to escape. There are, however, two really bad presents. One of them, the “Total Bummer” will take away a life, while another randomizes all of the presents, meaning you’d need to check them all again to find out what has changed.
It’s a tough, brutal game, but it is also a kind of quiet and serene experience, albeit with some really catchy funk tunes. The music, composed by John Baker, is some of the most memorable (at least to me) in all of video gaming. There is even a performance mode in which players can use their controllers to rap along to the beat and add in their own musicality. I would spend so much time making the game say “Big Earl!” not just because it was fun to do, but it was also one of the first games to talk. Not only do each character have things to say, but your enemies speak as well, though everyone’s dialogue was fairly limited. Back to development, while Johnson and Voorsanger were busy coming up with the intricacies of the game, they were able to set up pitch meetings with various gaming companies, one of them being Sega of America. Sega was looking to really give Nintendo some stiff competition and were open to many different ideas. Johnson and Voorsanger pitched them ToeJam & Earl and the company was very receptive. They loved the characters and even considered them possible mascots (then Sonic happened, so…), but they weren’t sure that their idea of a simultaneous two player game would work on the Genesis. Voorsanger was determined though, he was going to get it in there, cooperation was a key part of the game. After spending time with the Genesis hardware he was able to figure it out and the game worked exactly how they wanted it to.
When TJ&E finally hit store shelves it was only a modest seller, and Sega quickly branded it a flop. However, due to the rising popularity of Sonic The Hedgehog, Sega had a massive 1991 holiday season, dominating the game market. Parents who wanted to buy more games for their kids likely saw these two cartoon aliens and figured “this must be for children” and picked it up. After this sales blitz, word of mouth on the game spread and more and more people were picking up ToeJam & Earl. Critics, however, were very quick to sing the game’s praises, with almost universal acclaim. Magazine Entertainment Weekly called it the net best game on the Genesis after Sonic The Hedgehog, and placed it at #9 on their list of the best games of 1991. Even reputable newspapers like the Chicago Tribune sang its praises, calling the duo a “…rap version of Abbott and Costello“, saying it was one of the funniest video games ever made. Of course, the two player co-op was highly praised as well and was seen as a technological marvel. Despite all of the praise the game only ever achieved “sleeper hit” status with a cult following. In 1993, a sequel called Panic on Funkotron was released, and while Johnson and Voorsanger wanted to continue the overheard, isometric view, Sega demanded that they go with something more recognizable, like a side scrolling platformer. While that game did okay financially, it was seen as too much of a departure from the quirky, highly original, first game, and turned off much of it’s core fanbase. A third entry would release in 2002 for the Xbox as a 3D platformer, before the duo were put on ice.
In 2019, Johnson, who still owned the characters, ran a successful Kickstarter campaign, and with actor Macaulay Culkin on board as a producer, Johnson was able to release Back In The Groove, a game that played more like the original game, finally giving hardcore fans of the series what they had wanted. It’s weird to say, or even think, that ToeJam & Earl is one of the first, if not the first, video games to feature positive black characters, a game that centered on their experiences in a world that viewed them as “other”. This is why, to me, as dumb as it sounds, ToeJam & Earl is one of the most important video games ever made. Thankfully, due to Sega’s wonderful celebration of its back catalog, TJ&E is very easy to find on any modern console or PC, as either a standalone game or as part of the Sega Genesis Classics release from 2018. We’re really lucky this week to have talked about three absolutely stellar games. Let’s finish things off with another.
Vanguard (Arcade) – Released Oct. 1981: Wiki Link
Notable Film Release: Tattoo – Starring Bruce Dern and Maude Adams
Notable Album Release: Prince – Controversy
It is very late and the cough syrup is starting to kick in, so let’s just kind of breeze through this one, okay? Developed in 1981 by TOSE and published by SNK, Vanguard is one of the earliest examples, along with Konami’s Scramble, of the shoot ’em up genre. Like Scramble, the player controlled ship moves automatically through the stage, however players can control which way it goes. However, unlike Scramble, players have the ability to choose which direction their attacks go, and many sections require you to hit enemies that fly in from all sides of your ship. The game, while mostly horizontal, does feature sections that scroll diagonally and vertically, again making the direction you shoot of vast importance. Vanguard is also notable because it is one of the first uses of digitized speech, telling players the name of upcoming zones (levels) and warning them when a power up is about to be depleted. Truth be told, Vanguard is a bit of a slog, and not a whole lot of fun, but I can respect what it gave to the video game industry. We wouldn’t have later classics like Gradius, R-Type, Musha, Ikaruga, and countless others without TOSE’s pioneering efforts with Vanguard. Sadly, I was unable to find this game on any kind of modern device, having to resort to (poor) emulation through Mame. If you somehow come across a cabinet of this out in the wild (which I highly doubt), give it a try.
And now…The Murder City Devils.