Monday, October 31, 2011

Games You Should Know About... My Favorite Horror Video Games

It's the night of Halloween. Let's say, like me, you're alone in your home. Your friends are nowhere to be found and you've got nothing planned. You're too old for trick-or-treating, haunted attractions are only fun with a group of friends, parties are full of loud, obnoxious, drunk people. What do you do? You could kick back and enjoy a horror movie (there's no shortage of them on television this night) or you could take a more active approach and bring the horror to life in your living room. No, I'm not talking about summoning ghosts and demons (I don't terribly recommend that, unless you've got a death wish, Charles Bronson). I'm talking about horror video games. Why watch a bunch of actors get butchered when you can play as a character who narrowly misses a horrific death time after time. With a full harvest of games perfect for Halloween, you may have a tough time picking the perfect one. If that's the case, allow me to show you some of my favorite horror and Halloween themed games. Many of them are available for the XBOX 360 (through download, even), while others may require you to dust off something slightly older. So grab your contoller, turn off the lights, and dive into some digital terror.

Since this is "Games You Should Know About...," I guess I won't talk about some of the more obvious choices. Everyone should know about the Silent Hill games, so I'm not going to mention them.  Though I did enjoy Shattered Memories, for those of you who refuse to play a SH game not made by Team Silent.  The same goes for the Left 4 Dead games.  Sure, they're great, but most of us have already played them.  Besides, you're alone... all alone.  Not even your online buddies are here to save you, which kind of puts a damper on a team game like L4D.  Let's talk about some games most of you haven't played (at least, in a while).

First off, let's do an honorable mention.  There's a new Pinball FX 2 table that came out recently called Paranormal.  The story of this pinball table is that a paranormal investigator is... well, investigating all these strange phenomena.  Missions include defeating the Jersey Devil, finding the Lock Ness Monster, tracking down UFOs, etc.  This may sound like it's inspired by The X Files, but it seems to take more of a cue from the 1974 TV show Kolchak: The Night Stalker (which, in turn, was one of the inspirations for The X Files).  It's a fun table, even outside of Halloween, but you should really check it out right now because it's absolutely free for a limited time.  That's right, you have until this Wednesday, November 2, to download this table for free.  Add in the fact that the Pinball FX 2 application is free and you have a very good reason to pick both up (if you haven't, already).

So let's start with something fairly recent.  Remedy Entertainment, the guys who made the first two Max Payne games, teamed up with Microsoft to create a riveting psychological thriller of a game, Alan Wake.  You play as the eponymous Wake, a successful writer who has hit a pretty bad slump.  Your wife takes you to the quiet town of Bright Falls, nestled in the wilderness of Washington state for some rest and relaxation.  Of course, things aren't always what they seem and you find yourself running for your life in the dark woods that surround Bright Falls like an encroaching horde.  It's up to you to save your wife, uncover the dark secret of this town, and make it out alive.  While it's been a long while since I've played Max Payne, Alan Wake's gameplay feels similar to the PS2 crime thriller.  As a third person action game, you will have lots of guns and ammo to take out your enemies, but it's light that is your most important weapon.  Without it, the enemy is invincible.

This will become all too familiar sight, as you will need to
constantly dodge enemies to survive.

The game was inspired by many different sources, including the works of Stephen King, John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness, and TV shows like Twin Peaks and Lost.  The game is done in an episodic format to make it feel like a TV show (a show like this would probably be on Showtime).  There are only six episodes, so it's not very long, but there are two DLC packages that extend that.

Gameplay is good, the story is riveting, and the music is well done, including some songs by Finnish rock group Poets of the Fall (who also made a song for Max Payne 2).  I wouldn't say that the game is scary, but there were some stressful moments while fighting and dodging up to seven enemies at once.  It's good if you're looking for more of a thriller with a good story and good characters.

Speaking of Twin Peaks, our next game was heavily, I mean heavily, inspired by the TV show.  At first glance, Deadly Premonition, seems like some kind of joke, with its inferior graphics and control.  But quite a few people have realized that there is a lot to enjoy in this game.  Imagine if Silent Hill, Shenmue, and Grand Theft Auto had an unholy baby.  You play as Francis York Morgan, a quirky FBI agent who feels himself coming close to solving a string of serial murders when he investigates the violent death of Anna Graham in the quiet town of Greenvale, nestled in the wilderness of Washington state (notice a pattern, here?)  There's plenty to do in this game, whether it's tracking down the elusive killer, or the cornucopia of side missions scattered all over the town.

One thing I will mention that ties Alan Wake and this game together with Twin Peaks is the presence of a kooky lady in the town that cradles an unlikely object in their arms who may know more than people think.  In Twin Peaks, it was the Log Lady; in Alan Wake, it was the Lamp Lady; and in Deadly Premonition, it was the Pot Lady.  Seriously, there's this woman who walks about town with a casserole pot in her hands and she keeps complaining that her pot is getting too cold (despite the fact that she insists on taking it with her everywhere she goes).  There's side missions where you pick her up off of the street and drive as fast as you can to her house before her pot gets cold (no foolin', this is an actual side quest).  This game is full of strange, quirky humor like this, which is a big reason why it's so much fun.  Also, a lot of the characters are so great that you get to feel very familiar with them.  You see them on a daily basis, make chit-chat with them, and gain information and insight from them.  Eventually, you feel like your part of the town (of course, the town goes to hell toward the end of the game.

Combat in Deadly Premonition may remind
some people of Resident Evil 4.

While Alan Wake wasn't very scary, Deadly Premonition has more of a creepy vibe to it.  It's not as disturbing as the Silent Hill games, but I do get an uneasy feeling shooting these bizarre monsters that walk toward you backwards with their upper bodies bent backwards toward you while they try to force their hands down your throat.  It's definitely an odd game, but it's one worth playing.  This is, without a doubt, the biggest cult classic on the XBOX 360.

Now, if you were to ask me what the scariest game I ever played was, I would only have two words for you: Fatal Frame.  While I'm not an easy guy to scare, I have been known to feel the chill of terror while playing a video game.  No other game has scared the crap out of me quite like Fatal Frame on the PS2 (or XBOX, if you're so inclined).  While three of the games have been released in the US, I'm primarily talking about the first one, for that's the one I played. 

Part of the reason this game is so scary is because you are completely alone in an old, haunted mansion in Japan.  In a lot of other survival horror games, you get a break from the terror when you meet up with other innocent people (of course, Silent Hill has you meeting with some pretty fucked up individuals).  In the first Fatal Frame, you don't run into other people.  It's just you and a house full of tormented ghosts.  Your only defense is a mystical camera that drains the spirit energy of the ghosts until they dissipate into oblivion.

Unfortunately, you have to switch to the camera aim mode, which makes you move extremely slow while trying to keep the ghosts in your viewfinder.  This means that you are unable to dodge the ghosts as they lunge at you, howling and tormenting you (especially the blind ghost - you would think that having no eyes would make it hard for her to attack you - you'd be wrong).  Let's just say you may never be able to turn off the lights ever again.

Gah!  Take the picture, quickly!  Do it!  NOW!!!

If you're not interested in scaring yourself so bad, you need adult diapers, with the Fatal Frame games, you may be more inclined in something more old school.  No retro game is perfect for Halloween than one from the Castlevania series.  Of course there's plenty to choose from, but my favorites would probably be Super Castlevania IV for the SNES, Castlevania Bloodlines for the Genesis, or Symphony of the Night for the PS1 (which is also available for download on XBOX 360).  If you have a Nintendo Wii, you can pick up Castlevania: The Adventure Rebirth, which is a remade version of the first Castlevania game for the Game Boy.  I didn't really have anything else to say about Castlevania, I just like playing those games around Halloween.  Just thought I'd mention it.

But, seriously, if you're looking for a more humorous game for Halloween, there's only one group you can call: Ghostbusters.  Ghostbusters: The Video Game was released two years ago, but it's great fun for all Ghostbusters fans (and, let's be honest, who doesn't want to bust some ghosts?).  The game stars the iconic cast of the movies (sans Sigourney Weaver and Rick Moranis) in a new adventure during the early nineties and was written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis.  You play as the new rookie of the team and prototype tester of all the new toys as you help the other Ghostbusters defeat Gozer once and for all.  Great third person action and a lot of classic Ghostbusters humor make this a game worth playing (don't even bother with Sanctum of Slime, it sucks).

Finally, for those who miss those good old days where we dressed up in shoddy costumes, walked through neighborhoods for candy, and spent the next week on a non-stop sugar high, there's Costume Quest, an RPG where you play a kid who must try to save your sibling while going through your neighborhood, the mall, a country town, and the underworld trying to save Halloween from a group of goblins and a disgruntled witch.  While the game is not very long, it will only take you a handful of hours to beat the game, Double Fine (creators of awesome games like Psychonauts and BrĂ¼tal Legend) made a game that completely captures the spirit of Halloween for children.  It's a testament to childhood imagination and a love letter to Halloween that every kid-at-heart should play.  And when you're done with the game, you can pick up the DLC which makes the logical jump to the next big holiday after Halloween (no, not Thanksgiving - who would make a video game about Thanksgiving?).  By the way, do goblins really celebrate Christmas?

Okay, so those are my favorite games to play for Halloween.  Of course, by the time I finished writing this, Halloween is almost over - go figure.  Well, there's nothing that says you have to wait for Halloween to play these games.  Don't tell me you don't play horror games on All Saints Day.  What the hell is wrong with you?

Until next time, Happy Halloween for the next 38 minutes.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Dungeons of Time - Horror Edition

Okay, so I've been MIA for a few weeks.  I was on a forced hiatus due to two factors: my new job and one vicious fucking cold.  Between the two, I didn't have the time or energy to make blog posts.  But, since my favorite holiday, Halloween, is fast approaching, I had to have some sort of horror post for the occasion.

Now some people celebrate Halloween by going to parties or taking their kids out trick-or-treating, perhaps watching horror flicks on television, which that's perfectly fine.  But what if that's not your cup of witch's brew?  Maybe you want to have a few friends over for a special game night.  Now, there are plenty of options for tabletop gaming for Halloween.  If you like board games, I seriously recommend Betrayal at House on the Hill and Zombies!!!  Let's say, though, for the sake of argument, that you have a copy of Savage Worlds just begging for you to utilize for some All Hallow's Eve gaming.  You're in luck, for this RPG has plenty of horror supplements that allow you to create the horror experience of your dreams.  So let's take a look at the treasury of terror for Savage Worlds.

Let's say you don't have a lot of time and money to put together a campaign or you have players who've never played Savage Worlds before.  Is there a horror filled Savage Worlds adventure that has all the components you need (including pre-generated characters and figure flats) for free?  In short, yes.  Just download The Wild Hunt, which was the test drive adventure Pinnacle put out for this year's Free RPG Day.  The adventure takes a group of unrelated people thrown into a sleepy town that is under the thrall of a malicious spirit and his legion of zombies.  It's completely self contained - all you need is the Savage Worlds rulebook, and is perfect for a quick one shot with little preparation.

If your players have already experienced the terror of The Wild Hunt and crave more zombie armageddon, look no further than Daring Entertainment's War of the Dead, which is a serial adventure of surviving a zombie outbreak.  So far, three chapters have been released, covering almost 40 adventures, with a fourth chapter coming soon.  War of the Dead is perfect for zombie fans looking for a long campaign.

Perhaps survival horror is not your bag.  Perhaps you wish to subject your players to inevitable terror, death,  and madness when they encounter the star born horrors from the works of H. P. Lovecraft.  Then you should not hesitate to pick up Realms of Cthulhu from Reality Blurs.  While the Call of Cthulhu RPG has been terrorizing players for decades, Realms of Cthulhu brings the minions of the Elder Gods to Savage Worlds.  Whether you play in the classic era of the 1920s - 1930s or a more modern setting, you'll find plenty of cultists, forbidden texts, and creatures that defy human logic to add to your campaign.  If you want to add more of an espionage element to your Lovecraftian horror (or to any modern horror campaign setting) you can also find plenty of use from Reality Blurs' latest (and long developed) setting, Agents of Oblivion.  Many have said that you can create many different styles of campaigns, from an occult version of James Bond, to X-Files or Men in Black, which makes this product extremely versatile.  Check out both of these titles.

Then again, your players may be less interested in monster investigating and more on monster hunting.  If they also would like some Victoriana with their horror, then Pinnacle's Rippers is perfect.  Imagine if the movie Van Helsing didn't suck, and you have something close to Rippers.  Player take the role of Victorian era ladies and gentlemen of various nationalities and social strata who live a double life.  By day, the go about their normal business.  By night, they hunt the servants of a sinister organization known only as the Cabal.  They gained the name Rippers from their use of Rippertech, which infuses the powers of the monsters they hunt into their bodies to give them an even playing field.  However, as Nietzsche once said, "he who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster."

 Regardless of which horror campaign you wish to use, any Savage Worlds gamemaster can make use of the brand new Horror Companion, which replaces the Horror Toolkits from the old edition.  This handy book allows you to improve your games with new systems, tables, spells and gadgets, horror races for players (including one I've been interested in, the dhampyr), and other tools.

If you're planning on running a horror adventure for Halloween, or any other time, any of these products are a great idea.  If you're interested in picking them up, make your way over to  You'll find them by clicking Savage Worlds in the Rule System drop down menu or typing them in the search bar.  Hope you and your friends have a happy and haunted game session this Halloween.

If you're not the kind of person who prefers a little solo gaming, don't worry.  I'll bring to light some of my favorite horror and Halloween video games tomorrow.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Games You Should Know About... XBOX Live Indie Games 4: Match of Titans

Originally, the subject of this Games You Should Know About... was going to be Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, which came out in an HD collection for the PS3 this week.  Both of which are fantastic games, but the only way I wouldn't say what any game critic worth their salt has already said (which is "buy this game, dammit!") is by telling all the haters to go fuck off.  All I could really add to the subject is just me griping that those who bitched about these games have an imagination and attention span large enough to fit on the head of a pin (that means you're mentally bankrupt, asswipe).  So, in the spirit of repetition, "buy this game, dammit!"

Fortunately, September has been a pretty good month for XBOX Live Indie games.  I've got three new titles available that I think are worth five times the small amount of Microsoft Points they're asking for.

First off, since Halloween is soon approaching, I thought I'd get a jump start on a game perfect for sating your uncontrollable hunger for 8-bit horror.  Now, I know the market is flooded with zombie-apocalypse-survival-horror games, and XBOX Live Indie is no exception, but this is a zombie game with some real substance and staying power.  Load your shotgun and prepare to run from Dead Pixels (clever name).

This official art definitely adds to the game's feel
of watching an old grindhouse zombie movie -- Nice!

Created by Scottish indie developer CANTSTRAFERIGHT, Dead Pixels feels like a cross between Left 4 Dead and River City Ransom, though the plethora of inspirations and in-game references span the gamut of zombie movies, video games, etc.  You play as a lone survivor (or a pair of survivors in a two-player game) who must plow through a horde of zombies to "get to tha' choppa'" and escape.  Just so you know, these zombies are the radioactive brand, created from spilled nuclear waste, not the viral outbreak or the necromantic kind.

The game has you going further and further to the right (though you can go left to get something that you didn't pick up earlier), shooting zombies, looting buildings, and trading with makeshift stores for guns, ammo, and toilet paper (yes, you can sell toilet paper to them).  The further you go, the more varieties of zombies you come up against, each kind harder than the last.  Though the zombies don't say things like "Barf!" at the bottom of the screen, they do leave behind money to collect.  You can also upgrade certain abilities at stores to make you a better zombie slaying machine.

Gameplay is extremely fun and harder difficulty settings add more streets for you to run through to get to the goal, which allows you to customize your game length.  The best part about Dead Pixels is that the developer has promised add-on content (what he likes to call "free DLC") for every sales milestone the game reaches.  After three days in the marketplace, the game already reached its first milestone (4,000 units) and he is working on a new game mode called "The Solution."  It also seems that there'll be another add-on after that, since the second milestone (10,000 units) was recently surpassed.  If you want to keep track of the add-on developments and sales milestones, check out the official Facebook page.

Oh yeah, did I mention it only costs a buck?

Up next is Robotriot, an action platform game from Retromite.  In this game, you play a robot who looks like the love-child of The Black Hole's V.I.N.CENT and T-Bob from MASK.  Your job is to infiltrate rogue spaceships and disable their power cores so that your boss can have them towed.  Yes, the hero of the game is a robo repo man.

Of course, just like in the real repo business, you have to deal with people trying to stop you from taking their transportation.  Though, instead of the hung-over guy in a wife beater and soiled boxers pointing a shotgun at you, you're dealing with security systems rife with robots, gun emplacements, and hazardous obstacles.  Fortunately, you have some firepower to keep things even.  There's a lot of shooting switches, finding keycards, and using moving platforms to satisfy action platform fans.  While this is usually not my kind of game, I found myself enjoying this one.  One thing I will say is, for a game that only costs $1, the graphics and music are really good.  It looks and sounds like a high end 16-bit game.

If you like exploring levels with platforms and switches and shooting up enemies, pick up Robotriot.  It's also going to be available on Android phones as well as the iPhone and iPad (not that I'm interested in doing anything on my phone other than making calls, but whatever floats your boat).

Speaking of high quality games, our final game, Wizorb, is a thing of beauty.  Imagine a game like Atari's Breakout or Taito's Arkanoid, add magic spell power-ups that are fueled by a magic meter, some RPG elements, and a healthy dose of monsters, and you have Wizorb.  While this may be the first work from Tribute, the Montreal based development team that made this game, I could have sworn this game was made by seasoned veterans of the industry.  Don't believe me?  Just take a look at the website for the game.  There's not much to it, right now, but it looks great.

The high production doesn't end there, either.  The graphics are beautiful, the sprite animation is silky smooth, and the soundtrack is great.  Wizorb looks like a highly polished and rare game for the Sega Master System -- maybe even Super Nintendo.  Fortunately, it's an unbelievably gorgeous and extremely fun XBOX Live Indie game for only $3.  This is a MUST BUY.

Storywise, you play Cyrus, a wizard with the rare and mysterious power of the Wizorb, who must save the kingdom of Gorudo from legions of monsters.  While you're saving the kingdom, you'll come across a town that needs your help in rebuilding (by spending gold, of course).  Each building you repair gives you items or new options, such as a store, to help you on your quest.

I've only played the game for about five minutes, but I can already tell this game is a solid winner (I played the demo.  Once I get my first paycheck from my new job, I'll drop the funds for this one).  With fantastic graphics and sound and awesome gameplay, you have no reason to skip this game.  Buy it.  Seriously, buy it.  Just friggin' buy it.

One more game to mention, though you won't find it on XBOX.  While digging up some info on these games, I came across another game called Ninja Senki.  Some of you may have heard of it, since it came out last December.  If you haven't, it's an old school action platformer in a similar vein to the Mega Man series.  It's only available for PC, but it is free to download.  Check out the website and enjoy.

Hope that buffet of cheap games holds you over until the next crop.  I'll see you guys next week.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Some Dragon Quest-ness and the 75th Birthday of a Legend

So Square Enix is celebrating 25 years of Dragon Quest (like many other classic NES franchises).  While the Dragon Quest games have been successful in the U.S. (initially under the name Dragon Warrior), it's the Japanese gamers that made the franchise a phenomenon and kept it alive for so long.  Of course, Square Enix rewarded them with the Dragon Quest 25th Anniversary Collection for the Wii, which features the Famicom and Super Famicom emulations of the first three games (known as the Loto Trilogy) along with a bunch of extras.  Needless to say, it's not coming out Stateside.  C'mon, guys!  First, we are denied Xenoblade and The Last Story (even though they were released in Europe) now this?  Seriously, Nintendo of America, it's like you don't want people to buy the Wii.  What the hell is wrong with you?!

For those of us who do not live in Japan, all we can do is salivate at these videos.  This first one is the Japanese trailer for the collection, featuring all the great extras that are included.  So friggin' jealous.

Next is the anime intro to the game, which was done by the same animation studio who did the intro for Dragon Quest IX, Kamikaze Douga.  The intro summarizes the legends of the great hero, Loto, and his descendants that are the focus of these first three games.  Enjoy.

While there's probably no chance in hell we'll get the anniversary collection, we do get some Dragon Quest games coming our way.  For those who enjoy the pet monster offshoot of the franchise, Dragon Quest Monsters Joker 2 came out recently.  Of course, Japan also got an expanded version of the game, Dragon Quest Monsters Joker 2 Professional, which came out last March, but the American release is of the original game.  Whatever.

Then, there's Dragon Quest X, which will be the first time, since Dragon Warrior IV, that a Dragon Quest game came to a Nintendo home console in the U.S. (Dragon Quest V and VI came out for the Super Famicom in Japan).  Here's the trailer from this year's Tokyo Game Show.

Yeah, I can't wait to play it, either.  It's supposed to be available for the Wii and WiiU (whether or not it makes a difference which system you play it on is unknown to me).

Okay, one more video.  Today would have marked Jim Henson's 75 birthday.  Though he died 21 years ago, his vision and legacy still live on.  Here's one of my favorite Muppet moments.  Happy birthday, Jim.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Dungeons of Time - Sagave Worlds of MARS

I think it's time we go back into the dungeons, once again.  Today, we're going to take a look at a game from Adamant Entertainment.  These guys have been making products for numerous RPG systems: Mutants & Masterminds, d20 Modern, D&D 4th Edition, Pathfinder, and, of course, Savage Worlds.  Some of their upcoming projects that might interest you include a mash-up of wild west and wuxia (like in those classic kung fu movies) called Far West and an RPG based on the adventures of the original six-gun, six-string samurai of science, Buckaroo Banzai.  Whether or not these games will be available for Savage Worlds is unknown to me.  We'll just have to wait and keep our fingers crossed.

However, today's game in question is actually from a few years ago.  Back then, I became enamored with Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom series of books, which dealt with a civil war veteran, John Carter, being astrally transported to a fantastical version of the planet Mars and his adventures there, among other things.  He became one of my favorite characters, along with Conan, in fantasy/sci-fi literature.  With the Barsoom series, Burroughs popularized the Planetary Romance genre (also known as Sword & Planet).  His stories inspired writers, filmmakers, and game designers.  To prove that, I present to you the first Sword & Planet game for Savage Worlds: MARS.

MARS originally started out as a campaign setting for 3rd Edition d20 system.  After 4th Edition came out, Adamant decided to move the game over to Savage Worlds.  MARS will be very familiar to fans of Barsoom, but there are many differences.  For instance, almost every race in MARS only has two arms; no four armed Tharks or White Apes, here.  Speaking of White Apes, they are a sentient, warlike race with their own kingdom (think Planet of the Apes meets ancient Rome).  The Grey Martians, an octopoid race, battle in giant tripods, just like those found in H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds.

What you will find in MARS that is reminiscent of Barsoom is exotic locales filled with ancient ruins and strange beasts, once venerable empires using strength and cunning to survive in a fading world, savage races to wage war with, cool gadgets, such as flying ships and radium guns, and all the action, adventure, and intrigue you'd expect.

While three of the native races (Red Men, Green Men, and White Apes) can be selected for player characters, many people will probably want to play a human (like John Carter or Ulysses Paxton).  Not only is this option available, but there are published adventures that deal with one or more Earthlings mysteriously appearing on the Martian surface, whether they're the player characters or NPCs.  The Grey Men, however, are strictly an NPC race, as they're meant to be the strange, subterranean menace to the surface dwellers.  Another "race," the Synthe-Men, are homunculi who were charged with the duty of maintaining and protecting the Martian canal system (which makes it difficult to justify one as a player character).

If this sounds like your idea of adventure, then check out the entire line of MARS products at DriveThru RPG (this page contains products for both 3rd Edition d20, which are now defunct, and Savage Worlds).  While Adamant is busy working on other stuff, at the moment, they did promise more adventures and supplements will be available in the future.

If, however, you are interested in a more authentic approach to Barsoom for your Savage Worlds game, I recommend Savage Barsoom.  This blog contains lots of helpful information for creating games in Burroughs' version of Mars, including articles on races, creatures, culture, religion, technology, and more.  He also has links to companies that sell gaming miniatures for the different races/creatures of Barsoom.  Definitely go check it out.

Until next time, make sure to keep your hands of my dice.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Forgotten Worlds - Mortal Kombat Arcade Kollection

I may be a bit late on this tidbit, but I recently found a website from Namco Bandai that allows you to play the world's biggest game of Pac-Man.  Basically, it's a version of Pac-Man that is swelling with user created levels and continues to grow.  You can even create your own personalized levels and add to the collection.  I created a level based on another Namco classic celebrating its 30th anniversary (as if you need to guess).  Start out with my custom level here, then create and explore this enormous Pac-Man game to your heart's content.

Fans of Ms. Splosion Man who have Pinball FX2, exclusively for XBOX 360, should check out the new pinball table based on Twisted Pixel's explosive valley girl.  Download the trial version for free (Pinball FX2 is also free to download, if you don't have it, yet) and play it for yourself.

Also available, this week, is a collection of one of the most controversial arcade franchises in history.  Mortal Kombat has been showering gamers with blood and gore since 1992 (which means it's one year short of its 20th anniversary).  Since then, the series has had its ups and downs.  Sure, there have been some decent games after the first three, but they couldn't recapture the awesomeness of the original games.  They tried adding weapons, multiple fighting styles, crossovers with comic book superheroes (which was a stupid idea), and even offshoot games (which was even worse).  Nothing could completely win over gamers quite like the original trilogy.

When Midway went out of business, Mortal Kombat seemed to die with it, until Warner Bros. picked up the intellectual property and Ed Boon worked on resuscitating the franchise with a more back-to-basics approach that returned, somewhat, to the original style of gameplay, but pushed the envelope on the characteristic gore and brutality that made the series extremely popular back in the day.

This week, NetherRealm studios (the team that was reborn from the ashes of Midway Games) released a downloadable collection of the first three Mortal Kombat games: Mortal Kombat Arcade Kollection.  Sure, all three of these games have been available in previous arcade classic collections, but this one adds loads more extras, such as new visual modes (including one that makes it look like you're playing the game on a curved CRT monitor, giving you the feeling of being back in the old arcades.  On top of the cosmetic extras, you can play against people online, which seems to be a must for fighting games, these days.

I played the demo of this collection and it brought back memories, for me.  Back in those days, Mortal Kombat introduced a different style of fighting game.  Most fighting games used to be clones of Street Fighter II, which dominated arcades the year before.  Mortal Kombat was different in many ways.  Aside from the obvious, the game used a different control scheme; there were high and low attacks for both kicks and punches, plus a block button.   You had to enter a button combination to pull off the famous Fatalities.  There were secrets and Easter eggs to uncover during gameplay.  It was an entirely new philosophy on how to create a fighting game.

I remember seeing Mortal Kombat for the first time at the local bowling alley and it blew my mind.  I watched my brother and my friends play it (I actually sucked at Mortal Kombat, since I was more accustomed to Street Fighter II).  The game had this irresistible combination of digitized sprites of real actors, uncensored violence and brutality, and a story and atmosphere that reminded me of Enter the Dragon.

Of course, when the game was announced for home systems, my brother and I had to have it.  Unfortunately, there was a reason why arcades were still doing pretty well during the early '90s: ports of arcade games remained inferior to the originals.  Mortal Kombat was no exception.  We got the Super Nintendo version of the game and were extremely disappointed in the result.  All of the awesome crap was watered down.  They changed the blood to look like sweat (though it looked like the characters were bleeding sand) and the Fatalities were heavily doctored.  Nintendo's censorship in their games ruined what could have been a great port.  Even though Sega had no problem with the blood and gore, the godawful graphics and sound screwed up the Genesis port.  It was best just to stick with the arcade version.

1993 saw the rise of Mortal Kombat II, which improved upon every aspect of the original.  Better graphics and sound, new characters, new moves and Fatalities (including Babalities and Friendships, which made fun of the controversy surrounding the first game).  Gone was the storyline of a Shaolin tournament taken over by a shapeshifting mastermind, which was replaced by a fight against an inter-dimensional warlord and his cadre of fighters, sorcerers, and assassins.  By this point, the story wasn't so convoluted and ridiculous yet, so I actually enjoyed it.  The otherworldly aspects of the setting were kind of cool.  Of course, my brother and I got this on the Super Nintendo, but only because they recanted their stance on censorship.  This port of MK II left all the blood and violence in, much to the delight of many gamers.

Then came Mortal Kombat 3 and Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 (which became the definitive version), which felt like a step down, in some ways.  A lot of things changed in the two years since MK II.  The game became extremely dependent on doing combos, which kind of distanced me further from the fighting engine.  Even more characters were added to the roster, which tangled the storyline with a bunch of subplots.  The graphics were better than the first two, but the stages and new characters felt uninspired.  I'll admit, it was still enjoyable to watch, but it wasn't as fun as the first two games.

After Mortal Kombat 4, a lot of gamers abandoned the series.  By this point, the story was too involved with too many characters that it was not worth following.  It also didn't help that things were getting stale, gameplay-wise.  I've played some of the console sequels, like Armageddon, but it just wasn't the same.

That's why it's refreshing to have this collection of the first three games available.  While I still suck at them, it does remind me of a young gamer who used to ride his bike down the street to play all the new arcade games.  The hell with Quan Chi and Shinnok, screw the DC crossover, and Bo' Rai Cho can suck it.  Give me the classic MK trilogy any day.