Nintendo GameBoy Advance SP

307920_frontManufacturer: Nintendo9.0

Release Date: 3/23/2003

MSRP: $129.99

Colors: Blue, Black, Silver, Red

 

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The Good: Great ergonomic design, rechargeable battery, small and compact, backlight

The Bad: Backlight isn’t all that bright, no headphone jack, not ideal for large hands

While Nintendo may have dominated the handheld market before smartphones were even a forethought, there was something about them that made them just seem…ugly. Bulky, low end specs, battery suckers; these are just a few names that early handhelds received from the original GameBoy, the Atari Lynx, all the way to even the GameBoy Advance. Handhelds required large casings as CPUs hadn’t quite been perfected yet and were large and bulky, not to mention screen technology was the same still being used in Texas Instrument calculators. LCD was extremely expensive and not cost effective for small devices yet. Same went for battery power. Lithium ion batteries were extremely expensive and not ideal for handhelds. Then came the GBA SP. A sleek fold up GameBoy with a rechargeable battery. It was the first of Nintendo’s handhelds that shed the disposable batteries and improved on screen technology.

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The first thing you will notice is the sleek form factor. The GBA SP is an awesome looking device. The original model was bulky and didn’t quite fit in your pocket, thus having to walk around with those dorky GBA bags. The button placement was perfect and the battery lasted for an amazing 10 hours on one charge (15 if you didn’t use the backlight). There was just this perfect square in your hands and it would amaze school yard kids and gaming fans alike. I actually remember having one of these in junior high and original model owners were extremely jealous due to the form factor and the backlight.

Speaking of backlight it was a huge deal. Self-lit LCDs were quite available yet so Nintendo stuck a backlight in the screen to brighten it up as the original model needed and actual flashlight clipped on top. While the screen is still quite dark it made a world of difference and was so much better in the dark. Kids who stayed up late playing their GameBoys were grateful as they no longer needed a flashlight to see the screen and catch their parents’ attention. Later on, however, Nintendo release a newer model SP with an even brighter screen. These models are harder to find and were released towards the end of the GBA’s life cycle.

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One major downfall of the SP is the lack of a headphone jack. The speaker is hard to hear in noisy areas with the volume all the way up, so headphones would be ideal. An adapter was required and went into the Link Cable port as an actual output would not have fit into the casing.

Aside from those issues the GBA SP was the portable gamers dream. A strong library with backwards compatibility for the GBA Color and original GameBoy what more could you want?

The GBA SP also came in several colors which wasn’t seen too often in the States. Flame Red, Onyx Black, Cobalt Blue, and Silver were amongst the colors available, while a pink model and a retro NES style model were released later on. However due to the GBA SP’s age it really shows its teeth. Let’s take a look at the actual specs of the machine.

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Powering the entire system is an ARM7TDMI CPU at a whopping 16 MHz. Yeah, it’s ancient tech even for 2003, but it got the job done. It had 128 KB of VRAM and 256 KB of DRAM. Yes, that’s kilobytes. The resolution was 256×160 and displayed an astounding 512 colors. However, those dinky specs were home to some of the greatest games of all time; it just goes to show that power isn’t everything.

With that said, the GBA SP is a must buy even for today. We have smartphones that are nearly as powerful as laptops now, the 3DS, and Vita that trumps the GBA in every aspect, but it’s the games that those devices can not bring back. While the $130 price tag was well worth it back in 2003, you will pay close to that or more for one in nearly perfect condition. Honestly, they don’t exist. They are scratched up, dinged, and chewed on. I had to buy my new one with a refurbished third party shell. If you’re a collector go this route on eBay. $60 will get you a new looking GBA SP. However, if you just want the games and don’t care, they run as low as $30 in pawn shops or eBay.

Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number

Hotline_Miami_2_coverPublisher: Devolver Digital8.0

Developer: Dennaton

Release Date: 3/10/2015

Rating: Mature

MSRP: $14.99

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The Good: Fantastic music, vibrant graphics, fast paced gameplay, extremely violent

The Bad: Awful and confusing story, every strategy used in Miami 1 is abused here, poor enemy placement leads to frustrating restarts and trial and error, overstays its  welcome

Hotline Miami was one of my favorite games in 2013. It was violent, fast paced, had tight controls, and rocked a retro 8-bit art style like no other game has. The music was fantastic as well, but the best part was the “just one more level” appeal. Hotline Miami 2 brings back the epic music, great art, violence, and well…some other things we didn’t really want.

Wrong Number starts out by giving us some back story…well it tries and miserably fails at it. The story does not make one lick of sense because you are being flip-flopped between time periods and so many different characters. Each level just starts and the story is just there. There’s some dialog with no connection to the previous scene. It’s frustrating and makes you want the storyless original back. However, and it pains me to say this, but the story isn’t the worst thing in Miami 2. The game is excruciatingly difficult. Now Miami 1 was hard but satisfying so. It had great replay value because it was the perfect challenge. Miami 2 is a near frustrating mess of endless restarts and trial and error.

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You could say it’s worse level design but that’s not the case, I feel it’s more like poor enemy placement. There are so many enemies in each level and I mean tons. They all have a variety of guns, melee weapons, and a few can only be taken down with certain weapons. I feel the placement is haphazard where using strategies in the last game over way over used here and end up being used to exploit the game to advance which is not fun at all. Enemies will see you if you can see them, this is how Hotline Miami works. If you can pan the camera further away you can get a quick sniper shot at them and a free hit, but for fewer points. One good strategy is moving in and out of a doorway really quick and let some enemies see you, duck back into a corner and slice everyone up as they enter the doorway or round a corner. That was an infrequent strategy in Miami 1 but in 2 this has to be done to just get part way through one area. Miami 2 is also full of long winded levels that seem to never end.

Abusing Miami 1’s strategies is a crying shame here since this game could have had so much potential for more enemies and new strategies. After half way through the game the levels become large and hard to navigate with traditional Hotline Miami controls and gameplay. It’s almost like the game tried to go into a new direction but didn’t evolve its gameplay for it. Miami 2 is also twice as long as the first game, but it overstays its welcome after the second act. I literally felt like the game became a chore and just wanted it to end.

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However, that’s not to say the whole “one more level” thing is gone. I was hooked and the constant trial and error had me restarting levels dozens and dozens of times to try a new strategy, but it wasn’t really an enjoyable “one more level” feeling. A lot of times I had to exploit the enemy AI, only certain levels can really be completed one way and if you start a level with the wrong weapon, kill the wrong guy first, or even so much as to kill all the enemies in the wrong order you’re pretty much screwed. More often than not I was restarting a level not because my strategy wasn’t sound, but because the enemy AI screwed everything up because he wasn’t patrolling the correct corridor or left a room he’s normally in and blindsides me when I least expect it. Usually this is a good thing, but not when you’re forced to kill enemies in a certain way due to poor enemy placement being overwhelming.

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With that said, I hate to say that there’s really no reason to come back to this game after you finish. Do I want to spend an entire week restarting level after level again and again? Of course not. I’d rather re-download the first game and enjoy the excellent Miami-ness without all the hair pulling. All in all, Miami 2 is not really a must play even for fans, if you end up never playing this you’re probably better off sticking with the first game.

Valiant Hearts: The Great War

5Publisher: Ubisoft9.0

Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier

Release Date: 6/24/2014

Rating: Teen

MSRP: $14.99

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The Good: Fantastic storytelling and characters, teaches you the entire history of WW1, engrossing atmosphere, beautiful soundtrack, fun yet clever puzzles

The Bad: Action sequences can require a lot of trial and error, some very vague puzzles, puzzles get a bit stale towards the end

It’s been a long time since I have played a game through an entire day and couldn’t put it down. Valiant Hearts will keep you instantly glued to the screen thanks to its rich history, characters, and story. Valiant Hearts is probably the only WW1 game I can remember playing. There is a huge lack of WW1 games and I’m glad Ubisoft decided to make it a 2D platformer rather than an FPS. The game is brilliant on many levels and fans of these types of games will not be disappointed.

You play as four different characters all fighting the tragic war in France. A German, an American, a French woman and a Frenchman. The game reenacts major battles from WW1 and also gives you history on what really happened during that time period. You can also go around collecting trinkets that are from the war. It’s great for history buffs or anyone who’s curious about what really happened during WW1 since WWII is all anyone talks about.

With that said, the game mixes up stealth, action, and puzzle solving; all of which are excellent. There’s no real fighting in the game, you don’t get a gun. You are mainly just trying to survive this tragic war while you watch everyone around you die. It gives you a sense of helplessness and makes you realize just how terrible and brutal WW1 was. The game is played on several 2D planes. Using the background and foreground to solve puzzles; all of which are completely different but the mechanics tend to be the same and it gets a bit old towards the end. However, many sequences are cinematic and scripted which keeps you glued. I can honestly say the game is well paced and perfect for a one day gaming spree.

I did find some issues here and there such as a few puzzles being extremely vague, but it’s nothing that some trial and error and exploration won’t solve. There is a hint system for people who aren’t very good at puzzles, but it can also be turned off. Some of the more frustrating areas were the action sequences in which bombs drop and you have to dodge enemy fire. A lot of it is trial and error because the game rushes you through it. Expect to restart and die several times throughout this game.

The graphics alone are just gorgeous and the colors pop on PS4 and Xbox One. The sound is excellent and the music is wonderful. Many pieces are classical symphonies from the time period so it adds even more authenticity to the game.

With that said, Valiant Hearts is probably a hidden gem that many people will pass up. It’s tragic, it really teaches and shows you every step of WW1 and enlightens you on just how terrible the human race can be. From mustard gas bombings, to the creation of tanks and aircraft, WW1 was just a stepping stone for WWII.

Dragon Age: Inquisition

100879bPublisher: EA9.0

Developer: BioWare

Release Date: 11/18/2014

Rating: Mature

MSRP: $59.99

Also Available On

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The Good: Fantastic visuals and foliage (especially the foliage and lighting), one of the best musical scores since Skyrim, deep dialog choices and engrossing story, fantastic characters that are memorable, plenty of side quests to last you 100 hours

The Bad: Story missions take a back seat to side quests, most side quests are fetch or gather quests, many maps are hard to navigate or devoid of life, combat is a little shallow and requires little strategy, many glitches and AI issues

Bioware has a knack for creating D&D style games that are memorable years down the road. Dragon Age is one such series. Origins helped push forward the way stories are told in Western RPGs. This was with dialog choices that would impact your relationship with fellow party members and the overall story. The game was also well known for its huge amount of lore that filled hundreds of Wiki pages online. Inquisition helps to mainly wash the sour taste of Dragon Age II out of our mouths by bringing back the original feeling of Origins.

Inquisition has a lot of politics involved in its story, more so than the previous two. I say this because the entirety of Thedas is on the brink of being wiped out due to a powerful ancient being ripping a hole in the fade and unleashing chaos. You play as a brand new character (your choices don’t carry over here from DA2 it’s set several years into the future). You play as a nobody, just some guard serving Divine Justinia when all of a sudden you walk into this ancient being, Corypheus, attacking the Divine. You try to help stop him but something terrible happens to you. You take on part of the powers he is trying to acquire. This foils his plans and also weakens him leaving then entire land accusing you of killing the Divine.

This is where the story starts off with several of your companions. Many dialog choices are brought to you to ease you into how this is done. It’s actually quite easier to understand over the last two games. Symbols will easily tell you what your choice will do. A heart will advance a romance, branching arrows could lead to anything, a question mark is an investigation, etc. While dialog and story is a hue part of Dragon Age so is combat and exploration.

Inquisition is huge. Twice the size of Origins and DA2 combined. There are several areas you can explore but these are large map that take hours to completely explore. There are hundreds of side quests on top of the dozen story missions. The meat of the game is actually the side quests. If you skip these you are missing 80% of the game. Of course not all side missions can be blown through. Some require accessing new areas which require being cleared or accessed through the War Table missions. The War Table allows you to send either Josyphene, Cullen, or Liliana on missions to open up new areas in maps or acquire items.

There are two major hub areas you will have with Skyhold being the main one. Here you advance relationships with character through dialog, upgrade your castle, and try prisoners that you captured throughout the game. Inquisition has so much going on that it will take you a good 100 hours to complete every missions and see everything. I can’t do this game’s sheer size justice just by explaining it. Outside of exploration is the combat. It is a mix of DA1 and 2 with more control over companions by freezing time like DA1 but it’s completely optional. You can also just wail on people like DA2 but this time you aren’t just standing in one spot while fighting. However, despite this change I felt something was missing from combat. There wasn’t much strategy to it and it was just a button mashing fest outside of learning what each skills cooldown times are and planning accordingly.

I do commend BioWare for the interesting enemy designs and wildlife. The game just has so much detail and is one of the best looking games available right now. I mainly love the lighting in this game and foliage placement, it’s just so beautiful however, there are issues with pathfinding. Many missions are hard to get to and some maps are just poorly laid out. The Forbidden Oasis is the worst offender with huge cliffs and gaps and hidden caves to everything in the map. It’s a chore to navigate and most maps are pretty barren with not much to do besides these fetch quests.

And that’s where I will wrap this up at. Inquisition is a fine game, it looks amazing, has extremely deep dialog choices and there’s so much to do here from creating armor and weapons from blueprints, to deciding what kind of drapes you want in your castle. However, it is all filler content. By hour 80 I really started getting annoyed with the game and bored. I said screw it to the rest of the romance options and any companion quests that were becoming a chore to complete and just did the final story mission. Will I come back to Inquisition to complete it 100%? Sure, but not for a while. Inquisition over stays its welcome by about 30 hours with fetch quests and item gathering. If you loved the previous games you will love Inquisition, but haters from the past will find even more to hate here.

Hellraiser

666968-hellraiser2Publisher: Epic Comics

Author: Various

Artist: Various

Release Date: 1990-1993

Issues: 20

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While Hellraiser was an extremely successful horror film in the 80’s and became a cult classic. Clive Barker is a fantastic horror author/creator and the comic series does the Hellraiser name justice. However, I have never read a comic series that slowly started imploding on itself after starting out so great and actually become boring and monotonous to read.

Each comic is cut into 3-4 mini-stories relating to the universe of Hellraiser. Someone finds a Lemarchand cube or a Lament Configuration. This mysterious puzzle box is a gateway to hell and one of the Leviathan’s many generals known as Cenobites must take you with them. The comic series really digs deep into the human psyche and brings out all of humanity’s flaws such as greed, lust, gluttony, and all the evil and hatred that our species is known for. Each story is fantastic and really draws you in, but it’s after issue 10 or 11 that the series really starts taking a dive.

I also love the art. Each mini story is done by a different team so you see all kinds of different art style. While not all of it is fantastic is sets the tone and atmosphere for each story. Now, here is where the series fails: story archs. Trying to do something with the comic series that it never really did. There is two different story archs playing out here and they takes several issues to finish. The first is the Devil’s Brigade which is a drawn out and exhausting 18 part series that see several Cenobites that are assigned to key figures on Earth and they must make sure order befalls man and not chaos. This is such a jarring and disorienting story. The characters are boring, the story mostly never makes sense, and it just feels so forced. After a while that’s all the entire Hellraiser series is about. No more unique mini stories that stand out on their own.

The second story arch is The Harrowers. This is even worse than the Devil’s Brigade and feels so far fetched that is just becomes silly. Several men and women are “called” to a hidden tomb where a goddess lives and is somehow the good sister of Leviathan. This is absurd and completely ridiculous. At this point you can tell the Hellraiser team just wants it to end and doesn’t care anymore. 20 issues and the series just took a complete nose dive right on its face.

With that said the series is still worth reading especially the first 10 issues. They keep you drawn in and are just so fantastic that I needed more.

4.0

Diablo III: Sword of Justice

3415031-01Publisher: DC Comics

Writer: Aaron Williams

Artist: Joseph LaCroix

Release Date: 1/2012-8/2012

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Diablo is not really a game series you see making a good comic, but Sword of Justice is a pretty decent one compared to all the terrible or mediocre adaptations I have been reading lately. The story follows a boy named Jacob who is part of the Barbarian tribe guarding Mount Arreat. However, one day his father executes his mother in a fit of rage about justice and law. It turns out that there’s some sort of rage blood curse pouring out through the Barbarian tribes and this specific tribe has isolated itself from the others claiming they are better due to their righteous laws and justice.

Of course this leads Jacob to travel the world trying to find a way to stop all this, and this is when he runs into a mage who helps him along his way. He picks up Tyreal’s sword of justice and tries to stop this blood curse. Without spoiling anything the 5 part series does a good job bringing out the characters and fleshing out an interesting story in just a measly 100 pages. The art is fantastic and dark and each character feels unique and likeable in some way.

What I love about this series is that it takes a small part of the Diablo Timeline and shows you what these people are going through on a daily basis due to the demons from the Burning Hells. The onslaught is never-ending and what Jacob has to go through it something that would break most people.

With that said, if you can find it, Sword of Justice is a fantastic comic series and does Diablo justice.

4.0

Diablo III: Book of Cain

downloadPublisher: Insight Editions9.0

Author: Various

Release Date: 12/12/2011

Pages: 148

MSRP: $39.99 (Hardcover)

Recommended Audience: Adult

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The Good: Fantastic design and atmosphere within the book, explains the Diablo universe and lore perfectly and makes complete sense of everything

The Bad: A little on the short side

If the game’s story can’t explain itself well enough or with enough depth always leave it to a book. Book of Cain does this in a very unique way by telling Diablo’s entire history via a tome written by Deckard Cain himself. The tome is beautiful with hand written notes to Leah at the beginning and end of the book which are actually quite touching. The illustrations and the way the book is written makes it feel ancient or just border-lining on the words of a mad man.

The book actually makes a lot of sense and answered so many questions about Diablo’s universe that the games didn’t quite get across well enough. While this book is more of a sum total of all events in the timeline is still brought to light many things. Mainly starting with how the universe was created. A diamond exploded, this diamond was the original God Anu, and its many faces turned into demons and angels. The book goes into great length about explaining each of the Prime Evils as well as the Lesser Evils and the Archangels as well.

After explaining how all this began the book goes into explanations of the many wars throughout history such as the Sin Wars, The Search for the Three, and even the Darkening of Tristram. Many major characters in all three games are talked about in-depth and their roles in Sanctuary’s dark history. I just love how well paced this book is and how Deckard’s writing style just sucks you in. Some times the book gave me goosebumps with how morbidly macabre and dark the book is. Deckard’s constant fear of the end times and knowing it will happen just sends chills down my spine.

The book even talks about many areas in the games and the many realms you trek through. After finishing the Book of Cain I am just glad I don’t live in that universe. There’s no happiness, no hope, and always fear and hate. With that said, if you are a fan of Diablo this book is a must read if not for the great info then the beauty of the book itself.