Wednesday 30 April 2014

Z is for Zuma

Developer: PopCap Games
Notable Releases: Zuma, Zuma Deluxe, Zuma's Revenge

We've reached the end of another Blogging from A to Z challenge. Over the course of the past 26 days or so, I have been blogging my way through the alphabet, along with more than a thousand other participants. My theme for 2014 has been video game franchises.

Since I started the challenge with a casual game series, I think it is only fitting that I end it on a similar note. And as far as casual games go, things don't really get any more so than with Zuma, a tile-matching puzzle game developed by PopCap Games.

Originally released in 2003, the game involved controlling a frog idol mounted on a spinning disc, who could spit out colored balls. Each level featured a different path into which a string of balls were constantly fed by an off-stage conveyor belt. The objective was to eliminate all the balls, by chaining together three or more balls of the same color, before the balls reached the skull at the end of path.

Zuma's simple but fast-paced gameplay would eventually propel it to win the 2004 Game of the Year award from RealArcade. An enhanced version, known as Zuma Deluxe, was released shortly thereafter. But the game didn't receive a proper sequel until 2009, when Zuma's Revenge was released. It retained the previous games' core mechanic, but introduced a bunch of new power ups and boss battles.

In 2010, PopCap released Zuma Blitz on Facebook, the only version of the game to feature competitive and cooperative multiplayer.

Tuesday 29 April 2014

Y is for Yoshi

Developers: Nintendo, Game Freak
Notable Releases: Yoshi, Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island

Even though the 2014 Blogging from A to Z Challenge is close to an end, it is never too late to squeeze in another Nintendo mascot. After all, we can never have too many of those. And here is one that also shares the same universe with Mario, and as such, has made appearances in many of his games and spinoffs.

Yoshi was first introduced in the 1990 Super Nintendo game, Super Mario World. He is a green dinosaur with an affinity for apples. From the moment he was hatched from his egg, he assumed the role of sidekick to both Mario and Luigi. They could ride on his back, and he could swallow certain enemies whole, or stomp on them with his boots. He was as much an integral part of the game as other new mechanics like the flying cape.

Following his debut on the Super Nintendo, Yoshi's next appearance was on the NES and Game Boy, where he was the titular star of Yoshi, a puzzle game of the falling blocks variety. It was released in 1992 and developed by Game Freak. It was followed by another puzzle game called Yoshi's Cookies, this time of the tile matching variety, which was developed by Bullet-Proof Software and also released in 1992.

But Yoshi is perhaps best known as the star of Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island, a prequel to Super Mario World which was released in 1995 on the Super Nintendo. The game had a unique art style that helped distinguish it from other Mario games, and an equally unique take on platforming; Yoshi must protect Baby Mario by carrying him safely across each stage. The game was well received by critics and was also considered a commercial success.

Monday 28 April 2014

X is for Xena: Warrior Princess

Developers: Vivendi Universal, Saffire
Notable Releases: Xena: Warrior Princess, Xena: Warrior Princess - The Talisman of Fate, Xena: Warrior Princess (PlayStation 2)

Movie and television tie-ins are nothing new in the video games industry. In fact, some of the most successful video games are based on material from other entertainment mediums. One reason for that is the fact that these games get to benefit from a preexisting fan base. But more often than not, these tie-ins tend to be nothing more than fan service, the Xena: Warrior Princess tie-ins being a perfect example.

Xena: Warrior Princess was released in 1999, for the Sony PlayStation. It was a third-person action-adventure game, with a story revolving around Xena's quest to save her companion, Gabrielle, who at the start of the game was kidnapped by the evil sorceress Kalabrax. The game featured hack-and-slash gameplay, as well as her trademark chakram, a Frisbee-like, long-range weapon, which could also be used to trigger switches within the environment.

A second tie-in, called Xena: Warrior Princess - The Talisman of Fate, was also released in 1999, for the Nintendo 64. It was a 3D fighting game that featured characters from the TV show. The story behind the game involves a tournament that must be held to decide which character can lay claim to the titular Talisman. Its fighting mechanics were fairly basic, but noteworthy for supporting matches between four simultaneous players.

Additional Xena: Warrior Princess tie-ins were also developed for the Game Boy Color and PlayStation 2, which were released in 2001 and 2006 respectively. But like the two aforementioned games, neither one managed to please anyone outside its target audience, namely die-hard fans of the show.

Saturday 26 April 2014

W is for The Walking Dead

Developer: Telltale Games
Notable Releases: The Walking Dead: Season One, The Walking Dead: 400 Days, The Walking Dead: Season Two

As earlier promised at the end of my Indiana Jones post, I'll once again be touching upon the graphic adventure genre, or more importantly, its recent renaissance. At the very heart of that renaissance is Telltale Games, an independent game developer started in 2004 by former employees of LucasArts.

Over the last couple of years, Telltale Games have managed to create a number of successful, episodic, graphic adventure games based on licensed properties. These include Tales of Monkey Island, Back to the Future, and most recently, The Wolf Among Us (which was based on the DC Comics series, Fables). But their biggest success yet was their take on the Robert Kirkman comic book series, The Walking Dead.

The Walking Dead: Season One was released in 2012, over a period of several months. It consisted of five episodes, each one telling the story of a group of survivors in a zombie apocalypse. Players controlled Lee Everett, a college professor who was recently convicted for the murder of his wife. The shit hits the proverbial fan on the very day he was meant to be incarcerated, and he barely manages to escape following a car accident on his way to prison.

Lee seeks refuge in a nearby house, where he discovers Clementine, a young girl who is all by herself. He saves her from her babysitter, who'd been turned into a zombie, and from that moment on takes it upon himself to protect Clementine, seeing in her a final chance at redemption. The two of them develop a father-and-daughter-like relationship over the course of the season, a bond which was tested to its limits during the heart-wrenching climax of the final episode.

The Walking Dead is noted for being story-driven, a story that is further shaped by the player's choices. Throughout the game, the player is faced with a number of watershed moments, like in the very first episode where you must decide which of your new-found companions to save or leave behind. And your choices carry through each subsequent episode, affecting the way you are treated by your fellow survivors.

It was these things (and much more) that ensured that The Walking Dead was both critically acclaimed and a huge commercial success. It won over 90 Game of the Year awards, and was recognized as one of the game industry's indie success stories.

The Walking Dead: Season Two is currently in full swing, with Episode 1 released in December, 2013, and Episode 2 released in March, 2014. This time around, players take control of Clementine, guiding her through an adventure that already promises to be every bit of an emotional roller coaster as the one experienced in the first season.

Friday 25 April 2014

V is for Virtua Cop

Developer: Sega
Notable Releases: Virtua Cop, Virtua Cop 2, Virtua Cop 3

Quick fingers are a requisite for success in many games. But nowhere is that requirement more pronounced than in light gun shooters. And while the genre might have lost its mass appeal in recent years, it did manage to produce a number of noteworthy games during its heyday. One of those games is Virtua Cop, the first in a series of on-rail shooters about police officers in the line of fire.

Virtua Cop was released for arcades in 1994, and subsequently ported onto the Sega Saturn in 1995, and the PC in 1997. The objective of the game was to shoot all on-screen enemies as quickly as possible, without shooting any civilians. It was noted for being the first game of its kind to make use of 3D polygonal graphics, and is also credited for inspiring the N64 game, GoldenEye 007.

Virtua Cop 2 was released in 1995, with ports for the Sega Saturn, PC and Dreamcast following in 1996, 1997 and 2000 respectively. It introduced a third female character, but retained the same gameplay mechanics as its predecessor. A bundle of the first two games, known as Virtua Cop: Elite Edition, was released for the PlayStation 2 in 2002.

Virtua Cop 3 was released in 2003. It is the only game in the series that wasn't ported onto the PC or consoles; an Xbox port was in development, but was eventually cancelled.

Thursday 24 April 2014

U is for Unreal

Developer: Epic Games
Notable Releases: Unreal, Unreal Tournament, Unreal Tournament 2003, Unreal Tournament 2004, Unreal Tournament 3

The Unreal Engine is one of the most widely used video game engines today. It has powered a number of high-profile games over the years, including Deus Ex, BioShock, Gears of War, Mass Effect, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Splinter Cell: Blacklist, and of course the eponymous series of first-person shooters, Unreal.

The first game in the series was released in 1998. At the time, it was undoubtedly one of the most graphically advanced games, even though its moment in the sun was eclipsed by Half-Life. The series would eventually hit its stride with the release of Unreal Tournament in 1999. Unlike the first game, Unreal Tournament focused solely on multiplayer, putting it in direct competition with Quake III: Arena.

Unreal Tournament proved to be the better of the two games, receiving rave reviews and numerous Game of the Year awards. Its success was no doubt responsible for the direction the entire franchise took, with Unreal Tournament 2003 and Unreal Tournament 2004 serving as follow-up titles. The first game eventually received a true sequel, Unreal II: Awakening, which was developed by Legend Entertainment.

The latest installment in the franchise is Unreal Tournament 3, which was released in 2007, while the latest version of the engine, Unreal Engine 4, was unveiled during the 2012 Game Developers Conference.

Wednesday 23 April 2014

T is for Tomb Raider

Developers: Core Design, Crystal Dynamics
Notable Releases: Tomb Raider, Tomb Raider: Legends, Tomb Raider (2013)

Not very often does a video game character get elevated to the status of a pop culture icon. So the fact that Lara Croft can be counted as such is not a small feat. Perhaps its the combination of her British accent and her sexy physique that has endeared her to the hearts and minds of so many. But for hardcore gamers, it has more to do with what she is best known for: raiding tombs.

Tomb Raider was released in 1996 on the PC, PlayStation and Sega Saturn. It was developed by Core Design, and it introduced Lara Croft, an archaeologist with a thirst for braving lost cities in search of ancient artifacts. Following its release, it became one of the most well-known 3D action-adventure games.

The game proved so successful that it received back-to-back sequels over the next few years. These include Tomb Raider II (1997), Tomb Raider III (1998), Tomb Raider IV (1999) and Tomb Raider: Chronicles (2000). Each game was considered a solid addition to the franchise, and the series didn't show any signs of losing steam until the 2003 release of Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness, which was largely panned by critics.

Thereafter, the mantle was passed from Core Design to Crystal Dynamics. The first game out of the new studio was Tomb Raider: Legend, which was released in 2006. Considered a return to form by critics, the studio went on to develop two more games, Tomb Raider: Anniversary (2007) and Tomb Raider: Underworld (2008), in what would become a loose trilogy.

Their most recent effort served as a reboot to the entire series. Simply called Tomb Raider, the 2013 reboot was a critical and commercial success, proving that Lara Croft still has a couple of tricks up her sleeves.

Tuesday 22 April 2014

S is for Street Fighter

Developer: Capcom
Notable Releases: Street Fighter II, Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike, Street Fighter IV

The many years I have spent gaming are ripe with memories, but none as sweet as the day I had my first brush with Street Fighter II. It was at my cousin's friend's place, and a bunch of his friends were gathered there, taking turns. I can still feel the surge of anticipation in my fingers when one of the controllers was passed to me.

The match began and I found myself waving the pad this way and that (much to my cousin's embarrassment), even though motion controls were a good 14 years away. Needless to say, I had lost that first match like a little girl. But that was the defining moment where I discovered the joy of fighting games, a genre that has been all but dominated by the Street Fighter series.

The first game in the series was released for arcades in 1987. It introduced Ryu, a martial artist who players controlled as he fought his way through a worldwide martial arts tournament. A second player could drop in at anytime and challenge Ryu by controlling Ken, his rival. Both characters featured similar special moves made up of fireballs, dragon punches and hurricane kicks.

Street Fighter II was released in 1991, and for the first time in a fighting game, players could choose from a roaster of different fighters. It was followed by several iterations, some of which were released specifically for home consoles. The game was a resounding success, and the SNES version remains Capcom's best-selling game.

Several Street Fighter games were released following the success of Street Fighter II. These include Street Fighter Alpha (or Zero as it is known in Japan), which served as a prequel to the previous games and featured a new art style. The series also made its first foray into 3D with Street Fighter EX. Street Fighter III was released in 1997, and it received two additional updates, 2nd Impact and 3rd Strike.

The current iteration of the series, Street Fighter IV, was released in 2008. It features 3D stages and cel-shaded characters, although actual gameplay takes place on a 2D plane.

Monday 21 April 2014

R is for Resident Evil

Developer: Capcom
Notable Releases: Resident Evil, Resident Evil 2, Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, Resident Evil: Code Veronica, Resident Evil 4

Video games have been capitalizing on our fear of things that go bump in the dark for a long time; Haunted House, Sweet Home, and the Alone in the Dark series are just a few classic examples that come to mind. But the term, survival horror, wasn't coined until 1996, when it was used by Capcom to describe the first game in what would become one of the biggest crossover media franchises ever, Resident Evil.

The game was set in and around a secluded mansion on the outskirts of Raccoon City, following a virus outbreak that has turned all its inhabitants into zombies. Despite this well-grounded premise, its story drew inspiration from many classic horror films. The game also introduced series mainstays like Chris Redfield, Jill Valentine and Albert Wesker, police officers who had been sent in to investigate a series of bizarre murders and the disappearance of a prior team.

Resident Evil 2 was released in 1998, and it introduced two main characters, Leon Kennedy and Claire Redfield. The game was noted for being more expansive than the first, the action taking place within and around Raccoon City. Resident Evil 3: Nemesis was released in 1999, and it saw the return of Jill Valentine as a main character. It also featured a mini-game called Resident Evil Mercenaries, where players could use other in-game characters in a series of timed challenges.

Several Resident Evil games were released over the next few years, including Resident Evil Code: Veronica for the Sega Dreamcast in 2000, the first game in the main series not to use pre-rendered backgrounds. A remake of the first game was also released in 2002 for the Nintendo GameGube, as well as a prequel titled Resident Evil Zero. It was also around this time that the series began its successful movie crossover.

Resident Evil 4 was released in 2004 for the GameCube, and it marked the most drastic shift in the entire series. It did away with the fixed camera angles of its predecessors, which was replaced by a third-person, over-the-shoulder camera. The game was met with overwhelming praise, which pretty much ensured that the same style and formula was retained for its sequel, Resident Evil 5, which was released in 2009 for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC.

Resident Evil 6 was released in 2012. Its reviews were largely mixed, due to deviations from the survival horror trappings of previous games, and the fact that its three main characters had different play styles that didn't make for a cohesive whole.

Saturday 19 April 2014

Q is for Quake

Developers: id Software, Raven Software
Notable Releases: Quake, Quake II, Quake III: Arena, Quake 4

In my early days of gaming on the PC, my favorite genre, by no small margin, was the first person shooter (or FPS as it is more commonly referred to). id Software is often credited for creating that genre, or at least for helping popularize it with highly-influential games like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake, all of which had kick-started some of the genre's most respected franchises.

Quake was released in 1996, and remains notable for a number of reasons. It was the first game in the FPS genre to allow online multiplayer. It also featured music and sound effects composed by Trent Reznor, lead singer of the band, Nine Inch Nails. It was also one of the first games to use full 3D graphics, with character models composed of polygons, as opposed to 2D sprites. The engine powering the game was also one of the first to support hardware-accelerated 3D graphics.

Quake II was released in 1997, and it was powered by a more robust game engine than the one used in Quake (whose color palette was often criticized for being predominantly brown). The game was never intended as a true sequel to the original game, and was in fact only called Quake II when id Software failed to secure any of the other names they wanted to use. As a result, there was no continuity from the storyline in Quake.

Quake III: Arena was released in 1999, and unlike the previous two games, focused solely on multiplayer game modes like Deathmatch and Capture the Flag. Matches could be played online or on local area networks, as well as with AI-controlled opponents known as bots, much like in the multiplayer FPS series, Unreal Tournament.

A fourth game, Quake 4, was developed by Raven Software and released in 2005. It served as a direct sequel to Quake II.

Friday 18 April 2014

P is for Plants vs. Zombies

Developer: PopCap Games
Notable Releases: Plants vs. Zombies, Plants vs. Zombies 2: It's About Time, Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare

What do you do if you look out your window and find a horde of zombies just waiting to trample over your lawn and eat your brains? You plant some flowers and mushrooms of course! Well, at least that's the logic behind Plants vs. Zombies, a series of tower defense games developed by PopCap.

The first game was released in 2009 for the PC & Mac. It was presented in a beautiful 2D art style that leaned towards bright and whimsical. At the start of each level, the player is allowed to pick from a number of plants, each with its own defensive or offensive capability. Once the game begins, the player can start putting their defense together. But each plant requires a certain amount of sun (the primary resource) to plant, and subsequent replants are limited by an energy meter.

The player earns sun by picking it up as it falls from the sky at intervals on daytime levels, or from certain plants like the sunflower. The playing field is divided into several lanes, and the zombies shamble towards the player's house through each one at random, until a final wave where they launch an all-out assault. The level is won by defeating this final wave, or lost by failing to prevent the zombies from getting into the player's house.

It is a simple mechanic that is easy to get into. But the real challenge comes in the later levels, where the player must apply different tactics based on the type of zombies they face. As a fan of the game, I can attest to just how addictive the game quickly becomes once you get into it. Completing each of the early levels rewards you with a new plant. You also face a huge variety of zombie types, my favorite being the Michael Jackson Thriller zombie, who comes complete with backup dancers.

The second game in the series, Plants vs. Zombies 2: It's About Time, was released as a free-to-play download for iOS and Android in 2013. It was praised for its implementation of the freemium model, which ensured you didn't have to spend any money to enjoy the complete game. The third game in the series, Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare, was released in 2014. It was a class-based, third-person shooter, which marked a significant shift from the 2D tower defense gameplay of the first two games.

Thursday 17 April 2014

O is for Onimusha

Developer: Capcom
Notable Releases: Onimusha: Warlords, Onimusha 2: Samurai's Destiny, Onimusha 3: Demon Siege

The only thing better than a samurai on a quest for revenge, is a samurai with supernatural powers, kicking some serious demon butt. This is probably why I love the Onimusha series of games as much as I do. Set in feudal Japan, the games are a blend of Japanese history with elements of fantasy. Each one follows the adventures of a brave warrior, as he tries to stop the demon overlord, Nobunaga.

The first game in the series, Onimusha: Warlords, was released in 2000. Originally intended for a PlayStation release, development was eventually shifted to the PlayStation 2. Much like the Resident Evil games that inspired it, the game featured 3D character models on pre-rendered 3D backgrounds. Players controlled Samanosuke Akechi, who was voiced and modeled after Takeshi Kaneshiro (House of Flying Daggers).

The second game, Onimusha 2: Samurai's Destiny, was released in 2002. It introduced a new main character, Jubei Yagyu, who was modeled after the late Yasuka Matsuda (Black Rain). The third game, Onimusha 3: Demon Siege, was released in 2004, and it had Takeshi Kaneshiro reprising his role as Samanosuke. But this time, he was joined by French actor Jean Reno (The Da Vinci Code), who voiced and provided his likeness for the character, Jacques Blanc.

Although originally planned as a trilogy, a fourth game, Onimusha: Dawn of Dreams, was released in 2006. The last two games in the series, despite good critic reviews, were said to have sold considerably lower than the first two; the first game still has the distinction of being the first PlayStation 2 game to sell more than a million copies.

Wednesday 16 April 2014

N is for Neverwinter Nights

Developers: BioWare, Obsidian Entertainment
Notable Releases: Neverwinter Nights, Neverwinter Nights 2

Unlike many fans of computer role-playing games, I have never quite had the privilege of playing a pen and pencil RPG before. My first brush with Dungeons & Dragons came in the form of the 1980s animated TV series, not the well-known tabletop game. But over the years, they have been quite a number of games based on D&D rules.

Neverwinter Nights was based on the D&D 3rd edition rules. It was released in 2002 and developed by BioWare. It was set in the Forgotten Realms, and centered upon the eponymous city of Neverwinter. It came with a toolset that allowed players to create their own adventures and campaigns, much like the tabletop game.

Neverwinter Nights 2 was released in 2006, but this time around, development work was handled by Obsidian Entertainment. The game was based on the D&D 3.5 edition rules. It also came with a toolset, which was used to create the game's included campaign. The campaign itself was well received, earning the game a Best Story award at GameSpot in the 2006 Game of the Year awards.

Neverwinter Nights was met with universal acclaim, and was praised for its seamless turn-based combat that kept little details like dice rolls hidden away in the background. The second game received comparably weaker scores, with most of its criticism leveled against its many technical glitches and high system requirements.

Both games have received a number of expansion packs, as well as countless community-made campaigns.

Tuesday 15 April 2014

M is for Mario

Developer: Nintendo
Notable Releases: Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, Super Mario Kart, Super Mario 64, Mario Kart 64, Paper Mario, Super Mario Galaxy

Surely you must have seen this one coming a mile away? I mean, how can we have any kind of discussion about video game franchises without acknowledging the Italian-American plumber's dominance over the entire industry!? With more than 856 million copies sold collectively, Mario is the best-selling video game franchise of all time.

Mario made his first appearance in the arcade classic, Donkey Kong, where he was simply known as jumpman. This was followed by an appearance in another arcade game, Mario Bros., where his brother, Luigi, was introduced. But his most well-known appearance from those early days was in the 1985 side-scrolling platform game, Super Mario Bros., which was bundled with the Nintendo Entertainment System game console.

Both the game and console found a new level of success previously unheard of in the video games industry, and that success was responsible for paving the way for future games and consoles. Several Mario games have been released over the years, spanning an entire gamut of genres, and the franchise has been featured prominently on each and every Nintendo game console.

On the Super Nintendo, Super Mario World was released in 1990, and it brought the franchise into the 16-bit era. This was followed by Super Mario Kart in 1992, a kart racing game that featured characters from the Mario universe; the game proved so successful that it has launched another franchise of its own, with more than 50 million copies sold since then.

Super Mario 64 was one of the Nintendo 64's launch titles in 1996, and it served as a showcase for the new console's 3D rendering capabilities. The N64 was also home to Paper Mario, developed by Intelligent Systems and released in 2000. It was a turn-based RPG, set in the Mario universe, that blended 2D sprites with a 3D backdrop, an effect that gave the in-game characters the paper-thin look alluded to in the title.

One of the most critically-acclaimed games in the franchise, Super Mario Galaxy, was released in 2007 for the Nintendo Wii. It won multiple Game of the Year awards from various outlets, and it eventually became the highest-rated game of all time on review aggregator website, GameRankings. A direct sequel, Super Mario Galaxy 2, was also released for the Wii, in 2010, and was considered an improvement over the original.

The latest game in the franchise, Super Mario 3D World, was released in 2013 for the Nintendo Wii U, and also met with universal acclaim.

Monday 14 April 2014

L is for The Legend of Zelda

Developer: Nintendo
Notable Releases: The Legend of Zelda, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

Till date, the very sight of the original gold-colored cartridge The Legend of Zelda came in still invokes a feeling of pleasant nostalgia in many like me. In fact, my present-day love of high fantasy and open-world games can be directly traced to that cartridge, and the many adventures of as many iterations of a boy named Link (or Baba, as I tend to rename him at the start of each game).

The Legend of Zelda was released in 1987. It was the first Nintendo Entertainment System game that allowed players to save their progress; and saving was indeed a requirement for making your way through the game's overworld and eight dungeons, some of which could be tackled out of order. It was followed by a direct sequel, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, which marked a departure from the first game's top-down view, in favor of a side-scrolling view and some platforming.

But perhaps the best game in the series, or at least my favorite one, was 1992's The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. It was the first and only game in the series developed for the Super Nintendo, and like the first game, was played from a top-down view. It introduced many series staples, like the concept of a light and dark world, and was one of the most visually-stunning games of the 16-bit era as a result.

The series made its transition to 3D with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which was released in 1998 and developed for the Nintendo 64. To accommodate the move to 3D, lock-on targeting was added to its traditional hack-and-slash combat system. The result was a system which allowed you to dodge, strike and parry seamlessly, all the while keeping the camera locked on the enemy. The game was highly praised for that very reason, and is one of the highest rated games in gaming history.

There have been a number of 3D The Legend of Zelda games since Ocarina of Time, but none as raidcal as the 2002 GameCube release, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. The game was met with criticism for its cel-shaded graphics, but eventually won critics and fans over with its cartoon-like presentation and charm. It received two direct sequels on the Nintendo DS, The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass and The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks, released in 2007 amd 2009 respectively.

Recently, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds was released on the Nintendo 3DS. It served as a sort of sequel to The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. It quickly became a commercial and critical success, winning the 2013 Game of the Year award at the video gaming website, GameSpot.

Saturday 12 April 2014

K is for Kirby

Developer: HAL Laboratory
Notable Releases: Kirby's Adventure, Kirby 64: The Crystal Shard, Kirby's Epic Yarn

Yep. Kirby. And why not. After all, he is one of my favorite video game characters. This probably has something to do with the fact that he looks all cute and cuddly, until he swallows you whole and spits out your bones. Or, you know, a glowing, star-shaped approximation of your bones.

Kirby made his debut on the Game Boy in Kirby's Dream Land, a side-scrolling platform game which was released in 1992. But his most recognizable iteration didn't come until 1993's Kirby's Adventure. It was here that he gained his trademark copy abilities. It was one of the last games released for the Nintendo Entertainment System, and as such, was praised for squeezing every last bit of graphical power out of it.

Since then, Kirby, like most successful Nintendo mascots, has received a number of follow-up titles and spinoffs. He has also been featured as a playable character in every game in the Super Smash Bros. series, where he kicks butt with the best of them. The first game in his franchise to make use of 3D graphics was Kirby 64: The Crystal Shard, which was released for the Nintendo 64 in 2000.

One of the most visually-stunning titles in the series, Kirby's Epic Yarn, was released on the Nintendo Wii in 2010. It was met with critical acclaim, even though it was later revealed that the game was modified from another game called Fluff of Yarn, which, as it turned out, had nothing to do with Kirby.

Friday 11 April 2014

J is for Jazz Jackrabbit

Developer: Epic Games
Notable Releases: Jazz Jackrabbit, Jazz Jackrabbit 2

Original 2D platform games weren't typically associated with PC gaming. Sure, we'd had a few PC-exclusive classics, like the Commander Keen series developed by id Software, but by and large, platform games are typically more at home on video game consoles. Jazz Jackrabbit was one of the few games to buck that trend.

The first game in the series was released in 1994, and it drew inspiration from other platform games, in particular, Sonic the Hedgehog and Mega Man. Its story was also loosely-based on the Aesop's fable, The Tortoise and the Hare. Players controlled the titular character, Jazz, an anthropomorphic rabbit on a mission to rescue his heartthrob, princess Eva Earlong, from his nemesis, Devan Shell.

Jazz Jackrabbit 2 was released in 1998, and it introduced a second playable character named Spaz. This time around the duo were on a mission to retrieve princess Eva's wedding ring, of all things. Both games were moderately successful, even though neither added much to the platform game genre.

The third game in the series was cancelled during development. It was meant to mark the series' transition to 3D, an increasingly unavoidable trend with platform games at the time. The last game released was a reboot developed by Game Titan for the Game Boy Advance in 2002.

Thursday 10 April 2014

I is for Indiana Jones

Developers: LucasArts
Notable Releases: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis.

A quick confession; I am a sucker for well-made graphic adventure games. Everything from Broken Sword, to Broken Age, to console-only titles like Heavy Rain. In fact, if I had my way, most of the games I have chosen to highlight for the 2014 Blogging from A to Z Challenge would be replaced with graphic adventures.

That said, the graphic adventure genre is one that has certainly seen more than its fair share of highs and lows. It was all but relegated to a niche audience following the move to 3D graphics in the mid 90s. But it did experience its own golden age before then, and the Indiana Jones graphic adventure games were just some of the great games produced during that era.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure was released in 1989, alongside the third movie in the franchise. It was built using the same engine that powered other LucasArts classic adventure games like Manic Mansion and Monkey Island. It mirrored the same adventure seen in the movie, but was still well received by fans of the genre and franchise alike.

Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis was originally released in 1992, and re-released in 1993 as a CD-ROM enhanced edition that featured full voice acting and sound effects. Unlike the previous game, Fate of Atlantis was based on an original storyline written specifically for the game. It was equally well received, and both games are considered graphic adventure classics.

Right now, the graphic adventure genre is experiencing a sort of renaissance, all thanks to a resurgence of story-driven games from the likes of Telltale Games and Quantic Dream. More on that in the days to come.

Wednesday 9 April 2014

H is for Half-Life

Developer: Valve Software
Notable Releases: Half-Life, Half-Life 2

1998 was a great year for gamers. It was a year in which all three major gaming platforms managed to produce landmark titles. On the PlayStation, we had Metal Gear Solid, which was at the time the most cinematic video game ever made. On the Nintendo 64, we had the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which, till date, is still regarded as one of the greatest video games of all time.

But perhaps the most significant title that was released in 1998 was Half-Life, a first person shooter for PC. It was developed by Valve, using a modified Quake II engine. It tells the story of an alien invasion as seen through the eyes of a nuclear physicists named Gordon Freeman. And the most remarkable thing about that story was that it never broke away from its first person perspective, not even during a loading screen.

All the cutscenes took place in-game, in scripted events that were acted out the moment you walked into the scene. That sounds like pretty standard fare nowadays, but back then, it was a level of immersion previously unheard of. It also introduced scores of other modern day FPS staples, like the ability to lob grenades using an arched trajectory. So while Half-Life didn't create the first person shooter genre, it definitely helped shape it into what it is today.

Half-Life 2 was released in 2004, and it improved upon the original in every conceivable way. It had better graphics, better level design, a realistic physics engine, and a more complex storyline. And that story was continued in two subsequent releases, Half-Life 2: Episode One and Half-Life 2: Episode Two. A third episode was planned, but has yet to be released.

There is no word yet on Half-Life 3, making it one of the most anticipated video games in the world today.

Tuesday 8 April 2014

G is for Grand Theft Auto

Developer: Rockstar North
Notable Releases: Grand Theft Auto III, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Grand Theft Auto IV, Grand Theft Auto V

Without a doubt, Grand Theft Auto is one of the most controversial video game series of all time. But it is also quite possibly my favorite one. And the reason for that is simple. No other series has consistently offered the same level of freedom, not to mention fun, in a modern day setting bustling with life (even though most of the fun involves running over hookers and fleeing from the cops).

The first game in the series was released in 1997, and it introduced the same open world gameplay that is still in use till date, in which you steal cars, shoot at cops, and basically cause as much chaos as you deem fit. And all that while making your way up the ladder of the criminal underworld, as you played through the various missions. It was played from a 2D top-down point of view, and the same viewpoint was retained for its sequel, Grand Theft Auto 2, which was released in 1999.

But perhaps the most noteworthy title in the entire series was Grand Theft Auto III, which was released in 2001. It was the first game in the series to feature 3D graphics, and is often credited for popularizing the open world formula seen in so many other games today, not to mention boosting PlayStation 2 sales. It was followed by two more PS2 games, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, both of which were released in 2002 and 2004 respectively.

Grand Theft Auto IV was released in 2008 for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, and it introduced one of the most memorable video game characters in recent memory. That character was Niko Bellic, a Russian immigrant with a dark past, who'd been lulled to Liberty City in pursuit of the American Dream. The game was met with critical acclaim and commercial success, earning more than $500 million in its first week.

The latest installment, Grand Theft Auto V, was released in September, 2013. It featured three lead characters and an ability to switch between them at any point in the game. Despite being labelled as misogynistic by many, the game is also regarded as the best in the series. It broke all manner of records by becoming the fastest-selling entertainment release in history, grossing over $1 billion in three days.

Monday 7 April 2014

F is for Fallout

Developers: Black Isle Studios, Bethesda Game Studios, Obsidian Entertainment
Notable Releases: Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas

"War. War never changes." Those are the famous words spoken by veteran actor Ron Perlman at the start of every new chapter in Fallout, a series of post-apocalyptic role-playing games. And one of the most fascinating aspects about these games are their setting and atmosphere.

Each game is set many years after a far-reaching nuclear war, in the remnants of an American society that mirrors the post-war culture of the 1950s. Before the war, several underground shelters, known as vaults, were built across the United States. And each game follows the adventures of a different vault dweller, as he or she leaves one of these underground vaults to explore the vast wasteland outside.

The first two games in the series, Fallout and Fallout 2, were released in 1997 and 1998 respectively, and were played with a 2D isometric viewpoint and a turn-based combat system. Those two gameplay mechanics were dropped for the third game in the series, Fallout 3, in favor of a 3D first and third-person viewpoint and a real-time combat system. It was released in 2008, and was developed by Bethesda Game Studios.

A stand-alone title, Fallout: New Vegas, was developed by Obsidian Entertainment and released in 2010, while the fourth game in the series is still in development.

Saturday 5 April 2014

E is for The Elder Scrolls

Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Notable Releases: The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

There is nothing quite like getting lost in a fantasy game world.  And on that very note, not many games can boast of the same grand scale or level of detail found in the fictional world of Tamriel.

The Elder Scrolls is a series of open-world role playing games set in that world, a world rich in history and populated by several races. The first game in the series, Arena, was released in 1994. It was followed by Daggerfall in 1996. But it was only after Morrowind was released in 2002 that the series found mainstream success.

It was also at that point that the series found a place on home consoles, in addition to PCs. The next two games in the series, Oblivion and Skyrim, were released on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360, and won multiple Game of the Year awards in 2006 and 2011 respectively.

The Elder Scrolls Online, the latest installment in the franchise, is out now for PC and Mac, with Xbox One and PS4 versions to follow soon.

Friday 4 April 2014

D is for Donkey Kong

Developers: Rare, Retro Studios
Notable Releases: Donkey Kong Country, Donkey Kong Country Returns

I must admit that I am not quite old enough to remember Donkey Kong as the titular barrel-hauling baddie from the 1980s arcade series. And for others like me, our first brush with the Gorilla came much later.

Despite lending his name to the aforementioned series, Donkey Kong didn't take on any adventures of his own until the 1994 game, Donkey Kong Country, a 2D platformer that made use of pre-rendered 3D character sprites and backgrounds. The result was a game that was both beautiful and technically impressive.

Since that first solo outing, Donkey Kong has appeared in a number of other Nintendo franchises. His latest solo outings were in the throwback titles, Donkey Kong Country Returns and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze.

Thursday 3 April 2014

C is for Crash Bandicoot

Developer: Naughty Dog
Notable Releases: Crash Bandicoot, Crash Team Racing

Way back in 1996, the Sony PlayStation was at the forefront of the 3D game revolution. And way before Naughty Dog, Inc. moved on to other intellectual properties, they were also at that forefront with a game that would eventually become one of the most successful PlayStation games of all time.

That game was Crash Bandicoot, a 3D platformer about a mutant marsupial that wasn't so much a revolution as it was a refinement of existing formulas in a new dimension. The studio went on to develop two sequels, Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back and Crash Bandicoot: Warped, and a spin-off racing game, Crash Team Racing, before handing over the IP to other development teams.

More recently, the studio found success and critical acclaim with another series, Uncharted, and the 2013 multiple Game of the Year winner, The Last of Us.

Wednesday 2 April 2014

B is for Batman: Arkham

Developers: Rocksteady Studios
Notable Releases: Batman: Arkham Asylum, Batman: Arkham City

There have been several Batman games over the years, none of which were particularly noteworthy. But then Batman: Arkham Asylum was released in 2009, a game that was immediately compared to Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, and widely venerated as the best superhero game ever made.

Loosely based on the comic, Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, the first game in the series not only focused on Batman's detective roots, but also introduced the free-flow combat that has now become a staple of the franchise. The game also featured stealth sequences, and a story and overall tone that was true to its source material.

That winning formula was carried over to its 2011 sequel, Batman: Arkham City, where it was greatly expanded upon, resulting in one of the year's most critically-acclaimed titles. A prequel, Batman: Arkham Origins, was developed by Warner Bros. Games MontrĂ©al and released in 2013.

Batman: Arkham Knight, the third and final game in the series developed by Rocksteady Studios, is scheduled for release in October, 2014.

Tuesday 1 April 2014

A is for Angry Birds

Developer: Rovio Entertainment
Notable Releases: Angry Birds, Angry Birds Star Wars, Angry Birds Go!

Say what you will about casual games, the fact remains that they are here to stay. This is especially true when you look at the success of Angry Birds. What started as a simple physics-based puzzle game has quickly turned into a franchise spanning several game genres, toys, merchandise, and an upcoming feature-length animated movie.

The series garnered a bit of notoriety recently, with the release of Angry Birds Go, a 3-D kart racing game, primarily for its misuse of the freemium (free-to-play) model and the inclusion of an energy system. But even that wasn't enough to completely mar what was essentially another great game.

The latest installment is a turn-based RPG called Angry Birds Epic.