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So, where the hell have I been?

Well, quite simply, I’ve been sick. And while sick, I’ve really not had much energy to play games, let alone write and report on them. Hence the month gap between columns, and even more importantly, the reason behind May’s missing video podcast. But fret not dear readers, I’m back at full health, and full of vim and vigor, ready to bring you news and reviews for you gaming needs here at QuickStopEntertainment.com.

And yes…there’s a new podcast on the way too…

So, let’s just get right down to it with some news from the world of gaming:

First up, and most exciting for me, Konami has just announced CONTRA 4, due out later this year for the Nintendo DS. Here’s the official word from the source:

Contra 4 takes place two years after the events of Contra III: The Alien Wars. After saving earth from invasion by Red Falcon, Bill Rizer and Lance Bean are confronted with a new extraterrestrial menace: the terrifying Black Viper. Joined by hard-boiled mercenaries Mad Dog and Scorpion, the warriors must once again wage war against an entire army of invaders.

Refining the 2D side-scrolling genre the series established 20 years ago, Contra 4 delivers pure action at a fever pitch as players jump, shoot, and dodge oncoming hazards. Utilizing a new dual screen presentation, the action spans both screens of the Nintendo DS, giving players the opportunity to battle across expansive environments in which death can come from any direction. The use of both screens for the game’s core action also allows for massive boss battles as players try to seek and destroy the weak points of sky-high enemies. A first for the series, Contra 4 introduces a grappling hook accessory that lets players grab onto elements of the environment directly above them. Whether using it to avoid oncoming dangers or attack from a strategic vantage point, the grappling hook allows for new combat situations and dramatic set pieces that underscore the game’s adrenaline-soaked pedigree.

I, for one, am THRILLED about this news, as the Contra series is one of my all time favorites. In other news, Midway today announced that JOHN WOO PRESENTS: STRANGLEHOLD, the video game sequel to his film HARD BOILED, will receive a collector’s edition on Xbox 360, in addition to the previously announced PS3 version. For the PS3 version, the Blu-Ray game disc will also feature the film HARD BOILED directly on the same disc…not only marking the first game/movie hybrid on the format, but also the first time the film will be released on Blu-Ray as well. For the Xbox 360 version, sadly, fans won’t get the original film, but they will get a cool bonus disc featuring:

* Poetry In Slow Motion - Behind-the-scenes documentary on Midway bringing the style of John Woo to video games.
* Extended Cinematic Sequences - Extended scenes which didn’t make it into the final game.
* MTV Studio Visit - Follow MTV visit with the game team during crunch time.
* The Vision of Stranglehold - See the progression from concept art to final game.
* The Sound of Stranglehold - An insiders look at sounds design.

A bonus disc full of featurettes may not be as exciting as a full-length film, but for those of you interested in the inner-workings of how the game is made, this may be your choice over the other option.

As is popular with movie releases, game companies release game tie-ins for the blockbuster features, in hopes of some of that crossover revenue. The HARRY POTTER series does well for EA, but this year, with all the new consoles out there, EA is hitting all of them with a game based on the new film, THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX. So much so, in fact, that EA is offering fans a chance to win a version of the game on the Nintendo Wii. To enter, find the Harry Potter promotion in the main flash box on the EA.com homepage, and click “Sign up” to enter your information. Simple enough. The game itself is due in stores next week, and I should hopefully have a review of at least the Wii version for you folks (where gamers can use the Wii-mote as, yes, a magic wand.)

Now, seeing as I was sick, I didn’t get much chance to go out and get games to review. Thanks to downloads, however, that wasn’t much of a problem. Xbox Live Arcade provided me with two awesome games over the past few weeks that kept me playing through the pain.

First, MAD TRACKS, by D3 Publishing, takes the classic kart racing dynamic, applies it to penny racers, and adds an element new to the genre: spring powered motors. As you race, your rubber band bound spring winds down. If it’ wound down all the way, you racer slow, and ever crawls to a halt while waiting to wind up again. This allows for strategy when racing, forcing players to lay off the throttle at certain points, and not just blast through areas.

Of course, the tracks aren’t typical either. You go from standard table top racers (these are toy cars after all) to separate challenges involving knocking billiard balls into holes, and various battle arenas. There are 15 challenges in all, with over thirty available later, through two separate expansion downloads. With typical power ups such as oil slicks and rocket launchers, plus newer fun like freeze rays and EMP blasts, as well as 4 player split screen and Xbox Live play, this is one racer that offers more than just…well…racing.

The courses are fun and diverse, and the dynamic of keeping your spring motor under surveillance during heated battles or photo finish races adds a certain amount of strategy to what would normally be just your typical “hit the gas, win the day” type of races. The graphics are sharp and colorful, and really emphasize that these are small-scale toys in big real size worlds. The variety of the challenges is nice too, so there’s always something cool to tackle. It’s not the greatest game ever made, but it’s serves it’s fun purpose, and what’s more important than that?

With classic gaming in mind, once again the Xbox Live Arcade service has offered and oldy but goody. However, instead of just re-releasing the title with slightly updated character models, the developers at Ubisoft has gone one step further with their release of PRINCE OF PERSIA CLASSIC. Here’s they’ve completely remade the classic SNES game, but with graphics that replicate the look of the newer POP games, most closely, those of THE SANDS OF TIME.

But the graphics aren’t the only thing to get an overhaul. Gameplay has been drastically improved, to make the game a bit more accessible for modern audiences. I for one could never even make it halfway through the originals’ first stage, and here, the jump physics and animations have been improved, and accidental deaths have been brought to a minimum. The fighting has been refined too, as parrying blows is essential for success. Essentially, the whole game has been completely overhauled, while still staying true to the main focus of the original, which is escaping the prison, and rescuing the princess.

After all, isn’t that the fun of games anyway? Well, it is here anyway, and I couldn’t be happier. POP CLASSIC is old school gameplay with new school graphics and presentation. You’ll still die a lot, but you at least won’t be blaming it on stumble jump animation or poor control. This time, it’s just dumb mistakes on your part.

That said, I think we’re finished with this return to the column. The podcast is getting finished up, and since we missed May’s, will probably be presented in two parts to cover all the stuff from last month and this month. We’ll see you next time.

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