Video Game and Accessories Gift Ideas [2010 Cool Yule Tools - After Hours]

When we started the After Hours section 11 years ago, we wanted to provide reviews of some of the more entertaining aspect of consumer technology, including PC and video games. Over the years, several products like music players, speakers and home entertainment units have become their own categories, leaving the After Hours section to focus mainly on video games. We’ve also included some more family games that have been pitched to us, and of course, robot toys.

Products reviewed in this category:

  • Rock Band 3
  • Madden 11
  • Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
  • New Carnival Games
  • Metroid Other M
  • Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep
  • Drawn Dark Flight
  • Front Mission Evolved
  • Jackpot Slots / Pinball Magic iPhone case/apps
  • Nyko Wand - Wii controllers
  • Nyko ChargeBase for Xbox 360
  • Memorex Wireless Sensor Bar for Wii
  • PDP AfterGlow controllers (Xbox and Wii)
  • Zibits miniature collectible robots
  • Z WindUps - new wind-up toys
  • Rubik's Slide electronic puzzle game
  • Likewise! Board game

Rock Band 3, by Harmonix (and MTV Games)The biggest update to this stellar series of music games is the inclusion of the wireless keyboard (accessory sold separately), which you can turn into a key-tar if you put on the strap, although you’d probably want to just place it on a flat surface. Adding a keyboard to your band gives you some more realism to the songs, and the new songs chosen for this game have a very heavy influence of keyboard/piano, as you’d expect. Songs from The Doors, especially, are high up on the list of keyboard-centric choices.

My piano skills go as far as being able to play Chopsticks, the bottom part of Heart and Soul, and Deck the Halls, so like the guitar controller, I started on the easy level. The keyboard controller, which has real piano keys, only requires you to push the keys that match the colors on the screen, so you don’t have to be a piano genius in order to play. But it was a little disconcerting, as I played the piano with my right hands, requiring all five fingers (including my thumb), where with the guitar controller you don’t use your thumb. Since I’m halfway decent with the guitar controller, adding my thumb to the mix took a lot of practice. For most of the game, I switched back to the guitar controller, since it seems that the keyboard parts would only be interesting in group play, rather than solo play.

Like earlier versions of the Rock Band series, RB3 lets you create your band and play through a bunch of songs in order to become more famous and earn more items for the band. Unlike earlier versions, gaining fans isn’t done just by playing songs over and over again, this time you can gain fans by completing certain achievements, helping newer players learn more about the game in the process. For example, I got an award and some fans for calibrating the controller to the TV. But the main way to get more stuff (extra clothing, guitars and other items) is to do the Road Challenges, and the game also shines here. If you don’t like the approved set list (like if you don’t really know the song), it sometimes gives you other options (like “random ‘80s set list” or “random Pop set”, etc.). It also integrates great with any downloaded songs that you bought for earlier versions of the game, so at one point my band was given the option of playing a “Nickelback set” from my downloaded content (yes, I did download some Nickelback songs).

The other major part of the game is the inclusion of “Pro” tutorials that aim to teach you the real way to play guitar, drums or keyboards. If you’re interested in that section of the game, there are additional “real” guitars that you can utilize to use the game to teach you how to the play. That doesn’t appeal to this 40-something reviewer, but those players who got really good at this and said to themselves, “Hey, maybe I could play a real guitar” might want to check those sections out.

But for me, it’s about playing the new list of songs, trying out the keyboard parts, and just having fun rocking out like a rock star. What more could you ask for?

Cool Yule rating: 4.5 starsPrice: $57 on Amazon.comGame Web siteReviewed by Keith Shaw

Madden 11, by EA SportsYou’re not a true video game fan if you haven’t played at least one of the Madden football games over the years. This series has been around longer than dirt, but in recent years the game has been getting more and more difficult with gimmicks and control features that made playing a simple game of football take an entire night.EA Sports recognized this, as well as the fact that many players who grew up with this game are now in their ‘30s and ‘40s, and probably have a lot less time to play video games, what with raising kids and other non-video-game responsibilities (I KNOW!).

So it was pleasing to see that with Madden 11, they instituted a new Gameflow feature, which basically allows the computer to pick the play for you, based on gameplanning strategies by the actual NFL teams. On offense and on defense, if you use the headset (at least on the Xbox 360 version), the coach is talking in your ear as if you were the QB or the middle linebacker. It’s a really cool feature, and for the most part it works. When it’s third and long, you’re not going to get a halfback dive play, and if you are back near the end zone, you’re not going to get an all streaks play. Still, there are some quirks in the gameflow, especially when it comes to clock management (in the third quarter, with a 3 TD lead, the game was still having me throw passes rather than try to run out the clock).

All of the other more advanced features are there, including online multiplayer, franchise season modes, etc. If you are a fan of Madden, this game is just as good as you remember it. If you haven’t played in a while, pick it up again and have some fun playing a quick game of football.

Cool Yule rating: 4.5 starsPrice: $55 (Xbox 360 version)Game Web siteReviewed by Keith Shaw

New Carnival Games, for Nintendo WiiThe updated version of this game adds several new mini-games that you might find at a carnival or county fair, or on the midway at an amusement park. I didn’t play the original game, so all of the games were new to me. Other reviewers have said the original games that are also in this one, such as Skee-ball and the basketball shoot, basically play the same.

Like the games at a carnival, there are some that are fun to play, and others that are just meh, or pretty hard to win. For example, despite many attempts, it takes a while to master the ping-pong ball in the fish tank game. Others, however, like the shooting gallery and the Haunted House (ride through shooting at ghosts), are very fun to play. Some games are lame, like the “fortune teller”, in which you just give up some tickets and don’t really get anything (no, it didn't turn me ‘Big’).

If you do well enough in the game, you win prizes, just like at a real carnival. Collect enough prizes and you can upgrade to “better” prizes, although in the video game this doesn’t really mean much. You can also earn and unlock different outfits and styles for your game avatar, but that seems like window dressing on just playing the games.

Playing with others is more fun, because a lot of the games you can play at the same time against each other, with the winner getting the better prize (plus bragging rights). My four-year-old got the hang of most of the games, but some required more finesse with the Wii remote. In addition, the game supports the Wii Motion Plus adapter, although it was hard to tell where that was really needed (maybe the archery game).

Overall the game is enjoyable, especially if you have kids who enjoy playing these carnival-type games. I can’t guarantee that you’ll get any better at these games at a real carnival, but at least you won’t waste $20 trying to win a giant stuffed gorilla.

Cool Yule rating: 3 starsPrice: $40Game Web siteReviewed by Keith Shaw

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, by NamcoI seem to be playing a lot of post-apocalyptic or “grim future” science-fiction games, because this one also takes place in a future world that has been decimated by some kind of war between humans and robots. But unlike a lot of games where the skies are dark and gloomy (see the “Fallout” series of games), this one offers a lot of sunshine in the environments, because plants have taken over in a lot of the landscapes.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Your character, Monkey (he explains later), wakes up inside a slaver spaceship, inside a prisoner pod. But before you start considering life as a slave, an escape takes place, and you are freed, but on a ship that’s about to crash-land on the planet. The game uses the escape from the ship as the tutorial for most of the controls, but it does so with a sense of danger that you rarely see this early in a video game. For example, a ship computer keeps telling you how many escape pods are left, and the ship keeps falling apart during your attempts to get to that last escape pod. Normally I despise timed missions (I like getting a sense of the environment and looking around), but in this case it works, especially when Monkey has to go outside the ship in order to jump onto the wings while other parts keep falling all around him. There’s one section where you see that the wing that you’re standing on is about to crash into a building, and you notice (by the ever-increasing building coming toward you) that you have only a few seconds to jump to a higher section of the ship in order to survive.  Brilliant.

Once you survive the escape, you get to the main storyline. The person who started the escape is a girl named Trip, and she straps a slaver headband on you, Monkey, that can inflict pain on you if you stray too far from her or disobey. But she’s not evil – she just needs your help to escape and get back to her village, 300 miles west of your current location (hence the title). Also, if Trip dies, you die, so the game involves fighting a lot of robotic enemies (mechs) as well as protecting Trip. It’s not as bad as some “escort” or protection-type missions in other games, the game does a good job of making sure at some points that Trip is OK in order for you to complete whatever problem or mission is going on.

To that point, Monkey has a bunch of attacks, but he also has the ability to jump onto ledges, handholds, poles, etc. in order to get through the urban jungle that you’re trapped on. It’s interesting that many of the missions rely on this ability, rather than just run through attacking, and it makes the game more fun than I’d thought. There is certainly a bunch of fighting, but not so much that it makes it repetitive or boring. The game reminded me a little bit of the running and jumping involved in the Tomb Raider games, but without the frustration of dying constantly if you miss a jump (maybe they add that danger on higher difficulty levels).

The storyline is fascinating, revealing bits and pieces along the way to help build this universe as you go along. The voice acting is also great, with Andy Serkis (Gollum from the Lord of the Rings movies) providing the voice of Monkey – he doesn’t sound like Gollum, by the way.

Cool Yule rating: 4.5 starsPrice: $50Game Web siteReviewed by Keith Shaw

Metroid: Other M, by NintendoNintendo's galactic bounty hunter, Samus Aran, lands on the Wii this holiday season for her latest adventure in this popular series. This time, responding to a distress call, Samus arrives at a Federation ship, only to find the local authorities, including her former superior, are already on the scene.  The team collaborates to reveal and stop a threat to the entire universe.

Unlike the first-person perspective of the Metroid Prime series, Other M restores Samus to the third-person perspective in which she originated.  With the Wiimote held sideways like an NES controller, you have the heroine running and jumping through deserts, glaciers, lava pools, and more.  But to scan an enemy or fire missiles, the Wiimote must be pointed at the screen, switching to a first-person perspective and eliminating Samus's mobility.  After the elegant pairing of the Wiimote and the Nunchuk controller in Metroid Prime 3, the constant controller rotation required by this awkward setup leaves much to be desired.

Fortunately, when in third-person view, the controls serve their purpose, with nearby enemies being automatically targeted.  Some end-level bosses are pushovers, while others require multiple attempts to defeat.  Samus can recharge her health and ammunition anytime, given that she is uninterrupted long enough -- a tense predicament in the heat of any battle.

By taking orders from Federation police, gamers will also find their mission far more linear than when exploring the open worlds of Metroids past.  Samus also starts the game with all her power-ups, but will not use them until authorized to do so, leaving players missing the reward that comes with claiming a powerful weapon from a fallen guardian.

Samus' interactions with these teammates reveal a different side of the character.  The script fleshes out the normally silent Samus Aran, providing a glimpse into the background that first led her to encounter Metroids.  Although the story itself is engaging, the execution has flaws.  Some dialogue was obviously meant to be read, not spoken, resulting in stilted or overwrought lines.  The script and the voice acting also collaborate to make Samus sound far younger and more fragile than expected from a galactic bounty hunter.

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