Holiday Gift Guide 2012: What the Kids Want Edition

Sometimes, kids can be the worst people to buy for.  Because of their constant exposure to the media and marketing, their desires and wants change from one fad to another almost instantaneously and always at the most inopportune time.  Of course, one can always go the route of buying them clothes (they grow up so fast, don’t they?), but before one resorts to this consider these “kid tested Techerator approved” gift ideas first.

The Wii U (or a Nintendo 3DS)

Nintendo is always a good contender for kids and families alike during the holiday season and this year is no different.  This time around, they have the new Wii U gaming console (with oodles and oodles of new games) as well as their portable 3DS platform for kid gaming on the go.  For a good source of family fun this season, consider getting the Wii U and show your kids how a true Mario fan saves the princess.  For some peace and quiet on the drive back from the holiday celebrations with relatives, consider the Nintendo 3DS instead with its own kid-friendly game offerings.

Kindle Fire (or an iPad mini or a LeapFrog LeapPad)

It is not hard to see that the world is catching on to portable tablets like a moth to a LED-powered flame.  The younger generation is no different.  Granted, there are quite a few options out there to consider this holiday season (each one with their own pros and cons), but here are a few recommendations.

At the low-end of the pricing spectrum is the $99 LeapFrog LeapPad with a simple user interface and plenty of educational apps for the budding minds you are cultivating.  For a mid-range tablet with full access to books, movies, and games, consider the $199 Kindle Fire by Amazon.  And finally, there is always the $329 iPad mini by Apple (if you’re having trouble deciding which table to get for your child, check out our helpful guide.).

Regardless of which one that is bought, the purchase of a tablet this holiday season should provide hours of blissful entertainment and learning (and your kid will like it too).

A Kid-safe digital camera

They come in pink

No matter the age, kids love participating in photographs.  So for this holiday season consider switching places with your child and let them take the pictures instead.  A good camera to look into buying is the Vtech Kidizoom Spin and Smile Digital Camera at $39.99.  It comes with a 2 megapixel camera, 4x zoom, and a plethora of special effects that can be applied to the pictures it takes.


Don’t look now, but the Furbie is back.  Yes, after 14 years the Furbie is being re-released via the folks at Hasbro.  So what has changed this time around?  Well, according to the synopsis on the Amazon product page, the newest version of Furbie “…has A MIND OF ITS OWN.”  You can talk to it, tickle it, pet it, shake it (but not too hard), and play music to it.   Furby responds to all these interactions at first in its own proprietary language, but as time wears on it will start to learn English and respond appropriately (hence the “mind of its own” part).  Currently a Furby is going for $59.99 on Amazon.

Legos (or anything else non-technical)

Legos and Minecraft: a perfect union

So far, this article has presented some technological options for kids.  But what if one wants to remove technology from the equation?  Thankfully, there are plenty of imagination-molding toys and games out there that can provide the same level of engagement that a tablet or gaming console can.  So do your kid a favor and get their creativity flowing by buying them some Legos (and yes, they make Lego sets for girls).   The author recommends the Millenium Falcon Lego set (at $139) due to the fact that he never had one as a kid.


From tablets to Legos, the only reason why you’d have to resort to buying socks and underwear this holiday season for the kids on your list is if they desperately need them.

Images courtesy: faseextra, ohnogc, Gareth Courage, Liz@rt, Apple, Amazon, LeapFrog, and Lego

Game review: Eufloria HD is a relaxing, ambient strategy game

When most people think about strategy games, they probably imagine scenarios pitting orcs against humans, or the U.S. versus the U.S.S.R, or maybe the Vasari versus the Advent. What they probably don’t think of is space battles between rival groups of plants, but that’s the premise of Eufloria HD, a real-time strategy(RTS) game recently ported to iOS from the PC platform.

The idea sounds like it would be goofy and over-the-top, something in the vein of Plants-vs-Zombies, but by using a minimalistic, pastel themed design and a subtle plot, indie developers Alex May, Rudolf Kremers, and Brian Grainger created a game that’s artful and relaxing.


Eufloria’s strategy elements are straightforward, making it a good option for players who are new to the RTS genre. In each level of the game, the player is put in control of a home-base asteroid inhabited by seedlings. These seedlings can be used to create trees that in turn produce more seedlings or to do battle against the seedlings of other asteroids.

The goal of most levels is to take control of the asteroids in the area by defeating rival seedling groups. There are a few levels that switch this formula up by requiring you to protect specific asteroids or produce a certain number of seedlings, but there’s not much variance in gameplay and it’s one of the few criticisms I have of the game. There were very few scenarios that couldn’t be won by just producing a large army of seedlings and overwhelming the enemy.

The Wonder of Life
“The human reproductive cycle” or “Seedlings at war”

There are a few variants of defensive trees and offensive seedlings that can be produced but they don’t have a tremendous effect on the course of the game and in many cases can be ignored. For those that aren’t fans of the sometimes overwhelming number of upgrade options found in more complex strategy games like Command & Conquer this is probably a plus.

At times I found myself missing that type of gameplay depth, but paired with the simple aesthetics of the game the limited options seem to fit. This is a game that you can relax with and not worry so much about the repercussions of the technology research path you chose for your army.

Eufloria contains both a story mode and a skirmish(challenge) mode. Progress in the game’s story unlocks new skirmish challenges. These skirmish levels add replay value to the game and in some cases a little more challenge for those who are looking for it.

Availability & pricing

Eufloria HD is available on both iPhone and iPad through the App Store for $4.99  and the PC for $14.99 through Steam. It is also part of Humble Bundle 4 for Android with pre-release versions available for Android, Mac, and Linux.

Final thoughts

Although the strategy is basic, Eufloria ultimately won me over due to how well the touch interface was implemented – it’s intuitive and fun to use. It’s also a rare type of strategy game that’s easy to jump into and out of, letting you relax on the couch without having to commit to an extended play-session.

I’m honestly not a fan of the game on the PC. There are just too many better, more interesting options like Starcraft if I’m going to be sitting at a desk, but it works well as a touch/mobile game and that’s the platform I would recommend to anyone who’s interested in taking the plunge.

What Nintendo must do to make the upcoming Wii U game console a success

Winter 2012 will see the global release of Nintendo’s brand new games console, the Wii U, just in time for the holiday season. As the first TV adverts have been careful to point out, the Wii U is a completely new console, and not just an upgrade to the Wii.

The Wii U comes with a brand new gamepad, which incorporates a large touchscreen display, allowing for a new kind of multiplayer gaming known as asymmetric play.

Asymmetric play allows one player to interact with a game world (thanks to the personal touchscreen) in a different way to the players who are using the TV screen. This provides plenty of potential for chase or hide and seek game scenarios, and gives developers a whole new range of options.

Asymmetric Gaming on the Wii U
Asymmetric Gaming on the Wii U

The success of the Wii U is not guaranteed. Hardcore gamers have already spent months arguing as to whether the Wii U represents the first of a new generation of consoles, or is simply Nintendo catching up with Sony and Microsoft. Here are six things that I, as a long-term Nintendo fan, think that Nintendo must do to increase their chances of success:

1. Remember the hardcore gamers

Nintendo took a lot of criticism for “abandoning” hardcore gamers during the life of the Wii. The Wii gained so much momentum as a casual console that hardcore games often complained that games had become too easy, and that they missed the serious challenges of the Zeldas and Metroids that had gone before.

Nintendo needs to remember the gamers who have supported the company since the 80s, as these are the potential early adopters who will tell the non-gamers how great the new console is.

However, at the same time, Nintendo should also….

2. Remember the casual gamers

OK, so the first two points may seem contradictory, but Nintendo must also make sure that they hang on to the same Wii Sports / Just Dance / Wii Fit market that they cornered so beautifully with the Wii.

If the casual market takes to the Wii U, it allows Nintendo to steal a march on Microsoft and Sony before they release the Xbox 720 and PlayStation 4 respectively.

3. Keep Advertising

TV advertising played a huge part in the success of the Wii, and will be even more important for the Wii U. Potential buyers need to understand that they are looking at a new system – something that won’t be helped by the fact that it looks a lot like the original Wii and supports the original Wii Remotes and “nun-chucks.” Nintendo will have to ignore the hardcore gamers’ inevitable complaints about “lame” adverts and stick to making sure the casual market understand the Wii U.

4. Keep the Marios, Zeldas and Metroids coming

Gamers are a fickle bunch. One minute they complain that they want more Mario, then Nintendo brings New Super Mario Bros U out within months of New Super Mario Bros 2 on the 3DS and they complain that they are seeing too much 2D Mario.

Nintendo should pay no attention – these characters sell consoles, as was demonstrated by the huge surge in 3DS sales when Super Mario 3D Land was released. Nintendo need to keep more of these titles flooding onto the market.

5. Be generous with retro

Nintendo has a rich and highly enviable back catalog. They need to make sure people download these games by publicizing them well and charging a fair and attractive price. Many Wii users have never been near the Virtual Console – they are perhaps unaware of all the classic games within, or put off by their arguably high price. Nintendo have already made vast sums from these games – it’s time to pile them high and sell them cheap.

6. Take online seriously

The Wii U is Nintendo’s last chance to get online right, and the signs are good that the console is going to make a far from half-hearted attempt. We need online modes in all the first-party games and attractive downloadable content. Mario Kart for the Wii U with downloadable track packs and extra cups would make Nintendo a fortune.

What do Nintendo need to do to make you buy a Wii U? Let me know in the comments.

Game review: Letterpress is an addictive word game crippled by Game Center glitches

The rise of touch-based gaming has brought on a lot of interesting takes on old games as well as completely new gaming ideas, but browsing through Apple’s App Store for word games, there are really only four options: Scrabble, crossword puzzles, hangman, and the various clones of each. Even the popular Words With Friends is just a better implementation of Scrabble than the official Scrabble app.

It’s not a category where you’ll find much innovation other than developers pushing the limit on how many descriptors they can cram into the name of their game or social network sharing buttons they can wedge into the game interface.

Honestly, who isn’t excited about “Angry Chicken Halloween Edition Phrase Friend Sharing Fun Time HD Free” that shares every word you play with all your buddies on Friendster?

For those of us who’ve been disappointed by the sorry state of iOS word games, there’s a new game to get excited about. Letterpress by atebits, is an addictive word game that brings freshness to the category by focusing on simplicity and pushing strategy to the forefront.

A minimalist game
Image Credit: atebits


For Letterpress, atebits went back to the basics and built a stripped-down game that’s similar to Scrabble in concept, but plays much differently in practice.

Players are presented with a 5-by-5 tiled game board from which they must assemble words in order to take control of tiles. Points are awarded for each claimed tile, but unlike Scrabble, tiles can be stolen, subtracting from the opposing player’s score. You can protect tiles you’ve claimed by also capturing the surrounding tiles. The opposing player can still use your protected tiles during their turn, but those tiles don’t award them any points and aren’t shifted to their control.

This back-and-forth, tile stealing dynamic adds a layer of strategy to the game that levels the playing field between players with differing levels of vocabulary and helps prevent the one-sided play that sometimes occurs in Scrabble. If you’re someone who normally doesn’t fair well at word games, it’s entirely possible to win Letterpress with strategy alone.

So Ugly.
So Ugly. ™

Matchmaking for Letterpress is done via Apple’s Game Center, and so far this has been the source of most complaints about the game in App Store reviews. During peak playing times, submitting a turn or trying to start a new game will often result in a time-out error. This issue seems to have lessened somewhat since the game’s release but still occurs often.

The glitches aren’t enough to completely spoil the fun of the game, but it is annoying to sometimes have to wait until the morning after you submitted a turn to know if it actually made it through Apple’s servers.

Another personal quibble, although minor, is the game’s icon, which is perhaps the ugliest app icon ever created and seems out-of-place given the rest of the game’s clean visual style.

Availability & pricing

Letterpress is available on iOS devices running version 5.0 or newer. The game is free but requires a $0.99 upgrade if you want to have more than two games going at once or additional color themes.

Final thoughts

When Apple launched Game Center in the fall of 2010 the consumer response was fairly lackluster. The app had an ugly, skeuomorphic design that mimicked a felt card table – something many iOS users have never even seen. There wasn’t an easy way to get your Facebook or Twitter contacts into the app and once you actually had some contacts loaded, there really wasn’t much else you could do.

Needless to say, developers haven’t exactly flocked to Game Center, opting to build their own matchmaking services or leveraging third-party options like OpenFeint. Choosing to tightly integrate Letterpress with Game Center was a risk for atebits that will hopefully be rewarded as Apple builds up the underlying infrastructure for Game Center to handle the popularity of the game.

Game review: Hero Academy

If you know me, you know I’m a picky gamer. I don’t play a lot of games, but that’s not because I don’t like gaming — I just can never find a game that I enjoy long enough to stick with it. Hero Academy, a turn-based strategy game on iOS and Windows, just made its way to Steam, and it’s got me hooked. Let’s dive in together to see what makes this game so great.


Hero Academy is sort of like chess, in the sense that you have different “chess pieces” that do different things, and there’s a certain kind of strategy that you have to keep in mind that’s similar to how you would strategize in chess. Hero Academy consists of five different characters (or “units”) and a wealth of different items like shields, swords, and helmets that you can use to upgrade your units, as well as one-time-use items like health potions, fireballs, and boosts.

You get 25 of a mixture of units and items per game, but only have access to five at a time. When you use them up, you get new units/items to replace the ones you used until all 25 are used up. Look at it as a deck of cards with a five-card hand.

Each player gets five moves per turn, and you can use those moves however you like. You can do a mixture of moving and attacking, or spend a turn simply building up your army for a major attack later in the game. You can even spend a move swapping an item in your hand for something else that’s waiting in the queue, in case you’re dealt a crappy hand.

The goal of the game is to either destroy all of your opponents’ units or destroy their jewel — whichever comes first. The game board includes special squares that give you certain boosts when one of your units lands on them. These include different types of increased attack power and defense strength.

Misc. features

All users receive the Council “starter” team when they begin playing Hero Academy. You can buy different teams (Dark Elves, Dwarves, Tribe, and the Team Fortress 2 team) for a few bucks per team. All the teams are relatively balanced, so there’s no real big advantage to using the paid teams other than having different characters besides the default ones — every team has roughly the same type of units that do the same thing with the same amount of power. Some units on the paid teams do things that other teams can’t, but there’s usually a trade-off  for those units.

Availability and pricing

Hero Academy is available on Steam for $4.99 and on iOS as a free, ad-supported download. When you buy the Steam version, you get the Team Fortress 2 team for free, along with the Council starter team. Sadly, the TF2 team isn’t available to purchase on iOS, but you can still buy the other teams for $1.99 each (removing the game’s ads while you do so) and get different avatar packs ($0.99 each) as well.


In a word, Hero Academy is addictive. Any game that allows you to play against your friends usually has a great lasting appeal, and Hero Academy has that and much more. The chess-like strategy mixed with the different attack items makes the game a unique title that a lot of casual gamers will enjoy.

Gaming on a budget: An exhaustive guide

Gaming is expensive, plain and simple. With the price of a new game being around $60, it’s hard to justify spending that kind of money on a new title that you really want when your budget can’t compete with it. However, with a few tips and simple methods that you can keep in mind, you’ll soon be doing some hardcore gaming with only a fraction of the cash it normally takes.

Note: When I refer to any kind of console gaming throughout this guide, I’m referring to the Xbox 360, since that’s what I use and have the most experience with. However, most of the tips that you’ll read about are easily transferable to any console.

The Number One Tip

Before I dive any deeper into this guide, the number one tip that you must remember when gaming on a budget (or doing anything on a budget) is to never pay full price for anything. If there’s one thing that you learn from this guide, I hope it’s this. There’s no reason to pay full price for something, even if it’s brand new. This might seem obvious in a way, but too many gamers will go ahead and pay $60 for a game when they easily could have gone online or waited a few weeks and bought it for less.

Find a console (or computer) for cheap

Image Credit: YuMaNuMa

First thing’s first: You need a console (or a computer) to do your gaming on. If you already have either one of these things, skip to the next section. However, if you’re just getting into gaming for the first time (either console gaming or computer gaming) and don’t have a machine where you can stick game discs into, then you’ll want to stick around.

Gaming Consoles

There are tons of places where you can buy used gaming consoles, and some of these places I cover later in this guide, but I’ll give you a quick overview. eBay, Craigslist, and even Gamestop offer used gaming consoles. You can sometimes even buy brand-new gaming consoles at a discounted price. All you really have to do is wait for a seller who’s desperate for cash that needs to sell his just-purchased console because his car broke down. I’ve seen plenty of never-been-opened Xbox 360 Kinect bundles sell for around $250 on eBay (retails for $300), and I’ve even spotted one for $200 brand new on Craigslist.


Just like gaming consoles, there are tons of places to find used computers or even used computer parts to build your own custom rig. I’ve had great luck with eBay finding used parts for my gaming rig, and I probably spent half the cash it would’ve taken to build it brand new. However, some computer builders get nervous buying used parts from random strangers on the internet. The only solution to this is to either buy from a trusted friend, or wait for a sale at a reputable e-tailer and either buy brand new, or refurbished for an even bigger discount.

Be willing to compromise

I can tell you really want to play Forza 4, and it’s old enough now that you can get it used for around $30. But do you really need Forza 4 or could you get by with Forza 3? It would still be an excellent game and you can grab it for as low as $5 on eBay or One of the biggest things that you must do in order to game on a budget is to be willing to compromise. You probably don’t need the latest and greatest sequel that’s out, especially for a series that releases a new title every year. Go with a game in a series that’s a year or two old in order to save some major cash.

Be patient

This sort of goes along with compromising, but to save yourself a lot of dough, be willing to wait a few months or even a year before buying that new release — it allows time for the used copies of a new game to start appearing on eBay and such. I can’t even tell you how much money I could have saved if I just waited to buy Call of Duty: Black Ops once Modern Warfare 3 came out. Usually when a sequel to a game comes out, you can get the prequel for a lot cheaper.

I’ve been finding a lot of great games for under $10 on eBay and recently. Titles like Forza Motorsports 3, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11, Grand Theft Auto IV, Mass Effect 2Halo 3: ODST, and Batman: Arkham Asylum all were under $10 each at various online spots and stores. Sure, they’re older games that might have lost their hype, but that doesn’t mean that they’ve lost their appeal.

Places to find cheap games and gear


eBay is easily one the best place to get cheap used games and gear. However, the best things to buy on eBay are huge lots of stuff.  You’ve probably heard the saying that it’s much cheaper to buy in bulk, and the same concept applies for big bundles of stuff on eBay. A lot of sellers simply throw all of their games and accessories in one listing and sell it at a single price. This is what we bargain hunters refer to as a “jackpot.” It’s much cheaper to buy a ton of games at once than to buy ten or twelve single game. Plus, whatever games you don’t want out of the lot, you can simply put back on eBay to make back a few dollars. is another awesome place to find cheap games. However, I would only recommend it if you couldn’t wait for an eBay auction to end. allows you buy cheap games right away, but sometimes you can find it cheaper on eBay if you just wait a few days for the auction to come to a close.

Amazon Marketplace

The Amazon Marketplace is a great alternative to Prices of used games and gear are very competitive, so if you prefer doing business the Amazon way, there’s nothing to lose. You can still find some great deals through Amazon’s offering as you would with


Gamestop wouldn’t be my first choice for looking for cheap stuff, but it’s at least worth a mention. Most pre-owned games they have can usually be found for a few bucks cheaper online, so I tend not to go to Gamestop too often. However, don’t cross it off your list completely. They do have a plethora of games under $10 and even a few for as little as $3. You can even find great deals on pre-owned gaming consoles. During my last trip to Gamestop, I spotted a used Xbox 360 Slim with a wireless controller for $130.


If you’re a PC gamer, Steam is pretty much your go-to place for awesome, cheap games. They have numerous free-to-play titles, as well as tons of games under $10. You can also find crazy sales going on year-round on A-list titles, especially during the holidays.

Humble Bundle

This is also another computer-only option for budget gamers. The Humble Bundle offers an assortment of 5-8 indie games for a price that you choose. That’s right. Pay whatever you want for a bundle of games. Only thing is, the Humble Bundle comes around only a few times a year.


Just like Gamestop, Craigslist isn’t my first choice to look for used gaming stuff, but you can get lucky at times by finding a good seller who’s selling his gaming gear for cheap. And like I mentioned earlier, a lot of Craigslist users get desperate and need money fast. Thus, you can grab some great deals.

Garage Sales

Garage Sales are a hit or miss when it comes to used gaming gear. Actually, I should be more specific. Garage sales are a hit or miss when it comes to good-quality, used gaming gear. Sure, you might find a couple of beat-up gaming systems bundled with a few B-list games, but you’ll have to look a little harder to find the good stuff. However, when that time comes — that time when some ignorant old lady is selling all of her grandson’s unused gaming gear for really cheap — that’s when you pounce.


Same thing goes for auctions as with garage sales. It’ll be a little bit more difficult to find the good stuff, but once you do, you’ll be the proud new owner of some awesome gaming gear that you bought for mere dollars.


Gaming on a budget certainly takes a little bit of effort. It’s not as easy as just going to your nearest store and simply purchasing a game off the shelves. In order to save a lot of money, you have to be patient and be willing to compromise in order to get not only the good deals, but the best deals. Hopefully this guide will help you for your future budget-gaming endeavors, and if you have any of your own tips or tricks for saving money on gaming gear, let’s hear them in the comments!

The year of the Angry Bird, and what’s next for Rovio

Rovio, developer of the immensely popular Angry Birds series, announced that their earnings for 2011 topped $100 million resulting in over $65 million in net profit, up from approximately $10 million in revenue from 2010. Merchandise sales alone accounted for 30 percent of that. Those numbers don’t even include their newest, record-breaking creation, Angry Birds Space, which released earlier this year and gained over 50 million downloads in 35 days.

Rovio’s 2011 lineup consisted of Angry Birds, Angry Bird Seasons, and the movie-themed Angry Birds Rio, all of which raked in almost 650 million downloads in 2011.

Rovio was founded in 2003 and didn’t gain a lot of popularity until late 2009 when they launched Angry Birds for the iPhone. Now, the Angry Birds series has seen over 1 billion total downloads and around 200 million active users as of the end of 2011. Rovio’s many versions of Angry Birds have stayed at the top of the charts ever since their releases.

Rovio expects 2012 to be another great year for them. CEO Mikael Hed says that they “are very optimistic about 2012 due to significant investments in product development, cutting-edge branding, brand protection and corporate infrastructure.” Hed also said that Rovio needs to be “continuously developing new and innovative products and services” in order to ensure continuous success.

Hed mentioned that they plan on releasing several more games in 2012, including a non-Angry Birds title called Amazing Alex, which will be a reboot of Casey’s Contraptions, a long lost mobile game from developers Snappy Touch and Mystery Coconut. It turns out, Rovio bought the IP to the game, so they’re currently re-working and re-branding the title to fit within their style. Amazing Alex will be released in approximately two months and will include an educational element, as well as being a fun and entertaining game about constructing Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions to complete a variety of objectives.

Because of Rovio’s immense success, the company is also preparing itself for an IPO next year, according to Reuters who cited that Anders Lindeberg, Rovio’s head of investor relations, said that the Finnish-based company is “is preparing itself and getting ready” for a stock market listing in either New York or Hong Kong.

Will 2012 be another great year for Rovio like CEO Mikael Hed claims? It certainly looks that way so far, but only time will tell to see if the developer still has it in them to come through with fun and entertaining titles.

Image Credit: Yaniv Golan

The Rise and Fall of Draw Something

Not too long ago, Draw Something was a social-gaming phenomenon raking in 50 million downloads within the first 50 days of the game’s release. It even beat Words With Friends to become the most popular Facebook game at the time. Zynga (creators of FarmVille) even bought out developer OMGPOP (creaters of Draw Something) for $180 million because of the game’s massive popularity.

However, did Zynga act too quickly? It turns out the rapid rise to fame has hit a plateau and is now heading in a downward direction. The past few weeks have seen a steady decline in the number of users playing Draw Something. In a month’s time, from April 2 to May 2, the game has lost almost four million users according to a report by BBC News, dropping the total number of active users down to 10.4 million.

Draw Something is a Pictionary-esque mobile game that has you draw a picture with the goal being the other person guessing correctly. Each correct answer earns you and your “opponent” coins to buy more colors and other goodies.

Frankly, I’m not too surprised by the steady decline of users playing the game. It’s the type of game that gets old quickly. For me, Draw Something lasted about a week before I deleted it off of my phone. It’s simply the type of game where it needs to be constantly updated with new features in order to keep users interested. If Draw Something stays the same old game forever, there’s no doubt that it will lose its appeal.

We’ll have to wait and see what Zynga will do to combat the steady loss of its users for Draw Something. Is it possible for them to keep the game going strong and staying relevant with frequent updates and newer features? Let us know in the comments.

Image Credit: WebMediaBrands

Initial impressions of the PlayStation Vita handheld gaming console

PS VitaPlayStation and I have had our ups and downs in the past year, but somehow I’ve managed to move past the whole account hacking, contested charges, and banning of my beloved PSN account. I recently picked up the new PlayStation Vita, and so far I am impressed.

For starters, the variety of new input methods seems to work well. The most obvious improvement over the PSP is the inclusion of a second thumb stick, making it possible to play console-quality games on the handheld. This was the #1 feature which held back the PSP, and the Vita knocks it out of the park. Not only does the unit feature a second thumb stick, but both thumb sticks feel like that found on the Dual Shock 3 controller, rather than the sliding disc found on the PSP. This alone improves analog input so much that it can’t really even be compared to the PSP.

As if adding a second thumb stick wasn’t enough, Sony added a high-quality OLED touchscreen, which I must say looks exquisite and reacts accurately to the commands of the user’s fingers. If you’ve used a high-end smartphone in the last year or two, you’ll feel right at home using the Vita’s touchscreen.

Another set of important additions are the front and rear cameras, along with a built-in microphone. This not only makes online gaming and voice chat possible without a headset, but the possibility for video and audio-based apps are almost endless. Apps such as Skype will be much more enjoyable than it was on the PSP, that’s for sure. Hopefully it’s only a matter of time before we start to see apps taking advantage of these features.

Just to add some gravy to the mashed potatoes, Sony also added a touchpad to the back of the device, allowing users to tap, swipe, and draw with their fingers, without ever obscuring their view of the beautiful screen. While it feels like the least precise input method the Vita has to offer, I can only imagine the value it could add to gaming.

The questions I’ve yet to answer are: How will the multitude of input methods affect the quality of gameplay? Will it make playing certain games feel like a chore? Will gamers be able to deactivate the rear touchpad if it is not to their liking? Will Nintendo release yet another version of the DS which offers the same inputs, plus 3D? Hopefully in the next week or so, I’ll be able to answer some of these questions.

Words with Friends is Mobile Gaming Perfection

Saturday night. Relaxing at a friend’s house. Dinner is over, and we are all sitting around the dining table. The room is strangely quiet. Everyone at the table has a look of intense concentration, and the only sounds are the occasional shrills and pings produced by our various laptops and smartphones.

No, this isn’t a strange vision of a scary post-social-skills future. It was just last week – on the Saturday we all finally discovered the phenomenon that is Words With Friends.

Words With Friends is an online word game from Zynga, available for iOS, Android and Facebook. It’s basically Scrabble, albeit with the bonus squares slightly rearranged. It’s been around a while, but seems to be experiencing a surge in popularity.

For anyone who has lived in a cave since 1938 when Scrabble was invented, the game takes place on a 15 x 15 square board. Each player is given seven letters, which they must place on the board to create a word. Each letter is allocated a certain number of points – a single point for “easy” letters such as “A” and “E,” and up to 10 points for the tricky ones like “Z” and “Q.”

Words With Friends on Facebook
Words With Friends on Facebook

Extra points are given if words are played over special squares such as “double word score” or “triple letter score.” Players take it in turns to lay words on the board until the entire pool of letters is used up, and the player with the highest score wins the game.

Words With Friends is exactly the same…but online. Players invite friends, usually via Facebook, and can play multiple games at the same time. Within an hour of discovering the game, we found that many of our friends were already playing, and each of us soon had five or six games on the go at once.

There are no time limits. For those that only log on occasionally, a game of Words With Friends can be something akin to postal chess, with only a few moves happening each day. For people who spend their lives glued to their iPhones and Facebook pages, playing Words With Friends can be both an enjoyable quick-fire challenge and something akin to a fun full-time job!

The beauty of Words With Friends is that it really is the perfect mobile game. The iPod and Android apps can consume long train journeys with ease, but also provide perfect gaming fodder for two-minute waits in supermarket queues.

Words with Friends App
Words with Friends App

The game is supported by advertising. In the case of the Facebook game, this involves looking at an ad for 5 seconds in between moves – this can quickly become tiresome. On the iOS app, the ads appear but can be skipped instantly. For those that want to play a lot (probably anyone with a few Facebook friends willing to get involved) the ads can be disabled for a small fee with the purchase of the full game.

Most people playing in our group have paid the money – which goes to prove that this freemium payment model works for compelling games. Who can begrudge a few dollars for something that provides hours of enjoyment at home, on the train, and even queuing at the airport.

The best thing of all about Words With Friends is that it isn’t simply mindless entertainment. If something’s going to keep you glued to your iPhone screen, isn’t it best that it’s something that focuses the mind and increases the vocabulary?

This point seems to be the key to the game’s popularity. All it really consists of is Scrabble, turn based online gaming (that must have been pretty easy to put together), and a bit of brain training. Yet somehow it ends up being far more than the sum of its parts. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I somehow need to get more than forty points with four As, two Hs and a Q.