Smile and Nod: Games to Ease the Summer Drought


And here we thought the end of the Writer’s Strike would bring some relief. Alas, no deal.

The game industry again has its cyclopean attention focused on the holiday season, when every game developer and his mother will be competing to have a product under your holiday tree, and those of us who play games year round are – again – left to cool our heels in the grips of the summer drought.

According to the prevailing wisdom, people don’t play videogames during the summer. During the summer, so the wisdom goes, people are outdoors, living life, ogling bikini-clad coeds and embarking on shenanigans. Unfortunately, the prevailing wisdom hasn’t caught up to the times. For one thing, it’s damn hot out there, and those of us in the over thirty and seriously involved set aren’t going to be too busy with the bathing beauties this summer.

The average age of the audience keeps rising and yet the bean counters still treat us like children. This is a problem, fellas. You’re still acting like the post-adolescent boys you once were, tinkering around with a forbidden hobby no-one but you understood. Ain’t like that anymore. Now we’re a genuine industry. Wake the hell up.

Also, with gas at around the price of a hamburger per gallon, shenanigans are going to be limited to those in which we can indulge close to home this year. Piling everyone in the car to head to Wally World would require we sell the car when we get home to pay off the trip, and that ain’t happening.

Yet still, there are no games. This weekend, with the better half out of town, the gas tank as dry as my bank account and the thermometer panting for breath, I spent a good two hours debating which game to pop into my Xbox. Sure, I’m waist-deep in half a dozen titles at least, but on a weekend like this one I wanted something new. Something to inspire giddy anticipation. Something I couldn’t take my hands off all weekend. Something to fall in love with.

I’m still fond of GTA IV, but our affair has settled into that middling phase where we already know what each other is going to say before we open our mouths. While it’s nice and relaxing to slip into something familiar, like sipping at a perfectly concocted mint julep, the torrid summer months are for quenching the insatiable thirst. Like say, with lemonade and Everclear.

So what do you do when you’re out of Everclear? You go digging around in the back of the liquor cabinet for the stuff you bought for such-and-such girl before you broke up with her, or that somebody brought to your party that one time then completely forgot about after they passed out in the pool. Sometimes the best drinks are made from leftovers. Don’t believe me? Two words: rusty and nail.

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For the rusty nail of games I recommend these five forgotten gems. You may have heard about them before. You may have even played one or two. You may also see this list and immediately run screaming to the hills afraid that I’m one of those guys who keeps threatening to drag you to the art house cinema to watch movies where Japanese girls get murdered to moody music and bad subtitles.

Relax. I like the new and shiny as much as you. But I do this for a living. When the rivers run dry, you need somebody who knows where to find the water. That’s what we’re here for.

Sid Meier’s Pirates

This one is as solid as any of his games, and if the Civilization Revolution demo has you in heat over Sid Meier-style gameplay, Pirates will satisfy.

I was one of the naysayers who thought it’d be impossible to translate Sid’s “one more turn” style of gameplay to a game about sailing, swashbuckling, looting and dancing, but he did it. I spend most of my time sailing the high seas looking for Spanish galleons to engage (and destroy), but, according to Sid Meier, there’s more to piracy than … piracy.

In this game, you have relatives to rescue, revenge to exact, governors’ daughters to dance with and marry and a slew of fellows to duel. Plus, just like in GTA, you can jack any ship available and even customize it. Entire days can be lost with this game, and thanks to some voodoo trickery of Meier’s, it ages remarkably well.


We bang this drum a lot at The Escapist and elsewhere, but we do it because we care. And also because nobody played the damn thing when it came out, and that’s a crime.

Story: check. Varied, interesting gameplay: check. Brilliant writing, acting and art: check. Fun: check. Bacon: check. This game has it all. And yet, for every notation on the list of its awesomeness I’ve had people lay a thousand excuses on me why they wouldn’t enjoy it. “I don’t like platform games.” “Colorful characters turn me off.” “Fun bores me.” Whatever.

All of it amounts to me telling you something rocks and you should play it, and you objecting to be told what to do. Fine. Don’t play Psychonauts (pictured). Keep bitching about how there aren’t any innovative games out there while those of us who know where they are point at you and laugh at your ignorance.

Most people will add a giant “but” at this point, but as far as I’m concerned, With Psychonauts there is no “but.” Game reviewers are hardest on the ones they really love and so, even in the face of near perfection, find the need to criticize. Psychonauts is beyond reproach. It’s a golden god of games and everyone should play it.

Try it now before Brutal Legend, the latest game from creator Tim Schafer, comes out later this year starring Jack Black as a rock roadie who harnesses the power of a mystical belt buckle to travel to an alternate land where rock has the power to … seriously, if that bit alone hasn’t convinced you Schafer is a mad genius, nothing will. Psychonauts is a work of the master in full form.



If we’re talking about games that didn’t get a fair shake in spite of carrying a mountain of awesome, Okami (pictured) is a gimme. This clever, quirky game starring a paintbrush wowed critics and pretty much no one else. It’s one of those games you look back on and wonder why it crashed so hard that the studio behind it crumpled to dust. And yet, you still somehow never find the time to play it.

Here’s what The Escapist‘s Shannon Drake had to say about the game:

I found a beautiful world with interesting characters and a compelling plot I hadn’t played through 800 times before. Sure, it’s saving-the-world, but I’ve seldom saved the world by fighting away dark creatures with a combination of a Kingdom Hearts-style combat system and my expert painting technique. The Celestial Brush is Okami’s gimmick, in which your wolf-goddess modifies the world itself by…drawing stuff. The bridge is out? Draw it back in. Need a killer hit to finish off the boss? Draw a slash and he falls before your mighty paintbrush.

Fortunately for the artistically-impaired (including myself), the system is actually fairly simple, and relies more on lines, circles, dots, and experimentation than serious heat of battle drawing. And there’s an undeniable satisfaction to watching a formerly dead and limp tree burst into riotous bloom and recolor the world after a few brushstrokes. For once, I’m having an undeniable effect on the world, and I see it when I charge through a conquered area. The grass is greener, the trees and flowers are blooming, the water is blue rather than sludge, people aren’t statues anymore, progress is being made. Being a goddess, I can also put the sun in the sky to admire my work in daylight. How cool is that?

How cool indeed. Add in the hand wavey awesomeness of the Wii and this is sure to be a hit – again. Maybe this time people will actually play it. Okami for the Wii is next on my list I know that much.

Viva Piñata

I bought a few terra cotta colored planters several weeks ago and planted an herb and pepper garden on my patio. When the jalapeños mature, I’ll use half of them to make salsa and freeze the other half to use in later cooking. The serranos will get dried and used in various dishes as will the thyme and oregano. The mint is for mint juleps.

There’s something immensely satisfying about plunging your hands into cold earth, tinkering a bit and watching the literal fruits of your labors spring forth over time. To be able to say “Like that? It’s made with herbs form my garden.” is, for food geeks, akin to ruling the Xbox Live leaderboards.

And yet, spending five full minutes watching a gem tree grow in Viva Piñata puts actual gardening to shame. There’s just something intrinsically cool about breeding mutant piñata animals and them sending them off to get a beating with a stick. Something awesome about building a fantasy garden to lure crocodiles, unicorns and elephants. Something satisfying and wonderful about playing a game designed from the ground up to make you feel like a kid again.

A lot of folks wrote this one off when it came out as being for kids. I’m a kid. Bite me. I love this game. Also, the sequel comes out this fall.



OK, this one’s cheating. Everyone’s already played Oblivion (pictured). Unless you haven’t. and even if you have, chances are high you haven’t played all of it.

I know a number of folks who bought an Xbox 360 just to play this game, and even more who’ve played it since on the PC and PlayStation 3. But unlike other games (barring MMOGs), this one hasn’t stopped being made. Two years after its initial release, it’s a bigger, more interesting game than it was before, and chances are you’ll now never finish it. So dig in!

I recently undertook to revitalize my interest in the game, and that mission came off without a hitch. I was lucky enough to find one of my old saves and was able to pick up where I’d left off back in 2006. Better still, my distance from the game allowed me to view it with new eyes.

Like that box full of sweaters at the top of the closet, I’d lived without Oblivion and my character for over a year. I knew I could live without it indefinitely. And this knowledge opened up entirely new vistas of awesome.

Cave full of ogres? Well, they wouldn’t be there if they weren’t guarding something awesome. In I went! Where before I might have shied away, careful to preserve the countless hours I’d put into crating and nurturing my character, now I charged straight ahead, not caring in the least whether I lived or died. Knowing I had dozens more games to play if I screwed this one up, or that I could just as easily start another character and try again, this time following a completely different path. Or, at the very least, reload with one of my 80 or so saved games.

On one such adventure I dove head-first in to a cave full of nasties and found a rare, magical amulet that’s served me well since. On another, I discovered an alternate world where, speaking of Okami, everything is made of strokes from a painter’s brush. On another, a backwoods village full of isolated loners threatening violence against visiting outsiders – and for good reason.

Each new step put me further into a land of new and exciting things. A new discovery around every corner. A reward for every feat of daring. Risk leading to victory. Adventure being its own reward. That’s what gaming is supposed to be about.

Russ Pitts would prefer to be playing Mercenaries 2 now, thank you very much. His blog can be found at

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