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PopCap And The ADA Team Up To Stop Zombie Mouth

Halloween is, without a doubt, one of the best times of the year. When else do you get to let your imagination run wild, dress up as a favorite character (cosplayers, you get a free pass here), watch a steady stream of horror movies and indulge in endless sweets and treats? Well, considering some of the health issues facing our country, that last part may require a little bit of creative thinking.

But here’s a radical idea – why not extend the definition of “treat” into a non-sugary (but just as awesome) thing, like a game. Genius!

PopCap and the American Dental Association (ADA) have done just that, by teaming up and creating a decidedly awesome campaign featuring the Plants vs. Zombies cast designed to help kids (and their families) have a Halloween that’s both happy and healthy. Offering PvZ game downloads, trading cards, and other goodies that parents and kids can pass out when it comes time to trick or treat, it’s all part of the effort to get oral health higher up on kids’ lists of priorities, especially on the official toothache holiday.

For NBC Universal's Healthy Week, we were able to chat with PopCap co-founder John Vechey and Dr. Jonathan Shenkin of the ADA and find out just what all this “Stop Zombie Mouth” buzz is about.

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Super Mario All-Stars

When I was growing up, the Japanese game industry was the game industry. There were fantastic games coming from American and European companies, but the brands we all knew and loved, the brands that were synonymous with “video games” were distinctly Japanese. If you were an American kid in the late 80s through the early 90s, and you played games on a console, you didn’t play “video games” so much as you hung out and “played Nintendo” or “played Sega”.

It wasn’t just the publishers and the console manufacturers. Indeed, most of the truly beloved console games from that era were Japanese – Mario, Street Fighter, Final Fantasy, Zelda, Sonic, Dragon Quest, Metroid, Phantasy Star, Mega Man, and so on – the most popular games in the world were disproportionately coming from the Land of the Rising Sun.

Not long after that particularly gleeful era, Sony got into the business, and all three major consoles were published by Japanese game companies. The PlayStation brand ruled the late 90s and early ‘aughts, and series like Resident Evil, Final Fantasy, and Metal Gear Solid topped the charts (as well as the hearts and minds of gamers everywhere). Even with increased prominence of American and Western European studios and publishers, the console world was still dominated by Japanese companies.

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Resident Evil 6 Header

Resident Evil is a unique series in the videogame landscape. It boasts a (largely) continuous storyline that weaves through more than 20 games (across main numbered titles, spinoffs, one off projects, and the like), and its themes have remained very consistent – you play as a person (usually a guy or gal with badass police/special forces/super spy training) who needs to mow down lots of nasty undead and or parasitic monsters in scary, nasty, or just plain unpleasant scenarios. Usually, there’s a puzzle or two to figure out, an NPC or six to rescue/converse with, and a whole host of memes ready to spawn from the bombastic story sequences.

But the gameplay itself has been through a series of changes since the 1996 debut. What started as pure horror with arguably awful “tank” controls has evolved into a faster-paced, action-oriented blend, complete with bigger biceps, more explosive cutscenes, and wildly refined gameplay systems (such as inventory).

It came from the 1990s

Resident Evil first arrived in 1996 on the original PlayStation, and it was, suffice it to say, a massive hit. Set in a mansion overrun with undead things, players took on the role of Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine and explored, killed zombies, and solved a truly insane variety of arcane puzzles to best the baddies. All sorts of lore was introduced – the t-virus (the zombifying agent itself), the shady Umbrella Corporation, the need for herbs as healing agents.

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Resident Evil 6

Resident Evil 6 will soon be upon us, and you know what that means – a quick revisit of the labyrinthine, wonderfully ridiculous Resident Evil storyline. Few game series in history have quite the same pedigree – across the soon-to-be 6 “main” numbered games in the series, high-profile non-numbered releases like Code: Veronica, and remakes, side stories, and spinoffs, the series has maintained a persistent (albeit sometimes confusing) storyline, with a core crew of heroes, villains and everything in between. It’s a complex, melodramatic horror soap opera, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

In the beginning, there was a mansion.

We won’t start at the very beginning, since, well, we’d need to fill a few features worth. Just know that in 1996, Capcom started the survival-horror magic with a mansion full of zombies, the shady Umbrella Corporation, and the t-virus. After that, there was a citywide outbreak, a nasty minion known as Nemesis, the complete destruction of Raccoon City, a pair of seriously weird siblings (the Weskers) and another shadow corporation. Alongside all the story trappings, early Resident Evil was all about zombies – the shambling, nasty undead kind, as well as the horribly mutated mega-monster type. Then, along came Resident Evil 4.

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Before XBLA and PSN, “achievements” in games were precisely that – abstract concepts, indicated by a high score on an arcade board, bragging rights with your friends (“I totally beat Battletoads!”), or simply tasks you were pretty proud of. But gaming has always been about “achievement” – gaining levels, improving skill (or scores), reaching the next level, finding secrets, accomplishing set (or secret) tasks. The age of achievements has merely quantified the concept.

Like leveling or those awesome loot reward schedules that we talked about recently – achievements are psychologically powerful additives that designers whip into the game experience recipe.

Halo 4 Achievement List Revealed -- Spoilers, Duh

Achievement Addicts

It’s all about motivation. Some people play games largely because of the feelings of accomplishment – just the same way as others may play for competition, or to escape and explore fantasy worlds.

Achievement junkies are almost definitely in the first camp – folks who like to feel like they’ve done something (and now they get to brag about it). We all have a friend who occasionally buys less-than-stellar 360 games just for the “easy 1000 points”, or have done ridiculous things to finish off particularly arduous achievements – like, for example, finding a safe spot in a shooter, putting a controller in its charger, taping down the firing button for 24 hours, and collecting on their “ingenuity”.

The compulsive achievement fiend is a subset of gamer who has always existed. It’s just easier to spot them, now that their profiles are online for all to see.

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Matt Parker’s Recurse is an iPad game developed specifically to make you feel like a happy goofball. A party/puzzle game with allusions to Dance Central and Fruit Ninja Kinect, it’s a camera-based exercise in simplicity – touch the green shapes, avoid the red, push for high scores, and share your goofy pictures with the world. With origins as an art show installation and NYU Game Center No Quarter exhibit, the title recently won the “Play This Now” award at Come Out and Play.

We were able to get in touch with developer Matt Parker and talk shop about the game’s arty origins, the importance of being playful, and the reasons why indies like to party.

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Tags: Indie Games, iPad

It’s Shark Week, the time of year when everyone’s thoughts go out to the most terrifying creatures of the ocean – the bane of surfers, swimmers, frantic beachgoers (and smaller sea life) everywhere: the blood-sniffing, bone-crunching hunters of the deep.

If you think sharks are scary, you haven’t seen anything yet. Rather, the correct term in this case would be “heard”, since today we’re talking about Robin Arnott’s infamously terrifying sound-only game, Deep Sea. In the game (which was featured at the Indiecade booth at E3 2011), players don a World War 1 era gas mask that essentially acts as a sensory deprivation chamber, and plunge into the intensely scary sound-only world of the game.

Deep Sea (v 2.0 Audio) from Robin Arnott on Vimeo.

You are a lone diver, armed with missiles to defend yourself against invisible sea creatures – that are attracted to the real-life sound of your breathing. Hold your breath, listen hard, and try not to scare yourself into a literal blackout – and you might “win”.

We were able to catch up with Arnott and chat about how he created his terrifying creatures, their cinematic inspiration, and his take on why we find horrifying sea monsters so fascinating.

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