Under the Radar’s 2020 Holiday Gift Guide Part 1: Video Games | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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Under the Radar’s 2020 Holiday Gift Guide Part 1: Video Games

We’ll Help You Find the Perfect Gift for Your (Digital) Gamer

Nov 24, 2020
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A chill is in the air, the leaves have hit the ground. Thanksgiving is nearly upon us and the winter holidays are creeping just around the corner. It’s been a weird year, folks, and we figure you’ll be just as happy to say goodbye to 2020 as we are. There’s only a little over one month left to go, and at least the last few weeks of the year are (usually) pretty festive, even if that celebrating is being done over a distance this time around.

Something that’s helped many of us feel less isolated over the past eleven months has been video games. Thanks to online multiplayer, we’ve been able to get together with some of the friends we haven’t seen face-to-face in almost a year – albeit, in a digital realm, where we’re usually shooting at each other with laser rifles, but we’ll take it in 2020. To think, we once viewed video games as anti-social, but it’s been one of the few things bringing us together with friends during the pandemic.  

Below you’ll find our recommendations for some of the best gaming-related gifts on the market this year. Over the next few weeks we’ll be posting our gift suggestions for a broad range of categories, including vinyl music box sets, toys, movies, board games, alcohol, graphic novels, and more. Stay tuned!

And never forget – a subscription to Under the Radar always, always, always makes an excellent gift for the indie music lover in your life.

Peripherals


Dragon’s Lair X Replicade & USB Charge Machine (New Wave Toys)

SRP: $120 for Dragon’s Lair, $60 for USB Charger

Released in 1983, Dragon’s Lair was one of the most innovative arcade cabinets that gamers had ever seen. Running off a laserdisc, the game featured fluid, cartoonish animation by Don Bluth (The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail) that looked a thousand times better than any of its pixelated competition – even if the gameplay, which mostly involved punishing, quick-twitch reactions and lots of memorization, wasn’t nearly as interactive. The groundbreaking game proved to be a hit, with young people lining up in pizza chains and shopping malls to watch how far their fellow gamers could get in this unique cartoon/video game hybrid.

We’re convinced the team at Replicade must have access to some sort of black market shrink ray, as their fully playable, 1:6 scale collector’s cabinet reproduces the original machine with an insane amount of detail. From the openable, metal coin box to the light-up marquee, the Replicade Dragon’s Lair stays remarkably true to the original arcade incarnation. This true showpiece allows gamers to try and help Dirk the Daring save Princess Daphne from the comfort of their home (without feeding fifty cents into the machine each time you die, over and over and over again.)

If the meticulously-detailed Replicade machines pull at your nostalgia strings, wait until you see New Wave Toys’ USB charging bank, which is built to look like one of the vintage, woodgrain coin machines that were ubiquitous in arcades when I was a kid – meaning, the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. There was one family vacation around the time the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game came out. I’d pester my father to play it every time we went to the swimming pool – which was next to the arcade – until one time he got tired of it, fed a whole $5 bill into one of these machines, and we played until the game was finished. (Of course, there were three older kids carrying my dead weight.) That afternoon felt like unfiltered decadence, and is my favorite arcade memory.

New Wave Toys’ take on the classic change machine pays as much attention to detail as their arcade cabinets, feels heavy-duty as all get out, and is presented in the same scale as those machines. On the back of the unit you’ll find six USB ports (5x 2.0, 1x 3.0) to charge your devices, whether that’s a phone, gaming peripheral, or your Replicade collection. We use ours as a mix of both – guests can charge their phones in our small-scale arcade. Does it get any cooler than that? (Learn more here and here.)

EPOS | Sennheiser GSP 601 & 602 Headsets

SRP: $219

With all of the attention paid to graphics, resolution, and ours TVs and monitors, sound design can often get lost in the shuffle. The truth is, many small game developers devote a lot of time and energy to way their games sound – while the big companies devote entire teams to polishing their audio. Why do we keep wasting so much of that effort with flimsy headsets, cheap soundbars, or (shudder) our TV’s built-in speakers?

A good gaming headset will present one of the most noticeable upgrades to your gaming experience – depending on what you were listening with before, the leap can feel similar to moving up another console generation. Trust us, you won’t go back before. The folks at EPOS and Sennheiser have many years of experience building high-end audio equipment, and their new collaboration, the EPOS | Sennheiser GSP 601 & 602 headsets, continues the tradition of top-quality sound in a sturdy, comfortable-to-wear package.  

For clarity’s sake, the 601 & 602 are identical, save for the color scheme – we were partial to the tan-accented 602, which gave us a bit of a cool, retro stereo equipment vibe that we found more attractive than the predominantly black (boring) models sold by most other companies. (The 601 is accented with white, giving it an almost futuristic look – so, a retro vs. futuristic aesthetic, your choice.) The speakers in the headset deliver clear audio with an aim for realism, with rich bass for all of the explosions we hear in our games. The cups enclose your ears, which does a lot to block out noises around you, while an attached microphone – which can be raised or lowered when you need it – utilizes technology that reduces background noise on your opponent’s end. Got kids running around? A roommate listening to music on the other side of the room? This will make sure your shelter-at-home companions don’t bother your gaming companions. The headband can be easily adjusted for comfort, and volume can be turned up or down from the right side of the earpiece. Altogether, this is a great gaming headset – not to mention, one of the best-looking ones on market. (Learn more here.)

Stealth Fitness & Gaming Device

SRP: $149

An exercise device designed to help you strengthen your core, the Stealth system has cleverly utilized video games to help its users stay engaged—or, if you’re like me, be encouraged to use the machine, even when you’d rather be playing games. The unit effectively converts your core muscle groups into a controller, and lets you play a variety of games that secretly force you to work them out. It’s a challenge at first, especially if you don’t have a regular exercise routine. But, after sticking with it, you’ll not only find yourself earning higher scores – but getting stronger as you do it. An app helps you track your progress, or compete against friends or on a global leaderboard. It’s a great way to get your physical health back on track in the new year, and squeeze in fun workouts wherever you can, and in as little as three minutes.  (Learn more here.)

Books

Atari 2600/7800: A Visual Compendium (Bitmap Books)

SRP: £33 GBP

We’ve written about Bitmap Books’ outstanding Visual Compendium series before, which hit a sweet spot that makes them not only gorgeous art books, but highly informative, near-encyclopedic chronicles of a console’s history. TL;DR – we love them. Their latest, Atari 2600/7800: A Visual Compendium, tickles my own particular, nostalgic nerve for video gaming, and encouraged me to dig out my old VCS unit from out of the attic and hunt for a way to hook it up to my modern television.

For being the groundbreaking console that put cartridge gaming on the map more than 40 years ago, the technology within the Atari 2600 is pretty rustic by today’s standards. The idea of an art book spotlighting the system’s famously simplistic graphics might seem absurd on paper, but Atari 2600/7800: A Visual Compendium quickly proves otherwise. At over 500 pages, it’s a celebration of the ingenuity that programmers brought to their designs, and how they regularly strove to break out beyond the console’s supposed limitations. Anyone who’s seen the colorful sunsets in a game of Barnstorming knows that just because there were limited graphical capabilities, it didn’t mean a 2600 game couldn’t be pretty.

Fans of the classic console will also enjoy the extensive write-ups and interviews which provide enlightening (and often very entertaining) behind-the-scenes stories for many of our favorite childhood games and developers. Inside you’ll read about the rise of third party companies like Activision and Imagic, and learn fascinating, nitty-gritty details such as how Atari cheated their own limitations and displayed eight sprites in a row for Video Chess, or how the classic Freeway began as a joke, with the original player-controlled sprite being a human that was splattered by cars—until the sprite was replaced by a chicken, and the game saw widespread release. There are also sections highlighting box artwork and the talented painters who created those images, and a section on prototypes that offer glimpses at unreleased games like Lord of the Rings and The A-Team.

There’s no shortage of products out there mining Atari nostalgia, but this book will provide far and away the most engaging trip down memory lane. And, if they’re too young to remember the 2600, our recommendations of their NES and SNES books still apply. (Learn more here.)

The Unofficial SNES Pixel Book (Bitmap Books)

SRP: £30 GBP

Now, here’s a coffee table book dedicated to a system that was home to some of the prettiest games of the 16-bit generation. In a large, square format and housed and an elegant slipcase, The Unofficial SNES Pixel Book allows readers to pause and admire some of the beautiful aesthetics to be found in the Super Nintendo library. This range from the mood-setting, opening graveyard sequence of Super Castlevania, to the sprawling overworld maps of Ogre Battle. (For those who want technical details, too, such as how Donkey Kong Country looked so much more advanced than anything else on the system, there are nice explanations of how many of the SNES’ graphical effects were achieved.) The book is broken down into all of the era’s most popular genres, from platformers to RPGs to 2D fighters, meaning potential readers will undoubtedly be able to find some of their favorites include inside. (Learn more here.)

The Games That Weren’t (Bitmap Books)

SRP: £30 GBP

While the last two books help readers look back at beloved games from their past, The Games That Weren’t is a fascinating exploration of releases which never saw the light of day. Starting with the arcade era in 1975 and covering up through the last decade, the book provides an extensive series of deep dives into canceled projects of all shapes and sizes. Every chapter goes into great detail about what got in the way of the game hitting store shelves, and these stories are always interesting – from bad deals to expired licenses, to terrible ideas. (One birth-control themed arcade game titled “Oops!” would have seen players shooting sperm out of the sky to keep them from penetrating their egg—and is such a laughably awful premise that we’re surprised it made it to development. This book’s full of great tales like that one.) (Learn more here.)

Vinyl Soundtracks

Banana Jamz 199X (Cartridge Thunder)

SRP: $30

This rich, green vinyl record contains a lovingly faithful re-imagining of the Donkey Kong Country soundtrack, one of the most iconic scores on the Super Nintendo. We bet if you, like us, are a video game geek of a certain age, you can hum all of the tune Cranky cranks out on his phonograph during the intro, the tropical map music, and the percussion-heavy first level song just from reading those prompts – and would recognize the underground and underwater level themes from only a few seconds’ worth of music. Music this good gets burned into your brain, and Banana Jamz 199X’s version may be the best it’s ever sounded. (Learn more here.)

Time’s End: Majora’s Mask Remixed Vinyl Album (Materia Collective)

SRP: $40

Everyone has a favorite Zelda game, typically tied to the console generation they grew up in. Released twenty years ago now, Majora’s Mask was the darker, stranger little brother of Ocarina of Time – which became an instant cult classic, remembered for its grim, apocalyptic storyline, and unique time travel gameplay. Time’s End is a beautiful, orchestral reworking of the Majora’s Soundtrack by Theophany. A sequel, Time’s End II, covers the rest of the game’s music. Both are available in gorgeous, double LP releases from Materia Collective, pressed (ingeniously) on gold vinyl which matches the original N64 game cartridge. For the Zelda fan, this lush rendition of the score is a sure-fire pleaser. (Learn more here.)

Ori and the Blind Forest / Ori and the Will of the Wisps Soundtracks (iam8bit)

SRP: $40

After the current console generation comes to a close and is fully replaced by the new Series X and PS5, we’re eventually going to look back at the era and appreciate the Ori games as one of this gen’s best. Ori and its sequel are two of the best-reviewed games of the generation, and worthy of their praise: telling a tale that tugs at the heartstrings alongside their addictive, challenging, Metroidvania-style gameplay. Among their many memorable elements are their orchestral scores by Gareth Coker, which lend the game a sweeping, fairytale-like tone – something that’s very cinematic, like something you’d find in one of Disney’s best scores, or a Harry Potter movie. The team at iam8bit have given both the lavish, 2LP treatment, collecting their full scores with bonus tracks – and both include full digital downloads, in case you want to make your workout or commute feel much more magical. (Learn more here and here.)

VVVVVVinyl Soundtrack (Materia Collective)

SRP: $28

The modern classic, uber-difficult VVVVVV turns ten this year, and the folks at Materia Collective are celebrating with a deluxe vinyl release of Magnus Pålsson’s frantic chiptune soundtrack for the game. Featuring beautiful new artwork by Leon Tukker & Isa Alcántara (with a cool inner gatefold that resembles one of the game’s infamously challenging levels), the real showpiece is the vinyl itself, decorated with pixel patterns and your in-game character – this is one of the most attractive pressings we’ve seen all year, and it sounds good, to boot. (Learn more here.)

Video Games (obviously)

Yes, Your Grace (Steam/GOG/Switch/Xbox One)

SRP: $20

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, am I right? This unique simulator makes you feel the weight of running a medieval fantasy kingdom—not through endless economic menus, or RTS-like troop command—but by forcing you to hear your subjects’ requests, and make hard decisions over who you’ll help and how. The real meat of the gameplay involves you sitting on your throne, trying to figure who you even can help – as the monarch of a near-destitute kingdom, you can’t help everyone. Know that no matter how hard you try, someone will walk away disappointed – or worse, angry. It’s not easy being king.

The game is really helped by its fantastic writing: not only are you balancing your subjects’ wants and needs, but trying to do right by your wife and three daughters. If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, this one’s for you – we’ll call it a “Ned Stark Simulator,” and you’ll know exactly what sort of game to expect. (Learn more here.)

Control: Ultimate Edition (PS4/PS5/PC/Xbox One/Series X)

SRP: $40

The quirky and creepy Control was one of our favorite games of 2019, and this Deluxe Edition gives players a chance to experience the game and all of its added content at a discount – and on your choice of current or next gen consoles! In Control, you play as Jesse Faden – the newly-anointed (against her will) director of the Federal Bureau of Control. Searching for your missing brother, you make your way through the ever-growing, ever-shifting building as its occupants are possessed by a weird, hissing lifeforce from another dimension. As you cooperate with the few survivors of the invasion, you unlock powers such as telekinesis and levitation, which help you in the game’s many tricky boss fights. With a tone, setting, and gameplay different from any other action game, Control is one you’ll play not only because you want to see the story through to the end, but because the powers you continue to unlock are too much fun to mess around with. (Learn more here.)

Superliminal (PC/Switch/Xbox One/PS4)

SRP: $20

Superliminal is a fairly short but brilliant puzzle game that plays with the concept of forced perspective, aka that thing where something can look bigger or smaller depending on how far away from it you’re standing. You play a participant in an experimental dream therapy program, and so the puzzles are presented with a surreal, dream logic. Many times you’ll be in a room and need to find a way out where no exit is obvious, until you start growing and shrinking the objects around you by moving them and viewing them from different angles and distances. It’s a very engaging and well-thought-out puzzler that’s going to appeal to any fan of the classic Portal. (Learn more here.)

Desperados III (PC/PS4/Xbox One)

SRP: $60

This critically-acclaimed tactical stealth game has you control a posse of outlaws as you try to sneak through levels, snuffing out enemies and completing objectives without alerting everyone to your presence. Set in an immersive, miniaturized but highly detailed version of the Wild West, there’s a ton of strategy in figuring out what approach will be most effective – and even if you need to try a dozen times to figure out the optimal way, it’s always fun to see how your best-laid plan will play out. An instant classic in both the stealth and Western genres, there’s lots to love and a ton of gameplay here for fans of either. (Learn more here.)

Doom Eternal (PC/Xbox One/PS4)

SRP: $60

The second installment in the relaunch of the classic FPS is a next-level improvement over its already-excellent predecessor. Doom Eternal leads players through a frantically-paced campaign in which the tools you need to stay alive are earned by killing off your hordes of demonic assailants in specific ways – more than just scrambling and spraying bullets in every direction, you need to think quickly and form strategies on a few seconds’ notice in order to earn the ammo or health you need to get through the next battle. Can we call this a cerebral shooter? We’ll call it that. The multiplayer mode is a fun, asymmetrical fight that pits one demon player against two demon slayers; each demon type has its own powers and advantages, giving the insanely fast-paced firefights plenty of variety. (Learn more here.)

Katamari Damacy Reroll (Xbox One/PS4/PC/Switch)

SRP: $30

When it was released in 2004, Katamari Damacy was an instant cult classic – as much for its bizarre humor, insane premise, catchy (and weird) soundtrack, and unique gameplay. You play the ne’er-do-well son of the King of the Cosmos, who inadvertently smashes up the universe and tasks you with replacing all of the planets he broke. How do you do this, you ask? By rolling up anything and everything you find on Earth into a giant ball. That’s the game, pretty much: you start with a tiny ball, rolling up smaller objects like you would, say, a ball of foil or rubber bands. As it grows, so do the object you roll up – from tiny debris to people, cows, and cars. It’s simple, goofy, fun as you fight against the clock to hit a size goal, with a quirky execution that’s sure to endear it to any player.

There have been sequels over the years, but none have quite matched the charm of the original. This high definition remake updates the graphics on that classic, and adds a few extra activities for additional replay value. If you’re a fan, this is a great way to revisit the game. Never played it? Here’s your chance! Plus, it’s the series’ return to some platforms on which it’s too long been absent, meaning that PC and Xbox gamers have the chance to play a game they’ve only been able to cast longing glances toward on the various PlayStation consoles. (Learn more here.)

Party Hard 2 (PC/PS4/Xbox One/Switch)

SRP: $20

The Party Hard franchise essentially puts you in control of a pixelated slasher villain, forcing you to sneak around and take out your victims and complete other goals in resourceful ways – the concept is morbid, yes, but the execution is cartoonish and the gameplay is very fun. This sequel has a new graphic engine and makes several improvements to the first game’s high-caliber formula, now letting you do things like craft new weapons and unlock new bonuses through an experience system. There are also many secrets to be found on every level, making this one even more replayable than its predecessor. (Learn more here.)

Chicken Police: Paint It RED! (PC/Xbox One/PS4/Switch)

SRP: $20

We guarantee no one’s played another game that looks like Chicken Police this year. A loving throwback to hard-boiled detective novels and films of the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, the mystery adventure game plays out in dimly-lit offices, seedy nightclubs, and the rain-soaked streets of an American city, all in stark black-and-white graphics and set to the smooth tones of jazz – the big, obvious difference between this and, say, your favorite Dashiell Hammett adaptation is that, well, everyone has animal heads. It definitely gives the game a unique visual appeal, and sets it apart from every other film noir tribute out there, playing into the animals’ natural aspects like a more dark, adult Zootopia. The writing feels true to the genre and the voice acting is very good, which will keep players engaged in this mystery until its very end. (Learn more here.)

Madden 21 (Xbox One/Series X/PS4/PS5/PC)

SRP: $60

Any game that comes out with a new edition every year such as the NFL-based Madden needs to innovate to keep fan excitement alive beyond the roster updates. This year, Madden 21 has honed in on improving the players’ on-field physics and behavior, doing things like making players brace themselves for tackles, better avoid collisions with their own teammates, and bolstering the number of moves available to positions like DL and RB. The results are a Madden that looks even more realistic in motion than any of its previous installments – meaning, it’s only a matter of time before we start having trouble telling the difference between live games and clips from the next gen versions. For any dual NFL fans and video gamers, Madden is always a must-have. (Learn more here.)   

Port Royale 4 (PC/Switch/Xbox One/PS4)

SRP: $60

After nearly eight years of waiting, the latest installment in the long-running series of trade simulation  (and a bit of piracy) has arrived, as Port Royale 4 puts players in charge of colonies in the 17th Century Caribbean. Build up your ports and bolster your fleets to dominate this wide-ranging sim from the publishers of Tropico, with excellent graphics and the tools to micro-manage every detail of your empire. It’s a game that a diehard sim fan can lose themselves in for dozens and dozens of hours. (Learn more here.)



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