Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Grand Theft Assassin

Over the past few years I have been slowly slogging my way through the Assassin's Creed series. I do enjoy them but I still think slog is the correct term to use as it feels like Ubisoft release the games faster than I can play them. I am coming to the end of Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, which took a bit of time to grow on me. The game being set in Renaissance Italy made it feel like I was playing an extended coda of Assassin's Creed II rather than a fresh new game.

The sacrifice of new locations (and an exciting story) for an enhanced and larger version of upgrading Rome (like with Monteriggioni in Assassin's Creed II) is just about worth it. Although I can't help shake the feeling the developers were playing a shedload of Grand Theft Auto whilst making this.

I promised myself I wasn't going to get completionist with Brotherhood, but right now I am close to upgrading all the Rome has to offer. It is compelling and addictive, even if the style and setting feels to have outstayed its welcome.

I don't think I'll start Assassin's Creed: Revelations for some time, they'll probably be ten more games to finish by the time I do.

Friday, 19 December 2014


I recently visited my Mum's grave on her birthday and I was struck by an old memory from my childhood about November 24th 1992. It was a Tuesday. But it wasn't just any Tuesday it was the day Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was released for the Mega Drive. Sega marketed the release day with a pun worthy of a genius: Sonic 2sday.

My Mum had quite a busy and stressful job at a law firm, she was always pushed for time. But on Sonic 2sday she used her lunch break to go across town to Virgin games store on Merchant Street in Bristol. Even though it was crazy busy she managed fight her way through and grab a copy of Sonic 2 for me. She spoiled me a lot.

Sonic 2 is by no means my favourite Sonic game (that honour has to go to either the original or Conic CD), but because it always reminds me of my Mum is has a special meaning to me.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Game, Set, Pad

Virtua Tennis 4 has destroyed two of my control pads. Once was unlucky, but twice is foolish of me. This is not from anger. I did not throw them against the wall in frustration (although trying to unlock the hidden character King pushed me close to doing so). My PS3 pads broke in the same way - the rim that surrounds the left analogue stick collapsed and broke off. Virtua Tennis caused just too much harsh back and forth, the pad could not stand up to the repetitive punishment. My first pad was black, my second was white, for my third pad I bought a gold one. I also decided to move onto Topspin 4, and although it is also a tennis game it shows the difference between the two games that the golden pad is still working fine years down the line.

I'm not saying Virtua Tennis 4 is a bad game, after all it is intended to be more of an arcade version of tennis than a full simulation. Playing it with an arcade stick would work best. I must get one as I do miss some Virtua Tennis.

Speaking of broken pads, I remember a friend of mine who used to get so frustrated and angry with his games he used to bite down hard on his control pad. You'd notice the teeth marks on them when you went round his house. But then the only games he had for his Mega Drive were Dark Castle, Fantasia and World Cup Italia 90 so maybe the bite marks are understandable.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

The Psygnosis Mega CD Demo Moment

Getting demo discs for the Sega Mega CD was very exciting. For years I was secretly jealous of home computer owners who regularly got magazine-mounted cassettes and floppy discs full of game demos. It was too costly for magazines to do them for cartridge based systems like the Mega Drive and Master System. And to my knowledge no Commodore 16 Plus/4 demo tapes ever existed on magazines - but that is way back in the days before my Master System so I wouldn't count on my memory there!

The demo CDs were on either Sega Pro or Mega Power - both were wretched magazines and  the CDs were the only reason to buy them. The first one was Thunderhawk on Mega Power, me and my friends were wowed by it. It was the first time we'd seen a game that harnessed the power of the Mega CD for something other than FMV.

The demo CD that stands most out in my mind is the Psygnosis Demo CD. Unlike most other discs it had more than one game on it - a real treasure trove! It included demos of Puggsy and Wiz 'n' Liz. Wiz 'n' Liz... I can only imagine the game was conceptualised by Psygnosis developers in a Alan Partridge Monkey Tennis moment.

The games were so-so but there was also footage of Microcosm, a game that really intrigued me as the concept of being a airship shrunk down and injected into someone felt very Inner Space (and Inner Space has zero defects!) The footage - like most FMV games of that era - looks shocking now, so it is hard to describe how excited it made me and my friends for the game. The music accompanying the footage was stupidly bombastic, in a poor-man's Terminator soundtrack way. One time when we watched the music didn't play and the footage took on an eerie minimalist quality.

Finally on the Psygnosis Demo CD was a music video! A really hideously compressed video of Broken English by Sunscreem. It looked so bad the only thing you could really make out was that a guy was wearing neon pink sunglasses. And the song was awful. But there was something quite special still about having a music video on a CD no matter what the quality was.

How easily pleased I was before the internet!

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Swinging in the Sand

Captain Games' simple, pure and additive Desert Golfing first caught my eye with its neat little 8-bit golfing avatar in the Kindle store. It reminded me of the hours I used to while away on Great Golf on the Master System.

I loved how stark Desert Golfing was no title screen, no menu - just straight into the action. And that's how it stays, hole after hole after hole after hole. There's no round up after each 18 holes, just a note of how many shots you have taken and what hole number you are on. Level generating exponentially into the far future...

You pull back on the touch screen to gauge your power and aim your shot. The real nice touch is the use of sand as the playing service meaning the ball acts in ways you quickly have to adapt and factor for. The graphics whilst basic are sharp and look great on the Kindle Fire screen. The absence of music just adds to the eerie atmosphere of an empty desert.

Justin Smith has created an addictive little gem here that will keep you going back for just one more hole and it well worth the small price tag.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Little Arcade of the Golden Axe

I was lucky enough as a boy to have a small arcade open up in the basement area of a shopping centre close to my house back in the early 1990s. It was by no means massive and housed about 6-7 arcade cabinets, but to me and my friends it was incredible to have this just on our doorstep. I'm struggling to remember all the machines, there was definitely a Gauntlet II machine. Gauntlet was the cheapest machine at 10p a go, but because you're always losing health it was a deceptive coin guzzler.

The most popular machine was that of Golden Axe, that was the one everyone crowded around to watch. Back in 1990 the big detailed sprites looked incredible, the music and sound effects... but most of all the magic. When you collected potions you could unleash magic, and the more potions you collected before using them the more powerful and visually impressive was the magic. Makoto Uchida designed a great new spin on the scrolling beat-em-up with Golden Axe's hack and slash play.

I remember one of my friends was the best at it and could defeat Death Adder on just a few credits. He loved that game. He was pretty crushed when his parents bought him a Super Nintendo for Christmas and realised he'd never get to play a home conversion of Golden Axe. He even converted my basic Master System version of it.

One weekend things changed, Golden Axe was there no more. And in its place was a new machine with odd octagonal joysticks. It was Midnight Resistance. Kei Akibayashi's novel take on the run and gunner wrong footed a lot of us used to the hack and slash of Golden Axe. But it did not take long before it was the most popular game that everybody crowded round in the little arcade. The rotatable joystick meant you could fire in a different direction than you were running and the power-ups for the weapons were fun.

Eventually there was less and less machines in the arcade and no new ones came in, so everybody became bored and lost interest with the little arcade. And I stopped going.

A couple of years later I rented the home conversion of Midnight Resistance for the Mega Drive, the controls just did not translate well to a 3 button control pad. But I enjoyed it despite its flaws as it reminded me of the little arcade and the good times me and my friends used to have down there. I decided to go down there and see what had become of it. The old place was now a pet food stall, but just a few paces down there was the 4 player The Simpsons Arcade Game. It was a pretty unforgiving beat-em-up but had great graphics. And a coin gobbler.

I guess some things just do not change.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Port of Portal

The technology that allows you to create two portals and jump betwixt them instantly is a great concept. The instant nature makes for a fascinating gameplay mechanic.

If only the load screens could of learned something from this instantaneous nature. It reminded me about how much patience you had to have with older games and all the loading screens you had to endure. Loading still exists in modern games, but it is hidden in ingenious ways. You just don't notice it any more.

I'm generally not a fan of first person perspective in games in general. It's a matter of personal taste. The feeling I am just gliding over the ground really breaks my immersion in a game. Plus jumping always feels like some leap of faith.

Why am I complaining about such a brilliant game? Maybe what I'm trying to say is that these niggles cannot diminish the wonderful experience of Portal.

In my own confused and bumbling way.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Give it up for the robot!

There was a period in my life a few years back that I call my Videogame Wilderness Years. A time where I was "in-between consoles". A time where I hardly played anything. A time where real life had got in the way. But then I discovered a few little flash games on [Adult Swim] arcade. I was a big fan of [Adult Swim]- I love Venture Brothers, Sealab 2021and Tom Goes to the Mayor - so the association hooked me instantly. Well now, I'm not gonna talk about Robot Unicorn Attack. In fact, we're not gonna talk about Robot Unicorn Attack at all, we're keep her out of it. Right now what I want to talk about is Give Up, Robot.

Matt Thorson's Give Up, Robot (2010) is a fiendishly difficult (mostly) single screen platformer flash game. The kaleidoscopic colours, incessant music and mocking robot voice taunts after every death make for an experience that puts you on edge and keeps you there. The mechanics are that of a simple platformer - in fact the mechanics reminded me of those ingenious freeware games I used to play on my Dad's Amstrad PC1512 back in the 1980s. There was something refreshing and sharp to them, and the addition of the grappling hook was an interesting new game mechanic.

The 50 levels pose a challenge and it become compulsive when you start getting momentum to fly past the levels as quickly as you can, until you get stuck. And you will get stuck. And then the frustration sets in. It's never the case you do not know what to do or how to do it, it is just that you need to perform the actions so flawlessly and pixel-perfect it becomes a real testing challenge. And it makes you want to give up. Not overwhelmingly, but it starts to niggle in your mind and soon the plausibility of just leaving the game becomes appealing. And just when you are ready to click on the tiny x in the corner of your screen somehow your timing becomes perfect and you manage to pass the level that has taunted. And you feel elated (Wow I'm writing in the second person a lot here - I must be reading too many Fighting Fantasy novels).

It is by no means a perfect game and won't take you too long to complete, but if you are feeling a little lost it is a little game that can grab your interest and make things seem appealing again.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Does the third level of Operation Wolf exist?

Remember when rapid-fire used to be a thing? I recall it being a big selling point for a lot of third party controllers when I was younger. I guess it is not such a useful function for modern games. I really liked the official Sega rapid-fire unit. You plugged it in-between your controller and the console - thus making any controller rapidfireable (uh... let's pretend that's a real word).

I paired it with the phaser on the fun port of Operation Wolf on the Master System. I say fun but I never got past the second level, as I ended up running out of bullets because of the rapid fire. And yet I never turned the rapid-fire off. I knew that Operation Wolf in the arcade used an uzi-style gun so in my young mind it made perfect sense to keep the rapid fire on. Never once did it occur to me that they adapted the game for home systems.

I really need to go back one day and try and play it through properly, that is if I can find a television that will work with a light gun nowadays.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Monument Venice

When I was holidaying in Venice I resolved to read some works set there by Thomas Mann and Ernest Hemingway. But when I think back to that time this summer it is a game I played on my Kindle Fire that my mind is drawn back to rather than a novel. And that game was Monument Valley.

Monument Valley isn't a challenging game, but the experience is so immersive. Maybe it was walking around and exploring Venice during the day that made it resonate when I settled down with it late at night. The game itself is like a M.C. Escher work come alive, with the ability to twist and manipulate buildings in impossible ways to enable the silent Princess Ida to progress through each level. The impossible objects and optical illusions are used in an ingenious way and everyone I have shown the game to has been unable to resist smiling while playing it. It demonstrates what the final levels of a video game of the (fantastic) movie Labyrinth should have been like!

The graphics and sound effects are pitch-perfect and are a credit to the game. At 10 chapter-based levels it may feel a little short to some, but I dislike the idea that games should be certain lengths. A game should be just as long or as short as it needs to be. This is the beauty of independent games and different pricing structures, meaning a developer doesn't have to string out a game only to justify a higher price tag.

I cannot praise Monument Valley enough, it is the best touch screen video game I have ever played and the experience of it will stay with me for a long while.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Brenneut (Norwegian Burnout)

I was visiting family in Norway recently and they have a battered old PlayStation 2 in their spare room with a few games. Some of the games work, some are broken. Anyway besides noting how dated the graphics to Tony Hawks 3 look (it still pays fine), I got into playing Burnout Dominator. I'm not a huge racing game fan, but I have played them from time to time. I think my favourite racing game is the Sega Ages Outrun port on the Sega Saturn or the original Sega Rally. Maybe Crazy Taxi outshines them both - but I don't think that truly classes as a "racing" game.

I've not played any of the other games in the Burnout serious but I was aware of some of the ideas behind the series. By driving recklessly you increase your boost meter - you can do this by driving into oncoming traffic, narrowly missing cars, skidding, etc. Once the meter is filled you can activate your Burnout, the Supercharge Boost where blue flames spark out of car. Using this increased speed you can perform more dangerous driving tricks at breakneck speeds, which can then trigger another Burnout, thus chaining them together. You can keep doing this and chain together crazy multipliers for points like Nights into Dreams. I really liked this side of it, and you really get a feeling of the crazy speeds when you activate the boosts.

Of course this being a sixth-generation console game all the loading times are quite testing, especially the clunky way the save system seemed to work. But on the whole it was fun and killed the time pretty well. The unlocking of cars and courses and the medal system kept my interest and made we want to see the next race. Going back to improve your silver to get gold was strangely compelling.

I guess it was like eating at Nandos or something. That kind of experience.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

The Secret of Point & Clicking?

I always wanted to play the Secret of Monkey Island but being a console-owner meant I all I could do was look enviously over at Amiga and ST owners. My hopes were raised by the port to the Sega Mega CD, but it never got released in Europe (maybe that was a blessing in disguise considering the poor reputation of that version).

Anyway after some persuasion from my girlfriend I recently decided to give the re-mastered version from 2009 a spin. Thankfully you can change the graphics back to the 1990 originals, the pixel art still looks fantastic and superior to the soulless slick new visuals where characters seem to float over the backgrounds.

I can see why the game has such a following; it has a great sense of humour and a fun cast of characters. I particularly liked having to tail the storekeeper to find the sword master or (later in the game) the appearance of the three-headed monkey.

In general point and click games hold up really well in the modern era aside from one thing... the internet. I completed Monkey Island in a couple of days and whilst I'd love to claim I have the deductive powers of Colombo the brutal truth is whilst I tried to work out all the puzzles, a few had me completely stuck and so I caved and sought the internet's easy answers.

This got me to thinking - how the hell did I complete Broken Sword back in the day on the PlayStation? Did I just sit there for days on end exhausting every single point and click option? In fact I remember way back playing Sherlock Holmes on the Mega CD. When I got stuck there I went methodically and patiently through the entire phone directory line by line...

There's something to be said for the elated feeling you get when you solve something that had stumped you for weeks (if not months), but in reality the temptation of having the answers ready at your fingertips is all too tempting.

Even if you try to resist.

And I did try to resist.

A little.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Back to Tomb Raider?

How did I start playing a Tomb Raider game again?

I swore many many years ago that I would never go back. Lara had betrayed me and she was never to be forgiven! The day Tomb Raider II was cancelled for the Sega Saturn was the cause of all this turmoil. That was a dark day for me. It was the first time I realised that the Saturn was dying...

Anyhow I felt somewhat vindicated over the years as I watched the endless new mediocre Tomb Raider games spew out one after the other in a manner that made latter day Sonic seem classy. So just how did this change? How did the Tomb Raider reboot win me over?

I was in my post-great game blues. I had just finished the Last of Us and needed something to fill the void. I had downloaded Tomb Raider for free from PlayStation Plus a while back, and it had been sitting there gathering digital dust on my hard drive. I heard positive rumblings about it. But then I also remember all the controversy from the ill-judged scenes that were supposed to build Lara's character.

I decided to stop umming and ahhing and go ahead and play the damn game, otherwise I'd end up in an all-consuming Tetris or Topspin vortex for a couple of months again.

It all started well enough. Everything looks pretty, even the creepy blood-splattered cannibal who chases after Lara. The oriental Bermuda Triangle-esque island setting was neat. The bow and arrow was quite fun and actually useful (for a change). I wouldn't say I was outright impressed at this stage, but it was winning me over.

Then it happened. I was jumping over the rooftops of crumbling shacks built into the side of a sheer cliff face when it hit me. I was actually enjoying this, even though it was seemed so familiar...

It is hard to pinpoint exactly what it was, but I was reminded of playing through The Last of Us. Although the stories are radically different there is a tone and feel to these games that make them feel similar. Lara's survival instinct reminds me of Joel's hearing mode, as did getting caught in a trap and having to shoot at enemies upside down or even just rummaging around to get salvage to upgrade your weapons. At no point did it ever distract me enough to stop enjoying the game, but the feelings remained.

Crystal Dynamics have overhauled Tomb Raider from an adventure/exploration game to more of a focused dynamic action game. And it works. Maybe that's why is succeeded where all the other Tomb Raider sequels failed, it avoided trying to just ape what made the first game successful and instead try to forge ahead with their own vision for the series.

It will be interesting to see where Crystal Dynamics take the series from here, although it might be a long time until I get to play it if this Xbox One timed exclusive business is true. I may not even play it at all, as I said earlier I don't play Tomb Raider sequels...