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Re: Today I'm Playing (Archive)
Posted: Thu Dec 11, 2014 12:57 am
Killer Instinct (SNES, 1995)
There are some things you look forward to, and man have I been looking forward to this! Killer Instinct was one of the best games of my childhood, and one of the best fighting games of all time. As anyone who read the other thread knows that my favourite ever game is Street Fighter II. And whilst nothing will ever match the brilliance of that in my eyes, I do have a slew of fighting games on the SNES which are also top notch; Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles: Tournament Fighters, Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3, and SF Alpha to name just a few. However, I think there is only one which comes close to matching the perfect of Capcom's classic, one which matches the blood of Mortal Kombat and the combos of Fatal Fury. That game is Rare's "Killer Instinct", and in a age where "Rare" was a buyword for "quality", their great form was on show once again.
If you've played previous fighting games, then you'll know the set-up here. Daft plot (this one has a future arms manufacturor called "Ultracorp" testing out it's bio-weapons in fighting tournaments) brings together the cast of characters. But unlike other fighting games which tend to be a bit karate/ninja-heavy (Mortal Kombat I'm looking at you!), Killer Instinct has quite an interesting array of fighters to choose from: you have various "normal" characters such as the boxer (T.J. Combo), American Indian (Chief Thunder), and the token women (B.Orchid, who is awesome!!!), and some very outlandish ones, such as human fireball Cinder, human/dinosaur hybrid Riptor, Glacius (who is made entirely of Mini Milks) and for Twilight fans, Sabrewulf.
The reason this game differentiates itself from the plethora of other fighters at the time was because this game plays just damn incredibly. Seriously, it's one of the best beat-'em-ups of all time. Part of this has to do with just how tight the gameplay is; a lot of the moveset is taken from Street Fighter (especially Jago's), so it'll be familiar to any fighting fans out there. But the way you could chain combos together is truely unique, and is probably what people remember most about the game.
It's possible to chain moves together in Killer Instinct to a ridiculous degree. This isn't your simple "dragon punch into a leg-sweep" combo here, no sir. This is more "chain together every move in your arsenal until your opponent is a bloody pulp" combo. Because all the animations are automated, all you have to do as a player is input the button presses, then sit back and watch the amazing carnage unfold. However, to prevent you getting caught in an endless combo as a player, Killer Instinct introduces a "combo breaker". This is a move which cuts your opponent off right in the middle of their combo, and allows you to counter. It's quite hard to pull off (although the computer on the harder difficulty settings spams them religiously), but they're very useful, and you'll feel like a boss when you do!
Unlike other fighting games which go for 2 rounds, Killer Instinct gives you 2 life bars instead. Only by depleting both of your opponents health bars can you win (do it without losing one of your own to get a "Supreme Victory"). When your opponents health bar is on it's last legs and goes red you can pull off the "Ultimate Combo" (a combo which ends in a fatality), or knock your opponent off the stage. This obviously has shades of Mortal Kombat, but trust me when I say Killer Instinct is leagues ahead of any Mortal Kombat game ever,
I tend to avoid talking about things such as graphics and sound, as I feel these things are generally secondary to the experience of how a game plays. But Killer Instinct is utterly gorgeous, mind blowing graphics for it's time (even if it had to be turned down to port it from the arcade). Animations are slick, blood flows lavishly, and the pre-rendered fighters look sublime.
But the absolute best part of this game is the audio. Killer Instinct has, without exagerration, one of the best soundtracks to any game on any console ever. The original game came with a CD, "Killer Cuts", which had each of the stages as it's playlist, and boy was that a treat! Riptor's theme, in particular, is utterly incredible, and mixed with the eery fog and blood-stained floor of an underground pit, come together to create the most atmospheric fighting stage in all of gaming. But you could put any of them there: Jago, Spinal, Glacius, they're all superb. Added to that the satisfying voiceover decreeing every combo you pull off, you have an absolute banquet of audio delight.
The term "hardcore game" is just a buzzword now, but this is what passed for hardcore back in 1995. Trust me when I say this game will happily kick your ass, but you'll love it so much you'll return time and time again. This game was so good that it got a port on the Game Boy (sadly without a snazzy black catridge like it's SNES counterpart), and a sequel in both the arcades and on the N64 called "Killer Instinct Gold", which was also awesome. Sadly, due to Rare and Nintendo's acrimonious split (which was worse than Nintendo's one with Squaresoft) this game seems unlikely to ever come to Virtual Console or even XBLA (which is has been teased for six years now!). But if you can track down the SNES original or it's N64 sequel, I would heavily recommend it, as very few fighters reach this benchmark.
Of course, the easiest way for Rare to rectify the lack of Killer Instinct on XBLA would be to make a sequel....... (please?)
Re: Today I'm Playing (Archive)
Posted: Thu Dec 11, 2014 12:58 am
Micro Machines (MegaDrive, 1993)
Inspiration for games can come from anywhere.
There are examples of this all around. Pikmin, the Gamecube game which has you commanding hordes of creatures round tiny natural environment, came from Shiregu Miyamoto watching ants around his garden. The N64 puzzle game Wetrix, and city-builder Sim City both came to life after starting out as parts of other games, which the developers then realised were more fun than the games they were intended for!
Some influences are far more obvious, however. Micro Machines were scale minatures of vehicles which were produced in the mid-'80s and throughout the '90s. Living rooms up and down the country were turned into race-tracks, with tiny sports cars competing in diminutive but thrilling championships around desktop lamps, remote controls, and photo frames. It's therefore not a huge leap to imagine children not playing with these on their living rooms, but rather on their games consoles. As such, Micro Machines was born, and pretty much took over every console in existance, much like how it's small-scale counterpart took over the houses of it's owners!
Micro Machines could be described as "Absolutey Brilliant!" (if you don't believe me, the title screen will tell you) Codemasters managed to bring together the fantastic gameplay of an exemplary racing game, with the imagination that a tiny virtual world can offer. You play a top-down view racing against either one or three opponents around various tracks such as schooldesks, bathtubs, and the breakfast table. This adds a challenge unique to Micro Machines, in that, how many games can offer normal household objects as obstacles? You take control of various vehicles such as minature helicopters, speedboats and dune buggys, but I have to say my favourite is the tanks, as shooting your opponent never gets old to me!
There are 2 ways of playing the game; against the 3 CPU players, the idea is to simply race around the track for 3 laps and cross the finish line in first place. I say "simply", but the tracks can get fiendishly difficult, especially later one; dodging spilt orange juice, hopping over placemats and driving over rotating corn on the cob becomes the norm in this game! After 3 races the worst of the 4 players gets dropped (hopefully not you!), and then another character takes their place and you carry on. The second way to play is the "head to head", which you can do against the computer or a human opponent. The object of this is to lose your opponent off the back of the screen (which is hard, as the further in front you are, the less you can see coming). If you do, you gain a point, which turns one of the lights on the left of the screen your colour. Turn all 8 your colour and you win. It's tremendous fun, and has made Micro Machines a multiplayer favourite with me and my friends since the day we first played it!
The game gives you 11 cartoonish characters to play as, which are rated in terms of ability (from the "ace" Spider to the "dire" Walter). These don't have any effect on you, but rather the difficulty of your opponents. Best bet I find is to take the harder opponents early on, as you'll race them on tracks which are easier to win, and save the more mongoloid opposition for later.
Each level is represented by a different Micro Machine on a wall cabinet, and there is plenty of variety to keep things from getting stale. Trust me when I say you will never ever get tired of bumping someone into a snooker pocket as you overtake them! This game has great memories for me, because when I was little I wasn't allowed to have a games console, whereas all my friends and family had a MegaDrive. My best friend Natalie owned this game, and I used to beg my parents to let me go over her house so we could play it and Sonic. It is said from little acorns do mighty oaks grow, and my mighty love from gaming also started from something small... micro, in fact.
Re: Today I'm Playing (Archive)
Posted: Thu Dec 11, 2014 1:00 am
Guitar Hero (PS2, 2006)
As I previously mentioned in my Ace Attorney review, one of my favourite things about video games is that they can transport you anywhere. This is especially true nowadays, as with the increase in tehcnology (both in hardware and software), it means that players can now indulge their fantasies like never before. Want to re-enact The Battle of Hoth from Star Wars? Just like being in the film! Fancy seeing what it was like to storm the beaches of Normany in 1944? Your wish is our command! Ever thought about being a cowboy in the old West, having gunfights and stopping varmints in an Eastwood-esque manner? Just press "start", and away you go!
It should come as no surprise, then, that it was only a matter of time before one of the most popular bedroom fantasies (clean ones at any rate!) would make it onto home consoles - air guitar. For generations, teenagers have vigurously strummed the air or an old tennis racket to the sounds of the popular rock artist of the age. From Bowie to Bowlam, Siouxsie Sioux to Slipknot, the tunes may have changed but the formula and the fantasy has remained a constant.
In 2006, a company called "Harmonix" attempted to make these daydreams into something more tangible. They released a rhythym action game, which wasn't new, but certainly hadn't been marketed to the masses in such an effective way. The idea was that Guitar Hero would let you realise those dreams you have of playing for Zepplin, The Who or Guns 'n' Roses, by allowing the player to simulate playing the guitar to some of rock music's most well-known tracks. This was acheived by creating a special guitar shaped controller, which looks similar to a Gibson SG, that would play the on-screen notes when the player strummed it. The challenge comes from timing your strums and button pressed to those shown, and therefore proving you are the rock god that you always knew deep down you could be!
Of course, you know all this. Everyone and his kid sister has heard of Guitar Hero, it's proven to be one of the biggest success stories of the past 10 years. In the first game you could play various tracks such as "Message in a Bottle" by The Police, or "Jessica" by The Allman Brothers (which you may know as the Top Gear theme). But as the series grew, pretty much every major title by every major artist would wind up on a Guitar Hero or Rock Band game. There would be a glut of sequels, such as Guitar Hero '80s (which specialised in the best era of music) and Legends of Rock (which allowed you to have a "guitar battle" against a virtual Slash). Rock Band would pick up this theme but allow players to sing and play drums along with their friends too, which made sense; Guitar Hero is a great multiplayer experience, either in co-operation or in competition. A housewarming party I went to recently had Guitar Hero as it's entertainment, and I kid you not when I said the whole room was singing along to "American Pie" as the 2 competitors strummed along!
Guitar Hero has received a fair amount of criticism, with people saying the games are too samey, or that they milked the franchise. Be that as it may, I think Guitar Hero may be one of the best ideas (certainly one of the best executed ideas) ever in the history of gaming. It took something that everyone wanted to do, and allowed you to do it! It's a rare game that allows both hardcore players and casual players to find a common ground, but if any game can, it's this one. There can't be a single person who's held that guitar in their hand, played their favourite track, and not felt great having simulated one of their dreams come true... can there?
Re: Today I'm Playing (Archive)
Posted: Thu Dec 11, 2014 1:01 am
Half Life (PC, 1998)
Sometimes reviewing a game is easy. You look at the individual aspects of the game - the graphics, the audio, the gameplay, the longevity - and use those to justify why said game is worthy of your time or not. But with Half Life, this is much harder. Graphically, the game isn't that impressive (although they weren't that bad at the time, they're certainly nothing to write home about now). As for the sound, the game does have it's good points, such as soldiers screaming orders to each other, but the soundtrack isn't exactly at Rareware N64 standard. As for longevity, it does have depth and will certainly keep you entertained, but Goldeneye on the N64 lasted longer than Half Life and was released a year earlier!
So if you've never played this game then you may struggle to understand exactly why people rave about it so much. But Half Life is far more than just the sum of it's parts. For as anyone who has had the pleasure of playing it knows, Half Life is not merely your run-of-the-mill PC shooter, but rather a deeply satisfying experience.
When they made Half Life, Valve were a relatively unknown Washington company rather than the industry giant they are today. As a result, Half Life's huge success came as a big surprise. No-one had any previous titles such as Portal or Left 4 Dead to draw on, and as a result, nobody was to be prepared for what was about to be unleashed. Boy were we in for a shock.
Ever since Doom came out in 1993, it seemed the PCs were forever linked with first person shooters. As a console gamer, I never understood why my PC gaming friends tell me that they're better with a keyboard than a joypad, but for some reason this is the widely-held consensus. Doom had set the standard in more ways than one, though - people assumed that the way Doom played was the "correct" way. As a result, we got a whole slew of "gun and run" style games, whether those were with monsters (such as Quake), Nazis or dinosaurs. These games played similarly to Doom, and usually had very little in the way of plot - if you wanted to know what was going on, most of the time you had to read the instruction manual!
Half Life was very different in that it put the narrative central to proceedings. Quite rarely for games back then, Half Life had a decent build-up before the action even took place. The monorail ride at the beginning of the game was voted by PC Gamer the "greatest PC gaming moment of all time". Even when you gain full control, you are instructed to go through the underground laboratory and into the test chamber to carry out the experiment. You'll travel through Black Mesa's research facility, chat to scientists at work, so that when you go through the game proper, you'll feel like you already know the place. It's a nice way to ease you into the game, and also give you context for the action which follows.
As I said in the introduction, it's hard to pin down why Half Life is so great. The original has quite standard FPS weaponary (stuff like the gravity gun wouldn't come until the sequel), and the action, whilst fun, is similar to the game that it's engine is modelled on (Quake). The story certainly helps. You play as scientist Gordan Freeman who works for the Black Mesa research organistation. Whilst performing an experiment to transport objects via interstellar portals, an error occurs and instead unleashes hideous monsters all over the facility. Armed with just a crowbar (in the beginning anyway) you have to fight your way through your now-destroyed workplace and to the surface. Part of the way through, you find some soldiers have been sent from the surface to aid in your escape! Or have they?... Add to this the mysterious G-Man who you see wandering through the complex at various times, and you have a very interesting story.
But it's more the way that Half Life immerses you into the narrative which is key. The game isn't split up into levels, but rather, when you reach certain checkpoints a new chapter title comes up on screen. This gives you the impression you are playing one long story, rather than simply being thrown from area to area. It's exceptionally well executed, and is pretty much the benchmark for any game that used this trope from that point on.
My favourite part of the game, though, is the level design. It's not just a case of getting through each room, but rather working out how to progress. Getting from a to b in Half Life is a tremendously cerebral action, but never on the level of being so obscure you end up frustrated. Rather, the game subverts the genre you know, as the player expects the game to be a mindless shooting game as most FPSs to that point had been, and instead is treated to puzzles almost every room.
The AI was widely praised on release, and I have to say I have played games now in which the enemy intelligence would be outwitted by the marines in Half Life! They will bark orders down the radio to each other, attempt to encircle your position, and even change targets if they believe there is a more immediate threat. This is worlds away from the modern day "hide behind cover until the enemy pokes their head out", and is infinitely more enjoyable as a result.
The only criticism I can think of for Half Life is that of it's main protagonist. Gordan Freeman never says a word throughout the whole adventure - in fact you only even know what he looks like from the instruction manual! I understand the reason for this was so that the player could project their own image and personality onto the character, but to me it just comes across as being dull. The whole game spins this amazing story that you feel connected to - it's such an irony that the one character who isn't immersive is the one you're playing as.
But aside from that gripe, there really is very little to fault here, especially when there's so much to love. I have stated in the past that first-person shooters are my least favourite genre, yet I was engrossed by this game from start to finish. It even came out on PS2, complete with a co-op mode and deathmatch, which meant that us console gamers could experience this classic too. If you even have the tiniest inkling of curiosity about this, or enjoy shooting games, or hell, even enjoy games in general, then I wholeheartedly recommend Half Life. Over 9.3 million gamers can't be wrong!
Re: Today I'm Playing (Archive)
Posted: Thu Dec 11, 2014 1:02 am
Desert Strike (MegaDrive, 1992)
War is hell.
This phrase is often attributed to William Tecumseh Sherman, who, as a Unionist general during the American civil war, would know more than most. Despite it's depiction in genres as being exciting, full of heroism and being noble (although it has the capability to be all these things), those who experience it first-hand usually describe war as being nothing short of nightmarish. In modern times, the balance has been somewhat redressed, with news reports showing the impact of war upon civilians, and even in some computer games the notion of conflict is derided (with "Metal Gear Solid" and "Spec Ops: The Line" being 2 such examples). But the notion of war being undesirable has been portrayed in popular culture before; the 1921 painting "Hell" by George Leroux depicts a First World War battlefield.
It's no surprise, then, that most video games which are set during war a criticised (usually by people who have never played them) as "glorifying" war. For the most part, this is unfair, as games often look to challenge a player with various objectives and to complete heroic acts, often with life-or-death stakes against a recognisable foe. War is an easy setting for this to be accompished, for the same reason that many books, films or comics are based around them (exciting action and tales of heroism are usually attractive to a young, male demographic). That said, the cliché of games glorifying war isn't entirely unjustified, and there are some occasions where it seems all too evident.
Before you all think that I'm going all Mary Whitehouse on you, let me give you a little backstory. In 1991, Saddam Hussein, Iraqi dictator, invaded the neighbouring country of Kuwait. This prompted various countries around the world to declare a state of war against Iraq, included America, the UK, Saudi Arabia, and others. The war was an excuse for then-president Ronald Reagan to ramp up the propaganda rhetoric (although to be fair, he's hardly the only politician to ever do this), and try and whip his country into a state of Americana and "supporting our troops".
Seeing the dollar signs in their eyes, Electronic Arts suddenly started to release titles aimed around war in the Middle East under the title not of EA, but rather "EA Air Force". Whether in the arcade or home console, video gamers could fight the war against Saddam in their own living rooms, blotting out the fact that the games they were playing were representative of real people, really dying. It was under this guise that EA (sorry, "EA Air Force") released Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf for MegaDrive, SNES and later Amiga.
Despite being released clearly in poor taste, Desert Strike is not a bad game at all. The game has you playing as an Apache Helicopter pilot fighting against an unamed *cough* Middle-Eastern dictator. Set across 4 levels, the player is given a set numberof objectives to complete, such as destroying enemy installations, rescuing captured marines, or escorting VIPs and protecting them from attack. The game was based upon an excellent Apple II title called "Choplifter", and given a 3D, isometric view for a less linear game with more exploration elements. And it works like a dream - in 1992 very few games were as expansive as this, and the vehicle movements and animation were fantastic. The graphics were well done (especially on the Amiga version), and the electric-guitar opening is one of the finest MegaDrive openings there is!
The one thing you'll pick up from Desert Strike is that it is hard. Very hard. Literally one of the most difficult games I have ever played, and I know very few people that have actually beaten it. The space in the back of the manual for passwords was a godsend, and definitely there for a reason! Not only is Desert Strike tough because the missions are hard and because the enemies cause serious damage, but also because of one the core gaming mechanics. The apache helicopter you control takes up fuel at a rate of 1 per second, regardless of whether you are stationary or not. Lose all your fuel and you crash and die, so finding some is vital. However, the maximum amount of fuel you can carry is 99, meaning that you are only ever 139 seconds away from death at any one time! This means you are constantly having to find fuel, and most of your missions will have to be planned out so that you pass some along the way! (Which does add a level fo strategy, I will admit). That said, there is a slight way to get around this - because EA didn't add any animations of death over water, your helicopter won't use up any fuel when flying over the sea! Weird, huh?
Desert Strike brings back fond memories from my childhood, and I have to say, it's nice to find a game that hasn't got any easier with the passing of time! Whilst you mayfind it slightly morally iffy that this game was released to capitalise on the Gulf War, shockingly, this has happened since. When the second Gulf War kicked off in 2003, Gotham Games released "Conflict: Desert Storm 2", which had players fighting through the first Gulf War, albeit now with not-so-subtle overtones of the current conflict. Maybe they thought lightning could (desert) strike twice? And with the current situation with North Korea, could "Atomic Strike: South China Sea" be out of the question? For the sake of taste and decency, let's hope so!
Re: Today I'm Playing (Archive)
Posted: Thu Dec 11, 2014 1:03 am
Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine (PS3, 2011)
"Geek" is a word which has, and always will be tossed around by people far too easily. In my youth (and inded, in most people's) it was insult aimed at those who were into past-times not of the mainstream, such as science-fiction, video games, or animé. The very term conjures up images of insular, weak individuals who are socially awkward (especially around members of the opposite gender).
In recent years, there has been an attempt to reclaim the term "geek". With geek chic in fashion at the moment due to the fact that, shock horror, the things those social outcasts had been liking were pretty damn good, suddenly being able to name all 150 Pokémon and wearing a Pac-Man belt buckle aren't a badge of ridicule anymore. Which should open up a new era of acceptance, right?
Well, oddly enough no. Because apparantly, there are always some past-times which are too nerdy even for the nerds. One of these is Warhammer, a table-top battle game which mixes modelling, painting and a strategy game to create a unique experience enjoyed by literally millions around the world. There are 2 types of Warhammer: Fantasy, which is a Lord of the Rings style universe, the "magic and monsters" world inhabited with Elves, Dwarves and Orcs. And the other is Warhammer 40,000, which is set in the grim darkness of the far future, mankind beset from all sides from Daemons, aliens and traitors across the galaxy.
Warhammer 40,000 has existed since 1987, and has become a worldwide smash hit... but only among a cult following. For to wider audience, even one's who proudly call themselves "geeks", Warhammer is still a past-time of those social awkwards and shut-ins. Well guess what? I'm a Warhammer fan, proud of it, it's excellent, and so is this game!
For those unaware of Warhammer 40,000, I'll be brief in explaining the backround, as there is literally a whole library (The Black Library, in fact!) of books which delve very deeply into the history of that particular universe. To cut an extremely long story short, it is the 41st Millennium, and mankind has spread all over the stars, colonising worlds from this end of the galaxy to the furthest reaches of space. However, mankinds interstellar empire is beset on all sides by war - hostile alien races knaw at the edges (Necrons, Tyranids, Tau, and others), and traitors to mankind, willing to sell their souls to the dark gods of chaos, are a threat from within. To fight this ever-growing threat, humanity has turned entire worlds into factorys known as "forge worlds" which pour out unmeasurable numbers of weapons, tanks, and war-titans to defend the Imperium.
It is on the Forge World "Graia" that "Space Marine" is set. The planet is under the shadow of a huge Ork invasion, and as the planet is of huge tactical importance, there is no option but to try and wipe out the green-skinned scum. The remnants of the defenders, the Imperial Guard, won't hold out for long - it is time for humanity to send it's most powerful task force available. Genetically engineered super-soldiers who never back down, never retreat, and never surrender. It's time to send in the Space Marines.
Gameplay-wise, you may think "Space Marine" plays like Gears of War, and you'd be right up to a point. After all, you're essentially playing as space marines in both, fighting across alien worlds in the future, firing meaty weapons and muzzle-flashes lighting up the ruin-stricken landscape. But there is one major different in the way "Space Marine" plays which sets it apart, and that's the fact that in Gears of War (as with many games nowadays) you spend most of your time hiding behind cover. "Space Marine" emphasises action above everything, and so cover really doesn't come into it. Instead you dodge, roll, or charge headlong into the fray firing your boltgun or swinging your chainsword wildly. In this respect, the game plays more like "Jet Force Gemini", which to me is a good thing.
Another way that the game puts action at the heart of the experience is the way that you gain health. Again, unlike other modern-day games where hiding seems to be key, the only way to replenish your health bar in this game is to perform brutal finishing moves on your opponent. By stunning opponents up close and then executing them, your character regains health, but it leaves you exposed as you do so. The combat itself is incredibly satisfying, not on par with God of War, but swinging Power Axes through Orks and seeing the red stuff fly never gets old!
The Forge World itself is a spectacular setting; it feels like a genuine world which has been destroyed, rather than a perfectly created bunch of ruins with conveniently placed bits of rubble. Battling through the Titan factories will see you fight past people's workstations, under pipes, and over conveyor belts into the belly of a believable world. But you'll probably be too busy with the intense firefights to notice!
The game isn't without it's faults, however. Whilst the shooting and hack-and-slash is all very fun, it can get a bit repetetive after a bit. Whilst different enemy types and guns keep things fresh (and there aren't any obsolete guns in this game!), fighting a wave of Orks and thinking "ok, what's next?" only for it to be - you guessed it - another wave of Orks does make things a bit samey. Also, the best bits of the game seem to be sadly short lived. Early on in proceedings you get a jump pack, which allows you to boost through the air and smash down upon your foes. It's brilliant fun, and opens up the game to a whole new dimension. But you only ever get to experience it for a short time, and then the game finds an excuse to take it away from you ("you can't fly in these caves"/"it's run out of fuel").
But I'm nitpicking. As I said in the intro, I find this game to be excellent fun! The multiplayer is a blast too, allowing you to fight team deathmatches or objective-based games as either the Space Marines or their Chaotic counterparts. You can upgrade your weapons and equipment, so yes you can have a jump pack, and this time no-one's taking it off you! (yes!) You can also customise your armour and emblems, so 40,000 fans can play as their favourite Chaos/Space Marines chapters such as Imperial Fists, Black Templars or Alpha Legion if they so wish!
The one thing I wish the game had done though, is give you scope to explore the 40k universe more. Warhammer has a huge backround, and it is deliberately massive in scale to allow gamers to imagine their own scenarios for their games. Obviously it's not possible to witness all of this in one game, and so this is prime material for a sequel (which I really, truely, hope that there is!)
Re: Today I'm Playing (Archive)
Posted: Thu Dec 11, 2014 1:04 am
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (PS3, 2009)
Old vs New... which is better?
It's a question which has been asked in many fields, not just video games. How would the legends of the past measure up in today's world? Conversely, would those marked out as all-times greats in the present carve out the same niche in the past? Would Messi be more revered than Maradona if they'd have both pulled on an Argentina shirt in 1986? Would The Dark Knight have been so critically acclaimed if it had been released in the "golden age of cinema"? And what would the gamers of the past have made of the graphically-impressive, quasi-movies that get released today?
There are those who say that the landscape (no matter what it is) is far too different, that to compare Pelé to Ronaldo or Matt Smith's Dr Who to Tom Baker's is like comparing apples with oranges. Whilst this point of view may have some merit, I believe that, at heart, quality is usually measured by a core quantity alone, and everything else is just window dressing. With football, it's skill and ability to control the ball. In cinema, it's story - whilst explosions and effects can set a scene, it's the emotional involvement which gives a film it's soul. And with games, it's gameplay - you play games for fun, so if that aim isn't acheived, then there's no point to them.
The original Call of Duty game appeared on PC in 2003, and migrated to consoles soon after. The first 3 games in the series were in a World War 2 setting, all of which are much better than the EA produced "Medal of Honor" series (especially "Finest Hour", which I highly recommend!). Despite being arguably better games than some of those later in the series, Call of Duty didn't set the world on fire as it has done in the last 6 years or so. I suspect this has to do with the online multiplayer aspect of the game, which wasn't universally available on PS2. They were games which did their best to recreate the horror and spectacle of war, and rather than having you take down the Third Reich by yourself (as you did in Medal of Honor) you were ably assisted by comrades and squad-members, who would draw fire and fight alongside you.
When the PS3 and X-Box 360 were released, Activision added a sequel to the franchise, with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Instead of setting proceedings between 1939-45, this game was set in the present day, with action split between conflict in an unnamed Middle-Eastern country, and covert action in the Eastern Block. It retained the gameplay which made it's predocessors so playable, with the added bonus of ramping up the graphics so they looked sublime, and having an online multiplayer aspect. It sold gangbuster numbers, and quite frankly it deserved to - the game was amazing.
To say that there was hype for the second Modern Warfare game, then, would be an understatement. Despite the fact Activision had released another Call of Duty in the meantime (going back to the WW2 formula), players really wanted to experience what they had in CoD4. Most games fail to live up to excessive hype, but Modern Warfare 2 was practically creaking under the pressure from the moment it was announced, and then just built from there. I mean, what other game do you know had a premier in Leicester Square? The advertisments made it sound like it was the entertainment revolution the world had been waiting for, arriving in your local shop like a rock star swaggering on stage in front of their most committed fans. It was bound to break any and all sales records before it was even released (even though they decided to whack a tenner on top of the normal price, statistics show that if you are an organic life form you already own 2.5 copies of this game), and this alone was enough to convince the publishers that it was a great game. But the real question is, how does it measure up to it's fantastic older brother?
Well, if you ask me, somewhat badly. I have to be careful to justify what I say here, partly because any criticism can be attributed to a backlash to the hype outlined above, and partly because CoD has a huge fanbase who may try and lynch me. So let me set the record straight - Modern Warfare 2 is not a bad game. It is, however, a big step backwards from the original Modern Warfare, and took the series away from the core gameplay which made it so amazing in the first place.
Let's start with the positives. Modern Warfare 2's graphics are excellent, as you'd expect from a game with this much backing, and does the job of depicting a bunch of dusty, war-torn hellholes quite nicely (you expect me to use the word "realism" there, but I won't for reasons I will explain in a minute). Gameplay-wise little has changed, although there seems to be more emphasis on ducking behind walls until the blood goes away, which I always find boring to be honest. Weapons feel realistic, although only being able to hold 2 always ticked me off (especially when I only played Perfect Dark a few weeks ago!). And the co-op mode is actually great fun, although why they couldn't have had the whole game as a co-op I don't know, as you always have some NPCs of some sort around you.
With regards to the negatives, let's begin with the story. Modern Warfare exceeded all expectations with it's narrative, especially the part when your character succeeds in a helicopter rescue, only to die in a nuclear explosion. Having control of the last seconds of your characters life is incredibly powerful and moving.
Well, the sequel basically smacks of a writing team that couldn't believe how well the original did and saw what they could get away with. The subdelty and realism of the original got completely thrown away in favour of "Red Dawn", basically. Yes, Russia invades America, and it's up to you to roll up yer sleeve, show off your Uncle Sam tattoo, and show dem Rooskis who's boss, yee-haw! But even before then the story throws all pretense of realism out the window, as you career through the air on a snowmobile 60ft above a ravine in a scene the James Bond writers rejected as being over the top.
The story itself is horrendously short too; if you take out all the cut-scenes, the waiting behind walls for my health to come back, and the amount of times I died, you could probably run through it in about 15 minutes. The settings for these levels are spectacular, but smack very much of "all sizzle, no steak". Instead of suitably impressing environments which make you want to look around them, such as Space Marine or Finest Hour, this game wants to show off it's set pieces to you, and so takes control of your character's viewpoint to show you missiles being fired off, or buildings getting destroyed, but instead of making you go "wow" it makes you wonder if the developers wanted to just make a load of cut-scenes rather than an actual game. The "graphics over gameplay" element is why I believe that, despite all it's hype and huge sales, Modern Warfare 2 wouldn't measure up if released 15 years prior. Graphically it's astonishing, but compare it gameplay-wise to games of that era such as Donkey Kong Country, Sonic 2 and Super Metroid, and it falls well short. Heck, it falls short of it's own predocessor 2 years before!
There is one level in the game which caused huge controversy, although why exactly it did I don't know. It basically has you wandering through an airport as a Russian terrorist shooting unarmed civilians (although it's ok, because you're actually undercover CIA! "USA! USA!"). Considering that Grand Theft Auto basically has you running down civilians and murdering hookers left, right and centre, why this sparked an outcry I will never know (although it probably is down to the developers wanting to create a buzz about their game, and the right-wing media who leap all over this thing like a tramp on chips).
But if you consider that most people only buy Call of Duty for the multiplayer, this may not matter. If you think I'm being flippant with that comment, then consider that when Black Ops 2 got released, Modern Warfare 3 became the most traded in game in history because the online servers shifted to the new game. And although this is quite fun, if I were you I'd make sure I mute every single damn player who has a microphone, lest you go insane despairing for humanity.
I feel I've been overly-harsh here, as there are aspects of this game which are fun, and it's certainly very impressive in places. And seeing as this game has more fans than a Harry Potter book where Hermoine goes through a bi-curious phase, I'm guessing I'm in the minority. But I'm not so much hating on Modern Warfare 2, more dissapointed with what could have been. As I said in my Red Dead Redemption review, "don't you just hate it when your favourite game become popular?", as it then focuses more on making the game marketable and mainstream than what made it great in the first place. And that, sadly, is what I believe has happened here.
The thing is, I loved Call of Duty 1-4 because they put the focus on realism mixed with fun. Medal of Honor felt like Doom with Nazis, whereas CoD tried to give you that experience of being in the theatre of war. The Stalingrad missions and the crossing of the Rhine in "Finest Hour" are some of the most tense levels I've ever played! And the part where the nuke goes off in Modern Warfare and you get to crawl out of the helicopter wreckage is exceptionally well done.
But Modern Warfare 2 thought realism was for wusses. We wanted more guns, more action, more over-the-top explosions! It felt like Modern Warfare was made by Christopher Nolan, as it mixed great action with meaingful narrative seemlessly, whilst Modern Warfare 2 was directed by Michael Bay.
Re: Today I'm Playing (Archive)
Posted: Thu Dec 11, 2014 1:07 am
Mario Kart: Double Dash (Gamecube, 2003)
There's a saying in Hollywood; "Nobody knows anything".
What they mean by that, of course, is that producers, writers and critics alike have no idea what the 'next big thing' is going to be. As a result, studios tend to stick to things which are tried and tested successes - this can take the form of sequels of high-grossing films, to creating films of similar genres to existing franchises. At the moment, Hollywood seems obsessed with trying to be "retro", and capture anything from yesteryear, repackage it, and sell it back to you (see; Transformers, Star Trek, G.I. Joe). Prior to this, superhero films were the "in thing", due primarily to the success of the 2001 film "Spiderman". And so we had The Incredible Hulk, Superman Returns (and he's due to return again), Captain America, and a slew of others. Before this Lord of the Rings took the box office by storm, and so we had a million "battle epics" such as Troy, Alexander, and KIngdom of Heaven). Not to say that these films are necessarily bad at all - I thought Star Trek, Thor, and The Dark Knight were utterly amazing films - but rather that Hollywood tends to latch onto trends because they're afraid to take risks.
The reason I make mention of this is because it's a criticism which has also been levelled at Nintendo in the past. High-profile reviewers such as Edge magazine, Ben 'Yahtzee' Crowshaw, and, erm, me, have suggested that Nintendo rely far too heavily on their core franchises (Mario, Zelda, Pokémon) which hardly change at all between installments. Whilst graphical updates and the additions to the main cast/new power-ups are obvious, there are those who suggest that Nintendo have lost the notion to take risks and try out new things like they did in the 1980s.
Of course, the irony here is that when Nintendo do take risks with their core franchises, they get a backlash so large you can see it from space. When The Wind Waker was first shown at Space World 2001, the amount of hate they got for the new cel-shaded graphics was astronomical. When Metroid Prime was first shown, fans of the series threatened to boycott it because they'd turned Metroid into a first-person shooter. And when Double Dash was revealed, there were plenty of people who claimed Nintendo had jumped the shark with the series. What, two characters a kart? How will that work? Unique vehicles instead of pipe-karts? That makes it looks like Wacky Races! And on and on and on.
But if history has taught us anything, it's that those who take risks and succeed end up breaking ground. After all, how do you think trends start in the first place?
Double Dash is the 4th installment in the Mario Kart series, released on the Gamecube in 2003. If you've played Mario Kart before, you know what to expect here, but if you've just been unchained from a radiator in Beiruit, let me explain. Mario Kart is a racing game in which Mario and his compatriots each take the wheel of a go-kart and compete in a 4 or 5 race series, accumulating points after each circuit. To level the playing field, competitors can aquire power-ups as they go, which can have various effects such as missiles to fire at opponents (red/blue shells), turbo-boosts (mushrooms) or even shrinking your opponents so you can run them over! The first Mario Kart game was released on the SNES in 1992 to critical acclaim, and one has appeared on every Nintendo console (barring the Game Boy) since.
Up until this point, the Mario Kart games (Super, 64 and Super Circuit) had all been quite similar in design. And why not? Why change a (very) winning formula? But credit to Nintendo for not resting on their laurels, and they added several notable changes here. Firstly, and most obviously, you now had 2 riders per kart; one to drive, and one to use the items, and they could swap at any time. The reason this mattered was for the second change; drivers now had individual power-ups they could use, which ranged from fire-flowers for the Mario brothers, to a all-destroying giant Koopa shell for Bowser and his son. You also had more than 8 characters to choose from for the first time ever, giving the player more variety than they ever had (especially as they could mix-and-match character combinations as they saw fit). Finally, the karts themselves were now individual designs, which conveyed different levels of speed, handling and acceleration on the drivers (which ones you could use depended on the weight of the characters in them). It added a whole new element of gameplay, and many of the changes have become a core part of the series ever since.
Being able to pair and characters together is a stroke of pure genius by Nintendo, who didn't want to limit your options as much as possible. Whilst each character has a natural partner (Mario with Luigi, Donkey Kong with Diddy, etc) you are free to match up who you like in what kart you like, meaning you can experiment with differing combinations to get your perfect racing duo. This did cause a bit of a row when I first played with friends, as one of them chose Mario and Bowser as their characters, amidst cries of "You can't do that!". The tracks too are great fun and employ things which the series hadn't tried before - the giant cannon on DK Mountain, tracks with less or more than the usual 3 laps, etc. The only issue I have is that there isn't enough of them (16 circuits is the fewest in the entire series), but what is there you will love.
Those who have grown up on this generation of consoles have been spoiled for graphics, but for me the visuals here are fantastic. Bright, colourful and vibrant colours are what you expect from a Mario game in general, but it's the little things such as how the characters riding the back of the kart lean when they take a corner, or look at the rivals around them, which impress me the most. The audio is naturally gorgeous, with the composers of Super Mario Sunshine and Mario Kart 64 collaborating to create a truely memorable score (Rainbow Road is a particular favourite of mine).
But it's the gameplay, and in-particular, the multiplayer, where Mario Kart truely shines. There are very few games which can compare to the sheer joy you can have with friends playing Double Dash. The game has lots of modes to choose from, going from the expected such as Versus and Battle modes, to an all new co-op mode, now made possible because of the 2 character per-kart system. So you and your friend can now take on the main game in tandem! In 2003, the idea of online gaming was in it's infancy, but Nintendo did make the game LAN compatible, meaning 16 players could compete simulatenously! I suspect very few people managed to actually do this, but if you have, then it's a total blast!
Make no mistake, this game was the multiplayer game for many years between me and my friends, alongside a certain Timesplitters 2. When we had finished work for the evening, me and my friends would all pile round my friend Stacy's house and play Mario Kart and Timesplitters for hours on end. We would do this literally every day for, ooh, 18 months? You'd think we'd get bored of playing the same 2 games over and over, but due to the depth, variety and sheer fun on offer, we never did! Over time we added a couple of other games to the repotoire (namely, Micro Machines and Burnout 3) but the main bread and butter of our game playing for a good year and half was spent either trying to escape flaming zombies or firing red shells at each other!
It's somewhat ironic that the original game in the series, Super Mario Kart, was a risk in itself. There had never been a character karting game before, but by combining the stellar franchise that is Mario with exceptionally tight gameplay, Nintendo had a winner on it's hands. Despite there being now 6 sequels to the 1992 classic, I would argue none are more different to that original than Double Dash. And yet, the thing which made Super Mario Kart great is what makes Double Dash great - it's fun. Pure, unadulterated fun. Edge magazine actually gave this game a score of 5/10, saying that it was "no longer a racing game, but a party game instead". And they may have a little bit of a point; Shiregu Miyamoto told his development team that he wanted to make the game more accessible to those who'd never played Mario Kart before. But this isn't a bad thing. Whilst there is the chance that you could make your game slightly too casual (see: Mario Kart Wii), the idea of making Mario Kart more universally acccessible is means more people will enjoy it, more will play it, and there will be more opponents to compete in the fantastic muliplayer modes against!
There are those who complain that Double Dash caters to the masses rather than the hardcore gamer, that it tinkers with the formula too much, and that it's too short. Others say that the point of Mario Kart is fun and mayhem, and that this game delivers it in spades. It allows more variety in character and kart selection than ever before, more variety in tracks than ever before, and it has created more laughs, more smiles, more giggles, and more memories than most games you could mention.
Guess which side I'm on?
Re: Today I'm Playing (Archive)
Posted: Thu Dec 11, 2014 1:08 am
Holy Magic Century (N64, 1998)
Timing is everything.
I cannot possibly stress this statement enough. Whole events in history have changed because of the timing of one thing or another. Timing can lead to prosperity - Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell had both experimented with the transmission of sound and had developed a working telephone, Bell just made it to the patent office first. Bad timing can get you killed - in the 18th Century, all the Scottish clan leaders were required to travel to Edinburgh to declare their loyalty to the king. Through heavy snow, the MacGregor chief set off to declare his clans loyalty. He arrived 3 days late.... and he and his people were promptly slaughtered by the redcoats. Timing can even make you better at your job - any comedian will tell you that "comic timing" is imperitive to getting a laugh.
In 1998, the N64 didn't have much in the way of RPGs. In fact, I think at that point it didn't have any. Considering the success of Final Fantasy VII the previous year, this was surprising, although not altogether - Nintendo had usually relied heavily on Squaresoft for it's RPG series (having no stellar first party RPG series themselves - no Pokémon outside Japan yet, remember!), and due to their acrimonious falling out this was no longer possible. On top of that, most 3rd party developers had switched from Nintendo's cartridge based system to Sony's CD-based one, for the simple fact it's easier to produce games on CDs. As a result, Nintendo was a bit lacking in the adventure department (although there were other areas too - dare you to name more than 3 N64 fighting games!). But that was about to change thanks to THQ and the release of Holy Magic Century.
In a way, Holy Magic Century ticks all the boxes for what you'd expect an RPG to be. Random battles, levelling up - you know the drill. However, it may have been a little bit too formulaic for my liking. Here's a fun game for you - draw up a grid of four by four (so 16 squares), and fill them with what clichés what you expect to see in a role-playing game. Now I'll put which ones are in Holy Magic Century - let's play bingo! If you get 4 in a line, you win a prize!
Holy Magic Century does manage to subvery a couple of RPG elements though, although ironically I think this is for the worse. For example, everyone just gives you everything in this game - nothing ever costs money. Want to stay at the inn? Feel free! Want this magic item of untold power? It's yours, no questions asked! On the one hand, this makes sense, as if you're really on a quest to save the world, you'd expect the townspeople to want to help you rather than make a profit. On the other hand, this is never used a plot device - instead, you get stuff "just because" (either that or money doesn't exist in Celtland). There are also times where this makes no sense at all - for example, each town you visit complains that their ultra-important elemental item has been stolen, and life in their village will never be the same without it! So you go off and fight a boss, rescue their item, only to be told "ah, you can keep it". Erm, why? Don't you need it? Guess it wasn't so important after all...
Sadly, this is hardly the games only failing. Your main character, Brian (I know you may laugh, but is it really a dumber name than "Cloud" or "Link"?) can use the 4 elemental powers of earth, fire, wind and water. The more you use them, the more they level up, and the highest level you can get them to is 50. Unfortunatly, level grinding in Holy Magic Century takes so insanely long that it's practically impossible to get all 4 that high. Heck, it's extremely difficult to get three that high! So instead, you will focus on two of them: water and earth. Why's that, you ask? Well water has your healing spells, and earth has the highest offensive damage spells. Everything else is kinda surplus to requirements, so you'll find your range of spells will be somewhat limited. Levelling up the spells doesn't exactly change them much either; you go from dropping rocks on your enemy, to dropping bigger rocks on them, to dropping boulders on them. The one thing right in this area, though, is that the game assigns the different elemental spells to each of the 4 C-buttons, so you'll find them easy to access and pull off mid-battle.
There's also the levelling up system, which is a nightmare. Basically you have the usual RPG stats of HP, Attack, Defence, Magic and Agility. The way the stats level up depend how you perform in battle. Hit things head on with your staff? You'll gain more experience in Attack. Casting lots of spells raises your magic, getting hit by enemies raises defence, and so on.
This all sounds well and good, but the issue here is that your stats then never level up evenly. If you spend all your time hitting things with your staff, you're not casting spells, so your magic doesn't go up. If you want to raise your defence, so then get walloped by lots of enemies, you're then not hitting them so your attack doesn't go up. You end up with a lop-sided character no matter what you do, which is really frustrating.
In a cheap attempt to level up my agility stat quickly, I decided on an ingenius solution. You level up your agility by, erm, running around. That's it. So I put an elastic band around the right prong of my controller and the 3D stick to pull it to the right. This made Brian run around in a circle, thereby increasing his agility! So I left the game on overnight with my agility stat at 13, woke up having left Brian run in a circle for 9 hours, and found that my stat was now at a whopping.... 41. So running continuously all night had only increased my agility stat by 28 points. See what I mean when I said it takes forever to grind?
You're no doubt thinking that the main staple of RPGs tend to be the story, and that is certainly what most people assume to be the genres biggest selling point. Holy Magic Century once again decides to subvert this stereotype by giving you as little and generic a story as possible. There's a few scrolling lines of text at the beginning of the game, but not a lot else. Basically, Brian's father has left to try and gain this book to stop an untold evil, and then you start the game. Not a lot really gets revealed in terms of overarching plot or storyline until the last 15 minutes of the game, which is kinda late by then. There are virtually no named characters throughout the game except for Shannon, who appears to be on the same quest you are. In the very last part of the game (SPOILERS! ALTHOUGH YOU WON'T CARE!) you get reuinted with Brian's father, and find out Shannon is a soulless puppet trying to get you to use the book to free a demon called Mammon. Shannon then gives you the book (err, doesn't that mean I win?) and you fight Mammon. And then you get a big bunch of scrolling text telling you why Mammon is evil (basically "because he is"), and then the credits roll. That's it. No big reuniting scene between Brian and his dad, no narrative about what becomes of Shannon now she's free of her puppet master, nothing. It's as shallow as a puddle, and a million miles away from what you would call a "satisfying ending".
After it's all said and done, Holy Magic Century isn't a terrible game, just not a very good one either. It's average, okay, run of the mill. But as I mentioned earlier, timing matters. The Nintendo 64, in 1998, didn't have any RPGs released for the system, and as such Nintendo fans were starved of some good adventure action. As a result, Holy Magic Century was actually hyped up pretty big, with rumours or a sequel floating around before it had even been released. Adventure gamers were excited about it, and THQ released the game just prior to Christmas 1998 to capitalise on sales.
Unfortunately for THQ, Ocarina of Time was released in December 1998 as well. Given the choice, adventure gamers went for Nintendo's green elf over Brian and his staff, and Holy Magic Century 2 never saw the light of day. Timing really is everything, isn't it?
Re: Today I'm Playing (Archive)
Posted: Thu Dec 11, 2014 1:10 am
Doom (PC, 1993)
Sometimes in gaming, you get flashpoints which change the whole face of the industry.
Usually, these take the form of a popular game which takes the world by storm - Donkey Kong, for example, not only made Nintendo buckets of cash, but also created the platform genre. When Super Mario Bros. was released for the NES in 1985, the first side-scrolling platformer was born, which served as the industry's bread and butter for a decade or more. It's not always the case that a popular game changes gaming, or indeed, that a game of a new genre will alter things either (Pac-Man is a good example of this). But occasionally, very occasionally, history happens.
Doom wasn't the first ever FPS to be released, despite revisionist history saying it was. That honour would go to another game from iD software, "Wolfenstein 3D" back in 1992, which was based on the old action-adenture game "Castle Wolfenstein" for the Apple II computer. Yes, the first ever FPS was a WW2 shooter (nothing's changed, then!). But despite this being a brand-new experience for the player, Wolfenstein 3D didn't take the world by storm the same way Doom did. No-one is really sure why, but it just ended up being a footnote of history instead of a milestone like Doom was.
The funny thing is, playing Doom now, even with all the FPS games that have come since, still feels incredibly smooth. The controls work well, the aiming is simplistic, the guns feel meaty, the enemies are varied, and the ouzzles (whilst simplistic) are pretty clever. The aim of the game is to simply get from your starting position to the exit, overcoming the monsters and traps that happen to lie in your way. These include locked doors (requiring you to find keycards or flip seitches), poisionous ooze, or ceilings which lower and crush the player. The lack of narrative in the game means it's entirely up to your to find your way around and figure out a solution - world's away from the "die too many times and you get a guide" in modern Marios!
Some people may view the lack of narrative here as a detriment, but it actually works tremendously to the game's advantage. The main character of the game is never named (often he's known in popular culture as "Doom guy"), as the idea is he's supposed to be you. There's no dialogue and very little backstory (and what there is, you have to find in the instruction manual!), with the emphasis on action over story. For the record, the daft plot centres around Mars' 2 moons, Phobos and Deimos, with futuristic marines using teleporters transfer material between the two. It's hinted that this somehow allows demons from hell to enter through the portals, so you as the last survivor must fight them off and escape.
The games' simplicity helps it excellently, and has allowed it to become a worldwide hit from released. It was estimated that within 2 years of it going on sale, 10 million people were playing Doom, and it had been ported to every system known, from SNES to 32X, and even eventually the GameBoy Advance!
But FPS games have more to thank Doomf or than jsut the popularisation of the genre. For many fans of the game enjoyed Doom so much that they started to mod their own levels, and play them with friends via local-area networks. And so from this were the seeds of of online gaming planted. It seems all too appropriate that today's online FPS culture was started by the first major FPS title.
And so to summarise, Doom is deserving of the title "all-time great". If utterly transformed the industry, to the point where if you ahd a gaming hall of fame, it would have to be included, or else risking undermining the hall's intyegrity. But more than just gushing praise about it's status, legacy and thoroughly deserved success, Doom is at heart, just a fun game to play, bringing smiles to the faces of millions of gamers for 20 years. God bless you, Doom guy!
Re: Today I'm Playing (Archive)
Posted: Thu Dec 11, 2014 1:11 am
ClayFighter 63⅓ (N64, 1997)
Ye gads, where do I begin?
It doesn't bode well when the first video I find about this game on youtube is a drawn-out finger pointing excersise, deciding who's to blame for the game and it's quality. If you're looking into a game and trying to ascertain whether it's worth your hard-earned money, that is kind of an auspicious start.
Unfortunately, youtube didn't exist in 1997. For those of you young-'uns who have only known an era of online gaming, smartphones and Justin Beiber, in the '90s we'd all gather round in our clan-leader's cave and try and make out the crudely drawn cave-painting game reviews in the flickering firelight. Then, once we'd finished our sabre tooth tiger, we might be allowed to play a little bit of Playstation or N64 before bed. Obviously, times have changed hugely since then, and if a game gets negative press then it's pretty much around the world in a day or two, but back then, if you didn't get the reviews, then you either had to rent or take your chance that the game was going to be any decent. Sadly for me, this punt didn't always pay off.
ClayFighter 63⅓ is the third installment of the "acclaimed" Clayfighter series (the reason I put "acclaimed" in quotation marks is because it's acclaimed in the same way the poll tax is), after the original Clayfighter and C2: Judgement Clay were released on the SNES and MegaDrive in '94/'95. They took their mantle from the genre-altering classics of that era, Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat, the difference being that instead of pixel or motion-capture characters, Clayfighter had all it's combatants made from claymation, like Morph. To be fair, there were many worse Street Fighter clones around in the early-to-mid '90s, but sadly, there were also plenty of better ones too.
In the mid-'90s there came the fateful day that gaming went 3D, and most game companies felt that they had to make the jump in dimensions to keep up with the market. Usually, this went one way (see; "Hedgehog, Sonic the" for more on this), although some series, like Mario, ended up not just doing well but positively thriving. The issue with Clayfighter going to 3D is that when classic game series, like Mega Man and Contra, suffered horribly by adding a z-axis to proceedings, what chance do you think an average series has? You might call it "Busby 3D syndrome".
Clayfighter on the N64 is, in a word, horrible. It has very few redeeming features, and those that are present are so trivial that you may not even notice them at all, like a rottweiler biting your shinbone having a nice coat. You would think that being on the most powerful home console ever created at that point, a console which was more powerful than the craft which took men to the moon, they could've had some half decent graphics. I've peppered this review with screenshots, so you can see this isn't the case (it was rumoured that Clayfighter 63⅓ was used by an NHS trust to show people what it was like to have cataracts). Thing is, stationary pictures simply cannot do this justice, as the animation is so ropey you'd think it was from a lost 1915 Charlie Chaplin film where the cameraman was on crack and filmed it during an earthquake.
Controls play a big part in this, as normally when you try and pull a move in a fighting game, the game attempts to, y'know, have the character perform a move. In this game, not only is the action delayed, but the game will then remember what you inputted and try and do that move a few seconds later. This can cause a major headache, as by the time you've got sick of waiting for your character to do said move, you may have pressed something else, so the whole fight can become just putting your controller down and watching as your fighter finally gets around to doing what you asked of them half a minute ago. Not that this causes too much of an issue, as half the time the AI is so atrocious for the most part it sits there and takes it, although oddly enough it does occasionally spring into life and perform a hundred hit combo on your ass (not even kidding), which it will do regardless of difficulty, before going back to being a punching bag. Even Harvey Two-Face isn't as schizo as that.
Sound-wise the game is pretty standard, and although the characters catchphrases aren't quite as irritating as that bloody bobcat, they can grate. This tends to happen because each character tends to spout the same phrase when you perform a move, which may sound okay... after all, it happen is Street Fighter, doesn't it? ("Hadouken!") Yeah well, imagine that but being able to pull off said "Hadouken" 23 times in a row without interruption, with the speed of Killer Instinct, and the character interrupts themselves when they say the word. You end up with "Go ge...Go ge...Go ge...Go ge... Go ge.... Go ge... Go get 'em little buddy!", which is about as soothing to your ears as Piers Morgan talking about anything at all.
Thing is, I checked out the list of voice credits on this game and the sheer amount of talent is actually staggering. Seriously, you could have a hit cartoon series with one of these guys, never mind all of them! Jim Cummings (who has done so much Disney work you'd never list it all), Tress MacNeille (mainstay on Animanicas/Futurama/Simpsons) and Dan Castellena all provide voices here. Heck, they even get famous ring announcer Michael Buffer to start proceedings with the quite clever "Let's get ready to crumble!" (get it? Because they're clay!). It almost saddens me that such an amazing array of talent has gone to waste in such dirge, and I feel Interplay should've tried harder to make a better game on this basis alone.
One advantage Clayfighter may have over it's more serious competitors is it's characters, as instead of a hundred different Skittle-coloured ninjas it can be both humerous and inventive. Naturally it throws this advantage right down the crapper, as the cast of characters on show here are nearly all terrible, even the cameos. You have a green blob called, erm, "blob" who can transform itself into saws and hammers and things (or poorly pixellated approximations to these). Blob's home stage is the rim of a lavatory, and ironically, if you fight with 2 blobs on a toilet seat you get a perfect metaphor for this game! There's also Bad Mr Frosty, a hardcore evil snowman who's actually a good guy and constantly spouts off cutesy catchphrases, and Taffy, a character who is made entirely of spaghetti and therefore completely impossible to control. You've also got The Terminator as a rabbit called T-Hopper (although he's American?!?), a boring clown, and Boogerman who has somehow managed to end up in a game worse than his own!
But the 2 fighters I'd like to focus on here are Earthworm Jim and Kung-Pow. Earthworm Jim is easily the best and most interesting character in this game, and is even voiced by the man who provided it in the cartoon, Dan Castellena. Jim performs his signature moves like whipping his head, and it's stuff like this which may convince you that eton mess actually isn't all that bad. Don't be fooled, it is, and seeing Jim in this environment is more tragic and heartbreaking than a hundred Oxfam appeal leaflets stapled to a kitten.
But I really do need to give special mention to Kung-Pow the martial artist, and by "special" I mean the kind that eats the glue stick in the corner whilst the other kids are allowed to play with proper toys. Kung-Pow was described at the time as "possibly the most humerous character on the game", which I find hard to believe as I thought he was bad then, never mind now. Kung-Pow is horribly racist - buck teeth, broken Engrish, and moves named after Chinese dishes such as "Chop Suey". With the media all over anything bad video games did after the furore surrounding Mortal Kombat, it shows just how little this game mattered that not a single newspaper or media outlet gave the tiniest damn.
In terms of content, Greyfighter borrows heavily (e.g. steals whatever it can possibly get away with) from other, better, fighting games - it has special moves from Street Fighter, a combo system and 2-tier health bar from Killer Instinct, and finishing moves (called "Claytalities") from Mortal Kombat. Each stage is also well crafted, as unlike most fighting games you can break through to different areas of the stage, not just once but multiple times. Whilst Killer Instinct 2 and Mortal Kombat 3 have both done this too, Clayfighter did it far more extensively, which is impressive. What KI and MK didn't do, however, was have parts of the stage obscure the fighters. Yes, if poor controls weren't bad enough, now Clayfighter has added the joy of GUESSWORK to proceedings! Hooray!
The name of this game apparantly is taken from the movie Naked Gun 3⅓, and obviously in a reference to the fact most Nintendo 64 games had the suffix "64" on the title. However, this is another theory doing the rounds, that being the Nintendo had put pressure on Interplay to finish the title and as a result, they rushed the product and ended up with only ⅓ of their intended content. And whilst it is true that Nintendo has put pressure on other gaming companies in the past to get games on shelves, this isn't a story I buy here. Firstly, Interplay originally intended for the game to be for another system, but then had to switch development because it sank, so a large chunk of the game was complete before it even got to Nintendo. Secondly, Nintendo Power magazine ran a review of the game in May 1997 believing it was for "imminent release", but it only came out in time for Christmas... despite this fact, very little had changed between then and the finished product.
But the biggest nail in the coffin of this theory is that when it was released, Interplay went back and released an updated version called "Sculptor's Cut" which apparantly had all the features they didn't have time to finish in the original. Yet despite this apparant chance to set the record straight, all that it added was a few new characters and took out the combo system. It was still a broken mess, and even things like the difficulty setting didn't make sense (you try putting "Crazy", "Knarly", "Rad", "Insane" and "Woah!" into order from easiest to hardest without consulting the manual).
In the end though, it doesn't matter if these rumours are correct or not. You can only judge a game on what it is, not on what it ought to be. And I'm afraid to say that Clayfighter sixty-three and a turd is one of the most turgid experiences that you can ever get on a home console, or in an arcade, or anywhere you could conceivably play a game. This game was released at a retail price of £60 when it came out in 1997, showing that the old adage about the Lottery being "a tax on the stupid" is incorrect... buying ClayFighter 63⅓ is instead.
Re: Today I'm Playing (Archive)
Posted: Thu Dec 11, 2014 1:15 am
SimCity (PC, 2013)
At the end of my last review of Clayfighter, I mentioned that a game should be reviewed on what it is, not on what it ought to be. And no other game today personifies this statement more than SimCity. In the modern era, reboots seem to be the "in thing"... games called "Tomb Raider", "Prince of Persia", "Devil May Cry" and others have all been released over the past 5 years, seemingly resetting all the previous narrative and trying to reinvent themselves. In some cases, where the core franchise has deteriorated beyond recognition, this is a good thing (Mortal Kombat), but in most cases it leads to backlash from the fans of the original series who dislike the changes that have been made.
The original "Sim City" was developed by Will Wright back in 1989, whilst he worked for Maxis. At the time, Wright was helping to make a game called "Raid on Bungeling Bay", and to do so he needed to make various maps and cities. Wright soon realised that making these cities was actually more fun than the game he was developing, and so the idea for "Sim City" was born! It was released across various platforms from the NES to the ZX Spectrum, and was a huge success.
The enjoyment of Sim City came from being able to create and run your own metropolis, from humble beginnings to megacity. You can choose to create Industrial, Residential or Business districts, and have to manage everything from taxes to the water supply. On occasion, various disasters may hit your city (tornados, earthquake, alien invasion) and you have to try and deal with the fallout. It's tremendous fun, and despite me making it sound like an admin simulator, it's far more hands-on than that... you get to craft roads, rail networks, build stadiums, create links with the next town over, and make your city grow.
The first Sim City game I ever played with Sim City 2000 on the SNES, and it was a markable improvement on the original. Over time, several other sequels "Sim City 3000" and "Sim City 4" were released, each building on it's older brother to offer a deeply satisfying experience. The only issue is that, eventually, Maxis kind of hit a brick wall. Yes, you shouldn't fix what isn't broke, and if a game design isn't broken it's Sim City. But in order to push boundaries, and to justify the idea of a sequel in the first place, you need to stay fresh. And to be fair, they came up with quite an interesting and noble idea... taking what was quite a solitary task and adding incentive for people to connect with each other to complete tasks, hooking into the connecting social world that technology seems geared around. Sadly, this causes problems for more than one reason.
The first, and in my view the main, issue is the space restrictions. In previous Sim City games you could build a city as large as the map was. As the map space was pretty large, this allowed you huge possibilities, and it meant that Sim City did what it did best; catered for your imagination. SimCity (note the lack of a space) however, restricts you to quite small areas for you to grow your city. This is because, unlike previous installments, you are given a plot of virtual land online, and as a result, all players build their cities on a virtual plane at the same time. Unfortunately the amount of land you are given is pretty small, and you will soon find that you fill your space up quickly. The idea behind Sim City is surely to give the player free reign of their imagination, so to curtail that in such an abritrary way means the very core of the gameplay is hampered from the get-go.
The idea, of course, it to encourage players to interact with each other in order to co-ordinate your efforts, acheiving your goals as a team. This has proven to work well with other games in the past - banding together to overcome tough tasks in Monster Hunter Tri, World of Warcraft, or Left 4 Dead feels satisfying and rewarding. But, there's something less inherently entertaining about collaborating with up to sixteen people to ensure sewerage and electricity needs are met, and it's never really explained as to why passing these duties on makes gameplay more fun than to do them yourself. Indeed, if anything it allows you to experience less things as a player, thereby reducing the amount of fun you may have.
Where the problems really start compounding is that because of this multi-player-centric design it's impossible to save the game. So, for instance, you can't deploy a natural disaster or alien invasion just for the fun of it then revert back to a save game, instead you'll have to actually build your city back up again. Whilst some people enjoy the ride, I'm fairly sure most users would rather they had the option to simply revert back if they, for instance, suddenly realise that recovering from that Godzilla attack is going to take far longer than expected.
All of which is a shame because there are absolutely parts of SimCity that are worthwhile and work excellently. SimCity excels when it stresses you out, prodding you, telling you the many ways in which your city currently isn’t adequate. It’s a game about putting out fires, literally and metaphorically, you need to manage resources to provide essential infrastructure that will stop residents from setting their homes alight, dying from sickness or getting murdered by criminals. There isn’t enough room in the budget to do everything at once, so it’s always an enjoyably nervy struggle to decide which needs are a priority at any given moment.
Everything about these tasks is conveyed with such clarity. Problems draw your attention by highlighting specific parts of the building UI when they need to be worked on. City not getting enough power or water? The button that governs that need will turn red, then when selected you’re shown the areas of the map that are currently blacked out.
The game purported, before launch, to simulate each character’s day to day life with intense scrutiny, but this isn’t true. Each person leaves their house, goes to a different job each day and comes back to wherever’s closest and unoccupied. It hardly makes sense to even market in depth simulation when it’s patently false and not realistic at all. That said, each Sim can still be followed, has a name, and can give you feedback on what they wish the big man in charge would do to make their lives a little bit easier. It's nice to get such structured and specific feedback, and is a far cry from the spinning newspaper headlines from Sim City 2000 which were on occasions so vague you may as well go and see a tea-leaf reader for direction.
Even though most of the troubles have subsided, it’d be remiss not to mention issues with the always online service. When the game was first launched, the people in charge of the servers at Electronic Arts simply underestimated how much pressure would be put upon them. As a result, the servers crashed almost wholesale, and effected nearly all EA online games (so if you had trouble getting online to play FIFA or Madden for a while, you have SimCity to thank). This was an annoyance for most EA online games, but for SimCity it was a disaster - after all, this game can only be played online, and therefore if you're not connected to the servers, you can't play. Users reported having to wait 40 minutes between even attempting to connect to the servers, and if that failed the clock simply reset. It also meant that if you were lucky enough to somehow connect, your city may not be saved, and as a result you could undo hours upon hours of work by no fault of your own. Even worse were for people who logged off and then were unable to get back online, and therefore had to abandon their cities or risk never playing the game again.
As I said at the very beginning, games should be judged on what they are, and not what they could be. SimCity could be great - the online aspect is interesting and has some fun ideas, although I would argue that the joy of building a virtual city rather than a real one is that it cuts out meetings with other people in order to get stuff done. The actual city building is great fun, and new additions such as curved roads and better graphics increase the asthetics to never before seen levels. But with the bugs in the system and restrictions imposed just to make the game online only means that SimCity is the worst in the series, and as a game feels broken at worst, and a glimpse of what it ought to be at best. A good building tool (when it works)? Yes. A good game? Nooooooooooooooooo.
Re: Today I'm Playing (Archive)
Posted: Thu Dec 11, 2014 1:16 am
Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem (Gamecube, 2002)
"Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there... wondering, fearting, doubting..."
Those haunting words from Edgar Allan Poe's poem "The Raven" ring out from the screen when you start up Eternal Darkness, and it's hard to imagine a more fitting opening. The Raven is a poem about doubt and dread, as a man who has lost his wife is haunted in a darkened room by a avian symbol of death, taunting him that he will never see her again and there is no hope or solice in an afterlife. The reason this suits Eternal Darkness so well is that the game tries to instill a constant atmosphere of fear and dread within the player, rather than the usual "jump out and scare you" tactic many horror games employ. And, in my book, it does so incredibly well!
Eternal Darkness' story is utterly fascinating, and one of my favourite I've ever come across. It's loosely based upon the works of H.P. Lovecraft, especially with the book "The Tomb of Eternal Darkness" turning up time and again, like Lovecraft's Necronomicon. You play initially as Alexandra Roivas, a student at the university of Washington in the year 2000, who goes to her grandfather's mansion in Rhode Island after he is found brutally murdered. Refusing to leave until she finds evidence of who did this, Alex explores the mansion and finds evidence of her grandfathers work investigating dark forces at work throughout history. As you find pages of the story, you play them through the eyes of the characters they detail, getting thrown into the depths of history in the process.
I won't spoil the overarching story, because it is fantastic, but to summarise; a Roman legionnaire named Pious Augustus, on station in Persia in 26 BC, finds hidden ruins which contains essences of ancient godlike beings, who bind him to their whim. He becomes an immortal undead liche with the aim of attempting to bring his chosen ancient into reality. Throughout the stories which Alex uncovers, various people come into contact with either Pious or the Tome of Eternal Darkness itself, and therefore get embroiled in these world-altering events. These are generally ordinary people thrown into less-than-ordinary circumstances... other than Pious, you won't be playing as soldiers or warriors here, but rather reporters, monks, archeologists, doctors, and others. This makes more sense, as a secret history would no doubt touch ordinary people unfortunate enough to come into contact wirth it, rather than the famous characters of lore.
The game plays as a third person action-adventure with a fixed camera, with the player able to target enemies with the shoulder button. The combat is unique but sluggish; instead of simply targeting an enemy, you can target individual body parts, being able to lop off arms and heads with ease. But as previously mentioned, it is a bit slow, which does make sense considering the cast of characters aren't exactly trained fighters, although it doesn't stop it being any less frustrating (especially with that fat bedfordshire clanger Maximillian Roivas, who has the turning circle of a battleship and takes a veritable eternity to reload his pistol).
The spellcasting system is pretty unique, with each of the three allignments having a rock-paper-scissors relationship, which is important when considering what magick (sic) to use. Eternal Darkness offers magical powers for healing, solving puzzles, and experimenting in combat; for example, it is possible for player characters to summon monsters like those they are fighting. This is achieved by a system of runes for the components of the spell and 3, 5, or 7-point "Circles of Power" which allow the runes to be scribed. Though they are called "runes" by the game (probably due to the term's association with mystery and magic), these symbols do not form an alphabet, but rather a vocabulary. As such, they would be more accurately termed glyphs or especially sigilia. To cast a spell, an alignment rune (fueling the spell with the power of one of the four Ancients), a "verb" or effect rune (describing the action of the spell) and a "noun" or target rune must be used. For example, the spell for recovering health consists of the alignment rune for Chattur'gha, the rune for "absorb" (Narokath), and the rune for "self" (Santak). The same runes when aligned to Xel'lotath would restore sanity, rather than health. As more runes are discovered, more combinations are possible, although not all have an effect. With a larger Circle of Power, "power" (Pargon) runes may be added to spells to increase the intensity of the spell. It encourages the player to mix runes and attempt to generate spells through their own intelligence, which is something that impressed me.
The Roivas mansion serves as the hub of the game, a bit like Peach's castle in Super Mario 64. The player solves puzzles to delve further into the mansion, which uncovers more pages and more levels. The hub doesn't contain any enemies, yet this is where the game starts to try and get into your head. There's no enemies in the hub, yeah? So why do they give you a sword? Why do you find guns and ammunition? What are those footsteps coming from upstairs, that scratching at the door, those whispers in the darkness? It goes beyond the usual "creating of atmosphere" that games do with musical scores, and into making you question what you take as fact about the game.
Nothing does this better than the Sanity Meter, which Nintendo actually patented for this game. Most games of this type have 2 meters, "Health" and "Magic". Eternal Darkness adds Sanity to this, which depletes when your character encounters demonic creatures or when Alex reads tales from The Tome. When the meter runs low, odd things start happenening, and not just always to your character. At first, the camera angle starts to go ajar, and you may find exits to rooms don't lead to where they're supposed to. When it empties completely the game goes utterly mental, and you can't believe anything that you see anymore. Statues heads will turn and follow you around the room. The volume on your TV will turn down. The game will give you a fake "game over" screen for completing "the demo". You may get a blue screen of death, telling you your memory card is corrupt. Games have made your character question their surroundings before, or lulled the player into a sense of security before pulling a twist, but never has a game made the player question the very game they have been playing before.
Because the game is set in 4 locations (Middle East/Rhode Island/Cambodia/Amiens), you will find yourself adding to the story each time you revisit them. It also means you will come across rooms or items that previous characters own, which will make you exclaim "I remember this!" or "That's my sword!" with excited glee. As someone who loves history because it weaves together the lives of people throughout the ages, seeing human history come together in one big story is fantastic. Be warned though... not all of your characters get happy endings!
Eternal Darkness was originally designed for the N64, but switched production to the Gamecube. It also got delayed due to the September 11th attacks in New York City, meaning the developers had to re-write parts of the game set in the Middle East on grounds of taste (American soldiers fighting Iraqis in the Gulf War, and Knights Templars crusading suddenly might seem a little offensive). The game has a superb array of voice talent, most of which comes from Metal Gear Solid (Paul Eiding, Jennifer Hale, David Hayter and Kim Mai Guest are all in this), which is unsurprising, as Silicon Knights, the developers, also made "The Twin Snakes" on the Gamecube.
Eternal Darkness is world's away from games like "Modern Warfare 2", of gun-and-run, or simple and basic gameplay. It's also very different from other horror games like Resident Evil, because in games like that, which scare you through monsters or making you jump, once you're acclimatised to seeing zombies you're no longer scared. Eternal Darkness is just creepy through and through, a real chilling tale which attempts to scare the player themselves.
Eternal Darkness isn't for everyone, but I rave about it whenever I can. If you want to play something different, if you like your games to be clever and deep and involving, then I implore you to embrace the darkness.
"And that raven, never flitting,
Still is sitting, still is sitting,
On that pallid bust of Pallus just above my chamber door.
And his eyes have all the seeming
Of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamp light o'er him streaming casts his shadow on the floor.
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted... nevermore".
Re: Today I'm Playing (Archive)
Posted: Thu Dec 11, 2014 1:18 am
Sonic the Hedgehog (MegaDrive, 1991)
Hype is something that has always been utilised as a marketing tool.
After all, it's a legitimate way to get people to spend money on your product. If you whip people into enough of a frenzy, they'll be lining up to line your pockets. TV shows and films do it... they release trailers and titbits of information, the stars tour the chat-show circuit and promise "something special" will happen, so you better be watching! Boxing and wrestling, which makes the majority of their income through pay-per-view, build up their bouts with video packages and pre-fight interviews, making it seem like the show will likely be a titanic encounter. And in recent years, gaming has gotten in on the act, through slick advertising campaigns, social media, and mainstream media coverage.
But it seems to me that for all the genuine hype amongst fans who clamour to experience the next great game, just as much of it comes from the games company themselves. Publishers kick the hype machine into action as much as possible, giving quotes that "this will change the face of gaming", and other such hyperbolic nonsense. And whilst this is a legitimate tactic to try and, y'know, make some money, the company runs the risk of a backlash if the game doesn't then live up to said hype.
And sadly, very few do. The word "revolutionary" is thrown around like snowballs in a playground, and yet it very rarely rings true when push comes to shove. Even games which create their own popular genre, like Guitar Hero, are more likely to spawn a short-lived fad than actually change the face of the industry.
So obviously when reviewing games, it's especially important to downplay any long-term effects on gaming culture as a whole, without the benefit of hindsight. However, even with that in mind, I can say without fear that without this game, the entire landscape of gaming would be massively different.
Prior to the release of the MegaDrive, Nintendo were the undisputed champions of gaming. After Atari nearly destroyed the entire industry (not exaggerating at all) in 1983, it took Nintendo's NES to rejuvinate the business again. By releasing an affordable home console with marquée brands such as Mario, Metroid and Zelda, Nintendo once again made gaming popular, and by doing so became the number one gaming company in history. Mario was the biggest star of all, and you could see his face on breakfast cereals, keyrings, action figures, pencil cases, every piece of merchandise imaginable. Heck, he even had his own cartoon show! It's not surprising, then, then other gaming companies wanted their own "Mario" mascot figure to try and boost their own fortunes.
Prior to Sonic, Sega's mascot was a character called Alex Kidd, but the company wanted a "cool" character to compete with Mario. Several designs were submitted, such as a Theodore Roosevelt look-alike (who ended up being Dr Robotnik), a rabbit who extended his ears to try and catch items (the basis of Ristar), and an armadillo (who became "Mighty" from Knuckles Chaotix). The armadillo was what they were going to go with, but the original idea of attacking by picking up and throwing items was too complex. So they made him a hedgehog so he could plow through enemies with spikes. They painted him cobalt blue to match Sega's logo, and nicknamed him "Mr Needlemouse" (Do you think gaming may have been different if '90s playgrounds had kids asking; "Who do you prefer, Mr Needlemouse of Jumpman?")
Sega of America knew that if they wanted to compete with Nintendo succesfully, they'd have to go for the jugular. Sega of Japan was leery of this, because traditionally over there companies conducted themselves with decorum and respect, but eventually SoA got the go-ahead to be more aggressive. As a result, they ran a marketing campaign which ran down Mario and Nintendo, with the tagline "Genesis/Sega does what Nintendon't". The message was simple: Mario is slow, boring and uncool, whereas Sonic is fast, fun and very, veeeeeery cool. It worked a treat - all of a sudden this was a console war, and the companies didn't need a hype machine to make this capture the imagination of gamers worldwide.
Gamers nowadays may think that there's a console war going on today too, but it really isn't the same. Take for example, PS3 and the X-Box 360. How much do they differ, exactly? Yes, there are various exclusives on each console, but both are multimedia machines which connect to the internet, play DVDs, have controllers with an 8 button/d-pad/2 stick interface, and who's gaming libraries share more similarities than differences. Now compare that to the SNES and MegaDrive. The controllers are hugely different, games libraries were almost unique (whilst there were the odd games which graced both systems, choosing a side often meant missing out on loads of games. Not just first-party either; Castlevania and Final Fantasy weren't on Sega, and Gunstar Heroes and Road Rash weren't on the SNES. Heck, even the same game liscence, such as Aladdin, were different games entirely depending on which console you played them on!). The main difference, however, is that games companies nowadays don't slag off their rivals in their own commercials!
Despite all the hype and advertising, Sonic would've never changed the gaming landscape if the game itself wasn't any good. As a game, it plays extremely well, for 2 main reasons: speed and simplicity. The game was marketed as being fast, and the speed in which Sonic could move was breathtaking at the time. And with good reason - MegaDrive processing allowed for images to be shifted onto the screen faster than other computers had before, meaning Sonic simply couldn't have been made on the SNES. Sega invented the concept of "Blast Processing" to explain it, but it was purely a marketing gimmick... that said, Sonic's speed and the core gameplay were real enough.
The simplicity of the game is part of the enduring appeal of it I think. Sonic is controlled by a d-pad and one button, which makes him jump. The controls are sharp and responsive, and the level design is done in a way to both pander to the speed element, and pure platforming. Anyone who claims Sonic is a pure speed merchant hasn't attempted the latter levels of this game (Starlight Zone especially!)
Gamers nowadays are used to the sight of Sonic and Mario sharing the same console, and even the same game, but in the early '90s the very idea seemed inconceivable. But forget the rose-tinted specs, the nostalgia, and being taken back to a time when Sega did what Nintendon't. In the end, Sonic deserves to succeed because the games are just so damn playable, even today. If you like it then you should put a ring on it!
Re: Today I'm Playing (Archive)
Posted: Thu Dec 11, 2014 1:21 am
Super Mario World (SNES, 1992)
I know this is a strange way to kick off a review, but remember when Margaret Thatcher died?
Now before you all think you've clicked on The Independent guest columnists page by mistake, let me explain. When she was alive, Thatcher was a hugely divisive figure. Everyone was on one side of the fence or the other - there was very little room for middle ground at all, with passions running so high. Then, when she left office, everyone kind of calmed down a bit, and settled more into a moderate middle. People still had opinions, but they weren't skewered with the rawness of emotion. Then she died, and all of a sudden people leapt back to the barricades like it was 1986 again. Old wounds don't heal... they just scab over, ready to be reopened again.
The reason I make mention of this is because in the last installment, I mentioned the heated rivalry between Sega and Nintendo in the 1990s, and the competition between their 2 mascots, Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog. Now I've not heard an anti-Sonic argument in years, yet writing about it seemed to trigger off some sort of dispute about it! So I thought I'd do my best to rekindle the old fire and play the game released against Sonic the Hedgehog: Super Mario World on the SNES.
There's very little to mention about Super Mario World if you've played a 2D Mario game before, except that it's simply much bigger and much better. The premise is the same as always (rescue Peach from Bowser), although the action takes place in Dinosaur Land rather than the usual setting of the Mushroom Kingdom. As per usual, Mario (and Luigi) has to head through each level by performing varying feats of platforming, which is as satisfying as it ever was. This is down to the beautifully tight controls, and the variety of the levels on offer, from moving screen dungeons to slippery ice levels.
The overworld idea from Super Mario Bros. 3 was reinstated here, although expanded upon hugely. Super Mario World has a total of 96 different exits to find, each leading to a different level or pathway. The scope for secrets is massive then, and players are encouraged to explore, experiment and generally muck about in the effort to try and uncover what the game is hiding. In this way, Super Mario World adds a level of replayability which had never been seen in a platformer before.
Super Mario World also introduced Yoshi, who has ingrained himself into gaming history ever since. Yoshi apparantly started out as an idea by Shiregu Miyamoto for Super Mario Bros. 3 which didn't come to pass. Miyamoto wanted some sort of centaur-type Mario, but the NES hardware wasn't up to it. When Nintendo jumped to 16-bit, the idea then evolved into Mario riding a dinosaur, and Yoshi was born. He was an instant hit, making cameos in several games (including Link's Awakening), and actually starring in the sequel to Mario World, the unbelievably good Yoshi's Island. Despite originally being a side-kick to Mario, Yoshi is now a fully-fledged star in his own right (the fact that he's one of the starters in Smash Bros. shows).
The game cuts down from the massive amount of power ups in Mario Bros. 3 and streamlines it to just 4 (Mushroom, Fire Flower, Feather Cape and Super Star). Instead, the game includes as many levels as it can cram in, and the results are just tremendous. The variation here is just outstanding, from the confusing mazes of the Ghost Houses, to the secluded Star World, Mario World really is one of those "just one more level" games.
Mario has been such an institution in not just gaming but popular culture in general, it's easy to become basé about why he became so popular in the first place. Despite Sonic having come along and told the world that Mario was slow and boring, fact is the gameplay is as pure and entertaining as any game you will ever play. I can't think about this game without getting a huge smile on my face; the music is catchy, the graphics are colourful, the levels are challenging, it introduces new characters and enemies that are still being used today... the list goes on and on. But honestly, this game is just FUN, and if you've never played it, you're missing out on gaming history. This is the best 2D Mario game ever, and was voted the 2nd greatest Nintendo game of all time by the readers of ONM... take that Sonic!
Re: Today I'm Playing (Archive)
Posted: Thu Dec 11, 2014 1:23 am
Manhunt (PS2, 2003)
A man called Eric Bischoff once said the immortal phrase "Controversy creates cash". The idea behind this is quite simple; advertisers around the world, from every medium from soft drinks to sports cars, spend millions upon millions in an attempt to get the name of their product on people's lips. For the most part, this is fruitless: as many as 85% of adverts can be considered failures, as they slide under the radar of viewer consciousness. Getting the formula right is a tricky one, but it's something that can spell megabucks if done correctly. After all, you can have the best product in the world, but no-one will buy it if they don't know it exists.
Controversy, therefore, does the hard work for you. Make something controversial and then the media reports how much of an outrage it is. Newspapers write column inches about it, television reports cover it. And because TV just loves to know what you think, they'll ask for you to write in, e-mail or have discussion groups about what a scandal this is. And so the word on people's lips will be "did you see the news?", and your product will be discussed everywhere from BBC News to the local fish and chip shop. Genius!
But the plan isn't foolproof. Because if your product actually isn't any good in the first place, then all you're doing is alerting the public about something which has no quality. Eric Bischoff, the man who made the quote in the first place, was the man in charge of World Championship Wrestling during the mid-to-late 1990s, and made the company a huge success. But whilst people tuned in or bought tickets to see Hulk Hogan as a bad guy, or see the New World Order breaking rules and conventions, they stayed because of the superb wrestling matches which the company put on for it's fans. To reiterate this point, when Bischoff tried to create even more controversy in 1999/2000, but the product as a whole was weak, it made no difference and it went out of business in early 2001.
Manhunt has generated not just controversy, but also many headlines across the UK in 2003 and 2004. But at the crux of it all I guess, for gamers anyway, is the question "is it any good?"
It's hard to describe Manhunt in conventional terms, but a stealth-based third person action game probably covers it best. The game is split into 20 levels (called "scenes") plus a few bonus ones thrown in to unlock, and the player is graded at the end of each scene as to how well they did. The time it took to complete the scene is taken into account, as well as how powerful the executions the player performs are. To execute an opponent, the player must stealthily sneak up behind an opponent and hold down the attack button for a length of time... the longer the button press, the more powerful the execution (with a possible 3 levels).
In terms of plot, the game feels like a cross between "Saw" and "Big Brother". You play as James Earl Cash, an inmate on death row, who goes to have his lethal injection. Unbeknownst to people, Cash is instead injected with a sedative, and wakes up hearing a voice of a mysterious "Director", viewing him through CCTV. The Director promises Cash his freedom if he can perform various tasks that he is set, all the while avoiding/killing gang members who are our for his blood (the idea being he can tape it all and make a great snuff film). The whole thing is very gritty and gruesome, every surface seemingly covered with grime or oil or some other viscous and unpleasant liquid. Manhunt's world seems to be the polar opposite of Mario's, where sunshine and colour radiate out of every surface.
Rockstar made a big deal about the "psychological" aspect of the game (a word which would come back to haunt them later), and they're not wrong. In most games, you are well equipped to take on multiple enemies at a time, by being physically stronger, faster,, have more health, or being given weapons/power-ups to do so. Manhunt is different - you may, if you're lucky, be able to take on one enemy in a single situation and win. Once. More than one opponent and you're practically guaranteed death. Victory, therefore, lies in strategy and stealth; the character model on the right of the screen shows how much in shadow you are, and therefore whether your enemy can see you or not. Sneaking up behind your opponent and executing them is the only real way to get through the game, and doing so is incredibly tense.
For you see, unlike a lot of stealth games (even the much-vaunted Metal Gear) discovery in Manhunt basically equals annihilation. In Metal Gear Solid, you sneak around, but you know that you're also armed to the teeth if you're discovered, and you have a radar to show where your enemies lie. Not so in Manhunt... enemies only show up on your radar if they make a noise or move, likewise your loud actions will resonate like sonar to them. And when they investigate, they will investigate thoroughly... no "quick check and back to my patrol" stuff here, but rather a complete reconnaissance of the area, lasting minutes at a time. There have been times where my heart has nearly leaped out of my chest whilst an enemy hunter stands feet from my position, only having to walk a few steps to be on top of me. There's also an option to include the PS2/X-Box microphone so you can make sounds to distract enemies, but also have to avoid things like coughing to attract them. Imagine trying to hold back a sneeze because if you do, the bad guy standing right in front of you will kill you stone dead. Tense or what!?!
Manhunt very much reminds me of a film called "A Clockwork Orange" by Stanley Kubrick, although not in terms of plot or setting. Rather, both of them hold a mirror up to the viewer/player and challenge them about what they feel is happening. In films, the main protagonist and narrator is the person the audience is supposed to connect to and root for, but in "A Clockwork Orange" the main character is a delusional, egotistical, violent rapist and bully. You follow him committing all these acts, all the time being silently and subconsciously asked about whether you should care about him or not. Then, halfway through the film, the question changes... our "hero" is brainwashed so that any potential harmful act to another causes him to fall ill. Now helpless, he runs into all his previous victims who now seek their revenge upon him. Now the audience is challenged to feel sympathy for a positively evil man, now that he's a helpless victim. It also makes you question whether vengeance is justice, and if it is, then why do you feel so bad watching it?
Manhunt similarly asks difficult questions of the player. The character you play as is too an altogether unsavoury fellow, a man sentenced to death for his crimes. Like Kubrick's creation, this man is robbed of his freedom and has bad acts committed against him, and you are put in an uncomfortable position of murdering others or else face the same fate yourself. Not only that, but the hyper-violent nature of the game also adds to this moral dilemma. "Do you really enjoy this?" the game seemingly asks, as you bludgeon someone to death with a crowbar, the sickening clang of the metal ricocheting off the skull. Many will (and have) simply write off the execution angle as a gimmick to cause controversy, as a murder simulator with no reason to exist. But by making it part of the core gameplay mechanic, Rockstar essentially hold the players eyes open to the crimes they are being forced to commit, and the graphic nature of them will make the player apprehensive about witnessing them... even myself, at 26 and having seen many examples of violence in gaming, winced and gasped at the depiction here.
Sadly in 2004, a 14 year old boy was murdered by his 17 year old friend in Leicestershire. There was a report that the perpetrator was a fan of the game Manhunt, and was (according to the victim's mother) "obsessed" with it. This was parlayed into the idea that Manhunt was responsible for this crime, a "fact" which was printed on the front pages of newspapers, reported on news programmes such as "Tonight with Trevor McDonald", and leaped upon by professional opportunist and legal embarrassment, Jack Thompson. Never mind that ELSPA said that "simply being in someone's possession does not and should not lead to the conclusion that a game is responsible for these tragic events". Never mind the judge who presided over the case placed all responsibility on the perpetrator, and sentenced him to life. And never mind that Leicestershire Police maintain that "the video game was not found in [the perpetrator's] room, it was found in [the victim's] room. Leicestershire Constabulary stands by its response that police investigations did not uncover any connections to the video game, the motive for the incident was robbery". But facts didn't get in the way of the media story, which blamed Manhunt for this appalling crime, and the old cry which began in 1993 with Mortal Kombat of "ban these evil games!" rang round Fleet Street and the news once again.
Despite the truth, Dixons and GAME pulled Manhunt from their shelves in the UK, which led to a clamour to get hold of the game. After all, this was a "banned" game (which it wasn't....the truth's taking a bit of a hit here, isn't it?) which obviously created a buzz around it by the general gaming public. The demand for Manhunt was much higher after it's so-called "ban" than at any point before - after all, controversy creates cash. But if you pulled all this back for a second, there didn't need to be a furore at all... Manhunt wasn't owned by the killer, it wasn't banned, and therefore there wasn't a story. But by feeding the hype, the media played right into Rockstar's hands. It created a legend, and rather ironically made a game which wasn't all that well known far more popular and played than it would otherwise be. By asking for it's ban, the Daily Mail ran a better advert than Rockstar ever could.
At the end of it all, past all the hype and ballyhoo, Manhunt is an exceptionally well-executed game for what it aims to achieve. It's tense beyond measure, quite possibly the most nerve-wracking game I've ever played, mixing elements of Metal Gear, Grand Theft Auto and Shadowman to create a gritty, psychologically haunting experience. There are parts of the game which don't always work well; the game can be slow, being unable to run without alerting nearby hunters crawls the pace, and not being able to control the camera is also frustrating. The aiming can also be a little off, and sometimes the execution command doesn't pop up until you're right on top of the opponent.
That said, Manhunt is a gripping game which had me hooked all the way through. It's certainly not for everyone, and the level of violence and nastiness should never be underestimated, but that shouldn't diminish the importance of what it is or what it means. Because ultimately, the fact such a game became such a good seller, and also the manner in which it did so, says far more about our society than it does about the video game industry as a whole.
Re: Today I'm Playing (Archive)
Posted: Thu Dec 11, 2014 1:25 am
Goldeneye 007 (N64, 1997)
There’s an old saying in Hollywood; “nobody knows anything”, and judging on the offerings which grace our cinema screens year after year, it’s hard to disagree with. Basically what this means is that executives in charge of studios aren’t willing to plough millions of dollars into things which they consider to be “a risk”. They want certain success, a definite profit. To take a punt on an unknown director/actor/genre is, in their mind, paramount to business suicide, even if the studio has the coffers to bankroll it.
So instead what you get is studios sticking to what they perceive to be the “formula for success”. Actors and actresses who have made money in the past, regardless of if they’re suitable for the role - there was an instance of an executive asking if Hugh Grant could replace Craig Charles as Lister in a proposed Red Dwarf film. Directors who are themselves well-known names in the industry, even if they’re proven failures, get chance after chance whilst other, more talented unknowns never get a look in (Michael Bay/M. Night Shyamalan, I’m looking at you!). But the thing which gets beaten to death is the genre. At the beginning of the decade, Spiderman and X-Men both had hugely successful cinema outings, and as a result, every mutant and spandex-clad vigilante who’d ever been drawn suddenly was being picked up and made into a film. Some, like Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy, were superb and did gangbuster numbers, which no doubt convinced all those producers they were on the right track. Others, such as Daredevil and The Green Lantern, were horrible films, showing that simply putting the supposedly right ingredients into the “winning formula” does not automatically make a good film.
The gaming industry has become even more profitable than Hollywood, growing in leaps and bounds faster than almost any other entertainment medium. But with this success comes a price – and not just a hypothetical price, either, but a real one measured in currency. Gaming studios are finding that producing Triple-A titles is a hugely expensive ordeal, and as a result, they are suffering from the same mantra which plagues Hollywood – that being, they want a formula for guaranteed success. So they look for what seems to be the “big thing” at the moment and copy it. This is nothing new, of course; 20 years ago, every other game was a platformer (usually with a cutesy mascot creature as its star) to try and capitalise on the popularity of Mario and Sonic. After Call of Duty 4 did roaring business, a glut of FPS games hit the shelves, to the point where it may even be the most numerous gaming genre at this point.
But “reboot” appears to be the word of the moment (and not the ‘90s TV show, either). Companies who have ruined franchises with endless shoddy sequels have now decided to try and revive their flagging cash-cows by wiping the slate clean and starting from scratch. Games called “Sonic the Hedgehog”, “Tomb Raider” and “SimCity” have all hit the shelves this gen, which isn’t really an issue for the consumer (you’re unlikely to get a 20 year-old MegaDrive game if you go into your local HMV and ask for “Mortal Kombat), but for reviewers you have to kind of alter the name a little so people know what you’re talking about; “Sonic 06” for example. However, no name has ever been banded around more than “Goldeneye”. No less than 3 different games have been given this title, with several others being marketed as the “spiritual successor”. So I guess the question is, why is this title held in such reverence? What was it about the original Goldeneye that meant the companies wanted to try and latch onto its popularity ever since?
To find out, we need to go back to the beginning. In 1996, James Bond had been in the wilderness for 6 years; he was a relic of cinema, consigned to history. MGM thought there was still mileage in the licence, and decided to resurrect Bond with (it’s that word of the day!) a reboot. Pierce Brosnan was in the title role, and the film went back to the old-style ‘Russians as bad guys’ premise which the early films were built upon, set as they were in the Cold War ‘60s. The usual mix of memorable bad guys (played here by Sean Bean… spoiler: he dies), girls, guns and gadgets make Goldeneye a fresh and exciting outing for our favourite secret agent, and it rejuvenated Bond as a marketable franchise.
It was no surprise, then, that the film licence was sought after from gaming companies, and it was a huge coup when Nintendo managed to land it. However, film adaptations have infamously sucked, with very few exceptions to the rule. It doesn’t matter how well-known or popular the film, if the game is poor at its heart, then gamers won’t want to play it. So it helped that Nintendo passed on the production of Goldeneye to its golden-haired child, Rareware. Despite having tragically destroyed their legacy in the past 10 years, in the mid-‘90s Rare was, in my eyes, the greatest games company in the world. Churning out phenomenal titles such as Donkey Kong Country, Killer Instinct and Diddy Kong Racing, Rare had managed to surpass its industry peers such as Sega, Capcom and Codemasters… no small feat, with such giants of the business. Having firmly established its place as a safe pair of hands, Rare set about creating the most famous game it would ever make.
It’s quite difficult to explain what makes Goldeneye so great, especially as FPS on consoles as a concept was pretty much a non-starter prior to this. Rare even stated that they originally designed the game as a platformer and then an on-rails light gun game like Virtua Cop. However, the end result was so spectacular, it set the standard for everything that followed. The level design is some of the best you will find on any console, with huge variety between expansive environments and linear firefights helping to keep the experience fresh. Entire levels have been created from just a few seconds of film; the total time between James Bond starting on The Dam and flying away to safety from The Runway pre-credits in the film is a paltry, and yet Rare have managed to make 3 stages, with objectives and challenges and depth, out of just this! Goldeneye was also the first FPS to encourage the idea of stealth rather than all-out action. ”Doom” had popularised the genre, and so most FPSs which followed seemed to follow the “gun and run” formula. This works well as the idea of a space marine fighting demons, but not so much for a secret agent. Therefore players are rewarded for avoiding CCTV cameras, using silencers to take out enemies, and generally act like a spy rather than a bloodthirsty psychopath. It gives you the feeling that you are James Bond, which helps the game enormously.
The musical score is utterly fantastic, with Rare performing sterling work. Most levels have a subtle reworking of the famous James Bond theme, with tinkling pianos and haunting cellos creating a tense and powerful atmosphere where needed. On more fast-paced levels, where the action is more linear and trigger-happy (such as The Train or The Cradle), the soundtrack positively pounds, matching your heart-rate as you battle another wave of foes. This audial excellence isn’t just limited to the levels either, as a soothing melody is played over the file select menu as you read mission briefings, completely immersing yourself into the world of Bond. Despite not being famous for it, the ambience is one of the first things which comes to mind when I think of Goldeneye.
But what most people think of Goldeneye is the multiplayer, and this is where the game is truly ground-breaking. Astonishingly the multiplayer aspect of the game was added on as an afterthought... Steve Ellis, late in the games development, basically sat in a room with all the code for the single player game and single-handedly turned Goldeneye into a multiplayer game. Yet despite this last-minute rush job, Goldeneye takes it's place amongst the all-time multiplayer greats, quite possibly the best in the world at the time. The N64s 4 controller ports made a huge amount of sense, as TVs up and down the land were commandeered for sessions of gaming magic. Despite the fact it was later bettered by Perfect Dark, it set the groundwork for all console FPS multiplayer modes ever since.
It's far too easy to look back at Goldeneye with rose-tinted specs, and the game does has it flaws, albeit mostly retrospectively. We're far too used to having 2 control sticks to dictate movement and aiming, and so having to aim with the c-buttons is a bit clunky. I'd also complain with the lack of bots, but as more modern shooters also did away with them, it seems unfair. Yet despite it's age, Goldeneye is still a real joy to experience, it's single-player mode still offering real challenge and depth. That's the reason why developers want to use it's name to flog new software, because those who experienced it get a warm tingly feeling whenever they reminisce. And surely it's a testament to how superb this game is that despite all the advancements that have been made in the 16 years since it was released, none of it's successors (either spiritual or in name) have managed to surpass it.
Re: Today I'm Playing (Archive)
Posted: Thu Dec 11, 2014 1:32 am
WCW/nWo Revenge (N64, 1998)
Professional wrestling is an odd thing. Dearly beloved by millions worldwide, it's derided by its detractors as being low brow and low rent. Yet anyone who's bothered to tune in at any point during the last 16 years will tell you that's rubbish... well, mostly. For years wrestling has been a major attraction on TV, even helping media mogul Ted Turned build his very first television station (TBS) by drawing good ratings, and being the bedrock of his entire empire. As a result, hotbeds of wrestling sprang up all over the United States, with Verne Gagne in Minnesota, Fritz Von Erich in Texas, and Stu Hart in Calgary amongst others, putting on great matches which brought fans to the arenas, and which local TV stations drew great ratings with.
But in the mid 1980s, a chap called Vince McMahon spent megabucks buying all the top talent from each of these promotions in an attempt to "go national" (prior to this, wrestling promoters had a territory they had to stick to) and running a huge event called "Wrestlemania" to gain national exposure. It worked a treat, and with his new array of stars, such as Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage and Bret Hart, McMahon's World Wrestling Federation had pretty much ran all his competitors into the dust by the early 1990s. World Championship Wrestling (WCW) could've, and arguably should've, gone out of business too, but Ted Turner had a soft spot for the company which helped him on his road to success and so bought it outright. Over the next decade, WCW would give McMahon and the WWF a real run for their money in one of the most brutal televised ratings wars ever seen. This game was released at the pinnacle of those "Monday Night Wars", and those who wish to dismiss this game as a footnote of history are very much in the wrong.
WCW/nWo Revenge is a follow up to the previous years N64 exclusive WCW vs nWo World Tour. It uses the same game engine, applying a unique 'grapple' system which makes it extremely accessible for new players. Basically you press the B button to strike (hold for a stronger hit), and press A to grapple. In the grapple you press either B or A with a direction to perform a different move. The C-buttons allow you to perform different actions such as run, climb the top rope, exit the ring, tag in a partner, etc. It's rival, WWF Warzone by Acclaim (also a great wrestling game on the N64) played more like a traditional fighting game, with combos and button-presses to perform each move.
WCW/nWo Revenge may be a more methodical pace, but it allows much more freedom and the player to immerse themselves easier.
The graphics are a bit sharper than World Tour, although not quite at the level of it's WWF successors, Wrestlemania 2000 or No Mercy. The arenas are also far more colourful and lively, with a choice of various PPVs to do battle in as well as WCW's flagship show, Monday Nitro. You can either do battle in an Exhibition bout (either 1-on-1, tag team, or handicap match), have a battle royale, or attempt to win one of the company's major championship titles. You can do this by selecting which belt you want to try and win (you have United States, TV Title, Cruiserweight, Tag Team or World Heavyweight Championship) and then battling and defeating 9 opponents in a row. The silhouetted mystery champion will then face you, and if you beat them you get the championship and unlock them for your roster. The game also allows you to alter each of the wrestlers names and costumes, and although this is nowhere near the level of WWF Warzone's 'Create a Wrestler' option, it does at least allow you customise things to your liking to some extent.
For any wrestling fan, the roster here is unbelievable. At the time, World Championship Wrestling had amassed the greatest roster of talent ever seen in a single promotion - if you wanted to see the world known stars from the '80s, such as Hulk Hogan or Roddy Piper, you could watch WCW. If you wanted to see the greatest wrestlers of the '90s, such as Sting and Bret Hart, you could watch WCW. If you wanted to see the finest cruiserweights from around the world, such as Chris Jericho and Juventud Guerrera, you could watch WCW. If you wanted to see the best Japanese wrestlers amaze you with technical brilliance, such as Ultimo Dragon and Yugi Nagata, you watch WCW. And if you wanted to see the hottest stars of the future, such as Goldberg, you could watch WCW. Literally every single possible niche is catered for, from Japanese strong style to Mexican lucha libré to Canadian technical wrestling to US muscleheads. Whatever your fancy, whoever your favourite, they're bound to be here.
Despite THQ's WWF games also having a huge array of stars, I feel this game may have the greatest roster in any wrestling game ever. I was playing through the tag team championship mode today, and the sheer number of great tag teams alone is simply phenomenal. Even if you ignore also-rans like Lenny & Lodi and Scott Hall & Buff Bagwell, you've still got The Hart Foundation, The Mega Powers (Hogan & Savage), The Outsiders, Harlem Heat, The Steiner Brothers, Lex Luger & Sting, Meng & Barbarian, Rey Mysterio Jnr. & Billy Kidman... it just goes on and on. Going through the character select screen here is just jaw-dropping - there'll be no arguing over who gets the best character here, as there's simply so many on offer. You'll wonder how WCW ever went out of business with so many great wrestlers in it's ranks here.
But out of business they went, and for a reason. WCW never allowed anyone but the very top stars to shine, and so those great guys on the undercard (who would go on to be world champions, but for WCW's competition) never got a look-in. The reason being is that wrestling promoters are notoriously short-sighted, and they can't fathom to tinker with the winning formula they have - they hear the roar of the crowd, see the dollars roll in, and daren't dream of altering anything at all. Problem is of course, nothing lasts forever, and so when the fans got sick of seeing the guys on top all the time, and their stars began to wane, no-one was there to replace them. The wrestlers on the undercard got sick of the lack of upward mobility and so left for greener pastures, robbing WCW of their bright future. And if you think I'm exaggerating, consider that no less than eight of the wrestlers on the roster in this game would go on to be WWF/WWF Champion after leaving WCW.
Released at the height of the Monday Night Wars, there was no doubt that this game would be a success, but just how much a success is still quite hard to take in. When it was released in August 1998, WCW/nWo Revenge was the best selling third-party game on any Nintendo system ever. Just take that in for a second... this game sold more than all the Final Fantasy's between 1-6, all the Castlevania games, it outsold every FIFA, it outsold Sim City, Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, everything. You'd have thought that THQ would've seen these sales figures and mortgages their future at the feet of more WCW games. But they didn't... instead, they sold the WCW licence to Acclaim, and bought the licence for the World Wrestling Federation instead. For you see, THQ had the foresight to see that Vince McMahon's product would eventually win out (despite it being nowhere near a foregone conclusion at the time) and so decided to make their business model act for tomorrow, rather than today.
Ironically, then, THQ showed more business foresight and intelligence than the wrestling company which had made them so much money here.
Re: Today I'm Playing (Archive)
Posted: Thu Dec 11, 2014 1:34 am
GUN (PS2/Gamecube/X-Box, 2005)
For the first time in many, many years, I've found myself unable to afford games. When I say this, I don't just mean "the latest release", as I reckon many people will balk at having to fork out £40-£60 for the newest console experience, and will wait until it goes down in price, or get it second hand. Even if I could afford the new releases, chances are I'll wait until a time where it was better value for money. But now, with a home to run, wedding to save for, and very little work opportunities around, the idea of spending stirling on games at all is a no-no. Normally I'd snap up a bargain, but I have to hold myself back - I saw God of War: Ascension for £15 yesterday, and had to tell myself no
So instead, what I've been doing it going back and playing games that I've not turned on in literally years. This has become more than simply nostalgia, or for the sake of this topic... rather it's become a way to keep myself amused whilst saving cash. One of these games is Red Dead Redemption, the 24th best game ever, and one I last played literally 3 years ago to the day. So I started from scratch, and lo and behold, I absolutely love it! Played all the way through to the crossing into Mexico with Irish in one sitting, which is some pretty good going I reckon.
This sated my appertite for Western games, specifically those which are similar to RDR. This led me to a field of 2 - the spiritual predecessor also made by Rockstar, Red Dead Revolver, or the sandbox game GUN. I chose the latter, mainly because I wanted to see what parts of it Rockstar had incorporated into RDR, what they'd cut out, and whether this was a good thing or not.
GUN is a game made by Tony Hawk's developers Neversoft. Previously, Wild-West style games had generally been side scrolling shoot-'em-ups in the arcades, as the thing most associated with that era is gunfights. However, after the 16-bit era the genre kind of fell out of favour, in a similar fashion as to how they did in Hollywood. Capcom started work on a game called "Red Dead Revolver" in the early part of the 21st century, borrowing elements from their 1985 classic "Gun Smoke". However, Capcom's biggest seller at that time was the Resident Evil series, and so instead of a straight-up Western, they instead had their cowboy hero fighting zombies and vampires amidst the tumbleweed. Whilst this sounds like a somewhat interesting concept, Capcom dropped development in 2002 for unknown reasons. Rockstar picked up the mantle and recreated it as a Spaghetti Western-style third-person shooter, removing the undead element but keeping the name. It was a decent hit, generating commercial success and good critical response.
All of a sudden the idea of doing a Western game wasn't something which was consigned to the history books, and so Neversoft, seeing what Rockstar had done, decided to make their own. But instead of copying the gameplay as well as the setting, Neversoft looked at another of Rockstar's great success stories, Grand Theft Auto, and felt sandbox was the way to go. After all, the history of the cowboy is an exploration story, isn't it? Driving cattle into the setting sun, exploring the unknown wildnerness, fighting Indians and bandits... surely if anything lends itself to the sandbox genre, it's this?
You play as Colton White, an apache cowboy who learns the skills of the outdoors from his father, Ned White. He's a solid protagonist, who like in most open-world games is decent and moralistic enough to be the hero as far as the story is concerned, but also is tough and gritty enough to perform any "bad" actions that the players wishes to perform without it being too out of character. In all fairness, the setting helps here - the West was a "kill or be killed" environment, and you can justify the idea of bloody shootouts and robbing civilians far more here than you could in, say, modern day Liberty City.
The game starts in tremendous fashion. You and your father are on a paddle-steamer which comes under attack by bandits. In the midst of the shootout, Ned tells Colton that he's not really his father, before Colton goes overboard and leaves Ned to meet a grizzly end. You then swim to shore, and immediately get set upon by a heee-yoooge bear, which you have to overcome. Cole (Colton) then has to find his way through the wilderness and find his place in the world, getting mixed up in everything from gang disputes to indian-led assaults on the local fort. I won't spoil any of the story for you, because honestly it's utterly fantastic. Redemption and Revolver both had good stories filled with the usual Western scenarios, but GUN stands above them all for me. Along with Second Sight, this had the best story from any game on the PS2, X-Box or Gamecube.
If anyone has played GTA before (or RDR, but that wouldn't be for another 5 years at this point) then you'll instantly be at home in this game. You primarily walk around and shoot in third person, and your mini-map in the corner shows where you ought to be heading and any other places or people of interest. You also get a health bar (holy hell, remember them?) and a "Quickdraw Gauge" which works similar to the Deadeye meter in RDR. By using it, you go into first person and the world slows down to bullet time, giving you opportunity to dispatch many enemies with unlimited ammo whilst as long as the gauge lasts. Although not significantly different from RDR, I do prefer this mode, if only because the first-person POV does give you a great view of the guns you are firing, and the whirl of the chamber, the click of the hammer and the explosion as the bullet fires all look great up close.
Speaking of the weapons, GUN puts great effort into what Cole can arm himself with over the course of his adventure, and actually ends up way ahead of Rockstar's next-gen masterpiece. Whilst your usual fare of revolvers, shotguns and rifles are here, you also get some very cool unique weapons. Sure, Molotov cocktails are commonplace in sandbox shooters nowadays, but what about Loco Arrows (that's arrows with DYNAMITE attached?!?), or an armoured horse which is virtually indestructible? There's also a great focus on melee combat, and you can use people as human shields, even executing them when you're done. GUN is also an 18 rated game, and it is for a reason - it is exceptionally bloody. You can blow off limbs and heads with a good shot, and during the slowdown of the quickdraw meter, blood and brain matter flies everywhere. There's also racial and sexual slurs which fly around, although because of the setting, it does feel like it's done to be true to the time and situation rather than for shock value.
GUN's overworld isn't massively huge, but honestly, this is a good thing. Part of this is because your only transport is a horse (as opposed to San Andreas, where you can have helicopters), but also because the game is very streamlined. Often you find in sandbox games that you spend literally minutes travelling between each location, in an attempt to make the game "feel epic". With GUN, everything is within easy reach, and so you're never bored travelling between point A and B. The game also makes it incredibly clear where you're going and where to head next. A great example of this is during a specific mission where you have to capture one brother and kill another. Most games would expect you to remember which one is which, but GUN very clearly puts "Kill" and "Capture" above their heads. It's clear that this game was very well playtested, to the point where any little niggle is ironed out and you're just left with a fun experience from beginning to end.
There are plenty of parts of GUN which were carried over into Redemption. White's outfit changes throughout the story, the landscape is full of varied environments from harsh desert to buffalo-infested plains to pine forests, you collect bounties, you play Texas Hold 'em, you hunt animals... it goes on and on. Like RDR, when you commit crimes in a town the locals take exception, and retribution will be dished out. The problem with Redemption, though, is that although it markets itself as having a "good or bad" system where you can choose to be a heroic saviour or treacherous villain, it's almost impossible to be the latter. When you complete missions, you automatically get points added to your hero status, and if you're too bad, then trying to do simple things like buy weapons in a town that has a sheriff becomes a real ordeal. In GUN, every time you commit a crime, the town patience meter goes down. When it hits zero, they send a posse to come and get you... defeat said posse, and things go back to normal. Whilst some may argue that this is unrealistic, as a game it affords you much more freedom to act in whatever manner you so wish, which is surely what sandbox games are all about?
GUN may not be as polished or complete as Red Dead Redemption, but that is surely to be expected as an older game on the previous generation console. Having said that, you will be very impressed with just how much is in this game, and it's clear that RDR stood on the shoulders of giants... in particular, this giant. With great gameplay, an expansive world, and an utterly fantastic story, GUN is, in every sense of the word, bloody brilliant.
Re: Today I'm Playing (Archive)
Posted: Thu Dec 11, 2014 1:34 am
Summer has finally arrived, along with the tiresome complaints about how hot it now is (it's summer, it happens every year). Summer, of course, is also the time where the cricket takes pole position in the sporting world, especially as we have a rather important test match between England and Australia going on (which is named after a David Bowie song, I think). As there is no Olympics or international football tournament this year, the only time you'll experience the familiar sight of grown men chasing a football round on a lawn is if you go down the park for a kickabout. Or so you'd think! Because as we know, there are a myriad of football video games out there for you to sate your appetite for the beautiful game. So if you want to have fun with football this summer, you have 3 options:
1) Risk sunburn and losing your ball over a fence as your dodge dog-turds in the park
2) Wind up Sky Sports News by texting them saying you've just seen Wayne Rooney boarding a flight to Madrid wearing a sombrero and reading a pamphlet entitled "You're new life in Spain", or
3) Plug in your console, grab a controller, and fall in love with the beautiful game.
Sensible Soccer (Amiga, 1992)
A well loved classic, and rightly so, "Sensi" still has a cult following to this day. As British as a League 2 game on a cold November night, Sensible Soccer was developed by Sensible Software (hence the title) in Chelmsford, Essex. The company had previously Micropose Soccer for the Commodore 64, which exhibited many of the same features as Sensi... the ball "sticks" to the player, the only way to tackle is with a slide tackle, the long ball animations are similar, and the ball can be curled with aftertouch (which creates unrealistic but very entertaining scoring opportunities).
The game was imported to every system known to man, from the Atari ST to the Game Gear to the MegaDrive. It was on the Amiga where I first experienced Sensi, and it was clearly miles better than any previous football games that had been released before (go and play "Pelé Soccer" on the Atari 2600 if you don't believe me). Fact is, the game was based on a solid gameplay foundation, and in an era where uber-realistic graphics and franchise licensing didn't really exist, gameplay was the be-all and end-all. Not that not having licenses makes a different here, as Sensi allows you to edit the teams and players in the game, meaning it'll always be up to date. Playing against the computer is fun, but multiplayer is where this really kicks into gear, as all good sports games ought to. Sensible Soccer is a blast to play, even over 20 years later, and deserves it's place in gaming history.
World Cup Italia '90 (MegaDrive, 1990)
The first officially licensed World Cup game, Italia '90 was originally released for the Master System but then was later ported to the MegaDrive, most famously coupled with Columns and Super Hang-On as part of "Mega Games 1". The first thing to say about this game is that the title music is as catchy as hell. Seriously, just try and listen to that and get the tune out of your head. It's so memorable, in fact, that Mega Games continued to use it as their game select screen theme, even when Italia '90 wasn't on the cartridge!
In terms of gameplay, Italia '90 is a top-down view similar to Sensible Soccer, but the controls are nowhere near as tight or fluid. Fouls do not exist, which you would think makes the game much easier to play (just foul away, who cares!) but you'd be wrong. The game does boast either real names or "real enough" names with the license, and you also get a decent selection of teams to choose from. Interestingly, you don't get a list of teams or flags to pick your team from, but rather get a world map drawn by a 10 year old which you hover your cursor over. At the very least then, World Cup Italia '90 can increase your geography, although I would advise not to take the map too literally (Britain doesn't look like an old sock in real life). The game doesn't boast many options either, you can either have an exhibition match (single or two player), or attempt to win the World Cup in the tournament itself. Due to a rather peculiar glitch or programming decision, Russia always make the final, despite not making it past the group stages in the actual tournament! In all fairness, the Soviet Union were a very good side, but perennial world champions they weren't.
To summarise, it's nowhere near as good as Sensible Soccer, despite what your nostalgia-glasses tell you. The music is though! Doo do doo do, doo do doo do doo...
FIFA International Soccer (SNES, 1994)
"E...A... Sports. It's in the game!"
The familiar tagline (well, familiar if you remember the 1990s) rings out when you turn on FIFA International Soccer, EA's first FIFA game which would spawn a yearly update until the skies burn and the rocks melt due to the second coming of Christ (and no doubt, they'd release an "end of the world" edition, just to squeeze some more sales out). The irony here is that the famous EA Sports catchphrase doesn't actually apply here... it'd be several years before Electronic Arts bought the rights to all of football and locked them in a vault, and so those mid-'90s names you know and love aren't here. Instead you get various made up players, as well as members of EA's staff (their chief creative officer, Bing Gordon, is the USA's number 9). But this is a minor quibble, as the game does give you a ton of play options, including exhibition, league, tournament, playoffs, etc, as well a healthy selection of teams to choose from (through the sensible medium of flags and names, unlike Italia '90).
The game is played from an isometric viewpoint, which for my money makes the game very hard to control. You can either choose to have the controls true to the viewpoint, which is hand-breaking, as you're constantly holding up-right or down-left to move, or you can press up to move up the pitch, which makes it difficult to aim passes and shots as your controls aren't matched with what you see on screen. It's also extremely hard to score goals, the goalkeepers are very good at leaping the entire length of the goalmouth, and even top-corner shots always seem to be tipped over. At least Russia doesn't always make the World Cup final, but a word of warning... because Germany were the current world champions upon this games release, EA apparently saw fit to make them virtually indestructible. They're more like an end-of-game boss than a football team.
International Superstar Soccer 64 (N64, 1997)
Now this is when football games started getting good. International Superstar Soccer 64 may be the biggest mouthful of a title since "Automobili Lamborghini 64", but if you risk the chance of the shop you're in closing by the time you've asked for it, you'll be rewarded with an ace game. ISS 64 doesn't have any official licenses, so the names are all daft, but like Sensible Soccer you can edit them to what you like, an even create your own players too. You get a bunch of gaming options such as the standard by now (exhibition, tournament, league), but also a chance to practice your penalty kicks, and the brand-new scenario mode. This puts your right into the middle of a game in progress, tasked with scoring a free kick or coming from behind with 10 men and winning. It adds a level of challenge to the game, and is so much fun I have no idea why other football games haven't carried it on (especially as EA's latest NFL Madden game has a similar feature).
The reason ISS 64 is so good is because it shuns realism in favour of pure fun. Konami laughs at the idea of having a "sports simulation" game, and instead packs ISS 64 to the brim with features which bring a smile to your face. You can sprint seemingly forever, and passes are easy to pull off and find their mark more often than not. The game makes it easy for you to find your danger men too, with names at the bottom of the screen not only large but also colour-coded in regards to position. You can put seemingly infinite curl not just on the ball, but on your slide tackles also, leaving your opponent dumbfounded as you swing round, take the ball, and then pass it all in one fluid movement. Goalmouth scrambles are commonplace and hilarious, and when scored the screen gets showered with confetti, big "GOAL" golden letters, and a Sky Sports style replay. The over-the-top nature of the game, coupled with the hysterically bad commentary, just adds to the charm. ISS 64 is actually a more fun football experience than playing the real thing.
World Cup '98 (Playstation/N64, 1998)
The third licensed World Cup game was released less than 12 months after the second. With the 1998 World Cup in France set to be the biggest and most hyped ever, EA decided to tie in it's annual FIFA series with the tournament, dubbing it "Road to the World Cup '98" and allowing players to go through the actual qualifying for the tournament. Come the eve of France '98, however, EA had released another World Cup game, this time with all the stadiums, layout and official insignia of the tournament. Electronic Arts, releasing a shameless cash-in? Well I never.
The game is definitely a cash in, but a very well presented one. Despite losing all the club teams from FIFA '98, World Cup '98 does give the player all the stadiums, players, kits and the proper tournament setup to the Coup de Monde. The presentation, from the menus to the commentary, is very slick indeed, although graphically each players face looks like a bowl of muesli, and not too different from Road to the World Cup. This is because EA prides itself on being "the most realistic simulation of football", and therefore strives to attain graphical levels the N64 and Playstation just cannot reach. It also doesn't play all that differently to other FIFA games, which in my mind is a bad thing, as I always felt the FIFA controls were slightly off for my tastes (it's easier to do a bicycle kick than it is to have the goalie throw the ball to your player). One nice feature is that if you actually win the World Cup, you have the option to replay previous World Cup finals as either side. This means you can recreate England's one moment of glory in 1966, or redress the injustice of Hungary being the best side to never win the tournament in 1954. If you are going to have a go at winning France '98 as anyone other than Brazil though, bear in mind that Ronaldo doesn't miss.... ever.
Pro Evolution Soccer 2010 (PS3/X-Box 360, 2009)
To be honest, I could've picked any of the first 9 Pro Evolution Soccer games, as they're all very similar in terms of quality. But if you're going to go for a football game on this generation of consoles, then 2010 is the one to go for. In an era where having the official licence and being up to date in terms of teams and players seems to be of the upmost importance, this may seem like strange advice. But you can't replace core gameplay, and in that, Pro Evolution Soccer has always been way ahead of FIFA. Also, if it means that much to you that Torres is wearing a Chelsea shirt, or that Aston Villa have the correct badge, PES 2010 has an absolutely comprehensive edit system, where you can change every team and player to your liking, transfer who you want, and even create up to 18 of your own teams and hundreds of your own players. You can tinker to everything is to your liking, or get stuck in... the choice is yours.
Speaking of choices, the game is bristling with things to try. Despite not having all the official licences, PES 2010 does boast a fully licenced Champion's League mode, allowing you to create your own tournament for Europe's most prestigious club trophy. You can create your own tournaments and leagues, as well as compete in real ones, or throw yourself into the life-consuming 'Master League'. This is basically a career mode where you take control of your club (real or made from scratch), and compete to take them from the doldrums of obscurity to Champion's League winners. You control each game, but are also tasked with signing players, dealing with sponserships, and training youth players. It's easily the most comprehensive season mode I've ever played on a football game, and your rise to the top is both challenging and immensely satisfying.
And make no mistake, the whole game is tough. Unlike ISS 64 which is a more arcade experience, Konami have made PES 2010 a real solid simulation. You can't run through teams at all, you have to properly work to create gaps, exploit the opponents weakness, and execute the finish. They make it hard, but it's definitely worth it... the feeling you get when you score a last-minute winner is probably better than watching your team do it for real, as you damn well earned that victory. The only complaint I have is that they've included a penalty system which sucks ass, and is virtually impenetrable. But as a whole, this is probably the best football game money can buy.
If you're into your football, PES 2010 is definitely the way to go. World class gameplay and unparalleled depth really makes for a great gaming experience. The problem with the PES games after 2010 is that they altered the entire gameplay system, which changes the whole feel of the game and undermines the core of what makes the series so fun. If you are bothered about having the up to date teams and players, there are loads and loads of option files floating road the internet to download which can fix that for you. And you can pick it up for less than a fiver nowadays! Bargain!
Although, truth be told, if you want the best fun, grab an N64, 4 controllers, and play some ISS 64 (or ISS '98, which is even better!). You'll be smiling from ear to ear. GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAL!!!!!
Re: Today I'm Playing (Archive)
Posted: Thu Dec 11, 2014 1:36 am
Papers, Please (PC, 2013)
In the run up to Christmas, we found ourselves in the position of facing a brand new console generation. Whilst the Wii U has been out for over a year, it can be argued that things really aren't going to kick off until later this month, when the PS4 and X-Box One are released. There has been many a discussion, mind, that really, do we need a new console generation? If the latest offerings on the PS3 and 360 are anything to go by - Grand Theft Auto 5, Black Flag, etc - then maybe not. After all, can games really get more expansive, more graphically sublime, and more epic in scale than they are at the moment?
I imagine the console manufacturers, and those who have pre-ordered, would argue yes. I have a friend who is proudly one of the "PC gaming master race", and no matter what I'm playing, he'll always complain that the graphics are either "bad" or "not as good as on PC". I'm sure these new consoles may go some way to fix that, but honestly, graphics really have never been that necessary to enjoy a game in my eyes. And amongst a myriad of Triple-A titles such as Battlefield 4, the latest Call of Duty and FIFA, one game that is infinitely more enjoyable than all of them proves this adage well - Papers, Please.
Papers, Please isn't really like any other game I've played. It kind of defines categorisation, although if I was pushed I'd say it was a cleverly disguised puzzle game. Either that or it's a bureaucracy-'em-up. Basically, you work in a booth on the border of a fictional pseudo-Soviet state called Arstotzka, checking people's papers as they make (or attempt to make) their way into the country and weeding out those who don't have the right credentials. Ultimately, you have the green and red stamp and it's your call whether to let them in or not.
The description sounds underwhelming, but it's a compelling game. The line of people to process is always too long, the workload too heavy, but you get paid by each successful person you process so you're eager to crack on. Get things wrong, however, and you'll be fined. Why is this important? Well, like a real job, you need that money to support your family at home. You have to make enough money to pay the rent, feed your family, and pay for any medical bills should they arise. Fines, therefore, can be disastrous, and they make the bribes that eventually come your way all the more enticing.
The game has an excellent sense of narrative then, one which should come naturally to games but seemingly is happening less and less. The simple fact is, Papers, Please couldn't exist as in any other medium than that of a game, because it is your choices which shape the game and the experience. The choices really wrangle too, as you a torn between trying to make a better world or simply looking after you and your own. It makes it really hard to be a good guy, as trying to make decisions between letting someone across the border to see their family or following orders so that you don't get fined and can feed yours isn't easy to do. The irony is, as games get more sophisticated, they seem to be less interactive, instead shuffling you from set piece to set piece. Games seem more intent nowadays to try and be films, but in a film you'd only be watching someone come to terms with a difficult choice... here, you and your decisions are at the very heart of it.
If graphics and gunfights are what sell you a game, then this isn't for you. But what it lacks in pushing the latest technological boundaries, it makes up for in being utterly compelling. The game also underpins the monotony of the day job with a politically savvy story that grows in stature as the game rolls on. Papers, Please is a wonderfully paced, intriguing and emotionally charged puzzle game like no other. It actually made me question who I was as a human being... make sure you play it.
Re: Today I'm Playing (Archive)
Posted: Thu Dec 11, 2014 1:36 am
Best of the Sega MegaDrive
"Yesterdays enemy is todays friend". This is a Japanese proverb, and was actually quoted by Sega in their very first Nintendo-published game, Super Monkey Ball. It's basically a variation of the Western proverb "let bygones be bygones", but whilst it seems easy on paper, anyone who has ever had hatchets that desperately required 6 feet of dirt will tell you it's incredibly hard in practice. Water under the bridge is all well and good, but egos get bruised and grudges get kept long after the shots (either metaphorical or real) have finished being fired.
Companies always go head to head, that's capitalism for you. But sometimes those companies, in their bid to try and outdo a rival, take it a step further. They take shots at their competition, they attack their good name, they steal their talent, they try and put them out of business. It stops being "buy our product, it's really good!" and becomes "if you buy their stuff, you're a loser." In that regard, it's easy to see why feelings can get hurt, and why grudges can linger. When someone doesn't just want to see you lose your job and have you on the breadline, but gloats publically about that fact, you're unlikely to want to send them a Christmas card at any point in the future.
Sega vs Nintendo was like that. It was the nastiest, bitterest, most unpleasant console war you've ever seen. Obviously there have always been malpractice in console rivalry - Atari stealing Nintendo's NES patents, Nintendo publically embarrassing Sony in favour of Philips, etc - but this was different because it wasn't a one-off incident. Sega's entire strategy seemed to be "take down Nintendo", and they took every opportunity to try and prove that they were cool and Nintendo were drool. It seems so odd to fans nowadays who are used to seeing Mario and Sonic competing at the Olympics or squaring off in Smash Bros, but for my generation the very notion of them being on the same console, never mind the same game, was utterly unfathomable.
And yet, here we are. Just like Eric Bischoff, who eventually worked for Vince McMahon after trying to put him out of business during the Monday Night Wrestling wars, Sega has ended up not just being a developer for Nintendo but trusted with some of the valuable IPs, such as F-Zero. It seems odd to gamers now that there was ever any issue, but it's equally as odd to us '90s kids that it ever came to be. So I think it's time to take a trip back to the glory days of Sega, when they Did what Nintendon't. These are some of the best games of my childhood, and you can trust me that I turn on the power switch each time with a small nostalgic tear in my eye!
The first game that I'm playing personifies that Sega slogan perfectly. I mean, just compare the NES version to it's awesome MegaDrive counterpart - there really is no contest. Strider was a proper arcade style platformer, mixing in tricky jumps with hyper hack-and-slash gameplay. It's also utterly bonkers - sometimes I feel the game is just making things up as it goes along to be honest! As you use your ninja skills to traverse a dystopian future, you'll fight bosses in anti-gravity chambers, take on amazons in dinosaur-infested jungles, and even have a battle against the Russian parliament who turn into a giant robot praying mantis (armed with a hammer and sickle, naturally!). Mad, fun, and played at a frantic pace, Strider is one of the best (some say the best) games on the MegaDrive. Never played it and not had a blast!
Golden Axe (1990)
Speaking of arcade classics, when you talk about the MegaDrive with people, it's inevitable someone will mention Golden Axe. In the early days of the console, Sega were trying to find games to a) show off it's hardware, and b) present to gamers as reasons to invest in the MegaDrive. Golden Axe was an arcade hit they were able to port onto the console, and was a great side-scrolling beat-'em-up in an era where they were all the rage. Giving you the opportunity for you and a friend to battle together, Golden Axe added in awesome magic, rideable monsters, and really horrible death screams! My fondest memory was always kicking those little imp things for more health and magic... no idea why, maybe I just hate sprites! It was also as hard as nails in every regard, and alone or with friends, I never ever finished it. Still have great fun trying though!
Alien Storm (1990)
Alien Storm was a game I got with the Sega MegaDrive as part of the "Mega Games 3" compilation (alongside Super Thunder Blade and Super Monaco GP, which sucked). Similar to Golden Axe, Alien Storm has you defending humanity against hordes of invading extraterrestrials, and swaps swords and sorcery for bombs and bullets. Again, like Golden Axe before it, it gives you 3 characters to choose from and special moves (magic in GA, smart bombs and the like here) to wipe the screen of enemies. It basically follows decent side-scrolling beat-'em-up formula, and couples it with cartoonish and fun graphics. It's also adds the occasional first-person section where you fire at enemies on a moving screen (think "Operation Wolf"). It's by no means the deepest or longest game on the console, but it is great fun, especially with friends.
Ecco the Dolphin (1992)
Ecco is a rather peculiar game. It doesn't really play like much else - you play as Ecco, a dolphin who's pod is sucked up into a mysterious vortex one day, and travel through time in an attempt to rescue them. The game controls strangely, and the constant need for air means that you spend most of your time searching for air-pockets rather than exploring the underwater landscape. And the game is extremely unforgiving, health is at a minimum, with very little opportunity to regain it. Instant deaths are also common. Yet despite this, Ecco became one of the most recognisable games on the console. Maybe it's because it's so clearly identifiable, or maybe it's because "mascot" characters were all the rage back then. Still, despite it's flaws, Ecco is a game that I think every MegaDrive owner ought to at least experience, simply for being as unique as it is. Some love it, others hate it - best play for yourself and make your own mind up! It's worth noting that the recent 3DS version has a "Super dolphin" mode which gives you unlimited health and oxygen. Whether this makes the game more enjoyable I don't know, but I didn't (and never had) that luxury on the MegaDrive!
Mortal Kombat (1992)
Other than Sonic, can you name a game which sold more MegaDrives than Mortal Kombat? I can't. Notorious for it's violence yet also very playable, MK became a huge hit for Sega despite the fact that the SNES version has superior graphics, infinitely better sound, and can replicate the arcade controls with a 6 button controller instead of 3. And yet, the MegaDrive version outsold the SNES by 4 to 1. Why? Because of BLOOD, that's why! Nintendo had many of the Fatalities toned down and the blood completely removed. Sega's version was censored too, but you could unlock the blood by entering a code on the title screen (A, B, A, C, A, B, B - still remember it!).
The game seems old hat now, but was a revolution at the time, and not just because of controversy. The digitised graphics had never been seen in games before, and made it seem far more modern that Street Fighter II, where it took most of it's gameplay ideas from. I have fond memories of playing against my friend, me and she both picking Sub Zero and getting "double ice backfire" until the time ran out! Midway would eventually whip the MK horse into the ground, but it's good to go back to where it began, even if the MegaDrive controls suck!
Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master (1993)
Oh my Lord this game is awesome. Genuinely utterly brilliant, Shinobi III took what made the original games good and just ramped them up to 11, in a similar way that Super Castlevania IV did on the SNES. Ninja warrior Joe Musashi is on a mission to take down the evil Neo Zeed corporation, and you are armed with wall-jumps, ninja stars and a bunch of awesome special moves (including committing hara kiri!) to do so. What makes this game so good isn't just how good it controls, but how fun, colourful and different the levels and bosses are. No stealthy shadowy ninja this, Musashi wears all-white and fights through woods and caves before galloping on horseback to a secret weapons facility, surfing across a lake and attacking armed soldiers in the middle of a forest fire, amongst others. To not play this game is to miss out on the very best this console has to offer - what's your excuse?
Other than Sonic 1 & 2, Aladdin is the best selling game on the MegaDrive. Surprised? So was I when I first found out this fact, but why is it such a shock? It's a great game, plays well, has a superb soundtrack (despite it synthesising bad through the MegaDrive's sound chip) and is licenced to a very popular and tremendously successful Disney film. And honestly, it deserves to be too. One of the fondest memories I have is watching the Disney film on VHS, then rushing upstairs to play this. Strangely, the SNES version of Aladdin was produced by a different company (Capcom, instead of Virgin) and as such was an entirely different game. For my money, the MegaDrive version was miles better, and the platforming action was top class. I've played and finished this game far more than I could ever count, but sadly, with licence deals expiring (along with Virgin Interactive themselves) it's unlikely that it'll end up on Virtual Console or a compilation any time soon.
Nowadays, zombie games are a dime a dozen, but in the mid-'90s the genre was still vastly unexplored. Before all you lovers of Left 4 Dead and Dead Rising come at me, I know that games companies trying to capitalise on a popular genre is nothing new. To illustrate that point, when Zombies came out every other game was a platformer with a character mascot, like Mario or Sonic or whatever. Instead of going down that route, Konami decided to make a top-down 2 player Gauntlet-style game starring zombies and werewolves and more besides. It is incredibly imaginative, brilliant fun, and still to me the best zombie game ever made.
It seems only fitting to end this with Ristar, and not just because it was one of the last hurrahs on the MegaDrive (along with Vectorman, Vectorman 2, and Comix Zone). Ristar is kind of an example of how Sega were desperately trying to extend the lifespan of the MegaDrive.
Make no mistake - Sega had struck gold with the MegaDrive. Their strategy had worked a treat, and they ended up with about 60% market share worldwide. All they had to do to keep it was nothing - make great games, produce interesting commercials, and make money. Instead they did everything and lost it all. First, they introduced the Sega CD, which cost a lot of money but had very little content. The only novelty was the idea of full-motion video, which wasn't really used very well, and led to such abject horrors as Night Trap. Then, in 1995, Sega introduced the 32X, another add-on for the MegaDrive which, again, cost several hundred pounds. But at the same time, Sega also announced the Saturn's imminent release, which meant no developers were going to make anything for the 32X, and consumers didn't want to purchase something which they knew Sega weren't supporting.
In their fruitless endeavour to keep the golden goose laying it's eggs, Sega announced it was replacing Sonic the Hedgehog as it's mascot. In their minds, this would create a buzz akin to the blue hedgehog's first outing, and make them a stack of cash. But people had moved on from Sonic, and by the time Sega's "new" mascot (which they've obviously retconned, because he's never been seen since) Ristar appeared, the Sega Saturn was already out and very few people cared. Which is a real shame, because it's an amazing game.
One of the few people who did purchase Ristar when it came out was me. I was never interested I the Saturn much, or even the Playstation - I was happy with the SNES and MegaDrive. Ristar is a platform game, but the emphasis less on making small jumps and more on solving puzzles with Ristar's incredible extendable arms. The graphics are the usual pretty and colourful cartoonish fair, and the music is utterly stunning... each level's score has been stuck in my head individually for many hours. It's a real shame this game never got the recognition is deserved, but it's due to timing of release, rather than it's lack of quality. Thankfully it's on both the PS2 Sonic Mega Collection, the Virtual Console, and the MegaDrive Ultimate Collection, so you can all play this classic!
There are of course, many more games I could add here - Sonic & Knuckles, Vectorman, Psycho Pinball and Castlevania: The New Generation to name but a few. Sega's time in the sun may have been brief, but the impact they made will last forever on gaming, and will never be forgotten by those who experienced it. Despite what they did, I feel Sega don't get spoken about in the reverence they deserve - their legacy, at least with me, will last through the ages.