Sunday, 28 February 2010

Unsung Classics. Number 4: Cliff Hanger (Commodore 64).

Remember the Road Runner arcade game? I do. I remember how disappointing it was. The cartoons revolved around Wile E. Coyote, not the Road Runner, and his daft traps and schemes. So putting you in the shoes of the Road Runner in a boring, frustrating chase game was not a great move, no matter how charming your enemy. It kind of missed the point, I thought. If only they'd made a Road Runner game from the point of view of Wile E. Coyote.

Well, somebody did. And they called it Cliff Hanger.

I first found Cliff Hanger on a C90 full of games that I'd borrowed. Although the tape was numbered with the positions of each game (the best way to get past uninteresting, already owned or known-to-be-cack games), this time I was playing through everything on the tape, because I hadn't played any of the games on there at all and figured I might as well give every one a crack.

Well, this all looks quite straightforward. But even the simplest screens can sometimes have a kick...

When Cliff Hanger loaded up, I laughed. The music was bad, the main character (Cliff Hanger) limped feebly onto the title screen, and his brother was called Coat. Oh dear.

But then I played the game.

At first, I was intrigued by the Road Runner-esque backdrops. They weren't great, but they were effective. And I was standing next to a boulder for no apparent reason, with nothing to do. But then I heard this odd noise. Was it a train? No... was that meant to be footsteps? And then I saw a tiny black shape in the distance, running towards me.

That strange rock formation could prove useful... better be careful with it, though!

He disappeared out of sight in a valley, only to reappear on the top level and run right past where I was standing, guns blazing! They were kind of blazing in a dubbed-Chinese-martial-arts-film way... his shots and the sounds rarely matched up. And as the bandit disappeared from sight, Cliff Hanger scratched his head. As well he might.

I wasn't put off by this... Cliff Hanger ended up being probably one of my most-played Commodore 64 games, despite the fact it was technically rubbish. It was just so much fun! One of the ways the game stayed fun was in the way it presented the levels to you... you weren't forced to play a screen repeatedly until you passed it. Instead, the game had a pool of levels that it picked from randomly. A game such as this could be frustrating if you had to play the same screen over and over again, so it was a clever piece of design. Once you completed the block of screens you were on, you'd be given a completely new block to play.

Hmmm. Magnet. Anvil. Death?

I've played Cliff Hanger in the last couple of years... Aidan really likes it. I knew I was safe in using it as an Unsung Classic before I'd even loaded it. Much like the Road Runner cartoons, it just never gets old, although I suppose some of its appeal might lie in how much you like that kind of humour.

The aim of each screen is to defeat the fleeing bandit, using a carefully-constructed trap. There's only one way to pull off the trap, and sometimes it's not immediately evident how you manage this. Do it wrong and you'll probably die in true cartoon style. Do it right and you still might not be successful... you have to get your timing right, too. Miss the bandit and Cliff might scratch his head or turn red and shake his fist in anger.

Do it right and time it right, and it's a comedy classic.

Now, come on. How did that boulder get there? Still, can't look a gift horse in the mouth...

The traps, as you'd expect, involve typical Wild West props. Boulders, mostly, but other things come into play, such as trampolines, magnets and anvils. Some of the set-ups are simple... the bandit will run through a gulch (isn't that a great word?), and you might have to roll a boulder down the ravine wall and squash him. Others, as you'd expect from a fella inspired by Wile E. Coyote, are much more convoluted.

The fun is derived from figuring out the traps, and then seeing them being executed perfectly. Split-second timing is necessary, so it's very satisfying just to pull off even the simplest trap. Even though it's 26 years old, Cliff Hanger retains all the appeal it ever had, and is a game I'd still recommend to anyone.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Super Laser Racer (PC)

I'm always buying games on a whim, especially when they're cheap. I know there are thousands of games available for this blog through emulators, but buying new ones can never hurt (well, unless they turn out to be shit). The digital distribution networks are particularly good for adding cheap titles to a collection, as they always have sales on. Super Laser Racer was two quid when I bought it, although it's only £2.99 at its regular price. A proper budget game, then!

Super Laser Racer is a futuristic racing game, but it's more in the vein of Super Sprint than F-Zero. And that's not a bad thing! The top-down racer can be a great game, if it's done well. I reckon Super Laser Racer is done well.

These corners can be tricky, especially when you're being rammed and shot at!

Looks-wise, I think it's really attractive. It's very much the Geometry Wars of the racing game genre in that respect, with glowing neon geometric shapes being the order of the day. There are loads of particles flying about too, as you'd probably expect, and I think it works really well with this kind of game.

As for the game, it works in a time-honoured tradition. There are four leagues to race, but only the first is unlocked from the beginning. Likewise, you get quite a choice of vehicle, each with different attributes, but only three are available from the start... the rest are unlockable. That may be a touch predictable, but it works and it keeps the interest level up a bit longer than it otherwise might.

A missile hit helps me to streak through into sixth place.

There are weapons, too... drive over a weapons box to pick up something random and helpful. These range from lasers, bombs and mines for the detriment of enemy racers, to shields and turbo, which are obviously helpful to you. You have to watch yourself, as you can run out of energy and if you do, you blow up, and you score no points for the race. Fortunately each track has a "pit" area by the side of the start straight, and if you drive through that your shields are recharged.

There's nothing particularly revolutionary about Super Laser Racer... it's just a classic genre with a bit of a twist, and done very well. Oh, and it has Achievements too, if that sort of thing floats your boat. If I'd bought this for as a Mastertronic game for £2.99 on my Commodore 64, I'd have been chuffed. For £2.99 on Steam... I'm perfectly happy with it.

Friday, 26 February 2010

Shoot1Up (XBox 360 Indie Games)

80 points.

80 Microsoft points.

How much is that, anyway? If you buy points from, that's 68 pence. Let's make it 70. Now let's convert it into the currency of the arcades... seven tens.

If Shoot1Up had been in the arcades when they were in their heyday, and if you could have got past the iffy name, you would have easily spent seven tens on it, and probably a fair bit more.

Shoot1Up is like a cross between TacScan, Terra Cresta and... oh, I don't know. Something else beginning with 'T'.  Truxton. That'll do. Something with a lot of bullets. You start the game with a fleet, nay, a phalanx of fighter planes. As you'd expect, alien hordes are in need of dispatching, and your boys are the ones given the task.

Here's the game mechanic. You start with a small fleet of ships. Holding the A button fires a stream of bullets. The trigger buttons will expand or contract your fleet of ships. If you contract, the ships fly "on top" of each other, so they only take up as much room as one ship. As a result, you only unleash a small stream of bullets. It also makes it easier to dodge enemy bullets and ships... but as a consequence, your scoring is reduced.

If, however, you expand the formation, then your ships' firepower links up to produce an awesome blast of laser death, far more destructive than when they're contracted. And as this is a riskier tactic and you're more prone to losing ships, you score more heavily.

You can't just stay expanded, though... at times it will be necessary to narrow your field just to stay alive. If you lose all your ships, it's game over. Luckily, though, you can obtain additional ships quite regularly, and they're instantly added to your fleet on the screen. Nothing is kept in reserve... it's all out, all of the time. The most ships I've had at a time is 18, but I think the maximum available is 30. Occasionally you can also pick up a Ghost, which puts a mirror of your fleet on screen for a limited time, for twice as much damage potential.

With only six levels, it's not hard to get to the end, although those six levels are bolstered by a choice of routes as you go. And although the graphics look charmingly old-school, the backgrounds repeat a bit too much, which is a wee bit of a shame but nowhere near a problem. I also hear talk of a problem where using the shield attack gives you an unbalanced multiplier, resulting in massively over-inflated scores. I wouldn't know, I've never used shield attack!

Even with those "issues", there's no way you can say this isn't worth the money, if you're an old-school arcade shmup fan. In fact, I'd happily pay more. I've played it a few times now, giving myself the good old claw hand from playing it a bit too intensely. And I certainly intend to go back to improve my score. Shoot1Up may not be as subtle as the likes of Leave Home, but it's a hell of a good time for your seven tens.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Aaargh! (Commodore 64)

I nearly missed my update for today, and when I realised I hadn't played anything, I just wrote "Aaargh!" in the title field. And then I remembered there actually was a game called "Aaargh!"! I remembered reading a review in ZZAP! 64, and I knew it hadn't got a particularly good score, but I thought that I might as well give it a go, seeing as I'd never played it before. Maybe writing that title was fate of some kind?

It wasn't, and I should have taken the time to pick a proper game, because Aaargh! is horrible.

Oi! Where are you going? The temple is over this way!

It's an odd thing... a one-player two-player game. OK, OK, I hear you saying "what?"... but really, it is! The game starts, and two monsters appear on the screen... one a giant horned man and the other a lizard. And you control them both at the same time, with a single joystick. Yep, weird.

Not just weird, but unwieldy, despite the no-doubt-honourable intentions of the programmers. There are objects littering the screen, and you have to manoeuvre the two monsters around them so that they can destroy certain obstacles and progress to the next screen. The monsters breathe fire, and this is enough to clear a path to the next level.

Hey, I think there are chickens in there!

Eventually, you'll pick up an object which results in the two monsters fighting each other. That's a weird thing, as well. If you're controlling the two protagonists, how do you then fight each other? How do you choose which one wins? Apparently you don't... I couldn't work out how the hell the game decided who was the winner.

There have been some good, or at least decent monster games in the past... Rampage was alright, Primal Rage served its purpose quite well... but Aaargh! is horrible. It's horrible now, and it would have been horrible twenty-odd years ago. I'll let this one serve as a lesson to me.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Galaxian (Arcade/MAME/Namco Museum)

Today is my dad's birthday, so in a tribute to him, I thought I'd play what is probably his favourite game ever: Galaxian.

Surely the whole of the Developed World knows Galaxian. It's one of the most established classics we have. And it hasn't just died away - Namco has kept it alive on every format known to man through their Museum collections. That said, it's taken something of a back seat to its sequel, Galaga, which many prefer.

Not me.

7000 points. That gets you an extra ship. That'll come in handy.

For me, Galaga over-complicates the formula. With its attack patterns, dual-ship capability and challenging stages, it throws a lot more into the pot. And it's a good game, there's no doubt about it. But I think it takes the swoopy-swirly aspect of the alien attacks too far, leading to much frustration at times.

Galaxian, on the other hand, is as pure as arcade gaming comes. It's just you, with your ship and its single laser, against an enormous alien force. That's it. The parameters never change, and eventually they're going to force you into a mistake and you'll die. It's inevitable.

Survival relies on you getting into The Zone. Galaxian was probably the first game I ever played where I got into The Zone, at the age of 8. It's probably the game most responsible for me loving videogames now. And for me, it's still as enjoyable as it was when I played it in the chip shop in 1980.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Angry Birds (iPhone/iPod Touch)

Say the words "physics-based puzzle game" to me, and I'll more than likely run off screaming, as fast as my not-so-little legs will carry me. On the odd occasion, though, something will come along that's just engaging, charming and entertaining enough to grab me. Angry Birds is one such game.

Angry Birds is, on the face of it, ridiculous. It's got a hilariously stupid premise, which is very endearing. Green pigs have stolen the birds' eggs, and that has made them angry. They want revenge. How do they get it? By, in true fairytale fashion, blowing the pigs' houses down. But they don't huff and puff, oh no. They launch themselves from catapults, knocking over any structures in their way before exploding in a final coup-de-grace.

So, feathered friends... how do we take out this building?

This is the kind of imagination that has led to the games industry being so varied. I love that idea, and I love the angry scowls on the birds' faces as they line up, waiting to be flung at great speeds towards wood, brick, glass and pork. Tremendous.

The game has a lot of levels, and a little bit of depth, too. As you progress, other kinds of birds become available for greater destructive potential. There's some trial and error in the gameplay... you're unlikely to get many efforts right first time. It's a bit like Worms in that respect... aim and fire, then adjust for your next go and hope to hit the mark more accurately.

GIDDOWER! That'll do it!

There's high-scoring potential here, too. You get points (seemingly) for accuracy, and for the things you blow up, and there are bonuses for the number of birds you have left at the end of each screen. You're ranked for each effort too... anywhere from one to three stars for successfully completing the screen. Yet another way to draw you back into the game.

I've said it's like Worms... it's also, basically, a 2D version of Boom Blox, that great Wii game. Maybe more of a cross between the two... either way, I'm enjoying it a hell of a lot, which is something of a surprise to me, and a very pleasant one.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Rambo III (Commodore Amiga)

I'm not sure what I expected of this game, but I didn't expect this.

This game was produced by Ocean, and it must have been at a time when they were churning out sub-standard, generic arcade adventures, because that's what this is. I've only played the first level, because it went on for ages and I got fed up, but what that involves is Rambo searching an enemy compound for General Trautman, who is probably as close to a friend as Rambo has.

Sounds great... there's a promise of action, bloodshed and slaughter, maybe with a bit of stealth thrown in as you're sure to be accosted by huge numbers of enemy guards.

That's what you'd think.

If I just walk up and down in this passageway, nobody will EVER get past...

"Accosted", though, is not a word I would use. These are the stupidest guards, or enemies, that I think I've ever seen in a video game. Take the first screenshot... Rambo is moving along a narrow passageway. A guard is walking across the passageway... up and down, up and down. At no time will the guard see Rambo coming towards him, because the guards only ever see you if you are directly in their line of sight. So you can casually saunter up to the guard, stand just to the left of him as he trundles up and down, up and down, and then stab him to death at your leisure on one of his passes.

And they're all like that. Every single guard. They will only attack you if you move into their direct line of sight. So if you learn their patterns you could feasibly get through the entire level without so much as a single enemy shot being fired. I suppose that qualifies as "stealth" on some level...

I'm facing the guard, and constantly thrusting my knife at him. But he can't see me, and will walk straight into the knife, and his death.

You will learn their patterns, too. Because every time you step back onto a screen you've already been on (yes, it's flick-screen, not scrolling), then all guards are miraculously restored, trundling up and down on their tram-track routes, not giving a joy for the presence of the highly armed half-naked man that's wandering around their building.

Oh, and "wandering" is an apt description. Rambo moves very, very slowly. I'm not sure if it's because he's so muscular that he can't get any speed up, but it's ridiculous. It takes forever just to get from one end of a screen to the other. That really doesn't help matters, at all.

I honestly don't care what comes next. It could be level after level of the best action sequences ever to grace the Amiga. I simply can't bring myself to go wandering around that first level, ever again.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Darwinia (PC, Xbox 360 (XBLA))

I've read a lot about Darwinia over time, and it's always been highly recommended. I've never been sure that it was for me, though, but with it being on special offer on Steam a while back, I figured I'd pick it up for the purposes of this blog, and if I liked it, so much the better.

It gets off to a good start, with lots of lovely retro touches appealing to the old-school gamer in me. There are distinct throwbacks to the Spectrum and the Amiga, providing an instant pull, although they're purely presentational. Still, they got me in, which was a good start.

Trouble is, the rest of the game had me baffled.

He's telling me I need to create an engineer to fix that building. The place to do that is quite far away...

I lay part of the blame with the game itself... it doesn't really signpost you at the beginning. Seasoned strategists will no doubt not view this as a problem, but for me, I spent ages scrolling around the landscape, looking at the nice things but wondering what on Earth to do with them.

Eventually, I accidentally discovered how to create some units. That was good. Then I put them on the map, and they were all wiped out by the virus that was spreading across the landscape. That was bad.

And there he goes, on his way to repair the building. Sadly, he will be obliterated before he gets there. Every time.

After an hour or so, I stumbled across a set of goals for the level. So I was making progress of a sort, although after another twenty minutes I still didn't have a clue how to achieve the first of the goals.

I swear that as I get older I'm becoming stupid. Also, impatient. I was already aware of the second one... I used to spend hours figuring things out in games, and now I just can't be bothered. It looks like I'm falling victim to today's world of instant gratification. These are two things I'm quite determined to shake... I need my brain to be of a certain standard for one thing, and for another, there's a lot of reward to be found for just a little patience. Darwinia deserves my patience, and the use of my brain. I may be down with this one, but I'm not out just yet...

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Space Miner: Space Ore Bust (iPhone/iPod Touch)

I'm always a sucker for a cheap or reduced iPhone game, and this one looked just pretty and shiny enough to appeal with some really good reviews, so for £1.19, I gave it a go. And this despite the fact I'm not that much of an Asteroids fan...

...which Space Miner is. Well, actually, it's not. It's like a cross between Asteroids, Star Raiders and Puzzle Quest.


Blam! That's how it's done. It's easy when they're hardly moving, though...

Well, the point of the game is to mine ore, which is left behind when you shoot asteroids. The asteroids are in different sectors in space, and you select a sector to try and clear, which is very reminiscent of games like Star Raiders and Starmaster (oooh, there's a blast from my past!). But it's the presentation of the game that reminds me of Puzzle Quest.

The game follows a narrative, and this is where it closely resembles PQ, with your character coming into the game world as a newbie and meeting with his uncle. The uncle sends you out on basic missions to build up a little bit of cash and work towards upgrading to the next level of your mining license. Once you've earned enough money by mining space ore, you can start purchasing upgrades for your ship.

What? The bastard. Hope he gets his, later in the game.

Along the way, other characters will come into the game, both good and bad. Their chat (and yours) can be quite amusing at times, keeping you a little more interested in what is going on.

The main meat of the game is, of course, like Asteroids. As I said earlier, space is split into sectors, arranged in a grid like Star Raiders. You choose the sector you want to blast/mine, and away you go. Some areas will be locked... these will require you to upgrade your license, so the game is kind of linear and non-linear at the same time, with you being forced into certain areas or missions at certain times, and then heading where you want for a bit once those are out of the way.

Hope there's something useful in there. And not some deadly alien virus, or something.

The blasting action, sadly, is the least enjoyable part of the game (at least for me), which I suppose is something of a problem for an Asteroids-based game. I've only played it for an hour and a half so far, but at this point, the asteroids barely move. They look pretty as they spin, but there's no challenge in blasting them. The challenging bits come from other areas... sometimes you may have to find a piece of equipment and it'll be surrounded by alien droids, and they'll shoot at you on sight. This is where I start to struggle. The controls, much like a lot of iPhone games, see the "thrust" and "fire" buttons close to each other, and I find myself accidentally thrusting instead of blasting. Usually, this means death, and some level of frustration.

It's a shame about this, and other, less ham-fisted people might not suffer this problem. The game has a lot to offer for the money (although it's since reverted to its £1.79 price tag since I bought it), and it's done in a very polished manner. Perseverance may reap rewards in this case... with a two-week spell of bus journeys coming up for me, this could see a bit of play, then.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Dragon Buster (Arcade/MAME/Namco Museum)

There are a lot of games on the latest version of Namco Museum. Pity the interface is rubbish, because it puts you off playing any of them regularly. But this blog is not about regular; it's (mostly) about playing games that I've never played before. And there are a few on this compilation that I can say that about. Before today, one of them was Dragon Buster. Pity that's not still the case.

Oooh, where to go, where to go... I'd rather just go home, actually.

Dragon Buster is basically a rubbish cross between Rastan (which isn't that great to begin with) and Wonder Boy in Monster Land (which is). You wander around subterranean passages and get attacked by ghastly monsters. I say ghastly... they really do look horrible, but only in a drawn-by-a-five-year-old way. For 1984, these are terrible arcade graphics.

Hey you! Yes, you! I put it to you that you are a rubbish skeleton!

As far as the game goes, I suppose its ideas outstrip their implementation. You have a world map, with choices of route, which was probably fairly novel at the time. It's just unfortunate that, whichever choice you make, it sees you wading through a sea of cack gaming. It's usually a case of walk right, stop, do a Pete Townshend swing with your sword at a rubbish animal, and move on. Occasionally you might do something exciting, like drop off a ledge or something, but that's your lot. Every so often you'll come across a pathetic looking dragon, which you can smite with just two hits. There are bigger, much more impressiver dragons to be slain, but not a lof ot skill involved.

You're a dragon? Really? You're cute. Wanna be my pet?

And there we have it. Dragon Buster was, research finds, pretty well thought of in Japan, with conversions to home platforms, sequels and even a board game! I find that a bit odd... it's really not a particularly good game at all. I doubt I'll be loading this one up much in the future.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Irukandji (PC)

An irukandji, if you didn't know, is a jellyfish. I didn't know that, but now that I do, it makes sense. That's because Irukandji (the game) is an underwater shoot-'em-up.

Beyond that, it makes as much sense as any bullet-hell shooter does. You manoeuvre up the screen as an assortment of underwater critters make their way towards you. You can fire sraightforward, or bank your ship to aim left or right. Along the way you can pick up powerups or score multipliers.

Irukandji looks lovely. Glowing, neon critters wriggle and undulate as they filter downwards. They almost look as though they've got tiny light bulbs in them. Very pretty indeed.

See? Lovely.

As for the game... I reckon it's probably a good shmup, but as yet, I'm not good enough at it to be able to judge it properly. I can sail through to the end of the level without taking a hit, whereupon a GIANT ENEMY CRAB!!! causes MASSIVE DAMAGE!!! In other words, I can't get past the end-level boss. It just spews out too many bullets for me to cope with, for now. I'm getting better at it, though, and I reckon I'll have it cracked before long.

Ooh, that's a pretty GIANT ENEMY CRAB!!!

Going by the website, that's the end of the game, which makes it quite short. But, it's a score attack game, meaning you need to go back to it repeatedly to try and maximise your scoring. The game also has achievements, and a number of different ships to unlock. I'm looking forward to seeing how these affect my scoring... if I ever get any.

Best of all, Irukandji is available from Charlie's Games on a "Pay What You Want" basis, with a minimum price of one dollar. I paid six... if you don't want to stump up, try the demo first.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

The Test of Time. Number 1: Master of the Lamps (Commodore 64)

Here's another new feature I thought I'd introduce... slightly different to Unsung Classics, in that I'm going to re-evaluate games I played years ago and loved then, and see whether they still stand up today.

The first game I'm trying out is Master of the Lamps. The reason? This is the game that made me want a Commodore 64.

I was going to have my parents buy a mate's Spectrum for me for Christmas. He was selling it to get money to put toward a Commodore 64, which I knew was out of my parents' price range. And then, one day, I was walking past the house of a classmate, and one of my mates was in there. They wouldn't let me in, but taunted me by blasting the music from Master of the Lamps at full volume from the bedroom window. Compared to the 48K Spectrum, well... actually, there was no comparison. I was blown away. I was equally blown away when my dad asked me "Wouldn't you prefer a Commodore 64?". And so, that Christmas, a major part of my gaming life was born.

Touch one of the glowing diamonds and it's instant electro-death. Not nice.

I did play Master of the Lamps often, and thoroughly enjoyed it. The music, of course, was great, but the game, although short and somewhat limited, was always entertaining for me. The question for me was, how would it far almost 25 years later?

Not very well, was the answer. I know it wasn't a great game then, but the things I liked then just aren't as impressive or appealing now. What was already a limited game just isn't all that interesting at all today. And to cap it all, the music that made such an impression then doesn't really sound that good now. I really enjoyed the tunes when I used to play the game, but then, that was before I heard Rob Hubbard's stuff. The music pales compares to most of his efforts, and doesn't sound that good at all, now.

Hit the coloured gongs and a genie appears. I'm not showing you - that would spoil the magic!

So, my first Test of Time has been a disappointment, with one of my nostalgic favourites shown up as a limited, short-lived affair. The magic carpet sections, which account for half of the game, are so easy to complete early on that they might as well not be there. The only challenge comes from selecting one of the later levels... they're really difficult and quite good fun, the kind of challenge that has you writhing your arms and joystick around as you try and coax your character around a difficult corner. Some small amount of fun can be had there, but otherwise Master of the Lamps is a bit of a dated dud.

Test of Time: FAILED.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Aqua Aqua: Wetrix 2 (PS2)

No, I've never played Wetrix 1, and I had no idea what this game was about. I picked it up for a mate and figured I'd give it a blast before I passed it on.

So what is it about, then?

Well, it's a puzzle game. Great, my favourite! In this one, you have a plot of land, onto which you must drop Tetris-style blocks of mud - not to fill up the land, but to create reservoirs into which you must drop water. So the trick is to create a completely enclosed space, so that the water remains enclosed. At this point, things happen, such as dropping a fireball into the reservoir to evaporate the water, or creating a rainbow for a bonus.

Other variations are available; for example, you may be given a plot that already contains several filled lakes, and you have to drop "downers" in strategic places in order to create just one lake. Do that, and evaporate all the water, and you win. Leave any enclosed lakes and you don't.

No, I don't know if that'll help

It all sounds great in theory, but as I've said before, I'm no good with puzzle games, and this one is certainly no different. I simply couldn't grasp the concept... well, it wasn't so much that, as I couldn't "see" the playfield properly. You need to be exact in your placement of blocks, and I constantly missed by one or two places, even with the ground highlighted where my block would land. This misplacement meant that I would have gaps in the walls and the water would run out, so I would lose.

You want to know how far I got? The third level of the tutorial. And I played for over an hour. I'm surprised I stuck it out that long, to be honest. That doesn't make Aqua Aqua a bad game... it's just not for me, not even in the slightest. Better arrange that meeting sooner rather than later...

Monday, 15 February 2010

Midnight Club Los Angeles (XBox 360)

I like a good racer, and although I wasn't that enamoured with Midnight Club on the PS2, this one has had some very good, consistent reviews, so when I saw the Complete Edition for just a tenner, I bit.

I haven't played it much yet, but I'm kind of wishing I didn't bite after all.

Midnight Club LA, to me, seems almost like a complete copy of Need for Speed Underground 2. And as that is one of my least favourite entries in the NfS series, that's quite a disappointment.

Ooh, that looks nice. Maybe I'll give it a bit longer, after all...

I know an hour isn't always enough time to judge, but sometimes that's all I've got to play before I write, and you can usually get a decent feel for something in that time. I'm not exactly reviewing the games I play for AGAD, after all, just passing an opinion based on what I have been able to play.

In this case, I can't see anything new here at all. You're a rookie driver coming into the city, and you have to impress the right people so that you can take part in more prestigious races and earn better performing cars and more money. Yep, done all that, in NfSU2.

No, I haven't got a bike yet, either...

You can take races either by driving to designated areas on the map, or by flashing your lights at other street racers, who will then race you to a pre-designated point on the map. Yep, done all that, in NfSU2.

When racing, you can keep to the course by driving past coloured plumes of smoke, unless it's a race against a driver you've flashed, in which case you keep an eye on the map and crash at every other junction. Yep, done all that... you see where I'm going here.

I'll give this one more of a try later... after all, I do enjoy my racing games. But when this one successfully apes one I wasn't keen on, it makes it difficult to want to pop the disc back in the tray. The open world city just serves to make things far less interesting as far as I'm concerned, and the cars (at least in the early stages) don't handle well. I have to say, my son pinched the disc to play this and is enjoying it, but at this moment in time, it's not for me.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Fireblaster (Commodore Amiga)

Today, I just thought I'd dig around in my box of loose Amiga disks and see what I pulled out. And I pulled out Fireblaster, a game I'd never heard of before. That made it interesting to me... it's all very well playing a big name that I never got the chance to play in the day, but when you've never heard of a game, you could be on the verge of discovering a hidden gem.

Fireblaster isn't a hidden gem. It's shit.

You want more? Do I have to?

Well, I'm honestly surprised that this game could have found a publisher for a commercial release. It's a single screen shooter that would have been laughed at as a Mastertronic release on the Commodore 64. No, the VIC-20.

It's actually nowhere near as good as it looks here.

It's terrible. It's got rubbish attack patterns that could have been ripped out of MegaMania on the Atari 2600. They were actually fine for the old Atari, but not the Amiga. And the enemy ships flicker and wobble about, unlike the old Atari game.

There's not much more I can say about it, really, there isn't. If I thought Atax was a bad Amiga shooter, I hadn't seen the half of it.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Commander Keen: Marooned on Mars (PC)

Sticking with old-school platformers, today I thought I'd actually play something I've downloaded on Steam for a change. I'm of the opinion that Steam is a great tool... you can always get hold of a great (or not-so-great) PC game for a great price. Actually, I've bought quite a few games through the digital distribution websites/providers just because they were cheap and I'd always fancied them, and then never got around to playing them.

The Commander Keen pack costs three quid, and you get five episodes for that. Yes, episodic gaming has been on the go for years. I decided to start at the beginning with Episode One: Marooned on Mars.

The Red Planet. Not as exciting as you've been led to believe.

Commander Keen sees you crashed on the surface of Mars, with a very pulled-back view of the planet. You can only wander around so much of it, but you can't really do anything much... eventually you have to venture into one of the planet's many structures.

Once you do, the view switches and the game becomes a classic side-view platform game. Goodies are scattered around the place in hard and not-so-hard to reach places, and you have to jump around on the platforms in order to collect them. You must also avoid the indigenous life-forms (of course) on your way to finding the room's exit.

Ugh! Look at that thing! Run away! Run awaaaaay!

It's all pretty standard stuff, and an odd choice of game to make for the time, as surely people were moving onto more complicated games by the time this came out. Still, it's fun to visit in retrospect. The game it reminded me of most, strangely, was Thing on a Spring, the old Commodore 64 game. There's a lot of bouncing rather than jumping, at least that's how it feels, and the game has certain aspects in its look that are reminiscent of that game. I'm not sure how much I'll play this (or the other episodes) in the future, but I think that the pack is priced right for what it offers.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Catwalk (ZX Spectrum)

Never let it be said that I don't listen to suggestions.

Catwalk was recommended to me just a few days ago, and as someone always on the lookout for Spectrum recommendations, I jumped on this one pretty quickly, not knowing anything about it.

It's a straightforward game - you're a cat, and you have nine lives to get across nine screens. Each of those screens is filled with tasty mice, birds and other foods... the perfect nighttime feeds for a cat. In order to progress to the next screen, you have to eat all the food you can see.

Why go through all that effort to reach the cat food, when you can't open tins?

Naturally it's not as easy as that, as each screen is filled with obstacles that must be avoided or overcome. And being a Spectrum game from the early half of the Eighties, you might expect those obstacles to be a bit on the weird side. Surprisingly, they're fairly normal, run-of-the-mill things, at least to start out with. Dogs, boots thrown from windows, workmen... these are your enemies. It does get a bit more bizarre as you go on, but it's quite refreshing to see a game from this time period that's relatively grounded in reality.

I was a little bit surprised to find myself quite enjoying this. It does get considerably more difficult later on, but with only nine screens, you'd expect that. Catwalk is a nice idea, boiled down into a simple platform game, and a lot less epic than the likes of Jet Set Willy (who makes an appearance here). I noticed that this cost £5.95 when it was released. Although nine screens is not a lot for your money, I think I'd have been quite happy with it for that, and it would have made a fantastic release for two quid.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Unsung Classics. Number 3: Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus (PS2)

Or Sly Raccoon, as it was known in the UK... which is stupid, because the lead character is actually called Sly Cooper and is referred to as Sly Cooper throughout the game.

Anyway. When you think of running-around-and-jumping games on the PS2, most people seem to think of Jak and Daxter, or Ratchet and Clank. For some reason, and despite the fact there were three games in the series, Sly Cooper doesn't seem to warrant much of a mention.

It didn't sell anywhere as near as well, which is a shame, because I played all three and to my mind, Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus is miles better than the other two.

Treasure? That'll do for me. Where do I go?

Sly Cooper is a raccoon that comes from a famous family line of thieves. I suppose when you're born with what looks like a burglar's mask on your face, it's the only line of work that makes sense. It just so happens that they were extremely good at their work, and Sly, hoping to be just as talented, sets out to recover the pieces of the Thievius Raccoonus, the family's book of thieving skills. Armed with those, Sly would be the best thief around.

Helping Sly in his quest are his best friends, Bentley the turtle and Murray the hippo. Although they're around to give comic foil to Sly, you also get to play as them occasionally in mini games, which are designed to help Sly. The minigames are fun, and serve to give you a little break from the main game.

If that big goon would just wander off for a second...

Not that you really need a break... Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus is one of the finest platforming arcade adventures around. It looks stunning and plays beautifully, with Sly controlling very well and his array of moves not being too difficult to pull off. The game provides hints as well, so that you know when certain moves can be used. For instance, ledges will have glowing blue sparkles on them if you're able to use your sneak skill there.

In a fun nod to the old school, Sly Cooper gives you a number of lives, and you can earn more by collecting them, or you can collect coins to gain horseshoes, which enable you to take an extra hit before dying.

Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus received two sequels, neither of which I enjoyed quite as much but both of which were really good games. The original, to me, is not just the best of the series, but one of the best games on the PS2. If you haven't played Sly Raccoon, you should track it down now.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

The Legend of Kage 2 (Nintendo DS)

So, this is why I played The Legend of Kage yesterday. Almost 25 years later, it gets a sequel! Although to be honest, I'm not sure why they (Square Enix this time around) classed it as a sequel... in this age of the reboot, they could quite easily have gone without the "2" in the title.

Having picked it up for the ridiculous price of £4.95 from, which, frankly, it would have been rude not to, I thought I'd give it a crack right away. And it was interesting to note that it doesn't have to be The Legend of Kage... if you don't want it to be.

That's right. This game gives you a choice of two characters... the titular Kage, or Chihiro, a spiky young girl. Your choice affects the storyline to a degree... as Kage, the visitor to the village at the beginning of the game is a childhood friend. As Chihiro, the visitor is the same person, but there's a different kind of connection... the game kind of implies an almost sexual, lesbian connection, which is weird. I'm sure it plays out differently once you get far enough... maybe one day I'll find out.

Ninjas are red, ninjas are blue, if you don't watch it, they will slice you.

As you would expect, this game takes elements of the original but adds more depth. The storyline is obviously one thing, and the choice of characters is another. But as you progress, you learn new skills that come in handy in combat, and you can collect orbs that you can use for creating powerful magic. These things are essential, because the game quickly becomes quite tricky.

The Legend of Kage 2 is a very nice update of an old game, and a pretty decent little game in its own right. There's plenty of hacking, slashing, jumping through trees and slightly iffy dialogue, which would probably be quite satisfying if you'd bought it for twenty quid, but for a fiver I reckon it's a bit of a steal.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

The Legend of Kage (Arcade/MAME)

This might seem to be a bit of a left-field, from-out-of-nowhere choice, but there's a reason I'm playing it, so stick with me!

The Legend of Kage is not a game I ever saw in an arcade. The only reason I'd heard of it previously was when I read a review of the Commodore 64 conversion in ZZAP! 64. They seemed to think it was distinctly average, and I didn't bother hunting it down for a play.

Fast-forward, oooh, donkeys years, and I find myself playing it in MAME.

And it's alright, actually. A bit odd for an arcade game, perhaps... although thinking about it, it plays a bit like a precursor to Shinobi, which I have certainly enjoyed quite a bit over the years, or maybe Ninja Spirit.

Ugh! Get away! Get awaaaaaay!

Typically, the game starts with a princess being captured, and you drop into the scene to chase after her. As you would expect, ninjas fly about, chucking pointy stars at you. Luckily, you can throw stars of your own, and you have swords for dispatching anything that gets a bit close for comfort.

You're also possessed of an implausibly mighty jump. This game sees you flying around in treetops a lot, with the ninjas whizzing by all around you. It's quite good fun, if a little strange. Other enemies appear through the game, including fire-breathing Raiden-types, just to mix it up.

The Legend of Kage is quite a nice little arcade game, which probably offered something nicely different at the time, and yet was more than likely the one that sat unloved in a corner while everyone else was playing Gauntlet. Still, it set me up nicely for tomorrow's game...

Monday, 8 February 2010

Baal (Commodore Amiga)

I think that anyone who's played games for more than twenty years remembers the Psygnosis name with a degree of fondness. Whether it was for Shadow of the Beast, or maybe Lemmings, or just their awesome box art, everyone has a happy Psygnosis memory.

Baal is unlikely to be one of them.

I suppose it's not technically a Psygnosis game, being released on their offshoot Psyclapse label, so your memories can remain preserved. There's nothing wrong with the basic idea - space warrior searches caves for a demon that will destroy the world - but it's just done wrong.

The main thing that's wrong with Baal is that it's probably one of the most frustrating games ever released. At a glance, it looks like a typical-but-pretty Amiga run-and-gun platform game. The animation on the main character is really nice, huge gun swinging as he walks. And it has effectively creepy backgrounds, given the subject matter. It's when you start playing that the nightmares begin.

Baal? Bah, more like.

Controlling your character is an exercise in frustration. All you need to do is walk, climb, jump and shoot. Easy. And the walking is indeed easy, as is the climbing. The shooting is OK... with occasional struggles. The jumping, though... the jumping...

Pixel-perfect jumps kind of went out of fashion before the Amiga was popular. But you didn't mind them, as long as you knew what the parameters were and the game stuck to them. As soon as anything dodgy was thrown in, there would be anger. Baal has dodgy pixel-perfect jumping.

You'll come to a gap that you need to jump, take off early and fall short, plummeting a few feet and exploding. The game will then throw you back to a pre-specified point, and you'll have to work your way back to where you were. You know that you need to jump from closer to the edge, so you'll take it easy, inching towards the gap... and the game will decide you've gone over the edge, and you'll plummet a few feet and explode.

So that's the game ruined. It doesn't matter what else it might have going for it, it's knackered by the fact you can't trust it to play nice. And to compound your misery, if you do feel like giving it another shot, you have to press the space bar to start a new game, when the space bar is not used for anything else in the entire game. Graaaaarrrrrgghhhhhh!

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Unsung Classics. Number 2: Sega Rally (XBox 360)

"Hold on a minute!", I hear you cry. "Sega Rally isn't an unsung classic!". And, it's fair to say, the original game is a classic that's loved by many, many people. The modern reboot, on the other hand, although critically praised seems to have come and gone in the blink of an eye, with few people giving it the time of day.

What a shame that is. The new Sega Rally is an absolutely brilliant arcade racer, full of all the classic Sega touches that you'd expect. Wildlife wandering around on the safari courses. Flying vehicles on different courses... planes, helicopters, microlites and hot air balloons make appearances here. But there's far more to this game than little cutesy cameos.

The way it used to be...

Sega Rally is brutal. As racing games go, this is one of the hardest I've played. But it's also very fair and very true. In many of today's racers, you can just plough your way to the front and stay there, battering meek opponents out of your way and then cruising along as they drop back out of harm's way. That ain't happening in this game.

No, this game will challenge and fight you, every step of the way. You have to earn everything in this game... and I don't just mean race wins. You'll find yourself locked in a struggle to keep fifth place, and in a race of six drivers, that's saying something. Sega has set this game up so that every point counts for something, and it can actually feel really satisfying to finish in the top three.

Ooh, fourth place is within reach! Grab it!

The AI is nasty. Opponents aren't afraid to give you a good whack if it means retaking their place from you. And when you bear in mind how difficult it can be just to drive each course in a reasonable time, you'll find yourself cursing them any time you do that.

The environment also plays a part in your driving. Muddy courses will become rutted as they're driven on, and hitting these ruts on your next lap will slow you down or throw you off course. Pools of water will really slow you down. Sliding from gravel onto tarmac, you'll really feel the tyres bite. Sandy courses feel... "smushy". You'll feel bogged down in deep snow. Everything affects your car as you'd expect it to.

Any little mistake you make can, and usually will be punished. You have to really learn how to drive your car. It's very much about finesse. You have to know when to brake and how hard. You have to know when it's better to just ease off or let go of the accelerator, and when you can gun it. Different corners require different tactics, from a gentle nudge to a hard-braking powerslide, and if you get it wrong you're likely to be watching opposing racers zoom off into the distance. It can be heartbreaking to have battled your way into a good position, just to lose it when you screw up a hairpin or difficult double-bend. But you'll come back for more punishment...

Looks like the switch to Road tyres was a mistake...

Sega Rally is possibly the most difficult racer of the modern generation. But it's also the most gripping, to my mind. It's a game that you have to play in a room by yourself, because you get so into it. You'll find yourself regularly in that ridiculous position of trying to coax extra performance out of your car with your own body... leaning forward at times, or with your hands thrown way out to the side as you try and clip just a little off that tricky corner. It's absolutely intense, and there's not a lot of that around in today's games.

I bought this a couple of years ago, for about a tenner, and I'm still coming back to it. It's no more expensive than that now, and if you find yourself yearning for the good old days where games would give you a good kicking but lure you back for more, you really owe it to yourself to buy Sega Rally.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Aaaaand I'm spent.

Yeah, yeah, blah, blah, Bayonetta.

Just completed it tonight... my fourth completed 360 game in about as many months. When I say completed, of course, I just mean "got to the end of the game". I certainly haven't got close to getting the 1000/1000 Achievement points. But as I hadn't got to the end of a single 360 game in two years (not counting the odd XBLA title), I'm pretty happy with that. I'm not finished with Bayonetta yet, though... not by a long shot.

I'm actually on a bit of a quest for Achievements at the moment. My Gamer Score stands at 9924 and, whilst I'm certainly not an Achievement whore, there's something to be said for getting my score above 10,000.

So, how do I get there? Do I go back over old games, looking for Achievements that might be relatively easy to pick up? Do I, perhaps, start one of my unplayed "big" titles, such as Halo 3 or Modern Warfare 2? Or do I just bite the bullet and play King Kong, at long last?

Good question. Not entirely sure, yet...

Friday, 5 February 2010

Buggy Boy (Commodore Amiga)

Buggy Boy must be the most requested game there is for MAME. Everyone seems to want to see it emulated, and I'm not sure why. I doubt it was one of their favourite arcade games... I only ever saw it once, I think. Maybe it's because they didn't get to play the arcade game. But there were decent versions available on the home systems. I know - I must have played the Commodore 64 version to death. But I'd never played the Amiga version... until now.

It has to be said that Buggy Boy on the Amiga looks fantastic. Everything is big, bold and bright, with vibrant and colourful flags and a huge buggy wobbling about in the middle of the screen. It really does wobble, though... any driver of that would be throwing up after less than half a lap!

The construction barrier I get, but who the hell puts fences in the middle of the road?

Buggy Boy is a race against the clock. You rarely see another buggy on any of the tracks... it's all about getting to the checkpoint before you run out of time. It's a tricky task, which can be made only slightly easier by picking up up to three time bonus flags per section. Even so, you're likely to coast to a stop with the checkpoint in sight.

In the Commodore 64 version, this was a big tease. In the Amiga version, it's more of a frustration, at least for me. See, the game moves at a real clip... possibly even too much of a clip to play it properly. You'll often find yourself crashing or missing something just because the game was moving too quickly. Either that, or my reflexes are really dulling in my old age.

After playing for over an hour, I came to the conclusion that although this version looks tremendous, I prefer playing the Commodore 64 version. That game is very testing but completely fair. The Amiga version was just that little bit too annoying to keep me at it.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

That's entertainment!

I had a rubbish day today. I was supposed to be meeting up with a load of mates in London, but couldn't afford the trip. Then, after leaving for work at 6:30am, I didn't get home until nearly 9pm. So I was knackered, and didn't have time to play a blog game.

I needed a bit of cheering up. I got it by going back to Bayonetta.

Yeah, I know. It's a game a day, but I'm going back to Bayonetta for this pretty often. It's great fun! And all I'm going to say for this entry is this: Chapter XIV, Verses 1 and 2.

Insane, brilliant fun, and a fantastic shout out to the Sega fanboys out there (and who hasn't got a lot of love for Sega?).

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Sneezies (iPhone/iPod Touch)

I'm bloody hooked on this thing.

I've got a workmate to blame for the addiction. She got an iPod Touch for Christmas, but didn't have broadband until a week ago. And one of the first things she downloaded was Sneezies, which she naturally wandered over to tell me I had to download. So I did, and I might as well have just injected crack into my eyeballs. Thanks, Jane.

The object of Sneezies is simple. The Sneezies are cute little creatures, which float around the screen in bubbles. You get to touch the screen once per level, and when you do, you release a small cloud of something that irritates their little noses, causing them to sneeze. When they sneeze, their bubble bursts in a colourful cloud, and they parachute to the ground. That colourful cloud will irritate any other Sneezies within range, causing a chain reaction, hopefully big enough to meet your objective for the level.

Awwwww. Cute ickwe fwuffies!

And that's it. Very simple, and stupidly addictive. There are three different game types: Classic, where you simply have to meet the specified target on each level; Challenge, where you have a certain number of touches to meet your objective, and Score EX, which is a high score mode. Each mode offers something different, fun and addictive.

An added bonus is that when the bubbles burst, it creates something of a firework display on your screen. It's a nice little visual... in fact, the whole game is very nice to look at, and sounds cute too. But it's all about the playability, and Sneezies is overloaded with that one-more-go hook that'll never let you go. For only 59p, this one is almost impossible to resist.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Unsung Classics. Number 1: Stock Car (Commodore 64)

Jesus. Would you look at the state of that? I mean, how on Earth could that be worth more than two minutes of anyone's time?

That was exactly what I thought back in about 1986, when I went to a mate's house and he was loading games from a tape and this came up. And then we played it. And at the end of the night, when it was time for me to go home, we hadn't got any further through the tape. And it was a C90, too.

I'm guessing you haven't played Stock Car. Even if you had a Commodore 64 in the 80s, and even if you bought, stole or borrowed hundreds of games, it wasn't exactly a well-known or common game. If, by some chance, you did stumble across it, you probably thought exactly what I did when I first saw it, and went on to something else.

And bringing up the rear is the Arkansas Chuggabug...

If any of those things applies to you, that's a shame. It's a shame, because Stock Car has a lot of options and a two-player mode. Once you start messing with the options, changing the amount of skid or oil slicks, you can make the game a lot of fun. Two-player is unquestionably where a lot of that fun is though. If you can play this with a mate, you'll be playing one of the most entertaining Super Sprint-style games of the era. Seriously.

Stock Car is definitely a perfect example of graphics not making the game. A perfect example of an unsung classic. And if you do play and win the race, watch out for the trophy ceremony. Un-be-lievable.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Rock Star Ate My Hamster (Commodore 64)

I always fancied this back in the day! It always seemed as though it would be a right laugh, and who doesn't want to take a band all the way to the top? So the promise of music, celebrity, scandal and uproar was too good an opportunity to miss this time around.

Rock Star Ate My Hamster is a very basic management game, which pitches you into the cut and thrust world of the pop charts as you pick your perfect blend of stars for a supergroup... or maybe a manky bunch of knackered has-beens would be your ideal lineup?

A pop strumpet, a permanently pissed grizzled metaller and a mad genius. Surely the perfect blend?

It's really quite funny at first, with humourous caracatures of well-known stars to pick from, subtly renamed for the job at hand. Dick Knackered, a ringer for the singer with the Rolling Stones, particularly tickled my fancy. He was a bit expensive for my budget, though, and I went with Lumme, Frank Zipper and Bimbo Baggins, who was the double of a famous Australian pop strumpet. And with them thrown together, the charts were surely ready for Christ On A Bike.

Or not.

Cracking the charts is actually pretty difficult. For starters, you haven't got anything to crack them with. You need product, and to be able to record, you've got to have a deal. You've got to hit the gig circuit and make a name for yourself. At this point, you have to decide on the scale of the venues you'll play, and the prices you'll charge. Too big a venue or too high a ticket price, and you'll risk making a loss.

Christ On A Bike. Quality, through and through.

Get the balance right, though, and you'll start accumulating cash, and a reputation. Sponsors will flood in. Well, you might get one or two, but it's better than nowt. And eventually, you'll attract the attention of a record company and score a deal. And then it'll be time to hit the studio.

Christ On A Bike's debut album, "A Smorgasbord of Shite", endured a tricky gestation, with the band's manager accidentally wiping one of the best tracks. Eventually, though, we had ten tracks laid down, and we had to decide upon a single for release. The manager, in his infinite wisdom, chose the less-than-immediate "Arse-tronaut", which the band felt worked better as an album track.

To be fair, you could quite see that happening, with that gob.

And so it proved, with "Arse-tronaut" not making a dent in the top 10. Second single, "Lord of the Rings is Shit" suffered from having an inappropriate video, and again failed to chart. And "A Smorgasbord of Shite" was similarly absent from the album charts. But the band was playing to sold out arenas, albeit with cheap tickets proving a draw. And the publicity machine was cranked to full effect.

And then came the break we needed. Bimbo Baggins was killed in a terrorist attack. And whether it was due to the groundwork we had put in with our gigging or merely proof that death sells, our epic instrumental "Bimbo's Tits" hit number three in the charts! Christ On A Bike had arrived!

Success at last! What more glorious tribute to Bimbo's death than a chart hit named after her norks?

Truth be told, Rock Star Ate My Hamster isn't a great game, it's far too limited for that. But there's something ridiculously addictive about trying to pimp your band into a chart position. I must have played for about two hours non-stop to make it in the biz, so make of that what you will!