Saturday, 30 October 2010

Pinball FX 2 (XBox 360 Live Arcade)

I'm not going to pretend I'm any kind of pinball expert. In fact, I'm rubbish at it. "Hit flashing ramps for bonus!" "Hit targets for multiball!" Whaaaat? I just like whacking the ball and hoping it doesn't get past my flippers. Am I a bad man?

It goes without saying that I'm not exactly cultured in this regard. Doesn't matter. I love racking up high scores, and pinball is one of the purest forms of this exercise, so from that point of view, it makes me happy. And I can quite easily sit and zone out on a pinball game for hours. It can be quite therapeutic, as well as fun.

This table is called Pasha. It's filled with Turkish delights!

I downloaded the original Pinball FX... oooh, a good while ago now. Over time, I've downloaded all but one of the additional tables available for it, and when I feel like playing something that's not too taxing, it's kind of my fall-back game. I can just chuck it on and sit there, merrily flipping away for fifteen minutes or an hour, or whatever. So I was very interested to find that a sequel was available, and for free, no less!

Well, actually, that's not entirely true. What you get for free is basically a new pinball engine. The clever bit about it is that you can re-download any tables you've already bought for the original and play them in updated form. That said, they don't seem that updated - there's a flashy trail effect to the ball, but that seems to be more or less it - but most of the tables get three new achievements each, for a total of 39 new cheevos. That's a heck of a lot for an XBLA title!

The majesty of Rome... in pinball form!

If you do stump up the 800 points, then you get four brand new tables, and these ones do seem to have ramped everything up a bit. There are four distinct themes, so you're never in too much danger of getting confused as to where you are. That said, the gameplay on all the tables is pretty similar... flippers, ramps and bumpers are all in much the same places, and objectives are all pretty much the same. I know the objective is to make these like real-life tables, but I think in some cases they could use the technology to come up with something really outlandish.

Still, I'm being a bit petty. I've happily downloaded Pinball FX, Pinball FX 2 and all the extra tables bar one, which for 200 points I might as well get as well. I couldn't tell you how these stack up against the classic real pinball tables, but they're enjoyable enough that I can play them at any time and while away a good chunk of my evening. Pinball FX was kind of a guilty pleasure for me to begin with... Pinball FX 2 ramps that up by a few notches, so that should be me happy for the next three years or until Pinball FX 3 comes out.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Syberia (PC)

The last PC game I played was Clive Barker's Undying, a game I'd never played before but that my wife Lorraine had played in America. Today, I played Syberia, a game I'd never played before but that my wife Lorraine had played in America. I sense a pattern developing. Still, if it worked last time...

Syberia is a point-and-click adventure, and it's very much in the classic vein of that genre. That also means that it has its frustrations and limitations. The amount of times you'll hear "No point, it's locked" or "No need to go down there" is ridiculous. But with this game, it's well worth getting past that and sticking with it...

Hello, Kate Walker. I would say "Good day", but it obviously isn't.

You play Kate Walker, a somewhat downtrodden business lawyer who's been shipped abroad on a quick trip to close up the purchase of a toy company whose owner has died. Any thoughts of tying up the deal and getting home quickly soon evaporate, though, when it turns out that the company has a surprise heir...

What follows is, I can say without reservation, one of the greatest PC adventure games of all time. It starts off slowly, and like I said, it can be a bit frustrating. But you can't give up. You know how point-and-click games work... you can't do something in one area until you've found everything in another area. Think of it as unlocking new parts of a game... that's in vogue these days. Once you get into that mindset, you're away... otherwise, there's always the online walkthroughs to help you along, if you must...

Well, that's just typical.

I know that's cheating, but with Syberia it's worth doing whatever it takes to complete the game. I haven't done it yet on this play through, but I can remember vividly from watching Lorraine that Syberia is a great story, one that has real emotional weight as it unfolds. The people in Kate's life at home, on the other end of her mobile phone, are obnoxious morons, and you really feel for her as she gets drawn into the world of the Voralbergs and the remarkable automatons they've manufactured.

Oooh, you don't want to be hanging around there. It's Halloween!

Syberia is a beautiful-looking game, even for its age. The town of Valadilene and its surroundings look like the sort of place you could easily lose yourself in. As Kate's life in New York exposes itself as being less rosy than she'd thought, you find yourself entirely on her side as her journey through Europe on her quest to find the rightful heir to the company takes on a different meaning...

Ooh, that's clever!

Unless you really can't stand point-and-click games, and I know that's entirely possible due to their somewhat plodding and contemplative nature, I implore you to play Syberia. Yes, that's right... I used the word "implore". For me, it's right up there with Grim Fandango in terms of quality PC game storytelling. It doesn't have that game's sense of humour... it's not that kind of game. But it's one that will stick with you for a long time afterwards.

You can buy it from for $9.99, although occasionally they'll offer it for less.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

A number.

I was just looking at the stats for the blog (I love stats, but only discovered these a few days ago!), and I've spotted that there have been over 2,000 page views in the last month.

Now, that might not be a huge number in the grand scheme of things, but I reckon it's pretty good for my little corner of teh Internetz. I can't help feeling that this is building quite nicely.

So, many thanks for reading. It's nice to know that my stuff is actually worth putting out there. And please keep coming back... and if you think anyone you know or don't know might like it, please point them in this direction, be it via Facebook, Twitter or whatever. I'll keep doing this regardless, but the more that read and enjoy it, the better!

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Clive Barker's Undying (PC)

Clive Barker's Undying is not a game I've ever played before. It's not a game I would have ever picked by myself, nor would I have bought it if I was browsing the racks in the game shops. So why on Earth would I pick it for this blog? What brought it to my attention? Well, years ago, my wife used to play it. And she really enjoyed it, too. When I spotted it in a "3 for £10" offer, I snapped it up... mostly for her, but also in the knowledge I could write about it myself. Two for the price of one.

I've... got a pocket full of... Kryptonite

It's a First-Person Shooter... and there's the reason I hadn't played it before. If you've read much of this blog in the past, you'll know it's not a genre I'm particularly au fait with. Still, as I've said before, I'm not averse to a good blast now and again, and Lorraine promised me that this was quite an intense, creepy game. Excellent... I like a game that has something to make it stand out from the crowd.

And Undying certainly does stand apart. At first, it sets just the right spooky atmosphere, with a nice scene-setting intro to get you going before you're dumped outside a lightning-enshrouded mansion. Good stuff. Unfortunately, after five minutes of play the scariest thing is the voice acting. The accents are atrocious! If you thought Dick van Dyke's "Gawd bless yer guvnor, me cheeky Cockernee sparrer" accent was a shocker, you ain't heard nothing yet. English, Irish... doesn't matter. They're mangled beyond belief.

That's them! The source of all troubles. Well, the middle one's alright... isn't he?

Not to worry, though. Although the story is important, it comes across well enough that the dodgy accents don't ruin it. In fact, they provide a bit of light relief in among the frights and the action.

Undying has a lot of action, once it gets going. As things unfold, you learn more and more about the Covenant family, who occupied the mansion until their untimely deaths. Only one remains, your friend Jeremiah Covenant, but even he isn't well and he wants you to find out what's going on before the seemingly inevitable happens. Unfortunately, although his siblings are dead, they still make their presence felt... strongly. They're to be found in ghostly form, roaming the mansion's rooms and corridors, frightening servants and generally getting up to no good. Your task is to stop them and, ultimately, the Undying King, who plans to be a bit naughty in our realm.

What are you laughing at?

You have a trusty old revolver to start with, and this comes in handy for dispatching Howlers, nasty looking things that think nothing of ripping off your head and eating it. Yuck. Other weapons can be found, along with spells which you can activate with the mystical green stone that you keep around your neck for protection. You're going to need everything you can find, and your wits, as everything ramps up toward its (no doubt terrible) conclusion.

Clive Barker's Undying has all the ingredients of a classic FPS, and thankfully it mixes them just right. The action is tricky and satisfying, the story is interesting and there's a good amount of scary stuff going on. For a game that's almost ten years old, it still feels good to play today, and is more interesting than a majority of the more generic shooters with rubbish, cobbled-together storylines. Given that it can be picked up for so little these days and runs without issue on a modern PC, I would recommend that anyone pick this up. I'm heading back in there now...

Phoenix (iPhone/iPod Touch)

"Hey!", I thought, when I saw the name Phoenix on my iPod. "Taito must be releasing a series of arcade classics on the iPhone. Fantastic!" Then I saw the screenshots and realised it was not Phoenix from the arcades at all, but an entirely different game. Swizz!

Die, alien scum! That was a bit predictable, wasn't it?

It's a little bit naughty giving a game an already-well-established name. It's a bit like forming a rock band now and calling them The Human League, or something. Except you'd get killed for that, obviously.

Still, on second glance I noticed it was actually a shooting game... not only that, it looked like a bit of a bullet hell affair. So I checked the requirements... I'd been very keen to buy Espgaluda II, but I've got a first generation iPod Touch and (disappointingly) that game won't run on the 1st gen models. But all was well... Phoenix runs on everything.

A shield! Nice. Now I can get in there and really give them what for.

If you look Phoenix up on iTunes, the lack of any kind of storyline is both hilarious and refreshing. There are no pretentions here: you just fly up the screen and shoot everything. Great.

Phoenix has got a typical iPhone control method. You slide your finger around the screen to move your ship, which fires by itself. Your ship is quite big, and this makes it quite easy to control. In fact, out of all the shooters I've played on my iPod Touch, this is the one I've had least problems and most joy with when it comes to the controls.

Now we're talking! Come on, I'll take you all!

Although your ship is big, the hitbox is not, so with careful manoeuvring you can steer your way around most of the bullet patterns that are thrown your way. That means it's quite easy to concentrate on blowing stuff up.

I love blowing stuff up, and Phoenix really does do it pretty well. Ships of various sizes stream down the screen, and you blow them up. Various pickups will appear as you shoot stuff, ranging from shields to weapons upgrades to special attacks. When large ships are destroyed, any bullets that remain on the screen will be converted to bonuses, which automatically flow into your ship to add to your points total. It's a familiar mechanic, but no less enjoyable for it.

Ahh, that's the stuff! Now, I am eeenveeenceeblllllle!

Phoenix boasts of being different every time you play, due to a revolutionary procedural content generator that spawns different attack patterns depending on how well you're doing. As you progress, the difficulty level ramps up too, from one star all the way to five. As you only get one life (but can take a few hits before death), you'll have to be careful as those stars light up...

Any possible disappointment that this isn't the 1980 arcade game is quickly washed away in a hail of bullets. Phoenix is a nice, if repetitive blaster, which I've enjoyed quite a bit so far. It certainly isn't on the level of quality or complexity of the Cave shooters, but on the other hand that could be quite a draw to a number of people... sometimes it's too frustrating to have your backside kicked to Kingdom Come. If you've got a first generation iPhone or iPod Touch and are missing out on Cave's games, or feel like dipping your toe into the waters of bullet hell shooters, Phoenix will fit the bill very nicely indeed.

Buy it on iTunes for 59p

Costume Quest (XBox Live Arcade)

Halloween in America is awesome. I'm qualified to say that, because I lived there through six of them and experienced it in all its over-the-top-yet-perfectly-orchestrated splendour. It's a wonderful occasion, and an absolute joy to walk the streets with your kids, going from door to door. It's a hell of a contrast to the British attempt at Halloween, with kids coming round any time they fancy from September onwards, and gurning miserably at you if you have the nerve to give them sweets and not money. Grasping little shits.

See what a cynic I've become? I miss the American Halloween. But now, thanks to the lovely folks at Double Fine I can play Halloween on my XBox, with the release of their new game, Costume Quest.

Ahh, siblings... always with the fighting and arguing...

Costume Quest is almost heartbreakingly cute, but more than that, it captures perfectly the entire essence, feel and atmosphere of an American suburb on Halloween. The opening scene, where the camera travels through the neighbourhood on the way to our heroes' house, is just right in every way, with the kids milling about in their costumes in the early evening.

The object of Halloween, and therefore the game, is to collect as much candy as possible. Costume Quest features a pair of twins; Reynold, a boy, and Wren, a girl. After their initial squabbling, you must decide which of the twins will be the leader while trick-or-treating, and therefore the character under your control. Unfortunately, this is no ordinary Halloween night. The town is hiding place to a horde of candy-gobblin' goblins, as Reynold and Wren soon discover when one of them is kidnapped by one of the monsters...

"By the power of Graysk... oh, hang on...

Whichever child is left must do the trick-or-treat rounds, collecting candy as usual, but also recruiting allies to help in the fight against the evil Goblin forces. This isn't too difficult, as the town is packed with kids in their different costumes. Some are not so friendly, but once you get someone onside, they'll follow you around and you have the added benefit of having them, and the powers of their costume, alongside you in battle.

The battles take place when the kids encounter any of the monsters intruding upon Auburn Pines' evening. In what is an awesome turn of events, they transform into whatever they're wearing at the time. So a robot boy becomes a huge missile-firing mech, a knight becomes, ummm... a knight, etc. What's brilliant about this is that it puts you directly into the mindset of the kids... if they were wearing those costumes, that's how they'd imagine themselves to be. It's fantastic.

And now, foul creature, you shall perish by my sword.

As you travel, you can hit many of the objects around town. Mailboxes, bins and even pumpkins may contain precious candy, and it all helps to fill your candy pail. And then there are other items to be found... most notably, costumes. You can obtain blueprints of different costumes, and the pieces can be found around town, usually in coffins that are lying in back gardens...

There's a bit more to the game than this, too. You'll routinely pick up quests along the way, and these help add a fair amount of play-time. I haven't completed the game yet, so I'm not entirely sure whether you have to finish all the quests to complete the game, but you'll probably want to anyway as they help you in various ways, whether it's for XP or bonus items to use in the game.

Mr. Johnson's costume was just a touch too realistic.

Adding to the whole feel of Costume Quest is the dialogue. It's not spoken, but pops up in bubbles, and is beautifully child-like... and childish, at times! That's not meant in a bad way, it's just another way the game completely sells the world in which it takes place. There's some great humour too... check out the fella with the bobbing-for-apples minigame as a prime example...

I've read reviews that complain about certain elements of the game... that there's too much story, or the fighting is too simplistic, or the save game system is rubbish (actually, there's an element of truth to that last one, but not so much that it's offputting at all). But I bet those reviews were written by the kind of joyless goons that leave their porch lights off on Halloween. Costume Quest is a beautifully conceived and executed little game, that is a thorough joy to experience. Best of all, better even than the fact I love it, it's had my almost-ten-year-old absolutely hooked since he bought it. You can't ask for much more than that.

Friday, 22 October 2010

A preview, of sorts...

I might not have posted when I said I would, but I've got a lot of posts lined up and being worked on, so there should be plenty to read this weekend. A few hints: there'll be a bit of an XBLA blowout, a classic scary PC action game, a Commodore 64 budget game and maybe an old classic reimagined on the DS. Mabe a couple of others too, if I can find the time...

Keep 'em peeled!

Space Invaders Infinity Gene (XBox Live Arcade/iPhone/iPod Touch)

Space Invaders, Taito? In 2010? Really? I mean, we just had Space Invaders Extreme not that long ago... surely that's enough? It jazzed up the age-old formula quite nicely, and there's only so much you can do with Space Invaders.

Isn't there?

Not as far as Taito is concerned, and in an attempt to keep Space Invaders fresh (and raking in the cash), they've given it the most radical reworking of an original game... well, ever, probably.

That's bigger than a typical mothership!

The title screen is odd, and should give you a clue that this isn't going to be your traditional Space Invaders game. Although, when it first kicks off it lulls you into a false sense of security by giving you Spacies, straight-up. Just a few seconds in, though, and it wrenches you through time and space and gives you an Invaders game the like of which you could never have imagined...

When a shooter is as radically overhauled as this, it's difficult to think what it can be compared to. It's a bit obvious to say it's Rez-inspired... just because they're quirky, offbeat shooters doesn't mean they have that much in common. No, Infinity Gene is pretty much its own entity, offering a refreshing take on Space Invaders with enough to link it to the past but with plenty there to enable it to stand proud on its own merits.

Oooh, that looks wrong in a small picture. Anyway, all those bits fly around and need to be shot.

Although the classic invaders appear often, they're almost thrown in as distractions; as if the programmers know you'll recognise them and go after them, when greater enemies are always just around the corner. Huge vector spaceships will appear, taking several shots to dispatch. Bizarre frameworks will appear, with invaders travelling along them and hemming you in. Formations will appear from unexpected places, forcing you out of your comfort zone. Infinity Gene never lets you settle, always throwing new ideas at you, constantly making you adapt.

Fortunately, you're able to even things up a little (albeit just a little). The classic saucers that flit about now drop DNA capsules, and when you pick enough of these up they strengthen your firepower. You're never going to turn into a bullet-hell wielding, all-conquering monster, but at least you've go a bit more than the original's pea-shooter. And as the game progresses, you're able to unlock different types of firepower, some of which you might find useful and some not, depending on how you play.

This lot never give up, do they?

The game also features a number of modes beside the main game, which is quite important in ensuring you'll play it for longer than the customary ten-minute blast. Challenge mode gives you 99 stages to clear (or try to clear), Bonus mode gives you, erm, bonus stages to play, which are unlocked throughout the game... and then there's Music mode.

I love things like this in games. Music mode, as you'd expect, lets you play the game to your own choice of music. Better than that, though, it generates the stage around it. So the number of stages available is limited only by the size of your music collection.

OK, this is just getting insane.

This is awesome. Personally, I'm a big fan of instrumental rock, and it lends itself to this sort of thing extremely well. And from the tracks I've used, there can be an incredible amount of variety to the stages you can get. Yngwie Malmsteen is my favourite guitarist... I can highly recommend his tune "Leviathan" for a fun blast, or "Little Savage", which almost turns this into a racing game!

Space Invaders Infinity Gene is an excellent (if slightly mad) reworking of the original arcade classic. The amount of gane you get for your money would make it well worth your while if it was limited to just the main game and the Challenge mode, but with the Music mode giving you so much extra play, it's a steal. Music mode works better on the iPhone/iPod Touch (it's a bit of a pain having to stream playlists on a console, changing tracks on your media player every time), but I prefer the game on the big screen with a "proper" controller. Either way, you can't really go wrong with this.

Thursday, 21 October 2010


Well, so much for my promised update. That's what I get for not doing one thing at a time. Too many good games on the go at once, that's the problem! Still, that means it'll be a bumper weekend of updates... keep checking back for them!

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Super Meat Boy (XBox 360 Live Arcade)

I was going to write about something else today, something that I started playing last night, but I didn't bank on XBox Live Arcade throwing three games out on one day, with at least two that I really fancied trying... and ended up buying. So the original offering has been put on hold, and instead I'm going to write about the game that took a solid hour out of my evening without even trying... Super Meat Boy.

To be honest, I'd heard very little about Super Meat Boy before its 360 release, other than the odd comment on a website saying it was "awesome". I like awesome games, so I thought I'd better investigate. It turns out that Meat Boy was a flash game on the Newgrounds website, which instantly brought something else to mind...

She's quite something... you can see why he'd go to all that effort to get her back.

Graphically, it has a certain charm, and this is where the Newgrounds link comes in... it kind of reminds me of Alien Hominid to look at, and Alien Hominid is another game that started life as a flash game and made its way onto the 360. It also reminds me of Alien Hominid in how bastard hard it is. But although there's more to do in Alien Hominid, you're more likely to spend more time with Super Meat Boy, and this is purely down to the superb game design.

You see, the beauty of this game is that when you die, there you are again, ready to throw yourself at the challenge one more time. This instantaneous restart is crucial to the game's hook, because if you had to wait for any kind of loading screen every time you died, your telly would likely have a controller-shaped hole in the middle of it after less than an hour. As it is, every time you die and are frustrated to the point of turning it off, you find yourself unable to resist flinging Super Meat Boy to the right just one more time... nnngggghhhh!!!

Bit like a snail, is Super Meat Boy... just his trail is bloody, rather than slimy.

Adding to the addictiveness is the fact that many levels take between 10 and 30 seconds to complete, and there are tons of them. It's like the most successful handheld games in that regard... it's very easy to just dip in and out of when you've got a bit of free time. If you complete a level fast enough, you get a Grade A+ ranking, and unlock the "Dark World" version of the level... it's the same level, but with loads more added evil. So, effectively you're getting twice as much game for your money. Even better.

I've mentioned that Super Meat Boy is bastard hard. It really is. You're going to die an extraordinary amount of times while playing it. It's also very evil. It has a sick, twisted, black heart... blackened by a profusion of congealed blood. The blood, fantastically, is everywhere. Super Meat Boy himself is blood red, and being a meat boy, contains lots of blood. This blood is spilled, splattered and strewn across the level every time SMB is killed, as you might expect. But the level doesn't reset when you die... the blood remains smeared, caked and splattered all over the scenery. Which is nice.

Replays are hilarious, with every Meat Boy that attempted the level being shown at the same time.

Super Meat Boy is an old-school platform game made new. I've read in a couple of places that it's like Super Mario Bros., which is cobblers as all it shares with that game are the initials and the ability to jump and sprint. If anything it's even more old-school than that. It kind of reminds me of the twisted glee of the torture screens in Creatures on the Commodore 64 in some ways, although the gameplay is pure platform jumpiness, with the odd boss level thrown in for good measure. They've launched it at the sale price of 800 points... I would grab it for that now if you have any interest in leaping about and dying lots.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Game Dev Story (iPhone/iPod Touch)

If you like to keep up to speed with the games industry as a whole, rather than just play the games it churns out, then you'll probably be aware that a fairly alarming number of games development studios are closing down these days. To the casual observer, this might seem a bit odd... all games sell millions, so developers must be bathing in money, right? Not so. Maybe you'll understand the situation a little better if you play Game Dev Story.

In this game, you take the management reins of a new software house. Naturally, the aim of the game is to rise from nothing to become a Valve-like behemoth, but the course of the games industry does not run smooth...

Five? Great! Send 'em in!

First things first. You can't knock out a game with just your secretary for help... you're not Jeff Minter, after all. Nope, to get anywhere in this game, you're going to have to hire some staff. Fortunately they're queueing up to work for your fledgling company. The difficulty comes in hiring the right staff. You're not going to get the best on your limited budget, but if you hire for their potential, you can train them over time and hopefully develop them into award-winners.

Having said that, there may be times when they're not quite up to the task at hand. No fault of their own... it's just inexperience. When this happens, you can give your project a boost, either by using items in conjunction with your research data, or by contracting some aspect of the work to a specialist outsider. What you have to bear in mind is that these things all cost money, and until you have a hit on your hands it's in limited supply... so choose wisely.

This project is really heating up...

Once your game is finished, it's time for the release. It'll help if you pay for advertising at this time... you need as many people to know about your game as possible. Then you can sit back and watch the sales mount up. Or can you? It doesn't pay to sit around, and while your staff might be a bit burned out to be considering anoher game, you can take on other projects to keep funds ticking over, such as creating scenarios or sound FX work. There's always plenty to do.

This all sounds a little bit dull, but it isn't at all. It's entertaining... interesting, even, to see how this game industry works. And it helps that it has a nice sense of humour. The game is littered with cute little references, and the best thing is they tie in (somewhat) with real gaming history. So if you know your consoles, you should be able to figure out which ones to throw your weight behind in the game... and which ones to avoid!

Damn! We were hoping for the Dreamcost 2.

I've seen a lot of reviews that complain about the graphics... that although the style is nice, the iPhone is capable of better. I think that's missing the point. Just because "better" is possible, it doesn't mean it's suitable. The pixel-art style this game employs fits really well, and that's much more important than adding extra flash. Similarly, there are complaints that the game doesn't fill the whole screen. If this affected gameplay, fair enough... but it doesn't. To me, Game Dev Story has very cute graphics that fit perfectly... that'll do for me.

Hurray! What a bunch of stars we are!

If there's one game that Game Dev Story reminded me of, it's Rock Star Ate My Hamster, which I played back at the beginning of February. It has the same reliance on hiring the right people, making the right choices regarding work and advertising, and some nice subject-related humour. That also means that there's a chance the repetitive gameplay will become stale over time. And with the relatively expensive (for the iPhone) £2.39 price tag, some might not feel like taking on the risk. Personally, despite my usual apathy towards resource-management games, I've fallen for the charms of Game Dev Story, and it's a very welcome addition to my iPod Touch.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Thoughts, ideas and thingies.

Hey gang,

Just having a few thoughts here, so I thought I'd think them out loud. I'm just harking back to when this was A Game A Day, which wasn't actually all that long ago. Like I've said before, I haven't really got the time to do a game a day, but I might start jotting down a few game-related musings on occasion, or maybe a post now and then to mention a few upcoming games. Anyone got any thoughts about that? Might it be a bit irritating?

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Time Bandit (Atari ST)

I must have heard the name "Time Bandit" for twenty years now, without having played it. I definitely remember reading a review of the Amiga version in ZZAP! that sang its praises very highly, but it didn't excite me overly as I didn't reckon there was much chance of me ever playing it. Of course, I didn't bargain for emulators back then, did I?

Snakes. Why does it always have to be snakes?

I haven't got the Amiga version of this, but I just fancied giving it a go, so off to the Steem Engine I went. On loading it up, I was a touch underwhelmed. It seemed like a cross between Gauntlet (which I quite like) and Tutankham (which I hate). A mixture of "quite like" and "hate" would not appear to be the recipe from which a good game is made. Still, I plugged away, wondering if there would be a bit more to it than that.

There is, and there isn't. The gameplay doesn't exactly change... you run around mazes, shooting critters and collecting keys and treasure. But it's not a soul-crushingly hard as Tutankham, and it's a bit more interesting than Gauntlet, as well as being less overwhelming. Although it's challenging, you're given a bit of room to breathe.

Waka waka... what's going on here?

Time Bandit is also set up in a more interesting way. To start with, you wander a small map which features around twenty locations, ranging from pyramids to amphitheatres to spaceships. There's even a Pac-Man area, which is a bit weird. It doesn't really fit, but it adds a little bit of variety, I suppose.

When you enter a location, you'll soon find that it doesn't take long to complete it. Initially that's a bit worrying, but you can re-enter a location once it's been completed and you'll find that you get an entirely new level. Yep... there are something like sixteen levels in each location. That's more like it.

Are you not entertained? ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?

It's not all simple blasting (or dot-eating), either. Certain locations add complications, whether relatively simple with the addition of ladders to split levels or more involved... for instance, once aboard a spaceship, the computer will probe you for answers or information before allowing you into certain areas, or outside you might find a farmer who appears to want to sell you a sheep...

Time Bandit is a good game, with enough of its own ideas to distinguish it from the games I mentioned earlier. It looks and sounds a bit rubbish, and the actual playing area only fills about half of the screen, but that doesn't matter at all. Once again, a lucky dip into an unknown past has proven successful...

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Stop the Express (ZX Spectrum)

I'm sure one of my mates owned this way back, but I can't remember actually playing it. Stop the Express featured in various Top 100 lists when I was looking for blog ideas and it jogged a memory, so here we go.

And bloody hell, it was nearly "there it went". This game, at least when you first start playing it, is rock.It doesn't look like it would be... the basic aim is to run across the rooftop of an express train, jumping across the gaps, to get to the front of the train and, umm, stop it. What's difficult about that?

Now, you just know that this one is going to hurt.

Plenty, when you don't know all the rules and all the controls. Obviously, the game throws obstacles at you. It wouldn't be much fun if you just ran, unimpeded, to the front of the train. No, the point is that the train has been sabotaged, and the bad guys are out to stop you from stopping them. They'll climb up onto the roof of the train and give chase, pausing only to shoot at you. Yes, they're armed.

Pretty Polly pushes off the perps.

It was at this point the frustration overtook me, as I died time and time again. I really was getting sick of seeing "Game Over" pop up, with me having a final score of 0. It couldn't possibly be that hard. And then I saw the bird flying overhead and wondered what would happen if I jumped at it?

Turns out you collect it, and can then unleash it on your attackers, knocking them from the train. And it's at this point that Stop the Express turns from a frustrating waste of time into a fun little arcade game.

Over to the Commonwealth Games, and up next for England, on the rings, it's Malcolm McLaren.

For an early Spectrum game, I have to say it looks pretty good. There's a lot of colour in the game with barely any clash, other than the characters having a black block around them. It doesn't hurt the game in any way. Your mad-looking little Malcolm McLaren-esque fella is really quite endearing. I was also surprised to see the traditional arcade font... I was so used to seeing the classic Spectrum font in games that I presumed it was very difficult to program anything else. It certainly adds a fair bit to that important arcade feel.

Once you get the hang of it, Stop the Express is an enjoyable little arcade romp, blessed with a fair helping of that "just one more go" quality. I was a little surprised at just how much I did enjoy it... eventually. If you feel like giving it a go yourself, just make sure you read all the instructions first!

Monday, 11 October 2010

Unsung Classics. Number 12: Street Hassle (Commodore 64)

I've got such good memories of playing this. I doubt if many other people have, though, so it's becoming the latest in my irregular, infrequent and unmissable "Unsung Classics" series. OK, so the "unmissable" might be a bit of a stretch.

My mate Reedy, who has been mentioned here a number of times so far, bought this. I think it was from the fabled bookshop in Consett's bus station, but I can't remember. What I can remember is that it resulted in some of the best laughs we had from gaming.

Street Hassle is an Australian game. I reckon that maybe they could get away with a bit more down there. I say this, because it's imaginatively twisted, for a beat 'em up, and I'm not sure if we were quite at their level in 1987.

Right: Rock icon Graham Bonnet. Left: Underwear Man.

The character you play is a blonde, muscle-bound guy, who wanders through the suburbs dressed only in yellow boots and underpants, and a pair of sunglasses, looking for all the world like Graham Bonnet on holiday. Naturally, this causes consternation among the residents, and they set about attacking you in an attempt to clean up the 'hood.

There's not a "normal" resident to be seen, though. These crazy 'burbs are inhabited by all sorts. There are old blind men that will poke you with their sticks. I mean that... if you stand still, they'll walk up, look at you and then prod you in a mean way. Little old ladies will swing their handbags around their heads and fling them at you... if they remember to let go. If not, they'll be helicoptered across the screen at you. Gorillas routinely amble about, and will give you a good thrashing. Bulldogs are vicious things, but can be soothed with a tickle on the tum. There are lumbering fatties, elaborately-dressed wrestlers, basketball players. It's an odd sort of place.

See, that's how to deal with pesky grannies. That's payback for all the times they've smashed my shins with their brick-filled purse-bag-things.

Fortunately, you're able to fend off this lot with an array of attacks of your own. You've got a couple of standard attacks - a roundhouse kick and, umm, a tickle - and you get two special moves per level. These are different for each of the first five levels, meaning you have a total of twelve moves across the game. More than enough to cope with the scum you're up against.

This one had even me perplexed.

Street Hassle is a fairly mental side-scrolling beat 'em up. It's more basic than the likes of Double Dragon or Renegade, in that you can only move left or right, but it makes up for it by having a sense of humour unlike any other scrolling fighter. Where else do you get to twirl old ladies above your head before throwing them out of sight, or twist a blind old man's ears until he submits? Nowhere else, that's where.

Poke me with your stick, would you? Let's see how you like your ears twisted. Not much? Thought not.

For all that I enjoy playing the game and it's pretty funny, it is still limited, and so nowadays it's best played in one session and then left alone for a while, otherwise it's likely to get old. Most comedy does, but nothing moreso than a daft videogame. But it was great for its time, and given a quick spin it's still very likely to bring a smile to your face.

Cruising on Broadway (ZX Spectrum)

Cruising on Broadway, graphically, is probably the most basic game you will ever see, that isn't called Pong. Or, depending on how you want to look at it, the most minimalist. It consists of a line and two squares. The line twists around the screen, granted, but it is still a line.

Look out boys, it's da cops! Erm... really?

As such, you are patently not Cruising on Broadway. Why they litter the front cover with popular entertainment icons is beyond me. Well, it isn't... those big names (which I'm pretty sure they didn't license back then, the naughty chaps) are there to lure in the punter. You're not going to see them once you load the game. In fact, they don't even make any attempt to sell you a storyline to go with the title. Read the cassette inlay, and all it tells you is how to run the game, and that their are "Cash prizes" on offer for high scores. Cash prizes? Now you're talking! Oh, hang on... expires at the start of 1984. Bugger.

Not that it matters. There's no danger of me getting a score to trouble Solarsoft's accountants. Cruising on Broadway is incredibly simple, and pretty difficult. The objective is simply to paint the entire line on each screen. The problem lies with the other square, or "chaser". As you'd expect, it's out to spoil your fun. It patrols the line at random, and if you happen to crash into it, you die. It's a bit like playing Amidar on a Tron lightcycle... without being that good.

Look, Stu... it's not all about graphics and sound. They are shit, though. (Letter to PCG, July 1984).

As was often the way with old Speccy games, you only get one life. I was a bit shocked at the end of my first game... I just wasn't prepared for the Game Over message at that point. But it makes sense, even if it is twisted and evil.

This game ran on the 16K Spectrum, and the limitations are obvious - there are only four "courses" to navigate. To spice things up, should you complete the fourth and wrap back to the first, there will be two chasers rather than the one. Apparently. I'll confirm that if I ever manage it...

I almost expect this to buzz when I touch the line.

I can't imagine that Cruising on Broadway was ever more than a mild diversion, although we were pretty obsessive about our games back then, squeezing as much out of them as we could. Who knew when we'd be able to buy another one? And yet, this one does have a weird addictive quality, thanks in part to the fact that you get time bonuses for completing levels. That's the kind of feature that makes iPhone games popular today... I'm not recommending someone remake it for that - the controls would be horrible - but there's a basic appeal to it despite its flaws.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Too much?

I've been playing around with the settings for the blog. In this age of social networking, I've signed up to Twitter and will post a link to every update there, so if you would like to receive updates that way, please follow me, retweet me or whatever. I've put a little gadget at the top that makes it easy to add me, but it also posts some of my latest tweets. These might not all be game-related... so if anyone thinks this is one addition too far, let me know and I'll see if I can edit that. I'd like to leave the link to my Twitter page there, though...

NHL Eastside Hockey Manager (PC)

I first played Championship Manager, the game that went on to become Football Manager, with the 96/97 edition. That makes me a relative latecomer to the game. It also means I retained four or five years of my life that would otherwise have been categorised as "lost".

The game just does that to you. You'll start playing it at 7pm one evening, only intending to progress it a couple of match days before maybe having a marathon session at the weekend. Next thing you know, it's four in the morning, and all you've really done is watch some numbers change on a screen. It's just that evil.

And so, for years, hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of blokes all across the globe have lived the dream of taking their club to glory, winning trophies and titles with all manner of unlikely football clubs. And all by sitting playing, to all intents and purposes, a glorified spreadsheet.

The fools! Do they know what they're doing?

But there's one area of the globe that has not succumbed to the charms of The Beautiful Game - North America. And when you're selling video games, that's a huge market going untapped. But all is not lost! America has a number of sports of its own that they love, almost exclusively. Not only that, they absolutely love sports stats. So the Football Manager engine should be perfect for them. Oh... but they don't like football. If only it could be adapted for use with a sport they do like...

Well, Sports Interactive and Sega gave it a shot with NHL Eastside Hockey Manager, based on a game North America has a lot of love for - ice hockey. It's also a game that I have a fair bit of love for, having lived for a few years in the vicinity of Detroit... otherwise known as Hockeytown. Detroit is home to one of the finest teams in the game, the Detroit Red Wings, and I developed quite an appreciation for them, and the game, in my time there. I was always interested in this game, but never actually got around to buying it. Then I forgot all about it... until I saw it in Cash Converters, costing all of 50 pence!

The Captain. No more needs to be said.

Having played it a fair bit now, I can say that NHL Eastside Hockey Manager really is just an ice hockey version of Football Manager. And I say just... that's not a bad thing, in fact it's perfect. It works very well in the context of ice hockey. You get to run the franchise in exactly the same way as you run your club in the footy version, making all the same kinds of decisions, sending out scouts, setting up tactics, signing players.

That last bit is different, though. American sports don't use the same transfer system as we're used to in football. Instead, they go with drafts and trades. That being the case, your scouting network is incredibly important. You really need to be able to sign up the best young talent possible.

This screen is where you select your lines. This bit is deeper than your average football match.

So far, so good. And in fact, it's hard to be too picky with the game. It plays out a really good management game of ice hockey. And the classic text-plus-graphic representation of the game works just as well here as in Football Manager. There are a few things missing that could improve the game, though:

Not enough fights. In fact I haven't seen any yet. Anybody that watches ice hockey expects a good scrap to break out every now and then. Maybe as the season wears on and the tension increases, there will be some... hope so.

No sound. At all. It would have been nice to have the odd ref's whistle, and even nicer to have the buzzer blaring when a goal is scored. That wouldn't take much, and would add loads to the atmosphere.

GOOOOOALLLLL!!! Listen to the crowd roar! In your head... this game is played behind closed doors.

Not enough face offs. I know that the text just gives you the highlights, but you never, ever seem to see offsides or icings. As large parts of any ice hockey match, you'd expect to see some reference to them in the commentary. This is a bit strange, but can be overlooked in the interests of having a quicker-moving game.

These are but small issues, and the game itself is absolutely fine. It is in no way an arcade game, and in fact you'll have had it on for a good hour before you can even move past day one, by the time you've sent out your scouts and allocated squad positions and set up some tactics. But you're not getting into a game like this for arcade thrills... you've already got EA's NHL series for that. NHL Eastside Hockey Manager is a game that will give you hundreds, maybe thousands of hours of play. Just don't buy it if you have any responsibilities...

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Ridge Racer 6 (XBox 360)

Believe it or not, I'd never played a Ridge Racer game before. That shouldn't be too much of a stretch, seeing as you know I hadn't played a Castlevania game until recently. But Ridge Racer should have been different. Ridge Racer is an arcade game. I should really have played it at the seaside. But the the days of seaside arcades were numbered when Ridge Racer was released, and I didn't see a Ridge Racer game for a long time.

Similarly, I always seemed to miss the boat with the home releases. I never seemed to own the right console at the right time. So although Ridge Racer was raved about in many places, I always seemed to end up playing Sega racers. That's definitely not a bad thing, but now it's time to broaden my horizons.

Having said that, I was surprised to load up the game and be greeted by Pac-Man. Bloody hell, Namco.

The morning commute seemed a bit more exotic today.

With that out of the way, it was on to the game. And it's a bit daunting at first, plonking you into the Ridge Racer Universe with barely a moment's notice. I mean that literally... a galaxy of swirling green stars swallows you up and spits you out at its origin. It's at this point you realise what a mammoth racing task lies ahead of you. Well over 100 races, and as if that wasn't enough, you have to plot out routes yourself!

I like this approach. It's more fun to have an element of choice over where and when you race. Plus, completing routes (in this case, linking a section of races together) unlocks new cars, and who on this Earth doesn't like unlocking stuff? It's cool to get a new car for every few races you complete. It's even better that they're named after classic Namco games, and driving a Gaplus or an Ordyne racing car is great.

Neeeeeoooowwww! Who'd have thought that little bug had it in him?

There are things I don't like, though. I don't like that you have to win every single race in order to progress. I'd have preferred an approach more like Sega Rally's, where you get points depending on where you finish and a certain number of points will allow access to the next area. That gives a bit of leeway, and is a touch more forgiving when you have a difficult game. Having said that, Ridge Racer 6 doesn't appear to be as hard as Sega Rally, at least, not at the moment...

I really, really, really don't like the announcer. I thought I did, at first. But it didn't take long for him to become really grating. And he's camp. Very camp. Not necessarily anything wrong with camp, but there's a time and a place, and a turbocharged racing game is neither. And when he says, "Ooooh, someone's let off some nitrous", he says it like someone in the room just farted.

Skreeeeeeeeee! Sliiiiiiiiiiide! And without so much as a car in sight for added fun.

But those are niggles. There's plenty of good stuff, too. The sheer volume of racing is something that would keep anybody busy for ages. I like some of the little touches, particularly the way Pac-Man is used for split times. And the actual racing itself can be pretty exciting, even if the controls are weird and the cars just a bit too slidey. Just as well I've played a lot of OutRun 2 in the past, otherwise I would have been completely unprepared.

Ridge Racer 6 is, basically, a giant arcade machine in your own home. It's more expensive than an arcade machine, but you get way, way more game for your money. I'm not entirely sure yet whether I love it or not. I love owning a giant arcade machine, sure, but it hasn't clicked in the way that Sega Rally or OutRun 2 did. That said, I'm enjoying it a lot and will be pressing on with it in the days and weeks to come. It'll be interesting to see where it ranks in my list of top racers by, say, the end of the year.

Hmmmm... list of top racers... everyone loves a list...

Friday, 8 October 2010

Mojo (Slight Return)

Gaming Mojo is a strange thing. Sometimes, you can be right into games and whatever you pick up you can find yourself playing for hours. Others, you're in a slump and can pick endlessly through your shelves without one single game jumping out at you with a spark of inspirational quality.

I'm having one of those slumps at the moment. Don't get me wrong... I've been having great fun playing old games this past week. That side of me usually stays keen. But it speaks volumes when I'm turning on my 360 and would rather spend half an hour pissing about with Onechanbara Bikini Samurai Squad than getting stuck into the campaign on Halo Reach.

Still, things are about to pick up. Having played and loved the demo for Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, I've been out and bought the game today. The smallest child is in bed, the eldest will be soon, and I'll be diving into Monkey and Trip's somewhat dystopian future.

I'm really quite excited by it. If you haven't been following its development at all, here's a video showing the first 15 minutes of the game.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

OK, I'm a twit.

I've signed up to Twitter. I don't understand it yet, at all! But I'll tweet any new updates. If you're interested in receiving updates this way, then here I am:

PaulEMoz on Twitter.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Rex (ZX Spectrum)

And so, on to the "proper" game I was going to play today. And after asking for suggestions and getting hold of all the games that were mentioned, I've completely ignored the lot and gone for something that I'd never heard of.

Rex was issued by Martech, a company I know better for Commodore 64 releases such as Crazy Comets, Mega Apocalypse and Nemesis the Warlock. Apparently Rex was planned for the C64 but never released on that format. Luckily, it was released on the Spectrum, thereby giving me a new game to try out for my blog.

"And here we see, in the wild, a species indigenous to this planet... Mercenarius Rex."

The first thing that hit me when I started this game was how colourful it was. It reminded me of a few games all at once; Starquake, Exolon and Cybernoid. In fact, I wonder if this game was ever intended to be a Hewson release. It has something else in common with those games; it's rock hard. Yes, even harder than Cybernoid.

That doesn't mean it's not fun, though. It could have been frustrating, quite easily. But once you take a bit of time to evaluate the scene, watching bullet patterns and enemy movements, you can plot out your plan of action and then get moving. And you have a shield with limited energy, so if you save that and only activate it at the hardest bits, you should be alright.

Rex ain't no John Travolta...

Rex is not merely a platform game. As you're being shot at, it's only fair that you get to shoot back. Rex has (or can have) a number of weapons at his disposal. I say "can have"... you only get to use more powerful weapons once you've collected them from weapons pods around the complex. Even then, you need to have built up enough energy to power them. You do this by blasting enemies and collecting the little energy bubbles they leave behind.

It's interesting, this game, in that you're battling against humans as well as robots... but you aren't human yourself. Rex is kind if a hybrid dinosaur mercenary. Which is awesome, because there aren't enough games where you play as a gun-toting dinosaur mercenary.

When stealth and sneakiness fail, just let 'em have it.

It's worth noting again the graphics in this game. They're really lovely, and I like that the characters are all small as it gives the game more room in which to throw things at you. In fact, all those little characters, missiles and bullets bring to mind thoughts of Bangai-O, although this game really isn't anything like that.

Rex is a great little game, that offers a real challenge. I suspect it was released towards the end of the Spectrum's commercial life, which is a shame and means that many of the more seasoned Spectrum gamers might not have seen it either. If you still like to give the Spectrum a bit of your love,treat it to a workout and fire up Rex.