Friday, 13 July 2018

Switch Review - 60 Seconds

As the Switch grows in popularity more and more indie developers are porting their successful mobile and PC games. But despite enjoying huge unexpected success on Steam, do Console players want to play a game that’s part 3D scavenger hunt and part text adventure?

Developed by Robot Gentleman
Released in 2018

For a game called ‘60 Seconds!’ I seem to have sunk an astonishing number of hours into Robot Gentleman’s quirky survival comedy. It’s a game of two distinct halves and the name actually alludes to the part you’ll play first. The Reds are about to drop a nuclear bomb on a small American town. You have just one minute to collect as much as you can before diving into your personal fallout shelter. Playing as Ted, the game is viewed from above as the slightly portly Dad rushes around his small house clumsily knocking over as much as he grabs. However as he is limited by how much he can carry, what should Ted prioritise? Should he make sure his wife and two children are safely secure in the shelter or selfishly ensure his own survival by gathering water and food? Is a rifle more beneficial than an axe, is there a need for a radio in a shelter or would a gas mask be of greater use? In each play through the house layout and the placing of the items is randomised, which certainly adds a sense of panic to the item hunt. A player may want to take medical supplies with them but unless you can find them in the strict minute limit you’ll have to leave them behind. Thankfully you are granted a brief amount of time to scout out the items in your home prior to hearing the whaling sound of the warning alarm. How long this is depends on the difficulty setting, but its Seconds rather than minutes. 

When a section of a game must be completed in a tight time limit it’s imperative that controls are responsive. Frustratingly this isn’t the case with ‘60 Seconds!’ Ted will only pick up something if it’s directly in front of him which frequently wastes valuable seconds. Equally annoying are moments when there are two items in front of him, as half the time he’ll waste an inventory space picking up the wrong one. It’s telling that for their follow up ‘60 Parsecs’, Gentleman Robot have made the foraging part of the sequel 2D. In 3D there simply isn’t the precision needed especially when the consequences of your item selections matter so much in the second half of the game. 

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Switch Review - Holy Potatoes! A Weapon Shop ?!

With a title like ‘Holy Potatoes! A Weapon Shop?!’ You’re never going to expect a sensible game. But with impressive depth and addictive  gameplay this is one management sim you laugh along with rather than at.  

Developed by Daylight Studios 
Release by Rising Star Games
Published in 2018

Reaching the destination is satisfying, but any true RPG fan knows that it’s the journey that’s more exciting. No one can save the world alone though, a hero needs a party and they need to be armed for the task at hand. This is why the merchants in an RPG are the real unsung heroes. After all, you can’t vanquish a screen filling end-game boss with a wooden sword.

 But while we depend on these “Armoury Retail Assistants” to stand a chance at success, how much do really know about them? Do they tend to a store filled with expensive weapons, discreetly praying for an apocalyptic event to occur so they can finally shift the Holy Arrows they bought in bulk? Do they spend their downtime regretting establishing a potion shop in a cave that is only accessible once a bomb is used to expose the entrance? Has there ever been an occasion when accounting books have had to be fiddled to disguise where they acquired their rare unique stock?

It’s clearly something that Singapore-based Daylight Studios has pondered and in this “wacky” simulation game they foreground the true heroes of the RPG genre (albeit it potato form). “[its] is a look at an RPG from the other side,” says Don Sim, CEO and executive producer at Daylight Studios. “We wondered: ‘What do NPCs do when they’re not repeating the same lines over and over again?”. Faizan Abid, the game’s producer, however recalls that it wasn’t specifically RPGs that inspired the game mechanics. “Our team members really loved games like ‘Game Dev Story’, and ‘Game Dev Tycoon’. It was around April/May [2014] when we were reaching the end of our other projects that we decided to really work on one.” Evidently Don Sim, Faizan Abid and art director Julian Futanto sat in a coffee shop and discussed how to fuse the two thoughts. “What we all agreed on was that a team simulation game about making and selling weapons would be awesome. The RPG references were a natural part of it since heroes in any RPG world needed weapons!”

Friday, 6 July 2018

Mega Drive Review - Donald Duck in Maui Mallard : Cold Shadow (Game 165)

When is a Donald Duck game not a Donald Duck game? Disney Interactive’s first original IP was a superb brave platformer that broke from traditions & was closer to ‘Earthworm Jim’ than ‘Castle of Illusion’. So why did it never sit on American shop shelves?

Developed by Disney Interactive
Published by Disney Interactive
Released in 1996

Today The Disney Corporation is a huge media conglomerate encompassing television, cinema, theme parks and retail outlets. Forbes recently placed it in the top five Regarded companies but as founder Walt once said “this whole thing all started with a Mouse”. What Mickey represented was innovation and a belief that “if you can dream it you can do it”. From creating the first feature length animation and changing the face of theme parks through to designing an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, the early days of Disney were built on trail blazing ideas. However, following Walt’s death, the Disney Corporation became a follower rather than a leader.  Their animated films traded on past glory and their live action films pushed a more edgy tone inspired by other studio’s successes. Yet there was one emerging type of entertainment media that the company really failed to anticipate. Throughout the 80s and 90s the video game market was growing exponentially faster than theme parks and animation. Billions of dollars were being made by the gaming industry and Disney characters were losing their appeal.  A national survey taken in 1990 found that Mario was more recognisable among American children than Mickey Mouse. Disney executives reacted in the worst way; they handed over their IP to other companies able to make video games quickly. While this did lead to the creation of ‘Duck Tales’, ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Castle of Illusion’, there was also a lot of dross including notably ‘Fantasia’, which Disney later labelled a betrayal of the film. Despite the varying quality though, games carrying Disney branding were typically amongst the year’s top sellers and the House of Mouse was sharing profits with developers and publishers. “With console games, we weren't a publisher then. We were strictly a licensor," says David Mullich, the first game producer Disney hired in 1987.”There was a Disney drive to regain control, to ensure quality and also to tap into this new lucrative industry”.

There was some excitement in 1995 when it was announced that Disney's own development group; Disney Interactive, were going to deliver more than just film tie-ins. Market research had shown that audiences had a preference for fast paced action and though risky Disney followed the market’s lead. The first original title Disney Interactive developed was an all new Donald Duck game which, in many ways, was bold in both visuals and tone. It seemed the Disney Company was once again taking risks, treading unfamiliar ground in a developing medium.

Monday, 25 June 2018

Switch Reveiw - ICEY

With frantic intricate hack-and-slash gameplay and stunning 2D Graphics, ‘ICEY’ should be a game to delight many. But with an abstract story is it all just  a bit too complicated to be enjoyable?
Developed by FantaBlade Network
Released in 2018
There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of ‘ICEY’, a game created by an unknown Chinese developer that arrived on the eShop with little fanfare. However on this occasion ignorance may actually aid your enjoyment of this obscure and intriguing title. Like so many other fourth wall breaking, meta stories, the less you know about ‘ICEY’ the more it’ll surprise and delight you.

With this in mind its worth noting that some of the games surprises will be revealed in this review, so if, like me, you'd prefer to go in completely fresh stop reading now.   

Friday, 22 June 2018

Mega Drive Review - Cosmic Spacehead (Game 164)

Imagine a 2D platform game when your character’s jumps seem to randomly vary in height. Sometimes the agonisingly slow leaps will reach a ledge yet other times you’ll fall short trying to get across the same sized gap. Imagine a platform game where bouncing on an enemy’s head hurts your playable avatar rather than damaging the foe. In fact, imagine a 2D platform game where you have absolutely no attacks and a single hit sends you back to the start. Imagine a platform game where you do the same thing every stage, where no new game mechanics are introduced and your view is limited to a small circle in the middle of the screen. I would bet right now you’re imagining a 2D platform game that no one would ever want to play, and yet despite this ‘Cosmic Spacehead’ may be more than it initially appears. 

Developed by Supersonic Software 
Published by Code Masters
Released in 1993

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Switch Review - Pode

With a focus on friendship and cooperation, this visually stunning puzzle game should appeal to families, but is there enough here for a lone player to enjoy?

Developed by Henchman & Goon
Released in 2018

Cynical mainstream media has always tried to perpetuate the belief that the only emotions Video Games inspire are negative. Tabloid newspapers talk of video game addicts, fuelled by rage and aggression. As players we are portrayed as ruthlessly competitive, introverted and blood thirsty. However, developer Henchman & Goon believe a game should inspire the opposite feelings in a player. It’s a belief that leads to the creation of ‘Pode’ an enchanting artistic platform puzzler that should only be enjoyed with a friend. 

From the very start, game director Yngvill Hopen “wanted to create a positive gaming experience” she says. “I wanted more games I could play with my young son”. Unsurprisingly this has lead to the creation of a game where two players take control of an adventurer each and together you must utilise your character’s unique talents to solve environmental puzzles. 

Glo the brightest of the pair can jump higher and can also float in a way that mimics Yoshi in the majority of his platforming adventures. She can also drift on air currents and doesn’t sink in water. At the touch of a button this “fallen star” radiates light, a technique that activates specific switches and adds paths through a level; primarily by causing plants to grow. This creates platforms and lifts for her companion Bulder to use. This rock like cube is smaller and can pass through tighter spaces. These holes usually lead to Bulder’s own type of switches that manipulate a stage’s rocks; typically adjusting the height of platforms so Glo can reach previously inaccessible parts of a level. Like Kirby, Bulder can also inhale objects and carry them around a level. Glo can even be inhaled and when inside Bulder she becomes a directional light beam used to activate switches out of reach. The two characters can also stand on each other‘s heads and ride to safety should the level demand it. If this wasn’t enough, as the stages pass you’ll be introduced to even more abilities unique to one character or the other. Levels start off simply but quickly become very complicated as more and more environmental hazards and additional abilities are introduced. However death is never really a concern as a misstep will simply see your character transported to the start of a stage, unharmed and free to try the puzzle once again. The only thing that limits the players’ progression is their inability to use the character’s skills to navigate an environment. 

Friday, 15 June 2018

Switch Review - Henry the Hamster Handler

With a bizarre name and a child pleasing aesthetic you’ll likely have dismissed ‘Henry the Hamster Handler’. But for less than £3, is there more to enjoy than many realise?

Developed by Pocket Money Games
Released in 2018

In an attempt to make me understand the value of money, my parents gave me pocket money for chores. The more jobs completed around the house the more I’d have to spend at the weekend. I would always aim to get at least 79p per week as that was the amount required to buy a game from the ‘16 Bit Pocket Power Collection’. These were cheaply made or old Amiga games that were sold as individual 3 1/4 inch discs wrapped in plastic. They were usually found hanging on a display looking dubiously like bar peanuts. As is often the case, cheap in this case didn’t always mean good. There was a reason shops stuck to 79p for some of these games; after playing, people would have felt conned if they’d paid any more. For a young boy they presented a way to buy a game a week but for the team at Pocket Money Games, these 79p games were inspiration for a company ethos. 

“I remember them” company director Frankie Cavanagh once said on Twitter, “My first job was selling these!” Years later, as their name implies, Pocket Money Games are once again selling (and now creating) games that children will want to spend their Pocket money on. “The intention of all of our games is to be affordable” claims Cavanagh. However, while their output is suitable for children, PM Games are keen to point out that their titles shouldn’t be over-looked by older players. “Our range is designed for kids and kids at heart, [those] that remember spending their last 50p on ‘ghost and goblins’ in their local arcade” explains Cavanagh.

According to their website this fiercely independent game development studio “are dedicated to creating fun and exciting titles at a price that won't break the bank.” After dabbling in VR Titles on Steam, PM Games have now started producing Switch content. For Cavanagh making games for any Nintendo console was always the dream growing up. “I had to do it” he jokes “it’s Nintendo they made the consoles I played as a kid”. 

Their first Switch exclusive game is ‘Henry the Hamster Handler’ which offers gameplay that’ll be familiar to anyone who has played ‘Mario Vs Donkey Kong’, ‘Troddlers’ or ‘Krusty’s Super Funhouse’. “All of our games are influenced by our love of classic arcade and console games” admits Cavanagh. “‘Henry the Hamster Handler’ comes from my love of ‘Lemmings’”.

Friday, 8 June 2018

Mega Drive Review - Pitfall : The Mayan Adventure (Game 163)

'Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure’ is a platform action game; a sequel to the well known Atari 2600 game. While it may remind us of a certain PS4 exclusive that features a wise cracking treasure hunter, is this a relic that is worth unearthing?

Developed by Activision
Published by Activision
Release in 1994

I’ve recently become hooked on ‘Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion’. While it shares a name with the ‘Epic Mickey’ 3D games released a few years ago, this 3DS game is actually a sequel to the Mega Drive Classic ‘Castle Of Illusion’. It’s a 2D platformer, but built for a modern system. It’s includes music and gameplay mechanics from the 1990 Sega prequel but introduces elements that today’s gamers expect. While it may have remixed versions of the fantastic 16 bit Mega Drive music, it has continue points, it saves your progression and it also has touch screen inputs. ‘Power of Illusion’ is a game made deliberately to please those who loved the earlier 16bit ‘Illusion’ games. But it’s not the only modern game designed to court players who loved older games. Massively popular titles like ‘Shovel Knight’, ‘Retro City Ransom’ and ‘Golf Story’ are modern games made with one foot in the past.  The internet is also awash with “De-makes”; fan made versions of modern games restricted by the technical limitations of older consoles. While many of these are incredibly impressive I couldn’t help but wonder what my favourite PS4 games would be like if technology had been frozen in time. So I went on a mission to see if there were already existing 16 bit games that foreshadow the games I love to play today.

Obviously prequels in the same series share the same DNA. ‘Super Mario Odyssey’ on the Switch has sections where you play ‘Super Mario Bros’ like levels with the familiar NES visuals. But what would a game like ‘Uncharted’ have been like back in 1994?

This was the year that ‘Pitfall: The Mayan adventure’ was published by Activision. The game is a platforming action sequel to the original Atari 2600 ‘Pitfall!’ game and the key elements of the game will be familiar to fans of Naughty Dogs’ incredible series. You explore environments, swing on vines, ride vehicles, find treasure, kill enemies with explosives and rescue someone close to you. There’s nothing here that Nathan Drake hasn’t got used to doing. 

Monday, 28 May 2018

Switch Review - Earthlock

Retro gamers are certainly guilty of romanticising the past. But does this nineties inspired JRPG stick too closely to the PlayStation games that have inspired it? 

Developed by Snowcastle Games
Released in 2018

Many long-term JRPG fans have been dismayed by the direction Square Enix have taken with the ‘Final Fantasy’ series. Once the poster child for the genre, the latest iteration is less “Japanese Role Playing Game” and more the “Role Playing game Japan thinks the modern West wants to play”. Turn based battles have vanished in favour of active real-time combat. The sweeping epic stories have been lost with a shift to a focus on unlikeable generic characters instead. A modern numbered ‘Final Fantasy’ is no longer a single entirety; they offer narratives that only truly make sense if you immerse yourself in a plethora of accompanying anime, spin-offs and manga. “There is so much good here, so much heart” IGN noted when reviewing ‘Final Fantasy XV’. “It just comes with some changes and compromises that were, at times, difficult for this long-time ‘Final Fantasy’ fan to come to grips with”.

While hardcore ‘Final Fantasy’ fans can’t seem to agree if the seventh or sixth game is the best, there is also an awful lot of love for entries 8 and 9. For many the series hit its peak in the nineties with the PlayStation 1 era polygon games. 

For Snowcastle, a small development team in Oslo, this was certainly the golden era. “The 3D JRPGs of the 1990’s we all loved and grew up with” remembers game designer Nikola Kuresevic. The team decided to create “a love letter” to those games, specifically for fans that were turned off by modern sequels. “‘Earthlock’ is a traditional take on the 3D JRPGs of the 90’s with (thoroughly reworked) mechanics that encompass both the new and the old love for the genre” notes Kuresevic. 

Friday, 25 May 2018

Snes Review - Marvelous (Game 162)

In 2017 members of the ‘Sonic’ fan community managed to do what Sega themselves could not. Lead by Christian "Taxman" Whitehead, bedroom coders and small independent developers (who had proved their worth with unofficial HD remakes) banded together. The result was ‘Sonic Mania’ a 2D side scroller that not only shamed twenty years of official games, but also stood toe-to-toe with the much loved original Mega Drive games. Series producer Takashi Iizuka described the project as being made "by the mania, for the mania", explaining that the title came from the developers being "maniacal" about the series. It was labelled a "passion product" born out of the fans' love for the early ‘Sonic’ games.

While this game lingers in the memory, it’s obviously not the only time when fans of a series have made tribute games. What’s more unusual is that this game has been legitimised by Sega. Typically, fan coders are sent threatening “cease and desist” letters by copyright holders but ‘Sonic Mania’ was officially endorsed. It was given the thumbs up by the original creators of the ‘Sonic’ games it so lovingly took inspiration from.

There are few series as well known as ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’, bit if retro gamers were to name beloved legacy franchises ‘The Legend of Zelda’ would sit atop many a list. When it comes to the minds behind the series, Shigeru Miyamoto will always be mentioned first but the reality is that since the transition to 3D, series producer Eiji Aonuma has probably been of greater significance. He has worked as director or producer on every major release since ‘The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time’ but like the ‘Sonic’ fan-community he had to prove his appreciation for the series before he was given the keys to the ‘Zelda’ kingdom.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Switch Review - The Banner Saga

The multi award winning much loved turn-based strategy RPG finally makes it to the Switch. But with complicated combat and a demanding story is this a game that’s practical on the Switch?

Developed by Stoic 

Release in 2018

Any RPG fan knows that in any exploration party you need an elemental mage, a tank and a healer. It turns out that to create these games you also need a core of three individuals with very distinct skills. Writer Alex Thomas, programmer John Watson and artist Arnie Jorgensen all met at Bioware. After working for five years on ‘Star Wars: The Old Republic’ they felt compelled to leave “one of the biggest names in console development to make a visually stunning passion project.” They ambitiously wanted to make a strategy RPG driven by an intelligent story, one where a player’s choices weren’t simply black and white. “Getting back into a small studio environment has gone a long way to making me feel alive creatively again” notes Jorgensen. 

Friday, 18 May 2018

Switch Review - The Darkside Detective

With Its pixelated graphics, 80’s jokes and simplistic point-and-click interface ‘The Darkside Detective’ could be a game from the classic era of Adventure games. But despite being hilarious, does anyone actually play these games any more ?

Developed by Spooky Doorway 
Released in 2017

For too long there was the mistaken belief that the point-and-click genre was dead. When LucasArts and Sierra hung up their mouse cursors, many people (shamefully myself included) believed that the much love genre vanished with them. But the reality is it simply retreated into the background. 

It’s easy to forget how big the genre was in the mid nineties, thriving on home computers with some break out hits venturing onto console. 3D cards in PCs and the emergence of 32bit consoles changed player expectations. Flat 2D world’s became less fashionable, made to look dated by real-time polygon environments. While developers tried to adapt the genre even one of the greatest point-and-Click games failed to attract an audience. ‘Grim Fandango’ was criticality adored but a huge commercial failure. Established franchises like ‘Monkey Island’, ‘King's Quest’,’ Broken Sword’ and even ‘Leisure Suit Larry’ lost their appeal in three dimensions. Years later Tim Schafer’s ‘Broken Age’ and Ron Gilbert’s ‘Thimbleweed Park’ proved there was a huge audience happy to return to genre in its original 2D format. However, in the intervening period small developers had continued to make these style of games for a small and grateful audience. Primarily in Europe, platforms like the Adventure Game Studio allowed for the creation of a huge range of stories but in all of them the plot was advancd by a lot of mouse pointing and clicking. Although there were breakout hits that found their way onto Steam and mobile platforms, it was primarily fans of the point-and-click genre making games for those with a similar appetite . As game designer Paul Conway puts it “our target audience are players who loved the classic 90s LucasArts and Sierra point and click games, much like ourselves”. 

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Switch Review - The Fall

Growing up John Warner loved games that encouraged exploration and discovery. It’s inevitable that his studio’s first game would involve the same things. But are these still what a modern gamer looks for? 

Developed by Over the Moon Games
Released in 2018

On the surface , ‘Super Metroid’ and ‘The Secret of Monkey Island’ share little common ground. One is a serious, intense action platformer. The other, a comedic adventure game where combat sees you trading witty retorts with an opponent.  But despite the window dressing differing vastly, at their hearts both games revolve around puzzle solving and telling an engaging story.  

Developer Over the Moon clearly noticed this, as ‘The Fall’ is best described as a fusion of both, with ‘Flashback’ style platform jumping thrown in. Like it's inspiration, it is a game that’s been intentionally made to focus on exploration. “‘The Falls’ main inspiration is ‘Super Metroid’” admits the game’s director and Over the Moon Founder John Warner.  “I was really inspired to make a game where players had to pay attention and players had to read. And that was the central thing that really moved the gameplay forward”. “‘The Fall’ really is about mystery because it’s about exploration and those two things go hand in hand” adds writer Caleb Allard. “We want to compel the players forward with the mystery and we want to give them solid answers as rewards as they’re going along”. 

Friday, 11 May 2018

Mega Drive Review - Columns (Game 161)

Often regarded as the 'Tetris' of Sega consoles 'Columns' has itself been replicated and imitated for decades. Is the original worth your attention?

Developed by HP / Sega
Published by Sega
Released in 1990

Most of us do not complete many of the video games we own and while this used to be a dirty secret, it has now become a truth universally acknowledged. Back when games had boxes we used to be ashamed of the ever growing literal pile of shame that sat in our game's rooms or under our TV. Today we just don't seem to mind that we own but never play games and with downloadable games things have only got worse. Our consoles and computers are awash with hundred of titles that we will probably never play, let alone finish. Digital platforms like Steam can even tell you how many hours of un-played content you still haven’t experienced along with how many games you've yet to even start.

On YouTube videos and social media, retro gamers often ask themselves if they are collectors or gamers. I've always thought I was the latter and the by-product of playing physical games has been the growth of a collection. The majority of games on my shelf have been played and even studied to the extent that a comprehensive blog post has been written about them. This is usually because I tend to buy games I'm interested in; I've resisted the urge to just pick up everything I see for the sake of building up a collection.

But when bulk buys are often the best way to secure premium titles cheaply, even the most selective of collector ends up with undesired titles on the shelf. For me these are typically sports games, but for years I've had 'Columns' in various compilations. While I've played the game for the purpose of getting an easy virtual trophy in the superb PS3 Sega Collection, I've never played it on legacy hardware. There's a simple reason for this; I've played a lot of 'Dr Mario', I've played a lot of 'Super Puyo Puyo' and I've of course played countless hours of 'Tetris'. I subscribe to the belief shared by the often vocal Sega Power magazine. "'Columns' is practically 'Tetris' right? The world doesn't need another version of 'Tetris'." Mean Machines magazine echoed this viewpoint. "'Columns' is Sega's puzzle game along the lines of 'Tetris' [and] one might argue that there are already too any 'Tetris' alike games on the market".

Friday, 27 April 2018

Snes Review - The Great Circus Mystery starring Mickey & Minnie (Game 160)

Critics and players may have loved 'Magical Quest' but its was frequently criticed for being too easy and too short. Why should you play the sequel to this platformer when its even easier and shorter?

Developed by Capcom
Published by Capcom
Released in 1994

The video games industry struggles with length, it has yet to determine how long a game is meant to be. In film you’ve got a rough ballpark: ninety minutes if you can keep things tight, three hours if you’re stretching things out. A music album will amuse you for about an hour. TV shows typically have two rough lengths; an hour or half of that. Even then the exact amount of content depends on how many adverts are to going to be shown.  However the main story component of a game seems to have no universally accepted length. Arty games like 'Journey' and 'Everybody's Gone to the Rapture' last a couple of hours and the campaign mode of many first person shooter games feels like an afterthought, sometimes failing to reach an hour. 

For most, the story sweet spot seems to be between 10 and 20 hours.  However, we lavish attention on people finding ways to beat a title in a quickly in a speed-run. Conversely, Role-playing games use their length as a sort of qualitative yardstick. Fifty hours seems to be an unofficial bar to clear, but some stretch on for multiples of that. 'Persona 5' takes at least 80 hours just to finish the main story and you can easily treble that  if you're a  player that is obsessed with seeing everything that's on offer. Buying video games, particularly retro titles, can be an expensive hobby and we understandably want to get our money's worth. But when we have no idea how long a game should last, how do we quantify value for money?

With this all in mind, the criticism that a game's too short is in reality back handed praise. The reviewer is essentially saying the game was enjoyable while it lasted and the experience was over sooner than they would have liked. It was something many reviewers said when looking at the Mickey Mouse Snes platformer 'Magical Quest'. According to Capcom the Super NES version sold 1.2 million copies worldwide, so a sequel was inevitable. The follow up, 'The Great Circus Mystery starring Mickey & Minnie’ has built on its predecessor, but while it's certainly the better game it's also even shorter than the "blink and you'll miss it" 'Magical Quest'.

Friday, 13 April 2018

Mega Drive Review - Micro Machines: Turbo Tournament '96 (Game 159)

Popular gaming genres are often flooded with very similar games, all copying the strengths of each other. ‘Micro Machines’ was a racing game unlike no other, but does novelty mean greatness? 

Developed by Supersonic Software 
Published by Code Masters
Released in 1996
It was January 1995 and it was Tom’s 13th birthday. I sat next to the birthday boy alongside six of our other school friends and we all had our hands on half a Mega Drive controller. Clustered around his large family TV things were getting competitive as we all tried to use our allocated three buttons to keep our tiny on screen car in the lead in the race. I was at a disadvantage: At this time I was still a Nintendo Fanboy, I had only played a Mega Drive at Tom’s house and to top it off I’d never played a ‘Micro Machines’ game before. But despite the varying skill level of the people in the room, everyone was having a great time. In these days of online gaming, couch co-op seems to be an afterthought for most developers. But clearly the youth of today are missing out as 23 years later I still remember Tom’s birthday party as one of the favourite gaming experiences.  

It’s was all made possible thanks to the “J-Cart” where the game’s publishers Code Masters had devised a way to incorporate a multi-tap into their Mega Drive cartridge. “Allowing up to eight simultaneous players – was the single best innovation of the 16bit cartridge era” notes Mike Dicer on
“Two additional controller ports on the cart itself: some sort of freaking genius. If Code Masters had only come up with the thing at the beginning of the Mega Drive's lifespan, rather than in 1994, just imagine how many more games would have benefitted from insanely fun local multiplayer sessions.” Code Masters was a publisher known for their hardware innovations as much as their games. “In a sense the games that we were writing [...] at the time were a side-line to these devices” 'Micro Machines' designer Andrew Graham once told Nintendo Life. In fact it was the success of their hardware that allowed Code Masters to make a game based on a car toy line that was, at the time, bigger than Hot Wheels and Matchbox. Their Game Genie NES cheat device was distributed by Galoob across America. While it may have incurred the wrath of Nintendo, leading to an ugly lawsuit, according to Graham it had also made a lot of money for Galoob. Nintendo Life claims the America toy giant had a novel way of showing their gratitude. “The huge success of the Game Genie [meant] Galoob - now part of Hasbro - gave the plucky British company the licence for its Micro Machines toy line”. 

Friday, 30 March 2018

Mega Drive Review - Pinocchio (Game 158)

'Pinocchio' is a platformer that was following in some very big footsteps. While it may have some of the best graphics on the Mega Drive did the gameplay compare?

Developed by Virgin London
Published by Virgin Interactive
Released in 1995

The video game industry seems to suffer from a perpetual need to return to the familiar. We see it today with a glut of first person shooters and in the PlayStation 1 era everyone seemed to be making variations of 'Mario 64' or 'Tomb Raider'. Even in the arcades of the late seventies and early eighties you would see one new idea surrounded by a dozen copies of it. It's easy to be critical of publishers for playing safe as they follow the tried and tested rather than exploring the new. But consumers are the ones at fault. If we didn't keep buying variations on whatever the latest trend is then the money men wouldn't think that's all we want to buy.

In the 16 bit era the side scrolling platformer was the most over saturated genre, at least in the west. It was the go to type of game for licensed properties and as the years past reviewers were getting more and more tired of it. In an interview on the Maximum Power Up podcast reviewer Dean Mortlock summed up the feelings of the day. "The market's [appetite] was very different then; it was very dull. It was all about licenses for films and you get another [...] very very boring platformer and we were just a bit sick of it to be honest. There were very few original games coming through and for 'Lion King' we were like 'oh God not another one!'" "It was that sort of thing where you're thought 'this doesn't deserve my serious attention'" adds former Sega Power editor Andy Lowe. “If someone's just going to bolt a license onto another rubbish platform game, I don't see why they deserve our respect". It was this boredom and frustration that lead to Sega Power's infamous review of 'Lion King' written after taking LSD. But while Sega Power may have been the only magazine writing after taking hallucinogenic drugs, they weren't the only publication bored with a constant stream of Disney platform games.  "I'm sick of seeing my favourite Disney movies turned into average platform romps" echoed Game Fan’s Dan Jevons. Most incorrectly presumed that 'Aladdin' producer David Perry was behind every Disney game Virgin produced, however he had left the company almost immediately after this game was released. For 'Pinocchio' to even stand a chance with influential reviewers the 24 strong London based development team had no choice but to convince them that this game represented something fresh.  "This is not a 'Dave Perry' game" chief designer Dan Marchant insisted. "'Pinocchio' has been designed from the ground up. Apart from an all new engine, the game design aims to set it [self] apart from production line platformers.  Each level of the game is designed to have a point or task rather than just a start and exit point." According to Marchant "the player is given choices, sometimes not obvious ones."

Friday, 16 March 2018

Mega Drive Review - Super Thunder Blade (Game 157)

'Super Thunder Blade' has been described as 'OutRun' in a helicopter. But while there's an awful lot of love for the racing game why does no one care for this shooter?

Developed by Sega
Published by Sega
Released in 1989

Growing up Yuji Naka was fascinated by electronic music and then later by the emergence of arcade games. He not only played every game he could, he analysed them, trying to figure out how they worked. Naka eventually learned how to program by replicating and debugging video game code printed in magazines, studying assembler language and code writing.

Given Japan's cultural emphasis on a good education, this technical genius defied conventions by turning down guaranteed university placement. Naka felt four years at university would be a waste when the games industry was unfolding about him. Instead he moved to Tokyo and applied for employment with Namco who at the time the world's leading arcade game company. His lack of a degree hampered any chance he had though and Namco did not offer him a job. Undaunted, he continued to shop his talents around and in 1984 found himself working as an entry-level coder at Sega. However, the job title was not a reflection of what he was really doing. "Not just programming," Naka would comment many years later, "everything...the graphics, the pictures, everything." Over the next seven years, Naka's programming excellence demonstrated itself in a number of impressive arcade conversions for Sega's SG100 and the Mark III / Master System. “There weren't many employees at Sega at the time - most teams consist of just five members" Nara recalls. "We were all working on new things. It was a very rewarding and enjoyable job". His credits during this period include such legendary titles as 'OutRun' and 'Space Harrier' which he managed to faithfully bring to Sega's earlier consoles; something considered technically impossible without huge compromises on the gameplay. This alongside Naka's work of the first ‘Phantasy Star' game caught the attention of former Sega president Hayao Nakayama who called Yuki Naka "Sega's Miyamoto".

In 1988 Naka and his team were tasked with developing software for the upcoming Mega Drive console. Naka was now a producer and 'Super Thunder Blade', a port of an arcade game, would become one of the system's two launch titles. Unfortunately and embarrassingly for this programming prodigy, 'Super Thunder Blade' was greatly inferior to 'Space Harrier II'. New Mega Dive owners buying both day-one games would have felt disappointed with the one baring Yuji Naka's pseudonym.  'Super Thunder Blade' was certainly not a good advert for the capabilities of Sega's new hardware, nor was it much of an endorsement of Naka's ability as a producer.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Mega Drive Review - ToeJam and Earl in Panic on Funkotron (Game 156)

'ToeJam and Earl in Panic on Funkotron' is a sequel that shouldn't have been, delivering the type of gameplay that no-one expected and that existing fans didn't want.  But is a betrayal of preconceived ideas enough of a reason to ignore this odd humorous platformer?

Developed by Johnson Voorsanger Productions
Published by Sega
Released in 1993

There's an unwritten rule when it comes to Sequels: Honour the success of the predecessor. The most beloved follow ups take everything that was great in the previous game, improve upon these foundations and cast aside the bits that didn't work. In theory at least, a great deal of pre-production is already done. A tone or style has been established and usually beloved characters will return. If there's not been a hardware change some of the game engine or artefacts can also be reused, allowing developer’s time to perfect, hone and polish what worked before.

In the games industry it seems that sales are the deciding factor that determines if a sequel is green-lit. Money men often will ignore critical successes, but will throw money at a franchise that has sold sufficient volume, even if the series is of dubious quality.

This is why it's somewhat surprising that a sequel to 'ToeJam & Earl' exists at all. According to video game historian Bill Paris the first game achieved "almost unanimous critical acclaim"; however, Sega deemed it a commercial failure due to low initial sales. "'ToeJam & Earl' was a very slow burn title,” developer Greg Johnson confirms. “Sega considered it a flop. Its numbers really came much later as it grew slowly by word of mouth and eventually became something of a cult title.” While fans had fallen in love with gaming’s most surreal double act, it was actually magazines who really clamoured for another game featuring the funky space aliens. "ToeJam & Earl have the kind of charisma that makes them a natural for a sequel" wrote GamePro.