Friday, 8 November 2019

Switch Review - 911 Operator

Incredible people deal with high pressure jobs each day. But is it actually fun to answer emergency calls?

Developed by Jutsu Games
Released in 2018

Video games have always presented the opportunity to live a different life.  Typically enjoyment comes from stepping into shoes very different to our own; we become an army marine fighting for freedom or a busty adventurous aristocrat discovering ancient relics. But sometimes, it’s interesting to experience a life that could have been ours if we’d made different life choices. It’s a gamified exaggerated portrayal of a reality of course, but it’s an approximation that allows us to at least imagine what could be. The appropriately named ’911 Operator’ is a perfect example of this. As the name suggests the game puts you in control of a city's emergency services, answering calls as they come in and dispatching teams according to the need.  It’s a real-time strategy game, mixed with a resource management-sim. Gameplay revolves around juggling the police, medics and fire brigade. You’ll be prioritising and assessing the needs of cases and responding in the most efficient manner.

Surprisingly given its American focus, ‘911 Operator‘was made by Jutsu games, a small company of 5 people based in Warsaw, Poland. “We are making our way into professional game development now. We really enjoy innovative gameplays and... maps“they say.  Its modest origins aren’t obvious though, as a clean, stylish and functional interface has been favoured over flashy graphics and potentially distracting flourishes.

In the main body of the game, the action is entirely viewed from an overhead map, depicting a real world city. On-screen Icons represent where all the different emergency crews are located and as emergencies arise they are also shown as an icon. Each emergency is given a combination of colours that correspond with the response required. Accordingly, The core gameplay in ‘911 Operator’ could be described as a colour matching exercise. You simply select a response team and direct them to the event that matches their colour. Apparently many of the emergencies featured in the game are based on genuine 911 calls. “We also consult[ed] with professional policemen and medics, so do not worry about the reality of the game” boasts the developer.

Friday, 25 October 2019

Switch Review - Detective Gallo

With its comic-noir story, surreal abstract humour and blatant onscreen pointer, the inspiration behind ‘Detective Gallo’ is hardly subtle.  But during a point and click renaissance do adventure game fans need yet another LucasArts and Sierra tribute?

Developed by Footprint Games
Released in 2018

A chicken in a detective outfit has just used a pot of maggot infested yellow paint on a ceramic chest in an attempt to woo woodworms. Despite it being large enough to climb inside, the Poultry Poirot still manages to place this chest in his pocket and continues on his way. In most other game genres, such absurdity would encourage the raising of an eyebrow, but for adventure game fans this is not unusual. It’s certainly something Italian brothers Francesco and Maurizio De Angelis are used to.
“We are true fans of graphic adventures” says Maurizio. “We’ve played a lot of adventures (and we’re still doing it) for a very long time.” Given Maurizio’s favourite game growing up was ‘Day of the Tentacle ‘
And Francesco’s was ‘The Secret of Monkey Island’ it’s no surprise that when they came to create a game as Developer FootPrint, pointing and clicking would be involved.

Friday, 13 September 2019

Switch Review - Headliner NoviNews

A “choose your own adventure style” game that attempts to expose the manipulative nature of the media. Never has a review needed to be more unbiased. Newspapers, please!

Developed by Unbound Creations
Released in 2019

“We all lie. But some of us are better at it than others” proposes British author Henry Hemming. “There are people who are so good at lying that they are paid to change the minds of millions, using techniques few of us will ever understand.” It is often said that we live in an age of “fake news”, and while it’s a phrase that has existed since the thirties it’s never felt more relevant.  There’s been an explosion in the use of the phrase since Donald Trump depended on it during his presidential campaign and election. While Trump uses “fake news” to debunk his negative press, his team also used the concept to glorify his inauguration. Infamously “alternative facts” suggested crowds to see his debut as president were bigger than they actually were. Immediate global distribution via the internet makes everyone a news correspondent and they’re allowed to report “the truth” without citing any credible source.  It’s become practically impossible to know who to believe. The concept of fake news has an unsettling and dystopian undertone, and it prompts us to question the headlines and doubt the broadcast news. It’s not just conspiracy theorists who now believe unseen forces are trying to manipulate our minds and shift our beliefs toward their own agenda.

This is the climate in which ‘Headliner: NoviNews‘  is set. 

Friday, 6 September 2019

Switch Review - The Ninja Saviors

At a time when scrolling beat em ups are often called monotonous button mashers, this remake of a remake may come as a breath of fresh air.

Developed by Natsume Atari/Tengo Project
Out in Europe/UK Now
USA/South America 15th October 

Increasingly the movie industry seems to be a try-again culture. If studios mess something up they don’t seem to worry too much, they know they can give it another go. How many times does poor Mr and Mrs Wayne need to die before we accept that Bruce is justified in becoming a street vigilante who dresses up like a Bat; enacting punishment without appropriate judicial procedure?  ‘A Christmas Carol‘ has been adapted into a film seven different times. Comic book fans have even seen Bruce Banner turn into the Incredible Hulk four different ways over the last 15 years, and I’ve seen so many ‘Dracula’ films that I’ve lost all perspective.

While the silver screen is in its second century, people have only been waggling joysticks for 40 years. But despite a 60 year delay, the video games industry is probably more accustomed to churning out the same product with a new lick of paint. Nearly 30 years ago Nintendo released ‘Super Mario All Stars’, a compilation of NES ‘Mario’ games identical except for a visual overhaul. They have since repackaged and remade these same games with every new console generation. ‘Mario’ isn’t the only franchise to be milked in this way. ‘Metroid: Zero Mission’ was a remake of ‘Metroid’, ‘Lylat Wars’ was essentially just an expanded ‘Star Fox’. In fact some even argue that the ‘Zelda’ games are really just remakes of the original over and over again. But it’s not just Nintendo. Capcom are infamous for continually remaking their most popular games: be it ‘Resident Evil’, ‘Street Fighter’ or even their 16bit Mickey Mouse games. Likewise, EA have frequently been criticised for making minor tweaks to a game and packaging it as a new title. Even huge AAA series like ‘Tomb Raider’, ‘Mortal Kombat’ and ‘Doom’ have enjoyed rejuvenated success following a complete franchise reboot.

While it’s easy to sneer and see re-makes, re-boots and re-imaginings as cynical, minimal-effort cash grabs, there are lots of reasons why they are actually a very good thing. We tend to remember games as we wish they were, rather than how they actually are. So disappointment often sets in when we return to a favourite title and the rose tinted glasses come off. A good modern remake will remind a player of the original but will address issues that blighted the experience of yesteryear. It should be familiar yet improved; all the best bits of our memories with the flaws glossed over. A remake of an older game also means new younger audiences will be attracted to something that would otherwise have passed them by. While the game could have existed for potentially decades before, a refreshed modern interpretation of an ageing series shines a light on something forgotten.  ‘Ninja Saviors’ ticks both of these boxes.

Inspired by a Super Nintendo game (which was itself a remake of an arcade game) it’s possibly the perfect modern remake of a remake. True to the source material, yet updated and subtly modernised. Fans of ‘The Ninja Warriors’ series will adore it, but more crucially new players oblivious to earlier games will likely love it too.

Friday, 30 August 2019

Mega Drive Review - Golden Axe II (Game 181)

‘Golden Axe II’ is not a generic leap, it’s more of a slight awkward shuffle in a forward direction where progress is almost imperceptible. But, is that enough for fans of the iconic first game?

Developed by Sega
Published by Sega
Released in 1991

Over the years the distinctions between genres has become so blurry. Obviously we can lump certain games together: Puzzle games involve thinking and sports games obviously replicate their real world counter parts. But genres that used to be very clearly defined have become indistinguishable. Is ‘Final Fantasy XV’ really a JRPG or is it an action game? Are adventure games like ‘Red Dead Redemption 2’ or MMORPGs closer to traditional Role Playing games with their character customisation? Admittedly 20 years ago many games straddled different genres taking inspiration from a variety of places in an attempt to create a new player experience. But, there were also genres that never deviated too far from a tried and tested formula and before you even pressed start. If someone tells you “this is a 16bit shooter” you know the game you’re about to play will involve you shooting waves of enemies as the screen perpetually scrolls. If a SNES or Mega Drive game is described as a “Side scrolling brawler” you’ll also fairly accurately be able to predict how it will play.

Alongside ‘Double Dragon’ and ‘Final Fight’ 'Golden Axe’ was one of the pioneers of the genre. From playing these games we that we will typically be moving a character from the left of the screen to the right, bartering anything that’s stands in our way. Most games tried to offer a variation or a unique quirk, but the core game play remained the same.

‘Golden Axe II’ is so similar to its prequel that it’s almost impossible to tell the apart. By introducing ride able animals and a throwing mechanic the first game may have felt like it was treading new ground. The sequel however adds nothing additional, and in an increasingly crowded genre that wasn’t well received by critics at the time. “Those looking for a significant departure from Golden Axe should pass on this sequel. It is the same hack-and-slash action with a slight change of scenery” All Game Guide said. SEGA Pro magazine was even more damning “If ever there was a poor sequel produced to cash in on the original, this is it”.

Friday, 23 August 2019

Switch Review - Exception

This action platformer should be celebrated for its tight responsive controls and clever stage evolution gimmick. But to fans of a certain 1982 Sci-Fi film, it’s hard to ignore certain visual similarities.

Developed by Traxmaster Software
Released in 2019

‘Super Mario 64’ is arguably the most influential games of the 3D era; it set the benchmark for 3D platforming mechanics that echo even in current games. But According to ‘Star Fox’ creator Jez San,  Mario's success in the third dimension is down to an unassuming little game called ‘Croc: Legend of the Gobbos’.  Talking to Eurogamer, San claimed that ‘Croc’ was originally pitched by Argonaut to Nintendo during their exclusivity arrangement. "We mocked up a prototype using Yoshi” he says. "It was essentially the world's first 3D platform game and was obviously a big risk”. But Nintendo were still reluctant to allow outside companies use their characters so “the deal fell apart." San even claims that Shigeru Miyamoto even confesses that the game influenced ‘Mario 64’. “Miyamoto-san came up to me at a show afterwards and apologised for not doing the ‘Yoshi’ game with us and thanked us for the idea to do a 3D platform game”. While it’s largely been forgotten today, Argonaut’s ‘Croc’ was release for the PlayStation, Saturn, and PC and enjoyed moderate success. Had it carried the ‘Yoshi’ name it would probably have been still celebrated today.

A recognisable license offers many benefits to developers. An established audience will be immediately attracted to the new title. The characters and worlds of the source material can be transposed easily into the game, and even established music and visual aesthetics can be used as easy starting points for a new addition to an established series. But as we have seen with ‘Croc’ and also games like ‘Journey to Silius’ and ‘Shatterhand’, sometime developers have to adapt their game to work without their desired license attached.

Developer Will Traxler is clearly a fan of the 1982 Disney Film ‘Tron’. “I’ve always been a fan of the aesthetic from the ‘Tron’ movies. I grew up in the 80s and am fascinated by the comparatively low-tech effects used in much of the media from that period.” His game ‘Exception’ is the most ‘Tron’ like game to not carry the ‘Tron’ license. It so explicitly ‘Tron’ inspired that it feels like it was pitched to Disney as a ‘Tron’ game, only for it to be rejected by the house of mouse. You need only watch the games introduction sequence to see that ‘Exception’ is a ‘Tron’ game in all but name.

Friday, 16 August 2019

Switch Review - Pandemic

One of the most critically adored and commercially successful board games of the last 10 years becomes digital on Switch. But, without its cards and counters does the magic get lost?

Devloped by Asmodee Digital
Released in 2019

It’s Friday night in Playopolis, Rochester. The bar is crowded, the air is filled with laughter and the tables are filled with cocktails and board games. Huddled around the tables are former video game geeks, who once would be playing digital games at home but now are enjoying the company of like-minded people. I know this because I’m one of them.  The video game industry is booming; more are playing games than ever before but despite this there has been a board-game renaissance. Perhaps due to the decline of coach co-op games, many have exchanged their controllers for dice in order to play games socially. “For a time, video-gaming offered a level of physical social interaction, at the arcade or through multi-player sofa games that friends or family members could play at the same time, in the same room” notes the Guardian’s Dan Jolin. “Then multi-player video games moved online, and fellow players became physically removed from one another, if not completely anonymous.”

My group are lost in a melee of rhymes playing ‘Obama Lama’. Next to us a couple in their thirties are building railways around India, and at the back of the room two teenage girls are playing ‘Dream Phone’ laughing at the oversized phone that they believe surely must be a ridiculous exaggeration of what people used in the 80’s. Inspired by the popularity in America, Playopolis is one of many Board Game cafes popping up around the UK. Market research group NPD, have noted a 20% rise in Board Game sales since 2016. Many, like me, have come to learn that board games aren’t limited to ‘Monopoly’, ‘Cluedo’ and ‘Warhammer’. Modern games are diverse and varied, adaptable to the occasion and the company. To accompany an evening of drinking there’s ‘Dobble’, ‘Exploding Kittens’ and ‘Cards against Humanity’. When I have more time, I can gather my friends and spend an hour as cowboys exploring a cardboard train, or even spend a couple of hours exploring a dungeon as adorable mice. 

While admittedly still new to the board game brigade I already gave my favourites and amongst them is certainly ‘Pandemic’. Described by Dan Jolin as “a key title in the board-gaming resurgence” it’s a complicated and brutally hard board game where the players must collaborate to fight the outbreak of horrific global diseases. 

Friday, 9 August 2019

Things to miss from the 3DS

Originally positioned as “a third pillar”, the runaway success of the Nintendo DS meant the end of the Gameboy. In the same way, the popularity of the Switch has in turn meant we won’t now see a successor 3DS. But while the curtain lowers on Nintendo’s most successful console range are there lessons that can be learnt from in? What features of the 3DS should Nintendo consider including in the newly announced Switch Lite, or indeed in the yet to be confirmed Switch Pro?

The home screen is something every Switch player sees, every time they turn on the system. While there is currently a choice between a white or black design, that’s the extent of the customisation options. The 3DS eShop had Themes for practically all major releases, changing the home menu’s icons, background and even music. While at £1.79 they were over-priced, at least they let you personalise your console to match your taste. Meanwhile, for developers it was a great way to generate additional income and giving them away free even meant an opportunity to promote an upcoming release. At the very least it would be nice if the Switch let you set your own wallpaper, even if it were limited to just Game Snap Shots.

Street Pass
Despite being labelled a “Grooming Tool for Paedophiles” by the scare-mongering tabloid press, Street Pass was a great way to meet new friends and see what others were playing. The mini games, though simplistic, were fun, and although you’d only play them briefly it was always a nice diversion. Sadly as the Relay Stations were turned off around cities, the number Street Pass hits you’d get each day declined. This meant the mini-games became almost unplayable and it seems that most 3DS owners will have Puzzle Pieces missing that can now never be found. The Switch certainly doesn’t need as elaborate a Street Pass System, but it would be nice to at least know when a potential Mario Kart opponent is in the area.

Activity Log
Maybe it was to see how long you speed running through a game, perhaps it was to find out which title you’d played longest, but its doubtful many 3DS players could resist the lure of the Activity Log. Not only did it tell you, to the minute, how long you’d played each game, it also kept track of the number of play sessions and on which day you’d played. This also allowed a player to nostalgically gaze back through the calendar to see which game they were playing months or even years ago. Of course the Switch does tell you how long you’ve put into each game if you go into “My Profile” but being told you’ve played ‘The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’ for “180 hours or more” simply isn’t detailed enough. 

Battery Life
One of the reasons the very first Gameboy was monochrome was so that it would allow for extended play sessions. The Game Gear’s colour display may have looked impressive for a portable back in the day, but when you have to change the 6 AA batteries every two hours it wasn’t ideal for longer car journeys. Nintendo continued this delicate balance between power of console and the amount of power needed to run it up until the 3DS. This machine could last up until 8 hours on a single charge with settings turned down. Compared to the Switch this is an impressive figure. Although you can use the console for up to 6 hours, in practice you’ll be lucky to have portable gaming session that lasts longer than 3. Like the Game Gear owners of Yesteryear you’ll need a secondary source of power on those long haul flights. Nintendo have promised that with their new dedicated Handheld-Only Switch, battery life will be improved. But accounts of by how much seems to suggest that players will be enjoying extra minute of play rather than additional hours between charges. 

Clam shell design 
While it’ll play havoc with the Switch’s docking, there’s no denying that there’s something reassuring about the 3DS’ ability to fold on itself. The screens are protected and any damage that can be caused by throwing the console into your bag is minimised. While you marvel at the Switch’s impressive screen do you ever wonder how durable it is? It’s unlikely you’ll ever scratch it, but that’s probably down to the expensive and bulky carry case you put it in whenever you take the machine with you. 

Of course, some of these issues are inherently down to the original Switch’s dual purpose. In the past portable players demanded different things to home users, so when a console attempts to be both sacrifices must be made. The Lite is geared towards portable play only, but while the interstates JoyCons will make the console more durable it’s still a large machine to carry around. While it’s great Nintendo are continuing to innovate, it’s important they don’t lose sight of their past successes too. 

Friday, 2 August 2019

Switch Review - Robbie Swifthand and the Orb of Mysteries

There’s an appeal to overcoming an insurmountable challenge, but does this brutal platform game push things that bit too far?

Developed by Pixel Reign
Released in 2019

During the amusing tutorial of  ‘Super Mario Maker 2’, Yamamura and Nina are discussing difficulty. “Since the dawn of time, philosophers, game designers and seat-cushion engineers alike have asked the question: How Hard is too hard?” 

Anyone who thinks 2D platformers are easy and designed for kids hasn’t played a ‘Mega Man’ game. Games like ‘Castle of Illusion’, ‘Ghosts ‘n Goblins’ and even ‘Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels” were known for their challenging gameplay. Indeed recently there have been a slew of platform games celebrated for being brutally difficult. ‘CupHead’, ‘Super Meat Boy’, and ‘Hollow Knight’ are obvious contenders.

‘Robbie Swifthand and the Orb of Mysteries’ is a game very much cast from this mould. Any doubt about this should be eliminated the second you press start. “This game is meant to be experienced by hard-core players. Tough but fair [...] with an increasing difficulty from start to finish”. The warning isn’t subtle, but it is an apt way of summarising the experience. 

Friday, 26 July 2019

Switch Review - Pawarumi

Another Vertical Scrolling Shooter lands on the eShop, but is its colour changing weapon mechanic, enough to separate it from the crowd of other bullet hell shooters?

Developed by Manufacture 43 
Released in 2019

In 1987 Sensible Software released ‘Shoot 'Em Up Construction Kit’ for the Commodore 64. With it, aspiring programmes could create a vertically scrolling shooting game with relative ease. It was the programme’s release on the Amiga though that ultimately frustrated game reviewers though. The software allowed the ability for creations to be exported as self-booting games and as a result PD libraries quickly became flooded with near identical games. Bedroom coders desperate for acclaim meant games magazines were inundated with floppy discs for review.

The problem was that because ‘Shoot 'Em Up Construction Kit’ was simple to use, unless you deliberately tried to exploit the quirks of the engine all the games it created were practically identical. “If you’re not going to do one thing different, don’t bother sending us a SEUCK game!” Wrote an Amiga Power reviewer. “We’ve played them all, we are bored! One star”.

Today the vertical scrolling Shoot ‘Em Up genre is not quite so saturated, but even a quick glance at the eShop shows there’s dozens to choose from. With the exception of FuturLab’s ‘Velocity 2X’, most seem to pride themselves on being brutally hard. eShop descriptions include “Bullet storms”, “horrifying challenge”, “insane high intensity” and “one man army”.   Since ‘Ikaruga’ the genre has really become associated with extreme difficulty and most new additions to the genre are “bullet hell shooters”. Here success in the game seems to be largely down to your ability to find somewhere to fide in a screens full of enemy bullets. They’re deliberately masochistic games where survival is the sole aim and victory only comes from memorising attack patterns. Clearly it’s a very niche audience.

This is who Manufacture 43, a French Indie developer, is aiming ‘Pawarumi’ at, and the influence of ‘Ikaruga’ is acutely felt. ‘Pawarumi’ is described as an ”intense, challenging and fast-paced shooter”, or at least that’s what it will eventually evolve into. In an attempt to also appeal to more casual players who would have enjoyed SEUCK thirty years ago, the game has three difficulty settings. Playing each unlocks various story cut scenes, so clearly to experience all the game has to offer, a player must continually push themselves to play on increasingly more challenging modes. “The difficulty curve is designed so that a player that beats the game in easy mode gets ready to play in normal mode and then in hard mode” notes the developers. But despite noble intentions, even the game’s easy mode presents a fearsome challenge and any chance of success will depend entirely on your mastery of the “trinity system”.

Friday, 19 July 2019

Mega Driver Review - VectorMan (Game 180)

Nintendo enjoyed much success with 'Donkey Kong Country' but sadly Sega's response, while visually exciting and technically impressive went nearly un-noticed.

Developed by BlueSky Softeware
Published by Sega
Released in 1995

There’s a saying I often use when trying to explain why I favour old retro games over new modern ones. “If I’ve not played an old game before, it’s new to me”! Of course I do still play modern games, my love for the ‘Kingdom Hearts’ and ‘Tomb Raider’ series doesn’t seem to be fading and I consider ‘Breath of the Wild’ to be one of the greatest ‘Zelda’ games ever made. But despite my appreciation of new Current Gen games, I’ve realised that many games I’ve enjoyed recently have been modern games that are essentially trying to be old games. ‘Octopass Traveller’ is inspired by ‘Chroro Trigger’ and ‘Final FantasyVI’. ‘Horizon Chase’ is a homage to ‘Outrun’ and the ‘Lotus’ series. ‘Thimbleweed Park’ and ‘Darkside Detective’ are both made to resemble classic LucasArts favourites. So, if even the most popular new games are trying to look, play and feel like old games, without prior knowledge is it possible to know what is old, and what’s simply trying to be old. 

‘VectorMan’ is a truly incredible game with a timeless quality. As a game that slipped under my radar, you could have quite easily convinced me that you were sitting me down in front of a Kickstarter funded tribute to nineties action games released in 2019. I played the game for the first time on a Switch based Mega Drive compilation, but if you’d told me you downloaded it from the new releases section of the eShop I would have fallen for the ruse. 

Friday, 5 July 2019

Mega Drive Review - Rocket Knight Adventures (Game 179)

We tend to feel the need to describe games by comparing them to others. But as ‘Rocket Knight Adventures’ shows, sometimes a 2D platformer can do its own thing and still be an enjoyable romp .

Developed by Konami
Published by Konami
Released in 1993

Throughout the 1990’s there was a lot of cutesie mascots running along 2D environments. Success always leads to imitation, so if you’re playing a 90’s game involving a character moving slowly and precisely through a level perhaps the developers were fans of ‘Mario’ games. Alternatively if your avatar is exploring abstract worlds that continually introduce new mechanics, maybe it’s a game inspired by ‘Castle of Illusion’. Of course if you’ve “gotta go fast” to win, maybe there’s some ‘Sonic’ in your game’s DNA.

Of course it’s narrow minded to label every platform game that involves speed a “‘Sonic’ Clone”. Going fast is always exciting.  It doesn’t seem like it’s a quality a game developer would avoid even though speed is intrinsically and illogically associated with blue hedgehogs. Indeed many fast platform games Offer a nippy experience whilst also having mechanics that are actually counter-‘Sonic’. ‘Rocket Knight Adventures’ seems like an obvious example of this. Yes, it features a cute cuddly protagonist that can launch itself at astonishing speed. However, he exists in a world of exploration that’s closer in spirit to the exploits of Nintendo’s moustachioed plumber. He inhabits a game that’s so full of inventive ideas that even Mickey Mouse would be kept on his toes.

If anything, ‘Rocket knight Adventures’ actually shares similarities with some of Konami’s other celebrated games; specifically ‘Pop N Twinbee: Rainbow Bell Adventures’ and more obviously ‘Tiny Toons Adventures:Buster Busts Loose’. This SNES Exclusive game was released a year earlier in 1992, and, like ‘Rocket Knight Adventures’, offers gameplay that alternates between traditional action platform jumping and sudden bursts of speed. Both games include a variety of play styles and neither is afraid to mix up play style.

Friday, 7 June 2019

Switch Review - Impossible Mission

'Impossible Mission' may have once have been considered the best game on many systems, but does anyone today have the desire to play a re-release of a ten year old game based on a thirty year old game? 

It’s sometimes hard not to be envious that newer, younger players get to see the games you cherish with fresh eyes. They get to enjoy shocking narratives twists and jaw dropping bosses without having seen it all before. There’s a delight in not knowing what’s coming next. The exhilaration that comes from discovering something new is amplified when you have to work to achieve it. When something’s impossible to miss it’s hard to see how it’s rewarding to find.

However, it’s disheartening to see that many contemporary players lack the one thing that’s required to explore the unknown, they don’t have patience. They have become so accustomed to games telling them how to do something, that when an objective is vague or a goal unclear they simply give up. 

Acclaimed Industry critic Richard Leadbetter has been playing game since their infancy and also appreciates the joy of discovery. “Those times I failed weren't mistakes to be erased, they were layers of experience. I wasn't losing, I was learning” he wrote for Eurogamer. “The magical effect of not knowing what to do means I pay more attention to my surroundings, to what's going on, because I'm searching for clues trying to figure it out. There are no checkpoints, there are no map-markers, there are no invisible hands yanking me through. I have to prize what I need from the game because I won't be handed it. I have to invest, and as the old adage goes, 'you get out what you put in'”.

We have become used to just running down corridors, safe in the knowledge that we must be doing things right because the words “check point” appears on screen. We no longer explore fantasy worlds; we just head to the way point marker.  If the breadcrumb trail we are meant to follow isn’t clear all we need do is ask an NPC and they’ll make it even more obvious.

Of course some of the biggest titles available now are huge and sprawling, lasting hundreds of hours. There’s an argument that there’s so much content you can’t waste time heading in the wrong direction because to do that may mean you won’t have time to see all a game has to offer. Hand-holding is now so prevalent in games that when it’s absent it’s considered a selling point. ‘Rime’ for example dumped you in a world without any explanation or guidance. So while it seems Idiot proofing a game is now less common in smaller indie games, there was a time when even the biggest games made us figure things out. In a time before Game FAQs, I recall being stuck in ‘Grim Fandango’ for literally weeks. The game’s designer, Tim Schafer even once said that being stuck was what people used to call gameplay. “There's a real entertainment to being stuck in the right way” he said to Polygon.

Another infamously vague game is ‘The Legend of Zelda’. You start out on your adventure with no direction and just the advice that it’s “dangerous to go alone”. But this was the 1980’s where cartridge space was limited and designers didn’t want to waste time telling a player what they should be doing, where they should be going or how they should even achieve this.

Two years prior to the release of Shigeru Miyamoto’s pioneering adventure game, Dennis Caswell created ‘Impossible Mission’ for the C64. While it may not be revered in the way that the first ‘Zelda’ game is, it was much praised at the time. Zzap!64 magazine reviewers ranked ‘Impossible Mission’ second in their list of the best Commodore 64 games, while its readers ranked it first. Similar to ‘The Legend of Zelda’ the game makes no attempt to ease you in, in fact ‘Impossible Missions’ is infamously difficult, mainly down to the fact it takes hours to work out what you’re meant to be doing.

Friday, 17 May 2019

Switch on the Train

In the run up to its launch Nintendo, understandably were keen to emphasise the portability of the Switch. Not just a home console, promotional videos always showed parties of people enjoying playing on planes, buses and even on rooftops. Recent surveys show an even split between players enjoying the Switch docked and in portable mode. However these people must be enjoying holding their console in the comfort of their own home as I’ve yet to see the console in public.

I travel a lot for work; each day involves 3 hours on public transport. I take trains, busses and I'm no stranger to the London Underground. However I seem to be the only one who uses a Switch on a journey. Others are playing games of course; they’re just not playing good games! ‘Candy Crush’ variants still seem to be the commuter game of choice which means my Switch, sat proudly on a stand in front of me, continues to raise eyebrows. For the most part the majority pretend to have not noticed; we’re terribly polite and British don’t you know. They hold their phones and open their books even if their eye-line suggests they’re mesmerised by what I’m doing. 

Occasionally however it seems inquiry about this wondrous piece of technology is irresistible. 

Friday, 3 May 2019

A Coffee or A Game?

Two games a year; one for Christmas and one for my Birthday. When it came to new games I didn’t get access to many growing up. It’s understandable when you consider that most top tier AAA console titles of yesteryear were more expensive than they are now (and that doesn’t even factor in inflation)! A new and desirable Super Nintendo game twenty years ago would sell for as much as £60, while lesser desirable games would rarely drop below £30. It’s easy to see why Video Gaming has often been called an expensive hobby, but times have changed.

While the likes of ‘Super Mario Odyssey’ and ‘Legend of Zelda : Breath of the Wild’ still carry £50 price tags, digital distribution has meant players today can get games for much less. Some of the Switch’s top titles can infact only be bought this way. ‘Stardew Valley’, ‘Shovel Knight’ and ‘Celeste’ are often considered the best games on the console, yet all are (currently at least) download only and available for less than half the price of Nintendo’s most desirable physical releases.

Digital Distribution of console games undeniably exists because of the growth of mobile phone games. Since their debut, platforms like the App Store and Google Play have been awash with countless games that can be bought for less than £1. The problem is that knock-offs, shovel ware, homework assignments and quick cash-ins seem to vastly our number superior game-apps by celebrated recognised developers. The quality threshold certainly seems low on most digital distribution services which is why gamers weren’t too thrilled by an announcement made at Nintendo's 78th Annual General Meeting of Shareholders. It was revealed that the company's goal was to release "around 20 to 30 indie games on Nintendo Switch per week". Critics worried that Nintendo were following other platforms in the belief that quantity was more desirable than quality. Thankfully it seems that Nintendo have been more selective than most, and the barrier for entry is higher than many other digital distribution service.

The best eShop games are, for the most part, given their time in the sun. With Nindie Showcases and dedicated sections on the online shop, Nintendo are keen to tell the World when exciting titles are due to be released on the Switch. That being said, there are many enjoyable games that are often overlooked, and sometimes it’s because of their low price.

Saturday, 13 April 2019

Switch Review - The Mystery of Woolley Mountain

With its touch screen and pointer interfaces, the Switch has become a home console well suited to cater for the resurgence of Point-and-click games. But is good humour and heart enough to make a budget title stand out? 

Developed by Lightfoot Bros.
Release in 2019

At a time when AAA games strive for realism and Indies attempt to make social and political points, we can sometimes forget that games can also amuse. Indeed, point-and-click is typically the go to genre when people cite funny games; be it Telltale’s recent cinematic adventures or the golden age when LucasArts and Sierra created the classics. As the players of the nineties grow and develop games themselves there’s often a desire to replicate the games they once loved and pass on the feelings they gave. For James Lightfoot an ambition to create games was coupled with a desire to make people laugh, which In turn lead to the creation of ‘The Mystery of Woolley Mountain’. “I decided about a year and a half ago that I wanted to make a game, but had never made a game before. I always loved point-and-click games and it occurred to me that it would be the best thing to create and as such, decided to teach myself Unity.”

Predominantly playing as Garland Vanderbilt you and several other “audio scientists” are attempting to save children from the clutches of a wicked ‘Grotbags’-alike witch. To do this the group must travel to Woolley Mountain pointing and clicking their way through a number of puzzles. True to the genre, these situational conundrums are typically solved by using the right object on the right bit of scenery in the right way. 

Friday, 12 April 2019

Switch Review - Mechstermination Force

What happens when you mix 'Contra' with ' Shadow of the Colossus? The creator of 'Gunman Clive' has the answer and its just as brutally hard as you'd imagine.
Developed by Hörberg  Productions
Released in 2019

When you think of run-and-gun games like ‘Probotector’, ‘Metal Slug’ and ‘Gun Star Heroes’ it’s not the levels you remember. It’s the moment a robot burst through a wall, it’s that screen filling tank that’s seems indestructible, it’s the robot spider who must be taken apart limb by limb. 

For many epic boss battles are the reason to play these style of games. The greatest joy of a ‘Mega Man’ game is finally defeating the robot masters. You punch the air with joy either when you find the weapon they’re weakest too or once you’ve memorised their attack patterns and leant when the most opportune moment to strike is. If players didn’t enjoy just fighting the end of level bosses there wouldn’t be the inclusion of “Boss Rush” mode in so many games. This often imposing challenge demands players just fight all the bosses with none of that level nonsense getting in the way in between. You may have energy restored after each battle, but if you don’t it just adds to the challenge.

Recently games like ‘Cuphead’, ‘Titan Souls’ and ‘Furi’ have shown there’s demand to turn what was once a bonus element of a game into the main focus. But unlike these games where success when fighting a giant foes comes from Mastering the ability to dodge attacks and retaliate, ‘Mechstermination force’ sees you leap onto them, expose their weak point and then focus attacks on it. The gameplay is perhaps best described therefore as a 2D ‘Shadow of the Colossus’. Designer and Game Director Bertil Hörberg notes the similarity. “While I [acknowledge] ‘Shadow of the Colossus’ there isn’t really that much direct influence from it other than the general concept of giant bosses that you have to climb on”. 

Friday, 5 April 2019

Switch Review - Bow to Blood: Last Captain Standing

‘Bow to Blood: Last Captain Standing’ proves that complexity and thoughtful depth have a place in Arena based combat.

Developed by Tribetoy
Released in 2018

There’s a whole generation of TV viewers that expect to be able to participate in what they’re watching. Growing up on a diet of ‘X Factor’, ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Strictly Come Dancing with the Stars’ they feel they deserve to have a say in the outcome and progression of a programme. Such interaction does blur the lines between the audience being passive and active of course. By picking up the phone and casting a vote they are no longer simply consuming, they have been given the illusion of control. In this way the differentiation between a TV show and video game becomes less defined. Traditionally you watch the former and interact with the latter, but as both media have changed and evolved over time they have become increasingly indistinguishable.

It’s no surprise that games therefore have often presented their worlds as being part of a TV show. It’s an idea that even pre-dates the explosion of reality TV with ‘Smash TV’ being an obvious early example. The unrealistic and unpredictable twists of the game are the results of an unseen home audience making decisions. Random events are justified and become somewhat easier to stomach if they’re the consequence of fictional viewers or other in-game characters casting votes. It seems easier to forgive when it’s not simply the game making arbitrary choices that determine your destiny. 

This is the background of ‘Bow to Blood: Last Captain Standing’ an arena based warship battle game developed by Tribetoy. Playing as a character called Freelancer, you’re captain of a deadly airship competing in the ‘Bow to Blood’ arena game show. Competing against eight other captains, you’re participating in a “deadly blood sport with life changing stakes”. Each season of the programme is seven matches long and each match consists of two events. The two ships with the lowest total points at the end of each match will be put to a vote in a spectacle known as “The Culling”. The one with the most votes from the other players is eliminated, so to avoid being booted off you have to either perform well in missions or build up a relationship with your opponents. There’s a subtle but impressive relationship and morality system in place, so often it’s worth supporting the competition knowing that because you’ve scratched their back, they’ll likely scratch yours when the votes are being tallied. Conversations with other captains also occur between stages, and like a Telltale game, how you respond to them sculpts their opinion of you and the way the rest of the tournament will evolve. “We all love when games ask us hard questions, the ones that make us question what’s right and wrong” notes Tribetoy. “We think the experience of managing relationships with a diverse cast of AI characters who all have conflicting motivations and goals will provide a lot of interesting situations where there is no clear correct answer”.

Thursday, 21 March 2019

Switch Review - Super Blackjack Battle

Throughout the 80s the public domain corner of gaming presented a wealth of creativity and bizarre ideas . ‘Super Blackjack Battle 2 Turbo Edition - The Card Warriors’ is reminiscent of those times; a quirky idea made by a small team on presumably a tiny budget. However, while it may be a Fun idea in theory, the melding of classic 2D fighter with a card game really doesn’t work in practice.

Developer by Stage Clear Studios
Publisher by Headup Games
Released in 2017

There’s no doubt Stage Clear Studios know ‘Street Fighter 2’. The title ‘Super Blackjack Battle 2: Turbo Edition - The Card Warriors’ alone reflects an intimate knowledge of gaming’s most famous fighting series, parodying Capcom’s love of adjectives. But the infatuation doesn’t stop with the overly protracted game name, the visuals, sound effects, music and characters all are loving tributes. “With its 80's retro style and sassy character interactions [its] perfect for players wanting to get their share of nostalgia!” Stage Clear Studios boast. 

Friday, 8 March 2019

SNES Review - Donkey Kong Country 3 (Game 178)

Released during the SNES’ dying days, many considered ‘Donkey Kong Country 3’ to be the low point in a dazzling series. But while the time of its launch and the shadow of earlier games may have effected critical opinion at the time, is ‘Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble’ worth re-playing today?

Developed by Rare
Published by Nintendo
Released in 1996

In theory, sequels to games should always be better. Developers have heard what critics and players think of their earlier games and therefore know what to do to improve upon them. Video game follow ups, particularly on retro consoles, have traditionally been refinements rather than reinventions. Keeping what works, abandoning what didn’t and adding new gameplay mechanics and ideas to keep the gaming feeling fresh. However, popular series seem to stumble on the third game.  ‘Mega Man 2’, ‘Resident Evil 2’, ‘Monkey Island 2: Le Chucks Revenge’, ‘Street Fighter II’, ‘Sonic the Hedgehog 2’, ‘Tomb Raider II’, ‘Silent Hill 2’, ‘Streets of Rage 2’, ‘The Sims 2’ and ‘Worms 2’ are often considered the best in their series, despite them all having later follow ups. Players it seems  will tolerate one sequel that perfects a successful idea. However beyond that, familiarity starts to breed contempt. As Game Pro magazine said “some cynics may have a "been there, beat that" attitude”, “there’s only so much of the same we can take” added Total! Magazine.

The game they were both referring to was ‘Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble’. As a third entry in a ludicrously popular series, developer Rare should have had a guaranteed hit on their hands. The original ‘Donkey KongCountry’ was celebrated for its incredible visuals. Many confused its pre-rendered character sprites with real-time 3D models and became convinced that early previews for the game was showing off Nintendo’s next hardware iteration. Of course the N64 was infamously delayed but when it was finally released in 1996, it’s flagship game ‘Super Mario 64’ changed the platform game genre for ever. So when rare and Nintendo released ‘Donkey Kong Country 3’ for the Super NES two months after the launch of this phenomenal Nintendo 64 game, what was once considered jaw dropping now looked tragically dated. With ‘Mario 64’, rather than simulated 3D characters, players could actually manipulate a real one within an actual three dimensional landscape. While the series had been a Nintendo cornerstone just a couple of years earlier, by 1996 ‘Donkey Kong Country 3’ felt like a flat outdated afterthought. Gamers had experienced the z-axis, and so just moving a character left, right, up and down felt restrictive. With the double whammy of series fatigue and new technology making their pioneering visuals look irrelevant, Rare clearly felt the need to change things up for their Super Nintendo swan song. The problem is that their changes to a winning formula  weakened the game and further put off potential players.