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. 

Friday, 22 February 2019

Mega Drive Review - Shining in the Darkness (Game 177)

This may be one of the first Japanese made RPGs for the Mega Drive, but with tedious monotonous gameplay it may be one to avoid no matter how good the art is.
Developed by
Sonic! Software Planning (Camelot)
Published by Sega
Released in 1991 
It’s difficult to think of many games whose name reflects my experience more accurately than ‘Shining in the Darkness’, or to be more specific, the Japanese name for the same game: ‘Shining and The Darkness’.
 It’s a game that includes elements I absolutely love, while simultaneously forcing game mechanics on me that I despise. ‘Shining in the Darkness’ somehow manages to simultaneously be my idea of retro gaming heaven and hell. While there are things that shine, there’s an equal amount of darkness and it’s hard to know if the good parts deserve the struggle through the bad bits.

Friday, 8 February 2019

Mega Drive Review - Dynamite Headdy (Game 176)

Platform games were plentiful during the 16-bit era. But with their unique ideas and mastery of the Mega Drive, could Treasure’s contribution to the crowded genre be something truly special? 

Developed by Treasure
Published by Sega
Released in 1994

As someone who regularly writes thousands of words on old games, I do occasionally wonder if I’m ever in danger of over-analysis. I’m a firm believer that game developers, even thirty years ago, put thought into what they created. Yes, some games may well have been the result of designers throwing things together and seeing what sticks: the abstract nature of the ‘James Pond’ and ‘Paradious’ series are certainly guilty of this. Yet equally there are games where subtle nuances and seemingly inconsequential oddities meld together into a convincing theory. For years many claimed that the game ‘Super Mario Bros 3’ was actually depicting a theatrical production starring Mario. It opens with a curtain raising, stages end with Mario “exiting stage right”, background blocks have shadows and floating platforms are hoisted up by cables suggesting they hang from a theatre’s lighting rig. Some people scoffed at this idea, arguing that theorists were finding a truth that simply wasn’t there. But it was ultimately the cynics who were made to look foolish when, in October 2015, Mario designer Shigeru Miyamoto addressed the myth on Twitter. When asked “Was ‘Super Mario Bros. 3’ all just a performance?” His response was an enthusiastic nod of “Yes”.  

6 years after the release of ‘Super Mario Bros 3’, another game took centre stage and was much less subtle about its theatrical influences. ‘Dynamite Headdy’ is a platformer developed by Treasure, their spiritual successor to the incredible ‘Gunstar Heroes’. 

Friday, 25 January 2019

Mega Drive Review - Jurassic Park (Game 175)

‘Jurassic Park’ took more money in its first weekend than any film before it and after nine days it had already made over $100 million. Tie-in video games were inevitable and competition between the system owners was fierce. Thankfully Sega’s developers had some tricks up their sleeves for the Mega Drives’ version of ‘Jurassic Park’.
Developed by Blue Sky Software
Published by Sega
Released in 1993
As an 11 year old, my favourite moment in the ‘Jurassic Park’ movie was when the t-Rex gobbles up the slimy lawyer sitting on the toilet. Even though he had abandoned defenceless children to save himself He probably didn’t deserve this gruesome fate, but the stars of the ‘Jurassic park’ films has always been the dinosaurs and in this scene their King was at his best. In 1993 we flocked to the cinema to see these long extinct beasts brought to life so realistically on the big screen. Twenty-five years on we have become accustomed to special effects and photo-realistic dinosaurs no longer seem remarkable. But while the spectacle doesn’t dazzle, the Rex’s and Velociraptors are still the stars of the show. Chris Pratt and Jeff Goldblum may have promoted ‘Jurassic World: Fallen kingdom’ but Blue the intelligent Raptor featured just as prominently on the film’s posters. 
When we watch a ‘Jurassic Park’ film we of course want to see the heroes triumph over adversity, but we are also there to see the havoc that dinosaurs can create. It makes sense then, that when we play a game based on the films we will want to embody that chaos-creating-monster just as much as we will want to adopt the role of someone attempt to survive against them. So in 1993, if playing both hero and villain was your desire, it was the Mega Drive adaptation of ‘Jurassic Park’ you needed. 

Friday, 11 January 2019

Switch Review - Battle Princess Madelyn

‘Battle Princess Madelyn’ will be familiar to anyone who has played ‘Ghouls N Ghosts’. But can today’s game players cope with the infamous difficulty of that series?
Developed by Casual Bit Games
Published by Hound Picked Games 
Released in 2018
I can’t believe there isn’t a flutter of excitement in any parent when their child takes interest in gaming. For years they may have been playing alone and now suddenly they have a potential player two. A Luigi for their Mario. 
Chris Obritsch has always been a fan of ‘Ghouls N Ghosts’. However, he wasn’t the only one in his household to have a taste for insanely difficult gothic-horror action platform games. “[My daughter] Maddi has this thing for the boss of the first level and she would make me play it over and over again just to see the boss” Recalls Obritsch. “One day I was playing it and she said ‘daddy I want to fight green head, I want to be in the game’”. Obritsch sadly had to admit that he simply wasn’t able to put his daughter in an existing game. However, with a background in digital art and as a former coder for UK Digital Agency Ram Jam, Obritsch was able to offer something that most gaming Dads can’t. He promised his daughter that “maybe daddy can make you your own game.” ‘Battle Princess Madelyn’ is the impressive result of devoted Father fulfilling dreams. “I’m simply doing this for my daughter” admits Obritsch. “She wanted to be in a game, so she’s getting it, because I can do it! “

Friday, 14 December 2018

Mega Drive Review - Wonder Boy III - Monster Lair (Game 174)

‘Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap’ is often described as one of the best Master System games, but there’s another third ‘Wonder Boy’ game that many chose to forget. 

Developed by Westone Entertainment 
Published by Sega
Released in 1991

The recent remake of ‘Wonder Boy : The Dragon’s Trap’ is simultaneously a lovingly faithful tribute and a complete overhaul. It’s a remarkable juxtaposition that tugs at the nostalgia strings of those who have played the original Master System gem, while also proving to be a wonderful entry into a series for those entirely new. It’s been embraced by fans of the original and those who had no idea that it was based on a thirty year old game since it plays and looks like a modern indie classic. IGN called it "one of the best retro remakes yet", while Eurogamer claimed that it sets the bar for updating classics.

While my 8 year old daughter loved the recent ‘Wonder Boy : The Dragon Trap’ remake, I was drawn to it because of my appreciation for ‘Wonder Boy in Monster World’. In the past I have confused myself by trying to work out which games are part of the main ‘Wonder Boy’ series, which are remakes and which are actually just other games with a new sprites to avoid legal disputes. However this didn’t stop me being totally confused when I purchased ‘Wonder Boy III’ for the Mega Drive. 

I had always (correctly) through that the prequel to ‘Wonder Boy in Monster World’ was the aforementioned Master System game ‘Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap’. However, the Mega Drive ‘Wonder Boy III’ I had in my hand had a different subtitle; “Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair’. Of the two games, the Master Systems’ ‘Wonder Boy III’ clearly has more in common with the Mega Drive’s ‘Wonder Boy in Monster World’ and should be acknowledged as the true predecessor. However, ‘ Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair’ echoes the original ‘Wonder Boy’ arcade game so theoretically it’s a more authentic follow up.

Friday, 30 November 2018

Switch Review - Nairi The Tower of Shirin

Developed as a fusion of the point-and-click and visual novel genres,   ‘Nairi: Tower of Shirin’; the debut game from Home Bear Studios is an ambitious adventure game. But can it measure up to the best games in either genre?

Developed by Home Bear Studios
Published by Another Indie / Hound Picked Games
Released in 2018

The point-and-click genre has enjoyed a renaissance recently. The huge Kickstarter successes of ‘Thimbleweed Park’, ‘Broken Age’ and ‘Broken Sword 5’ clearly illustrates just how many people are keen to revisit a genre that they adored in the eighties and nineties. While platforms like the Adventure Game Studio has allowed for the creation of this Style of game on Steam and Android systems, until the Switch they never felt at home in consoles. However, perhaps due to the system’s touch screen interface many point-and-click titles have found a home on Nintendo’s hybrid device. Big names such as ‘Grim Fandango’ and the ‘Syberia’ trilogy can be found in the eShop but lesser known indie hits like ‘The Darkside Detective’, ‘The Lions Song’, ‘Bulb Boy’ and ‘The Fall’ have also seen Switch success. 

Alongside the re-emergence of point-and-click games has been the Western acceptance of Visual Novels. ‘Steins; Gate’, the ‘Zero Escape’ series and the ‘Muv Luv’ games have attracted legions of western fans, and reading interactive books on a video games machine is no longer a Japanese only activity. Trace the two genre’s family trees back far enough and there’s a point of intersection. Both visual novels and point-and-click games evolved from titles like ‘Enchanted Sceptres’ and ‘Déjà Vu’. 

‘The Portopia Serial Murder Case’ (「ポートピア連続殺人事件」) is considered by many to be the first Visual Novel. It challenges a player to solve mysteries by interacting with items, characters and the game world. Retro Gamer magazine claims the game “defined the visual novel genre; it was the first from which all subsequent titles followed”. Evidently, the game's developer, Yuji Horii was inspired by American titles. “I read an article in a PC magazine about a US genre called ‘adventure games’, which allowed players to read stories on their PCs. We still didn't have them in Japan, and I took it upon myself to make one”. 

Given that both genres share a common point of origin and are enjoying Western success, it’s no surprise that developers are now creating games that celebrate the strengths of both. This was the approach taken by Netherlands based developer Home Bear Studio, when they sought Kickstarter backers for their game ‘Nairi: Tower of Shirin’. “We are going for a fairly unique blend between a visual novel and a classic point & click adventure” Joshua van Kuilenburg said to Nintendo Life. “I do feel we fuse visual novel traits with the point & click puzzle genre in a fairly unique way - I have a hard time finding games like ‘Nairi: Tower of Shirin’”

Friday, 16 November 2018

Mega Drive Review - Snake Rattle N Roll (Game 173)

With 3D isometric environments, surreal but attractive graphics, catchy music and original gameplay, ‘Snake Rattle N Roll’ is often considered a NES hidden gem. However it seems everyone has forgotten the enhanced Mega Drive port. Maybe there’s a reason for this?
Developer by Rare
Published by Rare
Released in 1993
I was recently at the London Play Expo and was very excited to see a Mega Drive re-release of one of my favourite NES games: ‘Snake Rattle N Roll’. My perception of game quality was somewhat skewed back in my youth. In my defence, it’s hard to be that objective when you have a shallow pool of knowledge.
I could only play the games I owned or borrowed from friends, I simply didn’t have access to thousands of games like I do now. As such, a favourite game wasn’t necessarily the best on a system; it was just one of the better games that I could play. ‘Snake Rattle N Roll’ had lingered in my memory predominantly because it was just so different to the other titles I owned. The game’s varied viewing angle and downright bizarre sense of humour made it memorable. As we grow up we have a tendency as adults to believe that recollection is a barometer of quality. If we can remember a game so vividly it must be good. So at the Gaming Expo I was shocked that the others with me were not as excessively excited to see a fondly remember NES game now available with 16 bit graphics. I didn’t understand their ambivalence, but as their game playing youth hadn’t included this avant-garde snake based platform puzzler, they simply saw it as yet another game. It dawned on me that my love for ‘Snake Rattle N Roll’ and my eagerness to play it with updated graphics was unique to me. They had no nostalgia for it and instead had objectivity that I lacked. They could check the opinion of others and read that it’s actually a ridiculously frustrating and flawed game. It has novel ideas but they’re badly implemented. This wasn’t what I remembered so I bought the 16 bit update; convinced that a great NES game would become a superb Mega Drive game.
As is always the case, nostalgic memories had been selective. ‘Snake Rattle N Roll’ isn’t the flawless fun game I remember and I wondered if my friends were actually right to not want to spend too much time or money playing it.

Friday, 2 November 2018

Mega Drive Review - Back to the Future III (Game 172)

The ‘Back to the Future’ films are universally adored. But before Telltales’ point-and-click adventure series, why was every game based on such a beloved franchise unanimously awful? 

Developed by Images
Published by Image Works
Released in 1990

Whenever I tell people I spend my free time writing about and playing old video games they always ask the same thing: “What’s your favourite game then?” I struggle to answer and at best typically name ‘Super Mario Kart’, ‘Uncharted 2’ or ‘Chrono Trigger’ but my honest answer could include any game from a pool of thirty. However, when asked to name my favourite film series there is never any doubt; I love the ‘Back to the Future’ films over all other movies. They’re the perfect mix of humour adventure and science fiction. Perhaps down to their time travelling narratives they don’t age and it’s hard to think of many other thirty year old films, that continue to attract new audiences today. “There aren't many films we'd describe as perfect, but Robert Zemeckis's oh-so-'80s time travel tale fits the bill” says Time Out magazine. Total Film and Empire magazines have included it in their Greatest Films of all time lists. The film series was even selected for preservation by the American Government as being "culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant".

Considering the original script for ‘Back to the Future’ was selected by the Writers Guild of America as the 56th best screenplay of all time, the writer and co-producer of the series, Bob Gale is certainly qualified to pass comment on the games that carry the ‘Back to the Future’ name. Before Telltale Games’ universally praised point-and-click series, Gale never disguised his hatred of playable interpretations of his much loved trilogy. “The history of ‘Back to the Future’ in video games has not been a pretty one” Gale admits. “I actually publicly did some press telling people not to buy [the NES ‘Back to the Future’ Game]. It was so crappy.”
Keen to protect the brand, Gale even attempted to be involved in development of games based on his very popular movie. His desire to contribute was not well received by the game’s developers though. “The attitude was; you’re from Hollywood. You don’t know anything about video games.” However, Gale did know about games. At the time he was an eager player. Any fan of the trilogy will even cite a scene in the second film when a young Elijah Woods watches Michael J Fox play ‘Wild Gunman’. “I’m no stranger to video games. I’ve played them since ‘Pong’ was in the arcades” claims Gale. “I bought an Atari 2600. I’ve been playing games since then. I was as aggravated as everyone else back in the 8-bit days at those really God-awful Nintendo ‘Back to the Future’ cartridges that came out.” 

In a conversation with GameBeat, Bob Gale admits that a 16-bit game based on ‘Back to the Future III’ was not much better than the “total garbage, truly awful” NES game.

GamesBeat: I remember renting ‘Back to the Future III’ for the Genesis. I could never get past the first level, which was Doc Brown on the horse. I just kept dying.

Gale: That game was so ridiculously hard. The history of [my] movies-turned-into video games is a pretty tragic one, I’ve got to say.

Friday, 19 October 2018

Mega Drive Review - Gargoyles (Game 171)

Tired of sharing the profits with developers, Disney decided to go it alone and create their own games. ‘Gargoyles’ may be ambitious and beautiful but it also proves that sometimes, it’s best to call in the experts.

Developed by Disney Interactive
Published by Disney Interactive
Released in 1994

Throughout my life I’ve had to justify my hobbies and interests because of  the ludicrous idea that animation and video games are only enjoyed by children. It’s a notion that never seems to die despite the fact it has never actually been true. Since their inception Video Games have had titles that are best played by adults and likewise the early examples of animation were designed to amaze grownups rather than their children. Even Disney, a company celebrated for its child engaging content have made adult material. Some of their earliest experiments are quite frankly terrifying for children. During the Michael Eisner era, grittier adult orientated products were even actively encouraged.

The animated TV show ‘Gargoyles’ was very much a product of this; Disney chasing other’s successes in the face of shifting audience tastes. Animation rival, Warner Bros, had enjoyed huge acclaim with ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ and Disney felt compelled to produce their own young-adult animated show. The result was a series that features a species of nocturnal creatures known as gargoyles that turn to stone during the day but fight New York crime at night. 

To please their 13-to-16-year-old demographic, the edgier ‘Gargoyles’ series resembles a superhero comic set in a world of shadows and corruption. The episodes feature complex story arcs awash with gothic melodrama. Characters are flawed and multifaceted. It is a show that doesn’t shy away from mature themes. Revenge, redemption and retribution, are all tackled with episodes peppered with references to Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky and Kafka.

While the show was only moderately successful when first aired, as the years passed it gained a cult following. In 2009, IGN claimed that ‘Gargoyles’ was the 45th greatest animated series of all time, although this partly attributed to the Number of Star Trek actors who had provided their vocal talents! 

As Nostalgia critic Doug Walker notes, “It was certainly a welcome detour from what Disney usually did”. This revolutionary approach also extended to the development of the accompanying Video Game. After many years of successfully licensing their products to Capcom and Virgin Games, Disney decided to develop in house. 

Friday, 5 October 2018

Snes Review - Magical Quest 3 (Game 170)

The first ‘Magical Quest’ game was met with critical acclaim. Its easier sequel added an audience pleasing two player mode but failed to impress reviewers. Is there a reason why the lesser known third entry in this platforming series was a Japanese exclusive?

Developed by Capcom
Published by Capcom
Released in 1995

You don’t get everything perfect on your first go. The best things are the result of refinement; enhancing what’s good and changing what’s bad. This is why yearly updates to established franchises aren’t entirely bad. Developers can take their product, spend a year improving it and then offer it up to an existing customer base as an optimised and enhanced version. The player meanwhile gets a new iteration of a favourite title, which in theory will be better than it was before. There is an argument that opportunistic publishers are simply trying to convince gamers to re-buy a game they already have. In this modern age of online updates and DLC it’s certainly harder to rationalise. However, decades ago if you wanted your sports game to have updated team names, if you wanted your fighting game to have new fighters and if you wanted your platform game to have additional levels, you had to buy it again. 

There were two companies that were notorious for repeatedly attempting to sell full price re-workings of their most popular titles. Electronic Arts would pump out a new version of every one of their sports titles each year. The franchises under the EA sports umbrella were known for two things: minuscule changes between each of the game vrersions and the infamous “Its in the game” announcement heard every time you’d play. Similar Capcom had a penchant for frequently releasing updated versions of their most popular games. For example, there were four ‘Street Fighter 2’ games on the SNES in the space of eighteen months and it wasn’t just fighting games. The Mickey Mouse ‘Magical Quest’ platforming series was frequently criticised for simply recycling ideas, but it would be better to describe the sequels as refinements of a great initial game. 

The first ‘Magical Quest’ created the mound and set the standard that all later sequels would be judged against. It was hardly an original formula though. ‘Mickey’s Magical Quest’ features 6 worlds each consisting of several multidirectional scrolling stages. A Player predominantly moves from the left of the screen to a goal on the right, with obstacles to jump over and platforms to leap between. Level variety comes in the form of physics based puzzles; seesaws, collapsing bridges, swinging vines or obstructions that require a specific clothing to be worn. Three outfits can be found throughout the game, and wearing each gives Mickey a different set of skills. The climax of each world features an elaborate screen filling boss and defeating them rewards the player with a brief story interlude before moving onto the next stage. While critics unanimously praised the graphics and music, the general consensus was that ‘Magical Quest’ was too easy and too short. 

The sequel; ‘The Great Circus Mystery’ didn’t address this criticism, in fact it was even less challenging. This was largely due to the inclusion of a simultaneous two player mode, as Minnie joined Mickey on his adventure - the first time the female mouse had been playable in a video game. “Add a friend to the mix, and it delivers a whole new level of fun” GameSpy said when reviewing the GBA port. Sadly, the two mice played identically and Minnie was essentially just Mickey’s sprite with a bow. 

However, despite the sequel being easier it is certainly the better game. The suit mechanic in the first game was improved with a whole new wardrobe available to the player. The magician, rock climber and firemen suits of the first ‘Magical Quest’ game are out and instead Disney’s most famous mouse can be dressed in sweeper, safari or cowboy clothes. For this third game, the previous six outfits in the series are gone and once again our protagonists have new threads. They are now able to dress up as knights, wood cutters and conjurers. It’s the implementation of these outfits though that elevates the third game to “best in the series status”.