Solaris Japan

Friday, 2 December 2016

Maximum Power Up Podcast - Amiga Memories

As I've cast a critical nostalgic eye over games like 'Cannon Fodder', 'RoboCod', 'SensibleSoccer', 'The Chaos Engine', 'Lemmings', 'Pinball Fantasies', 'James Pond', 'Zool' and 'SpeedBall 2' I've frequently mentioned Amiga computers. While I've always identified myself as a console Retro Gamer, that's really only half the truth. Growing up I played many a game on a home computer as we owned an Amiga 500. I'm always surprised that these machines are often overlooked when people talk about favourite gaming memories. While they may not have been that popular in America, in the UK at least, everyone seemed to own one. (Or more specifically everyone who didn't own an Atari ST had one!) It was a range of home computers that were versatile, well severed by creative minds and blighted by piracy. For while all my friends and I had huge Amiga game collections, a fraction of these were bought legitimately. While this was clearly awful for game developers and the longevity of the computer, for me it meant a chance to play a huge array of games. It's hard to imagine a genre of video games that didn't have some sort of representation on the Amiga. While it's true that a lot of these were pale imitations of the most famous console releases, the Amiga also served as a proving ground. A great many games that later found success internationally on consoles started life as an experimental project on the Amiga. With a thriving PD scene and home programmers competing to push the boundaries of what the A500 could do there's clearly a lot to talk about. And this is exactly what I have done.

I've always listened to gaming podcasts on commutes to work. I love hearing passionate, like minded people witter away about the games of yesteryear. Frequently the presenters are of a similar age to me, so their happy memories are also mine. I jump at the chance to appear on Podcasts especially when it's a topic I love dearly. This is why I was so delighted to join the Maximum Power Up podcast to talk about RPGs a few months back. Evidently I did a good job as they have since invited me back to talk again about the Amiga. For close to two hours I was gifted the chance to chat to my friend Paul, covering happy memories of the games we user to play on this fantastic range of computers. It's naturally a huge topic but (owing to the fact I speak Very quickly) we got through a lot. From magazines and cover discs to 'D Paint' and 'Amos' programming, there wasn't much we didn't at least mention. 

Early feedback has been very encouraging which is obviously flattering. English listeners in particular are thrilled that the machine that allowed for much of their childhood gaming has finally been discussed on the show. 

Hopefully it'll be the start of many more appearances on The Maximum Power Up podcast in the future.

Friday, 25 November 2016

Snes Review - Lufia II (Game 121)

'Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals' is a RPG overlooked by many but adored by few. But is it worth playing a 30 hour game just because the ending is so memorable?
Developed by Neverland
Published by Nintendo /Natsume
Released in 1996

Like Link hearing Zelda's voice as he wakes or Chrono's premonitions, every few months I hear the call to adventure. While I like to enjoy a wide variety of genres, RPGs are the games that I naturally gravitate towards. It seems I can't go a few months without feeling the need to play one, which is bad news for my wallet as the best 16bit RPGs seem to hold their value and are getting increasingly expensive over time. When you look at lists of the most expensive Snes titles, most of the premium prices titles are Role Playing games. Tellingly these same games also regular appear in "best of the Snes" lists too, so quality it seems comes at a price. 

RPGs are popular because try offer escapism, a chance to be a hero in a new World. My best gaming experiences tend to be when I get lost in a story absorbed in atmosphere and embraced by engaging characters. To do this best, I think, you need a RPG.  So while I may have many unfinished platforming and action games on my shelf, it was 'Lufia II' that has recently hogged dozens of hours of my available gaming time . It was a RPG I hadn't heard of prior to getting it last Christmas from a friend. To be frank, that's something I should be ashamed to admit.  While it isn't ever going to top 'Chrono Trigger', 'SeikenDensetsu 3' or 'Final Fantasy VI' it is a game that anyone with even a passing interest in Role Playing Games should look into.  It's gameplay will be instantly familiar and it's graphics are best described as "inoffensively functional" but the ending of 'Lufia II' is incredibly moving and worth the price of admission by itself.

It's often argued that it's not the final destination by the journey which is the reward; that really isn't the case in 'Lufia II'. Apart from some incredibly intelligent and challenging puzzles there is very little here that isn't done in other games and often better. However, when the credits roll you'll have to have a heart of stone to not be weeping. As you wipe away those tears hopefully, like me, you'll realise the effort to get there was worth it.

There is a short cut to seeing the dramatic conclusion of 'Lufia II'; play its prequel 'Lufia'. Perhaps uniquely, the game released first actually ruins the end of its own sequel: the second in the series is actually a prequel. Needless to say, without the 30 hour investment in characters though, when you see the events of 'Lufia II' at the start of 'Lufia' there is little emotional resonance. So, while I appreciate that it's quite an ask for someone to play a long game just because it has an emotive end, (especially when the narrative only gains momentum a third of the way through) any RPG fan would be missing out not to see this game to its conclusion. 

I have actually written thousands of words on the history and mechanics of 'Lufia II' which can be read, on real paper, in the popular 'Hyper Play RPG' fanzine. So, if you are intrigued by the game it may be worth picking the review up

To whet your appetite here's a little snippet. 

‘Lufia II’ is in essence a "best of" compilation; it plays well because its game mechanics are, for the most part, borrowed from other games and subtly improved. You don't have to spend ages grinding to learn magic spells you can simply buy them in shops, similar to early 'Final Fantasy' games. Churches are used to remove afflictions similar to the 'Dragon Quest' series. Like 'Breath of Fire', you can heal in Inns, but the most obvious Influence has been 'The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past'. While 'Lufia II' is, of course, a turn based game there is still a great deal of exploring. Each new dungeon is littered with puzzles which start simple but by the game’s close become real head scratchers.  Some of the more fiendish puzzles fortunately aren't required to be solved to complete the game but a solution offers more powerful weapons and armour though. Often I would finish a dungeon, only to spend an hour or so going back through competed rooms looking for secret passages and ways to reach the one treasure chest I'd not opened.  Critic Jason Schreier was clearly a fan of the puzzle distraction. "The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced 'Lufia II' has the best puzzles in JRPG history" he wrote for Kotaku . "Instead of just throwing mazes and monsters at you, dungeons in 'Lufia IIchallenge you to think about what you're doing, where you're going, and even how many steps you're taking. Some of the puzzles are obvious—put this jar on a button—but as you progress through the game, they get increasingly difficult. I wonder why more RPGs haven't given their dungeons the type of elegance and intelligence that 'Lufia II' had."

Friday, 18 November 2016

Gaming Addiction

I'm sure every Retro Gamer has been told at some point that they are "addicted" to games. That could be in relation to the time they spend playing games, or it could also be prompted by the amount they spend buying them . Like all hobbies, an enthusiastic interest in Retro Gaming inevitably demands a financial and time investment. The more you spend the bigger the collection, the more time you give the longer you get to play. But, while most of us can confidently say that we are not "addicted", there are some who struggle to stop buying and can't put the controller down. Too many find it too easy to dismiss this as being ridiculous. However, those who laugh at the addiction admissions have probably never gone to bed late just so they can "beat that last boss". They probably haven't spent next month's wages on a rare Jaguar title, just because it "isn't listed very often on eBay". When you step back and look at your own approach to Retro gaming you start to realise just how many "signs of addiction" you exhibit. This is why it's important to speak openly and honestly about a sensitive topic. It's vital we understand what is healthy and what is a reason to be concerned . 

After looking at scientific and social research, I have put finger to keyboard and written quite exhaustively about this very subject for RetroCollect. I spoke to former addicts (of both gaming and to other substances) to make sure the topic was handled with the care it deserved. What was most eye opening was the extent to which some people goto to build a collection. Ultimately what I learnt was that Retro Gaming and collecting is a fantastic hobby, but only when it is moderated. Evidently, excess and impatience seems to lead to ruin for most.I'll admit that i was very anxious about the site publishing what could be a very sensitive  topic. I don't pretend to be an authority on this subject, so really hoped the points I made were suitably backed up by those with the experience to do so. I've been wowed by the response. Never has an article I've written garnered such a reaction, with it reaching far into the community to the point that the GameSpot Twitter account even shared it. But more importantly, I've been privately contacted by several people who said the piece spoke to them and made them feel better about their own collections. I've been thanked for my sensitivity and objectivity which has made all the research and effort worthwhile. 

With this in mind if you (ironically) wish to explore some of the emotions discussed in the article through a game please do dig out 'Actual Sunlight'. 

It's a short title that tells the story of Evan Winter, a 30-something man, living in Toronto. The game examines the monotonous life of this socially trapped but affluent individual, single and hurtling towards middle age in a thankless job. It's a autobiographical game by Will O'Neill and Retro collecting and addictive spending features in the tragic tale. "A lot of what I wanted to write about was video games and having your life revolve around them" O'Neill once told It's "a game that criticises games and gaming culture [and] releasing 'Actual Sunlight' has only made me double-down on my engagement with that culture. All of a sudden I'm not just a loser addicted to games. I'm a game developer with something to say."

With its discussion of depression, gaming addiction and isolation it's undeniably a painful play. However it's one we should all spend half an hour doing. " I want everyone to play my game, and I don't think the writing that I do is inaccessible," O'Neill explains. "I think the vast majority of people, certainly the people you think of as stereotypical 'gamerdudebro' types, they could get a lot out of 'Actual Sunlight'. Whenever I see a review on Steam that's like, 'I don't know what the f**k this game's talking about,' they've got something like 7,000 products registered to their account. They know what this game is about – they know exactly what it's about". 

I hope my article on Retro Collect at least makes the same "gamerdudebros" step back and take stock of their 7,000 games. There's an exciting world out there. it's would be a shame if we never get to see it because we have spent all our money and time replacing it with the pixelated version that exists in the games we enjoy so much. 

Friday, 11 November 2016

Mega Drive Review - Klax (Game120)

"It is the nineties and there is time for 'Klax'". 

But now two decades later is a colour matching puzzle game worth your attention?

Developed by Atari Games
Published by Tengen
Released in 1992

I have an odd relationship with puzzle games. I'm frequently drawn to them knowing that at some point while playing I'll feel a smug sense of satisfaction when I solve the problem presented. However as soon as a time limit or a penalty for mistakes is introduced to the game, I know I'll have to endure a whole lot of unpleasant emotions to get to the back slapping satisfying conclusion. I'll feel shame and remorse when I make an error. I'll feel tense and agitated when time is running out. I feel foolish and annoyed when I can't figure out how to solve something and I'll feel infuriated and frustrated when I'm told by the game that I've failed. It's a lot to go through for a momentary sense of accomplishment and yet that's the reason we play competitive puzzle games.

I can't remember a game that's makes me as tense as 'Klax' does. It looks harmless enough, all you have to do is catch cascading blocks from a conveyor belt and put them in stacks of at least three. It doesn't even matter which direction you stack them in; vertically, horizontal or diagonally. However the claustrophobic play space and the continued unstoppable flow of blocks that'll quickly fill it, make for a frantic intense puzzle experience. Retro Gamer magazine quaintly described 'Klax' as a game where "the basic premise is to create order out of disorder." However I believe the designer of the game Mark Stephen Pierce more aptly describes the tense playing experience as "the pressure of a relentless rain of death in the form of something coming from above that must be dealt with”.