Friday, 30 April 2021

Switch Review - Hitch Hiker

We’ve had walking simulators, but can a passenger simulator capture your imagination?  

Developed by Mad about Pandas
Published by Versus Evil
Released in 2021


I sit next to a taxi driver on a journey home from work one day. I’m tapping away at my phone, and the driver seems to be more and more disgruntled that I’m paying him no attention. 

  “You’re sending a lot of messages there mate” he says, his eyes thankfully fixed on the road. 

  “I’m writing about something on the Nintendo” I reply, as if it a thing normal people spend their days doing.

  “Ah, right” he says stifling a laugh. “My kids play those. You writing about the shooting one, or the digging one?” My taxi driver clearly has a knowledge of video games that doesn’t extend beyond ‘Fortnight’ and ‘Minecraft’.

  “Actually it’s a game about humanity’s dependence on memories to define our existence and how recollection of the past can be distorted and manipulated, to suit the present’s need for survival and recovery”. My reply is admittedly filled with a hint of arrogance and condescension but, he did ask what I was writing about!

The taxi driver snorts. “Doesn’t sound like a fun game.”

And that’s where he’s wrong again on two counts. ‘Hitch Hiker’ is incredible, but it isn’t strictly a game. We sit for the rest of the journey in an awkward silence. 

Friday, 16 April 2021

Switch Review - Persian Nights: Sands of Wonders

While it may look like a spin off of a famous UbiSoft Franchise, ‘Persian Nights: Sands of Wonders’ is a hidden object game from the masters of the genre. But should it be one you seek?




Developed by Artiflex Mundi / Sodigital
Published by Forever Entertainment
Released in 2018

As a child I loved the ‘Where’s Wally’ books. Created by English illustrator Martin Handford, these books consist of a series of detailed illustrations showing a crowd of people doing a variety of amusing things at a random location. There was little to no plot, but instead the reader is challenged to find Wally hidden in the group. In theory he is easy to spot, in his red-and-white-striped shirt, bobble hat, and glasses. However, the illustrations contain red herrings involving deceptive use of red-and-white striped objects.  These books celebrated the simple delight of discovery. There’s an undeniable joy in finding something that has eluded you, an immediate hit of satisfaction and relief. It’s a reaction that explains the enduring popularity of hidden object games, where, like the ‘Where’s Wally’ books, all you really seem to be doing is treasure hunting. Given my childhood love of this practice it seems strange that for too long I have dismissed these games as being too casual. Having played video games for more than thirty years I mistakenly believed that something so light on gameplay wouldn’t hold my attention. But as the old saying goes, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

Books are a good thing to acknowledge when talking about an Artifex Mundi game. Each one is essentially a novella, telling a brisk story that is intended to be played in one sitting.  With a few exceptions, most of their eighty games tread very familiar ground. Many people have even accused the company of trading off the success of others, mimicking the art and names of many successful franchises. 'Agent Walker: Secret Journey' could be confused with 'Agent Carter', 'Ghost Files: The Face of Guilt' echoes 'X Files' , 'Set Sail: Caribbean' is clearly influenced by 'Pirates of the Caribbean' and 'Uncharted Tides' could very easily be confused with Sony's hugely popular 'Uncharted' games. At a casual glance they can so easily be considered, at best, pastiches but most would call them shameless cash-ins. To do so would be unfair. Yes the games are undeniably influenced by other properties, but to say they don’t have any merit or artistic integrity would be wrong. While the Artifex Mundi games may borrow themes and character types, the games this studio offer are polished and engaging in their own right. An audience may be lured in by the mirroring of familiar brands, but (as long as they like hidden object games) they will probably be satisfied with their investment none the less. After developing and publishing nearly a hundred games over the last ten years, Artifex Mundi clearly have perfected their craft of making Hidden Object Games.

Friday, 2 April 2021

Switch Review - My Brother Rabbit

Pointing and clicking its way through a world of imagination, ‘My Brother Rabbit’ is so much more than a simple hidden object game.

Developed by Artifex Mundi
Published by Forever Entertainment
Released in 2019
 

‘Nights into Dreams’, ‘Little Big Planet’, ‘Little Nemo: The Dream Master‘, ‘Alundra’, ‘Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance’ and even ‘Dreams’. While there are many video games that are set within a dreamscape, it’s surprising more titles haven’t used this backdrop. Dreams are said to be the time when imagination can play, were the normal rules of physics and reality need not apply. Anything is possible within a dream and as such anything would also be possible in a game that featured them.

 


‘My Brother Rabbit’ is a surrealistic title that would make Salvador Dali proud. A game of wild fantasy, where Teddy Bears perform medical scans, boats are made from bathtubs and iguanas are TV screens. Trees have faces, bugs have light bulb bodies, there are robot moose, and eyes watch you everywhere – literal eyeballs on stalks. The reason for this madness is simple; you’re observing a child’s dream. “We always try to create interesting worlds full of beautiful art” says the developer. ”Now we have decided to take a step further, so, we created a game that is fully based on children's imagination“. The charming ‘My Brother Rabbit’ explores the love between a brother and an ill sister, represented in the game by as a green plant like creature and the titular brother rabbit. An opening cinematic sets up a story that will prove to be troubling for a parent who has a child that suffers medical problems.

A little girl is struck by a mysterious illness and is rushed to hospital. Alongside her parents, her older brother accompanies her and he takes it upon himself to emotionally support his much loved sibling. To do this the children share imaginative stories about their cuddly toys; that go on a journey that very much reflects the ordeals the children themselves are going through. “Though their situation is dark, the children use their creativity as a torch to light their way out” says the developers. “Kids have the incredible ability to explain what they don’t understand. This isn’t a way to ignore what they fear, but to instead both cope and understand the strange ways of an ever-changing world”. Evidently the game’s designers worked with their own children to better understand the way they perceive our reality.  It’s hard to think of a much more heart-warming set up. The game is divided into four distinct sections, which are separated by brief story interludes. There are bumps in the road for the siblings, but ultimately the game, while emotionally charged, is a tale of support and love. “We feel that players will form a bond with the children in ‘My Brother Rabbit’ because of their enduring spirit,” explains Artifex Mundi CEO Tomasz Grudziński. “Though this story begins with a tragedy, these children always hope for a brighter future.”

 

‘My Brother Rabbit’, is accurately described as a hidden object game fused with a point-and-click. Traditionally, in the latter genre, you have to source abstract items which can be combined in an inventory to solve puzzles. In ‘My Brother Rabbit’ you will still be hunting through locations to find things, but rather than finding a combination of different things you have to find many of one thing.

 

Friday, 19 March 2021

Switch Review - Sinless

We are seeing more and more point-and-click games released on the Switch, but is this cyber punk adventure bold enough to stand out from the crowd?



Developed by MGP Studios
Published by Forver Entertainment
Released in 2019

It’s easy to forget how good a story telling medium video gaming is. It gives the audience the ability to directly interact with an unfolding narrative; creating a feeling of immersion that simply isn’t possible in films or TV shows. Rather than a passive observer, you become an active participant, given the illusion you are driving, sculpting and changing the story. Visual novels are becoming increasingly popular, escaping the niche that they once lived in. There has also been a renascence of sorts in the point-and-click genre; particularly amongst European PC users.


Of course for every fan of the interactive story telling that these kinds of games offer, there’s a critic. “It’s not game playing” the naysayers declare, “if I wanted to read, I’d grab a book”. Too many words it seems, shouldn’t be a feature of modern video gaming, something the creators of ‘Sinless’ are very much aware of. “[Our game] is targeted at the old-school, niche gamer-there is a lot of reading after all” says the Warsaw based MGP Studios. “We have been playing games for three decades and have fond memories of classic adventure games ranging from ‘Granny's Garden’ on the BBC through the timeless classic Sierra and ‘Dynamix’ games to the more recent touchscreen based visual novels like ‘Danganronpa’, ‘Phoenix Wright’ and ‘Ghost Trick’”. It’ll come as no surprise that the first game from the developer follows in the same vein ; “Sinless is a hybrid of classic 2D point and click adventure and visual novel set in an original cyberpunk reality”.

Friday, 5 March 2021

Switch Review - Cathedral

 


Yet another pixelated ‘Metroidvania’ game on the eShop. Can ‘Cathedral’ explore new ground, or is it backtracking over a path well-trodden.

Developed by Decemberborn

Published by Elden Pixels

Released in 2021

 

You can't help but feel a little sorry for  Eric Lavesson. "I wrote the first lines of code for 'Cathedral' at 2 AM on Dec. 8, 2014" he tweeted. The world was different then, and a faithful tribute to the games of his youth may have felt then like a novel idea.  "I've always been interested in writing my own games" says Lavesson. Starting out at 9 years old, he created crude text adventures on an Atari 600XL. Initially programming in BASIC, Lavesson progressed to C++, through to assembly in DOS,  OpenGL and DirectX after a few years. "Long story short; all of this drove me towards a career in software development, and even though I ended up specializing in rendering and visualization in my dayjob, I never actually released a game until ' Cathedral'". It was a pure passion project created from a desire to simply build a game from scratch. However, From even glancing at a few screens shots you know exactly what kind of game it is. "'Cathedral' is ultimately an NES-styled adventure game, inspired a lot by ‘Metroid’ and similar games (so a Metroidvania, if you will)" says Lavesson. "There’s inspiration from a ton of NES games such as 'Wizard & Warriors', ' Zelda II', 'Metroid', 'Simon’s Quest' [...] but also from various games on other platforms such as the "Wonder Boy' series." As the project grew Lavesson needed support to turn his experimental project into something more marketable.  "I was working on this myself to start with. I’m not an artist, and I realised I would need help from both a musician as well as a pixel artist at some point".  Aron Kramer  joined as a musician and the pixel art replicating the inspirational games was created by Victor Leão.


Decemberborn Interactive's desire to create a pixilated 'Metroid' style game may have felt original in 2014 but a lot can change in 6 years. In the same year that Lavesson started , 'Shovel Knight' was released. Yacht Club's phenomenally popular game  also borrow game mechanics and visuals from NES era ‘Metroidvania’ style games. 'Shovel Knight'  received critical acclaim, won various awards and once was even considered  one of the best video games of all time by Game Informer readers. Its commercial success led to a slew of imitators, and six years after its release there are now literally hundreds of ‘Metroidvania’ games with retro inspired artwork crowding digital platforms. "2D pixel art is now so commonplace it is an everyday part of the gaming landscape - a conventional aesthetic, rather than a daring deviation that raises an eyebrow" says video game historian Will Freeman. "Pixel artistry that revisits the 8-bit and 16-bit console eras is particularly popular - [...] demonstrating that nostalgia is a key driver behind the rise and rise of contemporary pixel art". All this means that while 'Cathedral' may have felt like an original idea in 2014, now it sadly  feels somewhat stale, predictable and far too familiar. It might be a tribute to what has been, but with so many other games doing exactly that, 'Cathedral' ironically feels inferior when compared to the best of its contemporary peers.

Friday, 19 February 2021

Switch Review - Phantom Doctrine


A turn based tactics game for the 'XCom' fans. But can an incredibly complicated niche game find a home on the Switch - a system known for its mass market appeal? 

Developed by Creative Forge

Published by Forever Entertainment

Released in 2020

Sometimes, size and scale can be intimidating. When I scour the shelves of my local board game cafe, I will ignore the games that exist in giant boxes. I worry I'd never understand a game so heavy that it literally make the shelf it sits on bend and bow. Clearly, this heavyweight title must have a huge amount of rules, figures and components to fill that big box. “If I don't understand them all, I'll never enjoy the game” I worry. But to others, this gigantic package is enticing. The game within will be something you can sink your teeth into; an appealingly imposing game where satisfaction can come from understanding the nuances and mastering the complexity. A big box equals a game that you will need to set a whole weekend aside for, but one that has enough scale and scope to make that dedication feel like time well spent.

I find myself thinking of board games when I analyse 'Phantom Doctrine' an espionage game developed by Polish studio Creative Forge. The bulk of the game will be immediately familiar to anyone who has played a certain alien hunting strategy game, something Creative Forge themselves recognise. “It’s a tactical cold war thriller; It’s ‘XCom’ with Spies.” says designer Blazej Krakowiak. “‘XCom’ is definitely the benchmark in the genre, but then the formula is so wide, you can do so much creatively with it. Doing alien invasions are not the only thing you can do with it.” Consequently, the bulk of ‘Phantom Doctrine’ involves moving characters over an isometric grid. Playing like a game of chess, you position your team and then perform actions with them. These actions can be as simple as gunning down an enemy agent, or more complex tasks involving stealing files, laying traps or even interrogating, instructing sniping, breaching a room or going onto Over watch – when you’ll be on constant guard should the opponent perform anything untoward in your vicinity. Once you’ve spent all your agents allotted skill points it’s your opponent’s turn. They will then move and perform similar actions. Play continues in this way until, either your agents are all dead or you complete the mission’s objective. Obviously this means you’ll be sitting watching the computer do their moves for half the play time, but that’s to be expected in this kind of game.

Friday, 5 February 2021

Switch Review - Wanderlust

Visual novels traditionally seem to feature anime protagonists facing apocalyptic situations. But what happens when you take travel memoirs and turn them into interactive fiction?

Developed by Different Tales
Published by Forever Entertainment
Released in 2020

As Big Ben chimed on December 31st 2019, I made a new year’s resolution. "This will be the year I travel again" I promised myself, mentally pledging to visit at least two new countries in the next year. I didn’t anticipate big long journeys of self-discovery, but perhaps a few daytrips here and there when work allowed. It had been so long since I had been anywhere abroad that didn't involve hugging Mickey Mouse and exploring his magical kingdom. Not that I didn’t love doing that of course, but life changes had meant that I could now travel without my children in tow. Better yet I’d met someone who shared and inspired my desire to see the World, who was happy to join me on my global jaunts. Then, 2020 happened. By the years end I obviously never did get to honour my resolution; no one traveled in 2020 for obvious reasons. But my yearning to see the World didn’t dissipate so instead I watched more and more travel vLogs and documentaries, getting hooked on TV shows like 'Race Across the World' and playing travel inspired board games like 'Tokaido' and 'Trekking the World'. Now frustrated and landlocked, it’s hardly a surprise that the game ‘Wanderlust: Travel Stories' caught my eye on the eShop.



It’s a game by Different Tales, but to label it "a game" is somewhat misleading. It was created by Polish designers Artur Ganszyniec and Jacek Brzeziński, both known for their work on 'The Witcher' games. Ganszyniec believes that "Wanderlust' is an example of "slow gaming", where thinking and feeling takes precedence over skills and reflexes. “I was tired, always running, overworked and overstressed. [...] always focused on the next release date" recalls Ganszyniec. "Stopping was not an option, but slowing down… slowing down was doable.  I needed games that would slow with me, that would encourage me to reflect, that would make me feel something more than anger, fear, frustration, and euphoria. Games that would feel relevant to my adult life. Games that would give me space to grow at my own pace." It was an unconventional desire, given that most game publishers seems to strive for "more, bigger, louder, greater". We are perpetually told that video game players today have short attention span and anything that demands excessive thought or reflection should be discarded in favour of titles that immediately offer continuous visceral thrills. As such Ganszyniec's search for pensive, passive titles wasn't a fruitful one. "There were not many such games that I found" he laments. Undaunted, he set out to make a "slow game" and 'Wanderlust' is the result; a slow paced visual novel that plays like an old "choose your own adventure" style book. 

Friday, 8 January 2021

Switch Review - Wingspan


Birds and video games aren't the most obvious of coupling, but can this adaption of one of the most popular board games in recent years change that opinion?


Developed by Monster Couch Games

Released in 2020


Digital versions of board games are as old as computer gaming itself. One of the games that came packaged with my first computer, the ZX Spectrum, was a digital version of ‘Chess’. Sitting alongside it was a bizarre little board game-esque game called ‘Survival’. It was an educational ‘Horizons’ title in which the player takes on the role of a hawk, a robin or a butterfly.​ Gameplay consisted of moving across a grid a square at a time, as you attempt to find food to survive while avoiding predators. The box was striking; a resplendent hawk swooping into grass land presumably catching an innocent little field mouse. Despite having monotonous game play with limited interaction it was a favourite game of mine at the time. Today, while I continue to play videogames, a new passion in my life are games that are played on tables using dice, cards and meeples. I have discovered the joy of board gaming and in the last year it has once again been a bird based title that I have fallen in love with.


Anyone who dabbles in table-top gaming, will know of ‘Wingspan’. Elizabeth Hargrave’s cerebral game has received almost universally favourable reviews and huge commercial success.​ Not only did ‘Wingspan’ sell out immediately when released in March 2019, within a month it was entering its sixth print run with nearly 50,000 copies sold. Board game critic Matt Thrower called ‘Wingspan’ "the year's hottest game” and Said Al-Azzawi of the L.A. Times called it "one of the board game industry’s most acclaimed games".​ ‘Wingspan’ earned a clutch of industry honours, including the prestigious 2019 Kennerspiel des Jahres award. The game is currently ranked as the 21st best board game of all time according to the table-top Gospel that is Board Game Geek. It would be appropriate to call ‘Wingspan’ a board game phenomenon and understandably there was a desire to create a digital version to cash in on the success.

Friday, 16 October 2020

Switch Review - Terror Squid


A bullet hell shooter, where the only thing that can kill you is yourself. 


Developed by Apt Games

Released in 2020


You’d be right to be confused when you watch the reveal trailer for ‘Terror Squid’.  Showing no in game footage, the surreal promotion shows a couple in a bar, vomiting black ink as the world around them deforms. Drenched in neon colours with a distorted 80’s electro sound track, it is hard to ignore the ‘Stranger Things’ inspiration. The phenomenally successful Netflix series as well as shows like ‘Glow’, ‘Halt and Catch Fire’  and films like ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ have made modern video gamers glamorise a time 40 years ago. Nostalgia is the real strange thing. Like a demogorgon it sneaks up on people slowly over time, the memory of the unpleasant times fade and they’re replaced by a rose tinted idealization. The passing of several decades can work wonders for an era’s cultural reputation, especially among those too young to have a first-hand memory of it. The 80s were a decade of awful unemployment, the arrival of AIDS and the lingering threat of nuclear war, but no one wants to remember that. It’s much more fun to throw on a shell suit, listen to some synthesizers and play some games that look like ‘Super Mario Bros’ and ‘The Legend of Zelda’. But even these games are false representation of the entirety of the eighties. Both didn’t come out till five years into the decade, and there was a whole lot of other games before them.

We had the Sinclair Spectrum with its garish colours , we had the five minute wait while games loaded from cassettes assaulting our ear drums with high pitched noises. One of my earliest brushes with game playing came at a friend’s house when we played ‘Space Wars’ on the ‘Vectrex’. This system has largely been forgotten which is a shame because it was pioneering. Had it been more successful, it is likely the Vectrex could have changed the home computer market. First released in 1982 the system offered vector graphics, using lines rather than pixels to create images. While other systems connected to a television set, the Vectrex came with its own monitor, which was oriented vertically rather than horizontally. The American video game crash meant it sold poorly, however it was critically praised thanks to its use of 3D and rotational effects to achieve unprecedented graphics.


It is this look that has been influential in the design of ‘Terror Squid’. Arguably it’s a modern retro inspired game that is actually more reflective of games available during the early eighties. It celebrates vector graphics, lavishing upon them modern visual flourishes. It a look that pairs wonderfully with the sound track; a tribute to the music of Depeche Mode, Duran Duran and ABC. However, sadly ‘Terror Squid’ is actually a game that’s stylish and authentic, but lacks enough varied gameplay to be enjoyable for a long period.

Friday, 9 October 2020

Switch Review - Alwa's Legacy


The eShop describes ‘Alwa’s Legacy’ as “a modern retro game” where  you “choose your own path in this non-linear adventure game brimming with exploration.” Yes it’s another pixelated ‘Meroidvania’ game, but maybe this one is better than the countless others.

 

Developed by Elden Pixels

Released in 2020

 

Familiarity breeds contempt; what was once my catnip, has now become something that’s repellent to me. Five years ago, I would see a ‘Metroidvania’ style game and been intrigued but now I roll my eyes. This style of game seems to be the obvious go-to for too many developers. Online digital stores are crowded with mediocre titles whose main selling point seem to be that “it’ll remind you of playing ‘Super Metroid’ 25 years ago”. A ‘Metroidvania’ game can of course be done very well, we need only look towards ‘Celeste’, ‘Hollow Knight’ and ‘Axiom Verge’ for proof of this. But, more often than not, it seems developers shun exploration in favour of monotonous backtracking and an enemy onslaught. When playing a good ‘Metroidvania’ game there’s that wonderful moment of realisation when you find an item and know immediately how it can be used to reach an inaccessible area. In Mediocre examples you find something and then sigh as you know it’ll mean a lot of re-treading old ground to use it. The worst ‘Metroidvania’ games see you find something and then realise you have no idea why you need it. The game then demands the player randomly use this curio everywhere they’ve been, in the hope that it’ll be productive somewhere. The strength of a one of these game therefore is its ability to hide things in plain sight and minimise the sense of toing-and-froing.

I make no secret of my love of pixelated graphics, but much like ‘Metroidvania’ games, what was once a niche art style has become mainstream. Celebrated Amiga graphics artist  Dan Malone once said “I just wanted to hide the pixels. I wanted [the characters] to be smooth like it’s a comic”. Today having a dotty protagonist is seen as a selling point; and it seems half the modern independent games offer “retro inspired graphics”. I love the look when it is done well, but increasingly bad 2D character sprites are excused by claiming the look is just like it was back in the day. True, but the games this new title is aligning itself with, also looked bad thirty years ago. Having pixel art doesn’t mean a game immediately looks good or even nostalgic. Decades ago Super Nintendo magazine reviewers didn’t say every game looked fantastic even though the majority had pixelated presentation. So it seems bizarre that so many people today are convinced that having blocky graphics equals instant appeal, regardless of how good the pixel art actually is. 

There was a time when I would have been so excited to play Elden Pixels' ‘Alwa’s Legacy’, but knowing it is yet another pixelated ‘Metroidvania’ game really didn’t make me want to play it. However, this game is beautiful and may actually compare to the original games that fused to create the genre’s name. Unlike poorer imitators, ‘Alwa’s Legacy’  favours exploration and puzzle solving over tedious backtracking and excessive combat. It is a title that, while inspired by ‘Castlevania’, somehow manages to avoid its monotony; a game that feels fresh even though its walking down a very well-trodden generic path.


Friday, 4 September 2020

Switch Review - Warlock of Firetop Mountain

While many digital adaptations of novels are just words on screen, Tinman games have taken steps to make the choose your own adventure book into a more traditional game. But do new combat mechanism work when you’re still trying to remain an interactive novel?

 

Developed by Tinman Games

Published by Tinman Games

Released in 2018

On May 17th 2020, Ian Livingstone CBE, made me laugh. The co-founder of  Games Workshop, former  Life President of Eidos and "the father of 'Tomb Raider'" posted a picture of the Supreme Leader of North Korea. The accompanying caption said "I never knew he was a fan". To many I’m sure this remark makes no sense, but behind Kim Jong-un are rows of green books with green spines, the exact same colour as that spines of Livingstone's "Fighting Fantasy" books that were hugely popular in the 80s.

Created alongside fellow Games Workshop founder Steve Jackson, these books were the most successful "branching narrative" novels in the UK. The first in the series, 'The Warlock of Firetop Mountain', came out in 1982 and established the structure of these pre-teen literary essentials. After a passage of text, a reader has to make a decision about how the novel should continue. "Turn to section 341 to open the chest with the key or turn to section 202 if you'd rather hit it rapidly with an axe just in case there's a goblin in there". According to Livingstone each book had around 400 decisions to be made. For each one, I would tentatively flick to the page of my preferred option and quickly skim read to see if the outcome was a good one. If it wasn't I'd turn to the page of the other option and then try to convince myself that's what I wanted to do all along. I wasn't alone in doing this, Livingstone even had a name for the technique; "the five finger bookmark". “You used to see it on public transport everywhere” he says. “It’s like peeking around the corner. You can’t call it cheating – it’s taking a sneak peek.” But choosing the path through the book wasn’t all a reader had to do, there were also monster battles that were fought by rolling dice. "Combat is a simple case of rolling six-sided dice, pitching one creature's stats against another" says Arcane magazine's former editor Paul Pettengale. "It's fun, quick and easy, which explains its popularity" .

 

Friday, 21 August 2020

Switch Review - Double Kick Heroes

A rhythm action game set entirely to Heavy Metal Music set during a zombie apocalypse. 'Double Kick Heroes' wont be to everyone's taste, but I'm pretty sure for someone out there this is the perfect game. 



Developed by Headbang Club Studios
Published by Plug in Digital
Released in 2020


As 'Double Kick Heroes' starts, we see a car travelling along a highway in America. As the pixelated yellow road lines streak beneath the vehicle hurtling along I'm reminded of 'Full Throttle'. This title screen seems so visually similar it could almost be considered homage to the LucasArts adventure game. However, aesthetic similarities aside, the biggest point of comparison is the music that blares in the background. Like the point-and-click adventure of Ben and his biker gang, 'Double Kick Heroes' is a game that has heavy metal music culture, right down to its very core. So in all likelihood I was reminded of 'Full Throttle' simply because that's the extent of my heavy metal knowledge. I'm not a fan of thrash guitars and distorted vocals. I can imagine nothing worse than a mosh pit; I'm no metal head, head banger or hesher. The devil's favourite genre is intimidating and alien to me, so I'm much more likely to run than rawk.


Originally released on the PC in April 2018 'Double Kick Heroes' is an arcade style side-scrolling shoot-em-up rhythm game played to a large range of rock and metal tunes. Problem is if you're not into your rock and metal music everything from the soundtrack to the humour and hilariously stereotypical characters may go straight over your head. Such is my metal-naivety I’ve always thought death metal songs sound like they're being sung by the walking dead. So perhaps appropriately the protagonists of ‘Double Kick Heroes' are a band of metal misfits. Having survived a zombie apocalypse they now travel from place to place in their rusty Cadillac. It’s appropriately named the "gundalac" because it’s armed with an arsenal of different weapons. "It’s a metal rhythm shooter, think of like 'Guitar Hero' meets ‘Metal Slug’” says David Elahee, co-founder, of the Headbang Club studio. “Use your metal groove to shoot at zombies, sharks, dinosaurs. You name it we got them”. 

Friday, 14 August 2020

Switch Review - Faeria

The digital card game genre dominated is by ‘Hearthstone’ , so can ‘Faeria’’s unique board game inspired twist help it find an audience on Switch?

Developed by Abrakam Games

Published by Versus Evil

Released in 2020


Today Governments around the world can’t decide if Loot Boxes count as gambling and therefore shouldn’t be bought by children. Banned in Germany and Belgium, Republican senator Josh Hawley is certainly not a fan. "When a game is designed for kids, game developers shouldn't be allowed to monetise addiction. Game developers who knowingly exploit children should face legal consequences." In Britain, The House of Lords Gambling Committee says video game loot boxes should be regulated under gambling laws. The Lords say they should be classified as "games of chance" which would bring them under the Gambling Act 2005. "If a product looks like gambling and feels like gambling, it should be regulated as gambling," their report says.

Its lucky congressmen and Lords didn’t know what I was doing as a youngster. 25 years ago, 13 year old me was openly gambling with teachers in the “War Games Club” at school. We played ‘Warhammer’, we played ‘Star Trek Customizable Card Game’ and we played  ‘Magic: The Gathering’. While the first required players to spend hundreds of pounds buying lead figures, the second two, like the loot boxes of today, rewarded children that were willing to blindly buy packets of cards. Where other table top games were sold as a complete product, Magic cards would come in randomised packs, like Panini stickers. The most powerful cards would be rarer than others, making collecting and trading them as much a part of the experience as actually playing matches. Players would assemble their own decks, with a near-limitless ability to personalise their game and develop their own tactics. In my school club, there was no greater accolade than beating an older student. So I would spend all my pocket money, buying packets in the hope that I would get that one powerful card that would assure victory.

“A lot of kids grew up playing [card] games like ‘Magic: the Gathering’ and ‘Yu-Gi-Oh’, and are now at an age where they can unleash their creativity" says Jean-Michel Vilain, CEO of game developer Abrakam. "'Faeria' is a strategy game, mixed with a card game, mixed with a board game [and] of course 'Magic : The Gathering' was a big influence". While ‘Faeria’ was not the first computerised deck-builder, nor is it the most popular, it is well regarded online. Sometime even called “the thinking man’s digital card game”.

Friday, 17 July 2020

Switch Review - Ultracore


Another lost game, brought back into existence for modern players. But have players out grown brutally hard run-and-gun games?

Developed by DICE 
Published by Strictly Limited Games / Inin Games 
Released in 2020  

Alongside looking at what was, there seems to be a taste amongst retro enthusiasts for what could have been. A drive to discover what exists in some parallel universe where time or money constraints didn't apply. Online communities have, for many years now, taken unreleased prototypes, finished them and released them for others to play. Perhaps the most famous is 'Star Fox 2' a game that was long considered a lost gem, until Nintendo finally released it officially on the SNES mini. It’s not a lone example of course, especially as games can now be released exclusively digitally with minimal financial risk. Finished games; a developers pride and joy, can now have their time to shine. Plucked from a long abandoned hard drive in a dusty attic and finally offered to enthusiastic players. Months or even years of work no longer only existing on a pile of 3 1/4 inch floppies, at last assembled into an experience that can be enjoyed by many.

Today DICE are best known for the ‘Battlefield’ and ‘Battlefront’ series, however decades ago the developer was  starting to get pigeon holed as “the pinball developer”. After finding success with ‘Pinball Dreams’, ‘Fantasies’ and ‘Illusions’, Digital Illusions (as they were then known)  wanted to break away from banging tiny metal balls around and believed an action game called ‘Hardcore’ might help them stretch their wings. “Someone knew Joakim [Wejdemar] and he contacted us and said ‘Hey, me and this programmer Bo [Staffan Langrin] are working on a title that’s similar to a ‘Turrican’ game” explains DICE Founder Fredrick Liljegren. “They had a core idea, core functionality, but very little of the game was done”.

Friday, 10 July 2020

Switch Review - Cross Code


Retro inspired Sprite based RPGs are flooding the eShop, but ‘Cross Code’ isn’t just the cream of the crop, it even eclipses the adored games that inspired its visuals.

Developed by Radical Fish Games
Published by Deck 13
Released in 2020

There’s a wealth of difference between copying something and celebrating it. Too often today we are presented games that claim to be “loving tributes” or “recapturing past magic” but in reality they are attempting to sell games by an association. “If you loved ‘Metroid’ then you’ll love this” the advertising pitch goes, because simply saying “we’ve copied ‘Metroid’ and changed a few bits here and there” is less enticing. Anyone can imitate, but real greatness is forged when a masterpiece is examined and improved. "I think the most important part is making sure that other games are “inspirations”” says Stefan Lange, lead programmer at Radical Fish Games. “We look at old games and ask ourselves: “What did they do wrong and how can we improve that?”. It’s important to try out new things too. If you just make a turn based system like ‘Final Fantasy’ had back in the days, it might not work because it’s too slow or feels like a “copy”. ‘Cross Code’ isn’t a simple clone of 16bit action RPGs like ‘Secret of Mana’ and ‘Link to the Past’; it’s far, far more than that. It’s quite simply a modern work of art that takes all the things you loved from the titles of yesteryear and improves upon them.

Friday, 12 June 2020

Mega Drive Review - Sonic Spinball (Game 186)


With each new 16bit 'Sonic' game the quality threshold was getting higher and higher. So how did a bizarre pinball game become the follow up to one of the most successful Mega Drive platformers ever?

Developed by Sti
Published by Sega
Released in 1993

The Sega Technical Institute was intended to be the perfect fusion of East and West game development. According to Peter Morawiec, a designer on 'Sonic the Hedgehog 2', the studio was "cooked up by Mark Cerny and Sega executives in Japan [and] its purpose was to expose Japanese teams to the western culture and “gaming values.” Experienced Japanese developers could teach new up-and-coming Americans, while creating games that would have global appeal. However, according to Morawiec "there was disparity in skill levels, the Sonic Team were Sega’s top developers while many of STI’s hires were talented kids with no prior experience.”. For many it was their first job in the industry, and they were sitting alongside developers who had made the critically and commercially celebrated 'Sonic the Hedgehog'. Graphic designer Tom Payne says the American staff felt privileged to be in such exalted company. "It was pretty great to work with them all. It was like getting a chance to play guitar with the Beatles." However as Payne notes, cultural differences and inexperience created difficulties. “I don't think in general the Americans measured up very well with the Japanese team" he recalls. “[They] would be there all the time working & we would go home & sleep!" Morawiec also noticed the tensions. "There was a language barrier, and not everyone chose to mingle, as well as their work ethic, many of those guys would routinely pull overnighters, sleeping on the floor in their cubicles." .

Yuji Naka had created the original demo on which 'Sonic' was based, and was also the lead programmer on the first game. Throughout the development of the sequel, he was given more and more responsibility. In 1992 Sega Vision magazine called him "the creator and mastermind behind Sonic", even though the game was designed in collaboration with Hirokazu Yasuhara. According to programmer Steve Woita, "Yuji Naka was in total control of anything 'Sonic' and no one had the guts to challenge him on any issues". Morawiec believes that the end of the collaboration between East and West was at his request. "After "Sonic 2' shipped, Naka pulled the plug. It would’ve been nice if he gave the “experiment” more time, but I also know how it is when you have a big title to deliver under tight deadlines, so no judgment."

Friday, 29 May 2020

Mega Drive Review - Fantasia (Game 185)


At a time when 16 bit Disney games were widely regarded as universally good, ‘Fantasia’ has a reputation as being “one of the worst platformers ever made”. But, what many do not know is that ‘Fantasia’ on the Mega Drive actually helped Sega cement a relationship with one of their most important publishing partners during the 16-bit era.

Developed by lnfogrames
Published by Sega
Released in 1991

For a fan of animation, the 1940 Disney movie ‘Fantasia’ is an avant-garde experimental masterpiece. A celebration of the animation art-form in its infancy, and an early example of how the Walt Disney Company is pioneering and adventurous. Disney himself said, “In a profession that has been an unending voyage of discovery in the realms of colour, sound and motion, ‘Fantasia’ represents our most exciting adventure.” In the studio’s early days, cartoons had always been short comedies that depended on visual gags.  Prior to the feature length ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarf’ the ‘Silly Symphonies’ were the studio’s main output and these were cartoons accompanied by music rather than voiced. Following the success of the feature length films throughout the 1930’s, Walt Disney toyed with the idea of creating a Silly Symphony based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ poem. The goal was to create a short that incorporated all the techniques learnt from animating features, with a focus on the flow of water and the radiance of magic. Disney lavished his studio’s resources on the project, until the costs tripled the normal budget for a short. To turn a profit, ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ needed to be part of a full-length feature film and as the story couldn’t stretch to 70 minutes. Instead, to reach this feature length, Disney’s created eight animated shorts that would all be set to classical musical pieces. Each section was encouraged to be distinct and imaginative, resulting in a celebration of the animation art-form in all its guises.  ‘Fantasia’ was born.

The highly-anticipated premiere took place on 13th November 1940, in New York City. While the film was praised by the New York Times’ movie critic as “simply terrific—as terrific as anything that has ever happened on a screen”, the film’s profits didn’t compare to the production budget of $2.3 million. Convinced the failure was a result of vanishing European markets caused by the start of World War II, the Walt Disney Company would re-release the film every decade. Each time they did the returns grew, and the critical response got more and more positive.

On October 5th 1990, ‘Fantasia’ returned to 550 American theatres in celebration of the film’s 50th anniversary. The film had enjoyed a two-year clean-up process, where each of its 535,680 frames were restored at YCM Laboratories. A year later it was this version of the classic that saw its first official release on home video, and the enthusiasm for the release caught the attention of Sega.

Friday, 15 May 2020

Mega Drive Review - Sonic The Hedgehog 2 (Game 184)


Sonic the Hedgehog is a character that most will think of when they imagine the Mega Drive. But is the second game in the series really as good as the designers of 'Sonic Mania' claim?

Developed by Sega Technical Institute

Published by Sega
Released in 1992



There was a time during the PlayStation revolution when videogames briefly became cool again. Sony’s big push to prove that the console was culturally relevant and in touch with the clubbing culture made it a hit with people who thought they had outgrown childish games. It was a glorious time, but it didn’t last. Throughout my thirties people once again started to look at me with disgust when I mention that I like to play games. Now, hurtling towards my forties people roll their eyes when they see me playing games on the train. There are two people who now suddenly think my extensive video game knowledge is very cool; my daughters. When ‘Pokémon Go’s popularity reached the playground they asked me if I knew who Pikachu was. They were very impressed I did and we subsequently enjoyed playing ‘Let’s Go Pikachu’ together. But while knowledge of Pokémon vulnerability enthralled, it was my appreciation for a certain blue hedgehog that really gave me street cred. After watching the recent ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ my daughters fell for his attitude and flamboyance. But it was the quick cameo of a sidekick buddy at the end of the film that really sparked their imagination. While it seems girls under the age of 10 now suddenly love Sonic, it’s Miles “Tails” Prower that they truly adore.  So when my girls asked if they could play a 'Sonic' game I of course wanted to indulge. Obviously it wasn’t going to be a 3D game I pointed them towards; Sonic’s fall from grace when entering the third dimension has been well documented. The 2D side scrolling ‘Sonic Mania’ is a return to form, so while that would have been a good choice, it was the game than many consider to be the best 2D Sonic game that I went for. ‘Sonic the Hedgehog 2’ does after all have a (admittedly very limited) two player mode; perfect for two enthusiastic little girls try the series for the first time.

Friday, 1 May 2020

Hardware Review : Orb Gaming Retro Gaming Mat


Retro Gaming has become mass market, and gimmick gadget stores are eager to cash in. But how do you sell and package a collection of questionable retro inspired shovelware games ? Obviously with an over sized dance mat style controller.

Developed by Orb Gaming
Released in 2019

There was a time when there was a games arcade in every British town. Cabinet machines offered the latest eye popping graphics; visuals impossible on home consoles. Louder and louder music competed for the attention of punters and gimmicks like ride-on motorbikes and life sized guns were designed to enhance the experience. As the decades passed and home consoles became more powerful, gaming arcades slowly vanished. Arcade cabs instead only appeared in bowling alleys and motorway service stations - a lingering echo of what used to be. These last remaining arcade bastions had to offer something that couldn’t be experienced on a console at home for free. Arcade owners were forced to favour Immersive experiences with giant screens, and at the turn of the millennium the Dancing Games became a big draw.

Friday, 28 February 2020

Mega Drive Review - Bonanza Bros (Game 183)


 At a time of predictable 2D platformers, 'Bonanza Bros' tried something new. But when stealth games are far more common should sneak back to this one?

Developed by Sega
Published by Sega
Released in 1991

“Not in game footage” is wording many will be familiar with as the line that Distinguishes in game footage and non-playable cut scenes evaporators more with each console generation.  There was a time where games publishers didn’t have to worry that advertising could be considered misleading: potential customers would never realistically believe that the lifelike cinematic footage would really be replicated in the game. In the eighties and nineties box art could get away with showing anything to attract a potential customer.

‘Bonanza Bros’ is a game that I remember having a distinctly eye-catching box, with the rendered 3d characters of Robo and Mobo. Of course in the days pre-‘donkey Kong country’, I didn’t really believe that an actual game could look like this. Even arcade titles or games on the neo-geo weren’t offering real time 3D graphics. But I do remember looking on the back of the box and thinking the screenshots didn’t look that far removed from the experience suggested on the front. With its stylised  cartoon robots Living in a  bizarre robotic world, ‘Bonanza Bros’ looked distinct, which is fitting for this quirky game that really stands apart from other 16bit titles.

‘Bonanza Bros’ is a side-scrolling stealth game that tests your timing and dexterity across ten stages. It’s not a complicated game as your goal is simply grab all the items you can in the time limit and try not to get shot, arrested or squashed. ‘Bonanza bro’s’ title and permanent split screen highlights the fact that this is a game designed for two to play together, but you can enjoy the game alone. That being said, the game doesn’t scale for a solo player so it’s essentially twice as hard when you have no friends.