Thursday, May 14, 2009

Who'd a thunk it?

One of the great things about the web is that articles that have been published on-line, tend to stay around. This allows people like myself to go hunting for all those ironic things that specialists and experts have said and predicted with confidence that have turned out to be codswallop.

As a bit of background to the non-gaming reader, the Nintendo Wii is the fastest selling games console ever released and is still selling rather well world-wide. It came out around the same time as the Sony Playstation 3 (PS3), which was around a year after the Microsoft Xbox360. The PS3 and Xbox360 are basically powerhouses utilising the same controllers as their previous consoles, whereas the Wii uses less cutting-edge technology and a new controller using physical movement as opposed to directional thumb-sticks. The PS3 is selling the least out of the three consoles.

The time is set back to circa 2006, where the predictions of who will win the next gen console war were generally of the following:
Sony expected to lead despite delays published on 21st March 2006. The figures that the experts had come up with were in lots and lots of articles across the web. Including this one:
XBox 360 will be a loss for Microsoft coincidently published on the same day. My personal favourite line from this article is where they expand past Microsoft and Sony to say,
"These kind of market figures would be very good news for Nintendo, however. A relative midget alongside the Sony and Microsoft behemoths, Nintendo was written off for dead in most quarters after the GameCube missed the mainstream."

The above quote is so ironic due to the 'experts' consistently ignoring the hand-held market that Nintendo have dominated since the introduction of the Gameboy. Even though the Gamecube was a lukewarm seller compared to the massive sales of the PS2 (pretty much alongside the original Xbox in numbers), Nintendo were still making an awful lot of money and had a rather large share of the overall video game market. Still, that's experts for you.

Going back a little bit further leads to our video game experts stating that Nintendo had already conceded the next generation console battle on the introduction of the then-called Revolution (later to become the Wii):
Nintendo unveils Revolution published on 17th May 2005. A great, obviously non-inflammatory, quote on this page is,
"... opens the gateway to the company's entire pre-Cube back catalogue on NES, SNES and N64 via a broadband service governed by a proprietary Digital Rights Management system."

Unlike the Open Source, free swapping mechanisms used on the games that Microsoft and Sony will let you download.

Most of the articles a few months later followed the lines of this one:
Blu-ray a player in PlayStation Pricing published on May 9th 2006. It was by this time that our specialist gaming media had written off the Nintendo Wii as underpowered and a fad, which is why most of the articles around this time didn't even mention it.

An interesting blip on the radar was from the Sydney Morning Herald, where a non-gaming specific blog Mashup predicted the following at the end of 2006 for Top Tech Trends To Watch In 2007:
"Wii wins next-gen console war

With its far-reaching mainstream appeal and unique gameplay experience, the Wii should comfortably snatch first place in the console wars. Its sales have already broken records, and holiday sales figures are expected to be just as impressive.

The Playstation 3 will no doubt be stiff competition for Nintendo, but its late launch in March and high price tag should give the Wii a comfortable victory."

As with all media reporting to this day, no-one seems to be able to grasp the idea that Sony will not be dominating the market as they have for pretty much the last 10 years. The same way newspaper journalists have been continually telling us that Second Life is the next big thing. To stretch the elastic band of irony even further, Sony of all people should be aware of what can befall arrogance in the video game market; it was Nintendo's arrogance that gave them the entry into the market in the first place.

Saving the best to last:
Playstation3 Defeats Xbox 360 published on May 27th 2005 is an excellent example of the fine folk that engage in intense debate around the subject of console branding. Given that at this point, neither console had been released, the following comments certainly display their own charm:
"playstation 3 won and im happy because it is the best look at the games."

"i like the xbox 360 more than a ps3 because it small and if u dont like the xbox 360 fuck u"

"u bastars stop thinking that the xbox 360 is gonna win because it is clearly at state that the the PS3 is going to win one reason is that its 2x's more powerful then the xbox 360 because my cousins works at sony and works with the PS3."

"if u think the 360 is going to completly replace the ps3 than ur fucking retarded. u should get kicked in the balls for posting this bullshit on the internet. PS3 is going to rule the world one day i swear its that good."
(Actually posted in 2007, must have taken a long time to get the grammar just right)

More delicacies from our concise and charming video gaming community. Maybe I should trademark the work sic and license it out to people who quote from game forums.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Someone is not thinking of the children...

I hesitate to raise this issue as there has been so much discussed about it already; but I did see something today that exemplified the ridiculousness of the whole affair.

In Australia there is not a restricted 18 certificate for games. "Think of the children," comes the cry from the Attorney General who has decided that we cannot have one.

I happened to look at the case of the game Stranglehold today. Ironically, in Europe it has been given an R18 certificate (restricted to over 18s only), but due to the lack of this rating in Australia, it is MA15+. This entails that it can pretty much be bought by anyone without restriction.

That's politicians for you.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Old school to the next generation in one afternoon

Finding myself at a loose end on a Sunday afternoon I decided to find something to play and found myself unable to find anything out of several hundred console games, many consoles, a few PCs with its games including quite a few emulators making a few thousand more games available or the arcade machine with several thousand games of its own. And lets not count the hand-helds... or the retro games.

It is hard to fathom on human nature but it reminded me of being back in my school days when I had literally thousands of ZX Spectrum games to play (on hundreds of C90s) and couldn't find any particular one to play. I am willing to concede that this could just be me.

So it was time to reel in the past. First up was Robotron 2084 on the arcade machine and was pleasantly surprised to pass the 110,000 mark on the first go and the few after that, couldn't reach the 135,000 high score though. Then I ran through the game list to Battle Zone which I played until I passed the high score; I even ran it with the bezel and found it a pretty good addition. Feeling good with vectors it led me onto Asteroids, which I also played until I beat the high score, which to be honest, was not that high to begin with. I noticed that there was a Asteroids Deluxe and gave that a go, once again with the bezel. This wasn't so good with a rather distracting background drawing, although I did enjoy the game.

It was like a warm-up giving a taste for something more expansive, so it was onto the PS2. I remembered playing Ecco the Dolphin a few years ago and picking it up again it was a game I really want to enjoy playing. I found myself really enjoying the control of the dolphin but that is really where the enjoyment ended; I could never tell the coach dolphin from the others during the training (does that make me a dolphin racist?) and found myself wandering around trying to solve rather obtuse puzzles in the game proper, with little direction and little satisfaction. By the second hour into it I'd solved little of consequence to give any sense of progression with the exception of a few 'songs', which are all awfully alike and involve pressing the same button, regardless of the song. The final straw was a massive leap backwards to a previous restart point when I died and I really couldn't face going through it all again.

So it was time to pick up something more action orientated and decided it was time to open up Shinobi X on the Saturn. Having never fired it up before, I was immediately impressed by the shonky, quite badly acted video cut scenes of Japanese actors dressed in plastic ninja armour; you gotta love the early CD 'multi-media' games. It did lead to a rather good example of action platforming though which controlled well and was as forgiving as Beelzebub with a hangover. I did notice, as I always do when I use it, that the Saturn doesn't have any way of saving the progress which is a bit disheartening. But Shinobi followed Ecco onto the pile when a restart point placed me back at the very start of a level having worked my way through a maze of tree branches and a Boss battle and then stupidly getting hit by a simple knife afterwards. It is something that never fails to give me the biggest cause to dump a game.

It was a jump to the Xbox 360 next, firing up Stranglehold, which I had found for sale in Game for less than $30 a few weeks ago. It was very enjoyable, although I do have bias as I rather enjoyed the film this game is a sequel to; I stumbled across Hard Boiled during a particularly pretentious foreign movie phase during my younger years. In the game, the main character gets hit by a bizarrely large number of bullets and it doesn't even try to explain why your 'Tequila Bomb' meter heals you if you shoot enough people. Great stuff. The whole game is based around shooting people in the most stylish way possible, including throwing yourself on a food trolley and shooting as many people as possible while rolling across a floor. Pretty much like the film. And pretty much like all of John Woo's other Hong Kong films.

It was, all-in-all, an interesting afternoon.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

What? Really?

The blog has been a bit dearthy (sic) recently as I've actually been spending time playing some games; given that this is a gaming blog, it seemed appropriate.

The biggest bantam

I was recently given a PSP by a friend - which is, by any criteria, a rather splendid gift. The PSP itself is an excellent piece of technology, especially the screen, and it looks the biz. There were a few things that put me off purchasing one though when it came out. The first thing was that I already had a Nintendo DS which I was using rather a lot at the time, especially having purchased Meteos (and later, Mario Kart). The second thing was the disappointment of finding out it had an analogue 'stick', but one that required a disjointed thumb to use comfortably. The third was the price - that was a biggie; the result of my wife finding the receipt was more than my medical insurance would be able to cover. The fourth was the battery life, thanks to the rather splendid screen it was sporting. The fifth was the battery life, thanks to the use of discs to play games.

This was all pretty much swept away when the PSP fired up (with a larger battery at the ready) to play something. Burnout Legends was the first game and it looks magnificent, the sound was also snuggling up close to the graphics in the magnificent category. The only doubts that remained were from the pain in my left thumb after playing it for an hour; but, you know, tendons can stretch.

One of the benefits of getting a console that has been out for a while is the host of budget, traded-in and generally cheaper games. I headed out for a search and picked up Echochrome ($38) and God of War: Chains of Olympus ($25). Starting with Echochrome for the train journey to work, the time flew by as my brain tried to kick in. It turns out to be a rather original game that occupied my mind in pretty much the way puzzle games should. There were minor flaws, with my brain capacity being the main one; but in any original concept I don't see the flaws as a show-stopper - unlike most of the reviews I read later that day. Giving my brain a well-deserved rest, I kicked in God of War the next day and was very, very impressed indeed. Although I had completed God of War and its sequel on the PS2 a while ago, I wasn't sure what to expect from the hand-held incarnation. But from the get-go, it plays smoothly with the same grandeur and impact that the console games had.

I guess that the games and the console itself belie one of the biggest problems it has had since release. It is more like carrying a full living room console around, with proper living room console games and the suite of media options that you would expect from such a machine. Whereas the DS really feels like a hand-held with cut-down games, quick games and nothing apart from games.

When you buy a Tomb Raider game for the DS, it is generally a sprite driven, top-down or side-scrolling affair - it feels like a hand-held game. You get the game for the PSP and it is the full monty - not a proper hand-held game at all. You have to invest yourself in a full game much more to learn the controls, follow the story line, sit through the cut scenes, etc, etc. I can pick up Meteos and play far quicker than I can get to grips with Echochrome; I can't even remember the last game I played on a DS that had a tutorial to work through. So I guess that maybe for the PSP, perception is reality and it is not perceived as a hand-held. Which is very much a shame.

Anyway, I'm forcing myself to put God of War down for enough time to write this and will be back to it before I get home; but as someone who has to use hand cream, I do have some issues with finger prints. This PSP would be CSI's most easily solved case...

As a final point, I've never actually had any problems with the battery life.

Decrying the missing

I am more and more finding myself missing something that everything points to being really important; the media, the adverts and the games themselves...

Why is it than when I complete the Resident Evil remake on the Gamecube I get the option to play through exactly the same game again with the main character wearing a different costume? What? Why would I want to do that? Why would anyone want to do that?

Why would I be interested in playing a beat-em-up with the character wearing a different pair of trousers? Why would I want to paint an in-game car a different colour? Do go-faster stripes actually make the car faster? On the subject, why would I want a new Nintendo DS because the plastic is a new colour? What did a platinum Gamecube or Silver PS2 provide that the others didn't? If it did have anything useful that the others didn't then it would be incompatible with the standard unit; it makes no sense.

What is it with all these things that add nothing to the game, but are given as some kind of bonus? Never once have I played a game and thought, "I can't wait to get to the end and play all this again with the character wearing a new hat."

Friday, March 20, 2009

Sometimes its difficult to know what to say...

I never thought I would see the day when Animal Crossing games became under-the-shelf products for adults... what a bizarre world.

Correction - Hyper

Speaking of Grand Theft Auto - Hyper magazine p.22 states that the first game had a lot of controversy and offered to give a discount if a speeding ticket was provided when purchasing the game.

If you read the previous posts, there was little, if any, controversy for the first GTA games. I also cannot remember any such promotion from the game's publishers (DMA) or find any history of it. As far as the promotion goes, the closest marketing I can remember being similar to this was one of Acclaim's publicity stunts, where they offered to pay any speeding fine issued on the day Burnout 2 was released. I have no idea if they ever did pay any of the fines they were undoubtedly encouraging, or if they even could; but it garnered press that no amount advertising could ever cover.

I say one of Acclaim's marketing promotions as this stunt pales in comparison to the "Officially name your baby Turok for a year" and I'm sure there was one with a tattoo...

UPDATE: Finally heard back from Rockstar and they have no recollection of such a marketing campaign.

Barbarian - history in the making

Palace Games released a sword wielding beat-em-up game named Barbarian, I mentioned it in the previous post (or the following one, if you're reading this top-down) and it reminded me of the rest of the game's history.

The first thing about the game was the ability to behead your opponent, the other barbarian, if you timed one of the moves correctly; it could be pretty tricky to pull off later in the game, but it was kinda fun. Especially watching the creature dragging off the body, kicking the head along. That caused a lot of fuss - especially in the ever-reserved Germany where a long list of games have been banned and are still being banned today.

The second thing about the game was that it started the career of Wolf from the UK's Gladiator TV series. He was on the cover of the game box as his first gig and he was noticed by the producers of the show; which led him to becoming a house-hold name. On the box, he stood alone with sword in-hand and faux bear-fur briefs on-hip, but it was not always that way, which leads us to the third thing.

In the original game, the Page 3 model Maria Whittaker was on the box cover too in a matching faux leather bikini. But it was decided by the censors that it was sexist to have a semi-clad woman on the cover, so she was removed, leaving the less than semi-clad man. The 80s were like that.

BAFTAs - The gaming ones

By accident, I caught the video game BAFTAs on the BBC News website as a live feed; it wasn't being broadcast on television due to it only being a multi-billion worldwide industry. I was following the live updates from game journalists and the general public but I found it somewhat grating with the amount of garbage still written about games in general.

Check it out here:

Why was it a shock that Super Mario Galaxy would win best game, when everybody (and I include the rarely happy Zero Punctuation) thought it was a good, or even great, game? I cannot find one bad review of it; which is a rare thing.

2216 The BBC's Daniel Emery writes: I'm gobsmacked. One of the biggest selling games of all time, GTA IV, revolutionary in so many ways, has failed to pick up a single industry award.

The above quote, amongst other similar ones from people claiming to be journalists, regarding Grand Theft Auto (GTA IV) caught my eye, mostly following along the lines of their amazement at GTA IV not winning any awards.
"But it sold so well..." So did Enter the Matrix, 'nuff said.
"It was so revolutionary..." The 'IV' in the title should give away any indications as to the originality and innovations in the game.

The first top-down GTA games were original, innovative and fun games to play; so much so that most people passed them over in their haste to play the shiny 3d games that were coming out around the same time. The third GTA game, handily named GTA III, took it into 3d with excellent results carrying forward the central concepts and introducing some new stuff that would become staple thereafter. I am a big fan of the GTA games, even the cut-down hand-held (GBA) one which is one of the few that I have actually completed; and given that they are developed in Scotland, I have obvious bias. However, just because it's good, or even really good, it shouldn't automatically get burnished with the innovation label.

As a bit of a digression, it's worth nothing that people only got upset about the violence in GTA once it had become a 3d game and it didn't raise a politician's or censor's eyebrow prior to this. However, having now gone back to top-down for the hand-held Nintendo DS console, the violence in the game is making headlines again. Go figure. The upshot is that you can buy the first couple of games and expansion packs allowing you to do all the same stuff with more-or-less the same graphics that are in the new DS game, but people will only complain about the new one.

To put that in context, the game on the left is Barbarian (the Palace Games one); it caused a lot of fuss at the time and was banned in Germany for violent content. Can't see it being banned now...

Looking in from the fringes

I am more and more finding myself missing something that everything around me points to as being really important; the media, the adverts and the games themselves.

Why is it than when I complete the Resident Evil remake on the Gamecube I get the option to play through exactly the same (long) game again with the main character wearing a different costume? What? Why would I want to that? Why would anyone want to do that?

Why would I be interested in playing a beat-em-up with the character wearing a different pair of trousers? Why would I want to paint an in-game car a different colour? Do go-faster stripes actually make the car faster? On the subject, why would I want a new Nintendo DS because the plastic is a new colour? What did a platinum Gamecube or Silver PS2 provide that the others didn't? If it did have anything useful that the others didn't then it would be incompatible with the standard unit, so it makes no sense.

What is it with all these things that add nothing to the game, but are given as some kind of bonus? Never once have I played a game and thought, "I can't wait to play all this again with the character wearing a new hat."

Monday, March 16, 2009

Common Forum Mistakes - 1

nintendo sux . they keep making the same mario and zelda games over and over again and @ssh0les keep buying them . sony rulez

I came pretty late to the Nintendo party; they really never got a hold on the UK while the ZX Spectrum and C64 ruled the roost, followed by the Amiga and Atari ST. A console by its nature was restricted in what games it could provide (try playing The Hobbit or Gunship on a NES) and those console games cost a lot, lot more. These home computers also gave myself, and many others, the taste for doing our own programming, without having to worry about silly stuff like licensing and IP laws.

I raise all of the above in explaining that I never actually played on a Nintendo console until my wife one day told me she really liked playing Mario while she was an au pair. Being the first time I had ever heard her express any sentiment on any game, I ran out and got an N64 and Mario64, from a mobile phone shop I had seen them still for sale (they had been discontinued well before). I connected it up, invited said wife in and showed her the Mario game.
"What's that, then?"
"Its the Mario game you talked about!"
"I've never seen it before..."
It appears she had been playing a Super Mario game on the NES... but no matter, I sat down and played a Mario game for the first time. It was a revelation for me; it was the first time in years I had been blown away by any game and I played it for quite a long time thereafter. I'd never seen so much crammed into a game before, the fluidity of the controls and the excellent, never getting in the way, camera.

All this leads me back to the original statement shown above; it is very, very wrong in every way conceivable. Let's look at the Mario games:

Super Mario Bros. 3 (1990) is a side-on scrolling platform game and considered one of the best examples of game design ever created. It showed what could be done with the with a platform game and how well simple controls could be used. The game still plays well today, even if it still has that old-school difficulty that I'm just not used to anymore; you know, when you were expected to practice a game to become good at it. The amount of secrets in the game was impressive and the variety in the levels is somewhat surprising given the limits of the NES.

Super Mario 64 (1996) was the first real, free-roaming 3d platform game (ignoring fixed perspective 3d games like Knight Lore and Head over Heals many years previously). Amazingly, though it was the first, it got so many things right that other games have still not managed to do as well to this day, one specifically being the camera. It was designed around the analogue controller for the N64 console; although it is worth noting that this controller was not, as many have stated, the first analogue joystick ever released (I think, personally, that the Vectrex may hold that honour). I cannot emphasis enough how good this game actually is to play; although it didn't work very well as a re-release on the Nintendo DS (NDS) hand-held console; pretty much due to the NDS not having an analogue controller.

Super Mario Galaxy (2007) took the genre to a completely new level, again, with gravity-bending planet hopping in a very, very 3d environment and, once again, utilising a totally new kind of controller; the one released with the Wii console. Special mention should go to the music for this one and the running story book as you progress through the game. The thought and planning that had gone into the game design for this and pretty much every other Super Mario game (yes, I do include Sunshine in that list) puts most other games to shame.

Then there are sport games like Mario Strikers, multi-player games like Mario Party and the rarely equaled racing game series Mario Kart (also considered a classic genre-creating game and one of the only games my wife will play) amongst many others. The upshot of all this being that since Mario is the Nintendo mascot, his image is used in a lot of their games. To say they are all the same would be like saying that just because you are born in a certain month, you will go out and do the same things as everyone else who was born in the month with the same name.

As far as Zelda goes, if you've read the previous posts you will know my thoughts around the original Legend of Zelda game; however, Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time is also considered to be one of the best games ever made (and one I enjoyed greatly myself) and bears little resemblance to Wind Waker, Link to the Past or the Gameboy Colour exclusive titles. The distinction is more subtle in the Zelda games if you haven't actually played them.

Ironically, these games get a lot of stick for having the same backstory but completely different gameplay, whereas FPS games get accolade when using the same gameplay with a different backstory.

Funny things happen on the way to the forum

The internet allows us, for the first time, to have many-to-many communication. It also allows us more information than we've ever had before at our fingertips. This has led to the ability to provide feedback on news articles and for informed discussion over a range of topics. If an argument is presented, you can quickly look-up any background information or confirm certain facts to present a well formed argument in response.

This is highlighted no better than in game forums, where such is the level of familiarity of the subject matter, that the complexities involved in the medium can be boiled down into a single phrase along the lines of:
xbox sux ftw
halo rox - woot

... regardless of the subject being discussed. I'll be dealing with common misinformed (or generally assumed) forum statements from the ignorant masses; opinionating on things they actually know nothing about.

It would seem that as long as you don't actually play or spend any time finding out the details of what you are talking about, you can rest easy behind your shield of ignorance. In the land of forums, not knowing you are wrong seems to be considered to be the same as being right.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Metal Gear Solid... what?

When it comes to Metal Gear games, including to a certain degree those prior to Metal Gear Solid, I have often wondered about people's accolades of the story line. I mean, the main nemesis in the game is called Big Boss and the titular machines are called things like Metal Gear Rex. It sounds like the critical elements of a story stolen from a 5 year old.

I often think of the following when it comes to Metal Gear Solid games:
Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex, it takes a touch of genius and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction. Albert Einstein

The game's story line goes in a multitude of spurious arcs providing the most ridiculous names given to any characters in mature-based gaming history. Didn't anyone ever think, "What the hell kind of name is Solid Snake? Who could have thought that the names Liquid Snake, Psycho Mantis or Decoy Octopus were even passable ideas?"

The main characters themselves are not influenced-by or homages-to anyone, but serious rip-offs. Solid Snake is Snake Plisken, not similar to him (although I heard he was dead). Colonel Roy Campbell is Colonel Trautman from the Rambo films.

Don't start me on the cut scenes; I have no problem with them in principle, being a big fan of the cinematics in God of War for example, but they should at least have some relevance to the plot; not some long, long diatribe of some guy talking at great length to his dying sister, instead of maybe trying CPR or calling an ambulance.

As far as writing goes, the Metal Gear Solid games are great examples of terrible plotting. Compare this with the likes of Harry Potter which had a complex plot of many twists and turns over several installments, as did Watchmen; but they both had a comprehensive basis from which they were derived and a conclusion. Not some abstract jumbled-up mess that just adds gibberish on top of the ridiculous; allowing hermitted nerds to look for explanations to add to their page on wikipedia. I'm sure that they would find a story in a book of wallpaper patterns if somebody told them no-one else could make sense of it.

Which brings me to Braid...

(As an aside to discussing Metal Gear and Solid Snake - check out this link

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Just how groundbreaking was Zelda?

The original Legend of Zelda is frequently hailed as a ground-breaking game. It was, of course, designed by Shigeru Miyamoto and released in 1987 for the NES; I finally got to play it when I received my limited edition Zelda disc of eBay for the Gamecube much, much later.

I have to say I found it frustrating and, for lack of a better word, lacking. Any game where an entrance to a dungeon is hidden under one of many trees with no indication or clues as to why, deserves a certain amount of derision. If you look at the Wikipedia page for the game, the author claims that it defied categorisation when released due to its non-linearity, etc, etc. It seemed to me that exploring, fantasy, RPG and just about everything else in Zelda had been done long before it got onto a console; so I went back through the games I know of prior to the 1987 release of Zelda (or 1986 in Japan) to see if I was could prove it.

To quantify the original Zelda; it was a open map, non-linear exploration arcade/adventure game. There were puzzles, a shop and monsters; the RPG element really only came to items that could be collected for your character. Most of the puzzles and monsters were held in dungeon areas. The graphics were basic and, in my personal opinion, the game was not much fun to play.

I'll skip over the era that had games like The Black Crystal in 1981 (which was a simultaneous release for the ZX81 and ZX Spectrum). Although it was an exploration fantasy game, and to all intents, non-linear; I didn't actually enjoy playing it at the time. Adventure for the Atari VCS2600 released in 1980 will also be skipped as I've never played it and it certainly did not have anything close to the original Zelda game. I'll also skip over Nethack, Moria and Rogue derivations, as that would just be unfair.

So the ground rules have been set; lets begin.

Mazogs (ZX81) - 1982
It may not have all the elements in Zelda, but it was built from low-res graphics and you were freely exploring a generated dungeon, or maze, (so you never had the same map twice) with several sizes available. You could also choose the difficulty of the task at hand influencing the combat, availability of weapons, movement of the titular Mazogs and available help.

The reason I include it here is that you have to plan your actions using the prisoners who can provide directions to your goal temporarily (as they die right after), but you also have to deal with the fact that your swords only last for one fight and you have a 50/50 chance of defeating a Mazog without one. The clincher is getting out of the maze as you may have used all the available prisoners and swords getting to the treasure and if you come across a Mazog, you cannot fight while holding the treasure.

The dungeons in Zelda however, were static and linear in progression.

Ant Attack (ZX Spectrum) - 1983
Not only was this an open exploration game (where you are looking for someone of the opposite sex), it was also in rather impressive isometric 3D, which multiple views. The combat was limited to throwing grenades at ants; but any game where you can blow up the person you're rescuing, or yourself, deserves special mention.

You could also jump, so one-up on Link there alone.

The Oracle's Cave (ZX Spectrum) - 1984
This is closer to the overall theme of a fantasy RPG. As a bonus it also has actual RPG elements in it. The graphics are side-on and while the animation is restricted, it probably still has more overall frames for the main character than Link in Zelda. I have to admit, I still like the look of the game after all these years and it is definitely on the list of possible remakes.

You have 5 days to explore one of four dungeons to collect a certain amount of gold and defeat a nominated boss (although this was years before the term Boss Battle had even been thought of). You have to keep an eye on your character's condition; having to eat, sleep and drink to ensure you can get through the 5 days. Combat wears your down and wounds you, but there are items you can collect in the dungeon to aid you in combat. It plays through the command line, so it doesn't fit directly into the arcade/adventure slot; but it definitely qualifies on the non-linearity, exploring, monsters and RPG elements.

Tir Na Nog - ZX Spectrum (1984)
Now we're getting into the meat of things. Tir Na Nog (Land of Youth) from Gargoyle Games (long may they reside in our memory) is a game based on Celtic mythology where you play as Cuchulainn who is trying to re-unite the fragments of the Seal of Calum (notice any similarities here?).

The graphics are side-on, big and excellently animated; the game allows the view to be taken from four different directions at any time; which can make things a little dis-orientating at first, if you don't keep an eye on your compass. You travel around the paths in a very large map (which you got with the game) and can enter doors into dwellings, caves or tunnels on your journey. This is a game with side quests, character interaction (the people who currently have the fragments need to be persuaded to give them up) and combat - mainly with the Sidhe. Items and weapons are located throughout the world you find yourself in to aid you in your quest; this is truly a game that broke quite a few molds upon release. The ability to save your current position was excellent too.

If your are thinking that the shops in Zelda were part of its ground-breaking originality (and you never played Moria) then read on...

Dun Darach - ZX Spectrum (1985)
If there was a fault with Tir Na Nog, it was the lack of change in the scenery. The sequel Dun Darach came out and changed all that. This was a game of castles and streets, shops and gambling houses. It was full of other people and excellent parallel scrolling. It was about quests, side quests and money management; through working, gambling, buying and selling and stealing.

You have to find your charioteer, Leog. He's got himself kidnapped by a sorceress while you were both having a pint after a battle; herself avenging etc, etc. There is no specified method to completing the game and you can approach it in many different ways. This game really took the elements of Tir Na Nog and pumped it full of steroids to produce a game that had many, properly implemented, firsts. The autonomous people in the city had not, to my knowledge, been implemented before and it lead to it feeling like you were somewhere things were happening around you. The ability to do what you wanted with no direct relation to the quest allowed you to wander around and take in the sights and options open to you.

This is not a game of finding items left around to help you, but a game you have to interact with people and places to obtain them. Like Tir Na Nog, the ability to save and restore the game at any point was a winner.

Avalon - ZX Spectrum (1984)
This is an excellent example of an arcade/adventure - in fact, it was declared to be an Adventure Movie by the publisher. It is an exploration, puzzle and combat game primarily played utilising magic. You have a large map (around 200 rooms) of different areas to explore filled with various creatures, items and puzzles. The overall objective is to defeat the Lord of Chaos by finding new spells and items to increase your power and stamina, then finding him. You build your character, Maroc, from a Lore Apprentice to a Major Mage, or something similar with lots of Ms.

The graphics are an unusual use of 3D, which can make mapping it a bit of a challenge (it was for me anyway), but works very effectively for the gameplay. The presentation is also excellent, with the small intro, the music (unusually good for the Spectrum) and the use of the dragon flame to represent your health. The use of the Servant spell to open chests and pick up items is a nice touch too.

Dragontorc - ZX Spectrum (1985)
The sequel to Avalon to everyone except the publisher who claimed, "It is not a sequel, but a whole new world of experience." While the graphics were similar, the game did up the ante in a lot of ways; friendly, as well as, aggressive creatures, a larger map and access to outside areas. The creatures also use something the developers called 'Sensory Animation', which is a cool term, even today; the creatures can relate to you differently depending on your actions - allowing you to treat them as allies and trade with them. This is still touted as a feature in the games you buy today which is pretty impressive, especially since this game was sold at £7.95 over 20 years ago. It also has the ability to save and restore a game in progress, which is nice.

Master Of Magic - C64 (1985)
This is much more in the vein of D&D in the arcade/adventure realm. I mention the C64 version as the music is pretty good (Rob Hubbard doing his reliably excellent stuff) and it operates well from a joystick. This ticks all of the boxes of exploration, combat with monsters, spell casting and puzzles. I also enjoy a game that does the mapping for you (back to Nethack et al again, sorry).

I do like the layout of the screen and the iconified text selections.

So where does this leave us? If you look at the games listed above, none of the elements that make up the Zelda game are original; it has taken very simplified instances of the mechanisms created in years gone by. It is likely that if Zelda had been released for the Spectrum or C64 at a time when people had been playing games like Fairlight (1985) for two years already, were playing games with innovative user interfaces like those in Kobyashi Naru (1987) and Shadowfire (1985), it is unlikely that it would have been thought of as anything new at all. When complexities had lifted to the level of games like Lords of Midnight (1984) and the freedoms offered within Elite, Skool Daze or Mercenary (all 1985), Zelda would probably have been considered too simplistic.

Sometimes a game can gather it's history from people who have never played what came before it, or are too lazy to look them up. This seems especially true when it comes to games for consoles.

As far as non-linearity goes, the irony is that most early games I can think of were all non-linear. In games like Asteroids, Battle Zone and Elevator Action the world was created, the rules for that world were implemented and off you went. This even applies to games like Manic Miner, but the rules were strict whereas in Jet Set Willy they were very much relaxed. It was only really when the scrolling beat-em-ups and shoot-em-ups came along, that linearity came with them.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Halo - MIA

I've always been confused by the attention and plaudits received by Halo; it was fun to play and looked pretty good, but, if you'll forgive the tautology, it brought nothing new that hadn't been seen before.
As an aside, if the much-quoted regenerating energy is to be considered new, then I would have to say that expectations of originality have fallen somewhat dramatically over the years. It seems like a forgotten placeholder or an over-simplified game mechanic; not having do anything but stand still to replenish your shield instead of, say, eating grass or finding a power outlet indicates more of a cop-out than a plan.

If the original plans had been followed and Halo had been released for the PC, it is unlikely that it would have risen above the standard fayre on the market (which when finally released for the PC, it didn't). Maybe it is simply that people who had bought an Xbox were desparate for a specific game worth playing on their system to use as a justification as to why they (or more likely, their parents) didn't get an actual game console, but ended up with a re-badged PC.

To take that a step further, it may even be considered as the likely start of rabid fanboism on game forums; the denial of any rationality outside of a chosen brand - be it Halo, Sony or any other irrelevant name or symbol. I, for one, could never forgive any company for being the cause of that.

Emulating a ZX81 on the ZX Spectrum

Irony can take many forms and can take a long time to reveal itself. I remember the magazine PCG (Personal Computer Games) ran a joke article around 1984 that a company was trying to develop a ZX81 simulator (sic) for the ZX Spectrum. It depicted the developers notes in diary form as to the problems encountered during the building of, what could only be considered at the time, as something no-one would want. Why would anyone want to run an inferior machine on a new, more powerful one? Cue hilarity.

Given that I have a computer at home sporting a dual-core 2GHz processor, more pixels than you can shake a stick at with gigabytes of memory running a ZX81 emulator (the excellent EightyOne), you've got to love the irony that time can provide.

Joust and Synchronicity

I was, and am, a big fan of the game Joust; since that moment I saw it while on a trip to North Berwick, some time around 1982 or 1983. The only other thing there is a large rock out to sea and lots of rain, so finding a small building with two arcade machines in it was like an oasis in the desert. It had the cabinets Xevious and Joust, that neither my brother or I had seen before. Being him, my brother took the Xevious machine but I was really drawn to Joust. We were with our great aunts if I remember correctly and they allowed us some 10p pieces to enjoy ourselves. It was fab; the controls, the graphics and the great feeling of finding and playing a game that you had never even conceived of.

It was all over much too soon and we departed North Berwick to the normality of no arcade machines and the Spectrum we had at home. But I started my search for a Joust game that I could play at home. It was a long and fruitless search of John Menzies, WH Smith and even Boots. It was also pointless as I didn't have any money to buy it should it have availed itself to me. Becoming so obsessed that one day when scouring the shelves of cassettes I came across a Joust-type game that I asked for a demo of, which was duly refused. "Its as good as the arcade game," I was told by the all-unknowing sales assistant there. So I told my friends about it when I saw them. "Really? Did you see it running?" They asked me. "Yes," I replied, hoping to convince them that it was worth some their money. I can still remember the looks on their faces when I arrived a couple of days later with this terrible game running on the machine; the graphics flickered and looked terrible with no real gameplay existing when they tried to leverage any kind of control . They were very unhappy with me and I cannot blame them; it still bothers me that I would have done what I did and I guess it's one of those experiences that ends up shaping your character.

Fast forward quite a while; the boy to a man (or as close as) and who departing to Australia is given a Gameboy by one of those friends as a gift for something to play on the flight. It is a fab present and the monochrome hand-held still sits in pride of place on my shelf today. While at the airport I find a gameboy cartridge for the game Joust (it also has Defender on it). It was with trepidation and expectation that I fired it up, but it was indeed very playable and helped pass many hours (and batteries) on the flight. Synchronicity in action.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Usagi Yojimbo - The ying and yang of retro gaming

I really enjoyed and have recently revisited Samurai Warrior on the C64 (emulator). I really think it captures the best and worst of, so-called, retro gaming.

Play it now before reading any further, if you haven't played it before...

The graphics are still fab - really distinct with well drawn sprites and animation. The gameplay was original and it was a progressive game in discovering new things as you went through. Some of it was excellent - (skip this bit if you haven't played it) finding the eating house to replenish your energy, the duel to first blood, the monster in the cave and the consequences of different actions. Combat and passive modes determined your controls and the use of karma was also intuitively original in keeping a tally on your progress and as a determination of where you restarted from; something that I cannot recall being done since.

On the downside, it also represents the real buggers of older games. The combat could be fiddly to time the 3 different actions you could perform while in combat mode (or mood, if you prefer); deflect (quick press), swipe (not as quick, but not too long) and overhead cut (long press). The last stage was a veritable nightmare of combat and once killed, it was back to a previous stage, where you would be unlikely to build up the karma to the same level, so you would go further back when killed again.

The positives still outweigh the negatives, especially when played in an emulator with a snapshot function. The building up of karma by giving peasants money and bowing to the right people was really well done; especially when you can bow to the guards of a nobleman, then kill the guards and watch the nobleman kneel in shame leaving some money behind.

I think that Samurai Warrior represents the direction that games could have gone in with the increase in hardware ability, but have rarely managed to replicate. The ability to really affect your path and the direction of the game have rarely been as well performed. Genuine surprises in games and fewer and fewer in the market driven games we have now; given the preceding years of publicity, screenshots and demos.

I'd recommend giving it a try and playing a truly unique game.

Correction - Retro Gamer

Issue 58 - p.18

Finder's Keepers was not the first, or even one of the first, games released by Mastertronic. It was one of the first, if not the first, game released under the MAD label - Mastertronic Added Dimension. These were games that broke the £1.99 that all previous Mastertronic games had been released as, making the leap to £2.99.

The first Mastertronic games were real shockers - along the lines of Alcatraz Harry. I originally thought that Mad Martha was one of these, but I remembered while typing this that it was Mikro-Gen who bore the responsibility for that, but managed to redeem themselves with the game Automania and the following excellent Wally sequels including Pyjamarama and Everyone's a Wally.

As a side note, Everyone's a Wally came with a pop music recording on the B Side of the tape, which I remember liking a lot at the time. After a bit of a search, it was by someone called Mike Berry.

Mastertronic also improved over time, releasing games like Agent X and Nonterraqueous on the Spectrum and Chiller on the C64, these, amongst others, were excellent and still sold at the £1.99 price tag. I also have very fond memories of Human Race - really hard game, but great music (by the legendary Rob Hubbard). The MAD label had it fair share of rather good games like Amaurote which was really good on the Spectrum 128K; one of the few games, along with sequels to Finder's Keepers, with added content for the larger memoried machine. (Unfortunately, it also had The Last V8 on the C64, which I still cannot control to this day - excellent voice sound sampling and music though).

Codemasters started with £1.99 games too. Yeah, the company we always hear about with the two Darling brothers coding in their garage - with only their middle-class parents to pay for the expensive initial setup. Anyone with a detached house, garage and a few tens of thousands of pounds of disposable income could have done it really. Not to take away what they have accomplished; but a supportive family and the initial cash is not available to everyone with the same dream.

Mastertronic did an awful lot to change the distribution of games; they sold them in local newsagents, for example. Even the boarded-up, shitty, vandalised newsagent with 'Punks Not Dead' sprayed on the side of it that sat across from our family flat where I grew up. It made them more accessible to people who would previously have not considered buying a computer game - especially with the price. Initially no-one who knew anything about computer games went anywhere near them as we knew how bad they were; but they were bought by Mums, Dads and other nice folks as a gift for their growing nerd at home. Usually it was a "Uh oh, I'd better look happy and play it for a while till I get that look of gratified misunderstanding as they watch it over my shoulder." Most of the time they left before it had finished loading from the tape - took a while in those days. The upshot was that they sold so many crap games that Mastertronic became very well known with lots of money at their disposal and better games were released; so we have to really thank all those people who we thought were too stupid to know the games were rubbish as we ended up with a lot of cheap, decent games because of them. Life's like that.