Monday, 28 May 2018

The Rule of 4 or 5: Nintendo 64

Next up in this continuing series of four or five reasons not to put your old systems on eBay, we arrive at the frontier of proper 3D gaming in the home...

For a company now coy about advertising its system specs, Nintendo went balls-out with the N64. While SEGA imploded through infighting and bad decisions, Sony turned up and ate Nintendo’s lunch with the PlayStation. Previously, the ‘Super’ prefix had been sufficient to differentiate the successor to the still-popular NES. ‘Ultra’ seemed like a natural progression for the next console, but this naming convention was a dead-end, so Nintendo swerved onto Highway 64. SEGA had emblazoned the Mega Drive with an embossed and golden ’16-BIT’ so even if the exact meaning was vague, the public knew that ‘bits’ were a thing. 64 was double Sony’s 32 bits, too, and by putting it front-and-centre in the name, Joe Public’s going to think it’s twice as powerful as the competition. ‘Nintendo Ultra 64’ is an eight-syllable mouthful, so they ditched the ‘Ultra’ (and the Famicom branding in Japan) and went with a worldwide, unified name and number. It’s the most Blast-Processing move Nintendo ever pulled.

It didn’t quite work out. Of course, N64 wasn’t double the power of the PlayStation – a console is the sum of its parts. Each system had strengths, but Sony’s strong marketing, install-base and cheap CD-ROM medium struck a chord with developers and gamers, and Nintendo struggled in contrast to the crushing successes of their previous two home consoles. Sony saw the Nintendo kids of the late ‘80s growing up and attracted them by marketing to an 18-30 demographic; Nintendo’s massive multi-coloured controllers and chunky cartridges looked childish by comparison. The primary coloured, three-pronged pads drew derision and, despite hosting some of the most influential and impressive games of all time, N64 still carries the stigma of disappointment to this day.

Looking back now, that Nintendo managed to nail so many aspects of 3D on its first try is a pretty spectacular feat. Super Mario 64 and Ocarina were the poster children for proper 3D gaming in their respective genres, but most franchises with an entry bearing the -64 suffix made the jump to the third dimension extraordinarily intact. Sure, they’re looking a bit rough nowadays, but the core mechanics are solid and the N64’s innovations in control and feedback influenced many of the modern features we now take for granted.

Rumours of an N64 Mini – continuing the line of micro consoles emulating a curated library of NES and SNES games – are doing the rounds after Nintendo renewed some trademarks. Of course, it’s a no-brainer for fans, but there are diminishing returns to be had for the company. For one, N64’s reputation as a disappointment means fewer people are likely to pick one up. The added complexity (not to mention size) of the controllers will also increase production costs and, therefore, retail price. And who knows where they’d put the four ports on the console! A significant portion of the system’s finest games came from Rare – now owned by Microsoft – which would (presumably) be excluded. That’s not to say that a licence agreement couldn’t be reached (Microsoft games already appear on Nintendo platforms, after all) but it’s a hurdle that Nintendo may not be motivated to overcome.

Having said all that, the fact that the original console doesn’t play nicely with modern TVs means its library would arguably benefit more than any other from being released in an HDMI-friendly format. The chance to play these games looking sharp on a modern TV is tantalising and I’d put down 100 notes for the opportunity.

Arriving at four or five essentials ultimately boiled down to controls and availability. The N64 analogue stick sticks out further from the pad than the average stick does today, so smaller movements translate into finer control. Or so it feels – perhaps it’s all in my head, but the games on this list really benefit from being played with the original pad. Lack of availability on other platforms led to a couple of surprise entries, too. There are multiple ways to get hold of Ocarina of Time, for example – the 3DS remaster is arguably the best way to play in 2018. Mario 64 was a tough omission, but again, you can play it elsewhere.

GoldenEye 007 – Rare
Despite being phenomenally successful and fondly remembered, GoldenEye 007 (to give it its full and correct title) is still only officially available on a 21-year old cartridge thanks to tangled licencing issues. In truth, it’s somewhat appropriate – while hugely influential, some aspects haven’t aged well and it really was built for that single-stick controller and four people crowded around a CRT TV. The control scheme is elegant and precise in that context and there’s something clinical in bringing up that crosshair and pulling the Z-trigger on the underside of the middle prong (preferably accompanied by a little jolt from the Rumble Pak). Lone players can even use a second pad to enable some twin-stick action. With Microsoft seemingly open to collaborations, and Nintendo working better with third parties, I wouldn’t be surprised if this turns up with some online multiplayer at some point, though modern players might find it jarring after nigh-on two decades of dual stick controls. On original hardware, though, it’s still, *ahem*… dam good.

F-Zero X – Nintendo EAD
This is metal. Pure, simple, guitar-screeching, balls-out metal. EAD stripped back extraneous detail to achieve a buttery smooth 60fps before I even knew what that meant. It was just fast. The tiniest prod on the stick matters here and the original pad offers peak precision for those micro adjustments which make the difference between gracefully sweeping through a corner with nary a pixel to spare… or catching said corner and ricocheting between barriers before an explosive early retirement. The tracks are insane. How much more metal could this get? None. None more metal. Flaming skulls and motorcycles would actually reduce the metal content of this game.

Also available on: Wii and Wii U Virtual Consoles, although the former is more-or-less closed for business (unless you’ve still got points on your account, in which case you’ve got until the end of January 2019 to spend them) and the latter is running on fumes.

1080° Snowboarding – Nintendo EAD
This game taught me the rewards of dedication and perseverance. It’s there in the title – that’s the goal. And I couldn’t do a ten-eighty for years. But I kept at it and – boom – finally, I nailed it. The speed and precision of F-Zero were joined here by some beautiful visuals, with sunlight glistening off the piste and snow spraying up behind your board. The framerate suffered accordingly, but again, the subtle controls enabled you to sharpen up shallow turns and gracefully arc across the course, conveying a sense of the feeling you get from the sport in real life. When you’re not falling arse-over-tit, that is.

This spot could easily have been taken by Excitebike 64 or Wave Race 64. I’ve written before about how these games need new iterations. I miss them.

Also available on: Virtual Consoles, same as F-Zero, Excitebike and Wave Race.

Snowboard Kids – Racdym
Another snowboarding game!? An Atlus-published sub-Mario Kart racer!? A reason to own the system!!?? Yes, yep and yarp. Mario Kart 64 has it detractors (it was my first and I loved it) and Diddy Kong Racing sorted most of them out, but the underappreciated Snowboard Kids (that’s right, not Kidz: +1 Respect Point) is the secret best multiplayer racer on the system. It’s essentially Mario Kart on snowboards – goofy characters collecting items and firing at each other while racing down a mountain to a ski-lift which takes them to the top for another lap. What Snowboard Kids added was extra tension and comedy. Obviously, snowboards have no accelerator and downed characters must hop to get back up to speed – easy on a slope but very tense on flatter areas as your opponents shoot down the piste behind you. The end of the run usually produces hilarious pile-ups as you scramble for the lift. It controls beautifully and it’s not available on anything else. It’s even-more-forgotten sequel is now one of the most expensive cartridges on the system.

Star Wars Episode 1: Racer – LucasArts
Racer number four, eh? That analogue stick was good from something! This was essentially a prettier F-Zero (thank you RAM Expansion Pak) that wasn’t quite as smooth but which added a progression system with purchasable pod enhancements. Plus, it was the only good Phantom Menace game, based on the best bit of film (apart from the Darth Maul bits and all the soundtrack). Similar to GoldenEye, a second pad could be used for some twin-stick precision that more-closely mirrored the controls of the actual onscreen pods. Watto’s banter and post-race rendition of the Cantina theme is also excellent.

Also available on: There were versions on PC, Mac and Dreamcast (plus a top-down GBC version). They all looked prettier but they didn’t have that sweet, sweet ’64 analogue stick.

The Ones That Got Away:
Paper MarioSupposed to be a cracker. Never got round to it.

Honourable Mentions:
Lylat Wars – The Super FX chip made a primitive version possible on SNES, but Starfox 64 arguably fulfilled the cinematic promise of the original with a smooth framerate. Came in a massive box with the Rumble Pak. Top drawer. The 3DS version is very good, although it lacks the rumble.

Rogue Squadron – Bettered by its sequel on GameCube, but this still has some great moments.

Banjo-Kazooie – Had to be mentioned being The Greatest Game and all.

Friday, 20 April 2018

The Rule of 4 or 5: Mega Drive

Continuing my personal rundown of the four or five games that make each console worth keeping in the cupboard, we arrive at the very genesis of my video games affection...

The SEGA Mega Drive (as it was known outside North America) is an emblem of early ‘90s cool, and as everyone knows, there’s no cooler cool than early ‘90s cool. Indeed, it was rad. We’re talking shell suits, double denim and Hypercolor – ‘cool’ has never been so obvious or accessible. Of course, consoles that would follow the Mega Drive/Genesis would advertise their hip credentials, but sleek slabs of hardware like the PS2 were far too understated and classy. SEGA had one foot in the overblown ‘80s, so their machine had vents and buttons and curves like Gordon Gekko’s dashboard. The control pad was an enormous kidney with three chunky buttons; big, bold and black (and very comfortable). The typeface that stood out on the console wasn’t its name, but the embossed and golden ’16-BIT’ below the cartridge slot.
“16-BIT!” it shouts.
“What’s a bit, again?”
“Eat my shorts! It’s more than the last console, and more is more! More numbers! More bits! MORE!!!”

Beyond the Blast Processing and bits, the console looked glossy and technical, and sought to appeal to the technophile with knobs and sliders denoting power and decibels. It blended well with the hi-fi and its coherent design language carried over to the box art (in the EU at least). To begin with, every game carried a signature grey grid over a black background, mirroring the grey-over-white of the Master System boxes. On the shelf, those cases formed a stylish collection that obviously wasn’t for kids.

The first two Sonic games carried the classy grey grid over black design. The third had the balls-out blue box.
The game manuals were landscape format and usually featured eight language columns per double page.

I suppose none of these details matter – it’s the games which are important – but the advertising and image of the Mega Drive stick in the memory. The console and its library looked like they meant business - discreet, sophisticated business. It was entirely a result of marketing, as the games themselves were a kaleidoscope of genres, from gritty futuristic shooters to bouncy mascot platformers. But what marketing! For three or four years, SEGA played against Nintendo’s wholesome family-friendly image to race ahead in the minds of the self-conscious coolkids of the day. Even today, the character of Sonic the Hedgehog retains that ‘hog with 'tude persona, much to the dismay of many fans who grew out of all that nonsense two decades ago. Of course, now that we’ve hit peak ‘90s nostalgia, that earnest, try-hard cool can be appreciated anew with a safety blanket of irony.

Thing is, Sonic wasn’t actually my first platformer on the Mega Drive – it was a pack-in game starring the perennially popular (yet, cringingly uncool) Mickey Mouse.

Castle of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse – SEGA AM7
It turns out that My First Video Game Ever stands up very well in 2018! Of course, it’s a rung down the ladder from Sonic in almost every respect, but it’s as perfect an introduction to the medium as one could hope for: a colourful, jaunty platformer from SEGA with tight controls, playroom music and cracking animation. Along with Quackshot, it quashed the idea early on that licenced games are unanimously crap. It’s storybook, it’s fairy tale, it’s Mickey-fuckin’-Mouse. World of Illusion took the ball and ran with it, but Castle turned me on to games. Even Mum and Dad remember it fondly.

Also available on: Oddly, not very much. It appeared on a Japan-only Sega Saturn compilation with Quackshot in 1998 and it was a pre-order bonus for PlayStation 3 owners who bought the 2013 reimagining, but wasn’t put on the PSN store itself. Disney’s licensing dept. has been working out issues with other games recently (see Capcom’s Disney Afternoons Collection) so perhaps it will make an appearance.

Might actually finish this one day...

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 – Sonic Team, Sega Technical Institute
Of all the games on the list, this is perhaps the hardest to justify. Not due to the quality of the game, you understand, rather there are very few consoles since the Mega Drive that you can’t play this on, so is it really essential to own it on original hardware? I’d argue there’s still something magical about that D-pad plus one-button gameplay that feels perfect with the Mega Drive’s chunky controller. STI tweaked every aspect of the original game just so. The character sprite seemed ever so slightly bigger and brighter. The levels felt more assuredly solid. And Masato Nakamura’s soundtrack… well, that pops just as funkily as the original. Sonic 2 showcases perfectly the refinements made in the best video game sequels. The first game is obviously seminal, but it’s the sequel that truly nails the formula, and this was the high watermark that last summer’s Sonic Mania managed to approach for the first time since 1994’s Sonic & Knuckles.

Also available on: everything. Seriously, it’s appeared on nearly every major console in some form or other since its release, barring the original PlayStation. They’re all serviceable but the pick of the ports is the M2-developed SEGA 3D Classics version on 3DS.
And this one. Never sorted out the spikes or the background.

Streets of Rage II - Ancient
Another fine example of taking the original and twisting the Refine-o-meter up to eleventy-stupid, this game makes pummelling repetitive enemies in repetitive ways feel fantastic. The controls seem restrictive by modern standards but there’s something in the balance that makes it work. And I think its not-so secret weapon is the way Yuzo Koshiro’s soundtrack integrates with and enhances those mechanics. Timing is everything and, with each stage featuring a tailormade track and each enemy requiring a specific strategy, the fights become dance routines – a repertoire of steps recalled and deployed in varying combinations along to the beat. It’s this attention to flow and encounters that makes SORII the best expression of the side-scrolling beat-em-up genre, and it plays just as well today as it did in 1992.

As an aside, this game’s sequel – imaginatively named Streets of Rage 3 – suffered in the West thanks to arriving late in the Mega Drive’s cycle and featuring several questionable alterations from its Japanese counterpart, including a massive hike in difficulty. However, I’d recommend sourcing a copy via whatever means available (now pretty easy via Steam; the Steam Workshop mod community can even furnish you with an English translation of the original Bare Knuckle III.) It’s a wonderful close to the trilogy which stretches the hardware and features a fantastic, though less immediately accessible soundtrack.

Also available on: various platforms. Again, the SEGA 3D Classics version on 3DS is a peach.

Ghostbusters – SEGA/Compile
Another licenced game? But aren’t licenced games universally shite?! Whoever claims so is an eejit, obviously. This platforming shooter featured chunky caricatures of the principle cast and threw them into a world of squelching sprites and cartoon sound effects. In doing so, it captures the accessible comedy spirit of the films without the need for dynamite dialogue. I was obsessed with Egon, Winston, Ray and Peter as a kid and, looking back, I was lucky to have them in such a great game (although Winston was notably and confusingly absent).

Micro Machines 2: Turbo Tournament – Supersonic Software/Codemasters
SO many hours spent burning around the bathtub. Micro Machines succeeded by turning its limitations into assets – its limited screen space, for example. As you pulled away from the pack your overhead view of the track ahead would shrink to almost nothing and you’d be relying on memory to time a blind 90° turn. This would be infuriating in any other game but here it signified that you were dominating the race and touching the edge of the frame would score you a point. After an opponent crashed and burned, you might gamble and race ahead into certain death, hoping you’d reach the edge of the screen and net your point before they could rematerialise on the track and accelerate. Your fortunes could change in an instant and this constant tug of war between risk and reward, winner and loser made each race a nail-biter. Plus, you had that fantastic J-cart with the two extra controller ports built in. Per-retty cool.

The One That Got Away:
Gunstar Heroes – Everyone loves it, I got the 3DS SEGA Classics remake… and never got around to playing it.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Thimbleweed Park - a review

What's this? A review!? We'll be getting into the weeds on this one...

For gamers of a certain age, point-and-click adventure games – the LucasArts classics from the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, in particular – elicit a special kind of nostalgia. Personal computing began to hit the mainstream at that time and, for many, it was these games that occupied their first formative hours in front of a computer screen. Ron Gilbert’s SCUMM engine, first used on his and Gary Winnick’s Maniac Mansion, replaced the command line text input from earlier adventure games with a more intuitive user interface. An onscreen menu of verbs and items would allow the player to, for example, USE the CROWBAR on the DOOR simply by clicking the respective elements.

It’s still an elegant system, although after three decades of breadcrumb trails, glowing objects and handholding, it can feel a little archaic to a newcomer. However, Gilbert and Winnick’s mandate for the crowdfunded Thimbleweed Park wasn’t to reinvent or modernise the genre; they promised to take all the lessons learned from those historic titles and create an ‘undiscovered’ SCUMM game of that era, with only a smattering of modern conveniences. It was a pitch that translated into Kickstarter success, but does the end result hold up in the harsh light of 2018? And how does the experience translate to Switch?

The investigation begins in 1987 as FBI agents Reyes and Rey (Thimbleweed’s very own Mulder and Scully) arrive in the eponymous town to solve a murder. Along the way you’ll encounter further characters including Ransome, a washed-up celebrity clown, and Dolores Edmund, a young adventure game programmer. Working in tandem, each puzzle you solve will reveal that all is even stranger than it initially seems, which is fitting given the overt Twin Peaks and X-Files influences. The story threads wry nods to nerd culture throughout and even a passing knowledge of the LucasArts catalogue will have you grinning as you explore the various locales, from diner to sewer, post office to mansion, hotel to pillow factory.

Difficulty-wise, you are given complete control to tailor the game to your liking. The verb-noun interface may take some getting used to if you are unfamiliar with the system but anyone who has tinkered with the SCUMM engine will feel at home immediately. Casual mode reduces the number of puzzles for a breezier experience but, for those who want the full-fat game, the developers have also included a comprehensive ‘Tips Helpline’ accessed by dialling ‘HINT’ (4468) into any in-world telephone (and yes, one character does carry a pleasingly brick-like mobile phone.) This system is a godsend to those of us with brains averse to adventure game logic. Hints depend entirely on your progress and are cleverly oblique, nudging you in the right direction until, should your patience wear thin, they will state explicitly where you need to go, what you need to do and with who. Thankfully, no puzzle in Thimbleweed is as inscrutable as some of the LucasArts adventures, but the hint helpline prevents the kind of frustration that had this scribe quitting Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis twenty-five years ago. It’s also totally optional so hardcore gamers needn’t worry about their game being sullied in the name of convenience.

While your mileage may vary regarding the legacy interface, the quality of the writing is right up there with the original games. It would have been easy for Thimbleweed to buckle under the weight of references and knowing winks, but Gilbert takes the cheeky spirit of the classics and weaves nostalgia in without getting bogged down and alienating players who don’t have those reference points. Most of the references sit in the background and there is even an option to remove the in-jokes if you are easily confused and/or humourless. One imagines most players coming to this game will be acquainted with the lineage, but the story doesn’t assume knowledge.

Another area where Thimbleweed Park manages to match the classics is the visual presentation. Winnick’s pixel art beautifully captures the spirit of the old games and it looks great on the Switch’s 720p screen. Touch controls work as expected, although you will never achieve the precision of a pointer using your finger. Holding a digit on the screen for a moment will handily highlight all interactive elements. Although never a huge problem, your hand will necessarily obscure the screen as you tap and there is a little trial and error involved in selecting the smaller items. When docked, Joy-Con controls work well, too. Both sticks operate the cursor, with the right offering slower, finer movement. It is the best you will get on a conventional pad, although it is a shame pointer controls are not present to replicate the precision of a mouse. We will keep our fingers crossed for a patch.

For the most part, Thimbleweed Park succeeds marvellously in its goal to present an ‘unearthed’ treasure from the heyday of point-and-click, and the Switch version’s touchscreen controls and portability make it as accessible as possible. It’s not for everyone - if adventure games don’t set your pulse racing, there is nothing here that is going to convert you. But Thimbleweed Park proves to be more than a simple homage – it earns its place with The Secret of Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle in the pantheon of great adventure games. For anybody curious about the genre, there’s no better place to start.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

The Rule of 4 or 5: Xbox 360 - PLUS! The 7th Gen Multiplatform 4 or 5

Ah, the 360. The Xbox 360. What a machine! It laid the blueprint for a 21st century console and presented online gaming to the masses. However, unusually for such successful hardware, it boasted few essential exclusives. While Nintendo rowed out into the blue ocean with the Wii, Sony’s PlayStation 3 quickly gained a reputation for being hard to program for. With their main competitor at the height of their hubris ("$599!"), Microsoft sunset the original Xbox early and rushed the 360 out the door to gain a head start on the seventh generation. And it worked. That lead time, plus its robust, hassle-free online experience saw 360 eclipse its predecessor. Sony could bang on about the Cell processor all day long, but it would take years for developers to figure the damn thing out and third parties just didn’t have the time. Subsequently, multiplatform titles routinely looked and played better on 360, with its familiar PC-like architecture. In fact, it was so great that not even the costliest design fault in console history could kill it. The rush to market meant cutting QA corners which resulted in dashboard updates bricking consoles, drives scratching game discs and the infamous Red Ring of Death. This catastrophic own goal would have ended any other company but Microsoft had a reputation to uphold and the billion dollars required to do so. I only went through one console myself – many had several die on them. It’s a testament to Microsoft’s handling of these issues and the sheer awesomeness of the games that the 360 is still so well regarded.

And what games they are! Pulling up the All-Time list on Metacritic, you see a deluge of remarkable titles. Again, there are some big name exclusives like Halo and Gears of War, but the majority of the roster is third-party titles. It was the wealth and variety of third-party games that made the 360 great, plus the birth of the quality indie scene which Xbox Live Arcade helped usher in. With Sony disappearing up its own arse with PS3, the Xbox 360 was a simple, competent and confident console. Roles would reverse for the following generation, but the Xbox 360 was king of the seventh gen (... okay, that's not statistically true – it was more of a hearts-and-minds thing. Nintendo actually sold over 20 million more Wiis, and the PS3 would eventually crawl up to sales parity with 360, give or take a million.)

But is the console itself worth owning today? From an aesthetic standpoint… probably not. Even the final SKU, the smaller 360 E, was a nondescript slab of glossy plastic, and those faceplates from the original model couldn’t disguise its ugliness. The S variant is probably the best looking of the bunch. However, considering the incredible software library, surely tracking down a late production model is a no-brainer, right? Well, actually no. Ironically, thanks to Microsoft’s new-found commitment to backwards compatibility with the Xbox One S and X, reasons to own a 360 Core, Pro, Elite, Arcade, S or E are fast disappearing. According to Wikipedia, at the time of writing Xbox One boasts compatibility with 465 of the 1232 released games. Some even play smoother and higher-res thanks to some clever engineering. Why bother with a dodgy second-hand red ringer when you can get those games on a nice, quiet, current gen console with all the mod-cons? Backwards compatibility is a prime reason why I’ll be eyeing a cheap One S when I upgrade to a 4K TV.

So then, the games! An issue arises here because many of my favourites on the system were multiplatform titles and, of course, The Rule of Four or Five only applies to exclusive experiences. With this in mind, I’m going to tag on an extra special 7th Gen Multiplat' 4 or 5.

Quick note – yes, I played Halo and Gears. Yes, they were fine. Onwards.

Banjo-Kazooie Nuts & Bolts – Rare
So, it was this and Bioshock that made me buy a 360. The core systems here were incredibly well designed, with a vehicle editor that’s intuitive and simple but allows for some wonderfully complex creations. Indeed, building and testing your contraptions is a joy. And it all looks and sounds beautiful. The writing was still great, and Lego-loving, Banjo-banging tinkerers like me were content to fiddle in the editor, build the USS Enterprise and test it out over Nutty Acres. The problem, then, is that Rare failed to make the ‘game’ part fun. The worlds are populated with monotonous races and fetch quests that fail to make use of the incredible toybox. I’d have brought in more structural puzzles that asked players to build makeshift towers and bridges and knock them over and things, in addition to the vehicle aspect. Oh, it had so much potential! But I forgive ‘em. Not for Trophy Thomas, mind. He can rot.
Also available on: Xbox One (included on the Rare Replay compilation)

Forza Motorsport 2 – Turn 10
For some reason, Forza struck the sweet spot for me between dry simulation and shiny arcade racer. Early on I did something I’d never done in a racer before – I switched from Auto to Manual, mapping the shift to the right stick, flicking up and down to go through the gears. It transformed the experience and it began to feel like driving for the first time ever. I started with braking and turning assists and gradually switched them off one by one. I even bought the excellent 360 Steering Wheel with force feedback. I wish the rewind feature from subsequent entries had been present, but this is still the only simulation-esque racer that I’ve ever got on with. Great soundtrack, too.

Fable II – Lionhead
I only played this once though but it was a fantastic surprise. I remember a colourful, beautiful game, and I remember loving my dog. I remember running around Bowerstone as a child with the soundtrack full of picking strings. I remember the stupid haircuts and the chickens. I remember the cliffside trails and the seasons of Oakfield and the sunsets. And I remember the joy of resurrecting my dog in the DLC. A wonderful game.

Project Gotham Racing 4 – Bizarre Creations
What’s this? Another ‘realistic’ racing game?! This was a slick game. I have great memories of winding around the streets of London on a Ducati in the pissing rain with The Shins’ Australia on repeat. It looked incredible at the time, with detailed cockpit views and weather effects. The kudos system encouraged lairy driving, and I did. A hell of a feeling when you nailed a perfect slide around a corner. And it also had a Geometry Wars game tucked in there!

The One(s) That Got Away:

CrackdownIt was supposed to be great. Never played it. Shoulda.

While compiling this list I kept hitting a wall with multiplatform games. As good as the above list is, I’m not sure any of them would be on there if the following games were platform exclusives. All of the following titles are available in loads of places - often across generations - but they all originated in this console cycle. So, as a bonus, let’s look at my seventh generation multiplatform top 5. So much to choose from! And yes, I did play GTA and Red Dead Redemption.

Bioshock – 2K
As previously mentioned, this, along with Nuts and Bolts, made me get an Xbox. The imagery and music of Rapture drew me in from the first trailer and it started a new wave of narrative shooters that pilfered its storytelling tricks. Those tricks soon palled from overuse, but those conveniently left audio diaries were very effective the first time round.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare – Infinity Ward
Captain Price, baby! I’d jump off a building for that dude. This game put down the blueprint for military shooter narratives and multiplayers for the next decade. The sequels were sullied with outrageous and outlandish near-future baloney, but Soap, Gaz, Price and Co. formed a perfect squad in this original outing and it’s still the high watermark for any spectacle FPS.

The Orange Box - Valve
Hang on - you get Portal and the Half-Lives 2 AND Team Fortress 2? This ain’t cheating, guv' – this is an amazing package. I barely even played TF2 and this thing still represents the best 40 quid I ever spent. Portal alone would get this on the list.

Left4Dead – Valve
Valve get a second entry on the list here. The AI Director is the star of the show here, tailoring each session to ensure your nails get ripped down to sore, bloody stubs. This represents some of the very best online multiplayer I ever played.

Braid – Number None
Here to buck the FPS trend and represent the birth of the mainstream indie revolution, Braid tells a complex story that’s baked into the systems of the game, one of obsession and regret, and uses the medium and the players’ expectations to make it relatable and affecting. The way the mechanics convey the narrative and implicate the player is the reason it makes this list over many other candidates.

Honourable Mentions:
Dark Souls II
Need For Speed Most Wanted (2012)

The Multiplatform One(s) That Got Away:
Burnout Paradise

Monday, 19 February 2018

The Rule of 4 or 5: Game Boy Advance

Next in my continuing no-particular-order quest through the loft, I come across my Game Boy Advance. Released in 2001, the follow-up to one of the best-selling consoles of all time was underwhelming at first. It was borne of the same design goals as its predecessor – a durable, modestly specced, non-backlit handheld with decent battery life. The horizontal orientation was more comfortable in the hands, and the wider screen seemed like an upgrade even without a backlight, though anything less than perfect ambient light conditions resulted in a very squinty time. The performance was certainly a massive upgrade from Game Boy Color, providing visuals broadly on a par with Super Nintendo, although with caveats, primarily in audio and screen resolution. And although it gained shoulder buttons, it lacked the SNES’ four face buttons, which seemed a baffling omission. In 2001 – with PS2-fever gripping the world and retro-fetishism in its infancy – more was more. More buttons, more polys, more power! GBA was, frankly, a disappointment. Remember, Sega’s Nomad had given us a portable Mega Drive in 1995. Yes, it was overpriced and had terrible battery life (two factors that would consistently see Nintendo triumph in the handheld arena), but it was 2001 and you could barely see this new Game Boy’s screen!

However, being able to play the entire GB back catalogue was a massive boon, and the inevitable redesign – the clamshell SP – provided a backlight and also protected the screen in your pocket. I got an SP a couple of years back and it’s beautiful. The second and final revision, the Game Boy Micro, is still an object of desire today, although by all accounts it’s simply too small to play comfortably for any length of time. Maaan is it purdy, though.

But enough of this hardware nonsense – on to the games! Remember, these are the titles that make the system worth owning for me. I haven’t played everything and I don’t like everything.

WarioWare, Inc.: Minigame Mania (or Mega Microgame$ in the US) – Nintendo R&D1
I played this on the 3DS after it was gifted to me in the twenty-game Ambassador Program, Nintendo’s make-good to early adopters after a significant price drop early in the system’s life. What is there to say other than it’s possibly the best entry in this irreverent series. The ‘small-bursts’ microgames feel right at home on the portable.
Also available on: Wii U VC, 3DS (Ambassador Program)

Metroid: Zero Mission – Nintendo R&D1
Okay, so this is technically a remake of Metroid for NES, but one that transforms the original from a barebones progenitor of Super Metroid into something that applies all the lessons learned from that offspring and also the GBA’s own Metroid Fusion. This iteration looks, sounds and feels so much better, and it adds new post-game levels. Remakes are tricky to pull off, and so often details inherent to the experience are lost in translation. The original can be tough to return to thirty years on and, of course, it’s still there for the purists. But for everyone else, this is the way to experience Samus’ first trip to Zebes.
Also available on: Wii U VC

Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones – Intelligent Systems
Another game I played on 3DS, this one got me into the Fire Emblem series. GBA had some splendid tactics games, but this one... is the one I played. Being totally honest, the story details escape me now. There was some conflict, some people fought, I won. What I do remember is many hours of strategy and satisfaction after hard-resetting my way through every mistake until I had, as far as the game file was concerned, a perfect, unblemished record of zero dead party members. No-one dies on my watch. A fantastic SRPG on a system blessed with many.
Also available on: Wii U VC, 3DS (Ambassador Program)

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow – Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo
In an effort to plug some gaps in my knowledge, I got this on a double cartridge with its predecessor, Harmony of Dissonance. Never managed to go back to that one because this game distils the best of Castlevania into a perfect, portable whole. Music, level design, characters, weapons, progression – they’re all up there with the series’ best, and the graphics work incredibly well, too. Playing on a TV via Virtual Console, the GameCube’s Game Boy Player or whatever trickery one cares to employ, the colour palette looks completely differently and you can see where the developers turned the saturation up to 11 in order to make the game readable on the GBA’s murky little screen. The consideration and execution on display here makes it the best Castlevania I’ve played. I’ll get to Symphony of the Night one of these days (Switch port, please) but it’s got its work cut out to beat this.
Also available on: Wii U VC

The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap – Capcom, Flagship
Once again, the Ambassador Program gifted me a game that I had missed. Demonstrating that other developers were perfecting Nintendo’s formulas, Minish Cap delivers a beautiful, self-contained adventure that doesn’t outstay its welcome. While it doesn’t stray far from the established template, Ezlo (the eponymous Minish cap which allows Link to shrink) and the tiny Picori are memorable additions to Zelda’s roster of races and characters. It was also the first game outside The Wind Waker to use Toon Link (as he would later be christened in Smash Bros.)
Also available on: Wii U VC, 3DS (Ambassador Program)

Honourable mentions:

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 – This isometric handheld interpretation of the celebrated Playstation original defies all convention and expectation and is actually great.

Sonic Advance – it’s a Sonic game from the 2000s that isn’t shite. It’s good! Shocker.

All the ports – The GBA received some excellent versions of both NES and SNES games which, while somewhat compromised by the small screen, gave many players (myself included) access to these games for the first time (I never had a SNES). I haven’t included these on the main list because the definitive versions exist elsewhere, but the ports of Link to the Past (complete with multiplayer game Four Swords) and the confusingly labelled Super Mario series, including Super Mario Advance (actually a remake of Super Mario Bros. 2 or Super Mario Bros. USA in Japan), Super Mario Advance 2: Super Mario World, Yoshi’s Island: Super Mario Advance 3 and Super Mario Bros. 3: Super Mario Advance 4 are excellent portable renditions of those classics.

The One(s) That Got Away:

Mother 3 – After playing Earthbound on Wii U VC, I immediately started searching Etsy for repro cartridges containing the English fan-translation of this unlocalised sequel. Lucas has an amiibo for-crying-out-loud! Rumour has it that an official localisation exists. I’m really hoping it’ll appear on Switch at some point.

Advance Wars – I think I played this once but I certainly didn’t get far. Everyone says it’s tip-top and it’s made by the same team as Fire Emblem.

Metroid Fusion – I’ve got it on 3DS but never got round to going beyond the first 10 minutes. It’s on the list. Said to be linear but still a strong entry.

The Pokemons – I played the original Red & Blue, and that was it. By all accounts, the series is still pretty good but I could never summon enthusiasm beyond the first 151. I think I’d very much enjoy FireRed and/or LeafGreen, though.

Monday, 29 January 2018

The Rule of 4 or 5: Wii U - PLUS! a most personal video game history

Back in the olden days choosing your video game console meant taking sides: Nintendo vs. Sega, Sony vs. Nintendo, Microsoft vs. Sony. As long as consoles have existed, we’ve had console wars. The reason? Shit’s expensive for a 10-year old! The general affordability of the Wii, and Wii Sports’ appeal to many parents, made the seventh console generation the first where ‘normal’ folks considered having more than one current console in the house. Before that, kids usually relied on a combination of birthday, Christmas, and odd-job money to get new hardware under the telly, and your choice led to tribalism in the playground.

A Brief History of Mine
That's over  £60,000 in 2018 money!
I began with a Mega Drive. Technically I inherited it from my dad who had bought it in 1991 with Castle of Illusion and Sword of Vermillion. The former was a wonderful Mickey Mouse platformer with impressive animation and sound; the latter was a stodgy RPG that boasted on-cart saves on the box and which I always wished had been Golden Axe instead. Soon after, Sonic arrived and that was that - I was a Sega boy. I had a friend with a Master System which I sampled a few games on. I specifically remember Back to the Future 2 being awful and Sonic being weird after ‘my’ version. My step-brother also had a NES which I have fond memories of. But the Mega Drive was mine.

It wasn’t until ’97 that I moved on to an N64. My transition to Nintendo wasn’t really a defection – Sega were killing their userbase with expensive (and therefore, unobtainable) add-ons like the Mega CD and the 32X, and the Saturn didn’t really figure in the equation in the UK. I recall seeing shots of Virtua Racing and DOOM on 32X, but by the time I had enough dollar, they were long gone. GoldenEye had dropped. Friends had PlayStations with Die Hard Trilogy and Twisted Metal, which were fun, but they didn’t have Facility˃Licence to Kill˃Slappers-only! Wipeout looked slick, but it was no Mario Kart 64. I became a Nintendo kid. N64 Magazine kept me up-to-date with all the news and I felt like I was in a club. Happy days.

GameCube came along and was a no-brainer – it had STAR WARS. I got the console, Rogue Squadron II… and no memory card. That hurt for a good month or two. Video games fell off the radar as the opposite sex properly registered on it, until the second year of university when Mario Kart: Double Dash became an evening fixture in our house. I caught up with Resident Evil 4 and games returned to the fold with the DS and, of all things, Animal Crossing: Wild World.

Christmas 2006 was all about Wii Sports. When Bioshock released for 360 I decided to supplement the Wii with a mean Xbox 360 Elite while waiting for the new Banjo-Kazooie sequel. There I discovered Xbox Live, CoD4 and the wonders of online gaming. Everything looked so pretty! Nostalgia also drove me to eBay a NES and catch up with Shenmue on Dreamcast.

Once again games took a back seat for a while and I sold the 360, but the 3DS drew me back with the remastered Ocarina of Time. I inherited a PS3 with a busted disc drive which allowed me to catch up with some exclusives via digital download. After eBaying The Beatles Rock Band kit for 25 quid, I got into guitar rhythm games years after the bubble burst, and after discovering that Steam had pretty much eliminated the headaches from PC gaming (hey - I'm a delicate console flowerchild), I started hoarding Humble Bundles on my aging desktop. I got a Wii U a couple of years after launch and flirted briefly with a Retron5 before selling it off to make room for a Switch.

Ah, I forgot one! I got a PS2 several years back so I could play ICO and Shadow of the Colossus, although that's all I've used it for.

Being an adult now (really), ‘console wars’ seem preposterous. Long ago I reached the conclusion that you need only four or five great exclusives to make hardware worth owning (and keeping.) For example, the maligned Wii U was an easy buy for me – it offered a completely different experience from Sony and Microsoft’s consoles and it easily hit my Rule of 4 or 5. Recently I’ve been contemplating packing the old girl up in her box and storing her away. I’ll miss her quirks: the swooping curtains of the internet browser; my Mii juggling or playing Rock Paper Scissors while he waits; the way our Miis drop onto the screen at start-up. The original Wii remains lodged snugly in my BESTÃ… TV cabinet, just in case the urge takes me for a little Rock Band (the DLC wouldn’t migrate so I never did the system transfer.) The Wii U and accompanying GamePad, though, are more cumbersome and I could do with the space. I considered the games I can’t play on anything else and something occurred to me – with Switch steadily stripping its predecessor of exclusives, is this the first Nintendo console to be truly worthless if you own the company’s other hardware? Should I sell rather than store it? Does it still have those meagre four or five exclusives?

I reckon there’s just enough to justify its space in the loft, if not under the TV. With this in mind, I’m going to post my personal four or five essentials here and, in future posts, those for every other console I’ve got stored away. These are the (mostly) exclusive games that make the platforms worth having. Obviously, with all the ports and remasters coming out, many games are now available on different platforms or services. Which is great! – finally I don’t need to scour eBay or use a PC to play Earthbound. Availability on modern platforms may factor into my choices for ‘The 4 or 5’ but you often can’t beat playing a game with the controller it was designed for, limitations and all.

Let’s start with Wii U, then – the ‘stepping-stone’ console sacrificed so Switch could prosper.

dartmonkey's Rule of 4 or 5: Wii U
Firstly, let’s eliminate titles that would have, until recently, been on this list: Mario Kart 8, Bayonetta 2 and Splatoon. I’m being harsh with that last one. It’s a great but nobody’s going to be digging their Wii U out of storage while Splatoon 2 is sitting on their Switch. Plus, once the frequent updates have stopped, the sequel will have most of the original’s maps anyway. The excellent retro-styled Squid Jump minigame has yet to make the transfer though… hmm, perhaps I’m being hasty!

Super Mario 3D World – Nintendo EAD Tokyo
With Odyssey doing the business on Switch, it’s less likely this will make an appearance, although the four-player antics could translate well, minus the touchscreen aides and mic-blowing puzzle elements. It took me almost the entire playthrough to really appreciate 3D World – the movement and level design feel built around 45° angles. This felt natural on the smaller 3DS in 3D Land, but restrictive here on the big screen after the 360° freedom of Galaxy. However, taken in context as a stepping-stone between 2D and 3D games, it’s a jolly experience, probably enhanced in multi-player, though I played alone :sadface: It also has some of the happiest box art in history, the perfect antidote to the greys and browns of EVERY OTHER PLATFORM’S GAMES of the period. And it gave us Cat Mario.

Affordable Space Adventures – KnapNok Games
One of the few games that relies on asymmetric gameplay to the point where a Switch port would be practically impossible. This is the definition of a gem. Humour punctuates the careful resource management as your spluttering tourist craft navigates the underground chasms of a mysterious planet. Really excellent, with a lovely Miiverse-dependent ending forever lost to the bits and bytes of technological progress :,-(

Nintendo Land – Nintendo EAD
It’s no Wii Sports but it does introduce asymmetric gameplay in some interesting ways. Unfortunately, the potential here wasn’t meaningfully explored in future games and we are left with this charming bag of allsorts. Nods to famous franchises probably frustrated rather than delighted fanboys, but there is plenty of multiplayer fun to be had. And the aforementioned asymmetric gameplay means we can be sure this won’t be coming to Switch.

"WOTS THIS SHITE WHERES METROID & F-ZERO U FFS?!?!?!111" – The Internet, November 2012

New Super Mario Bros. U – Nintendo EAD
The second best-selling game on the platform after Mario Kart 8. I got into this late and it’s a cracker. The art design is a little haphazard – foreshadowing Odyssey (as discussed HERE) to a certain extent, you can tell the designers were throwing things at the wall in an effort to avoid the standard FIRE/WATER/ICE/SAND themes. There are some cool one-off stages and ideas. Ultimately, it’s a really great 2D Mario and you can only play it (for now) on Wii U. And it’s got a Super Luigi remix which is really hard so I didn’t bother.

Mario Maker – Nintendo EAD
Okay, so there’s a borked 3DS version too, but Wii U is the only place you can currently get the real, full-fat Mario Maker. Give it six months and a Deluxe version will make it to Switch with slopes and a Game Boy filter. Unlike Nintendo Land, the only other game to make a genuine case for the GamePad, this could easily make the transition – you simply create your levels with the touchscreen in handheld mode and dock the console to share them on the TV. Until then you must use Wii U to create and publish your own Mario levels. I mean, of course it’s essential.

Honourable Mentions (not currently available on Switch): Pikmin 3 (though I prefer its predecessors), the HD Zeldas, Yoshi’s Woolly World (also available on 3DS), Splatoon (see above) and Miiverse.

One thing to note is that, although the black sheep of the family, Wii U also gives access to more first party software than any other Nintendo console. In the hypothetical one-Nintendo-console-or-you-die! predicament, Wii U would have a very strong case. Contained within its glossy belly you have access to the Virtual Console libraries of NES, SNES, Game Boy Advance, N64 and DS. It also runs the entire Wii library and you have two GameCube Zeldas in HD, and it’ll even run GameCube ISOs with a little modest homebrew tweaking thanks to the Wii backwards compatibility – remember, it was just two GameCubes duct-taped together ;-) Then you have a plethora of Switch titles that originated here, including Breath of the Wild, plus the exclusives mentioned above. It also played host to a bafflingly large number of fantastic indie titles – I guess residual nostalgic affection for Nintendo fuelled most of these releases because sales can’t have been stellar. It’s one hell of a catalogue.

So, a toast to you, sir! You and that imaginary person whose only Nintendo console is the Wii U. Now get in the loft.