Tuesday 17 October 2017

It was 20 years ago... Looking back at N64 Magazine Issue 8

It's time to look back on the olden days with Worldy BlokeTM ...

Seven months in, it's evident that Nintendo have scored a hit with Switch. Consolidating their software teams onto one platform, coupled with their experience from the Wii U-era, seems to be paying off. The standard post-launch drought was alleviated somewhat by Breath of the Wild’s open-form gameplay, and a slow but steady flow of first-party titles has appeared every month since. Now we’ve reached a point where each week brings a deluge of indie hits and quality ports, and with Super Mario Odyssey ready for release at the end of the month, manufacturing enough units to meet demand over the holiday season seems to be the company’s biggest challenge. A nice problem to have.

One-score and zero years ago in Euroland, Nintendo was seven months into another console – the N64. And I was starting to read the best video game magazine ever printed – the imaginatively titled N64 Magazine. I actually started with issue 12, but ordered issue 8 from the back of the mag. Having recently been reunited with my collection after 15 years in my parents' loft, I realised the two decade anniversary and decided to chronicle it here as an excuse to reread some old issues. And it holds up! It’s fascinating to look back and see the adverts, the expectations and how the writers negotiated the drought of software that arguably characterised the console. Lacking the digital distribution that now allows smaller studios to put out software, the expense of cartridges versus the cheap CD alternatives offered on PlayStation widened the lead Sony had built by launching over a year earlier. The N64 offered quality to its dedicated fans, but couldn’t compete against the sheer wealth of software put out on PlayStation (under 400 titles compared to Sony’s 2,500-odd.)

We also see a pre-Trump use of the adverb ‘bigly’.
Looking back on issue 8, Lylat Wars (Starfox 64's EU guise) is the cover star. It also features in the accompanying Gentleman Space Adventurer Quarterly poster magazine, featuring a Lylat system map and tips delivered in the style of a WW2-era, spiffing, tea-sipping gentleman Brit (splendid show, old chap – let’s get back to base for broth and medals). The headline review showcases what was special about the magazine. It’s impeccably laid out with plenty of screenshots and a variety of typefaces and colours. There is info in sidebars, breakout boxes, captions and tiny asterisked gags. While it’s obvious the writers were contending with a lack of software (something which made their focus on import games all the more intriguing to UK readers), they squeezed every last drop of content (*shudder*) from the games they had and presented it in an entertaining, non-patronising way. They make reference to the dire state of PAL conversions at the time (see 'THEY HATE YOU' sidebar) and bemoan the ‘teeth-grinding’ name change from Starfox 64 ("How would you feel if, without your permission, someone changed your name by deed pole to Millicent? Or Adolf? Or Earwax?"), which had its own import review in issue 3.

Elsewhere, the PAL version of Multi Racing Championship faces off against US version of Top Gear Rally (Top Gear wins, 86% - 71%) and…that’s it for PAL reviews! The post-launch lull pushed the team to be ever more inventive with their features. The Import Arena section helps flesh out the magazine, so we get reviews of Baku Bomberman ("Briefly diverting, but a genuine disappointment for Bomberman’s most devoted fans." – 50%), J-League Dynamite Soccer ("To start with this is about as much fun as a pulled hamstring. But after a while you’ll plod through it and maybe even enjoy it. A bit." – 66%), Konami’s Jikkyou World Soccer 3 ("Slightly inferior to PAL ISS 64 but still a breathtaking football game." – 91%) and the US version of Mischief Makers ("The banality of this [game’s] sagacity, when juxtaposed with the outright bonkersness of the game in general, serves only to heighten the lighthearted surrealism that abounds (Eh? – Ed), which, in our book, is a Very Good Thing." – 90%). There’s a massive tips section featuring Mario Kart 64 and Blast Corps. The Future Look section details San Francisco Rush, Nagano Winter Olympics and Earthworm Jim 3D, while the less screenshot intensive Coming Soon section jokes about the tardiness of upcoming 3D platformers and also looks at Zelda 64 ("Rumours abound that the Pointy-Eared One literally ‘grows up’ during the course of the game.")

In the news, Planet 64 reports Nintendo’s profits are soaring on the back of Pocket Monsters and cheaper games are coming thanks to a modest reduction in the cost of manufacturing N64 carts ($6). Elsewhere in the mag there’s Reader Tips, and the I’m The Best section pits readers against each other, competing for time/score supremacy in various games. Club 64 is the letters section and also contains the So Tell Me This… questions section – example: "My friend thinks the N64 can play SNES games. Could you tell him this is total rubbish so he can see it with his own eyes? – Robert’s friend: you’re a clot. Of course the N64 can’t play SNES games. Blimey." Topics run the gamut, from release dates and import tech queries to cooking tips. Sue Overton, ‘N64 Magazine’s culinary advisor’ (and presumably significant-other to Art Editor, Wil Overton) provides jam tart advice ("Pre-baking the pastry by five minutes before adding the jam is a useful tip if you’ve got the time.")

The letters section showcased the back-and-forth banter that gave the magazine that member-of-the-club feel. Even if your whole letter didn’t make it in, you still might crop up in the Bonus Letters section and get a badge.

A directory of every reviewed game has two sections: UK and Import games. After seven months, the UK section had just 15 titles. The Import section contained a further 21, but it illustrates that Nintendo had form with software supply long before the Wii U’s drip-feed scheduling. Of those 15 PAL games, Super Mario 64 (predictably) takes the highest score with 96%, with Turok, Mario Kart 64, Wave Race 64, ISS 64, Blast Corps and Pilotwings 64 all joining the Star Game club (85%+). The only absolute turkeys are FIFA 64 and Mortal Kombat Trilogy, coming in at 39% and 34% respectively.

The text in the Directory explanation box in no way offers commentary
on working conditions at Future Publishing in the late ‘90s
The whole magazine is dense and colourful and beautifully presented. It takes its cues from Super Play, the magazine from which it evolved when the N64 launched, which itself looked to Japanese publications for inspiration. It’s still a pleasure to read through, to see the care and attention which went into these 100 pages and to recall poring over every last detail before 24/7 internet coverage arrived.

It's easy to forget that dodgy PAL conversions were still an issue in the fifth console generation.


I'll be looking back at other issues over the coming months whenever I see a particularly juicy 20th anniversary or awesome cover. Can't wait to get to @Kosmikat's great work on those Double Game Guides. Top drawer.

Sunday 11 June 2017

A Place Both Wonderful and Strange

With the new season of Twin Peaks premiering a few weeks back, I sent fellow fan @jonkristinsson a Lego Digital Designer model I made last year of the 'Red Room' after seeing some amazing Lego renders he had produced.

It made me realise there would never be a better time to polish the model and submit it to Lego Ideas, the online peer-approval process that has resulted in the official Lego Ghostbusters and Back to the Future sets. So I went about refining it and actually ordering the pieces to build it. I also downloaded some software allowing me to render some better images myself - nothing as good as Jón's, but better than a screengrab from LDD.

So, after many hours of rendering a few images (my CPU is OLD) and writing a brief summary of the set, I submitted my proposal...
And today I received an email saying it wasn't approved :(

As detailed in their comments, "unfortunately...the brand or licensed property your project refers to contains content or themes that we find inappropriate for a potential LEGO product.I suppose that's reasonable - there's plenty of sex, drugs, murder and violence in Twin Peaks - but it's still disappointing.

So rather than completely waste all those hours of rendering, I thought I'd put them and the photos up here along with the text from the proposal:

My proposal is the 'Red Room' from the TV series Twin Peaks. It is a surreal, purgatorial waiting area where FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper finds himself trapped for 25 years.
It will be recognisable to fans and newbies alike -  the room has become iconic since it was first seen 27 years ago. It's visually striking and has been referenced and parodied in all sorts of media, from The Simpsons to Scooby Doo.
Model Info
I built this model first using LEGO Digital Designer (LDD) before ordering the bricks to test it. The set uses 536 bricks with a 32x32 stud base (although in an unusual 'diamond' formation due to the zig-zag floor pattern.) I've tried to make it as small and affordable as possible while keeping a good balance of detail and scale. It uses mostly common bricks and provides a fun and varied challenge for builders of all ages/skill levels. The furniture is attached to studded tiles.
Note: The real-life model in the photos shows some variations from the rendered images - I am waiting for more parts to arrive! I'll update the page when it's finished.
The set includes four minifigures: the coffee-loving Special Agent Dale Cooper, the Man From Another Place, Laura Palmer and the Venus de Medici statue. All of the characters (except the statue) would have reversible heads with white-eyed angry faces representing their malevolent doppelgangers.
I have used easily available parts but these could be exchanged for more detailed versions - I couldn't find a torso with dress detailing for Laura and The Man From Another Place should really be wearing a red shirt and black shoes!
Possible Alterations
  • The brick count might be reduced by redesigning the red curtains with fewer pieces (however, the non-uniformity of the curtain is intended to replicate how the real fabric hangs.)
  • The six plates used as the centre of the base could be replaced with one 16x16 plate (I couldn't source one for my prototype model) which would reduce the brick count and also improve structural integrity.
  • Other minifigures could be included or substituted - Mike (the One-Armed Man) or the Giant might be good. Additional decorative flourishes are possible (for example, adding other elements associated with Twin Peaks such as a cherry pie, a fine coffee mug, an owl, Cooper's dictophone, a Douglas fir tree, a log, etc) but I have included only the essential pieces relevant to this room.
I hope you like it! Thanks for your consideration and support :)


On the bright side, I'm very happy with the model, and the new season of the series is cracking. Utterly impenetrable, I'd imagine, if you haven't seen the original two seasons and the film Fire Walk With Me, but delightful for longtime fans who have been waiting so long. Every episode is something to chew on and savour.

*thumbs up*

Monday 13 March 2017

Bringing back the B-tier

NB. Originally posted on Monday 28th November 2016.

As the Wii U gathers its precious few belongings in a bindle and wanders into the sunset with a resigned ‘so long, folks’, the retrospectives are rolling in as fast as Switch rumours. Everyone’s racing to explain the console’s quiet demise. Surpassing its predecessor would always be a challenge but Nintendo’s confused messaging and utter failure to make a compelling case for the Gamepad’s existence (until, perhaps, Mario Maker) are the fundamental reasons production was halted just earlier this month. Even now, the average consumer assumes it’s a Wii accessory. And after failing to escape the shadow of its forebear, Switch looks set to rob Wii U of what legacy it had. The real jewels in its crown – Mario MakerSplatoonMario Kart 8 and (hopefully) the upcoming Zelda: Breath of the Wild – are to be updated with new deluxe Switch editions. Smash Bros, too, if that’s your bag. Even third parties are retooling previously exclusive titles. Unless you transferred your original Wii digital library to your Wii U, chances are it’ll be packed away in the loft come springtime. So long, folks.

Lego City Undercover, previously an exclusive,
is now coming to Switch, and everything else.
ZombiSwitch announcement imminent.
Commentators and critics crow about the lack of games, but one particularly underserved area was what I call the ‘precision arcade racer’. These are stylishly presented games that very quickly demonstrate real depth with precise controls that take time to master, but reward persistence. Nintendo’s got several of them, none of which received a Wii U entry – 1080° SnowboardingWave RaceExcitebike and F-Zero all fall into this category. While none could be labeled ‘simulations’, each has a realism and delicacy about its controls and physics that set it apart from more standard arcade fare and they have a real core following of players. Sure, you can blunder in and have a laugh, but dedication and finesse are required to get beyond the  first few courses. They’ve never been tentpole releases, but have plugged gaps in otherwise barren release schedules and kept invested players occupied for many months. Scanning the list of racers released on Wii U, Need for Speed: Most Wanted U and Fast Racing Neo stand alone as the only examples of this sub-genre. The former, while excellent, had previously been released on other consoles and the latter, great as I’ve heard it is, was never given the marketing push to rival a first party release.

My impression is Nintendo were reluctant to just knock out decent HD versions of these series without implementing some new mechanic/gimmick. Shigeru Miyamoto stated that a new F-Zero would need a different control scheme in order to justify a new entry. Yet Pikmin got a Wii U iteration that added very little to the tried-and-tested formula. And I would argue that the small, precise adjustments offered by gyro controls, as evidenced by the (optional) aiming assists in Splatoon, would be suited to F-Zero. Every console gets a Mario Kart with only incremental improvements! Then again, MK's sequelisation is justified by the revenue that the series generates. The ‘precision arcade racers’ listed above may have their dedicated following, but they’re not system sellers.

B TIER (b tier), B TIER (b tier), no-one wants to be defeated...
But they have been missed on Wii U. We’ve seen the originals crop up on Virtual Console. Excitebike 64, for example, was a terrific entry in the series, coming late in the N64’s lifecycle and many years after the NES original. It married the pitch-angle-landing gameplay mechanic with the subtle analogue control from 1080°Excitetruck for the Wii wonderfully tailored the series for simple motion controls, leaning more towards the arcade feel. But Excitetruck came out ten years ago.

A game that really belongs on
those ‘underrated gems’ listicles.
And that was the last time we saw these franchises (Excitebots: Trick Racing for Wii never saw release outside North America and Japanese Club Nintendo). 1080°Wave Race, and F-Zero all had their last outings on GameCube. No, they’re not marquee titles but their importance in their respective consoles’ libraries has been overlooked, possibly masked by the Wii’s runaway success. That void has been exposed by Wii U’s disappointing performance, despite having some truly excellent games to its name. Switch needs to bring these games back. Being able to take them on-the-go should provide enough of a ‘hook’ to motivate Nintendo to dust them off for a new installment. HD rejuvenated Mario and Pikmin years after the competition upgraded from 480p; who wouldn´t jump at the prospect of Wave Race’s beautiful water in high-def? Or the back wheel of a bike spraying mud up the trunk of a pine? Or the Blue Falcon beansing it through Mute City – in HD!?! Mario Kart 8’s DLC, and even Nintendoland, hinted at the possibilities but they failed to materialise. 2017 is definitely the year to bring them back.

1080° in 1080p?! Get in
Bring back the B-tier! And a new Rogue Squadron.
A Poe-gue Squadron, if you will. Ahem. Guys?...
NB. Originally posted on Monday 28th November 2016.